Why Maimonides Matters – Kenneth Hart Green- Part I

Have you ever wanted to truly understand the esotericism of the Guide of the Perplexed? Are you having difficulties pinning down the positions of Leo Strauss. Now, we have the recently published works of Kenneth Hart Green, one volume of texts and one volume of analysis to guide us. The former book is Leo Strauss on Maimonides: The Complete Writings , the latter is Leo Strauss and the Rediscovery of Maimonides. The volume of texts is invaluable and includes newly transcribed and newly translated works of Strauss as well as collecting all his essays on Maimonides. The volume of analysis offer a cogent and clear presentation of both Maimonides and Strauss. The books are both a labor of love and are serious pieces of scholarship that deserve a serious reading. To launch his new book, Green gave a talk at Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation 27 June 2013. I divided his talk into two parts and added a few queries, which Green graciously answered. (Part II- is here.)

“Why Maimonides Matters.”
Maimonides should very much matter to us. Appreciating this is something which has been aided, in both its Jewish and its universal dimensions, particularly by the modern Jewish thinker Leo Strauss.

Prior to Strauss, Maimonides was viewed as an antiquated medieval figure—though revered by a select group of scholars for his achievements which occurred in the distant past—but nevertheless not particularly relevant to modern Judaism, never mind to modern people in general. However, Strauss refused to accept this judgment about Maimonides and instead presented arguments for the contemporary and enduring worth of Maimonides as a Jewish thinker.

Learned Jews always took Maimonides seriously, and never ceased studying his works. But this was a rarefied interest. Leo Strauss changed all of that. Strauss did what he could to put Maimonides in the very center of contemporary Jewish and philosophical discussion, and made him a thinker of the utmost relevance to modern Judaism, as well as to modern thought in general. He argued that his essential thought is most timely because it is most timeless.

In the years 1928-30 in Germany, Strauss established himself as a modern Jewish scholar by writing and publishing his first book, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion. However, it is not a typical modern book on Spinoza. Strauss disagreed with most Jewish thinkers of his day who believed that the revolutionary ideas of Spinoza had demonstrated religion to be wrong or false, and by implication proved Maimonides to be no longer relevant. In fact, Strauss showed in his book that Spinoza had not refuted religion or Maimonides. Indeed, this further led him to prove that Maimonides’ essential position had basically (although not in every respect) managed to withstand the storms of Spinoza’s modern criticisms. His next book, Philosophy and Law: Contributions to the Understanding of Maimonides and His Predecessors, (Schocken Press: 1935) presented his unique reading of Maimonides, claiming the immediate relevance of Maimonides’ medieval thought to modern Jews.

At a later time in the USA, Strauss’s teaching and writing exercised an influence on the nascent movement known as neo-conservatism, which is known in US political circles primarily for its pro-Americanism, its pro-Zionism, and its general opposition to moral relativism. However, Strauss never saw himself as a “conservative” per se, and always considered himself a “classical liberal”; he did not involve himself in politics, or express his opinions in what could be called a political tract, but kept them private.

I should also mention that, pretty much single-handedly, Strauss was responsible for bringing together the parties who produced the famous English translation of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed [Moreh ha-Nevukhim in Hebrew]. Strauss made sure that the translation was done by his old friend Shlomo Pines, a great linguist of Hebrew and Arabic who was a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and who shared Strauss’s admiration for Maimonides’ great book. Strauss also wrote a long and elaborate introduction to the translation. It was published in 1963, making this year, 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of its publication,

So following Leo Strauss’s rediscovery, what is it about Maimonides that makes him so timeless? I have organized my answer to this question into a number of points, nine to be exact: (AB- Five of the nine are below, the next four will be posted after the weekend.)

[1] Science and Religion: Maimonides dedicated himself to the heroic effort to reconcile or harmonize science and religion, faith and philosophy. In fact, one could say that he is still the model for anyone today who takes these issues seriously, not necessarily for the content of what he did, but for how he did it. The main point is: he considered both science and religion to convey elements of truth, which means they each need one another if they are to grasp the entirety of truth. It’s not so much God that is the issue; for him, the true philosopher also recognizes God; this conflict is focused mainly on what sort of God they believe in: a God who creates, i.e., the God of the Bible, or a God who rules through nature, i.e., the God to whom the philosopher or the scientist subscribes.

Science and religion may on occasion contradict one another, and then we have to consider the issues very carefully; there is no formula for simple reconciliation: each issue of conflict needs separate reflection, not automatic acceptance or knee-jerk rejection. Contrary to what some may think, however, Maimonidean thinking is based on a kind of open-mindedness, which for him is as absolutely crucial to the religious attitude as it is to the scientific or secular attitude. In other words, one might say that Maimonides is the father of “Torah uMadda” and “Torah ve-Hokhmah” (“Torah and wisdom”). So in this sense, Maimonideanism is very much alive, if constantly threatened from two sides.

–Question: Can you say a bit more about a God of nature and the process of reconciliation.

–Answer: Maimonides is not unsympathetic to the God of nature, and (Aristotelian) science as he knew it seems to virtually assume such a God; it is the highest inference about things, drawn from what causes or is responsible for what is in our world, as the highest ordering Principle, which is essential to make full sense of nature. But as he admits, the God of the reconciliation is not the God whose will also operates, or at an even higher level, whose true and full Being is a mystery to human beings.

The reconciliation occurs not by denying the causal system, which evidently operates in nature, but by positing a first cause beyond the natural causal system, i.e., the universe, which created it or set it in motion. Creation cannot be “proven,” according to Maimonides’ great intellectual honesty, which makes it a belief; however, neither can the (Aristotelian) so-called scientific belief in eternity of the universe be philosophically or scientifically demonstrated.In fact, Maimonides offers a very subtle view of miracles, which he conceives to have been built, as it were, by God into the created order.

While most of what Maimonides says about God has to be put in terms of attributes which are negated, the mysterious God who encompasses but also transcends and somehow is responsible for nature is a reasonable conception to believe, if we consider an exemplary human being like Moses (among the prophets, but the highest of them), who testifies to His existence by his excellence and by what he is able to be and to become, and to do for his fellow human beings, i.e., bringing them a supreme law to help them perfect themselves.

[2] Hidden Depths: Maimonides held a view of the Torah, of Judaism, that it contains hidden depths and concealed wisdom, and as a result that it can provide us with new insights and ideas in response to the exigencies of contemporary life, whatever they may be. These hidden depths offer the resources to respond to the most current philosophic, scientific, moral, religious, and political challenges. This is something that Strauss helps us to perceive, because he rediscovered what Maimonides called the “esoteric” dimension of the Torah, i.e., things lie beneath the surface. Through it, the Torah, Judaism, although to be cherished for its old wisdom, is also a sort of “renewable resource” for the Jewish people. But this is because some of its deepest thoughts are deliberately hidden, and must wait for the right moment to emerge.

Maimonides considered the hidden depths to subsist in the Torah not because he was a mystic. We find them if we seek for them by the proper methods: the evidence and human reasoning supports it (although of course these cannot be said to prove it definitively). Some believe that this is to compromise the historical character of the Torah. And no doubt it is a belief. But for Maimonides this hidden depth is the most reasonable thing to believe, if we base ourselves on evidence. Why? The Torah has shown itself capable of being receptive to scientific truth, however great may be the changes to scientific truth.
Leo Strauss has written an insightful article on how, by a close exegesis of the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis, one may discover a credible modern philosophical perspective, which is certainly close to a Maimonidean perspective. (Strauss’s lecture, “On the Interpretation of Genesis,” appears in Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity, pp. 359-76.)

Despite popular and scholarly critics, no one has “proved Strauss wrong” about Maimonides’ esotericism. In fact, no one has even gotten rid of the manifest and most obvious textual evidence which he used to ground his position. To be sure, he has had numerous critics, on the left and on the right; but I challenge anyone to show that Strauss’s position has been demonstrated to be a simple “error,” whatever difficulties may ensue from this position. He’s still closer to Maimonides’ text, to what Rambam says he will do and how he will write in the Guide/Moreh, than his critics have been willing to honestly acknowledge.

[3] Intelligence: Drawing on the last point, Maimonides emphasizes that in order to penetrate those depths, the Jews must cultivate intelligence, education, perfection of the intellect, and pursuit of knowledge, which encompasses everything in the world that it is worthwhile to know. This is not a guarantee that intelligence will be used well, but there is no hope of achieving wisdom without it, and religion can help to morally guide knowledge in the right direction. In Maimonides’ view, these things of the mind elevate people toward God, and therefore he maintains that they are very much not inimical to religion. In fact, for him the path of knowledge and intelligence is the high road to God.

Certainly one of the chief ways of reaching excellence of the intellect, as religious Jews, is mastery of the traditional texts, devoted learning, and deep knowledge of our classical sources. But it is also the case that this cultivation of the mind will have to occur on several levels, if human intelligence is to be fully and properly cultivated, i.e., in the university classroom, in the scientific laboratory, in reading seriously on our own, and in discussing ideas and exploration for the comprehensive truth with others who are engaged in the same spiritual search.

[4] Law: Maimonides makes the unqualified affirmation that Jewish law—and, truth to be told, law in general (in the spirit of the seventh Noaḥide Laws)—is required for leading a good life, not only for the Jews, but also for people in general. The wiser the law, and how it is applied, the better for the people which allows itself to be guided by it. Law is one of the most humanizing and civilizing forces in the world. He is not saying that law is everything; he would say that Judaism as a religion is something greater than law; but to get to that “something greater,” to that higher end—which higher end, in his opinion about the educational function of the Torah, is to make better and more perfect human beings—law is one of the best means available, and Jews are blessed to possess a law which is quintessentially wise.

Maimonides thought Biblical-Talmudic law is better than any alternative because it is humanly wiser, but this is not to say that other laws cannot reach a respectable level of humane exegesis if interpreted wisely.

My main point was to highlight Maimonides’ defense of the idea of law, which makes him relevant to us because we moderns occasionally imagine various utopian schemes and scenarios either in which man and human society can function well in the absence of law, or in which we can use law to achieve or legislate utopia that then tempts us to either overestimate or underestimate law. This defense of the idea of law, if properly comprehended and implemented, is the case for Maimonides even though he is conscious of the fact that there are better and worse legal systems. He is also keenly aware of some of the problems or limits of law (e.g., Guide 3.34), i.e., the need to adapt law properly; the question of how to carefully and conservatively change it so as not to subvert it; what to do if law is not good for the individual, since it always designed mainly for a collective, etc., etc.

[5] Popular Religion: One of the strongest attributes of Maimonides was his skepticism (to put it mildly) about folk beliefs and about superstitious customs, rituals, and traditions, which he viewed as a form of idolatry. These are strong words! He was not willing to tolerate such practices and beliefs as harmlessly naïve and foolish notions of ignorant or simple-minded people, and hence to be indulgent toward them, but rather he viewed them as potential threats to the core teachings of the Torah. This is because he believed that these are vestiges or relics of ancient idolatry that had clung to the Jews due to their intellectual and moral weakness, as well as to the failures of their leaders and teachers. He believed the Torah had been given to the Jews to abolish such bogus folk beliefs and superstitious customs, rituals, and traditions, which are not less dangerous than false theological beliefs to which Judaism is opposed, since they are part and parcel of the same falsehoods.

Today we have amulets, red strings, horoscopes, fortune-tellers (dare I say, even going to holy men for braches?). Maimonides would have regarded such things as part of the superstitious weaknesses of all human beings that must be resisted especially by Jews, and that Judaism exists to help cure the world of them, rather than succumbing to its temptations. By the way, he had good grounds in the Torah itself for the rejection of witchcraft, magic, etc. (See Menachem Kellner’s recent book, Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism.)


Question: Was Strauss an atheist as portrayed in some of the popular articles?
Answer: Absolutely not, as I understand him. (He was an intelligent critic of atheism, which he regarded as a dogmatic belief based on exaggerated criticisms of religion.) Nevertheless this accusation has been leveled at Strauss by some of his critics or opponents, and it has been echoed—though in a quite different sense—by some of his friends and students. I’m not sure on what basis Suzanne Klingenstein made such a charge, other than as she may have repeated what she heard someone else say about Strauss. (By the way, Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin has already responded very wisely and articulately to a charge leveled against Strauss by Suzanne Klingenstein, which distorts his words about Maimonides.)

Nevertheless, this issue has divided the Straussians themselves, which is quite different from what his critics and opponents may say about him. Professor Harry V. Jaffa describes the divide as between two camps, “West Coast” and “East Coast” Straussians. The former say Strauss affirmed the truth of religion; and the latter say Strauss denied the truth of religion, but he did defend it as politically essential and requisite to any healthy society—which in itself is a far cry from any of the current atheisms known today. I’m rather dubious about whether it’s really a geographical issue; but if we leave the terms as Jaffa puts them, I’m “West Coast” (even though I’ve lived my entire life on the eastern side of North America—and even there never quite on the “Coast.”)

One may refer fruitfully to several of the essays in the 95-year-old Jaffa’s most recent book: Crisis of the Strauss Divided: Essays on Leo Strauss and Straussianism, East and West. I wrote an earlier book, Jew and Philosopher: The Return to Maimonides in the Jewish Thought of Leo Strauss (SUNY Press, 1993), in which I analyzed Strauss’s thought on this matter, and concluded there that he’s what I called a “cognitive theist”; I stand by that analysis and designation twenty years later (pp. 26-27; 167 note 27; 237 note 1; 239 note 2). This makes Strauss certain about a belief in God, which is perhaps closer to what Strauss himself calls the “rational or natural theology of Maimonides”; but nevertheless it also leaves him fully open to the truth of revelation, to the God who performs miracles, which open-mindedness he considers essential to anyone who knows what truth is. As he might have put it: nothing has ever refuted God the Creator.

In the “Introduction to Maimonides’ The Guide of the Perplexed,” which is a University of Chicago lecture Strauss gave in 1960, and which I transcribed for the first time for the new book (Leo Strauss on Maimonides: The Complete Writings), he is much bolder in confessing his own position, for he says there (p. 420):

Fundamentally our problem is still the same as his [i.e., Maimonides’]. [That is to say, our as well as his fundamental problem remains the same, which is] to see how we can live as thinking Jews, how we can reconcile reason or science with the Jewish faith, which we affirm in one way or another by the very fact that we are Jews.

On this basis we are entitled to learn the utmost from Maimonides, whether or not we can agree with him on everything (which as reasonable people obviously we can’t do, whether we‘re talking about his physics as it is stated in the first four chapters of the “Sefer ha-Madda” in the Mishneh Torah, or to his medicine and medical advice, which is no doubt dated).

Strauss remained a fully committed Jew all of his life (even though not necessarily a fully observant Jew, although he was raised Orthodox); and he avows here in this passage that I just quoted that this means he affirmed the Jewish faith, “in one way or another.” If some people might be inclined to set up a Jewish inquisition, and suspect every Jewish thinker or even every Jewish person, and to examine or interrogate them for how much, or how precisely, they believed in every article of the faith as defined by Maimonides, I can’t vouch for what the exact result would have been in the case of Leo Strauss. But I also don’t think that this is a very Jewish thing to do. Rather, we should judge Strauss by his actions; and in terms of these, we would see that he was a profoundly loyal Jew during his entire life.

The talk and discussion is continued in Part II available here.

7 responses to “Why Maimonides Matters – Kenneth Hart Green- Part I

  1. Two separate topics are combined here: ‘why maimonides matters’ and ‘why leo strauss matters’. Maimonides has engaged people in every generation–you see the imprint of the ‘guide’ everywhere–even, strongly, among people who reacted against it, like the kabbalists. Yes, I guess it was always an elite pursuit but I don’t know if it’s accurate to say that Leo Strauss ‘changed all of that’. His mysterious treatments of Maimonides have probably, unfortunately, caused ordinary people to turn back after having an urge to look into Maimonides–people who who would have benefited from some of the great religious ideas of the Guide.

    Re: “no one has proved Strauss wrong about Maimonides’ esotericism”–that seems like a straw man. Esoteric readings of the Guide started right from ibn Tibbon and they’re there in the standard commentaries printed in the common hebrew edition. Perhaps Strauss made the topic interesting or respectable for academics to pursue, I don’t know, and that would be an interesting contribution. But the products of Strauss’s reading–the interpretations he arrived at–are a separate matter, as is the proportion to take in, between exotericism and esotericism, in approaching the Guide and presenting it to interested readers.

  2. Leo Strauss took the topic of esoterica and used it to turn the Moreh into a Rorschach Test.

    I think the Rambam’s meta-issues are of interest, but don’t overplay it. The Rambam fit Jewish Thought to Natural Philosophy, not science. It is more equal of a choice to decide whether to listen to a Babylonian amora’s discussion of qemei’os that work or of sheidim or a Greek philosopher’s conclusion that they respectively couldn’t work and don’t exist. Aristotilian thought barely advanced in the 1,500 years before the Rambam; part of what gave it such an aura of authority. With science comes two things: evidence based conclusions and a spirit of progress.

    So the parallel challenge facing us isn’t really the same thing.

    In terms of mesorah, his philosophy is a distinct minority view. Not that there is a halachic process with regard to Jewish Thought, but it’s still worth noting. The Rambam so embraced Aristotilianism that he understood the connection between G-d and Creation to be Thought — and thus the connection from us created being to G-d to be thought. Ethics and morality, or even a personal relationship with G-d, the ideas which most of us would feel more comfortable making the measure of man, become handmaidens to intellectual development (in the case of ethics and morality) or dismissed as impossible (in his vision G-d is not a Person to whom you can relate). And those aren’t only ideas we’re more comfortable with, and were the centerpieces of Jewish Thought for the past 250 years, they’re also the language Chazal talk in.

    I disagree with but understand the tradition that has students skip the first 4 chapters of Maimonides’ Code and of the Guide. (And the first section of R’ Bachya ibn Paquda’s Chovos haLavavos for the same reason.) We simply aren’t perplexed by Aristotilian questions and wouldn’t be happy with Aistotilian answers. So I can see someone asking why we should bother opening those questions.

    • I wrote: “Leo Strauss took the topic of esoterica and used it to turn the Moreh into a Rorschach Test.”

      By which I mean his use of Maimonides’ 7th reason for contradictions in the text to dismiss parts of the Guide itself as hiding esoterica. Not the topic here (#2) of esoterica in the Torah. As phrased here, there is nothing novel — the notion that the Torah is constantly mined for messages to each generation and milieu is fundamental to accepting the notion of an Oral Torah.

  3. George Y. Kohler

    “Prior to Strauss, Maimonides was viewed as an antiquated medieval figure—though revered by a select group of scholars for his achievements which occurred in the distant past—but nevertheless not particularly relevant to modern Judaism, never mind to modern people in general…”
    This is as wrong as can be. Just read Hermann Cohen’s “Religion of Reason out of the sources of Judaism” (1918) and you will find how much Maimonides was thought to be relevant for modern Jewish theology. In fact the entire German Reform Movement of the 19th Century apopted Maimonides’ thought for their modernizing purposes.

  4. Lawrence Kaplan

    To add to George’s list: Not to mention Krochmal, Shay Ish Horowitz, and others.

    On the other hand, in his essay “Cohen and Maimonides” Strauss make some very cogent criticisms of Cohen, particularly with regard to the latter’s interpretation of Maimonides’ attributes of action.

  5. Saul Shajnfeld

    A question for Professor Green:

    Please forgive it if my questions are simpleminded—I’m not an expert on Rambam. I was raised as an Orthodox Jew. I am interested in how Rambam would react to Jewish heretics (“kofrim”) if he were alive today.

    1. I believe that Rambam requires ostracism of kofrim. While Aristotle confronted Judaism with difficult philosophical problems in Rambam’s day, the number of problems we are confronted with today greatly surpasses those in his day. The questionable authorship of the Torah—raised by Higher Criticism, historical errors, anachronisms, contradictions, the use of Hebrew, etc.—has been acknowledged to be severely problematic by such prominent frum thinkers as R. Mordechai Breuer and R. David Weiss Halivni, among others. Their attempts to salvage the idea of a divine Torah are questionable at best.

    The problem of theodicy still is with us, despite the creative imaginative abilities of fundamentalists, whose bag of tricks include such unfalsifiable concepts as olam haba, gilgulim and hester panim. All such concepts could have been used just as easily to defend “false gods” like Ba’al, Moloch, etc.

    Like the idol-gods that Tehillim ridicules as having ears but not hearing (i.e., being impotent), Hashem has failed us at every turn: the first Churban; the second Churban, when Jewish blood was flowing like a river; the Crusades; The Inquisition; the Pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe; and finally, the Holocaust. Hashem was nowhere to be found. Talk about impotence.

    Scientific and archaeological discoveries continue to clash with literal Torah. And, following Rambam, Judaism keeps “reinterpreting,” allegorizing and retrenching. The latest victim is Noah’s flood. Its historicity having been discredited by almost every discipline, a 2009 article in the RCA’s journal Tradition makes the absurd claim that Hashem incorporated into the Torah a mythological Babylonian epic. What will be identified next as a myth—the story of Avraham Avinu?

    And how are we allowed to reinterpret so freely when our entire belief system rests on an allegedly “unbroken chain of tradition?” Not a single member of Chazal or Rishon ever questioned the historicity of the flood. We were taught that it’s what Moshe taught B’nei Yisra’el. Does our mesorah go “poof” with every new discovery? Is it, too, unreliable?

    Orthodoxy talks about Hashem’s grand design. But science shows us that 50% of human embryos in the U.S. never make it to live births (they are expelled as deformed embryos and fetuses), and many of those that do are deformed or dysfunctional. A company producing radios that had to throw out 50% of their finished products as inoperable would be adjudged incompetent, and would fail. Hashem, the incompetent designer? The answer, of course, is evolution. Not design, but meandering.

    So a six-day creation is now 13.7 billion years. Adam is a mythical being, as homo sapiens is between 50,00 and 200,000 year old. We are descended from ape-like creatures (human embryos still have full-length tails), not separately created. One Orthodox rabbi tells us that the first 11 chapters of Genesis are all myth.

    And many, many more problems for the believer. So, were Rambam alive today, would he advocate one retrenching after another? Or would he act like the intellectually honest genius he was, and be an agnostic, probably teaching at MIT or Harvard?

    There are just so many hits that a belief system can take before the neon sign flashes, “GAME OVER.” But to believing Jews, it will never flash. They have emunah.

    2. Rambam says that Judaism requires emunah in Hashem. But emunah—by itself—is not a faculty or tool that has any usefulness in apprehending emes—the truth. And we can see the value and usefulness of emunah as a tool for reaching truth simply by noting that over three billion Christians, Moslems and Hindus use emunah to “know” the “truths” of, respectively, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Using emunah to determine truth is like using a hammer to determine the distance to the moon. Not a useful tool for that purpose. Emunah is a hefker velt: it is based on early indoctrination, and it takes you wherever you want to go. Didn’t Rambam realize that?

    It is easier and more rational for a thoughtful, educated Jew today to be a heretic that to be a believer. So, my question is: what do you think that Rambam would say if he were alive today? Would he ostracize kofrim for the crime of using their intelligence, and for the crime of rejecting an obviously useless thing like emunah?

    • I want to take issue with one thing in Saul Shajnfeld’s comment. You say, ‘Rambam says that Judaism requires emunah in Hashem. But emunah—by itself—is not a faculty or tool that has any usefulness in apprehending emes—the truth.’

      But I think the notion of emunah / faith that you’re referring to is foreign to the Guide of the Perplexed, in fact it’s directly ridiculed in Part 1 Chapter 50.

      The word ’emunah’ in different forms was used by translator’s of the Guide and the Commentary on the Mishnah to translate the Arabic i’tiqad. In Mishneh Torah, written in Hebrew, in the parallel sections, the Rambam used the verb לידע.

      There is no faith in the sense of a mental trick or leap in the Rambam, only striving to understand. On that point at least, I don’t think your issue is an issue with Maimonides.

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