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Abraham Is Not a Jew. How Is He a Jewish Role Model?

Was Abraham the founding father of what became the Jewish people, only the precursor of Moses? Alternatively, does he represent the human ideal, from which his descendants went astray, but that can be partially achieved through observance of the Torah?

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Abraham Is Not a Jew. How Is He a Jewish Role Model?

A Hebrew, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, 1898. Wikimedia

A friend who is a kohen, and therefore prohibited from entering a cemetery, wished to visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.[1] He asked a leading halakhic authority in Tel Aviv whether he could do so. The answer was unequivocal: the prohibition only applies to Jewish cemeteries, and so, since the patriarchs and matriarchs buried in Hebron were not Jewish, there is no problem.

This halakhic ruling brings home the idea that Jews and Judaism begin at Sinai, or perhaps at the exodus. At the same time, it feels discordant. The Torah portrays the first patriarch, Abraham, as setting out to found the Jewish nation and put down a marker on its designated land. He even receives the first Jewish commandment, namely circumcision. If that doesn’t make him the first Jew, how are Jews meant to relate to him?

Abraham Begins the Process

A conventional approach sees the story of the formation of the Jewish people as one of sustained, pre-ordained progress. Abraham’s journey from Haran to Canaan is the opening chapter (Gen 12). The story reaches its climax with the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah, which establish Abraham’s descendants as a nation governed by God’s law. Circumcision as required of Abraham is indeed the founding commandment (Gen 17), the basis of the practice to this day, and a prelude to the Torah as the complete Jewish ideal.

If the ideal is the study and observance of the Torah, then did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live less-than-ideal lives? Here, the rabbis come to the rescue with the idea that the forefathers voluntarily kept all the commandments of the Torah:

משנה קידושין ד מָצִינוּ שֶׁעָשָׂה אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ אֶת כָּל הַתּוֹרָה כֻּלָּהּ עַד שֶׁלֹּא נִתְּנָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי וַיִּשְׁמֹר מִשְׁמַרְתִּי מִצְוֹתַי חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי.
m. Qidd. 4:14 We have found that our ancestor Abraham performed all of Torah even before it was given, as it is said: “Inasmuch as Abraham has obeyed My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My laws, and My teachings” [Gen 26:5].[2]

In sum, in this approach, Abraham begins a story that reaches a consummation that is specifically Jewish, and collective: the nation’s acceptance of the Torah, and its subsequent conquest of the Land of Israel. So even if the patriarchs and matriarchs were technically not Jewish, Jewish history and religion originate with them in a continuous saga.[3]

Abraham is the Ideal of the Process

A reverse approach, arising from the writings of Maimonides,[4] sees Abraham not as the initiator of a process that culminates with the giving of the Torah, but as the embodiment of an ideal to which the Torah looks back. According to Maimonides, Abraham himself bequeathed no commandments, not even circumcision,[5] which was legislated as a permanent, binding commandment only by God to Moses (Lev 12:3). By insisting on this, Maimonides creates a clear demarcation between the Torah as law, and the goals of the Torah, which go beyond law, and which Abraham exemplifies.

The Torah’s commandments provide a framework of personal morality and political stability in which the Abrahamic ideal can thrive. They educate towards being Abrahamic, but do not entirely encompass this ideal.

Maimonides does not appear to have subscribed to the idea that the patriarchs observed Torah, at least not in a literal sense;[6] he didn’t need to. But in his approach, it is the Torah that seems to have less-than-ideal status, since human fulfilment is found to lie beyond its scope. For him, the consummation is the individual’s realization of the Abrahamic ideal, which is universal: Abraham was not a Jew.[7]

Abraham Discovers God: Between Midrash and Maimonides

Of course, on any reading of Genesis, Abraham clearly exemplifies faith, generosity, a passion for justice, and in general the kind of virtues that the Torah seeks to inculcate. Moreover, this has an explicitly universal aspect. Part of Abraham’s promised reward for leaving Haran is:

בראשית יב:ג וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה
Gen. 12:3. …And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.

On this, Rashi comments:

אָדָם אוֹמֵר לִבְנוֹ תְּהֵא כְּאַבְרָהָם
A man says to his son: Be like Abraham.

Maimonides’ concept of the Abrahamic ideal, and of its universal application, is much more challenging. It involves appreciating not just what Abraham was, but how he became so.

In his halakhic magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, he describes Abraham’s lone, restless intellectual quest in an oppressively pagan environment. Observing natural phenomena, particularly the movements of the stars, Abraham discovers God:

משנה תורה, הלכות עבודה זרה א:ג כֵּיוָן שֶׁנִּגְמַל אֵיתָן זֶה הִתְחִיל לְשׁוֹטֵט בְּדַעְתּוֹ וְהוּא קָטָן וְהִתְחִיל לַחֲשֹׁב בַּיּוֹם וּבַלַּיְלָה וְהָיָה תָּמֵהַּ הֵיאַךְ אֶפְשָׁר שֶׁיִּהְיֶה הַגַּלְגַּל הַזֶּה נוֹהֵג תָּמִיד וְלֹא יִהְיֶה לוֹ מַנְהִיג וּמִי יְסַבֵּב אוֹתוֹ. כִּי אִי אֶפְשָׁר שֶׁיְּסַבֵּב אֶת עַצְמוֹ... וְלִבּוֹ מְשׁוֹטֵט וּמֵבִין עַד שֶׁהִשִּׂיג דֶּרֶךְ הָאֱמֶת וְהֵבִין קַו הַצֶּדֶק מִתְּבוּנָתוֹ הַנְּכוֹנָה. וְיָדַע שֶׁיֵּשׁ שָׁם אֱלוֹהַּ אֶחָד וְהוּא מַנְהִיג הַגַּלְגַּל וְהוּא בָּרָא הַכּל וְאֵין בְּכָל הַנִּמְצָא אֱלוֹהַּ חוּץ מִמֶּנּוּ.
Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 1:3 After he was weaned, while still an infant, his mind began to reflect. By day and by night he was thinking and wondering: “How is it possible that this (celestial) sphere should continuously be guiding the world and have no one to guide it and cause it to turn round; for it cannot be that it turns round of itself?”…[8] His mind was busily working and reflecting till he had attained the way of truth, apprehended the correct line of thought and knew that there is One God, that He guides the celestial Sphere and created everything, and that among all that exist, there is no god beside Him.[9]

In a move typical of his bold reworking of midrashic material into a philosophical shape,[10] Maimonides’ depiction of Abraham’s discovery of monotheism omits the divine prompting that leads Abraham to his discovery of God that is found in the midrash on which this passage appears to be based:

בראשית רבה לט אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק מָשָׁל לְאֶחָד שֶׁהָיָה עוֹבֵר מִמָּקוֹם לְמָקוֹם, וְרָאָה בִּירָה אַחַת דּוֹלֶקֶת, אָמַר תֹּאמַר שֶׁהַבִּירָה הַזּוֹ בְּלֹא מַנְהִיג, הֵצִיץ עָלָיו בַּעַל הַבִּירָה, אָמַר לוֹ אֲנִי הוּא בַּעַל הַבִּירָה. כָּךְ לְפִי שֶׁהָיָה אָבִינוּ אַבְרָהָם אוֹמֵר תֹּאמַר שֶׁהָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה בְּלֹא מַנְהִיג, הֵצִיץ עָלָיו הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא וְאָמַר לוֹ אֲנִי הוּא בַּעַל הָעוֹלָם.
Gen Rab 39:1 Said R. Isaac: This may be compared to a man who was travelling from place to place when he saw a building in flames. “Is it possible that the building lacks a person to look after it?” he wondered. The owner of the building looked out and said, “I am the owner of the building.” Similarly, because Abraham our father said, “Is it conceivable that the world is without a guide?” the Holy One, blessed be He, looked out and said to him, “I am the Guide, the Sovereign of the Universe.”[11]

In Maimonides’ version, instead of God providing the answer to Abraham’s question, Abraham arrives at it unaided.

Following Abraham’s path

That being so, Abraham’s path to the truth is open to anyone; in fact, it’s obligatory. Maimonides begins the Mishneh Torah with an intellectual imperative:

משנה תורה, הלכות יסודי התורה א:א יְסוֹד הַיְסוֹדוֹת וְעַמּוּד הַחָכְמוֹת לֵידַע שֶׁיֵּשׁ שָׁם מָצוּי רִאשׁוֹן. וְהוּא מַמְצִיא כָּל נִמְצָא.
Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 1:1 The foundation of foundations and the pillar of all sciences is to realise that there is a First Being who brought every existing thing into being.

How are we to realize this?

משנה תורה, הלכות יסודי התורה א:א הַמָּצוּי הַזֶּה הוּא אֱלֹהֵי הָעוֹלָם אֲדוֹן כָּל הָאָרֶץ. וְהוּא הַמַּנְהִיג הַגַּלְגַּל בְּכֹחַ שֶׁאֵין לוֹ קֵץ וְתַכְלִית. בְּכֹחַ שֶׁאֵין לוֹ הֶפְסֵק. שֶׁהַגַּלְגַּל סוֹבֵב תָּמִיד וְאִי אֶפְשָׁר שֶׁיִּסֹּב בְּלֹא מְסַבֵּב. וְהוּא בָּרוּךְ הוּא הַמְסַבֵּב אוֹתוֹ בְּלֹא יָד וּבְלֹא גּוּף:
Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 1:1 This being is the God of the Universe, the Lord of all the Earth. And He it is, who controls the Sphere (of the Universe) with a power that is without end or limit; with a power that is never intermitted. For the Sphere is always revolving; and it is impossible for it to revolve without someone making it revolve. God, blessed be He, it is, who, without hand or body, causes it to revolve (p. 5).

In other words, just like Abraham, from observation of the universe itself, we must conclude that there must be a non-physical entity external to it that controls it. And in case we might imagine that it is sufficient to accept this as a belief without deducing it ourselves, Maimonides states in the Guide of the Perplexed:

Guide of the Perplexed i. 50 There’s no belief without thinking. For to believe is to hold that things beyond the mind are as we think them. And if we reach a belief that’s incontestable and cannot be gainsaid or contradicted, its falsity being inconceivable, we’ve reached certainty (p. 111).[12]

That is to say, as far as we are able, we must become certain in our own minds through a process of reasoning that there exists a God beyond the universe we experience.

Loving God is Knowing Physics

The importance of scientific enquiry does not end there. Regarding the commandment וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, “You shall love YHWH your God” (Deut 6:5), Maimonides explains:

משנה תורה, הלכות יסודי התורה ב:ב וְהֵיאַךְ הִיא הַדֶּרֶךְ לְאַהֲבָתוֹ וְיִרְאָתוֹ. בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁיִּתְבּוֹנֵן הָאָדָם בְּמַעֲשָׂיו וּבְרוּאָיו הַנִּפְלָאִים הַגְּדוֹלִים וְיִרְאֶה מֵהֶן חָכְמָתוֹ שֶׁאֵין לָהּ עֵרֶךְ וְלֹא קֵץ מִיָּד הוּא אוֹהֵב וּמְשַׁבֵּחַ וּמְפָאֵר וּמִתְאַוֶּה תַּאֲוָה גְּדוֹלָה לֵידַע הַשֵּׁם הַגָּדוֹל. כְּמוֹ שֶׁאָמַר דָּוִד (תהילים מב ג) "צָמְאָה נַפְשִׁי לֵאלֹהִים לְאֵל חָי".
Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2 And what is the way that will lead to the love of Him and the fear of Him? When a person contemplates His great and wondrous works and creatures and from them obtains a glimpse of His wisdom which is incomparable and infinite, he will straightway love Him, praise Him, glorify Him, and long with an exceeding longing to know His great Name; even as David said (Ps 42:3) “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”

Maimonides goes on to provide a potted account of “His great and wondrous works” according to the physics of his day, but he concludes by saying that this is only “a drop in a bucket,” and at the end of the Book of Knowledge he famously states that one should acquire as much knowledge of these matters as possible because:

משנה תורה, הלכות תשובה י:ו וְעַל פִּי הַדֵּעָה תִּהְיֶה הָאַהֲבָה אִם מְעַט מְעַט וְאִם הַרְבֵּה הַרְבֵּה. לְפִיכָךְ צָרִיךְ הָאָדָם לְיַחֵד עַצְמוֹ לְהָבִין וּלְהַשְׂכִּיל בְּחָכְמוֹת וּתְבוּנוֹת הַמּוֹדִיעִים לוֹ אֶת קוֹנוֹ כְּפִי כֹּחַ שֶׁיֵּשׁ בָּאָדָם לְהָבִין וּלְהַשִּׂיג כְּמוֹ שֶׁבֵּאַרְנוּ בְּהִלְכוֹת יְסוֹדֵי הַתּוֹרָה:
Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 10:6 According to the knowledge, will be the love. If the former be little or much, so will the latter be little or much.  A person ought therefore to devote himself to the understanding and comprehension of those sciences and studies which will inform him concerning his Master, as far as it lies in human faculties to understand and comprehend[13]—as indeed we have explained in the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah.

Abraham Knows and Loves God

And who is the paragon of love?

משנה תורה, הלכות תשובה י:ד וְהִיא מַעֲלַת אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ שֶׁקְּרָאוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אוֹהֲבוֹ לְפִי שֶׁלֹּא עָבַד אֶלָּא מֵאַהֲבָה.
Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 10:4 It was the standard of the patriarch Abraham whom God called His lover, because he served only out of love.[14]

In the same passage, Maimonides reminds us that this love of God is a commandment of the Torah:

וְהִיא הַמַּעֲלָה שֶׁצִּוָּנוּ בָּהּ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל יְדֵי משֶׁה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים ו:ה) "וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ".
It is the standard which God, through Moses, bids us achieve, as it is said, (Deut 6:5) “And you shall love the Lord, your God.”

The Torah of Moses commands the love of God, but the commandment is fulfilled by following the Abrahamic path of discovery.

The Torah Paves Only Some of the Way

The Torah takes us some distance down that path—unlike Abraham, we do not have to begin from zero—but it does not take us the whole way. As Maimonides puts it in the Guide:

Guide iii. 28 The true beliefs through which our ultimate fulfilment is won are conveyed biblically only in broad strokes. The Torah presses straight to its goal: God’s existence and unity, knowledge and power, will and eternity. But these conclusions reach full clarity, detail, and definition only after many truths are known (p. 512).

In other words, the Torah conveys certain essential doctrines,[15] but it leaves us with a great deal of work to do. The “many truths” that need to be known are the truths of the natural sciences, which are not to be found in the Torah, certainly not in a complete way.

“Our ultimate fulfilment,” according to Maimonides, consists of the following:

Guide iii. 54 …winning the intellectual virtues, the conceptual thinking that yields sound views of divinity. This is our highest goal, truly perfecting the self, an attainment indeed one’s own, winning immortality by fulfilling in oneself what makes a human human (p. 635).

There could be no clearer statement that the ideal at which the Torah aims is individual rather than collective—a matter of “perfecting the self.” It is also universal rather than specifically Jewish, since intellectual attainment that “yields sound views of divinity” is “what makes a human human”—any human. In fact, “winning the intellectual virtues” is considered “our ultimate fulfilment” precisely because it is individual, “an attainment indeed one’s own,” as opposed to wealth, health, and moral virtue, which, Maimonides points out, depend on external factors or are for the sake of others (Guide iii. 54, pp. 634–635).

Maimonides goes on to make clear that observance of the commandments creates the conditions for self-perfection, but does not constitute perfection in itself:

Guide iii. 54 All those biblical practices—the acts of piety and morality so beneficial in our human interactions—hold not a candle to this ultimate goal[16] but only pave the way to it (p. 636).

The Torah Is Necessary Only Because Abraham and His Ideals Are Forgotten

The apparently secondary role of the Torah in human fulfilment is reflected in Maimonides’ version of Jewish history. We take up his retelling of the story of Abraham where we left off. Abraham begins to question the beliefs and religious practices of his fellow citizens in Ur, which arouses the ire of the authorities:

משנה תורה, הלכות עבודה זרה א:ג כֵּיוָן שֶׁגָּבַר עֲלֵיהֶם בִּרְאָיוֹתָיו בִּקֵּשׁ הַמֶּלֶךְ לְהָרְגוֹ וְנַעֲשָׂה לוֹ נֵס וְיָצָא לְחָרָן. וְהִתְחִיל לַעֲמֹד וְלִקְרֹא בְּקוֹל גָּדוֹל לְכָל הָעוֹלָם וּלְהוֹדִיעָם שֶׁיֵּשׁ שָׁם אֱלוֹהַּ אֶחָד לְכָל הָעוֹלָם וְלוֹ רָאוּי לַעֲבֹד. וְהָיָה מְהַלֵּךְ וְקוֹרֵא וּמְקַבֵּץ הָעָם מֵעִיר לְעִיר וּמִמַּמְלָכָה לְמַמְלָכָה עַד שֶׁהִגִּיעַ לְאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן וְהוּא קוֹרֵא שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (בראשית כא לג) "וַיִּקְרָא שָׁם בְּשֵׁם ה' אֵל עוֹלָם."
Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 1:3 When he overcame them through the strength of his arguments, the king desired to kill him. He was saved through a miracle and left for Charan. There, he began to call in a loud voice to all people and inform them that there is one God in the entire world and it is proper to serve Him. He would go out and call to the people, gathering them in city after city and country after country, until he came to the land of Canaan—proclaiming God's existence the entire time—as Genesis 21:33 states: “And He called there in the name of the Lord, the eternal God.”
וְכֵיוָן שֶׁהָיוּ הָעָם מִתְקַבְּצִין אֵלָיו וְשׁוֹאֲלִין לוֹ עַל דְּבָרָיו הָיָה מוֹדִיעַ לְכָל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד כְּפִי דַּעְתּוֹ עַד שֶׁיַּחְזִירֵהוּ לְדֶרֶךְ הָאֱמֶת עַד שֶׁנִּתְקַבְּצוּ אֵלָיו אֲלָפִים וּרְבָבוֹת וְהֵם אַנְשֵׁי בֵּית אַבְרָהָם וְשָׁתַל בְּלִבָּם הָעִקָּר הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה וְחִבֵּר בּוֹ סְפָרִים וְהוֹדִיעוֹ לְיִצְחָק בְּנוֹ.
When the people would gather around him and ask him about his statements, he would explain them to each one of them according to their understanding, until they turned to the path of truth. Ultimately, thousands and myriads gathered around him. These are the men of the house of Abraham. He planted in their hearts this great fundamental principle, composed texts about it, and taught it to Isaac, his son.

This part of the account as well is largely adapted from Midrash, but here Maimonides deviates from the Torah itself: Abraham wandered “until he came to the land of Canaan.” What happened to God’s instruction to leave home, with the promise of becoming a great nation? Again, God’s intervention in Abraham’s life story is played down. The Abraham portrayed here is not a man on a divinely ordered mission to found a people and lay claim to a country, but a dissident intellectual who has become a political refugee.[17]

Abraham Is Initially Successful

The story continues with Abraham’s descendants:

וְיָשַׁב יִצְחָק מְלַמֵּד וּמַזְהִיר. וְיִצְחָק הוֹדִיעַ לְיַעֲקֹב וּמִנָּהוּ לְלַמֵּד וְיָשַׁב מְלַמֵּד וּמַחֲזִיק כָּל הַנִּלְוִים אֵלָיו. וְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ לִמֵּד בָּנָיו כֻּלָּם וְהִבְדִּיל לֵוִי וּמִנָּהוּ רֹאשׁ וְהוֹשִׁיבוֹ בִּישִׁיבָה לְלַמֵּד דֶּרֶךְ הַשֵּׁם וְלִשְׁמֹר מִצְוַת אַבְרָהָם. וְצִוָּה אֶת בָּנָיו שֶׁלֹּא יַפְסִיקוּ מִבְּנֵי לֵוִי מְמֻנֶּה אַחַר מְמֻנֶּה כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא תִשָּׁכַח הַלִּמּוּד. וְהָיָה הַדָּבָר הוֹלֵךְ וּמִתְגַּבֵּר בִּבְנֵי יַעֲקֹב וּבַנִּלְוִים עֲלֵיהֶם וְנַעֲשֵׂית בָּעוֹלָם אֻמָּה שֶׁהִיא יוֹדַעַת אֶת ה'.
Isaac settled down, instructing and exhorting. He imparted the doctrine to Jacob and ordained him to teach it. He, too, settled down, taught and morally strengthened all who joined him. The patriarch Jacob instructed all his sons, set apart Levi, appointed him head (teacher) and placed him in a yeshiva to teach the way of God and keep the charge of Abraham. He charged his sons to appoint from the tribe of Levi, one instructor after another, in uninterrupted succession, so that the doctrine might never be forgotten. And so it went on with ever increasing vigour among Jacob's children and their adherents till they became a people that knew God.

Egypt Uproots Abraham’s Teaching

Abraham’s teaching, however, did not carry over to subsequent generations. In this version, the story is discontinuous, or almost so, for Maimonides continues:

עַד שֶׁאָרְכוּ הַיָּמִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמִצְרַיִם וְחָזְרוּ לִלְמֹד מַעֲשֵׂיהֶן וְלַעֲבֹד כּוֹכָבִים כְּמוֹתָן חוּץ מִשֵּׁבֶט לֵוִי שֶׁעָמַד בְּמִצְוַת אָבוֹת. וּמֵעוֹלָם לֹא עָבַד שֵׁבֶט לֵוִי עֲבוֹדַת כּוֹכָבִים. וְכִמְעַט קָט הָיָה הָעִקָּר שֶׁשָּׁתַל אַבְרָהָם נֶעֱקַר וְחוֹזְרִין בְּנֵי יַעֲקֹב לְטָעוּת הָעוֹלָם וּתְעִיּוֹתָן.
When the Israelites had stayed a long while in Egypt, they relapsed, learnt the practices of their neighbours, and, like them, worshipped idols, with the exception of the tribe of Levi, which steadfastly kept the charge of the Patriarch. This tribe of Levi never practised idolatry. The doctrine implanted by Abraham would, in a very short time, have been uprooted, and Jacob's descendants would have relapsed into the error and perversities universally prevalent.

At this point, Maimonides takes the more conventional approach of seeing Israel as the culmination of God’s oath to Abraham and describing the commandments as Israel’s “crown”:

וּמֵאַהֲבַת ה' אוֹתָנוּ וּמִשָּׁמְרוֹ אֶת הַשְּׁבוּעָה לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ עָשָׂה משֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ רַבָּן שֶׁל כָּל הַנְּבִיאִים וּשְׁלָחוֹ. כֵּיוָן שֶׁנִּתְנַבֵּא משֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ וּבָחַר ה' יִשְׂרָאֵל לְנַחֲלָה הִכְתִּירָן בְּמִצְוֹת וְהוֹדִיעָם דֶּרֶךְ עֲבוֹדָתוֹ וּמַה יִּהְיֶה מִשְׁפַּט עֲבוֹדַת כּוֹכָבִים וְכָל הַטּוֹעִים אַחֲרֶיהָ:
But because of God’s love for us and because He kept the oath made to our ancestor Abraham,[18] He appointed Moses to be our teacher and the teacher of all the prophets, and charged him with his mission. After Moses had begun to exercise his prophetic functions and Israel had been chosen by the Almighty as His heritage, he crowned them with precepts, and showed them the way to worship Him and how to deal with idolatry and with those who go astray after it.

At the same time, there is a fairly clear implication that, were it not for the fading of Abraham’s idea and his descendants’ relapse into idolatry, the commandments would not have been necessary. The stress throughout this passage is on Abraham’s ideological rather than his genetic heritage.

Thus, according to Maimonides, the Torah, in its origins, is a moral and intellectual rescue operation. Thereafter, it serves as preparation for attaining the ideal of Abraham, which consists of the cultivation of the knowledge and love of God though scientific enquiry and philosophical reflection.[19] Since Abraham was not a Jew, and there is no such thing as Jewish science, this is not a peculiarly Jewish goal; the connection to the divine is in the individual mind, Jewish or not.

Does Maimonides Devalue the Torah?

Maimonides’ approach does not devalue the Torah. First, he considered the Torah to be unsurpassable in its perfection as a divine law, as perfect as creation itself,[20] and thus infinitely precious to both society and the individual, even if it does not teach everything that the individual needs to know. Second, the relationship in Maimonides’ thought between the Torah and the Abrahamic ideal is cyclical.

The love of God that Abraham exemplifies, cultivated through study of the sciences, feeds back into the observance of the commandments, and transfigures it:

וּבִזְמַן שֶׁיֶּאֱהֹב אָדָם אֶת ה' אַהֲבָה הָרְאוּיָה מִיָּד יַעֲשֶׂה כָּל הַמִּצְוֹת מֵאַהֲבָה.
When one loves God with the right love, he will straightway observe all the commandments out of love.[21]

The Jewish people is constituted by its marvellous, perfect Torah, but the Torah is truly fulfilled by the person who has trodden the individual path of discovery like the non-Jew Abraham.[22]

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Last Updated

April 7, 2024

Footnotes

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Dr. David Gillis is an independent scholar living in Tel Aviv. He holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Thought from the University of Haifa and an M.A. in English Language and Literature from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Reading Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah(2015) and, co-author with Menachem Kellner of, Maimonides the Universalist(2021), both published by The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.