Maimonides’ son defends his father

                                                  The following is chapter 5 from my book Maimonides: Reason Above All                

 

                                                                Abraham Maimonides’ Defense of His Father

Opposition to Maimonides’ rationalism began and became heated during his lifetime and continued unabated after his death. Virtually all of his opponents were rabbis, but there were also many rabbis who recognized that Maimonides was teaching a valid approach to Judaism, one that should be studied by Jews who possess the intellectual abilities to understand philosophy.

Maimonides’ opponents were determined to destroy his books on philosophy. They tried first to issue bans prohibiting Jews from studying philosophy generally and the philosophical parts of Maimonides’ writings in particular. No attempt was ever made to stop people from studying other parts of his writings – his commentaries and his code of law – because virtually all people recognized how brilliant and useful they were. However, as we will see, many people felt somewhat uncomfortable with his legal writings. The attempts to institute bans against his philosophical works were unsuccessful because of the opposition of the more rational rabbis as well as some rabbis who opposed Maimonides’ philosophical teachings but respected his genius, such as Nachmanides, who sought a compromise.

Around 1235 – the exact date is uncertain – a number of rabbis in France apparently persuaded church officials to burn the philosophical parts of Maimonides’ works, as we saw earlier.

Finally, within a generation after his death, a compromise was reached between the supporters and opponents of Maimonides. The rabbis allowed the study of philosophy, but only when the student reached a mature age.

Questions

  1. Why were many people uncomfortable with Maimonides’ legal code, the Mishneh Torah?
  2. Why did some rabbis consider Maimonides’ philosophical writings incorrect and dangerous?
  3. What did Abraham, Maimonides’ son, write about his father’s view of Judaism in his Milchamot Hashem?

Reasons for Opposition to the Code

There were many reasons why non-philosophically-minded, Talmud-oriented rabbis were bothered by Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.

  1. Maimonides appeared to them to be arrogantly assuming authority to establish the Jewish law.
  2. He seemed to state that he felt that his code would replace the Talmud.
  3. The rabbis felt that Maimonides should have listed the sources for the legal decisions that he codified in his code of law.
  4. They argued that he should have also recorded the views of the rabbis who opposed the final decisions, views recorded in the Talmud.
  5. They feared that the use of Maimonides’ code would cause people to neglect Talmud study, which they felt was essential for Jews.
  6. They thought that Jews who were previously unable to decipher the Talmud and had to resort to rabbis to discover the halakhah would stop relying on rabbis, even neglect them, and seek the halakhah on their own from Maimonides’ code.
  7. Some simply disagreed with Maimonides’ determination of the halakhah in certain instances.

Some rabbis attacked the code for baser reasons:

  1. They were jealous of Maimonides.
  2. They resented Maimonides’ objection to the practice of paying rabbis for their services. Maimonides was convinced that the Talmud teaches that rabbis should serve their communities for free.

Opposition to Maimonides’ Philosophical Writings

Other rabbis based their opposition to Maimonides on their disagreement with his philosophy, which appeared mainly in the introductory part of his Mishneh Torah and in his Guide of the Perplexed. This was due to a number of factors.

  1. The Jews living in Christian countries in the Dark Ages had little knowledge of philosophy and science. They felt that philosophy was alien to Judaism and should not be studied, viewing it as akin to idol worship. Many even argued that whatever science is important can be obtained from talmudic statements.
  2. Many rabbis were convinced that even if Maimonides’ philosophy were correct, people who had insufficient Judaic background and were young should not study it.
  3. They feared that a philosophic approach to life would lead to a lack of proper observance of halakhah.
  4. Some rabbis were certain that Maimonides was wrong and that God had a body like humans and human emotions.
  5. Maimonides’ teaching that after death people are not resurrected with body and soul appalled some rabbis.
  6. Some rabbis wanted to understand both the Torah and Midrashim literally even when the statements made were irrational.
  7. There were also rabbis who feared that interpreting some parts of the Bible as figures of speech, metaphors and allegory would lead Jews to abandon the truth contained in the Torah and to deny the historicity of biblical events.

Abraham’s Defense of His Father

Abraham was bothered by the attacks on his father even in his youth, when his father was still alive. Maimonides wrote to his student Joseph ibn Aknin that the attacks against his writings did not bother him greatly, but told his student that his son Abraham was very disturbed by the attacks.[1]

After his father’s death, when the attacks intensified, Abraham wrote a defense of his father’s views called Milchamot Hashem, or The Wars of the Lord in English. It is not a philosophical document, but an attempt to prove the correctness of his father’s views using, for the most part, citations from the Bible and rabbinical statements. He probably thought that his father had already explained his teachings quite clearly. He also did not apologize for any of his father’s statements, nor did he usually try to soften them or insist that they meant something other than their plain meaning,[2] something similar to the notions of his opponents. He did not address all of his father’s teachings, presumably only those that he felt were being attacked.

However, as stated, since Maimonides’ opponents might be persuaded by the Bible and rabbinical assertions, he supported his father’s views by citing biblical verses and rabbinical statements that he felt reflected his father’s teachings.

  1. Like his father, Abraham emphasized knowledge above all else: “knowledge, intelligence, and understanding with which He [God] endowed” humans and “separate[s] human beings from the beasts.”[3] “The gift of intelligence preceded the Torah in the order of the creation” of the world and must be used to understand Torah. Thus, “God rebuked Israel via the tongue of the prophet [Hosea 4:6] because they despised knowledge: ‘My people are destroyed for the lack of knowledge.’…Because of this, intelligent and understanding people attempt with all their might and their entire being to perfect their mind with the wisdom of the intellect so that they can understand the secrets of the Torah.”[4]
  2. He recognized that the Torah teaches lessons through parables and figures of speech, as Hosea 12:11 states, “I have spoken also unto the prophets, and I have multiplied their prophecies and through the prophets I have given similitude.”
  3. He compared taking scriptural verses literally to “the impurity of idol worship.”
  4. He also wrote that those who “accept the simple meaning of midrashic and aggadic passages…would be denying our faith like those whose faith is perverted.”
  5. He felt that a person who imagines that God has a bodily form “is a heretic and has no portion in the world to come.”
  6. He criticized sages who focus only on “the pilpul [excessive subtle distinctions] of Abbaye and Rava and of talmudic debate, elucidation, and sophistry.”
  7. He used sharp critical language against those who disagreed with his father and who insisted that the dead eat and drink in the world to come, saying that they “lack knowledge” and their “faith is perverted.”
  8. He also agreed with his father that there is no literal Garden of Eden or hell.
  9. He called those who think that God dwells in heaven “ignorant…. It is impossible that He occupy space since…He is not corporeal.”

Summary

Many, though not all, rabbis were fearful of Maimonides’ philosophical writings for numerous reasons, including the concern that philosophy would lead Jews away from observing Jewish practices. There were even rabbis who thought that the subject of philosophy was alien to Judaism and akin to idol worship. Some proposed that a ban be established prohibiting the study of Maimonides’ philosophical works. A number of rabbis were also concerned that Maimonides’ code of Jewish law would stop Jews from studying the Talmud.

Numerous rabbis supported Maimonides, and heated conflicts ensued. The dispute began during Maimonides’ lifetime and continued for years after his death. Maimonides’ supporters requested that his son Abraham write a defense of his father’s works.

Abraham wrote the defense. It does not contain a detailed philosophical justification of his father’s writings, apparently because Abraham felt that his father’s works were clear and did not need further explanation. He stated that his father’s writings were correct and supported them with biblical passages and rabbinical assertions, using strong language to demonstrate his support of his father and his opposition to Maimonides’ opponents.

Abraham emphasized the importance of knowledge, the fact that Midrashim and figures of speech in Torah should not be taken literally, and the essential belief that God is not corporeal, following in his father’s footsteps.

In this chapter and the previous one, we noted both Abraham’s defense of his father and his departures from his father’s thought. We saw that he held his father’s rational ideas. However, his departure was in adding mystical notions and practices that his father would have viewed as being in direct opposition to a rational life. While for Abraham mysticism added a dimension to rational thought and life, for Maimonides mysticism could never serve as an addition or improvement to an active lifestyle; in his opinion, it removes its practitioner from everything that is important and necessary in life.


[1] Milchamot Hashem, 17.

[2] However, see note 72.

[3] The translations in this chapter from The Wars of the Lord are for the most part from the edition translated by Fred Rosner, with very small modifications.

[4] Additional examples: a minor is not required “to fulfill His [God’s] commandments because his intellect is not yet complete”; “For this reason, the men of the Great Assembly established that the prayer for knowledge and understanding is the first of the middle [twelve] blessings in the [eighteen benedictions of the daily Amidah] prayers, preceding all [other basic] human needs.”

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