Maimonides’ personality unknown by too many people

                      

Too many people, including rabbis and scholars, focus on just two of Maimonides’ books to help them decide Maimonides’ frame of mind: his philosophical Guide of the Perplexed and his code of law which he called Mishneh Torah, which means the Second Torah. Focusing on these two books, many are unable or unwilling to think that the same man wrote a philosophy book that they feel is not wholly consonant with traditional thinking and a book that outlines traditional Jewish thinking. Some people are therefore convinced that Maimonides did not write the Guide. Others are simply confused and do not know how to deal with what they see as a problem. There are several mistakes that these people make.

 

Contrary to what some people think, Mishneh Torah has philosophy

Mishneh Torah also contains many philosophical ideas, especially in the first of the fourteen books, ideas which are also in Maimonides’ Guide, such as his discussion about what we can know about God.

 

Maimonides discussed the 613 commandments to help people

Most ancient rabbis recognized that The first report that the Torah contains 613 commandments dates to the third century CE, when Rabbi Simlai mentioned this concept in a sermon that is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b. The Talmud states: “Rabbi Simlai gave as a sermon [darash Rabi Simlai]: 613 commandments were communicated to Moses – 365 negative commands, corresponding to the number of solar days [in a year], and 248 positive commands, corresponding to the number of the members [bones covered with flesh] of a man’s body.” Rabbi Simlai invented the number 613 because it fit his sermon: A person should observe the Torah with all his body parts (248) every day (365). The two numbers total 613.

As far as we know, no one thought there were 613 biblical commandments before Rabbi Simlai delivered his sermon. In fact, 150 years before Rabbi Simlai, ben Azzai is quoted as saying that there were three hundred biblical commands.[1] E. E. Urbach wrote: “In the Tannaitic sources this number [613] is unknown.”[2]

Maimonides certainly knew that the notion of 613 biblical commands is only sermonic, but also knew that the general population accepted the notion, and he knew that they wanted information about what Judaism required and what it prohibited, so he wrote Mishneh Torah to meet the need of the general population. He included commands that he felt the rabbis considered either explicit or implicit in the Torah, or, to state this differently, he helped fellow Jews by listing and explaining what he thought the rabbis considered Jews are required to do and not do.

 

Maimonides addressed the needs of the uneducated public in his Guide

People who do not know Maimonides’ personality, that he was very sensitive to the needs of the general population and wanted to help them, as seen in his Mishneh Torah, that he wrote his Guide for two audiences, the intellectual and learned reader and those who were unlearned and had traditional but unsophisticated views. Doing so, he did not follow the practice of most writers of philosophy who write their books at a high level and address it to intellectuals.

Menachem Kellner[3] writes, for example, that Don Isaac Abravanel (in his Rosh Amanah) and many others recognize that Maimonides composed his thirteen principles of Judaism for the less educated public to strengthen their feelings about Judaism. Abravanel faults those who take “Maimonides’ words at face value.”

Leo Strauss and Shlomo Pines[4], Yeshayahu Leibovits[5] and other scholars also explain that there is an “exoteric and esoteric Maimonides.” Exoteric statements are ideas that Maimonides writes which he felt were untrue but necessary to teach to help the less educated people, most Jews, because he recognized that they will feel threatened if they are told their long-held ideas are untrue. The esoteric statements are hints that Maimonides does not state explicitly, but which he expects the learned Jew, who knows both Jewish and non-Jewish studies, to draw from his writings and understand.

This exoteric-esoteric approach to understanding Maimonides is supported by Maimonides’ own writings. In his Guide of the Perplexed 3:28, he explains that there are two kinds of truths: true truths and necessary truths. “True truths” are statements that express a truth that can help one understand an idea and grow intellectually. These are what Strauss, Pines, Leibowitz and others called esoteric teachings.

A “necessary truth” is a tradition, a mistaken or wrong notion. These truths are not taught because they are correct, but to fulfill a social purpose, such as instilling obedience to the Torah, regulating social relations, improving human or society, and alleviating fears.

Maimonides gives many examples of “necessary truths.” He states, for instance, that the Torah teaches that God becomes angry with those who disobey God, even though this is only a “necessary truth.” God does not really become angry. The Torah transmitted the idea that God becomes angry because it is “necessary” for the masses to believe that God becomes angry if they disobey God in order that they control and improve their behavior.

 

His letter to the Jews of Yemen

All too many writers about Maimonides also ignore his writings other than the Guide and Mishneh Torah where he shows his concern for the needs and feelings of fellow Jews. He used necessary truths when he wrote to the persecuted Jews of Yemen. In his Letter to Yemen, he assures the Yemenite Jews that the messiah will be coming soon to relieve their suffering, even though he was convinced that this matter was impossible to predict. The Yemenites never forgot Maimonides’ consolation, and to this day they thank and praise him daily many times when they recite their Kaddish prayer.

 

Helping people daily

Another of the many instances which show Maimonides feelings that he needs to help other people can be seen in his letter to Samuel ibn Tibbon. The man who translated his Guide into Hebrew and who wanted to visit Maimonides.

In the letter, Maimonides tells somethings about his daily activities. He tells how, as the Sultan’s physician, he must travel every day[6] from his home in Fostat to Cairo to check on the Sultan’s health and to care for his harem. When he returns to Fostat, half the day is gone, and he is exhausted and hungry. Many people are in his home, government and common people, wanting to see him. He asks to be excused until he has eaten the one meal he eats each day. Then he sees the petitioners who generally do not leave until two hours into the night. The last ones he can only see while laying down. When the last one leaves, he is so exhausted he is unable to speak. On Shabbat, he is also busy, teaching the people. In view this constant involvement in official and community affairs, he tells ibn Tibbon that he will have little time to speak with him.

 

His reaction to his brother’s death

Maimonides deep feelings for others can be seen in his reaction when he heard of the death of his younger brother. Maimonides mourned his brother’s death and was ill for a year, perhaps due to depression. However, in 1166 he recovered and decided to support himself and his brother’s family by practicing medicine. He ultimately became a court physician and treated the Sultan.

 

Compassion to Animals

Maimonides even felt the pain of animals and had compassion for them. He disagreed with Nachmanides. Deuteronomy 22:6 commands: “If you chance upon a bird’s nest along the road, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs, and the mother is sitting over the fledglings or the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.” Leviticus 22:28 is similar: “No animal from the herd or from the flock should be slaughtered on the same day with its young.”

In the Guide of the Perplexed,[7] Maimonides explains that animals, like humans, have feelings and the Torah prohibits people from tormenting them.

 

Summary

Once it is realized how passionately Maimonides felt that he must help others, how he was kind, considerate, compassionate, sensitive to the needs of others, and that he acted based on these feelings, we can recognize that this selfless altruistic personality motivated him to write the Guide, the Mishneh Torah, his many medical books, his correspondences with many people and groups, and we can read these documents with this understanding of his motive and derive a deeper comprehension of what and why he is writing.

 

[1] Sifrei Deuteronomy 76.

[2] The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987). See my book Mysteries of Judaism II, chapter 23, “There are not 613 biblical commands,” for more information on this subject, including the views of sages agreeing the 613 is sermonic, not real.

[3] Rosh Amanah (Principles of faith).

[4] In two introductory essays to the Guide of the Perplexed, 1963.

[5] In the several books of Conversations with Yeshayahu Leibovits published between 1995 and 2003.

[6] Presumable, except for Shabbat.

[7] 3:48. Translation of M. Friedlander, 371.

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