Not all rabbinical changes of biblical laws were good


Some of the chapters in Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, such as 2:48 where he tells us that when the Bible states that God did something it should be understood as an act of nature, are startling and the kind of ideas that many people are unable to accept. Chapter 3:51, near the end of his book, is another example.

Maimonides begins the chapter by telling readers that what is in it is not significant and only repeats what had been said previously. Once we recall that Maimonides wrote for two audiences, the educated few who could understand what he was teaching and the general population who needed to find in his book support for the notions they were taught as children, notions they never questioned, people who would feel threatened by his ideas, we realize that this statement is what the Greek Plato and the Muslim Ibn Tufayl called “the noble lie.” Although untrue, it was a noble statement because the general population needed to hear it said. We realize as we read this statement that Maimonides is prompting educated readers to realize he is about to sum up his teachings with what some would call “a radical idea.”

The central part of Israelite life after the redemption from Egyptian slavery was sacrifices, an activity that Maimonides wrote was wrong, for God does not need or want sacrifices; they were allowed because of the need of the Israelites to make the offerings. Sacrifices continued in Judaism until the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE. At that time, although a group of Jews wanted to continue sacrifices outside the temple, the rabbis saw the destruction of the temple as an excellent opportunity to stop the practice. They substituted in its place synagogue worship and study.

By the second half of the first millennia of the common era, when the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds had been finished, the rabbis began to stress that the study of the Talmuds was a religious service. The more time Jews spend studying the Talmud, the greater their reward. Soon, in the twentieth century. The idea arose called “daf yomi,” the study of a page (daf) of the Talmud daily (yomi)

There are two main problems with this idea. First, while thousands of Jews piously obeyed the rabbinical rule, most of them read the Talmud page or had it read to them as they prayed each day, reciting the words without understanding their purpose and meaning, a waste of time. Second, the Talmud contains reports of discussions about laws, which require a knowledge of the Talmudic methodology, generally without indicating what the final decision is. This is good practice for sharpening the mind, seeing more than one side of an issue, and helped sharpen Jewish minds over the centuries, but it is not otherwise informative. It does not tell Jews how to live or how to improve themselves and society.

Recognizing this, Maimonides composed his Mishneh Torah, his Code of Jewish Law. He called it Mishneh Torah, which means “second Torah,” because, as he wrote in the introduction, Jews no longer have to read the disputes in the Talmud for they will find in his book, the second Torah, all the laws, all they need to know.

The reaction to his statement was violent and vitriolic. How could this man say we should not continue to study the Talmud? Maimonides responded with a “noble lie.” I never said not to study the Talmud. I said a Jew does not need to study the Talmud to learn the law because I was offering him the details of the law.[1]

In Guide of the Perplexed 3:51, he makes it crystal clear that the notion that a Jew should spend his[2] life studying Talmud is wrong.

Maimonides begins his comments in 3:51 with what we might call his “Parable of the Castle.”

A king is living in a palace. He has seven kinds of citizens. (1) Some live outside his country. (2) Many turn their backs on the palace. (3) Others want to go see the palace but have not yet seen the palace or even its outside walls. (4) A few reach the palace and go round and round it looking for an entrance, which they cannot find. (5) Others entered the gate and walk around the ante-chamber. (6) A smaller number have entered the inner part of the palace and are in the same room as the king, but do not see him. (7) A still smaller group has made the effort that “is required before they can stand before the king – at a distance or close by – hear his words, or speak to him.”

Maimonides explains his simile. (1) Those who are abroad are people with no religion. (2) The people with their backs turned toward the king’s palace are individuals who possess religion, beliefs, and thoughts, but they are false doctrines due to their own speculations or what they received from others who misled them. They are worse than the first class. (3) Those who want to enter the palace but have not yet seen it are the masses of religious people who observe the divine commands, but are ignorant. They do not really know why they are doing what they are doing and accomplish little. (4) Those who arrive at the palace and go round and round it seeking an entrance are those who devote themselves exclusively to the study of the practical law. These people believe the truth of religion and observe the traditional practices, but are not trained in the philosophical treatment of the law. In other words, they do what they do by rote without knowing why they are doing it and what their actions are supposed to accomplish. Those who have studied and know what they are doing and why can be divided into different grades. (5) These are people who have come into the ante-chamber. The more they know of the truth, the closer they come to hearing the king, to understanding him.

We see that Maimonides have placed those who study Torah without understanding it because they did not study philosophy in the fourth lower class. What does he mean by philosophy? He means the sciences, a person who has studied the laws of nature, an individual who knows that the study of Torah, praying, and the performance of the divine commands are “means” to an end, and the end is self-improvement and the improvement of society. It is not meditation of the disputes of Talmudic rabbis.

In the twelfth century, Maimonides included among the subjects that should be studied to understand the universe: mathematics, logic, physics, and metaphysics. There is no doubt that had he lived in the twenty-first century, he would have included many more scientific studies that a person should learn.


[1] Maimonides did the same when he was criticized for saying in the beginning of his book Chelek that there is no resurrection of the body after death. He did say at the end of Chelek that resurrection of the body is a principle of Judaism, and included it among the thirteen principles of Judaism at the end of Chelek, principles he wrote, as “noble lies,” for the general population. The wise readers understood that he opposed the idea and criticized him. He responded that he was misunderstood. He believed in the resurrection of the body.

[2] I purposely wrote “his” because unfortunately until recently, many Jews thought that women should not study the Talmud. Their role is in the home. Some Jews still feel this way.