Rabbi Dr. Michael Leo Samuel, author of Maimonides’ Hidden Torah Commentary, Leviticus, has made a significant contribution to posterity by writing this beautiful book and bringing the thinking of Maimonides and many dozens of others, ancient and modern, Jewish and non-Jewish, rational and mystic, to his readers. Among many other sources, he focuses on the writings of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, his Guide of the Perplexed, his commentary to the Mishnah, his ethical work Shemoneh Perakim, as well as his Responsa, and even the Commentary on Exodus that his son Abraham wrote. This volume follows his successful books on Maimonides to Genesis and Exodus. He reveals much that many people do not know and does so in a clear easy to read and engaging fashion. There is much in these books that we can learn.
The opinions of all people should be examined and Rabbi Samuel who is a very knowledgable person on many subjects gives us the understandings of numerous people. Maimonides taught in his introduction to his Guide of the Perplexed, that the truth is the truth no matter what its source. Therefore, Maimonides said he had no scruple about generally accepting the philosophy of the Greek pagan Aristotle (384-322 BCE), one of the most influential thinkers in the history of Western thought.
Not only rational philosophers, but even mystics stressed Maimonides’ teaching about learning the truth from all sources, Jewish and non-Jewish. The famed kabbalist Rabbi Haim Attar (1696-1743) asked in his book Or Ha-Haim, in his commentary to Exodus 18:21, why does the Bible tell us the story of the Midianite pagan priest Jethro offering advice to the law-giver Moses and accentuates the fact by adding that Moses implemented the priest’s advice? Isn’t there enough knowledge among Jews? Why seek out non-Jews for advice? Rabbi Attar answered, the Bible is teaching us that in all generations there are non-Jews with greater knowledge than Jews.
The word “Leviticus” is ironically Latin, the language of the Romans who destroyed the second temple and exiled Jews from Israel in 586 BCE. “Leviticus” is a more apt title of the book than the Hebrew Vayikra, “And he called.” The Latin word refers to the tribe of Levi that was assigned activities in the temple.
Also ironical is that despite the fact that the laws of the temple and sacrifices take up much space in the Torah, and was an integral part of how the ancient Israelites observed each of the holidays, without exception, Maimonides minimizes both the temple and its sacrifices. Referring to the views of prophets, he taught that God neither needs nor wants sacrifices, He also said that the purpose of forbidding Jews from entering the temple when they were “ritually unclean” is not because they were carrying something unseemly. He explained that the law recognizes that people frequently come in contact with objects that make them “ritually unclean,” such as being near a dead body, and this seclusion diminishes the overzealous mistaken “pious” notion that God desires frequent visits by Jews to the temple. Maimonides stressed study instead of sacrifices, for study leads to personal and social improvements. Yet, despite this view, Maimonides saw many lessons in the biblical laws of the temple and its sacrifices.
Rabbi Dr. Michael Leo Samuel features every major dispute that the rationalist Maimonides had with the mystic Nachmanides (Ramban) as well as his disagreements with other scholars of his day such as Abraham ibn Daud, Rashi, and Abraham ibn Ezra, and of scholars that preceded him such as Philo and Saadiah Gaon, as well as even talmudic rabbis, and he contrasts Maimonides and their views. Whereas Nachmanides argued, for example, that God did not care about the feelings that animals have for their young, Maimonides stressed the opposite. So too Nachmanides felt that doing repentance was one of the 613 biblical commands, but Maimonides denied this. Nachmanides, to cite a last example where he and Maimonides differed, was convinced that the messianic age would be a miraculously changed period when even lions would be tame like well-trained dogs today, while Maimonides felt certain that there would be no alteration in humans or natural laws.
Among the many dozens of other ideas that Rabbi Dr. Michael Leo Samuel clarifies for us are the following: He explains Maimonides’ thinking about the scapegoat ceremony, the shofar, the sukkah, and many other ceremonies. He also examines the role of the high priest, the regular priests, and Levites; whether there is a need to have the right intention when making an offering and when doing anything else required by the Torah; does scripture present matters in a chronological order, why do sages differ on this issue, and what difference does it make; is there a position in the Torah about reward and punishment and how does it differ from what many people think today; how distant must Jews be from non-kosher foods, can they feed it to animals who must rest on the Sabbath like humans; why must animals rest on the Sabbath; why did God kill Aaron’s sons when they seemingly did what scripture required when they brought a sacrifice; what is “holiness” and a “holy life,” what does it require, and does it change us; why of all possible behaviors are Jews circumcised; ibn Ezra’s thoughts about hand washing; the meaning of “an eye for an eye;” and dozens of other interesting and eye-opening subjects.
If these items were all that Rabbi Dr. Michael Leo Samuel addressed, we would be ever thankful for his gift to us, but they are a small sample of the treasures he accumulated and placed before us.