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Haim (Howard) Kreisel





Were Maimonides and Some of His Followers Orthoprax?



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Haim (Howard) Kreisel





Were Maimonides and Some of His Followers Orthoprax?






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Torah from Heaven

Were Maimonides and Some of His Followers Orthoprax?

A medieval Jewish philosophical perspective on the revelation at Sinai and Mosaic prophecy and its modern implications.


Were Maimonides and Some of His Followers Orthoprax?

R. Moshe ben Maimon commonly known as רמב״ם‎ and Maimonides Credit: Wellcome Library, London

In the eighth of his thirteen principles of faith that appear at the end of his “Introduction to Pereq Heleq” in his Commentary on the Mishnah, Maimonides writes:

The eighth principle: Torah from Heaven. That is, one should believe that the entire Torah found in our hands today was the one given to Moses. It was received in its entirety from the “mouth of God,” namely, it was received by him in its entirety from God in a way that is figuratively called “speech.” The nature of this reception is not known, only that he, may he rest in peace, was the recipient. He acted as a scribe taking dictation and writing down everything.[1]

Maimonides leaves little doubt that God is to be regarded as the immediate author of every word of the Torah. Maimonides in this case is only giving expression to what had long been regarded as a fundamental belief of Judaism.[2] He can be said, however, to adopt a maximalist position when it comes to God’s active role. Moses is treated as a purely passive recipient recording exactly what God communicates to him.

Maimonides adds some further aspects to this principle. Since everything is directly from God, and Moses alone took dictation,[3] it follows that he did not write in his own words any of the passages of the Torah and nothing was added to the Torah after his death.[4] Moreover, Maimonides maintains that the Torah’s “received interpretation is also from the mouth of God.” The Oral Law thus is not a law derived by rules of jurisprudence based on the Written Law,[5] but it too was given by God to Moses, just as God gave him what he subsequently wrote down in the Torah.

Maimonides’ eighth principle thus upholds the three separate, but related beliefs that have traditionally stood at the core of commitment of Jews to the observance of the Torah:

  1. God alone is the author of the Torah.
  1. Moses alone wrote down the words of the Torah as communicated to him by God and no changes or additions were made in the Torah after his death.
  1. The Oral Law was also communicated by God to Moses and passed down from generation to generation.

Modern Challenges

These beliefs have undergone severe challenges in modern times. God’s immediate role in authoring the Torah has become increasingly hard to accept in a world where overt miracles are no longer evident, and with it the belief in God’s hand on role in dictating specific laws to a chosen historical individual.

The notion that Moses alone wrote down every word of the Torah has been called into question in light of a huge amount of scholarship that has sought to demonstrate that the traditions recorded in the Torah evolved over a long period of time and the Torah took its final written form long after the events it records. The notion that the Oral Law was also handed down to Moses by God is treated as questionable in light of the critical study of post-biblical and early rabbinic literature.

Some of these challenges have medieval precedent. In light of Aristotelian philosophy which viewed God’s activities as confined to the order of nature, a number of medieval scholars saw viewing God as the immediate author of the Law as problematic.[6] The notion that Moses was completely passive in writing down everything in the Torah and that nothing was added after his death was rejected by some medieval rabbinic scholars, most notably Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra,[7] and some of his followers,[8] who saw Moses playing a more active role in the writing of the Torah and hints to passages added after his death. [9]

Maimonides’ Dilemma in the Guide of the Perplexed

The dilemma voiced by Maimonides at the beginning of the Guide appears to be even more poignant in our day than in the time he wrote it: should one follow one’s intellect and by doing so “consider that he has renounced the foundations of the Law” or should one “turn his back” on his intellect, “while at the same time perceiving that he had brought loss to himself and harm to his religion”?

The Guide sought to offer a solution to this dilemma by showing that there can be no conflict between what the intellect demonstratively proves and what the Torah teaches when interpreted properly. One question, however, whether our current dilemma which casts doubt on the most basic beliefs of both God’s and Moses’s roles in the formulation of the Torah can be made to vanish so easily.

Maimonides’ Problem

It is not without irony that Maimonides, the greatest of Jewish philosophers, is responsible if not for the current dilemma itself then at least for its severity. By formulating a formal list of compulsory beliefs that define Judaism and whose acceptance in full determines membership in the Jewish community as opposed to being ostracized (in addition to losing one’s share in the World to Come), Maimonides may be said to be the founder of Jewish Orthodoxy (ortho = proper; doxa = opinions).

Maimonides attempted to shift the focus of Judaism from actions to beliefs.[10] The commandments involving rituals were seen by him as designed primarily to inculcate and reinforce the acceptance of certain true beliefs.[11]

Despite his emphasis on the centrality of dogma, a number of modern scholars have audaciously asked whether the eighth principle was really Maimonides’ view on the matter, or if instead he was presenting a view that he regarded as crucial in order to preserve the belief of the masses in the divine origin of the Torah and observance of its commandments. To put it differently, was the founder of Jewish Orthodoxy in fact an Orthoprax, that is to say, a Jew who faithfully observes the commandments but did not believe in the literal truth of some of the beliefs, including Torah from Heaven, that he himself formulated as being absolutely binding upon all Jews?

The Guide of the Perplexed by Maimonides; illumination by Ferrer Bassa, Barcelona, 1348

In the Guide of the Perplexed (3:28) Maimonides distinguishes between true opinions taught by the Law and opinions that are politically or religiously necessary. A strong argument can be made for the view that Maimonides’ 13 Principles can also be divided accordingly. One could imagine that without Maimonides’ credo and its widespread acceptance, or at least, with a formulation of the eighth principle that was more open-ended, allowing for far different interpretations, the current dilemma would not be nearly so sharp. Maimonides clearly felt, however, that all the principles he promulgated were necessary for the survival of Judaism even if not all of them were literally true.

The debate regarding Maimonides “Orthodoxy” began in his lifetime. [12] The problem, then and now, can be reduced to the question of whether Maimonides believed that God can know individual human beings and act outside the laws of nature, that is to say, directly in history.

If Maimonides rejected this belief and secretly favored the Aristotelian conception of God’s activity, as some scholars have suggested, then in order to uphold the divine origin of the Torah, he would need to have reformulated what “divine origin” means in a world that operates solely in conformity with the laws of nature.[13] What he could not do, however, is believe in a literal manner in miracles as being willful acts of God.

More importantly, he could not have believed that God dictated to Moses each of the individual commandments of the Torah and that God created an audible voice at Sinai heard by all of Israel and which conveyed to them the first two commandments, while Moses actually heard the remaining ones as well.[14]

Maimonides’ Commitment to Aristotelian Philosophy

Scholars, including myself, and not just rabbinic authorities, are prone to read their own views into the great figures of the past. Thus, many current scholarly debates regarding Maimonides’ true views may reflect current religious-ideological debates more than what Maimonides actually thought. People especially project their own view onto Maimonides, given his towering legal stature.

Nevertheless, his explicit commitment to Aristotelian philosophy on many cardinal issues and his interpretation of Judaism accordingly,[15] make this kind of esoteric reading of Maimonides particularly persuasive. Maimonides himself indicates in the introduction to the Guide of the Perplexed that he will present some of his views in an esoteric manner since they belong to the “secrets of the Torah.” He thereby opens the door to the interpretation that he is even more committed to the Aristotelian world view than he is prepared to admit explicitly.[16]

Maimonides as a Closet Orthoprax

The contemporary religious stakes are quite high. If Maimonides, who is regarded by the entire traditional camp in all its diversity as the bastion of halakhah, can in fact be shown to be a closet Orthroprax, then this approach attains some legitimacy, at least among the more liberal segments of Jews who are committed to the observance of halakhah.

Much of my own scholarship over the years has gravitated to this issue, and I share with a number of scholars the view that Maimonides ascribed to Moses a form of prophecy that was unique but natural. The “message” seen and heard by the prophet is the product of the activity of the prophet’s intellect and imagination while in this state of prophecy. It should be kept in mind that the medieval Islamic Aristotelian philosophers who influenced Maimonides, particularly Alfarabi, presented naturalistic explanations for understanding the phenomenon of prophecy, viewing it essentially as involving the illumination of the intellect.[17]

Maimonides thus may have believed that the illumination of the intellect Moses attained while in this state enabled him to lay down an ideal law that alone deserves the epithet “divine.” While Maimonides, both in the Mishneh Torah and in the Guide of the Perplexed, presents the notion that a heavenly voice was heard at Sinai, he may well have felt that the Torah’s description of this voice should not be understood literally.[18]

Nissim of Marseilles

In the course of my research, I was surprised to discover that a number of Jewish philosophers of Provence appear to share this view. The most radical of these thinkers is Nissim of Marseilles (14th cent.), who daringly tries to show that Moses was the immediate author of the commandments of the Torah,[19] having attained in his state of prophetic illumination the general directive that it was incumbent upon him to lay down a law for the Israelites.[20]

In addition, Nissim sees Maimonides’ principles of faith as containing a number of beliefs, in addition to Torah from Heaven, that are not literally true. He does not say this openly in his discussion of these principles, only that certain principles, such as the Resurrection of the Dead are accepted on the basis of faith and not the intellect. His position becomes clearer in the continuation of his treatise. One of his comments is particularly revealing of his approach to this issue:

ועל זה הצד, כפי מה שאחשוב, בא בלשון רבותינו (סנהדרין י, א): ‘והאומר אין תורה מן השמים’, ולא אמר ‘המאמין’, כי באמירה לבד הוא מזיק לרבים וכופר בתורה, ואף אם יאמין כמונו שהיא רבת התועלת. […] לפי שהדבור שיצא ממנו חורבה והריסה — אם לו לבדו אם לזולתו — עון חמור ואשמה גדולה.
For this reason, to my way of thinking, the language of the Sages is: “One who says that the Torah is not from heaven (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10.1),” and not: “One who believes.” For by speaking alone he harms the multitude and commits heresy, even if he believes as we do that the Torah is of great utility […] For the speech that issues forth from him is ruinous and destructive, to him and to others, a stringent transgression and most blameworthy.
ועל זה אמרו ז”ל: ‘האומר’, כי אף אם יפרש ויתקן דבורו באי זה צד מן התקון והפירוש, לא יועיל לו שלא יקרא כופר. כי הוא מביא אחרים להחליש תקותם בתורה, ומחטיא כונת השם ית’. ומשה נביאו רצה ‘לזכות את ישראל ולפיכך הרבה להם תורה ומצוות’ וצוה בשמו מה שצוה.
For this reason the Sages said: “One who says.” Even if he interprets and rectifies his speech in any manner whatsoever, it will not help him to avoid being labeled a heretic. He causes others to weaken their hope in the Torah, and thwarts God’s intent, since Moses His prophet wanted “for Israel to be righteous, hence he multiplied for them the Torah and commandments (m. Makkot 3.16),” and commanded in His Name what he commanded.[21]

Nissim believes that the heretic is not the individual who believes that these principles are not literally true, for one cannot be a heretic for not believing in what is not true; rather, the heretic is one who states publicly that these believes are not literally true. Such a public statement is heretical not because it is false, but because it would undermine the masses’ commitment to the Torah and have a detrimental effect on Jewish society.

Nissim appreciates the necessity in preserving the masses’ naïve beliefs, for in this way Judaism is preserved. Yet ultimately the purpose of Judaism is to guide those who are capable of “handling the truth” to believe what is true. For Nissim it is certainly true that the Torah is unique ideal legislation, the product of the illumination of Moses’ intellect, and hence deserving of the epithet “divine” and of the obedience of the intellectual elite as well as the masses. It is not true, however, that God is its author.

Moses Faked the Revelation at Sinai

So what happened at Sinai according to Nissim? Moses understood that only by impressing upon the masses the view that the Torah comes directly from God would they fulfill its commandments. On top of the mountain he discovers an object that greatly amplifies his voice and which sounds to the masses like a heavenly voice[22] (one has only to think of a giant Swiss alphorn whose sound can be heard great distances). Yet Nissim is not critical of the subterfuge perpetrated by Moses; in fact he thinks it was completely necessary for the masses. But for the intellectual elite, the divinity of the Torah is judged by its content, not by its purported supernatural origins.

Those familiar with the views of Spinoza in his Theological Political Treatise may see in Nissim a proto-Spinozist. Yet there is a world of difference between the two. Spinoza adopts the positions he does in order to debunk the validity of the Torah as a source of either philosophic truths or legislation that should be emulated in his own time; certainly he sees no good philosophic or political reason for Jews to remain faithful to it in his own time; only their obstinacy and Anti-Semitism keep them from throwing off its shackles. Nissim, on the other hand, adopts his positions order to maintain his commitment to its commandments and its truths, discerned by him as esoteric ones, when he can no longer believe in an overt miracle-working deity who acts directly in history.

Maimonides and Nissim’s Dilemma in Modern Times

So the dilemma remains for those who like Nissim have trouble in believing in some of the fundamental principles of Judaism in a literal manner. Is the view that the Torah is from Heaven a profound figurative, non-literal truth, or is it simply a lie? The answer depends a lot on one’s perspective and on one’s understanding of what is “truth.”[23] Perhaps truth is multi-dimensional. Ultimately the question boils down to the problem whether faith and commitment require dogma.

Perhaps even our Sages had this problem in mind when they stated in Ecclesiastes Rabbah:

ר’ הונא ור’ ירמיה בשם ר’ חייא בר אבא אמרי: כתיב: ואותי עזבו ואת תורתי לא שמרו (ירמיה טז, יא) – הלואי אותי עזבו ותורתי שמרו.
Rabbi Huna and R. Yirmiyah said in the name of R. Hiyya bar Abba: It is written: They have left Me and My Torah they have not observed (Jeremiah 16:11) – Would that they left Me and My Torah they observed.


May 28, 2017


Last Updated

November 13, 2021


View Footnotes

Prof. Haim (Howard) Kreisel teaches in the Department of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University, where he holds the Miriam Martha Hubert Chair in Jewish Thought and is the Director of the Goldstein-Goren International Center for Jewish Thought. Among his books are Maimonides’ Political Thought and Prophecy: The History of an Idea in Medieval Jewish Philosophy.