Some people think that Maimonides was a deist. I am convinced that they are mistaken. There are some similarities between Maimonides and deists, just as there are similarities between Jews and Christians, but these similarities do not result in us calling Jews Christians.
This becomes clear when we realize there were many different kinds of deists, and Maimonides agreed with some ideas of some deists but not entirely like any of them. He was an observant Jew who stressed the need for all people to use their intelligence. Like the Greek pagan philosopher Socrates (who died in 399 BCE), he recognized that the human mind could not understand many things, such as what God is. But this similarity to Socrates did not make Maimonides a pagan. He also agreed with the Athenian Aristotle that human intelligence distinguishes humans from plants and animals, but this similar thinking does not make Maimonides an Athenian.
In the October/November 2022 issue 152 of the monthly magazine “Philosophy Now, A Magazine of Ideas,” Professor Robert Griffiths wrote a four-page article about deism. In his opening paragraph, he defined deism as a “belief in the existence of a creator God who does not intervene in the universe, and in particular, in the lives of people.” Griffiths writes that this basic notion of deism that the existence of God can be proved rationally can no longer be sustained since the time of Darwin. Maimonides would agree with Griffiths, for Maimonides states we can know nothing about God. All that we can know is what we see, what was created. He refers us to Moses’ questioning about God in Exodus 33. Maimonides would concur with the deists that God does not intervene in the universe with miracles. Nor does God help people. Maimonides wrote that divine providence is the human intellect. It is the human mind that helps people. This is in The Guide of the Perplexed 3:17.
Later in the article, Griffiths states that the basic principle advocated by deists is that we should base all our beliefs on reason, an idea the deists borrowed from many philosophers, including Aristotle. Similarly, they took from Aristotle the philosophical idea that a person living a rational life would be happy and treat others equally. Maimonides also drew these ideas from Aristotle. The fact that Maimonides held the same view as deists on some topics but not others do not make him a deist.
Griffiths tells readers that there are hard and soft versions of deism. The hard version was developed in the eighteenth century by writers like Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and Voltaire (1694-1778). Hard-core deists are very critical of religion. They want “to break away from religious trappings such as scriptures and rituals” that they consider superstition.
Soft deism is “barely critical of religion.” It emerged in the seventeenth century in the works of John Toland (1670-1722) and Matthew Tindall (1657-1733), which one “might call ‘Christian deism.’ The general idea was that Christianity has a core that should be defended entirely by reason, and that was all that a Christian needed.” A good example is Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), who edited the New Testament to delete items such as miracles which he felt were unreasonable. Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) did the same thing to the New Testament, but he was not a deist, showing that one can have some ideas held by some deists without being a deist.
It should be obvious that the religious Jew Maimonides could not accept the hard version, which rejects religion and religious practices. He also could not accept the soft version that people should be Christians who interpret Christian teachings rationally. Maimonides did something similar. He accepted Judaism rationally, but he did so, as previously stated, because he agreed with Aristotle. Maimonides considered reason the “image of God,” mentioned in Genesis 1:27, that the deity placed in humans.
Summarizing, Griffiths states that modern deism is the “soft deism,” also called “Christian deism.”
I think Maimonides could in theory be a soft deist if we define the deist as a person who adheres to the one specific belief that God does not interfere in nature or human affairs. Maimonides certainly believed God is not involved with the world and felt that Jews should interpret their Scripture rationally. However, if we define the deists as only rational Christians who interpret Christian teachings rationally, also called “Christian deism,” then he is probably not a deist. Maimonides was Jewish.
Some think that Maimonides is a deist. Others are unconvinced. I am not sure. Either way, I like Maimonides’ teaching that the truth is the truth no matter what its source. Thus, I found that even Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason book can teach the truth.
I do not think that Maimonides would like any other title than being a Jew.
*** MY ERROR, I READ GUIDE 2:43 NOT 2:48.
See also Avos 5:6, Maimonides’ commentary: all miracles were programmed into Creation. This obviates God’s time-bound intervention. In this sense you can apply the term deist. God’s foreknowledge dictated when and where changes in nature must arise.
We agree. Maimonides said that there was no need for miracles. All that is needed has been placed in the laws of nature. He would agree with the deists on this point. But not everything the deists think. Besides, I think he would prefer being called an observant Jew.
Hi Rabbi. I also agree. Rambam said that ten events were created at twilight, what people call miracles. They are natural events. Did Maimonides agree with Aristotle that the world is eternal or formed from pre-existing matter?
Scholars are unsure whether he agreed with Aristotle on this point. I think that Maimonides said each idea is possible.
Hi Rabbi Drazin, my friend, Jeff thinks (and I agree with him) that the Guide is an esoteric work. Maimonides presents Aristotelian conceptions including the eternity of the universe. If Rambam holds the notion of emanation then the universe as eternal since the universe emanates from an eternal source (God), then the universe is also eternal.
Maimonides uses the analogy of the sun emanating light. The universe is emanated from God (as light is emanated from the sun).
I do not think Maimonides thought that the universe emanated from God.
Maimonides accepts a divine creation…this explains God’s ability to alter natural law. Both creation, and miracles validate God intervenes in the physical universe. God cannot create a universe without intervening with it to create it. Nor can miracles be performed without divine intervention.
Hi Rabbi. I am happy to see that you read my essays. I will put a startling one on http://www.booksnthoughts today. Yes, many say Maimonides believed that God performs miracles, but others point to Guide 2:48 and say they do not think God interferes with nature. He is unlike the plumber who must repeatedly return to fix the washing machine.
If Maimonides was a deist, how does he explain prophesy where God intervened in human history? How about the exodus and the many other times I’m the Torah where God intervenes in human history
As I wrote, Maimonides was not a deist. Your view of Maimonides is the one most people accept. Others understand that Maimonides felt prophecy is the use of human intelligence in which the wise man tells others what he understands. They also feel that the miraculous events were natural events, part of nature.
Great essay about Maimonides and deism. I think Thomas Jefferson was a deist, and Benjamin Franklin was a deist. The American early founders were Christian deists. What ideas do Maimonides shares with deists?
Thanks for the compliment. I placed in my article those items which Maimonides accepts and those he would reject.