Is the Divine Origin of the Torah Really Incompatible with Maimonides’ Philosophical Principles?
Maimonides’ View of the Divine Origin of Torah
In his Commentary on Mishnah, in the introduction to chapter ten of tractate Sanhedrin, Maimonides lists his famous thirteen foundational principles of the Law. His eighth principle is that God revealed the text of the Torah in its entirety, together with its explanation, to Moses:
The Eighth Principle is Torah from Heaven, i.e., to know that this entire Torah that is in our hands today is the Torah that was revealed to Moses, that all of it is ‘from the mouth of the Force’; I mean that all of it reached him from God, in a reception that is figuratively called ‘speech.’ No one understands the nature of this reception besides the one (peace be upon him!) who received it; [also part of the eighth principle is to know] that [Moses] was at the rank of a scribe who received dictation, and wrote down all of [the Torah], its chronicles, narratives, and laws. For this reason he is called “inscriber”(מחוקק; cf. Deut. 31:21 and Sifrei ad loc.) ….
Maimonides here states that God’s revelation of the Torah occurred in an act figuratively called “speech” and in a manner known only to Moses, who wrote down all the commandments, narratives, and chronicles—from the first verse of Genesis to the last verse of Deuteronomy—like someone at the rank of a scribe, without composing even a single verse on his own. Belief in the divine origin of the Torah “as found in our hands today” is a foundation and principle of “our Law.”
Is This Maimonides’ Real Belief?
Despite this and similar statements in Maimonides’ books and letters, some scholars in the past half century have claimed that Maimonides didn’t really accept the divine authorship of Torah, that he adopted this position for the sake of the multitude, and, finally, that he considered Moses to be the real author of the Torah. The basis for this claim, according to these scholars, is that divine authorship is incompatible with Maimonides’ philosophical principles, and that he knew this to be the case.
In my view, however, a correct understanding of Maimonides yields no incompatibility between his oft-stated doctrine of the divine origin of Torah, written and oral, and his philosophical principles. We will look at the two of the alleged incompatibilities pointed out by other scholars and see how they fail to prove that Maimonides did not mean what he said.
First Alleged Incompatibility
The Divine Intellect vs. the Non-Intellectual Content of Torah
Maimonides holds that God is incorporeal, and that although His true reality cannot be apprehended, He can be shown to be pure intellect (Guide, 1:68). By “intellect,” Maimonides generally means what the Aristotelians call the theoretical intellect, which thinks the “intelligibles”: the eternal truths of physics and metaphysics. The theoretical intellect is contrasted to the practical intellect, which considers means to reach ends, and whose objects are generally accepted opinions like ethical maxims, which cannot be rigorously proven (cf. Guide 1:2).
This, they argue, seems to raise a problem for the divine origin of the Torah: After all, the Torah includes commandments, narratives, and chronicles, almost none of which can be called “intelligibles.” How can God, a pure intellect, be the source of particular laws and narratives, rooted in the concrete historical experience of the Israelites? They conclude that Maimonides’ conception of God rules out His being the author or originator of Torah.
I call this the “missing faculty argument,” since the point is that God lacks the appropriate cognitive faculties, such as the practical intellect and the imaginative faculty, which are necessary in order to have knowledge of non-intelligibles. Since the proper objects of knowledge of an intellectual being are the eternal truths of physics and metaphysics, such a being cannot know, much less be the source of, anything that is not of that kind.
The most likely candidate for author of the Torah according to these scholars is Moses, who transforms the purely intellectual overflow received through prophecy into narratives, laws, and commandments, with the aid of his practical intellect and imaginative faculty.
Maimonides Rejects the Missing Faculty Argument
Maimonides, however, discusses the missing faculty argument in the context of his discussion of God’s knowledge of the world, and rejects it. Actually, he claims that King David (the author of Psalms in traditional Judaism) already answered it when he wrote, “They say that the Lord does not see and the God of Jacob does not give heed…He that planted the ear, shall He not hear? He that formed the eye, shall He not see” (Psalm 94:7,9):
In the case of everyone who makes any instrument, it is clear that unless he had a conception of the work to be done with that instrument, he would be unable to make it… When, therefore, some of the philosophers thought that God does not apprehend these individual things because they are apprehended by the senses, whereas He, may He be exalted, does not apprehend with a sense but through an intellectual apprehension, he (=David/Psalms) argued against them by starting from the existence of the senses, saying: If the meaning of the apprehension of the sense of sight is hidden from Him and He does not know it, how did He bring into existence this instrument, which is disposed for visual apprehension? (Guide 3:19, pp. 478–479)
In other words, if God is pure intellect, how can God know non-intelligibles? The gist of Maimonides’ response is what other knowers know via their senses, imagination, or practical intellect, God knows without these psychic faculties because he is their creator and knows them differently. God’s way of knowing things is different than the human way of knowing things (Guide 3:20, p. 483).
In short, the missing faculty argument fails because it is based on the fallacy of assimilating God’s manner of knowing to that that of other knowers (Guide 3:19-21). From our knowledge that God creates a world that displays his “craftsmanlike governance” of the smallest detail (Guide 3:19, p. 479), we can infer that he knows the manner and connection of every detail, without possessing the faculties that we, as humans, use in order to attain knowledge of it.
Divine Governance of the World and Divine Governance of Humankind
It is one thing to say that the world created by God displays “craftsmanlike governance” in so far as God creates things with certain natures. But law, writes Maimonides, is not natural (Guide, 2:40, p. 382). How can God, who is intellect, be the source of law, which is in the realm of convention and not nature?
Before we answer this question, we should emphasize that Maimonides has no qualms whatever in considering God the originator of the Torah’s laws. In Guide 3:26-50, where he speaks of the reasons for the commandments, he repeatedly views the laws as the product of God’s wisdom. He explicitly criticizes those theologians who assume that God cannot be the originator of a law that derives from “reflection” and “understanding.”
There are at least two passages where Maimonides draws a parallel between nature and the Law. In Guide 3:26, he likens God’s wisdom in commanding His people to worship Him through sacrifices with His wisdom in creating the world; both nature and law are the result of God’s “wily graciousness and wisdom” in bringing things to their perfection. This is not surprising in light of Maimonides’ view that the Law, though not natural, pertains to the natural by imitating it and perfecting it (Guide 2:43, p. 371). For Maimonides, while the Law is not natural, a truly Divine law is not mere convention but the divinely chosen regimen that allows individuals and society to maximize whatever potential they may possess.
The second passage is in Guide 1:54, where Maimonides speaks of Moses’s attaining knowledge of God’s middot, which he calls attributes of actions, that is, the actions according to which the world is governed. Now in Guide 3:32, p. 524, Maimonides writes, “If you consider the divine actions – I mean to say the natural actions,” from which scholars infer that he considers divine actions to include what we call laws of nature. In other words, God acts in the world through the intermediary of the natures of things.
Now if God is the originator not only of the laws of nature but of the laws of the Torah, with the latter imitating and perfecting the former when it comes to human individuals and societies, one would expect Maimonides to hold that the commandments of the Torah themselves are included within God’s actions. And indeed, Maimonides makes that claim explicitly in the Guide (1:54, p. 127).
In short, God’s lack of what we call a practical intellect does not prevent His actions from containing commandments that appear to be derived from deliberation and understanding. Even the notion that God is a pure intellect has to be understood in a loose sense, according to Maimonides. No creature, not even the angels (incorporeal intellects), can apprehend God in His true reality.
Second Alleged Incompatibility
The Missing Faculty Argument Applied to Mosaic Prophecy
The second incompatibility alleged by advocates of the Mosaic authorship thesis is really a variation on the first. Maimonides claims that, unlike other prophets, Moses prophesied only through his intellectual faculty. But how can a purely intellectual prophecy, which presumably should consist of only universal truths of natural and divine science, be made up of laws and narratives that contain few such truths?
Moreover, if, Moses received the Torah’s exact language (as in the Eighth Principle), does this not imply that God “spoke” in Hebrew and Moses actually took dictation? This, they argue, is simply incompatible with Maimonides’ intellectualist conception of God and of Moses.
Stated differently, since Moses’ prophecy, according to Maimonides, is purely intellectual, and since the Torah contains many things that are not purely intellectual, some of the aforementioned scholars argue that the revelation and composition of the Torah must have been a two-step process: First, Moses received abstract intelligibles from God through an intellectual, prophetic revelation. Afterwards, he sat down and deliberately composed, with the aid of his practical intellect and imaginative faculty, a law that “imitates” or “transforms” those divine intelligibles into a particular human law for a particular people in a particular historical context.
In other words, the composition of the Torah was not part of the prophetic experience of revelation, but subsequent to it. The origin of the Law may rightly be called “divine” inasmuch as God is its ultimate cause (cf. Guide 2:48), but its realization in law involves the prophet imitating in law the Divine governance in nature.
But there is no evidence that Maimonides viewed the composition of the Torah as subsequent to revelation. Nor do his philosophical principles require this. If God can know in some manner particulars, including particular events, and can create a world that He has particularized among other possibilities (Guide 2:22, p. 319), then knowledge of the world and of the Law in all their details can be communicated via an intellectual emanation to Moses. How exactly this happens, Maimonides never states, but we can speculate based on what we know of his views on Mosaic prophecy.
Moses as Transmitter of the Divine Law
Maimonides says little about the nature of Moses’ prophecy in the Guide—he believes it to besui generis and incomprehensible—but we may be able to infer a few things from his statement on Mosaic prophecy in the Commentary on the Mishnah:
The seventh principle—the prophecy of our teacher Moses, i.e., to believe that he is the father of all prophets before and after him, all of whom are beneath him in rank, and that He is God’s chosen of the entire human species, who apprehends of Him, may He be exalted, more than what every man who lived and will live, apprehended and will apprehend. [One should believe] that he, peace be upon him, attained such an exceedingly lofty level above humanity that he reached the angelic rank and [thus] became of the rank of the angels. No veil remained that he did not rend; no corporeal impediment hindered him; no defect marred him, neither minor nor major. His imaginative and sensory faculties were nullified in his apprehension, as was his appetitive faculty stunned, so that he remained only an intellect….
One can speculate that it is the rational nature of Mosaic prophecy that is responsible for the universal nature of Mosaic law, that only Moses, the perfect human, can be the intermediary by means of which the perfect law is revealed. The form that the revealed laws takes is tied to Moses’ role as intermediary, without claiming that Moses consciously and deliberately reformulates scientific truths as law by means of his practical intellect and/or his imagination. On the contrary, any use of such human faculties, would render the Law less divine; it would drag what is intelligent into the realm of faculties tied to matter, such as the imaginative faculty.
Scribe as Metaphor
Maimonides treats the dictation imagery as metaphorical. Maimonides does not describe Moses as a scribe but rather as someone at the rank of a scribe (bi-manzilat nâsikh/bi-madregat sofer): someone whose function is like that of a good scribe who adds nothing of his own to what he writes down.
Maimonides considers it to be obvious that God did not literally speak to Moses, and he has no compunction about saying so openly (Guide 1:65). Based on his explanation of the terms saying (amirah) and speaking (dibbur) with reference to God, he writes that God’s speech refers to “a notion that has been grasped by the understanding having come from God,” in which case it makes no difference whether the notion was grasped by means of sounds miraculously created by God, or through intellectual communication. What matters for him is that God communicated the entire Torah to Moses, or to put this another way, that Moses grasped correctly the divine law.
A Naturalistic Interpretation
Claiming that the law takes on the particular shape it does because it is delivered through the mediation of Moses in a given historical situation is different than claiming that Moses formulates the law by deliberately translating the universal truths of nature into legal conventions. Revelation of the Law does involve a kind of translation, but more like the translation of electrical impulses received by a laser printer into printed lines on a page, or the translation of sounds received by a scribe into written words. The final output bears the stamp of the intermediary that brings it into existence, but neither the printer nor the scribe can be considered as authors.
This speculation, if correct, allows for a naturalistic interpretation of a unique event such as the giving of the Law. The interpretation goes something like this: After willing the world into existence out of absolute nothingness, God eternally emanates being/truths/goodness in an intellectual emanation, which goes through various gradations, culminating in the active intellect, the last in a series of ten principal intellects.
When Moses, a human being, achieves conjunction with the active intellect, that emanation is received, inter alia, as Torah to be written down, and to be transmitted, together with its oral commentary. Moses is the “platform” through which the divine purpose transmits the Torah “as we have it in our hands today.” Each law, narrative, indeed word, is full of wisdom and serves to advance the divine purpose, which is to perfect those who adhere to it to the best of their ability.
Maimonides’ Eighth Principle Is Not Just for Popular Consumption
To sum up: Maimonides throughout his writings maintains that God gave the Law to the Israelites through Moses as intermediary. He refers to that Law both as “the law of the Lord” and “the law of Moses,” which he interprets to mean that every word of the written Torah in the form that we have it today, and its interpretation, was communicated to Moses. The prophet apprehended the Torah in all its particulars just as he apprehended the natures of things relevant to governance of the sublunar world (Guide 1:54).
This is what Maimonides calls the eighth principle of our Law, and I see no compelling reason not to take him at his word—especially since, as I have argued, it is compatible with his philosophical principles. Since he does not explain Mosaic prophecy, one cannot say whether he would approve the speculation I offered above of how it works. It may be that he simply felt that the “how” of Mosaic revelation was incomprehensible.
Even if one assumes that Maimonides deliberately concealed certain views from the multitude, there is no reason to include the purported Mosaic origin of the Torah among these views. His insistence that God revealed the entire Torah to Moses was not the only traditional view.
His insistence on the uniqueness of the Law was no doubt in part motivated by polemical concerns against Muslims, Christians, and Karaites, but it can also be explained with reference to broader philosophical concerns, such as his understanding of the relationship between the Divine law and the natures of things relevant to the governance of the world, what he calls the actions of God.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
February 5, 2019
July 20, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Charles H. Manekin is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland and currently a Fellow at the Israel Institute of Advanced Studies in Jerusalem. He received his BA in Philosophy from Yale, and his MA, M Phil, and PhD in Philosophy from Columbia. He is the author of numerous publications, including The Logic of Gersonides (Kluwer) and On Maimonides (Wadsworth). He recently co-edited with Daniel Davies Interpreting Maimonides (Cambridge).
Essays on Related Topics: