The medieval rabbi, scholar and philosopher Maimonides is a pillar of Jewish thought, but his work in the sciences is essential to understanding scientific thought, too. His profound humility bridged both realms, and despite being controversial at the time, the Mishneh Torah and the Guide for the Perplexed have only grown stronger in stature as fundamental Jewish texts. How can we continue to be guided and inspired by his work today, as it has come into dialogue with later philosophers like Baruch Spinoza and movements like modern feminism?
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This presentation by Rabbi Jason Rubenstein, who is Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at the Yale University Slifka Center, was the first part of a culminating event at Temple Emanu-El in Providence, RI, on March 19, 2023).
Photo by Kevint3141Read Transcript
Okay, so we are going to study some of the thought of Moses Maimonides, who, if you were looking for one great hero, I think, of science and religion, and not making any compromises between those, he would be your hero. He devoted his life to the study of logic and metaphysics and physics and astronomy, mathematics – and the Torah. And his works are about approaching those two topics together: what it means to be a human being who really feels very, very deeply the thrill of scientific discovery, and feels very, very deeply the weight and the promise of being a religious person, and also understands that those don’t necessarily fit very well together always.
And I want to read some – one could spend a lifetime studying Maimonides, as I do, really. I’m deeply in love with him. I’m deeply indebted to him. He’s really, in some ways, my guide to being a person and a Jew. And I want to give, of all the things we could say, two different kinds of examples of how he sits at the meeting point, how he would give us a guide, which is the name of one of his two great books – a Guide [for the Perplexed] – for how to live as people who are alive to the religious world, and also to the scientific world.
And with that, we’re going to drive in. So we’re going to do two parts. One will be about being a human being, and one will be about being a Jew. And for Maimonides, those are always very closely related, although they’re a little bit different. So for each one, we’ll study a little bit of Maimonides, and then I’ll give an aphorism, which isn’t on the source sheet, that I think kind of sums it up.
How to be a human
I will read these passages because they’re a little bit tricky, and Maimonides is a great book. And the way that I use that definition, that word – the way I define it – is a book where if you just read it on your own without a teacher, you’d miss most of the interesting stuff. And so I’m going to read and guide us through. The first text we’ll read, and the second one we’ll summarize. And what they’ll give is a picture of just – so I hope you feel it – is this idea of a very profound paradox, maybe that’s at the center of what it means to be a person. And that’s what I hope you’ll take away from this presentation, is: Maimonides thinks that really what it means to be a human being is to live a life of contradictions and of paradox. And if you feel like things are easy and make sense, you’re doing it wrong. And until you’ve kind of hit on the contradiction and the paradox, and until you’ve lost sleep over it, and maybe even until you’ve lost friends over it, you’re not really in it, and you never leave it.
I’ll just give you one – well, I could give a lot of pictures, but that’s the idea. So it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s not just about, like, beautiful sunsets making you realize there’s meaning in life. It’s not about just experiencing God’s infinite love. It’s not just about the warmth of community. Those are all pieces of it, but there’s also always something more. And it’s really kind of, you know, dancing on the knife’s edge. That’s what Maimonides thinks it means to be a person.
And part of what I want to highlight – and some people find this thrilling, and some people find it very scary – is that Maimonides thinks it’s possible to live a human lifespan – 120 years, 80 years – and never actually achieve human existence. It’s possible to be asleep to the possibilities of what it means to be a person. If you’re just kind of living a life of comfort, trying to find things that feel nice, trying to get a little bit ahead – Maimonides thinks, at the end of the day, you haven’t even started to live a distinctively human life.
Now, that’s a kind of threatening thing. “What do you mean I’m not human? He thinks my kids aren’t human? He thinks my community isn’t human!?” And it also holds out this possibility of striving – and I think probably all of us have felt this in moments – when going a step further, doing something that’s a bit harder, doing something that no one thought was possible, we’re like, “That’s where the real meaning happened.” And that’s what Maimonides thinks.
So we’re going to look at some examples of this. So if you turn with me to the first passage, this is Maimonides describing how one comes to love God, and to fear God. And these are really central categories for Maimonides. God is not just someone you know, but someone you have a deep emotional life with. And you’ll notice for a moment here, I use the word – this is the end of the first line here of the Mishneh Torah, which is one of Maimonides’s two great books. He says: “What is the path to love and fear? It.” Capital “I.”
Now, “it,” capital I, is how I always translate “God” when I am teaching Maimonides. And there are a couple reasons for this. And the first is that Maimonides was the person who – more than anyone else, probably in the history of religion, if you can say such a thing – was insistent on God not having any personal attributes. And this was because of scientific truth, he believed, that they had showed us that God doesn’t have a body – that’s fine – but also God doesn’t have emotions, because emotions are actually always connected to our bodies. And they change like our bodies do. And God doesn’t even really have thoughts. And ultimately, at the highest level, God can’t even be described with human speech, because the statement “God is one,” Shema, even that falls short, because there’s an object God and a descriptor, “one,” and a link between them, “is.”
And Maimonides thinks that human thought, like “God is one,” ultimately always has those three parts: an object you’re describing, a descriptor, and a link between them. “Today is Sunday, I am Jason.” And Maimonides thought that God was so one, was so perfectly complete and simple, that even the statement “God is one” implies a “threeness” about God, because there’s God, the Oneness and the “Is”-ness, which are separate – whereas, for Maimonies, they’re all the same. So there’s no way to comprehend the sentence “God is one.” It’s really amazing, God.
The term “It,” I think, gets a little bit at how God’s not a he or a she, but something different. And also Maimonides always thought that religious language should, a little bit, surprise and confuse us. It shouldn’t be like the normal language we use. And so it is, you know, at least nowadays, a surprising term for God. I’m not saying you should like it, necessarily. A lot of people didn’t like Maimonides in his time.
“So what is the path to love and fear It?” Here we go. “When a person contemplates Its – God’s – wondrous and great deeds and Creations, and appreciates Its infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison. She” – Could be “he,” but I think “she” is a good translation here – “will immediately love, praise and glorify it, yearning with tremendous desire to know the great name. As King David stated in the Book of Psalms, ‘My soul thirsts for you through the Lord for the Living God.’”
So what Maimonides says is the way to love God is really interesting. It’s not prayer, it’s not reading the book of Psalms. It’s not studying the Torah. It’s not Shabbat. It’s not anything particularly Jewish. It’s – I wouldn’t necessarily say scientific, but certainly universal. It’s equally accessible to every human being. And Maimonides is describing a looking-out at the world – you know, maybe this is what some of us feel when we watch a sunset, or when we watch our children or grandchildren sleep in their cribs, or maybe it’s what happens when you think about the possibility that we put a human being on the moon, or developed mRNA vaccines for COVID. Or, as Einstein would put it, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it’s comprehensible in the first place.”
There’s something about that experience of sheer wonder, which Maimonides says is a kind of falling in love with God, with the creator of the world. And this is very moving, and it’s also – I just want to say – a little bit surprising. You might call this today, and the term is – I don’t know if any of you use it in your community – “Spiritual but not religious.” Does that make sense? This is a scientist’s spirituality. This is very much like Einstein’s spirituality.
And I just want to be clear, and say this again and again, because oftentimes we make these distinctions between reason and emotions, or science and religion – but here, Maimonides is describing an act of thinking about nature, of contemplating nature, which is profoundly emotional. Does that make sense? It’s actually not one or the other. Reason and emotion are really linked together for him.
So that’s the first movement Maimonides makes. But I’ve always said how there’s a tension, there’s a contradiction, there’s a back-and-forth. So now we’ll look at the second paragraph, which is what happens right after that.
“When a person reflects on these same matters” – So you were reflecting on nature, and you came to love God, and then you kept reflecting on it – “He will immediately recoil, to shrink back in awe and fear, appreciating how he’s a tiny, lowly and dark creature, standing with his flimsy, limited intellect, before It, God, who is of perfect knowledge. As David stated, ‘When I see your Heavens, the work of your fingers, what is humanity that you are mindful of us?’”
So now what Maimonides describes is when you think on nature, when you think on the world, and you think on what it means to exist, first you’re filled with awe and love and gratitude, and then you’re also filled with confusion and fear, and maybe even a little shame. “Wow, it’s amazing to think about the laws of nature and the human ability to discover them,” and then, “wow, the universe is 13 billion years old … and I, and you, and everyone I know in 100, 150 years, will be gone.” And, “the world is so full of knowledge and so many things to know, but I have trouble remembering the name of the kid who sat next to me in seventh grade.” Our own ability to know is so limited.
And so Maimonides thinks that you never move from one to the other. You don’t start off feeling lowly, but then think about God’s greatness and you’re moved to love. There’s not a direction that way. You actually first experience love, and then you experience some loneliness of your own, and then you move back and forth and back and forth forever.
So the first picture – and again, and this is actually really interesting – you might not call this a Jewish approach, right. Maimonides doesn’t say “You think about how many mitzvot there are and how hard it is to do them.” And it’s also not particularly moral. You don’t think about all the things you should do that you have struggled doing – “I have trouble holding my tongue, I have trouble remembering birthdays.” It’s not actually about your moral struggles. It’s about how small we are, and how vulnerable we are. You know, any one of those billions of asteroids flying around could just smash into Earth, and that’d be curtains for us.
The tightrope walk
And so the thing I wanted to give you the first picture of is, for Maimonides, there’s a deeply human experience that is about loving God, and also about doubting your place and your worthiness. And you might call this existential. I remember this from when I was a teenager, when these kinds of feelings you know, at 16, were so powerful – “And what does this mean, I’m gonna die?” You know, you’re really trying to grapple with that, but also “What does it mean that I can do all these things in life?”
And so for Maimonides, there’s a thinking about these things which isn’t just about experience; it’s also about studying, and also about realizing, in a deep, profound way, through working to understand how the universe works. And the further you go in that, he thinks, the more awe you’re capable of feeling. Einstein’s awe about the universe is greater than my awe, because Einstein understands more, if that makes sense. Or a geneticist who really understands how vulnerable we all are to the faultiness of DNA replication, and how miraculous it is that it happens trillions of times a day in our own bodies, basically error-free – that person is capable of having a greater awe and a greater fear than I am, because I don’t understand those things as deeply.
So what Maimonides is trying to give us a picture of is: the further we go in our learning, and, really, we would say in our terms, our scientific learning, our advancement in knowledge, the richer our emotional-religious lives will be, in this kind of back-and-forth, what he would call, to use a fancy word, a “dialectic” – a dialogue, a back-and-forth between love and fear, which are these central religious categories.
And I want to give just one aphorism here to close this part up, and it’s from Ludwig Wittgenstein, who probably isn’t a household name. He was a great and very complicated German – Austrian, really – philosopher from a Jewish family who lived kind of around the end of the 19th century or [beginning of the] 20th century. And he had this amazing line that I always think about: “An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker.”
And you can do a lot with that image, right. But one of the things is that you can kind of fall off to either side, right. You could stop being honest – that’s one way to be a religious thinker, it’s to kind of lie to yourself. Or you can stop being religious – you can just be an honest thinker. Or you can stop being a thinker, right. Any one of those. But to do all three of them is hard. And part of what I love about the image of the tightrope walker is that it’s safer – I’ve never been a tightrope-walker myself, but this makes me want to try – is that you’re actually more stable when you’re moving. It’s actually very hard to stand still. So when you’re losing your balance, you can go forward. And that can solve everything you try to. You can’t do it for very long, you’ve got to keep moving.
And that’s what Maimonides is describing, right – there are these pushes and pulls, the pull of love, and the pull of shame here, which pull you back and forth. You never reach a stable equilibrium, a final place where you’re like, “Oh, I’m settled now.” You’ve got to keep moving forward through them and backwards.
And so that’s the first picture I want to give you of Maimonides’ religious life. And I think it’s thrilling, but I just want to say it’s not easy. I mentioned being a 17-year-old. Our kids are little – as Rabbi Fel mentioned, we have an almost-four-month-old. But 17-year-olds have what we’re taught to call, with our five-year-old, who’s now a middle child, “big feelings.” And for Maimonides, living is having big feelings. Love – you’re terrified at your smallness, you’re exhilarated by being part of the universe. It’s not just small everyday things, it’s huge things that you’re feeling. And they don’t average out. There’s “big” of this and “big” of that, and it swings back and forth.
How to be a Jew
So I’m going to tell you the second one. It’s a story about liturgical change. I don’t know how much I’ll talk about it – Mostly it’s the imahot nowadays, it’s a big thing. You know the topic in my family, just so you know where we are with the imahot, is: Should we add Bilhah and Zilpah? They were two of the imahot. Really interesting question. At some Jewish feminist conferences in the past, people have worn pins that said “Bilhah and Zilpah are imahot too.” Really interesting question.
So Maimonides is working off here of a different piece of Talmud that’s very important to him, and it’s just such an amazing picture of prayer that I want to share it with you all. So it’s the second source on the sheet, but I’ll summarize it. So the piece of Talmud goes like this:
“Rebbe Haninah – one of the great rabbis of the Talmud – was in a synagogue, and someone got up and he prayed. He was leading the prayers like your hazzan does. And the man said: Ha’El HaGadol HaGibor ve’HaNorah – ‘The great mighty awesome God’ – like in the Amidah – and he also said, ‘the powerful’ and ‘the greatest,’ and he listed more and more attributes of God. He added some words to the Siddur.” If we’re going to say great, mighty and awesome, and I mean, why not add some more? “So he finished, and Rabbi Haninah says, ‘Oh, did you finish saying all of God’s praises? Why did you stop with those extra four you added? Why not add on some more?’
Rebbe Haninah said, ‘No, no, if it weren’t that these words – Ha’El HaGadol HaGibor ve’HaNorah, the great, mighty, awesome God – had been written in the Torah and codified in the Siddur, we wouldn’t even be allowed to say them.’”
Because – and here’s the parable, which is so important for Maimonides – “When we praise God as great, mighty and awesome, it’s like praising a king who has billions of gold coins and saying ‘King, you have such an incredible treasury full of silver coins,’ that actually, we’re insulting him.”
And so what Maimonides is trying to say is when you say “great,” what you mean is “the greatest thing you can imagine.” When you say “mighty,” what you mean is “the mightiest thing you can imagine.” But God’s might is so much bigger than that, they are actually not praising God. You’re falling so far short that you’re insulting God. And actually, in theory, it would be prohibited to pray, because any human language is – and I’m going to use a strong word here – idolatrous, Maimonides would say. It’s almost a physical thing that we create with our lips, that exists as sound waves moving through the air, which is physical. It falls so short of God – ideally, you wouldn’t use any of it. But now that we have it and it’s our best method, what do we do?
And this is what Maimonides says that’s so amazing. He says, “Each time when I say God is great” – and this is the commentary for there – “What I should really be doing is not understanding how true that word is in describing God, because it’s not true. I should be realizing how false it is in describing God, how far short it falls. And then when I say ‘mighty God,’ “haGadol, haGibbur ve’hanora,” they realize that falls even further short. And norah, “awesome,” that’s even further short. So at the end of saying the amidah, at the end of saying those words, the end of praying – I’m not closer to God, I’m more fully aware of how far I am from God. When I started praying, God felt, you know, only this far away. But when I’m done, I realize that God is like this far away.”
Now, I imagine a lot of you are like, “But that’s not what I came to synagogue for. I came to feel close to God.” And Maimonides says, “Look, God is not the type of thing you can be close to. The religious truth is just in realizing more and more deeply how far we are from God, how small and flimsy we are, how wondrous the universe is so far beyond us. That is the religious experience.” It’s not a union, it’s not being embraced. It’s about being fully able to stare out 13 billion light-years and then realize that there’s something beyond that.
I wanted to give you this image because it’s such a remarkable picture. And I’m not saying you ought to pray this way. I think it’s probably worth trying, because it’s really interesting, but I’m not saying this is the way to go. This is not, I think, the standard Jewish approach. It’s certainly not how the rabbis felt. But it is Maimonides’ approach, and it is a kind of a bracing and a daring and an exhilarating spiritual path.
And again, what it does – and I just want to point this out again – is that it solves, in a certain way, questions of religion and science, because if you can say, “Well, I don’t know if God is really running the world, I don’t know if God is really looking out for me, I don’t know if God really hears my prayers,” Maimonides would say – excuse my language – “Damn straight. All those sentences are human ideas. None of them even come close to describing God. All of them are just ideas that we have made up. And actually, the point of religion isn’t to say that those statements are true, it’s to realize that they are there for us to be building blocks or stepping stones that you climb up.”
You can almost imagine Maimonides as someone climbing a ladder, but he’s also kind of sawing it out from underneath him as he goes. Or a better image, which makes more sense, is that he’s crossing the river on a set of stones, but each stone, when he gets past, he reaches back and he picks it up, and places it further ahead of him in the river. Those old ones, you don’t care. You kind of needed them, but you also want to get past them. But there’s also no further end to the river.
How to be in a Jewish community
There’s so much more I could say here. And as you can tell, I love Maimonides. I love describing. But I want to, now, pivot a little bit to what it’s like to be in a Jewish community.
For Maimonides, this all makes it very hard to be Jewish. And that’s because Judaism doesn’t seem to focus that much on these things. And I want to give you all a parallel, which is not a scientific parallel, but a moral parallel that I think we all might feel – I mean, I hope we all feel. And I feel it very powerfully. And the reason I’m going to give a moral parallel rather than a scientific parallel is because I think often, at the end of the day, all of us, at least most of the people I talk to – all the people I talk to – care more about moral truth these days than scientific truth.
So Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, wrote a letter to a friend. And it had an incredible line, and I know this line because Solomon Schechter, the founder of the Jewish Theological Seminary, on Abraham Lincoln’s 100th birthday, wrote a beautiful essay in honor of Lincoln. Lincoln wrote to a friend, and he said, “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.” And I find that line to be very moving and very true.
Now, what’s hard, though, is when you look back in the Torah, there’s a lot of slavery. Not so many chapters after The Exodus do we get the rules for “how to treat your Israelite slave and your Canaanite slave.”
And Lincoln knows there’s a whole complicated story. And in fact, in 1861, the rabbi of B’nai Jeshrun, the great synagogue, which still exists in Manhattan, gave a sermon saying, “You cannot make a case against slavery from the Bible, because Abraham owns slaves,” et cetera, et cetera. “Those abolitionists,” he said, “are going to destroy America, which has been the best thing for the Jewish community ever.” What an incredible moment.
So what do you do when you know something to be true, like Lincoln’s statement, but also when you look back at our tradition it’s, at best, neutral to your claim, but probably opposed to it? What do you do in that situation – when the easy options are to either say, “Well I know slavery is wrong, but I guess the Bible says it’s okay, so I guess it must be okay” – there must be something greater than my reason. Or to say, “I know slavery is wrong, the Bible says it’s okay, it’s not a very good book, let’s chuck it” – which is what Spinoza said.
So Maimonides the one – the one – who comes up with a new idea, which is to say, “I know that the Bible is true, and I know that slavery is wrong, and now I’m going to dedicate my life to reading the Bible in ways that teach us things about slavery that are true and not wrong.” And Spinoza rejects this. He explicitly quotes the passage Maimonides says, and says “You can’t read a book that way. You’ve got to just look at the book and see what it says.” Maimonides says “No!”
So just to give one more contemporary example: Judith Plaskow, the great contemporary Jewish feminist theologian, said, “I didn’t become a feminist by adding up the sexist and non-sexist columns of the Bible and finding out there are more non-sexist ones.” She said, “I’m obligated, I’m committed in my bones, to the equality of women and the integrity of women’s experience. And most feminists say, ‘Okay, well, that means you gotta ditch the Bible.’ And most Jews are coming to the Bible saying ‘We’ve got to ditch feminism.’”
She’s writing this in 1979, two generations ago. She says, “No, for reasons I can’t necessarily explain, I’m going to commit it – that these two truths, feminism and Torah come from the same place. And I’m going to now start a project of trying to explain that to you. And I’m going to write a book, Standing Again at Sinai, about this. And I know most people might never agree with me, and Maimonides says that also. I know most Jews will probably never agree with me, though that’s not going to get me to stop.”
And so the last quote I want to leave you with, which is also an aphorism – I know it is an Irish folk saying, Martin Sheen, apparently, is very familiar with it. And so it’s Christian imagery, but it’s good here. Maimonides, as just saw, is not just committed to Jewish imagery.
A man goes up to the pearly gates, and Saint Peter says, “Before I let you in, I just need to look at your arms.” The man says “Okay, all right.” So he rolls up his sleeves. And Saint Peter says, “Well, where are your scars?” And he says, “What do you mean I don’t have any scars?” And Saint Peter says, “There was nothing worth fighting for?”
And so for Maimonides, this is the second, I think, key image, is that to be a religious person, to live with these truths we know, which for him often are scientific, and for us are moral, and feminism, slavery and other things, means to fight. And it means to have scars. Maimonides was excommunicated late in his life by the leaders of the Jewish community. Thirty years after his death, his books were burned by members of the Jewish community.
And that’s the second picture I want to give, to the extent you’re like, “Wow, I am in a pitched battle with other Jews” – it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily doing it wrong – now, you might be doing it wrong; you might be spending energy on a battle it’s not worth fighting. But it also might mean you’re doing it right. And I just wanted to leave you that. Or, “I’m you’re struggling with the tradition – I’m trying to deal with these truths that I know to be true that it doesn’t really seem to get.” Again, for Maimonides, this doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong, and it actually means you’re doing it right. It’s an achievement to get there. Some people don’t know enough to be troubled morally or scientifically, and they don’t, maybe, know enough about the Torah to be troubled morally or scientifically. But you – if you’ve achieved that point of struggle, you’re doing it right.
Now, I can’t tell you where the end is, there’s no simple resolution, but that’s what it means, ultimately, to be a human being – is to have that back-and-forth vis-a-vis the universe. And what it means to be a Jew – because for Maimonides, they’re always related – to have that same kind of back-and-forth with the Torah and the Jewish community.