Jewish ideas that children could not be taught

Unfortunately, most people of all religions only know what they were taught about their religion and the Bible that they learnt in grade school. Most of it is childish and wrong. It is a shame that people do not improve their knowledge about religion as they grow older. The following are examples that I placed in my Foreword to Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel’s excellent book “Maimonides’ Hidden Torah Commentary, Genesis 1-21.” Rabbi Samuel has impressed me greatly ever since I read his first book on Philo. I enjoyed the comprehensive nature of his writings and the many insights in his books. What are some of the rational common-sense teachings by Maimonides (1138-1204) that children could not accept and as adults still do not accept?

Knowing God

We know nothing about God, except negatives, such as God cannot be a plurality. Much and perhaps everything that we think we know about God is wrong.

Depicting God in human forms

God has no body and no emotions; God does not become angry. The Bible speaks of God becoming angry because most people need to believe that God will punish them for doing wrong; people who accept this idea are more restrained from committing many wrongs.

Angels and demons

Angels and demons do not exist. God is all-powerful and needs no helpers. When the Bible speaks of angels, it is referring to a force of nature. The word “angel” is a metaphor for anything that carries out what God considers proper. The wind, rain, snow, summer heat, and good people who help others, although human, are angels.

Prophecy

Prophets never received a communication from God. Prophecy is a natural event. It is the thinking of a man or woman with a higher level of intelligence. A “prophet” needed intelligence, a developed imagination to be able to put his or her thoughts in a way people could understand, and live a proper life, what people call a moral life. Some Maimonidean scholars say that Maimonides considered even the fourth century BCE pagan philosopher Aristotle a prophet because he was so intelligent and was able to communicate truths to people.

Interestingly, the Torah is replete with prophecies, but virtually all of them are unfulfilled. Thus, for example, King Josiah and King Zedekiah are promised long life, but both are killed before they reach old age. Tosaphot[1] notes this and states that a prophet does not foretell what will be, but what ought to be. This phenomenon of unfulfilled prophecies is difficult to accept for people who maintain the view that God directed the prophet to make the pronouncement. It is not difficult for Maimonides, ibn Ezra, ibn Caspi, Gersonides, or others who consider prophecy a higher level of intelligence.

When the Bible states that God did something, it was natural law

Joseph ibn Caspi (1280-1345), a fervent and enthusiastic Maimonidean, explains that in Guide of the Perplexed 2:48, the last chapter on prophecy, Maimonides offers a rather remarkable idea that will surprise many. He states that when the Bible says that God did something, it does not mean that God performed the act, that God is the immediate cause of the event. Rather, the meaning is that the act occurred according to the rules of nature that God set in place when God created or formed the world. The Bible uses figurative language when it states that God performed an act. It does so to remind its readers that God, who created the laws of nature under which everything in this world functions, is the “ultimate cause” of everything.

Thus, for example, when Joseph tells his brothers in Genesis 45:7, “God sent me [from Canaan to Egypt] before you,” the meaning is not that God interfered in the lives of Jacob’s children, took over control of their actions, and compelled them to sell Joseph to merchants. Neither did God take control over the lives of the merchants and force them to bring Joseph to Egypt. Both the brothers and the merchants had free will and made their own decisions. The statement about God, Maimonides explains, reminds the reader that God is the “ultimate cause” of the laws of nature. God gave the brothers and the merchants the free will to make their own decisions.

Many parts of the Torah should not be understood literally

The Torah includes parables and other statements that should not be understood literally. In Guide of the Perplexed 1:2, for example, Maimonides explains that the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is a parable teaching about morality and the need to use God’s gift of intelligence, which the Bible calls, “The image of God.” Snakes do not speak. Neither did a donkey talk to Balaam in Numbers 22:21-34.

Are the fantastic midrashic tales true?

In his essay called Chelek, Maimonides explains that people who take fantastic impossible midrashic tales as true happenings, are fools; so too are people who reject midrashim because they are not true facts. Midrashic stories should be understood as parables developed by rabbis to teach lessons about proper behavior.      

Where should people go to learn the truth?

Maimonides wrote that “the truth is the truth no matter what its source.” People make a terrible mistake when they think that only their own religion communicates the truth.

Piety

Neither passive piety, fervent praying, nor study of the Bible, Talmud, and mystical tracts bring people to God. Near the end of his Guide, Maimonides summarized this view in a parable that pictured Talmud scholars as people who stumble outside a palace seeking ways to enter the palace to be with the king/God, but without knowing how to enter. They are forever, going in circles.

What does the Bible want to accomplish?

The purpose of the Bible, he stressed, is three-fold: it teaches some true ideas and helps improve individuals and society. People fulfill the Bible’s mandate when and only when they study and understand about science and nature and use their knowledge of the world to improve themselves and society. 

These are some of the many insights that Maimonides presented in his writings. If people read and reread this master’s works, they will derive a new understanding of life and what life requires of them. They will then be able to become all that they can be. The books by Rabbi Samuel will help them do so.


[1] Tosaphot to Yebamoth 50a. The Tosaphists were commentators to the Bible and Talmud who lived for the most part in Germany and France during the twelfth and thirteenth century. The first Tosaphists were the sons-in-law and grandsons of Rashi (Rabbi Solomon Yitzchaki, 1040–1105).

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