Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Rambam - the First Reform Jew


  The greatest of Jewish scholars in the Middle Ages wrote thirteen principles that included the demand that Jews view G'd as one. His name was Moses ben Maimon (1135-1204) and he was born in Spain.

   Seen from the perspective of 21st century secularism, Maimonides appears as yet another promoter of the faith based life. He is hardly known to the average citizen of the “first world” and is seldom given more than lip service by Jews, whose knowledge of their religious heritage is no greater than that of the vast majority of Christian adherents and their knowledge of Thomas of Acquino, Maimonides' most important successor.

  Yet, the history of secularization and the ascent of man to a life of reason owes a great deal to Maimonides, who sought to reform Judaism in the 12th century and who challenged some of the most fundamental doctrines of his faith by the use of reason.

   Judaism has no dogma. This means that there is no list of beliefs to which one must subscribe in order to be considered a Jew.  Converts to Judaism are not confronted with such a list, as is true in some Christian denominations whose minimal beliefs are contained in the Nicean Creed.

   Therefore the thirteen principles which Maimonides claimed every Jew must accept were in fact not accepted but only noted by the Jews of the twelfth and all subsequent centuries.  Many Jews, then and now, view a list of beliefs as non Jewish and merely an imitation of Moslem and Christian attitudes. In any case, the thirteen principles are 1. That G'd exists.  2. That he is one in a unique and perfect sense.   3. That he is immaterial and not to be compared to anything else.  4. That he is eternal.  5. That prayer must be addressed only to him and not to any saints.  6. That G'd revealed himself to the prophets.  7. That the prophecy of Moses is unique and superior to all others.  8. That through Moses G'd gave the Jews the Torah.  9. That G'd will never change or revoke the Torah. 10. That god’s providence observes our actions and our inner motives. 11. That man is rewarded and punished according to his desserts.  12. That the Messiah will come and 13.  that the dead will be resurrected.

   This list of beliefs led to immediate controversy among Jews some of whom thought the list was too short, others who thought different principles should have been included and yet others who thought that such a list would induce Jewish believers to exclude as unimportant anything not on the list.

   That controversy, however, was mild and negligible compared to the bitter arguments which arose after Maimonides published his Guide to the Perplexed when he was fifty five years old. The Guide to the Perplexed challenged the traditional belief in the literal interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures and altered their meaning.  Maimonides, like Philo before him, introduced philosophy into religion. The word philosophy in its Greek meaning refers to the love of any wisdom, including that which is now called science. Therefore, the vast illiterate or near illiterate majority of Jews and Christians then and now will accept religious tales as literally true, a view which Maimonides rejected.  Greek philosophy always viewed god as transcendent, as did the Rambam, i.e. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon. Judaism teaches that G'd is imminent. Transcendent is derived from trans, or over, and scandere, to climb. In theological terms this refers to the philosophical view that G'd is so great that he does not deal with us directly. Imminent means “to remain in”. Therefore the traditional Jewish view that G'd is imminent means that “And God spoke to Moses as follows: Say to the Children of Israel etc etc.” That verse appears innumerable times in the Five Books of Moses and together with the reputed contact G'd made with other prophets led to the belief that G'd is right there for each believer. Maimonides approached the Torah, the Jewish Scriptures, in a rational fashion and rejected all superstition. We cannot discern the difference between a superstition and a “true belief”. However, the advances Moses ben Maimon made on the road to reason were considerable.

   First, Maimonides studied philosophy. He then tried to bring Jewish tradition into conformity with philosophy. This was at once rejected by traditionalists who hold that faith alone is needed to comprehend scriptural teachings and that any attempt to insert philosophy into religion implies that religious beliefs can be challenged and may therefore not be valid. In short, Maimonides denounced literalism, i.e. the literal acceptance of the Scriptures as written.  Like Aristotle, the Rambam sought to prove the existence of G'd, not by merely accepting the word of the Torah, but from the circular motion of the globe and the planets.  Again, like Aristotle, he sought to show that G'd is not corporeal, looking on disbelievers of this view as heretics.  He found no grounds for looking at god as corporeal, i.e. having a body, speaking, showing anger, etc. Yet, the Bible clearly teaches the opposite.  Maimonides also thought that only qualified persons should study the “secrets of the law”, referring to prophecy, providence and free will.

   Maimonides taught that G'd is separate from the universe and is not in contact with it whatever. This was utterly unacceptable to the orthodox, who could not conceive of a transcendental G'd. To them, G'd knows what occurs on earth and therefore metes out punishments and rewards. This is all denied by Maimonides.

   Maimonides not only devoted himself to a description of the nature of G'd, he also sought to explain the origin of the universe. Now, anyone who has read the first two lines of the first book of Moses will find these sentences: “Bereshit Elohim, boro et Hashomayim v’et Haaeretz. V’haaretz hoyta tohoo vovohoo etc.” This literally means “In the beginning the gods created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was unformed and void etc.” Please note that the word “elohim” is plural and means “gods”.  Theologians explain that this allusion to more than one god should be seen as an effort to enhance the greatness of the one G'd in the same sense as the Queen of England refers to herself as “we”.

   Maimonides created a great deal of controversy when he claimed to accept the view that G'd created the world from nothing while also saying that he would have happily accepted the view of Aristotle that the world has existed since eternity if Aristotle had been able to prove this. In short, Maimonides was not an enthusiastic supporter of the Jewish tradition of creation.

   As an Aristotelian, Maimonides denied miracles and held that nature cannot be altered, not even by G'd.  Maimonides caused a good deal of resentment among the orthodox when he taught that divine protection is enjoyed by the philosophical among men as providence is dependent on “a person's intellectual association with active reason.” This directly contradicts orthodox teaching which holds that the good, the humble and the pious deserve the highest reward.

   Because Maimonides was a philosopher he was also a rationalist. Every philosopher is a rationalist. Therefore, Maimonides taught that Scripture must not be taken literally. The Torah,  to Maimonides, was ordinary legislation and is not necessarily divine. He stressed the function of Torah as an instrument of social justice and rejected the concept that the Torah is a mystic bond between G'd and Israel. This made Maimonides the first Reform Jew.

   Maimonides also reinterpreted the revelation at Mt. Sinai at the giving of the ten commandments. He argued that the people of Israel did not hear the articulate commands heard by Moses. He also thought that “prophecy” is a natural faculty which is developed in some people and not dependent on the arbitrary selection by G'd. Maimonides also sought to minimize wonder workings and other forms of miracles attributed to prophets.

   The Rambam goes on to deny that angels are corporeal beings and labels them dreams and visions. Therefore, the appearance of angels to Abraham, Jacob and Balaam were called into question by Maimonides, thus challenging biblical history.

   Furthermore, Moses ben Maimon also challenged the traditional view of the human soul. According to tradition, every human has a soul which returns to G'd at the time of death. Maimonides said the soul vanishes at death. Instead, it is the intellect which survives and becomes one with the active intellect of the universe. Siddartha Gauthama, the Buddah, also taught this doctrine.

   Now the Torah, i.e. the Five Books of Moses, contains 613 precepts. Many of these precepts have to do with Temple worship and were no longer applicable during the lifetime of Maimonides as the Romans had destroyed the Temple in 70.  Those not associated with procedures concerning the Temple were accepted by orthodox Jews as the will of G'd whether a reason for their existence could be found or not.  Maimonides, however, analyzed each of the commandments to find a reason for them. He claimed that the food laws of the Jews were given to protect Jews from disease.

   He also taught that permanent life in the world to come would be spiritual and not physical and that this “after life” would open to anyone and is not particularly Jewish.

   Maimonides wrote a book called “The Repetiton of the Torah” in which he questioned “the awakening of the dead” despite the fact that he had inserted it in his creed.

   He also held that the Midrash, or interpretation of the Torah as included in the Talmud or Instructions, should not be taken literally. The midrashim include folk wisdom, proverbs, stories, anecdotes etc.

   Maimonides also denounced astrology, denied the existence of demons and witches although the Torah specifically says “you shall not permit a witch to live” (Exodus 23:17).  This denial of demons and witches did not depart from the views of Jewish theologians in the 12th century although masses of people continued to believe in witchcraft as some still do in the 21st century.

   In 1170, Maimonides published his greatest work, Mishna Tora or Repetition of the Law.  This is a codification in fourteen volumes of all Biblical and rabbinic law. This was a stupendous achievement but led to yet more controversy.  Many feared that the Mishna Tora would supersede the Talmud.   Scholars were angered by the failure of Maimonides to give the names of the Talmudic scholars whose opinions he had cited.  Maimonides never cited any dissenting opinion and he was accused of aspiring to make his work a substitute for the Talmud.

   Finally Maimonides was justifiably accused of seeking to insert Aristotleianism into Judaism ,an effort which failed. Aristotleianism rests on the assimilation of natural science and logic into a philosophical system. This was rejected by Jews and other religious groups.  Platonism served the religious community far better but Aristotleianism was viewed as a heresy.  Yet, medieval scholasticism absorbed the views of Aristotle. Today, scholasticism is in disrepute among the scientific community of the 21st century.

  The immediate consequences of the writings of  Maimonides  may be described as “The Maimonidean War”. Because the son, grandson and great grandson of Maimonides all succeeded to the leadership of the Egyptian Jewish community and continued the traditions of the founder of the dynasty, Aristotleianism became fashionable among some Jews.  Allegories were used to seek to fit the Bible in the Aristotleian scheme and the historical accuracy of the Bible was questioned. It was claimed by the Hellenized Jews that the story of Abraham and Sarah was only a legend representing Aristotle’s matter and form and that Jewish ritual had only symbolic purposes. Some rabbis in southern France pronounced anathema or a curse upon Maimonides and his followers and his works.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of Stigma:  How We Treat Outsiders (Prometheus Books, 2001) and over 60 other publications.

Home ] Up ]