By Israel Drazin
On October 18, 2010, Jewish Ideas Daily published an article from The Weekly Standard of October 16, 2010, entitled Of Greeks and Jews, but advertised it as Was Maimonides Jewish? The article stated that “according to unpublished correspondence of the political philosopher Leo Strauss, no.”
The article states that the late University of Chicago professor Leo Strauss claimed that Maimonides (1138-1204) was not a Jew because he was a philosopher. Strauss, according to the article, wrote to a friends and said that there is an “incompatibility in principle of philosophy and Judaism” and similarly “Jewish philosophy (is) a contradiction in terms.”
The author of the article, Suzanne Klingenstein, a lecturer at Harvard/MIT Division of Health Science and Technology, did not discuss Strauss’ theory in any detail. What exactly was Strauss saying? Did he really believe that Maimonides was not Jewish and that philosophy is incompatible with Judaism? Or were his quoted words hyperbole?
Actually, the later is true. Strauss could not deny that Maimonides, the author among many other works of Mishneh Torah, the Code of Jewish Law, was one of the greatest Jews who ever lived, nor did he want to do so. What Strauss was saying, as he pointed out in another letter in the Klingenstein article, is that he wanted to reveal the secret teachings of Maimonides in Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed and the meaning of esotericism in general. Strauss was stressing that Moses Maimonides wrote for two audiences, for the educated few, who understood philosophy and studied physics and other sciences and knew how the world functions, and the common people who were uneducated.
Strauss was saying that Maimonides was not Jewish as the vast majority of Jews. Maimonides was a brilliant man who because of his studies and his intelligence understood the world in ways that the average person could not understand. But he knew that it was impossible for him to teach these ideas to the general population. Not only did they lack the background and were therefore incapable of understanding these truths, but the childish and superstitious notions that they had been taught as youngsters had become the bedrock of their Jewishness, and telling them that what they had been taught as children is not the mature real truth would confuse and anger them.
So Maimonides decided, as most philosophers before him, Jewish and non-Jewish, to take a double path. On the one hand, he wrote to encourage people to remain strong committed Jews and on the other handwrote his writings in a subtle manner that educated people could mine his writings and find his true understandings.
Strauss was by no means the first to discover the Maimonidean methodology. First of all, as stated previously, this was a common practice among philosophers. The Greek philosopher Plato (428/427-348/347 BCE), for example, spoke of essential truths, which the masses needed to know to be able to live in a civilized society, and real truths for the educated few.
Alfarabi (870-950), to cite another example, wrote in his The Ideal Religion that the souls of wicked people live on after death and are perpetually tortured, but in his Civil Practice and in his commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics, he wrote his true view that the notion of life after death is plainly wrong and that “all other claims are senseless ravings and old wives’ tales.”
Similarly, the philosopher Avicenna (980-1037) warned intelligent people to be careful in how they read Aristotle (384-322 BCE) because “if you take everything in Aristotle (literally) you will end up far from perfection” because a lot of what he wrote was for consumption by the masses.
So too, the philosopher Ghazali (1058-1111) hid what he truly meant so that only those who were learned would understand what is true. The philosopher Ibn Tufayl (around 1110-1185) wrote about Ghazali: “Most of what he said was in the form of hints and intimations, of value to those who hear them only after they have found the truth by their own insight or to someone innately gifted and primed to understand. Such men need only the subtlest hints.”
Ibn Tufayl himself composed a book called Hayy Ibn Yaqzan in which he offers many more examples how his predecessors veiled truths from the multitude. They told one thing in books they expected the general population to read and something entirely different in volumes that they wrote for scholars. Ibn Tufayl writes that he himself, despite years of study and his intelligence, had to work hard to unravel the truth from the lies he was taught by his teachers and the lies that he saw in books. They are notions that are not based on the truth but on blind faith, and are wrong.
Strauss was by no means the first to recognize this Maimonidean methodology. A study of the history of this great sage reveals that a host of Maimonides’ contemporaries realized what he was doing. Many of them did not agree with his “hidden teachings,” such as his conviction, despite his book on resurrection, that humans are not resurrected after death.
This is what Leo Strauss wanted to emphasize, not that Moses Maimonides was not Jewish, but that his concept of Judaism was far more advanced than that of the general Jewish population because of his learning and intelligence.