Spinoza taught what Maimonides taught before him


One of the reasons why people are unable to accept changes in religion is that they think it is improper to change past traditions and thinking. They fail to realize that the more educated members of their religion had known the truth that is being discussed currently long ago, but the general population was unable to accept it. We can see this by comparing Maimonides and Spinoza. Even today, most Jews think that Maimonides held the same notions that they hold, while the truth is that Maimonides had similar philosophical ideas as Spinoza.

As I wrote about in my 2008 book “Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind”: whether he realized it or not, Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) who was very familiar with the philosophical writings of Maimonides (1138-1204) seems to be saying essentially what Maimonides taught. But whereas Maimonides hid his true views – writing his work so that the less educated readers would think he was reflecting their understanding of God and nature, while educated philosophically-trained readers would see he was saying something entirely different and deeper – Spinoza revealed his views more openly than Maimonides, but not entirely openly. For he, like Maimonides, was hounded by impassioned religious zealots who were unable to bear to hear people articulate views that contradicted their own long-held notions. Spinoza did not introduce new ideas, others had said what he said before his time, but he did encourage the birth of the secular age because until his time virtually all civilizations were encumbered by pious religious notions. Let’s look at some of Spinoza’s teachings.

Spinoza wrote that God is seen in nature, but as I said, he was not open about all his views. Scholars differ in interpreting what he meant. Some say that he rejected the idea of the existence of God and was saying, as a pantheist, if you want to use the word God, use it to describe nature. Others said that that he was saying: we have no way of knowing what God is, how God functions, or, for that matter, anything about the nature of God. Thus, if we want to know about God, we should study the laws of nature that God created or formed out of preexisting matter. This is all we can know about God. Additionally, by learning the laws of nature and using our knowledge to live a better life, to improve ourselves and society, we will be doing what humans were created to do: use their minds. Spinoza put it this way: “we acquire a greater and more perfect knowledge of God as we gain more knowledge of natural phenomena…the greater our knowledge of natural phenomena, the more perfect is our knowledge of God’s essence, which is the cause of all things.”

Now this later interpretation is exactly what Maimonides taught in his Guide of the Perplexed and in his law code Mishneh Torah. In fact he begins both books by stressing that humans should develop their minds by studying the laws of nature, to strive to “know” about God, and not passively “believe.”

The two scholars agreed that God does not have human features or emotions. This was one of Maimonides greatest contributions to religion. Until his time, only a few wise men understood that God was incorporeal, that when the Bible described God acting as a human with human emotions, this was done figuratively to make God more comprehensible to the average person. It took some decades for the Maimonides’ teaching to be accepted. One of the leading rabbis of Maimonides’ time criticized Maimonides with strong words: far better men than he understood that God has a body and emotions. A generation after Maimonides, the sage Nachmanides still criticized him similarly.

Maimonides and Spinoza did not think that God performs miracles. Maimonides points this out in his Guide, Book two, chapter 48, where he states that whenever the Bible says that God did something, it should be understood to mean that it occurred according to the laws of nature that God created. Why then does the Bible say that God did it? He answers: it is referring to the fact that God created the laws of nature that produced the described act. Maimonides was convinced that the ancient rabbis saw matters as he did. He referred to the Talmudic statement that certain miracles were created during the six days of creation. Maimonides interpreted the statement to mean that these miracles were part of the laws of nature in the original creation.

Both scholars felt that prophecy was not a miraculous conveyance of information from God, but the natural use of a higher level of intelligence by men and women who had superior intelligence. Spinoza criticized Maimonides on this point because Maimonides said the prophet also had to have an advanced imagination. Spinoza said imagination is not involved, only intelligence. He misunderstood his predecessor. Maimonides was saying that the prophet who acquired the ideas from his intelligent study of events needed a good imagination to communicate the ideas to the masses so that they could understand what he was saying, by parables or poetry or symbols. Actually the two were saying the same thing.

Spinoza also criticized Maimonides for twisting the meaning of biblical passages to make them fit non-biblical philosophical doctrines. Maimonides “assumes that it is legitimate for us to explain away and distort the words of Scripture to accord with our preconceived opinions, to deny its literal meaning and change it into something else even when it is perfectly plain and absolutely clear.” Two things should be noted. First, Spinoza is not saying here that he disagrees with Maimonides’ teaching. He is saying that he disagrees with Maimonides method of saying that his (and Spinoza’s) teachings are in the Bible when it is clear that the teachings are not there. Second, Spinoza is making this point because of his agenda to point out that the Torah has many philosophically unpalatable notions. Maimonides also recognized this, such as when he discusses “an eye for an eye” or the law allowing soldiers to have sex under certain conditions with a “captive woman” in war. Spinoza is correct that Maimonides does say that his (and Spinoza’s) ideas are in the Torah even though they are obviously not there. However, Maimonides said the ideas are in the Torah to make them acceptable to his coreligionists. There is no disagreement here on philosophical matters.

They agree that there is no such thing as a holy object. Something is holy if and only if it moves people to act according to justice and charity, or as Spinoza wrote, “A thing is called sacred and divine only as long as men use it in a religious way.”

I listed other ideas where the two scholars agreed in my 2008 book. They concurred that: There are fixed laws of nature that people should study in a rational manner and make decisions based on what is true or false, not beliefs, faith, tradition, or superstition. Prayers and incantations will not change natural law. The world is devoid of defects, and there are no defects in the laws of nature. People are not the center of the universe despite most people thinking the opposite. Natural law also affects how people think. (Some scholars thought that this idea, mentioned by Spinoza, shows that he thought people do not have free will. They misunderstood Spinoza. He and Maimonides taught that people’s ideas are influenced by nature and the ideas of others, but they can overcome the problem by diligent study.) They agreed that the foundation and goal of virtue and law is improvement of self and society. (Maimonides adds that this is also the purpose of Torah laws.)

Nadler ends his 2011 book “A Book Forged in Hell,”[1] by stating: “More than any other work, it (Spinoza’s teachings) laid the foundation for modern critical and historical approaches to the Bible.” This is true as far as it goes. Spinoza did indeed make people sensitive to the need for a critical analysis of the Bible. This was one of his primary goals and he succeeded in it. Maimonides did not have this goal; he wanted the opposite, to encourage people to respect the Bible. But Spinoza was not the originator of his philosophical ideas. Maimonides had already articulated them a half a millennium earlier. Both derived their ideas from non-biblical sources, but while Spinoza made it clear that the ideas are not biblical, Maimonides, wanting to persuade Jews to accept the teachings and to respect the Bible, said the philosophy is contained in the Torah.

[1] Princeton University Press.