My synagogue study group spent almost a year trying to learn something from Maimonides in English translation. I am not sure I remember anything, other than the names of his better known books, and something of his 12th century biography. Tonight, I attended a 45 minute lecture by Haifa professor Menachem Kellner, hoping to gain a little more insight, and I came out with much more than I had planned on. Of course, by tomorrow morning, I may remember little of it, so it’s time to write things down. (My apologies of course to Mr. Kellner for what I am certain will be inaccuracies and inadequacies in my notes, but I believe he would agree that I am on the right track.)
Kellner’s first point is that, were it not for Maimonides, Judaism would have developed differently, something that cannot be said about virtually any other historical figure. One reason is that, in compiling his Mishnah Torah, Maimonides codified Jewish law in one place (albeit in 14 volumes), something that had not been done before, and made it possible in later years to actually find answers to the questions that were being asked. Secondly, as a philosopher, Maimonides showed that you did not have to check your brains at the door, when studying Torah.
Maimonides’ 13 principles of Judaism became a standard for defining what a Jew believes (although I also appreciated Rabbi Reuven Hammer’s comments during the high holidays that there were many such computations, and that 13 was not a magic number in this regard). And although many religious Jews disagree with much that Maimonides said, they don’t ignore him. He is always part of the discussion, and often the focal point.
As an example, he talked about Chabad, the Lubavitcher movement, which uses a specific form of a Hannukah menorah, because it is as described in a Maimonides manuscript, but have beliefs that are not consistent with his 13 principles. Chabad in other words, follows him religiously on one hand, and denies him on the other.
Maimonides, says Kellner, was a naturalist, a believer in the natural order created by God which did not need constant intervention by God. Science and religion operate together. God created two books: the Torah and Nature. Today, he said, Maimonides would be a scientist, as well as a religious scholar. The purpose of the Mishnah Torah was to put all of the Torah (written and oral) laws in one place, so you could concentrate on the world about you and not have to spend your time researching appropriate Jewish laws and rules of living.
Maimonides hated clutter. He did not believe in angels or any other intermediaries. He was a universalist, who believed that any one could take upon himself the responsibilities of a holy or religious life. He believed in following Jewish law not because it was reflective of God’s desires, but because it created the conditions where an appreciation of God could be discovered. Jewish law becomes a social construct, not a metaphysical one.
Maimonides was not popular. He was a religious reformer who, in most regards, failed in his task. He did succeed in two of his goals. One, his writings led to the concept of a purely incorporeal God, rather than an anthropomorphic God found in the Torah and other early writings. Second, for him you were not Jewish if you did not follow Jewish law. For Kellner, this second item, although intended by Maimonides, has been detrimental to future developments, not beneficial.
Other than that, he failed. Shortly after his death, the Zohar was published, the mystical book that led to Hassidism and study of the Cabbalah. These books turned out to be much more influential than Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. And very anti-Maimonidean in concept. Maimonides was very down to earth. He was not mystical. He did not believe, for example, that Jews are forbidden to wear a linen/wool combination because there is anything evil about the combination, but because pagan priests had worn this combination so it reminded one of idolatry. He thought you put a mezuzzah on your door to remind you of the prayers, not because it was an insurance policy. He did not believe that God literally wrote you down in a book of life on Yom Kippur.
And, Maimonides would not be happy with today’s orthodoxy, although he was a strict believer in following Jewish law. He did not think that people should have to devote their lives to the study of Torah. He thought this was something you did as you earned your living in the world. He would be very much against people being paid to study Torah, supported by the state or otherwise, as happens in Israel. He also did not think that religious Jews should be equated with the tribe of Levi (that is, landless, devoted to the Temple, and not permitted or required to perform military duties). He would be against the current exemptions from military duties for religious Jews as now exists in Israel.
Maimonides died in 1204, and he was considered to be a failed reformer. His books were in some places burned. But within 100 years, he had become an authority. Something happened to bring about this change, but it appears to be lost in history.
The title of the lecture was how Maimonides was misread by rabbis today. The conclusion was that it was crucial for Maimonides to be in your camp, but that in order to have this radical reformer act as a supporter of your group, it is often necessary to interpret his writings not as they should be interpreted, but rather to distort and misrepresent them, and that this is often done by various religious Jewish movements today.
I know I am not doing the topic justice here. But I thought the lecture very interesting. As to the question of “is any of this relevant?”, my only answer is “is anything”?