By Israel Drazin



In my essay “Divine revelation continues today,” I discussed the views of Rabbi Kook, Maimonides, Aristotle, Ba’al Shem Tov’s grandson, and others who stated that divine revelation continues today. I showed that these thinkers felt that modern people can and should seek God’s revelation in history and science. What about revelation at Sinai? Did it happen?

Obviously the entire Torah was not revealed when the Israelites stood at Sinai because the bulk of the Torah narrates events that occurred after they left the mountain, such as the building of the golden calf, the various rebellions against Moses, and even Moses’ death. The phrase “Torah from Sinai” means that God revealed the Torah even as God revealed the Decalogue at Sinai.[1]

Alan Brill discussed the subject of divine revelation on his website and angered many rabbis. On July 31, 2013, the Rabbinical Council of America wrote: “While we recognize and respect the theological struggles that are a feature of many a modern person’s inner religious life, the position in question is unequivocally contrary to the faith requirements of historic Judaism.” What did Alan Brill write?

Brill quoted Professor Lawrence Kaplan who explained that Maimonides (1138-1204) clarified in the first of the three parts of his Guide of the Perplexed that “all emotions and all physical movement when applied to God are not to be taken literally. God’s foot, hand, and finger are anthropomorphic; God’s anger, regret, and pleasure are anthropomorphic; and even God’s sitting, rising, looking, hearing are anthropomorphic” and untrue; God has no physical form or human emotion. These statements are metaphoric and should not be taken literally.

Maimonides built on this idea by focusing in his second part of the Guide on how we can understand prophecy and revelation in a non-anthropomorphic way. What does it mean to say that God spoke at Sinai?

Professor Kaplan explained that Maimonides sought a natural explanation for theological events, including prophecy. In 2:12, 36, 38 of the Guide Maimonides writes that everything that happens in the world is the result of natural events.[2]

Brill notes that there are people who read some parts of Maimonides’ Guide out of context and argue “that only ordinary, non-Mosaic prophecy is naturalistic, while Mosaic prophecy is miraculous.” But they come to their conclusion by misreading Maimonides. Maimonides, he writes, like many other philosophers, had to hide his true view from most people who would feel threatened by the truth.[3] He frequently felt he had to make statements contrary to his convictions to satisfy and not threaten the multitude. In his Introduction to Helek, for example, Maimonides states that Moses received the entire contents of the Torah word for word from God like a scribe taking dictation. This concern for the multitude forced Maimonides’ not to make his true position regarding the origin of the Torah explicit in his Guide.

Yet his true view can be gleaned from the Guide. Though he does not state explicitly that Moses is the author of the Torah, in Guide 1:54 Maimonides portrays Moses’ understanding of God and the universe in a natural way. Moses understood “the nature [of all existing things] and the way they are mutually connected so that he [Moses] [knew] how He [God] governs them in general and detail.” Moses’ understanding was an intellectual grasp of God’s governance of the universe through the laws of nature.

Maimonides continues: “Scripture has restricted itself to mentioning only the thirteen characteristics, although Moses apprehended … all His actions because these (the totality of his actions, the creation of the laws of nature) are the actions proceeding from Him …in respect to giving existence to human beings and governing them. This was Moses’ ultimate object in his demand (“Show me Thy ways”), the conclusion of what he says being `that I may know Thee … and consider that this nation is Thy people’ (Exod.33:13)—that is, a people for the government of which I need to perform actions that I must seek to act similar to Thy actions in governing them.” Exodus 33, according to Maimonides, is stating that Moses wanted to know how the natural law that God created functions so that he might use this natural system to aid him in governing his people.

But what were the actions that Moses performed, actions that were similar to and imitated divine actions? Maimonides leaves it to his readers to take the next step. Brill suggests that Moses translated his scientific understanding of the world, the ideal divine pattern of governance, into political categories and produced the Torah. This system of laws is a perfect imitation in political terms of natural law.

Brill quotes the Maimonidean scholar Howard Kreisel who also came to this conclusion.[4] Kreisel refers to Guide 1:54 and states: “In this passage … Maimonides alludes the view that the legislation of the law is the product of Moses’ `translation’ of the theoretical knowledge of all existence into a system of ideal rule in the human context.”

Brill also quotes the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the Aristotelian al-Farabi[5] (c.870-c.950). For al-Farabi, “Prophecy is a natural phenomenon, stemming precisely from the cosmological structure of reality and the epistemological/psychological structure of human minds. The prophet is, in this context, the person whose ability to receive the overflow from active intellect is especially superb. And, following on this naturalized tradition of prophecy, there will be different levels of prophecy—as well as different levels of providence—corresponding to different levels of engagement with the overflow from active intellect.”

Maimonides agreed with al-Farabi and identified the most perfected human intellectual state as the state of prophecy. Maimonides states in Guide 2:36: “This is the highest degree of man and the ultimate term of perfection that can exist for his species.”

Brill concludes by recognizing “Maimonides’ view on the exact mechanics of prophecy—and the precise role, if any, of God in that mechanics—is open to scholarly debate.” Those who are convinced that Maimonides had an esoteric view that he hid from the general population, which scholars need to mine by deciphering his words, would be more inclined to think that Maimonides had a natural view of all that occurs in this world, including revelation. However, those who feel certain that Maimonides always says what he believes will cite sections, such as Helek, mentioned above, and argue that revelation was a miracle.

Readers who like Brill’s approach to revelation might add other sources that seem to support the naturalistic view.  Maimonides discusses prophecy in many chapters, from 2:32 though 2:48. After the long discussion on prophecy, Maimonides concludes in his final chapter, 2:48, with a startling clear revelation. He states that whenever the Torah states that God did or said anything, it should be understood to mean that the statement or deed was a natural occurrence. The statement attributed to God was a human insight. The divine event was the result of natural law. Why then, writes Maimonides, does the Torah say the words or event originated from God? Because while God is not the immediate source of the statement or action, God is the ultimate cause, because God created the laws of nature.[6]

Yehuda ibn Shmuel explains 2:48 in his Hebrew commentary Moreh Nevuchim L’haRambam and cites commentaries that recognize this is what Maimonides is saying. He clarifies that the prophets attributed natural events, human decisions and insights, accidents, and even the behaviors of animals, birds, and fish, such as the fish that swallowed the prophet Jonah, to God, even though each was a natural event. He concludes by saying that once 2:48 is understood, people will realize that biblical events are not miraculous.

There is another possible source. In 2:33, Maimonides states that at Sinai “Moses alone was addressed by God,” and he told “his fellow-men what he heard.” But, he continues, there are “Midrashim, found also in the Talmud[7] that say: The Israelites heard the first and the second commandments from God.” Maimonides writes that the rabbinical view does not contradict what he said: the Israelites did not hear the divine commands from God. “They learnt the truth of the principles contained in these two commandments in the same manner as Moses, and not through Moses. For these two principles, the existence of God and his unity, can be arrived at by means of reasoning.” Is Maimonides saying that Moses heard all the commands from God except for the first two, which he deduced himself by means of reason, but needed God to tell him not to murder, steal, commit adultery, honor his parents, and the other commands? This seems unlikely. These commands are also reasonable. Or is he saying that the Israelites learnt the first two commands “in the same manner as Moses” learnt all the commands, through reason?

People who like this natural view of revelation and the way Maimonides is interpreted may find another support for what Brill wrote. If they are convinced, as many are, that Maimonides felt that God created or formed the universe, placed in it the laws of nature, is now transcendent, does not communicate with prophets or interfere with nature by performing miracles, then it follows that, unless God somehow deviated from this norm, God did not communicate the Torah.


[1] Others define these words as : the Torah is so significant it is as if it were revealed at Sinai. Some rabbis do insist that the entire Torah was delivered to Moses during the second year after the exodus at Sinai; at which time, God also gave him the Oral Law, the Midrashim, the Talmuds, as well as all interpretations of the Torah. There is a phrase “Torah from Heaven.” Some scholars see each having different meaning. I think they both say the same thing.

[2] Maimonides, reflecting the science of his time, expressed this idea by saying that everything, from the growth of plants to prophecy, flows from the active intellect, which was thought to be a natural sphere surrounding the earth. In other words, all earthly events flow from natural law, including prophecy. A prophet is a person who was endowed by nature with a higher level of intelligence who uses it to advise and help people. It is not a miraculous communication from God.

[3] See my review of the very important book Hayy ibn Yaqzan by Abu Bakr ibn Tufayl.

[4] In his book Maimonides’ Political Thought, Albany, New York, 1999, page 15.

[6] See my book Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets were I explain this in more detail and give many examples. Joseph ibn Caspi (1279-1340) uses 2:48 frequently in his Bible commentary to explain biblical events.

[7] Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabbah 31:2 and Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 21a.