The Talmud teaches that when the Sages of the Great Assembly nullified the Yetzer of idolatry, it escaped fiercely as a young lion from the Holy of Holies. This uncontrollable yearning for the Divine can either emerge as the force of idolatry or, conversely, it can emanate refined, subdued, and sensitive as avodat hakodesh; as korbarnot. Man’s fundamental tendency is the search for the Divine, a tendency that can be expressed either as idolatry or as expressions of mitzvot.
Does Maimonides, “that famous Jew”, find harmony between halachic man and reason?
Reviewing Maimonides’ writings and thinking in the context of his life, Abraham Heschel mused, “The life of Maimonides seems to be more plausible as a legend than as a fact of history.”
1148. Moses ben Maimon’s Bar Mitzvah year. Cordova, Spain fell victim to the ruthless Almohades and the Maimon family was forced to wander until 1160, when they settled in Fez. During those years of wandering, “while my mind was troubled, and amid divinely ordained exiles, on journeys by land and tossed on the tempests of the sea,” Maimonides laid the foundation for his vast and varied learning and writings, producing a number of significant works, including a treatise on the Jewish calendar, the Millot Higgayon, and notes for a commentary on several tractates of the Babylonian Talmud. His first major work, the Commentary on the Mishnah, appeared in 1168; a decade later his monumental Mishneh Torah, appeared as an embracing corpus of Jewish law. Sometime between 1185 and 1190 Maimonides completed the Guide of the Perplexed, which delved into the full spectrum of philosophic inquiry – reason versus revelation, the existence, unity and incorporeality of God, miracles and natural law, prophecy, evil, the commandments of the Torah – and, correctly, became the encyclopedia of Jewish philosophy.
For generations, scholars have engaged in the full-time study of his works. They have sought not only legal and philosophical meaning but, more elusive, a unifying principle animating his works, particularly in his two major works, the Mishneh Torah and the Guide of the Perplexed.
Dr. Isadore Twersky, in the beginning of his essay, “Some Non-Halakhic Aspects of the Mishneh Torah,” summarizes the diverse views of the harmony and tension that many have seen in Maimonides’ major works.
The relationship between these two monumental works, one juridical and the other philosophical, is obvious and straightforward to some, obscure and problematic for others. Some detect harmony and find deliberate progression in his writings while others hear only cacophony and see intentional disjunctions… Some see these two works on entirely different levels, with the implication that the Mishneh Torah can suggest nothing of the typically intellectualistic stance of Maimonides inasmuch as it deals with beliefs and opinions only insofar as they are implied in prohibitions and commands, or that it conceals the author’s true incompatibility between law and philosophy—or between law and any meta-juridical system… and therefore any attempted combination must be discordant or incongruous. Many scholars, of course, assume that Maimonides’ writings are structured and informed by an integrated community of interests embracing theology and law.
Harmony or cacophony?
Dr. David Hartman of the Hebrew University recognizes that Maimonides was not only the great Jewish philosopher but also the great Talmudist and halachist of his time. He suggests that there is a legitimacy of philosophy within tradition, and thus presents the possibility of “integration” between tradition and reason. The unified and integrated person sees the religious as grounded in revelation and traditional authority, and the human as grounded in reason. “Divine revelation need not be in discord with human understanding. In fact where they share a common domain, in principle, they are never in discord. Man’s rationality participates in the divine system of knowledge. They are not two truths.”
Hartman suggests that Maimonides’ philosophical approach was an attempt to show how the search for truth, arrived at through logic, physics, and metaphysics, can and does live harmoniously with halacha. Man’s task, as in so many other aspects of life, is to integrate seeming polarities.
Sacrifices crystalize the conflict between Rambam the Halachist and Maimonides the philosopher. Rambam makes clear in Mishneh Torah that after the restoration of the Davidic dynasty, all the ancient laws will be reinstituted . Sacrifices will again be offered, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years will again be observed. Torah law is eternal and true. It matters not whether specific mitzvot are now in the realm of the theoretical or the practical. They are equally binding and sanctified.
Yet Maimonides of the Guide seems to regard the sacrifices as only of secondary importance in the scheme of Judaism; perhaps a concession to a newly-developing nation which could not “suddenly discontinue everything to which it has been accustomed.” He suggested sacrifice as a gradually weaning away from ancient practices such as idolatry.
The Ramban rebelled against such an understanding. To God, sacrifices are, “My offering, my bread for my fire offerings for a pleasing odor unto Me.” Absolute. Not temporal. Indeed, Ramban’s refutation finds allegiance in Rambam’s own words when he assures us that halachically during Messianic days “sacrifices will again be offered.”
But more important are Maimonides’ own statements depicting the positive and intrinsic value in offering sacrifices. At the end of the laws of meilah (trespass), the Rambam writes:
It is fitting for man to meditate upon the laws of the holy Torah and to comprehend their full meaning to the extent of his ability. Nevertheless, a law for which he finds no reason and understands no cause should not be trivial in his eyes. Let him not “break through to rise up against the Lord lest the Lord break forth upon him”; nor should his thoughts concerning these things be like his thoughts concerning profane matters. . . .