Who Will Defend Maimonides? Rav Soloveitchik on the Mishneh Torah and the Guide

Who Will Defend Maimonides? Rav Soloveitchik on the Mishneh Torah and the Guide

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David Curwin

To what extent did Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik view Maimonides as a guide and master? Was the Rav more beholden to Rambam’s halakhic Mishneh Torah or his philosophical Guide for the Perplexed? This question has occupied a number of scholars.[1] Now, more than ever, perhaps, we are equipped to grapple with the quandary: thanks to the recent publication of student notes penned during a semester-long graduate course delivered by the Rav on the Guide.[2] Edited by the very capable Prof. Lawrence Kaplan, these lectures were delivered in 1950-1951, during a period of time in which we possess relatively little material written by or transcribed from the Rav. Rabbi Soloveitchik composed his lengthier treatises in the 1940s.[3] Others appeared in the late 1950s and 1960s.[4] While Maimonides was always a focus of the Rav’s thought, this is the only book dedicated exclusively to analysis of one of the Rambam’s works. Within these lectures lie a critical piece of the puzzle. They show that the Rav made a distinction between different aspects of Maimonides, but not in the way we might expect.

I. Briskers and Rambam

This relationship to Maimonides was, to some extent, inherited. The Rav’s father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, and particularly his grandfather, Rabbi Hayyim Soloveitchik of Brisk, were known for making ample use of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. This essential code was their prism to resolve conflicting passages in the Talmud.

The Rav, too, cherished the Mishneh Torah. In his forties, the Rav recalled how Maimonides was his only childhood friend, and he would anxiously listen to his father’s lectures to see if he would succeed in defending Maimonides from his detractors, such as the Ravad:

Father’s lectures were given in my grandfather’s living room, where my bed was placed. I used to sit up in bed and listen to my father talk. My father always spoke about the Rambam … My father would say, almost as a complaint against the Rambam, “We don’t understand our master’s reasoning or the way he explains the passage.” It was as if he were complaining to the Rambam directly, “Rabbenu Mosheh, why did you do this?”

My father would then say that, prima facie, the criticisms and objections of the Rabad are actually correct … I would strain my ears to listen to what he was saying … Slowly, slowly, the tension ebbed; Father strode boldly and bravely. New arguments emerged; halakhic rules were formulated and defined with wondrous precision. A new light shone … The Rambam emerged the winner. Father’s face shone with joy. He had defended his “friend” … I too participated in this joy.[5]

The Briskers held no such reverence for Maimonides’s philosophical writings. According to a family tradition, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik once promised his father, Rabbi Hayyim, that the former would not study the Guide.[6] The Rav, though, made no such commitment, and in his studies in Berlin dived deeply into the world of Jewish and secular philosophy, and became very familiar with the perplexities of Rambam’s philosophy.

II. The Rav and the Guide

This does not mean that the Rav revered the Guide in the same manner in which he cherished Rambam’s halakhic code. Throughout his works, he did not hesitate to criticize Maimonides’s philosophical views. In one essay the Rav, in a dense discussion of ta’amei ha-mitzvot (the reasons for the commandments), was very critical of what Maimonides wrote in the Guide, while praising his explanation of the commandments in the Mishneh Torah. According to the Rav, the reasons Maimonides offered for a rationale of commandments “neither edify nor inspire the religious consciousness. They are,” averred Rabbi Soloveitchik, “essentially, if not entirely, valueless for the religious interests we have most at heart.”[7] Compare this to the Rav’s sentiments for the Mishneh Torah:

It is worthy of note that Maimonides, the halakhic scholar, came nearer to the core of philosophical truth than Maimonides, the speculative philosopher. In contradistinction to the causal method of the philosophical Guide … the halakhic Code (the Mishneh Torah) apprehends the religious act in an entirely different light.[8]

Perhaps, then, the Rav saw two different Maimonideses: the halakhist of the Mishneh Torah and the philosopher of the Guide. What is more, he preferred the halakhic Rambam.[9] Apparently, this was the position of the Rav’s son-in-law and student, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. He once asked the question:

What is the Rambam’s magnum opus? Is it the Mishneh Torah or Guide for the Perplexed? And what has been presumed to be the Rambam’s major contribution to the Jewish people historically?

Rabbi Lichtenstein’s answer: it is “undoubtedly, the halakhic Mishneh Torah!”[10] He rejected academic scholars like Shlomo Pines who claim that Maimonides “only expressed his true way of thinking in Guide for the Perplexed.” To Rabbi Lichtenstein, “if the Guide for the Perplexed had been lost, it would have been a loss, but not a monumental one.”[11]

Of course, there is inherent danger in drawing any sharp distinction between the Maimonides of the Mishneh Torah and he of the Guide. Most importantly, despite being a work of halakhah, Mishneh Torah begins with important philosophical discussions. For instance, the opening chapters of Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah addresses how to prove the existence of God through the study of the cosmos, particularly the revolving spheres of the heavens:

For the sphere revolves continuously, and it is impossible that it revolve without [a force] that makes it revolve (1:5).

This cosmological argument is also known as the “unmoved mover” or “prime mover” theory, found in the prevalent philosophical theories of his time. Ultimately, and expectedly, the notion is easily traceable to Aristotle, after whom Maimonides patterned many of his philosophical ideas. This method is also found in the opening chapter of Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim, where Maimonides described the biblical patriarch Abraham discovering God in precisely this way:

He [Abraham] would wonder, “How could this sun behave like this always, without a Guide, or someone to keep it in motion? Because certainly it is impossible for it to cause itself to orbit.” … And he knew that there is only one God, that He guides the sun, that He created everything, and that there exists no other God besides Him (1:3).

In time, the science of the prime mover theory was disproved by Galileo and Newton. Both helped demonstrate that objects remain in motion by inertia, not by any external force. But more important from a philosophical point of view, Immanuel Kant rejected the entire premise that one could prove the existence of God from any examination of reality. He demonstrated that the intellect cannot define God (or anything else) into existence.

Here the Rav differed from his ancestors. He did not reject Maimonides because he represented philosophy. Rather, the Rav found the philosophy of Kant more convincing than that of Aristotle. He therefore accepted the Kantian approach and rejected the cosmological argument found in Maimonides. This is evident in his elucidation of man’s search for God. In one essay, Rabbi Soloveitchik argued that “man cannot come to God on his own, through the initiative of his own spirit” and “such rationalism, which emerges from time to time in philosophical religious thought, lowers prophecy to the level of a pedagogical tool.”[12] These statements and others differ strikingly from much of Maimonides’s writings regarding philosophy and prophecy.

All of this stands in contrast to the Rav’s story (in the same work!) where he was deeply concerned for the welfare of Maimonides, under siege by Ravad and other “attackers.” Put simply: how is it that he could defend Maimonides against Ravad, but not against Kant?

III. Throwing New Light on the Rav’s Stance: Inductive and Deductive Approaches

To answer this question, we might examine how the Rav addressed another medieval scholastic philosopher who provided proofs for God. In a number of locations, the Rav criticized the approach of the eleventh century philosopher, Anselm of Canterbury. Anselm is known for his ontological argument, which posited that a perfect being, i.e. God, must exist. The Rav repudiated this approach by quoting 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard:

It is related that, prior to his discovery of the ontological proof of God’s existence, one of the great non-Jewish philosophers [Anselm of Canterbury] fasted for three consecutive days, praying and beseeching his creator to enlighten him with a valid proof of His existence. Kierkegaard ridiculed him, saying, “You fool, does a baby in his father’s arms need proofs or signs that the father exists? Does a person who feels the need to pray to God require a philosophical demonstration?”[13]

There are significant differences between Anselm’s ontological argument and the cosmological argument of Maimonides. Those distinctions are not significant for a modern thinker like the Rav. For him, all “proofs” of God’s existence can be equally dismissed. The intriguing revelation of this new book on the Guide, however, is that the Rav argued that Maimonides as well would reject Anselm!

He did so by making a distinction between two different approaches to the question of how we encounter God, quoting from the Guide (1:34):

There are two methods of argumentation: deductive and inductive. Maimonides insisted on an inductive approach to God. “There is … no way to apprehend Him except through the things He has made.”[14]

The deductive approach, as defined by the Rav in another context, starts “with abstract theological propositions and postulates, proceeding gradually from the abstract and general to the concrete and particular.”[15] In other words, we begin with the concept of God and use that concept to prove His existence. The Rav associated this approach with the scholars who “worked deductively from set premises that could not be demonstrated but were assumed to be either self-evident or innate ideas whose validity could not be denied.”[16] He proceeded to say that Anselm’s ontological proof of God’s existence is an example of the deductive method, and Kant was the first to disprove it.[17]

According to the Rav, the inductive approach meant “that one must begin by exploring God’s creation, by investigating reality in all its levels, and thereby ascend gradually to God.”[18] But unlike the deductive approach, God’s existence cannot be proved with induction. “We do not infer God’s existence from exploring the world; we immediately apprehend it. No logical inference is necessary.”[19] We know God exists because we experience Him, in Kierkegaard’s example, as a child experiences the embrace of a parent.

The Rav affirmed that examining the world can lead us to God, but this is different from a cosmological proof:

Maimonides’ position in the Guide is that the dynamics of the world lead to the idea that there is a God, but this does not have the status of a demonstrative proof. God does not serve as a theoretical explanation of the cosmos. Rather, my apprehension of God follows immediately, not indirectly, from my apprehension of the cosmos.[20]

Remarkably, the Rav held that the deductive approach, using God to explain the universe, is found in the Mishneh Torah, whereas the inductive approach is in the Guide:

True, God cannot serve as a formal explanation for the physical motion of the universe. In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides believed that God could serve as such an explanation. ‘For the sphere revolved continually, and it is impossible that it should revolve without something that causes it to revolve’ (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 1:5). But in the Guide Maimonides gave up on the attempt to view God in such a fashion.[21]

Therefore, it is evident that the Rav did not reject the Guide. Instead, he believed that it is the more philosophically mature of Maimonides’s works. Of course, the Rav did not believe that Maimonides’s personality had changed between authoring the Mishneh Torah and writing the Guide. The Rav said as much:

Can we possibly say that there was a change in his attitude between his writing the Mishneh Torah and his writing the Guide? This is not the case. One cannot delineate the periods in Maimonides’ life so neatly. The thoughts found in the Guide are not the product of some sudden inspiration; they matured in his mind over many years. Indeed, there are very few contradictions between the two works, and one cannot differentiate between them.[22]

This approach does leave us with two figures of Maimonides: the Deductive Maimonides and the Inductive Maimonides. It is the former who provokes the Rav’s criticism. Consider Rabbi Soloveitchik’s rejection of speculative attempts to understand evil. Job, as described in the Rav’s most well-known essay on Zionism, is initially described as a philosopher, condemned as a “slave of fate.” This philosopher is in the mold of the Abraham, as depicted in Rambam’s Hilkhot Avodah Zarah. However, unlike Maimonides, who viewed this kind of philosopher as a role model, the Rav condemned Job the philosopher. He depicted him as arrogantly [presuming] to ask so many questions regarding the governance of the cosmos.”[23] Only in the end of the story, when he abandons this type of speculation, did the Rav describe Job as a “man of destiny.”[24]

Maimonides believed that we should all be philosophers like Abraham, and included deductive speculation as obligatory upon all of us—“The knowledge of this matter is a positive commandment” (Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah 1:6). The Rav, however, interpreted this statement as referring to the inductive approach:

I do not agree with those who interpret “to know” as meaning “to understand,” indicating that each and every Jew would have to philosophize and investigate for himself all that is relevant to the existence of God. I do not believe that this is what Maimonides meant. We cannot “understand” the Almighty... I am convinced therefore that Maimonides did not mean that every Jew had to become a philosopher or, in modern parlance, a theologian. I would say that “to know” (lei'da) means that our conviction of the existence of God should become a constant and continuous awareness of the reality of God.[25]

According to the Rav, the obligation “to know” God does not require deductive proofs in an attempt to logically understand that God exists. Rather, we know God exists inductively, by constantly being aware of His presence in our lives. As the Rav wrote, “the religious sensibility does not offer decisive proofs, draw inferences or make deductions. It ‘senses’ and experiences God in its innermost ontological consciousness.”[26]

By introducing the distinction between the deductive and inductive approaches to God, the Rav did not merely expunge the negative stigmas regarding speculation from the Guide. He also restored the status of Maimonides from a “theologian” to a halakhic authority, even regarding the previously problematic commandment of knowing God. In the end, the Rav came to the aid of his friend, rehabilitating and rescuing not just the halakhic Maimonides but the philosophical one, as well.


[1] See, for example, Aviezer Ravitzky, “Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik on Human Knowledge: Between Maimonidean and Neo-Kantian Philosophy,” Modern Judaism 6 (May, 1986): 157-188 and Zev Harvey, "He'arot al HaRav Soloveitchik ve-ha-Filosofiah Ha-Rambamit," in Emunah Bi-zmanim Mishtanim, ed. Avi Sagi (Jerusalem: WZO, 1996), 95-107.

[2] Lawrence J. Kaplan, ed., Maimonides: Between Philosophy and Halakhah: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Lectures on the Guide of the Perplexed at the Bernard Revel Graduate School (1950-51) (Brooklyn: Urim Publications, 2016).

[3] Ish Ha-Halakhah (Halakhic Man), U-Vikashtem Mi-Sham (And From There You Shall Seek) and The Halakhic Mind.

[4] Kol Dodi Dofek (1956) and The Lonely Man of Faith (1965).

[5] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, And From There You Shall Seek, trans. Naomi Goldblum (Jersey City: Ktav, 2008), 143-44.

[6] Shulamit Soloveitchik Meiselman, The Soloveitchik Heritage: A Daughter's Memoir (Hoboken: Ktav, 1996), 109-10.

[7] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Halakhic Mind (New York: Seth Press, 1986), 92.

[8] Ibid., 93-94.

[9] There is a long history of rabbinical figures accepting the halakhic mastery (and the “principles of the faith”) of Maimonides, while criticizing his philosophical works. Examples can be found in the writings of Rabbi Jacob Emden, Hatam Sofer, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Samuel David Luzzatto. See Warren Zev Harvey, "The Return of Maimonideanism," Jewish Social Studies 42 (Summer/Autumn, 1980): 249-68 and David Henshke, “Li-she’eilat Ahdut Haguto shel ha-Rambam,Da`at 37 (1997): 37-52. However, the Rav, following his family’s Brisker method where contradictions are transformed into dialectical tensions, developed these conflicts into two different epistemological approaches overall.

[10] Haim Sabato, Seeking His Presence: Conversations with Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, trans. Binyamin Shalom (Tel Aviv: Yedioth Books, 2016), 43-46. On p. 44, Rabbi Lichtenstein quoted his brother-in-law (and also a son-in-law of the Rav), Prof. Isadore Twersky, as writing "that the Rambam's stature was established ... by his greatness in halakha." However, it appears to me that Twersky, from his Introduction to the Code of Maimonides, is best known for insisting on the integrity of the halakhic and philosophical aspects of Maimonides. See Prof. Carmi Horowitz's article on Twersky, "Halakha and History, Intellectualism and Spirituality" in Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity, ed. Meir Y. Soloveichik, Stuart W. Halpern and Shlomo Zuckier (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2016), 268-70. Horowitz noted, “Prof. Twersky did not accept the bifurcated Maimonides: Maimonides the halakhist and Maimonides the philosopher.”

[11] Sabato, Seeking His Presence, 50.

[12] Soloveitchik, And From There You Shall Seek, 40, 126.

[13] Ibid., 16. See also Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” Tradition 7 (Summer 1965): 32, where the Rav quoted the same story of Anselm and Kierkegaard, although this time using the metaphor of the “loving bride in the embrace of her beloved”, who doesn’t “ask for proof that he is alive and real.” This metaphor is perhaps more appropriate to the overall theme of The Lonely Man of Faith (which discusses the Adam-Eve relationship) than the father-child one found in And From There You Shall Seek.

[14] Kaplan, Maimonides, 102.

[15] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart: Essays on Jewish Prayer, ed. Shalom Carmy (New York: Ktav, 2003), 113.

[16] Kaplan, Maimonides, 102.

[17] Ibid., 103.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 104.

[20] Ibid., 106.

[21] Ibid. On p. 110, the Rav quoted Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah (2:2): “And what is the way to the love and fear of Him? When a person contemplates his great and wondrous works and creatures and discerns from them His wisdom” and said that this “cosmic experience” is the “primary way to know and love God.” For the Rav, loving God is possible through reflecting on Creation, but that is not the way to a proof of God’s existence.

[22] Ibid., 209. And even more forcefully on page 216, he rejected “the method favored by historians when dealing with apparent contradictions between the Mishneh Torah and Guide, namely a developmental approach. After all, we are not dealing here with two texts written, say twenty years apart, an early text reflecting perhaps the author’s immaturity, and a later one reflecting perhaps his senility…” This is consistent with the ahistorical approach of the Rav to the sages. As he wrote in Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence Kaplan (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1983), 120: “The consciousness of halakhic man … embraces the entire company of the sages of the masorah. He lives in their midst … all of them merge into one time experience … Both past and future become, in such circumstances, ever-present realities.”

[23] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Fate and Destiny: From the Holocaust to the State of Israel, trans. Lawrence Kaplan (Hoboken: Ktav, 2000), 11-12. A similar criticism of Job before his encounter with God can be found in Halakhic Man, 9-10, where Job eventually “returns to God with the discovery of mystery in the created world and of his inability to understand that mystery.”

[24] Interestingly, Maimonides in his discussion of Job in the Guide (3:22-23) has a reverse order of Job’s progression. He initially wrote that Job was moral, but not intelligent or wise, and only knew God “because of his acceptance of authority” and “traditional stories,” and not due to philosophical speculation. But when Job eventually gained that wisdom, he “admitted that true happiness, which is the knowledge of the deity, is guaranteed to all who know Him.”

[25] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, On Repentance: The Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, ed. Pinchas Peli, (Northvale: Jason Aronson, 2000), 130.

[26] Soloveitchik, And From There You Shall Seek, 13. In the adjacent footnote, the Rav conceded that Maimonides does discuss proofs of God’s existence, but wrote, “Even though Maimonides did not desist from presenting indirect demonstrations of the existence of God … the essence of his view is that this knowledge is based on the immediate ontological cognition that there is no reality but God." (p. 158 n.4).

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