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Maimonides’ Concealed True Teachings: Prophecy and Angels

Even in his youth, philosophy was an integral part of Maimonides’ life (1138-1204). He wrote a volume on logic when he was still quite young – scholars are uncertain of the exact date, but suppose that he composed his first works in his early twenties. He inserted philosophical material in his legal works and other writings, most notably in his introductory chapters to the mishnaic treatise Commentary on the Mishnah, Pirke Aboth, which he called Shemoneh Perakim (Eight Chapters); in the eleventh chapter of Sanhedrin, called Chelek; and in the two introductory sections of his Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah and Hilkhot Deot.

Maimonides wrote his philosophical work Guide of the Perplexed in 1190 to pass on truths as he saw them to fellow Jews who lacked his knowledge. He was particularly interested in showing that biblical and rabbinical writings were consistent with the rationalistic philosophy of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.).

Maimonides recognized that he was facing an almost insurmountable problem, knowing that most of his readers would be unable to understand what he wrote, due to a lack of sufficient background in Judaic studies or in philosophy. He also knew that many of his readers were incapable of giving up the erroneous notions and superstitious fancies that formed the basis of their beliefs, their lives, and thoughts.

M. Friedlander, in his introduction to his translation of the Guide, writes that Maimonides’ fear was, unfortunately, realized:

The Guide delighted many, but it also met with much adverse criticism on account of the peculiar views held by Maimonides concerning angels, prophecy, and miracles, especially on account of his assertion that if the Aristotelian proof for the eternity of the universe had satisfied him, he would have found no difficulty in reconciling the biblical account of the creation with that doctrine. The controversy on the Guide continued long after the death of Maimonides to divide the community.

Maimonides’ contemporary Rabbi Abraham ben David, known as Rabad, wrote a harsh, disrespectful, and vituperative attack against Maimonides’ rational position that God does not possess a human-like body. In his Hasagot, Rabad insultingly declares that far better people than Maimonides believe in a corporeal deity.

Questions

  1. Was Maimonides the only Jewish scholar who faced the problem of writing for knowledgeable people while fearing that the less educated public would misunderstand his writing, feel threatened and attack him?
  2. How did Maimonides attempt to avoid this problem?
  3. How can we best understand the Guide?
  4. Using our method of gleaning Maimonides’ true beliefs, what can we learn about his understanding of prophecy?
  5. Can our method of study also illuminate whether Maimonides believed that angels exist?

Facing Popular Criticism

Medieval Jewish scholars who held ideas that were contrary to those held by the general population knew that they could not state their thoughts openly.[1] They understood that the public was unable to accept their teachings due to a lack of sufficient Jewish and secular educational background. These scholars were aware that the general populace would be threatened by what they wrote and consider them to be heretics.

Many of these scholars, therefore, frequently inserted a form of the expression hameivin yavin, literally “he who understands will understand,” into their more radical writings, signalling the knowledgeable readers to pay special attention and give thought to what was being said in a cryptic manner, as the written passage hinted at more.

The brilliant rationalist Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167), for example, employed various devices to hide his radical understandings from the general populace. When he wished to state that some biblical sections seemed to him to have been written after the days of Moses, he used the term “secret of the twelve,” referring to the last twelve biblical verses which deal with events that occurred after Moses’ death and thus – in his opinion – were most probably not written by him.

To cite another example, on several occasions ibn Ezra details interpretations which were advanced by a Karaite and dismisses the opinions as incorrect. Seeing that he took so much time and space to explain the “Karaite” opinion, many scholars are convinced that these interpretations are ibn Ezra’s own views which he felt he could not reveal openly.

In Genesis 5:24, to cite another example, where Scripture states that “God took him [Enoch],” ibn Ezra explains that the Bible is stating figuratively that Enoch died. However, he adds that there is a secret doctrine that is also implicit in Psalms 49:16 and 73:24. Commenting on the latter verses in his commentary to Psalms, he uncharacteristically reveals the secret, demonstrating that he is not consistently reticent. There he states that the verses teach that when a person dies his intellect continues to exist and the person attains eternal bliss. This, incidentally, is the same credo that Maimonides expresses in his introduction to the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin, called Chelek.

In his commentary on Leviticus 16:8 concerning the unprecedented biblical mandate to drive a goat to the desert to Azzazel for Yom Kippur, we see another example of hiding his true view. Ibn Ezra writes: “If you can understand the mystery that follows the term Azzazel, you will know its secret as well as the secret of the name, for it has analogies in the Bible [i.e. there are other similar incidences in the Bible]. I will disclose part of the secret to you with a hint: you will understand it when you reach thirty-three.” Ibn Ezra’s hint, like the hints of many other Jewish and non-Jewish scholars who attempted to teach an idea while simultaneously concealing it, is so obscure that it has yielded many interpretations. Curiously, while Nachmanides (1194-1270) also generally hides his mystical interpretations of Scripture, he offers an interpretation of this verse and discloses that ibn Ezra, in his opinion, is referring to the biblical passage thirty-three verses after 16:8, where the Bible prohibits worshiping goats. Nachmanides offers the somewhat bizarre clarification that the Torah is instructing Jews to give a goat to Azzazel, the chief demon, otherwise known as Satan, to bribe him so that he will not disparage the Jews on the Yom Kippur holiday as God decides on their treatment during the coming year.

The mystic Nachmanides was the first biblical commentator to interpret Scripture mystically.[2] Realizing that nearly all of his readers would be unable to understand or accept his views, his general practice was also not to state them openly, declaring merely that they are secrets of the Torah.

Maimonides: More Open, Yet Concealed his views from the Public

Maimonides takes another tack in order to make his intentions understood only by readers with sufficient background in Judaic and philosophic studies. He expresses his concepts obliquely, filling his work with apparent contradictions and separating elements of his philosophy, placing them in different chapters.[3]

Informing Readers of His Tactics

In the introduction to the Guide, Maimonides alerts his readers that (1) he will not disclose his thoughts in their entirety, thereby requiring his reader to uncover and extrapolate them from his brief statements; (2) he will make contradictory remarks, some that reflect the popular notion of the people and others that are contrary to them; and (3) he will occasionally place parts of a concept in one chapter and other parts in another chapter far removed from the first. He states that he employs these methods to hide his views from the general populace. He writes:

The object of this treatise is to enlighten a religious man who has been trained to believe in the truth of our holy Law, who conscientiously fulfils his moral and religious duties, and at the same time has been successful in his philosophical studies…. No intelligent man will require and expect that on introducing any subject I shall completely exhaust it…. Such a course could not be followed by a teacher … without becoming a target for every foolish conceited person to discharge the arrows of folly at him.

Maimonides lists seven reasons for the inconsistencies that appear in philosophical books, informing the reader that he deliberately introduces contradictions in his books. “Any inconsistency,” he states, “discovered in the present work will be found to arise in consequence of the fifth cause or the seventh.” He warns the reader that it is essential to understand this fact. “Notice this, consider its truth, and remember it well, lest you misunderstand some of the chapters in this book.”

The fifth cause of inconsistencies noted by Maimonides is a method that teachers must adopt with beginning students. Frequently, when a subject is first introduced, it must be stated in such a simple way that a learned person would see it as an “inaccurate notion on the subject. It is, for the present, explained according to the capacity of the students, that they may comprehend it as far as they are required to understand the subject [at that beginning time in their studies].”

The seventh type of inconsistency occurs because the writer wants or needs to disclose a truth but feels that he should not divulge it entirely: “It is sometimes necessary to introduce such metaphysical matter as may partly be disclosed, but must partly be concealed…. The author must endeavor, by concealing the fact as much as possible, to prevent the uneducated reader from perceiving the contradiction [or the truth].”

Maimonides stresses that his reader should read his entire book to uncover his teaching: “Do not read superficially, lest you do me an injury, and derive no benefit for yourself. You must study thoroughly and read continually; for you will find the solution of those important problems of religion, which are the source of anxiety to all intelligent men.”

Maimonides informs the reader that he has scattered the full exposition of his views in separate chapters. He writes: “And even these have not been methodically and systematically arranged in this work, but have been, on the contrary, scattered, and are interspersed with other topics…. My object in adopting this arrangement is that the truths should be at one time apparent, and at another time concealed.” Thus: “The secrets of the Lord are with them that fear Him” (Psalms 25:14) and concealed from the uneducated populace which might be confused, threatened, and disheartened by them.

It should be clear from Maimonides’ statement that if one tries to prove a point by plucking a particular passage from the Guide, as people frequently do, there is a good chance that these cursory reading will cite a statement that Maimonides ultimately rejects, explaining it differently in another section of the Guide.

The Result of Maimonides’ Method: A Range of Interpretations

As a result, Maimonides was not entirely successful in his attempt to write a book that would be understood by the educated and lead the uneducated to think that he agreed with their beliefs. Educated readers are not in agreement on how to interpret the master: some believe that he does not differ at all from the commonly accepted popular Jewish views; others call him an atheist, a deist, or an agnostic. Uneducated readers also differ in their understanding of the Guide. Curiously, some even think that he composed his book for the misguided philosophically minded to keep them from abandoning Judaism altogether, himself repudiating everything that he inserted into his Guide. Others understand only parts of his books, vilify him and have even attempted to excommunicate him and burn his philosophical works.

Understanding the Guide: Recognizing Concealed Principles and Discarding Misleading Ideas

Maimonides, as stated earlier, explains that he does not disclose all of his insights, that he intends to include conflicting statements to confuse and satisfy the general uneducated public, and that parts of a particular philosophical point may be stated in different unconnected chapters which his readers will need to find and combine. Thus, the only way to truly understand his teachings is to (1) read the Guide in its entirety, (2) try to understand the unstated or briefly stated fundamentals upon which he bases his thoughts, (3) discard notions written to placate the public that oppose his fundamental beliefs and then (4) grasp the flow of his teachings from his fundamental ideas.

This methodology of understanding individual items only after reading an entire book is far from unique. The rationalist philosopher and Bible commentator Levi ben Gershon, known as Gersonides (1288-1344), wrote in the preface to his commentary to the biblical book of Job that one cannot grasp any part of his commentary without understanding his book as a whole. Those who enjoy good literature will be familiar with the fact that many excellently written volumes cannot be fully understood until the reader finishes reading the book in its entirety.

Maimonides’ Understanding of Prophecy as Uncovered Using this Method

Maimonides reveals his view concerning prophecy in book two, chapters 32–48, of his Guide. In his opinion, three basic approaches to prophecy exist among people. (1) The uneducated public believe that God selects any person God desires, instills prophecy in that person and sends the individual on a mission to prophesy, regardless of whether the messenger is wise or not, as long as the potential prophet is, to some extent, morally good. (2) The philosophers believe that prophecy is a natural faculty in all people of all races. It is a state of intellectual perfection enhanced by study. (3) The scriptural view, according to Maimonides, is the same as the philosophical, save one element: “For we believe that, even if one has the capacity for prophecy, and has duly prepared himself, it may happen that he does not prophesy. It is in that case the will of God [to withhold from him the use of the faculty]. According to my opinion, this fact is as exceptional as any other miracle, and acts in the same way.”

There are several problems with this statement. First of all, Maimonides generally prefers the view of the philosophers, but seems to reject it here. He seems to be accepting what he calls the “scriptural view.” Secondly, this “scriptural view” is inconsistent with several of Maimonides’ opinions. Elsewhere, he contends that God is not involved in human affairs (as in his view of divine providence) and he implies that he does not believe in miracles. Thus the second, philosophical belief is the only one that is consistent with his general views. Why, then, does he say that God can withhold prophecy from a person? Did he make this statement to appease some of his readers? How should we interpret this statement to make it fit with his general view?

Actuality, Maimonides accepts the second, philosophical view of prophecy. The statement about God was inserted to make his view palatable to the uneducated.

The last statement about God interrupting prophecy can be understood by looking at two other Maimonidean statements. In 2:36 and other places in the Guide, Maimonides states that even though a person develops his intellect and is intellectually capable of being a prophet, he cannot prophesy if his body or mind is affected by something that depresses them, such as when he is burdened with worry. The depression can weaken the ability to think.

In his commentary on the Guide, Joseph ibn Caspi (1279-1340) explains that in 2:48, the last chapter on prophecy, Maimonides – whom he calls the “holy,” the “perfect,” and “the light of the world” – supplies the final clue to unravel the contradictory statements. Maimonides mentions in 2:48 that he believes that when the Bible states that God did something, it does not mean that God was the immediate cause of the action. The Bible uses this terminology in a figurative manner to remind its readers that God, who created the laws of nature under which humanity and all that is in this world functions, is the “ultimate cause” of all. Thus, for example, when Jonah 2:1 states, “And the Lord prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah,” it does not mean that God did anything unusual, that the deity compelled a fish to swallow the prophet. The statement about God, Maimonides explains, reminds the reader that God is the “ultimate cause,” having given a large fish the ability to swallow a human as part of the natural law.

This biblical methodology is the same one that Maimonides employs in discussing philosophy. A close reading of the entire Guide reveals that Maimonides feels that God is not involved in human daily affairs and does not interfere to aid people with miracles. God, all-knowing and all-powerful, prepared for all human needs at the time of creation by setting the laws of nature in motion. Thus God does not become involved in prophecy. Prophecy, as the philosophers state, and as Maimonides believes, is a higher level of intelligence. However, Maimonides adds, a person’s ability to prophesy can be weakened and even terminated if his body and mind do not function properly. This is a function of the laws of nature – or, as Maimonides put it in words designed to appease the less educated, the will of God.

Another example: Maimonides’ Understanding of Angels

Maimonides discusses the subject of angels in his Guide (see, for example, 1:27, 43 and 3:22), where he mentions the term without defining it. These sections, read alone, might be construed to imply that Maimonides accepts the popular notion that heavenly incorporeal beings with almost human-like personalities exist, their sole function to serve and assist God in maintaining the universe.

In 2:11, he writes somewhat ambiguously that “the intelligences, the heavenly bodies, and the natural forces, are called the armies of God.” This statement could be read by the less educated to say that angels serve God. However, the educated reader may be alerted by the language, recognizing that, although they “are called the armies of God” for the sake of the general public, they are something else. But the language in this section does not disclose what they are.

The popular understanding of Maimonides – that he recognized that angels exist – is supported by 3:45 where he emphasizes the importance of the belief in angels. “[T]here existed besides other purely incorporeal beings which God endowed with His goodness and His light, namely angels…. [T]he belief in the existence of angels is connected with the belief in the existence of God; and the belief in God and angels leads to the belief in prophecy and the truth of the law. In order to firmly establish this creed, God commanded [the Israelites] to make over the ark the form of two angels.” Read simply, this statement stresses the importance of the belief in angels.

However, this passage can be understood differently. First, while it mentions angels, it does not explain the term. For example, it does not insist that Jews believe in winged beings that fly to various places to implement divine decrees. It is possible to argue that when Maimonides writes “angel” he is using the popular term but referring to the forces of nature. Secondly, one can make a case that the word “belief” in the section means “understand.” This is reasonable because Maimonides repeatedly insists that one should understand and not blindly believe. Thus, the passage could be stating that when a person understands that “angel” is a term denoting any force of nature, he will comprehend the way in which prophecy and other matters operate. Rather than functioning through divine interference, they are characteristics of unchanging natural law.

Is this latter interpretation or the earlier simple reading of the Guide correct? Anyone selecting a Maimonidean text that mentions angels would seem to be justified in arguing that Maimonides is only reiterating the commonly held view of angels. However, as we have seen, Maimonides’ true opinion is disclosed only when one reads the entire Guide. By doing so, the reader is reminded of repeated instances in which Maimonides insists that the world functions according to the laws of nature, such as his approach to prophecy, discussed above.

Readers must also remember what they read in 2:6, for in this chapter he defines “angel” as “natural forces.” Maimonides writes: “This is also the view we meet in all parts of Scripture; every act of God is described as being performed by angels [emphasis added]. But ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’; hence every one that is entrusted with a certain mission is an angel. Even the movement of the brute creation…. It is also used of ideals, perceived by prophetic visions, and of man’s animal powers…. [F]or natural forces and angels are identical. How bad and injurious is the blindness of ignorance!”

Summary

Jewish thinkers throughout the ages understood Judaism differently than did their less educated coreligionists. The general population based their view of Judaism on mistaken notions of how God and the world function. Their thinking was frequently based on myths and superstition, as well as ideas taken from neighboring nations. They reacted to the ideas of intelligent thinkers as attacks on the very foundations of their knowledge and as threats to all that they believed.

Thus, when educated thinkers wanted to communicate their thoughts to other thinkers, they had to hide the truths from the people who might read their books. Each writer did so in his own way. Their cryptic statements made it difficult and sometimes impossible to unravel their intent.

Maimonides had his own method of disclosing the truths that he wanted to impart while concealing them. He wrote only hints of his views, placed parts of his thought in different sections in the Guide and inserted notions that he did not accept in order to satisfy the uneducated. A reader who wants to understand his thought must not pluck statements out of context, for one or even several comments may not express his true opinion. The reader must read the Guide as a whole, combine ideas from various sources, seek to understand his overall view on various subjects, and discard or interpret the insertions purposely placed to placate the people. This is the only method to truly study Maimonides’ Guide and uncover the truths he expresses.

 

Notes:

[1] What I write here, also applies to non-Jewish scholars.

[2] His predecessor Maimonides interpreted the Bible in a rational manner.

[3] There were non-Jewish philosophers who did the same.