The Rambam’s Philosophy and Mesorah

The argument over whether the Rambam’s philosophy had a place in Jewish Thought didn’t end in 1306 when the Maimonidian Controversies (that began in his lifetime) died down. Even to this day, in many circles his Guide for the Perplexed and the first four chapters of the Mishneh Torah are not studied. (For similar reasons, in these communities, when Chovos haLvavos is studied, they skip Sha’ar haYichud and avoid its Artistotilian underpinnings.)

The Maharal writes (Tif’eres Yisrael ch. 9):

הפילוסופים אשר זכרנו למעלה, יתנו שם ותפארת אל השכל, ועל ידי המושכלות יקנה האדם הנצחיות, ויעשו המעשים הישרים והטובים כמו תכונה וסולם, אשר יגיע בהן אל המושכלות. ומזה הסולם נפלו.

The philosophers that we mentioned earlier give recognition and glory exclusively to the intellect, believing that through intellectual achievements a person can acquire permanence. They made upright and good acts like preparation and a ladder with which to reach for comprehension. And from this ladder they [the philosophers] fell.

The “philosophers” the Maharal describes includes the Rambam. Such as in Hilkhos Teshuvah ch. 8:2-3:

וכן זה שאמרו עטרותיהן בראשיהן כלומר דעת שידעו שבגללה זכו לחיי העולם הבא מצויה עמהן והיא העטרה שלהן כענין שאמר שלמה בעטרה שעטרה לו אמו, והרי הוא אומר ושמחת עולם על ראשם ואין השמחה גוף כדי שתנוח על הראש כך עטרה שאמרו חכמים כאן היא הידיעה, ומהו זהו שאמרו נהנין מזיו שכינה שיודעים ומשיגין מאמתת הקב”ה מה שאינם יודעים והם בגוף האפל השפל. כל נפש האמורה בענין זה אינה הנשמה הצריכה לגוף אלא צורת הנפש שהיא הדעה שהשיגה מהבורא כפי כחה והשיגה הדעות הנפרדות ושאר המעשים והיא הצורה שביארנו ענינה בפרק רביעי מהלכות יסודי התורה היא הנקראת נפש בענין זה, חיים אלו לפי שאין עמהם מות שאין המות אלא ממאורעות הגוף ואין שם גוף נקראו צרור החיים שנאמר והיתה נפש אדוני צרורה בצרור החיים, וזהו השכר שאין שכר למעלה ממנו והטובה שאין אחריה טובה והיא שהתאוו לה כל הנביאים.

Similarly, when they said that the righteous people have crowns on their heads they were referring to the knowledge because of which they inherited a place in the World To Come. This knowledge is always with them, as is their crown, as Solomon said, “…with the crown with which his mother crowned him.” It is also written, “and everlasting joy shall be upon their head”—this is not physical pleasure that they will receive, but the crown of the Sages, i.e. knowledge. When they said that they will benefit from the radiance of the Divine Presence they meant that they will know and understand the existence of God in a manner that they couldn’t while in their gloomy and paltry bodies.
Whenever the word “soul” is mentioned, it does not mean the soul-body combination but the actual soul itself, which is the understanding given by the Creator and which causes other understandings and actions. This is the form which was explained in the fourth chapter of the Laws of The Basic Principles of The Torah. It is called “soul” with respect to this matter. This life, which does not involve death, for the reason that death is an occurrence of the body, or a body is called the bond of life, as it is written, “Yet the soul of my lord shall be bound with the bond of life”—this is the reward above which there is no other rewards, and the goodness above which there is no other goodness, and with which all the Prophets were granted.

In his commentary on the Shulchan Arukh (YD179:13), the Gra takes exception to the number of ideas stated by Chazal that the Rambam dismisses as allegorical because they didn’t fit within his rationalistic thought. (Although I must confess that in the cases of amulets and astrology, my sympathies lie with the Rambam, we are discussing here the cause, not specific cases.) The Vilna Gaon writes that the Rambam was “led astray by the accursed philosophy”.

The Gra’s contemporary, Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz of Vilna (1765-1821), writes in Sefer HaBris (Section 1 2:6; tr. R’ Daniel Eidensohn):

The Givat HaMoreh wrote in the introduction to his sefer that the reason that it took such a long time for the full development of philosophy was because of the great wisdom of Aristotle and his unprecedented stature. Because of this his views were followed by all the scholars generation after generation in a slavish manner. It was viewed that anybody who disagreed with him was as if he were arguing on self-evident reality. In exactly the same way, the reason that there has been a long delay in the development of our theology is because many think that to disagree with something that the Rambam said is to disagree with something which is self evidently true. The two processes are almost identical because in fact the concepts of the Rambam are those of Aristotle – as is well known. However all men of integrity while they love the Rambam – love the truth more. This is as the philosopher said, “I love Aristotle and I love Socrates but the truth I love more.”

The R’ Hirsch’s complaint against the Rambam reads much like the Maharal’s. He writes in The Nineteen Letters of Ben Uzziel (letter 18):

The age gave birth to a man [R’ Drachman’s footnote: Maimonides], a mind, who, the product of uncomprehended Judaism and Arabic science, was obliged to reconcile the strife which raged in his own breast in his own manner, and who, by proclaiming it to the world, became the guide of all in whom the same conflict existed.


This great man to whom, and to whom alone, we owe the preservation of practical Judaism to our time, is responsible because he sought to reconcile Judaism with the difficulties which confronted it from without instead of developing it creatively from within, for all the good and the evil which bless and afflict the heritage of the father. His peculiar mental tendency was Arabic-Greek, and his conception of the purpose of life the same. He entered into Judaism from without, bringing with him opinions of whose truth he had convinced himself from extraneous sources and he reconciled. For him, too, self-perfecting through the knowledge of truth was the highest aim, the practical he deemed subordinate. For him knowledge of God was the end, not the means; hence he devoted his intellectual powers to speculations upon the essence of Deity, and sought to bind Judaism to the results of his speculative investigations as to postulates of science or faith. The Mizvoth became for him merely ladders, necessary only to conduct to knowledge or to protect against error, this latter often only the temporary and limited error of polytheism. Mishpatim became only rules of prudence, Mitzvoth as well; Chukkim rules of health, teaching right feeling, defending against the transitory errors of the time; Edoth ordinances, designed to promote philosophical concepts; all this having no foundation in the eternal essence of things, not resulting from their eternal demand on me, or from my eternal purpose and task, no eternal symbolizing of an unchangeable idea, and not inclusive enough to form a basis for the totality of the commandments.


He, the great systematic orderer of the practical results of the Talmud, gives expression in the last part of his philosophic work to opinions concerning tlie meaning and purpose of the commandments which, taking the very practical results codified by himself as the contents of the commandments, are utterly untenable cast no real light upon them and cannot go hand in hand with them in practice, in life, and in science…

What then is RSRH’s complaint? That the Rambam was too Aristotelian, and it led him to study Judaism from the outside, casting upon it the Hellenic philosopher’s priority of knowledge rather than morality. And as proof, Rav Hirsch points to the fact that system of taamei hamitzvos the Rambam presents in the third section of the Moreh Nevuchim leaves many elements unexplained. For example, this quote from sec. 3, ch. 26 (tr. Friedlander, emphasis added):

I will now tell you what intelligent persons ought to believe in this respect; namely, that each commandment has necessarily a cause, as far as its general character is concerned, and serves a certain object; but as regards its details we hold that it has no ulterior object. Thus killing animals for the purpose of obtaining good food is certainly useful, as we intend to show (below, ch. 48); that, however, the killing should not be performed by nechirah (poleaxing the animal), but by shechitah (cutting the neck), and by dividing the œsophagus and the windpipe in a certain place; these regulations and the like are nothing but tests for man’s obedience.

RSRH argues that the Rambam only failed to find the meaning to the details of the mitzvos because his assumption that mitzvos serve to either (a) teach true monotheism, (b) wean us away from idolatry, or (c) create a society which enables us in these pursuits is based on Aristotle’s emphasis on abstract knowledge rather than the Torah’s emphasis on ethics and personal refinement.

I am not sure the gap is as extreme as Rav Hirsch’s portrayal. I believe that while the Rambam does place intellectual knowledge as more central than moral refinement, the Rambam also felt the two were inseparable — that the lack of knowledge is the primary reason for people making bad moral choices. This topic was addressed in a post about the Rambam’s theory of knowledge and akrasia (why people make decisions they know are wrong) and knowledge, but in the course of preparing this post, I also started rewrite that entry.

Still, this gap is very real in that it does give a “spin” to doing the mitzvos that few contemporary Jews would share. Are you more comfortable sharing the idea that mitzvos are to teach us abstract facts about G-d, or to train us in how to act more like Him?

But I want to back off from the subject of bad decisions, mitzvos, and the Rambam’s understanding of the ideal person to leave them for the rewrite that I hope to post next.

In Aristotilian Physics, any motion begins with an intellect imparting impetus to an object. And that motion or change continues until that impetus runs out. I decide to throw a ball, the ball continues on the path my arm gives it, until the impetus I gave the ball runs out, and then the ball falls. (More on this idea and how it shows up in the gemara in the post “Aristotle, Science and Halakhah“.)

Still this explains why his Metaphysics is centered around intellects. So Aristotle posited a start to the whole causal chain, an Unmoved Mover, Who Exists in eternal contemplation of Himself. Unchanging, but thus causing change. And from this Unmoved Mover, there is a sequence of intellects down to the Active Intellect, which is the bridge from disembodied intellects to the spheres and people — intellects that are wedded to objects within they physical universe. Therefore, the key to human perfection, according to Aristotle, is to connect to this Active Intellect, and the only way to do so is to share its thoughts. In other words, to gain philosophical understanding.

The Rambam makes one drastic change to this model, but otherwise accepts it in its entirety. (An idea I also ready discussed at length; see “Maimonidian Qabbalah – Part III“.) Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover is subject to the laws of nature (metaphysics and physics), whereas the Rambam credits the Creator with being their source. So, the Unmoved Mover couldn’t be credited with starting the universe ex nihilo, because Aristotle understood that only forms change — nature does not allow for the increase or decrease in quantities of matter. And so his universe has no beginning. The Rambam basically defines G-d in terms of the Unmoved Mover (Moreh Nevuchim 1:69), but since nature is itself a creation, G-d is capable of creating ex nihilo or performing miracles that violate the laws.

Similarly, Aristotle’s chain of intellects become identified with the angels. Quoting the Rambam (Freidlander’s translation, MN 2:6) “We have already stated above that the angels are incorporeal. This agrees with the opinion of Aristotle: there is only this difference in the names employed — he uses the term ‘Intelligences,’ and we say instead ‘angels.'” See also Yesodei haTorah 2:5-6:

5: Since they [the angels] possess no body, what separates the form [of each] from the other? Their existence is not alike. Rather each one is below the level of the other and exists by virtue of its influence, one “above” the other. Everything exists by virtue of the influence of HQBH, and His Goodness. Solomon alluded to this idea in his wisdom, saying (Qoheles 5:7): “Because above the one who is high there is a watcher [and there are others higher than them].”

6: The expression “‘below’ the level of the other” does not refer to height in a spatial sense like, “He is sitting higher than his colleague”. For example, when speaking about two sages, one of whom is greater than the other, we say, “one is above the level of the other.” Similarly, a cause is referred to as “above” the effect [it produces].

But Aristotle’s physics doesn’t match reality, where the ball follows a parabolic trajectory. The notion of momentum, which is conserved, is very well established. And the planets in their orbits conserve momentum pretty well, and one doesn’t need to posit their being embedded in intelligent spheres. (Minus losses due to the gravity of the sun and other planets — but those two are seen exactly as expected by the math.) Although in practice objects on earth pretty consistently lose their momentum to friction, including air drag. Aristotle’s physics was replaced by Newton’s.

The entire notion of a chain of intellects to translate Divine Will into physical action isn’t necessary. The Rambam’s justification for needing intellects to cause grass to grow and everything else attributed to angels simply isn’t there. And thus there is no reason anymore to assume there is an Active Intellect, or that aligning one’s intellect to a progressively higher understandings brings one up the chain of angelic causation closer to G-d.

By wedding so much to Aristotle, the Rambam’s philosophy requires major translation to have a place in a contemporary world-view. Aside from the issue I want to focus on in the next post, on how the Rambam marries this idea of the centrality of understanding concepts to the role of mitzvos and morality, its role in obtaining prophecy and [other forms of] Personal Divine Providence [hashagah peratis].

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  1. Bob Miller says:

    “The entire notion of a chain of intellects to translate Divine Will into physical action isn’t necessary”

    Also, the world could have been created with one ma’amar, not ten. Maybe Rambam sees a parallel situation that requires a set of contractive steps.

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