This post continues from Part I here. The post is a continuation of the nine points that Prof Green emphasizes in Maimonides. Here are the concluding four points as well as four great replies to comments, including replies to Micha, Moti, and Maimonides on prophecy. This is a very long post with the best at the replies, so print it out and enjoy.
By now you should have all bought for yourselves or your synagogues his books, one volume of Strauss essays and one volume of Green’s 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.
 Balance: According to the Maimonidean world-view, religion itself is in need of balance, in need of a moderate attitude. It has a tendency to lean toward extremism in the service of God. Now, someone may contend: surely God demands an absolute totality of surrender of the mind and will by each person. Not according to Maimonides: he’s the classic advocate for “the golden mean,” for not losing one’s sense of a complete and balanced perspective on life, which religion requires as much as anything else, and which keeps things in equipoise or well balanced. We live in a time in which extremist positions are considered more authentic, in which certain forces on the right and on the left like to push things to an extreme, both in the religious community, and in general secular society. Maimonides represents a wisdom which rejects both religious extremism and radical secularism.
 Moral Ideals Maimonides unconditionally rejects moral relativism (which he knew and encountered in a rudimentary form in his society), and he confirms the core moral ideals and teachings which are essential to Jewish religion as being of an absolute character. The dominance of moral relativism in the contemporary West is one of the most serious challenges facing anyone who wishes to adhere to Jewish law and moral teachings.
The Guide defines man in certain terms, beginning with the first chapter (1.1). Man is the being who is created in the image of God (as the very first chapter of the Torah states unambiguously), a key element which makes moral imperatives to be of an absolute character, since they follow from the “divine image.” Man is also the being whose intellect is the most God-like aspect of his being. It sets the standard for everything else, and everything is ranked in terms of it, which also tends toward an absolute goal and which defines man by its perfection.
But in order to achieve excellence of the mind, the character and soul must be properly trained in the right way, so as not to be sent on the wrong course (see Guide 1.34 and 2.23); the telos of human perfection requires certain ways toward it, which the Torah carefully defines and helps us to achieve, if we grasp what it is aiming for. These things are of a fixed character, and we must follow the rules which help us to become what we are meant to be according to the Torah.
It’s often difficult to withstand the arguments and allure of contemporary culture, which Judaism often must stand in judgment of—although prudently and with reason. Maimonides would likely say that these core ideals and basic teachings are as wise today as they were in the past, although this is not to deny that some of them may have to be adapted to so as to be in accord with the better modern realities. Of course, Maimonides insisted in his time, and he presumably would have expected it of us in our time, that such adaptations must be done with the greatest caution, care, and reserve, so that these adaptations do not lose or compromise those core values and meanings which the Jewish tradition has managed to preserve through the centuries.
The temptation to reject university philosophy or academia as wholly sunk in relativism is a powerful temptation for the religious Jew. But relativism has not pervaded all aspects of the contemporary university, or even contemporary philosophy—they are not of its essence. There are still many good and sound people teaching.
The fact remains: the university is the main repository of knowledge, and so we must utilize it if we are to perfect our minds and to encompass its knowledge in ourselves, as Maimonides directed us to do. Perhaps we must use it carefully, but use it we must. But this must be regarded as a challenge to us, and not a reason to hide from the academic world.
We are commanded to make the world better; we can do so only by teaching our children well and arming them spiritually against relativism, and by ourselves helping to fight the relativist faith, which will be antithetical to us, if we allow the world to surrender to it. We should not capitulate, but enter the university world, or the world of philosophy, ready to present our case confidently and articulately. We must grasp the good and leave the bad; we cannot pretend that this relativistic attitude will not infect us, if we do not work actively to excise it by studying the good.
 Politics: Maimonides asserted the value, meaning, and even imperative character of political wisdom, for Jews as well as for everyone else. Jews are not exempt from politics, even if in his day they did not possess political power. Whatever their circumstances, they must engage with the world, and must not withdraw from the world, and if possible, they must participate in the political order. One of the ways is to make themselves aware of and to study the political wisdom of the ancients as worthwhile for, and not opposed to, their Judaism. They must see it as a basic element that complements and/or challenges the teachings of the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, for Maimonides, Jewish life and Jewish teachings demand, for those capable of it, an understanding of the political, and for those free to do so it requires their participation in the political order, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. Politics is capable of being an ennobling pursuit or calling, and it is a requisite element in any decent human life, which is an idea that is fully accepted and endorsed by the Torah.
Thus, in his “Letter on Astrology,” which he wrote to the Jews of Marseilles, Maimonides faults the ancient Jews of the Second Temple era for turning to astrology, which he regarded as a kind of idolatry, instead of “learning the arts of war and conquest.” (I so confidently draw this conclusion about Maimonides’ view of politics from these remarks because he regarded the military arts as a subsection of the political arts and sciences.)
Sinat ḥinam [groundless hatred (among ourselves)], i.e., the traditional explanation for our defeat, seems to have been a smaller sub-cause for Maimonides, encompassed in the larger error of turning to magic or astrology, rather than rational interpretation as the best way to analyze our historical situation, ourselves, and our enemies. In Maimonides’ view, a high degree of political realism and prudence is imperative, as commanded by the Torah itself, if for no other higher reason than for the practical survival of the Jews and Judaism.
I don’t think in one’s wildest imagination that Maimonides could be accused of militarism, or could be accused of asking the Jews to cultivate militarism. This is to completely misread him, although I suppose I can perceive how he could be so misread. First of all, to repeat what I already said, military matters are always subordinate to political matters for Maimonides, and politics should be geared toward the pursuit of justice, peace, freedom, and wisdom, which prevents militarism however defined. One need only read “Sefer Shoftim” at the end of the Mishneh Torah to know that this is true for Maimonides. However, based on the centuries of galut, in which Jews tended to regard the very idea of concern with an army as entirely foreign to them, hence they also tended to despise military matters as goyishe sachen.
Maimonides made a very simple point, in his day and for the future (whatever one may make of his historical judgment about the Second Temple period): if the Jews are to be free, which is what the Messiah promises, and if freedom is to lead to the higher spiritual perfection for which it is ultimately aimed, it can only happen if we ever keep in mind that this freedom needs to be preserved and protected, and we are the only ones who can do the preserving and protecting if it is to be our freedom as a people. The Messiah will lead an army, and it will be an army of Jews, not mercenaries or gentiles. He will bring about the messianic state by conquering the enemies of the Jews. Is that militarism? I don’t think so.
But permit me to make one purely personal comment that readers can disregard if they do not wish to consider my own personal opinion about contemporary life: the state of Israel is a Jewish society in the full and proper sense that it has never become militaristic, whatever its hostile critics or enemies, both within the Jewish people and without, have accused it of. It has acted in the spirit of Maimonides. And yet it has never forsaken and despised or ignored the duty to “learn the arts of war” as a moral necessity of a free society if it is to survive.
 Zionism: I will venture to say that Maimonides anticipated Zionism, and pronounced a blessing on it in advance. Look at the last couple of chapters of the last book of the Mishneh Torah, in “Sefer Shoftim,” where the messianic age represents simply the return of the Jews to their own land, the land of Israel, by the hand of a great leader inspired by God. This leader will bring them back not by miracles, but by military conquest, will liberate the Jews from their oppression in exile, and will establish a free Jewish state. (To be sure, in its perfected and ultimate form, the Anointed one will also rebuild the Jerusalem temple and restore the Davidic kingship.) In other words, the legitimate end of a return of the Jews to their land, which is what the Messiah is for, will come about by human effort, and by natural means, and by Jewish historical and political participation in the process.
To be sure, Maimonides would surely not have declared the state of Israel a messianic state in any perfected and ultimate sense (as no one else I know of would declare), since no Messiah brought it about, and the other things I mentioned have not followed. But he would surely not have been bothered by a return to the land of Israel by human hands (albeit aided by devotion to God’s unchanged promises), since he could have viewed this as the first step in a historical process, which is entirely legitimate in terms of the classical Jewish sources
For the first five points- see part I here.
Four Multi-part Questions from the Comments
1] Answers to Comments of Moti:
First, of course Strauss didn’t invent the esoteric reading of the Guide; he never claimed he did. Yes, it began during Maimonides’ own life, and especially with his contemporary and Hebrew translator, Shmuel ibn Tibbon, and continued as the dominant reading for about six centuries. Strauss not only never claimed otherwise, but instead what he claimed was to revive a way of reading the Guide which had been forgotten, ignored, or even denied by modern scholars and thinkers. Solomon Maimon in the mid-18th century was probably the last modern to know about it or even to acknowledge it, even though he didn’t carry it very far.
Strauss thought it was worth paying most careful attention to how Maimonides had expressed himself in his book about what he was doing, how he was doing it, and why he was doing it. Thus, Strauss focused laser-like on Maimonides’ claim to be writing with utmost, meticulous care for each minute point, each word, and even each silence (not to mention employing deliberate contradictions), which though Maiminides declared these things, most modern scholars had chosen to regard them as irrelevant, or at best as some sort of medieval peccadillo or perversity of Maimonides, which should be passed over with an embarrassed silence. Strauss rejected this as an approach that could not do even the most elementary justice to “the great eagle.” So I also can’t accept that the issue of whether anyone has “has proved Strauss wrong about Maimonides’ esotericism” is a “straw man” argument.
Second, did Strauss turn off, or turn on, more readers to the Guide? I must say (even with the complexities of his prose), I’ve got no doubt that he turned on many, many more than he may have turned off. But Strauss also knew this act of seriously reading Maimonides’ book is a big commitment for anyone, as Maimonides intended it to be: he was unusual for concerning himself mainly with the “exceptions” (i.e., the few genuinely “perplexed”), who normally have to fend for themselves—the one in ten-thousand as he puts it. In other words, the reader of the Guide desired by Maimonides must be serious about thinking, about careful reading, and about dedication to or persistence in the search for truth.
Thus I would say those who were turned off were probably so affected as much, if not much more, because of the deliberate difficulty of Maimonides’ own book as by any difficulty of Strauss’s writings. But Masimonides aimed ultimately for an elite only, i.e., for those elevated suffering souls—educated, deeply confused, and yet capable of deep thought and potentially leaders of the Jews—whom he hoped to cure, to guide, and to “perfect.”
I believe the evidence supports the fact of Strauss being single-handedly responsible for reviving interest in Maimonides as a serious and perennial thinker of profundity, and in the Guide as a book of serious and perennial thought, which he claimed to be of utmost relevance to modern people, both religious and secular—a very, very unusual claim.
Third- Were the products of Strauss’s reading, i.e., the proportions as he divided them between exotericism and esotericism in approaching the Guide, appropriate and accurate? This is the great issue that remains unresolved and continues to provoke discussion as well as argument. I repeat again here what I have concluded in LS and the Rediscovery of Maimonides, although in gist, I try to make the case that Strauss’s Maimonides remains of the utmost and even urgent usefulness to contemporary Jewish and philosophic thought. True, it is two separate topics which I have combined, and which I never denied: “why Maimonides matters” and “why Leo Strauss matters.” I’ve presented the former as seen in light of the latter: Strauss matters if for no other reason because he helps us to perceive why Maimonides matters. But this is also because I believe that no one else makes Maimonides matter as much as does Strauss.
On the simplest level, what am I saying? What we can do now, if we remain genuinely open-minded—beyond controversial assertions, and beyond dogmatic acceptance by one side, or dogmatic rejection by the other—is to continue studying Maimonides’ Guide together with Strauss’s commentary, and try to answer the question about Strauss’s reading as each one of us must do for ourselves.
2] Answer to Comemnts of Micha: Micha brings three issues to light, each of which requires a separate response: the Rorschach test; science; Aristotle.
To say Strauss utilized the esoteric so as to turn the Moreh into a Rorschach test is to say that he did with this book whatever his unconscious mind told him to do, or whatever he thought our unconscious minds would do with it. As a result, only a psychoanalyst or perhaps a political psychologist can make sense of his reading: it was a projection of his own thought, if not of his own personality, or even of his own neuroses; or it allowed each of us to project what we want or need on it as a blank screen.
I just don’t think it’s adequate to deal with a serious thinker and scholar like Strauss, or with any other serious thinker and scholar, as tends to happen if what they say is portrayed as an expression of their unconscious mind or motives, or of his readers’ unconscious mind or motives, perhaps as manipulated or controlled by the analyst: it’s too reductionist, it’s too dismissive, and it conveniently alleviates us of the difficult task of the labor of thinking, which requires us to make sense of, to probe, and to penetrate by great efforts what a serious thinker may have to teach us, and how we may be helped in our thinking by his thinking.
As for science, Maimonides believed in it as passionately as did any of the moderns. To call it mere “natural philosophy” and so to dismiss it as somehow unlike what we do as “genuine” science (although admittedly modern and premodern science operate differently) is only a fragmentary solution to a deeper problem, a sort of Karl Popper-like escape from the challenges of philosophy, to which science will always remain beholden.
And it also has not dealt with or confronted the radical criticism of modern science, which is known by the name of “Nietzsche,” and which continues to plague modern scientists who think about the grounds for what they do, and the comprehension of nature and human reason which it implies. (Consider Thomas Nagel’s recent Mind and Cosmos, which argues for some sort of notion of teleology [!] as requisite in order to make sense of biology, even or especially of the biology based on Darwin. If plausible, Aristotle may not be quite so totally obsolete as modern science wished to pretend.) So it seems we haven’t escaped Greek as well as medieval thought so completely, even with all of the wonderful developments of modern science in all of its manifold stages.
Some ideas seem to be perennial even about nature, and “progress” is not the complete truth. The most plausible solution to the problem seems to be the need to rethink what science is, and why we pursue it. To say: “Aristotelian thought barely advanced in the 1,500 years” prior to the Rambam is to know too little about the history of science following Aristotle.
Modern science no doubt stresses evidence-based conclusions, and a spirit of progress, among other things, as primary methodical factors; but Maimonides (scientifically) challenged the medieval Aristotelians precisely on the basis of the visible evidence (i.e., the movements of the heavens); and he acknowledged the progress of science in the past, as much as he hoped for its likely progress in the future. (As he put it, someone else may in future show rationally how to escape from the impasse which the conflict between Ptolemaic astronomy and Aristotelian physics had made a scandal of medieval science, for he could not resolve it; however, he believed he did better than his predecessors, precisely because he based his criticism of the Aristotelians on what is observed, like any modern: see Guide 2.24.)
The challenge which faces us isn’t, fundamentally speaking, so very different from the challenge which faced Rambam—although this is not to forget the point I already acknowledged, that some of Rambam’s science undoubtedly is or will have to be obsolete for us. But I don’t believe that Maimonides would’ve been bothered by this in the slightest. In fact, Rambam was not in any sense averse to the progress of science, and he urged it on, accepting whatever it produced—so long as it is genuinely knowable as science.
This matter of Aristotle is a major issue, not as to science alone, but rather as to theology. Micha has isolated a serious obstacle to a modern appreciation of Rambam; but this is not because Maimonides was quite the orthodox Aristotelian that Micha seems to think he was. Strauss was certainly much concerned with showing how Maimonides’ thought was quintessentially linked with Plato’s thought (through Farabi), which helped to ground his world-view; his point was that this Platonism had not been sufficiently appreciated, because everyone tends to automatically view Aristotle as the thinker who exercised the deepest influence on him.
But the truest or deepest issue, as Micha recognizes, is: what is the relation between philosophic theology and biblical theology in Maimonides’ thought? By the way, contra Micha, Maimonides did not think it was a matter of how much thought counts; he believed thought was the characteristic of biblical theology or faith as much as it was of philosophic theology or science. We need rigorous thought to reach God; he only wondered how far thought could carry us in knowing God, irrespective of whether the thought is grounded in philosophy or the thought is grounded in Tanakh (i.e., prophecy) as well as our Sages.
To be sure, Maimonides neither diminished ethics and morality, nor did he forget the element of will (or “personality”) in God; but though he accepted these points, even so he viewed intellectual excellence as man’s supreme perfection, together with other factors (as characterizes the prophet). In other words, this makes it his view that ethics and Divine will must be seen in the light of what rigorous thought can comprehend of them. Modern philosophy has trouble with this notion of the supremacy of thought, since it regards the passions as supreme—which is not necessarily a reason to reject Maimonides, since as Strauss argues, he may be better able to deal deeply and comprehensively with our spiritual dilemmas and so to help us with them, than any available modern alternative. This is something to which we should give serious consideration, especially if one takes the full measure of our spiritual dilemmas, as Strauss tried to do, that being the key point of departure at which we should begin our reflections on Maimonides.
3] A Facebook query- “I wonder how this differs from Conservative Judaism, which had the guts years ago to recognize all the problems in OJ, and start out on a different path.
But if it evolves, then what we have received is not what Moshe was taught, as it’s been revised in response to changing times and new discoveries. How then is it anything but an evolved religion based on ancient myth and lore, and, if so, how can it demand our adherence and allegiance?”
Answer to Query #3- No doubt Conservative Judaism has done better than most modern Jewish religious movements in theologically confronting the problem of history. Yet in doing so, it has also often allowed itself to be swallowed by history, or it has succumbed to historicism, being unable to defend clearly those fundamental truths which transcend history for Judaism. Even so, the issue which you raise is not just an issue for Conservative Judaism alone. History and historical study is based on facts and has discovered facts, even if some Orthodox thinkers believe that they can avoid the consequences of this issue by resorting to dogmatic assertions, which do not establish themselves as facts by being frequently repeated, or by being enforced as law. The attempt to deny facts is not a sound approach for any version of Judaism; besides everything else, it’s self-defeating. And Maimonides surely would have thought so. The matter only concerns whether the facts discovered (or claimed) by history are genuine facts, or only so-called facts, i.e., hypotheses, speculations, or constructions. Historical-factual change as “progress” is only a certain way of construing such change or those facts. Strauss writes with much subtlety on the complex issue of “progress” in Maimonidean thought in his “Introductory Essay” to the Guide.
You ask about what to do with “an allegedly continuous mesorah . . . [which nevertheless] evolves. But if it evolves, what we have received is not what Moshe was taught,” since to revise, to respond to change, and to admit discoveries is apparently to abandon what Moses taught—if, it seems, we make the change by disregarding what Moses taught. Jewish tradition always construed legitimate change as continuous with what Moshe taught. To be sure, these are complex issues, but they do not need to defeat a philosophically serious Orthodoxy. Every Orthodox thinker who is honest knows about “change” in the tradition; as everyone admits (other than Karaites), we don’t do everything which is in the written Torah, because we also have an oral Torah. So change is not the issue (it’s almost a non sequitur); the tradition has always changed; the issue is, whether it’s good or bad change, change for the better or for the worse.
Much depends on what the basis for the change is, as to whether it’s for the better or for the worse in terms of the truths that are at the source of tradition in the Torah—and we need great thinkers (like Maimonides) to tell us this. The matter might also be summarized as: “legitimate” change vs. “illegitimate” change; lawful change vs. change which breaks or diminishes the law. But we all know that this too can be disregarded in emergency spiritual-historical situations (as Maimonides states at the beginning of the Guide, and as Judah ha-Nasi claims in the Mishnah). This too is not simple, because that fact about the past cannot be used to justify whatever change we today may happen to want or to think justified.
For they were extraordinary men; our difficulty is that this way of construing our situation, of framing our choice—“to progress toward the good,” or “to save the authentic, unchanged tradition,” which results in “progressives” (those who wish to change the tradition in a certain direction construed as “progress”) arrayed against “fundamentalists” (those who wish to unconditionally defend the tradition against any change whatsoever however slight)—is just too crude a formulation of thought, in view of what the Jewish tradition is and has been, to deal with the complexities of our situation, as Maimonides teaches us.
Query #4 What is Mosaic prophecy for Maimonides? In the Guide, Maimonides asserts that the greatest prophet, Moshe, is a humanly perfected, divinely guided human individual who receives the communication of truths and of laws from God through the human mind, which through this perfected prophetic capacity is immediately translated into imaginative language for non-prophetic human beings. The source is God.
Prophecy is, I believe, still a useful element of Maimonidean thought for us today, because it points us to how we should try to comprehend the phenomenon of prophets and prophecy in the context of human nature and the human mind. For prophets and prophecy are still something most of us want to make sense of, in terms which we can accept as cognitively compelling. We want to know how it corresponds with human nature and the human mind while not abandoning its connection with transcendent forces, with Divine aid.
But you may ask: how should we make sense of the “active intellect” if we not do adhere to Rambam’s science. This is a difficulty of some profundity; I certainly don’t believe that we can subscribe to the literal concept of the “active intellect” as linked with a celestial sphere, which is obviously as he believed in it. But what is most to be noticed is: he insisted prophecy is in accord with nature, which God created; God expresses His will via nature. Thus, even if we do not follow Maimonides on his precise notion of the “active intellect,” something of it is still relevant in our world. What? We still wonder, how do we make sense of great geniuses (an Einstein or a Newton or even a Shakespeare) and great leaders (a Churchill or a Lincoln or even a Ben-Gurion)? (I raise this not unreasonable parallel, even if I acknowledge that geniuses and great leaders are not quite the same thing as prophets.) Great truths do seem still to somehow “descend on us from on high,” as it were, from some mysterious beyond, even if only occurring “in” the human mind, which however much we investigate we still cannot explain.
Our current neuroscience as tends toward materialist reductionism seems evidently deficient at this point; we too are still in search of the non-material factor that makes sense of the human mind and how it works, never mind which interprets genius and the like for us. One solution to what was Maimonides’ problem as much as it is ours, is to resort to the simple element of faith in prophets, which is traditional. But even if we continue to hold to the value amd meaning of science in comprehending God’s world and His truths, we are entitled to maintain our doubts about any materialist reductionism as current science might seem to proclaim; and we may hope the search for the transcendent or non-material factor will be uncovered in the mere comprehension of what the mind is. And since we do not yet know better (in the spirit of Maimonides’ argument for creation), we are entitled to call (in anticipation) the non-material thing which would seem to be required to make sense of the mind—and which may also help us to comprehend how great truths are conveyed to us—“divine.”
According to Maimonides we must allow ourselves to be aided by science if we are to properly and truthfully elucidate what the Torah means by the word “prophet.” This is the only way, according to Maimonides, that we are able to maintain our intellectual integrity and honesty, which for him are the conditions of religious exceptionality as much as they are of natural human excellence. In other words, what Maimoinides’ account of prophecy might still be able to show us is not precisely what we should understand by prophecy as he literally understood it, but rather how we should understand it, in the sense of the form of thinking about the world and God which we require to preserve theological honesty and integrity.