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What does Maimonides teach?

The great philosopher Maimonides is misunderstood by many people, most of whom need to see him saying what he never said, ideas that they have held since they were children, but which Maimonides never said. The following are some of the basic teachings of Maimonides.


Maimonides’ God

Maimonides’ God is transcendental, meaning God is not involved in the daily activities of the world. God either created the world out of nothing or formed the world out of preexisting matter, placed in it the laws of nature, and then withdrew entirely from it. Maimonides wrote in his Guide that we cannot know whether God formed the world out of preexisting matter or out of nothing, and the Torah can support either view. God does not know what happens in the world. This Maimonidean idea of God being transcendental, held by other Jewish thinkers as well, such as Abraham ibn Ezra, is significant in that it affects how Maimonides understands such things as prayer, revelation, prophecy, divine providence, and more, as we will see.

Maimonides emphasizes that God has no body and is one, but we may not attribute any description to God. We can only say what God is not. All that we can know is that God exists, but we cannot prove it.[1]


How to read Maimonides’ Guide?

Maimonides tells us in the introduction to his Guide that he will be writing for two audiences: the common person who will be unable in most cases to discern his true views, and intellectuals who will realize that some of his statements were made, although not his true view, so as not to bother the masses.[2] Maimonides used this method to protect the average person from becoming agitated because Maimonides true views were entirely different to what they believed their entire life and upon which they based much of what they believed. Unfortunately, this method confused many scholars who were unable to distinguish when his statement was not his true view.[3]



It follows, therefore, that God never spoke to anyone and prophecy was not a miraculous communication by God to a man or woman. Maimonides explains that prophecy is a natural event.[4] Any person, even a non-Jew, who is highly intelligent and has a good imagination that aids him in communicating what he understands can be a prophet. A good prophet is a person who is moral. This understanding of prophecy is compatible with a stable natural world where the natural system is eternal.[5]

Maimonides states that God can take away a person’s ability to prophesy, and this has led some readers of the Guide to suppose that God is involved in prophecy. But what he means is that nature, which God created, can stop prophecy, for example when a person is sick or depressed and cannot think well.[6]

According to Maimonides, God does not hear prayer and does not pay attention to individual human needs.


Biblical stories

             Since God is not involved in the universe, Maimonides did not believe in miracles. Although many biblical stories did not actually occur, they are still true because the lessons that emerge from the tales are true.[7]



            God does not produce evil or stop it from occurring. Bad things occur to people because they brought it upon themselves, something others did to them, or because of the laws of nature which is good for the world as a whole but may harm people.[8]


Divine providence

God does not protect us. It is our intellect, the “divine image” within us that saves us from danger when we use our intellect.[9]


Messianic Age

            Consistent with his view that God does not change nature, neither the messiah nor the messianic age will be supernatural. The messiah will be a human who lives and dies as all humans and the messianic age will be a time when Jews will live in peace and not be under the control of a foreign nation.[10]


The True Jew

            The ideal Jew according to Guide 3:51, is one who knows philosophy, not one who is a self-effacing saint who sits and studies the Talmud and who spends much time in prayer. Such a person doesn’t even come close to God. Most Jews today reject this idea and believe that study of the Talmud is what God desires and is the only path to a pious life.[11]


The Principle of Gradual Development

            In Guide 3:32, Maimonides explains that the Torah was unable to teach the Israelites ideal behavior. It is part of nature that everything in this world develops gradually, physical things, as well as ideas. Just as nature designs creatures that grow gradually – animals and humans – and adapt to their developing needs, so too the Torah is attuned to the incremental pace of the Jewish people’s spiritual development. When the Torah was given to Israel, for example, the Israelites were unable to understand why they should give up sacrifices that God neither needed nor wanted. Therefore, the Torah, which aimed to effect a fundamental change in the people’s relation to idolatry and primitive spiritual practices, was unable to prohibit sacrifices but, to use Maimonides’ word, “allowed” sacrifices to continue. The same applied to slavery, the capture of females in war, women suspected of adultery, rebellious sons, the handling of rapes and seductions, and more than a dozen other practices which the Torah hoped people would realize was not proper, but only “allowed” in a modified form until the people realized that there is a better practice.


What does the observance of the Torah do?

Observing the Torah is not designed to please God nor do any observances change nature, it does not cause rain, it does not heal the sick; it improves people intellectually and transforms the behavior of people who fulfills the Torah teachings. The aim of the Torah is threefold: (1) to teach some truths, including distancing people from false notion, and (2) helps improve people and (3) society.[12]  It teaches proper behavior and encourages people to develop habits of such behavior because ideas that are not rooted in action will not last.[13]


Are Jews “chosen”?

            Maimonides did not think Jews are better than other people, but he did think that the Torah is superior to any other teachings. All people were created in the image of God. Maimonides acknowledged that people who are not Jewish of all religions, even pagans, can learn the truth and reach perfection.[14]




[1] Although he tried to do so.

[2] Joseph ibn Caspi wrote that it is appropriate, even necessary, for members of the intellectual elite to lie. He cites Maimonides teaching of the need to offer “necessary beliefs.” Mishneh Kesef, volume 2, Cracow, 1906. He is speaking there, in his commentary to Genesis 42:9, about Joseph lying to his brothers when he accused them of being spies.

[3] Mark Twain wrote in his Notebook, pages 393-395: “All schools, all colleges, have two great functions: to confer, and to conceal valuable knowledge.” He also wrote: “None but the dead are permitted to speak the truth.”

[4] Guide 2:32-48.

[5] I understand Maimonides statement in Guide 2:33 that all Israel “saw and heard with [their] own eyes and ears as he did” to mean that all [meaning “many”] Israelites understood the first two commands of the Decalogue just as Moses understood all of them, by using their intellect.

[6] This is a good example of where Maimonides is speaking to two audiences. The masses think that he is saying that God is involved. The intellectual, who has read all that Maimonides wrote understands that by God, he means nature, as is made clear in Guide 2:48.

[7] In Guide 1:2, for example, Maimonides states that the biblical tale of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is a parable that teaches that people should use their intelligence and not moral rules that are very helpful for the common person who does not think. In Guide 2:48, Maimonides states that when the Torah says that God did or said something, it should be understood as a natural event. God did not say or do it. The Torah ascribes the saying or event to God because God created the laws of nature.

[8] Guide 3:12.

[9] Guide 3:17, 3:51.

[10] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melachim 12:7.

[11] In his Introduction to his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides wrote that he composed his book – Mishneh Torah means “second Torah” – so that people will see the laws in it and will have no need to read the Talmud which contains discussions by rabbis about various matters, especially the laws, but which generally does not state which opinion is the law.

[12]  Guide 3:27.

[13]  Guide 3:31.

[14]  The Torah teaching that humans are created in God’s image – which Maimonides understands as being created with intelligence (Guide 1:1) – was stated at the very beginning of the Torah, with the creation of the first human, long before Judaism began. The contrary view that Jews are superior to non-Jews was stated by the poet Yehudah Halevi in his fable The Kuzari.