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. . . .
Now the “ordinances” are the commandments whose reason is obvious, and the benefit derived in this world from doing them is well known; for example, the prohibition against robbery and murder, or the commandment to honor one’s father and mother. The ‘‘statutes,” on the other hand, are commandments whose reason is not known. Our Sages have said: My statutes are the decrees that I have decreed for you, and you are not permitted to question them…
Why the seeming lack of harmony between his views of sacrifices in the Guide, while in the Yad he agrees, “that the world stands because of the service of the offerings”?
In Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest, David Hartman states that for Maimonides human nature is constant. “Although he recognized human changes within history, he did not believe that such changes brought about qualitative transformation of human nature.” A Messianic era is not synonymous with human perfection, nor does Messianism allow man to transcend the capacity to repeat his sin. Halachah provides for teshuvah, but it, “refuses to allow the individual to block past errors from his consciousness.”
Hartman cites Maimonides’ own view regarding repentance, “Transgressions confessed on one day of atonement are again confessed on the next day of atonement, even if one has continued penitent, as it is said, ‘For I know my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me.’”
What is true for the individual is true for Knesset Yisrael. Every Jew has roots which go back to the Garden; to the tent of Abraham; to Sinai and a destiny which is linked forward with the redemption of Israel in the Messianic times; each Jew is bound to the past and future of the Jewish community. This is the nature of halachic behavior. It is not merely the individual for whom halacha requires, “and my sin is ever before me,” but the community that must remember the sins of its forebears.
Jews must not succumb to the illusion that they have transcended the need for a halacha – for a structure of behavior which supports their understanding of God. The laws of sacrifices remind us that we, as humans, remain forever vulnerable to paganism. We are temporal but we exist within the Divine.
The Rambam of the Yad is one and the same as the Maimonides of the Guide.
Maimonides recognized that sacrificial rites allow man to satisfy his natural religious instincts. But Maimonides concurs that this instinctual human religious need is beyond human comprehension. So, while detailing the many and intricate halachic characteristics of offering korbanot, he proclaims sacrifices to be “in the category of statutes,” and agrees “that the world stands because of the service of the offerings.” Yet the Rambam feels the need to remind the Jew of what would naturally recur were the sacrifices not revealed as a Divine method of sacred worship; man would perforce resort to idolatry. For this is human nature, and human nature is constant, never changing, even in Messianic times when sacrifices will indeed be renewed.
The world and the Divine, in the experience of man, must always be in balance and harmony.