Avi Garelick

God for the Perplexed

ISSUE 7 | LIES | AUG 2011

In the early decades of the thirteenth century, the Jews of Christendom were abuzz with disapproval and concern regarding two dangerous works of Jewish heresy and their author, Moses Maimonides. His legal opus, the Mishneh Torah, and his major scholastic work, Guide for the Perplexed, are thoroughly respected and widely read by all kinds of Jews today, but in the immediate aftermath of their widespread translation and dissemination, they were the object of a flurry of controversy. Bans were issued, polemics written, letters of attack and conciliation exchanged. This Maimonidean controversy came to an abrupt end in 1233, when the Guide was burnt by Dominican inquisitors in France.

Maimonides was suspected by the Jews of Christendom primarily because of the deep incorporation of Aristotelian philosophy into his works. In Muslim regions, such repurposing of pagan philosophy was de rigueur, but under Christendom it was a scary venture. The Church had recently launched a brand new campaign against heresy, and it made the Jews nervous. The Church had previously maintained a policy of detached ignorance of Jewish writings—this was the first major inquiry by the medieval Church into Jewish ideas. The Jews’ trepidation was directed specifically at the Guide and its unabashed Aristotelianism. They were worried that its pagan influence would be detected by inquisitors and thereby cast a shadow of suspicion on the entire Jewish corpus. The irony of history is that their fears were justified—the burning of the Guide in 1233 was followed by a seizure of Jewish books generally in 1239 and an examination of the Talmud in 1247—but they nonetheless silenced their own criticisms of the Guide following the trauma of the Dominican response. A single act of violent disruption brought a whole emerging discourse to its knees.

The philosophical bias which permeates so much of the thinking in this debate inevitably bleeds into our own thoughts about it as well. We tend to accept the basically idealistic positions of the debaters and abstract arguments from circumstance. The Dominican intervention is for us a helpful reminder of all of the less visible vicissitudes which conditioned its ideas. One must to some extent leave space for these different textures. This was a controversy which spanned the geographic bounds of Jewish civilization. Micro-practices, small customs, and pieties must be presumed to have varied somewhat from place to place. We know the political authorities and dominant cultures varied drastically in their treatment of the Jews and in their receptivity towards religious and philosophical creativity. Some rabbis we encounter were community leaders, and had to pay close attention to the lives of their followers; others were primarily scholars and participated more exclusively in academic discourses. One must also remember that, whereas Christian theological history can be seen as a welter of schisms and heresies, the smallness and fragility of the Jewish worlds brought their scholars that much more quickly to compromise and unity. Finally, it must be stressed that these are Jewish worlds, in the plural, and that these letters are in many respects the discursive glue that brings them together. The thousands of miles that separate Maimonides from his fiercest opponents should not be forgotten, even in this philosophical context.

Before we wade into the secondary stages of the controversy, I ought to briefly characterize the theology of Maimonides himself, though the terrifyingly extensive scholarship on the subject will undoubtedly make me look like an ignorant fool.

Upon his entry into it, the study of systematic theology was a fairly quiet subject in Judaism. He was not the first to attempt a systematic theology, nor was he the first to attempt a coherent hybridization of Judaism with Greek philosophy. But he was definitely the most influential and controversial. He was also the first to go so far as to declare the study of philosophy a religious obligation, instead of simply permitting it. Theological statements in the Talmud are decidedly unsystematic, and it is often bewilderingly unclear if the are meant in a literal, allegorical, or even mystical mode. The Bible itself, to our eyes at least, portrays a deeply non-Aristotelian God as a continuously evolving character of enormous and fluid affect with a real investment and dramatic involvement in human lives.

Maimonides does not use either the Bible or the Talmud as the foundation of his theology. He uses as his foundation his understanding of Greek philosophy and a discourse of reason that is essentially imported from the surrounding Arabic philosophical culture.

He begins his Foundations of the Torah—the first volume of the Book of Knowledge, and therefore the very beginning of the Mishneh Torah—by declaring the logical necessity of a first cause. The first two paragraphs delineate all which that first cause necessarily entails: that nothing which does exist does so without this cause, that it is existentially independent of all else, that it is epistemologically distinct from all else. All of this precedes his designation of this first cause as being none other than God, the Lord of the world. Within the context of the study of philosophical theologies, it can be easy to forget the alarming novelty of this approach. By articulating God in terms of reason, he effectively subordinates God to reason. This, at least, was a charge leveled against him by his opponents—and the reluctant atheists and pantheists of our day will recognize it as the first step towards the Enlightenment mutiny of reason against God.

In contrast, the Torah takes itself as evidence of its own authority. Thus it implies all at once the existence of God, the fact of his authority, and its specific content. Within the regime of reason, even in an age where it sleeps comfortably with the idea of God, this assent to the basic facts of God is atomized into separate appeals to which we assent individually. We ought to dwell on the significance of the move in theology from mythic to philosophical authority. It effectively redirects the monotheistic critical faculty from the idea of the false god to the truth of the idea of God at all.

The other important element of his theology is his rigorously anti-conceptual concept of God. There are two main elements to this concept.

The first is that God has no physical-anthropomorphic features. Any biblical or rabbinic language which suggests otherwise—His strong hand, His outstretched arm, His face—is meant to be understood as metaphorical.

The second is that it is just as much an anthropomorphic fallacy to imagine that God has any positive conceptual qualities whatsoever. The descriptors which populate our liturgy and our thought—that God is merciful, that God is patient, etc.—are also metaphorical. Or more accurately, they are descriptions of our own so-called ‘experience’ of God, which is inherently finite. Since there are observable effects of God's action, and we know that if a human being were to act in such a way they would be described as merciful or patient, we attach those descriptors as handles to the ungraspable essence of God. Thus, to study and to pray in these positive terms and meanwhile to believe them in a straightforward way—this is wrongheaded and ignorant. Furthermore, it is idolatrous. This is why the believing Jew must acquire some philosophical acumen, to avoid falling prey to traps laid within his own canon. This brings the monotheistic critical impulse to bear not only onto the realm of concepts, but also on the canon itself.

This anti-corporealist dogma apparently remains quite popular among philosophical theologians today, encouraged of course by Kant. People like Jean-Luc Marion declare that idolatry should be understood as the worship of God within ‘experience,’ which is to say, within the autonomy of reason. Since this is a living theological position, I can comfortably admit to disliking it. It is steeped in what Nietzsche refers to as the philosopher’s bias. What the philosopher imbues with supreme importance, he says, is not much more than a reflection of a philosopher’s predilections—broadly, that he loves thinking, and therefore is biased towards valuing what can be done with thoughts over what can be done with less philosophical modes of action. This is a Platonic kind of bias—it imagines an ideal world of concepts over and above the world of life. As Maimonides himself declares, the greatest human good is in the contemplation of highest things. Thus the nested series of values which inform the Kantian God: (1) He cannot be approached through experience, because experience, given as it is to specificity, is really a kind of lie. Or at least it muddies the real, the concept, the true, the universal. (2) Experience is synonymous with the rule of reason. This is because all experience is ordered and mediated by concepts. (3) Concepts themselves are also human creations, and therefore (a) God is outside of them—that is, in no way intelligible to reason, and (b) violation of this philosophical doctrine is a kind of idolatry, because the worship of a concept is worship of a human creation.

It shows the extent to which this debate has become irrelevant in 800 years that such a claim—naïveté to a whole array of sophisticated philosophical propositions as tantamount to idolatry—can pass without much consternation. It transforms the whole of the human relation to God into a high-concept mind game. This naturally favors a specific hierarchy of truth and knowledge, one which we see in force already in Maimonides, who effectively transforms what it means to seek knowledge of God. God is great because God is most true; knowledge of that highest truth is theoretical knowledge of the highest quality, knowledge so rarefied that we cannot really have it. As Nietzsche would say, this may be truth, but it may also be useless. The question that faces us non-Kantians today is thus: what other kinds of knowledge can we imagine? What new practices of theological truth can we engage? Is there a non-philosophical method for the knowledge of God? In order to move on from Kantian theology, we need to distance ourselves from its philosophical presuppositions and consider alternatives to each—what if God really can, in some way, be articulated within experience? Not just conceptual experience, but experience of the living world.

A generation after Maimonides, his ideas were under even greater scrutiny and criticism than in his lifetime. Rabbi Avraham, the son of Maimonides, was tasked with the defense of his father’s legacy. He was born in the 51st year of his father’s life, and inherited his father’s stature upon his death—thus becoming both the head of Egyptian Jewry and court physician of the royal house at the young age of 18. In contrast to the unsettled life of his father, he lived and worked his entire life in Egypt. He was apparently gifted with a remarkable kind of persuasive authority—his efforts led to the acceptance of rabbinic normativity by the Karaites of Egypt. But much of his brilliance in scholarship was marshaled to his father’s defense. He wrote a vitriolic letter to the rabbis of Provence, whose defiant polemic tone (it was titled “Book of the Wars of God”) stated a Maimonidean position in much angrier, more forceful phrasing than his father ever used. This can be seen in the distinctness of his phrasing of the corporealist heresy. Maimonides defines a corporealist as “one who says there is one God but that he is embodied and that he has an image.” His son’s corresponding definition has a verbose comprehensiveness: “A dissenter who says that the creator has any kind of likeness, figure, or image, or something that resembles a body or any kind of boundary or anything like that.” It is hard to know if he has a specific shade of the offense in mind when he rattles off all of these terms, or if they are meant to be intimidating by their redundancy alone.

Regardless, his work is of interest because it makes an explicit claim against living people in a way in which Maimonides never does directly. He states the tenets of negative theology, and then says:

This much is understood without doubt by every Jew living in Arab lands, as well as by some of the Jews of Christendom living in the south of Spain. Even the Arabs have adapted this article of faith from Israel and built their own religion upon its foundation. […] So it has been heard, that multitudes from across the sea, island dwellers, and those from far off places, have erred as to this basic principle, and cling to the literal meanings of those biblical, midrashic, and aggadic passages. This sickens our heart and darkens our eyes. Our ancestors are dumbstruck—how can this impurity be within Israel, this impurity of idolatry? This is a rejection of God’s service, they serve other gods beside him…One who does not know this is an apostate and idolater—his service is not to God, but rather to his own reflection! A reflection that is a product of their own minds!

Corporealism is not only foolish, it is idolatry. The inverse of sound monotheistic worship of that which created you; it is a distorted worship of an image of the self. He frames philosophical monotheism as the pure strain of Jewish belief and sees corporealism as the synthetic strain, sullied by Christian superstitions (this is a helpful opposite to the reason-revelation cliche of rationalistic synthesis versus mystical purity). He constructs this plague of idolatry as an element of geographic otherness—these idolaters are within Judaism, but they are nonetheless Others. The geographic expanse is evident in his writing—he admits that his accusations are matters of hearsay. These are far off barbaric lands, where these heretical Jews dwell; we have only the faintest notion of them, only through the angry letters which we write to each other about doctrine.

But despite the haze of distance, he is audacious enough to assert that vast quantities of Jews are, knowingly or not, guilty of heresy. This kind of accusation is based on a theory of history which he shares with his father. According to both, Jewish civilization is plagued with progressive civic and religious deterioration. In the preface to the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides decries the present state of Jewry, that “the wisdom of our sages has disappeared, and the understanding of our discerning men is hidden.” This diagnosis is part of his justification for writing a work like the Mishneh Torah. Like his father, R. Avraham decries the weakened state of contemporary Jewry, but there is both a shift in his object of concern—from halakhic to theological—and the introduction of specific geographic bounds to the problem. His main concern is a failure of theological knowledge, and in effect he proposes a massive retraining of the theological conceptions of all the Jews of Christendom.

This kind of disdain for the spiritual intuition of the Jewish people is relatively rare amongst medieval rabbis (though it resonates amongst modernists). It is more common for medieval rabbis to justify common practice as necessarily true and good, and adjust their philosophical standards accordingly.

Rabbi Avraham ben David (henceforth the Rabad), a contemporary of Maimonides and a famous critic of the Mishneh Torah, exemplifies this approach. He takes issue with the Maimonidean definition of corporealist idolatry not because he thinks it untrue or unsound—he takes issue with the severity of his designation and its inherent disrespect for generations of Jews before him. “Why did he call such a person a heretic, when some who were greater and better than he followed this opinion, according to what they found in the Bible and even more, according to what they found in aggadot which corrupt opinions?” In other words, how can you fault anyone for believing what they read?

When the Rabad attacks Maimonides on this point, he insists on a distinction between what is wrong and what is idolatry. The crux of the struggle is not the incompatibility of reason and revelation. Understanding it thusly implies the solution, replicating the perceived struggle between religion and the truth. The struggle is actually this protest of the Rabad: whether or not there is space in a system of theological knowledge for error that is not idolatrous error. This struggle implies an equally significant converse: that there can be idolatry outside of the conceptual realm. So, the struggle can be phrased as such: is idolatry an ideal category, a conceptual defect, or is it a failure of practice? If the Rabad is defending an old conception that Maimonides has overthrown, what are the implications? What does the realignment of true and false worship into a philosophical regime of truth practices mean for Jewish existence broadly?

This philosophical revolution does indeed have implications in practice. In short, I believe that the philosophical revolution in theology is connected to a reification of the halakha.

This claim can be traced through the Rabad’s critique of the Mishneh Torah.

During Maimonides’ lifetime, the Mishneh Torah was the work which attracted the largest share of scrutiny and debate. This is because, in the realm of halakhic writing, it is a radical departure from tradition, and to a certain extent a bold negation thereof. While not explicitly philosophical, it is thoroughly saturated with a Platonic order of knowledge and understanding of truth. It was in some sense more audacious than the Guide. While the Guide was written for a specific audience (the perplexed), the Mishneh Torah was meant to have universal application. Its stated purpose is a comprehensive, authoritative restatement of all of the Oral Law. It was meant to serve as a substitute for the study of Talmud.

There are two major significant features of this codification.

(1) It is a systematic reordering of the Oral Law—the first new taxonomy of halakha since the Mishnah itself. Prior works of Oral Law were organized along with the Talmud’s own taxonomy, which meant that access to any of them demanded a familiarity with the bewildering labyrinthine system of the Talmud itself. Thus, the Mishneh Torah had an independence from the gemara that other works never had.

(2) It is written as a monolithic entity. That is, it does not replicate talmudic disputes, offers no rationales for rulings chosen, and does not cite sources.

The origins of this monolithic codification lie in the anti-aristocratic aspect of Maimonides’ thought. Under the dominant mode of leadership at the time, community leaders—geonim—had unquestioned authority and an aristocratic authority of power and continuity. Maimonides was thoroughly opposed to this entrenched power, and bemoaned its grip upon a tragically ignorant populace. As in the age of the Mishnah, this condition is symptomatic of a general decline of civilization. Thus, he imagines the Mishneh Torah serving a parallel function to the Mishnah itself in its time—as an intervention and resurrection of Jewish intellectual culture. He envisions a future in which the whole Oral Law would be thoroughly known by all. His grand vision is of a universally well-educated populace, that need not rely on the geonim and their difficult knowledge. His erasure of the multiplicity of previous halakhic works is carried out in the name of popular accessibility. The Mishneh Torah is a kind of Protestant Reformation of halakha—the Talmud is impenetrable to plebeian inquiry, and requires the mediation of interpretive expertise, which is invested in local authority. The Mishneh Torah is eminently readable by all. It eliminates mediation in favor of direct access. It says—why not try this by yourself? Why ask an expert when you could ask a book?

The Rabad’s critique problematizes this utopianism. He sharply criticizes Maimonides for dispensing with source citation, and supplements the Mishneh Torah with his own painstakingly researched citations from the gemara and parallel sources. He also cries foul whenever he cannot find a satisfactory talmudic source. He thus undermines Maimonides’ vision of an independent work, by declaring it incomplete without his supplement.

He is also perplexed as to why Maimonides pretends that his work can supersede not only the Talmud but also the particularities of local practice. “But this way, I do not know why I should disregard my tradition and my proof for the sake of this author’s book…If the one who differs with me is greater than I—fine; and, if I am greater than he, why should I annul my opinion in deference to his?”

He accuses Maimonides, in other words, of replicating the harm he claimed to fix. He simply transfers opaque authority from geonic authority to the authority of a book. The common reader of the Mishneh Torah hasn’t established an unmediated connection with halakha, he has merely deferred to the authority of the printed page. The critique of the Rabad is that bookish authority is fundamentally different from geonic authority. While geonic authority is local, interpersonal, and adapted to circumstance, the authority of the Mishneh Torah is universal, equally applicable anywhere. By writing this opaque, anti-critical code of halakha, Maimonides transforms halakha from a localized practice of expert consultation and talmudic exegesis to one of universalized programmatic action. This preference for books over experts is a product of a logic of universal discourse, of the idea that everything you do and think needs to be intelligible to everyone.

This is, of course, the same universal logic which informs philosophical theology. They share the same disdain for the local, the experiential, the imperfections of the living world. When knowledge of God becomes a project of quixotic philosophizing, the character of halakha changes as well. Halakha, as within experience, can no longer be conceived of as a method for the knowledge of God. It is deprived of its telos, and reconfigured as a self-contained immovable system.

In the aftermath of postmodernism, we might finally choose to abandon the convoluted philosophical pieties of negative theologies, and look elsewhere for knowledge of God, allowing for the possibility that, with a sound “method,” not of knowing but of practicing, we might be capable of finding truth in our own experience.