Mysticism and its Alternatives: Rethinking Maimonides

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David Fried


For many, the name Maimonides (1138-1204) is synonymous with rationalism: an alternative vision of Judaism for those who did not connect with the mysticism that became popular in many Jewish communities in subsequent centuries.[1] A thorough look at Maimonides’ writings, however, along with some recent scholarship, reveals that the reality is far more complex.

Menachem Kellner authored an entire book on the topic of Maimonides’ relationship with mysticism.[2] Kellner argues that not only did Maimonides’ philosophy differ fundamentally from that of the mystics, but he was also consciously polemicizing against the nascent mystical trends of his day. On issue after issue (holiness, ritual purity and impurity, the Hebrew language, and Jews and non-Jews), he demonstrates how Maimonides sought to replace enchanted, mystical understandings of these notions with rational, social-halakhic conceptions. His argument can be summed up in a line he quotes from the late Isadore Twersky, who asserted that Maimonides expressed “consistent opposition to hypostasized entities endowed with intrinsic sanctity.”[3] Kellner lays out the philosophical basic for this view as follows:

Maimonides sought for a universe with as few entities as possible. Indeed, as he says in the second chapter of the Mishneh Torah, everything in the created universe can be resolved into one of three classes of entities: those composed of matter and form and subject to generation and corruption, those composed of matter and form and not subject to generation and corruption, and those composed of form only. This tripartite division leaves no room for the multifarious denizens of the universe so beloved of ancient Jewish mysticism: angels and demons, forces, powers, occult properties (segulot), all those aspects of the cosmos which we today would lump together under the rubric ‘supernatural’. For Maimonides, there is God and nature and nothing else…

Maimonides’ economical universe is not simply a matter of philosophical temper; rather, it is an important religious position as well. Judaism, Maimonides was convinced, ‘depopulated the heavens,’ and he was committed to battling efforts to repopulate them. But not just the heavens; Maimonides fought against a tendency to attribute existence on some objective ontological plane to notions which, he was convinced, were best understood as names, not entities.[4]

Maimonides, thus presented, emerges as a somewhat tragic figure. As Moshe Idel writes:

The rationalistic reconstructions of Judaism prompted, in turn, a powerful reaction wherein an amalgam of older traditions, including the same mystical, mythical, and magical elements, came to the surface in more overt and crystallized forms.[5]

Remarking on this, Kellner writes:

Maimonides’ failure to purify Judaism is, ironically, further demonstrated by the fact that it was his project which apparently brought about the crystallization of everything which he opposed in the form of kabbalah.[6]

I have no doubt of the correctness of Kellner’s analysis that Maimonides was vehemently opposed to an enchanted view of the universe. This, however, cannot suffice as a thorough study of Maimonides’ relationship with mysticism. While the enchanted universe was certainly a popular belief among Jewish mystics, it is hardly the only feature of mysticism, nor even a necessary one.[7] The first definition that Merriam-Webster offers for mysticism is “the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics.”[8] Thus, if one has a mystical worldview (as opposed to one who may occasionally seek out mystical experience), the most essential feature is not an enchanted or magical view of the universe, but the idea that one can have a direct experience of the divine, and that such an experience represents the ultimate human perfection. To fully explore Maimonides’ relationship with mysticism, then, we must address his beliefs about experiencing the divine.

Maimonides and Communion with God

For those of us who have been trained to view rationalism and mysticism as wholly different approaches to religion, our first instinct is to say that direct experience of Maimonides’ utterly transcendent God would be impossible. We would assume that it is the philosophical understanding of God (or of what God isn’t – see Guide 1:5859), not the direct experience, which, for Maimonides represents the ultimate human perfection. Upon closer examination of Maimonides’ words, though, it becomes evident that this assumption is not correct. To be sure, knowledge of God is the “Foundation of foundations and the pillar wisdom.”[9] But it is the beginning, not the end, of human perfection. In Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah, Maimonides writes:

In what manner does one come to love and be in awe of Him [God]? When a person meditates upon His great and wondrous deeds and creations, and sees therein His great wisdom, which is without measure or bound – immediately he will come to love, praise, and glorify, and to desire a great desire to know the great Name,[10] as David said, “My soul thirsts for God, the living God.” And as he thinks further about these things, immediately he will recoil backwards in awe and fear, realizing that he is but one small creation, lowly and dark, standing with his limited knowledge before the One who is of perfect knowledge. (2:2)

Human perfection begins with the intellectual knowledge of God, but the higher goal is not the knowledge itself but the experience of love and awe[11] brought about by meditation and reflection upon that knowledge. David Blumenthal refers to this as “intellectual mysticism.”[12] It is intellectual in that rational philosophical study is a prerequisite for the love of God. One cannot meditate upon the idea of God if one does not know what God is. Or, as Maimonides himself writes, “in accordance with the knowledge, so is the love.”[13] It is mystical, though, in that its ultimate goal is not intellectual but to meditate upon the idea of the divine; it is the experience produced by the knowledge, not the knowledge itself.

While his thesis is already evident in Mishneh Torah, Blumenthal’s primary proof text is 3:51 of Guide for the Perplexed. There, Maimonides presents his famous palace metaphor in describing seven levels of human perfection. The sixth is that of individuals who have mastered the study of metaphysics. For those who have attained this penultimate level, Maimonides exhorts them to strive for the ultimate achievement in human perfection:

…to concentrate all their thoughts in God. This is the worship peculiar to those who have acquired a knowledge of the highest truths; and the more they reflect on Him, and think of Him, the more are they engaged in His worship.

He later elaborates:

You must know that even if you were the wisest man in respect to the true knowledge of God, you break the bond between you and God whenever you turn entirely your thoughts to the necessary food or any necessary business; you are then not with God, and He is not with you: for that relation between you and Him is actually interrupted in those moments.[14]

Indeed, the path that Maimonides advises to ascend from the sixth level to the seventh is clearly meditative, a training of the mind to dwell exclusively on God,[15] and not merely intellectual study:

The first thing you must do is this: Turn your thoughts away from everything while you read Shema. Or during the Tefillah, and do not content yourself with being devout when you read the first verse of Shema, or the first paragraph of the prayer. When you have successfully practiced this for many years, try in reading the Law or listening to it, to have all your heart and all your thought occupied with understanding what you read or hear. After some time when you have mastered this, accustom yourself to have your mind free from all other thoughts when you read any portion of the other books of the prophets, or when you say any blessing; and to have your attention directed exclusively to the perception and the understanding of what you utter.[16]

According to Blumenthal, all this points “to the existence of a post-cognitive level of worship, one which could not be achieved without intellect but one which was ‘after’ it, which transcended it.”

Even though Maimonides describes this seventh, and ultimate, level as that of the prophets, we should not think of it as something that requires divine intervention to achieve. Let us recall that for Maimonides, prophecy is the natural result of the perfection of the human intellectual, moral, and imaginative faculties. To be sure, God might withhold prophecy from one who is otherwise worthy, but it is the withholding of the prophecy in that case that Maimonides views as miraculous, not the prophecy itself (Guide 2:32). It is thus clear that while philosophical understanding is crucial for Maimonides, the higher goal is to be in a constant state of love and awe[17] of the divine. This experience would certainly meet the definition of mystical.

Maimonides and Mystical Union

Gideon Freudenthal goes a step beyond Blumenthal, contending that for Maimonides, the experience of the divine is not merely one of love and awe, but true unio mystica, mystical union with the divine.[18] According to Freudenthal, this notion, which is so controversial that Scholem and Idel debate whether any Jewish mystic actually believed in it,[19] has been hiding in plain sight the whole time in the words of Maimonides, the arch-rationalist.

This argument requires piecing together evidence from various places, but is rather straightforward. In Guide 1:68, Maimonides discusses his general theory of knowledge. An intellect that is not actively cognizing is merely a potential intellect. However, when one actively cognizes the form or essence of a thing, the form enters one’s mind, and the intellect can be said to exist in actu, not merely in potential. Thus, Maimonides writes:

Man, before comprehending a thing, comprehends it in potentia; when, however, he comprehends a thing, e.g., the form of a certain tree which is pointed out to him, when he abstracts its form from its substance, and reproduces the abstract form, an act performed by the intellect, he comprehends in reality, and the intellect which he has acquired in actuality, is the abstract form of the tree in man’s mind. For in such a case the intellect is not a thing distinct from the thing comprehended.

The key point here is that the abstract form and the intellect actively cognizing it are one and the same.

We can now take Maimonides’ general theory of knowledge back to 3:51, upon which Blumenthal based so many of his ideas. As we noted earlier, the ultimate goal is not merely to achieve an intellectual understanding of God, but to have one’s thoughts actively dwell upon Him at every moment. This makes a great deal of sense in light of Maimonides’ theory of knowledge as presented in 1:68. The intellect that understands the idea of God, but is not actively cognizing it, knows it only in potential. True knowledge occurs only during the moments when one is actively cognizing. It further follows that just as when we cognize the form of a tree our intellect becomes identical with the form of the tree, so too when cognizing the idea of God, our intellect becomes identical with Him. What more powerful expression of unio mystica could there be? Additionally, there is a key difference between cognizing trees and cognizing God. Obviously, when cognizing the form of a tree, our intellect does not become a tree, for a physical tree is not the same as the ideal or form of the tree. Physical objects consist of matter that can reflect form only to greater or lesser degrees. God, on the other hand, does not consist of matter, and therefore the idea of God is not separate from the essence of God, as Maimonides said, both in Guide 1:68 and in Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah, “He [God] is the knower, He is the known, and He is the knowledge itself” (2:10).

Freudenthal uses the idea that when cognizing God (assuming, of course, a correct understanding), our intellect enters into a state of mystical union with the divine, to explain several other key ideas in Maimonidean thought. In Guide 3:17, Maimonides outlines his basic theory of divine providence, namely that each individual human being experiences divine providence proportionate to his or her level of intellectual perfection. In 3:51, he clarifies further that even one with a high degree of intellectual perfection experiences providence only during the moments when one is actively cognizing God. Based on what we have said, we can understand that providence is not an external reward that God gives to a human who has perfected himself or herself, but the natural result of an intellect in a state of mystical union with the divine.[20]

Freudenthal also uses this idea to explain Maimonides’ theory of prophecy. As we said above, Maimonides views prophecy as a natural result of the perfection of the human intellectual, moral, and imaginative faculties. The intellect that is in a state of mystical union with the divine is able to apprehend certain truths that would not have been known through the senses alone. This purely intellectual prophecy was achieved only by Moses (Guide 2:35). Others, however, receive prophecies through the medium of an angel or the Active Intellect[21] (Guide 2:35; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 7:1). Freudenthal refers to this as “an expression of the tension between the religious ideal and philosophical insight into the limitations of the human intellect.”[22] For Maimonides, the angels, like the Active Intellect, are not independent beings with wills of their own. They are emanations, or Intelligences, of varying degrees, through which human beings can relate to the divine. Since the true essence of God is unknowable, the states of mystical union that we can achieve will naturally have degrees and levels that vary with our levels of comprehension. These avenues of experiencing the divine based on our different levels of comprehension are expressed through the language of angels or Intelligences.[23]

A History (and Future) of Mystical Interpretations of Maimonides

Both Blumenthal and Freudenthal point out that mystical interpretations of Maimonides are nothing new. They abounded in the centuries immediately following Maimonides’ death, before the practitioners of Wissenschaft forced on us the false dichotomy of mysticism versus rationalism.[24] Scholars of mysticism, starting with Scholem, missed the mysticism of Maimonides for similar reasons from the opposite side of the same false dichotomy. Scholem describes Abulafia’s affinity for Maimonides as “astounding” and the notion of writing a mystical commentary on the Guide “curious.”[25] This leads Blumenthal to comment:

For Scholem, mysticism had to be dramatic. Merkavah mysticism had its hundreds of angels, its magic names, its celestial hymns, and so on… All of this is very dramatic, powerful. It has myth and pathos. Maimonides’ mysticism has none of that. The black and white of knowledge fades into the gray of contemplation and then into the lighter shades of post- intellectual piety. There is no high drama here. Perhaps, too, Scholem’s resistance to philosophic mysticism as a category ultimately stemmed from his rejection of the rationalism of the Reform and the Enlightenment in favor of a re-mythicization of Jewish life in a Zionist and supra-rational mode.[26]

Contrary to Scholem, Adam Afterman maintains that Abulafia was legitimately building off Maimonides’ philosophical system. In his recent book on the language of mystical union in Judaism, Afterman notes that Maimonides played a crucial role in the development of various mystical practices in early Kabbalah.[27] While, unlike Blumenthal and Freudenthal, Afterman declines to call Maimonides a mystic,[28] at the very least he gives lie to the notion presented by Kellner[29] and Idel that the relationship between Maimonides and the mystics was entirely antagonistic. That the most explicit description of unio mystica that Idel can find among Jewish mystics is in Abraham Abulafia’s commentary on Guide for the Perplexed[30] should therefore come as no surprise.

Bringing our argument full circle, then, whether or not Freudenthal’s arguments regarding unio mystica are convincing, I would contend that the evidence Blumenthal presents from Guide 3:51 suffices to legitimately term Maimonides a mystic. With this recognition, we may even suggest that the hidden views to which Maimonides refers in his Introduction may have been areas regarding which he agreed with the mystics. This would open many new possibilities in the understanding of Maimonides.

Epilogue: Alternatives to Mysticism – Rethinking Ha-Levi

If even Maimonides is a mystic, are there any medieval precedents for a non-mystical view of Judaism? Ironically, the most non-mystical understanding of religion might be found in Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Levi’s Kuzari.

This assertion surely comes as a surprise to anyone who has read Kellner’s book, wherein he repeatedly uses Kuzari as a paradigm of proto-kabbalistic, pre-Maimonidean Jewish mysticism. Kellner is by no means the first to interpret Kuzari in this fashion, but Kellner’s is a fundamentally flawed understanding of the work. To be sure, Kuzari’s understanding of the nature of things, such as the holiness of the Jewish people or the Land of Israel, was more enchanted than that of Maimonides. This, as stated, was the major thrust of Kellner’s book, so it makes sense that he sees Ha-Levi as a mystic. Kuzari’s ideas on this topic, however, have always struck me as more “biologistic” than enchanted, to borrow a phrase from Steven Schwarzchild.[31] For example, Kuzari famously compares the potential for religious achievement (when combined with human effort) in the Land of Israel to the potential for certain fields to grow better grapes.[32] This analogy makes it sound as though he is describing a natural property of the land, not a supernatural one. Regardless, as discussed, the enchanted worldview is not the essential feature of mysticism, nor the essential feature of the philosophy of Kuzari. As we did with Maimonides, we must look for Kuzari’s view on mystical experience.

Afterman points out[33] that Kuzari does contain a powerful description of the idea of mystical union:

In the perfect person a light of divine nature, called Active Intellect, is with him, and its Passive Intellect is so closely connected therewith that both are but one. The person [of such perfection] thus observes that he is The Active Intellect himself, and that there is no difference between them.[34]

The problem with using this passage to call Ha-Levi a mystic is that it appears in the words of the philosopher, not the words of the Rabbi! Ha-Levi seems to see philosophy and mysticism as fundamentally intertwined, which makes sense, as he lived before the two began to be perceived as dichotomous.[35] His view on mysticism is essentially the same as his view on philosophy: it’s a nice effort to try to come close to God for those who do not benefit from revelation, but now that we have revelation, we have no need for it. This is evident from the fourth section of the book. After explicating the meaning of the mystical Sefer Yetzirah, he writes:

…this was Abraham’s point of view when divine power and unity dawned upon him prior to the revelation accorded to him. As soon as this took place, he gave up all his speculations and only strove to gain favour of God, having ascertained what this was and how and where it could be obtained.[36]

The overall message of revelation, a superior source of truth to speculative philosophy or speculative mysticism[37], for Kuzari, is best summed up in the content of the king’s dream: “Your way of thinking is pleasing to God, but not your way of acting.”[38] Revelation teaches us that God cares more about how we act than what we think or feel, or, as Schwarzchild puts it, “The primacy of practical reason – that the world ought to be changed rather than merely understood, that philosophy is the search for virtue more than the search for truth, and that God’s law rather than His quiddity is the concern of Judaism.”[39] There could not be a more powerful rejection of the mystical approach to Judaism. Those looking for a non-mystical medieval Judaism would be wise to take another look at the Kuzari, while those whose souls crave mysticism, especially of the intellectual variety, would do well to reexamine Maimonides.

[1] I wish to express gratitude to two people with whom I had short conversations in 2007 while studying in Yeshivat Har Etzion: first, to Rabbi Ezra Bick for introducing me to the idea of intellectual mysticism, and second, to Rabbi Menachem Leibtag for explaining the difference between a mystical worldview and an enchanted one. Their words stayed with me and no doubt influenced my desire to research this topic.

[2] Menachem Kellner, Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism, (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006).

[3] Kellner, 2.

[4] Kellner, 12.

[5] Quoted in Kellner, 8.

[6] Kellner, 18. This would create an interesting parallel with Maimonides’ failure in the halakhic realm, where his attempt to homogenize Halakhah ironically led to even greater debate and divergence of opinion.

[7] Why those of a mystical bent often seem to be drawn to an enchanted worldview remains an open question. It may be mere historical accident, based on the particular circumstances in which these groups emerged. It may also be that the difficulty of cultivating direct mystical experience with a transcendent God led people seek out more relatable avenues that could induce mystical experience.

[8] “Mysticism.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

[9] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah, 1:1. All Mishneh Torah translations are my own.

[10] That the desire mentioned here is an end in itself and not merely an impetus to greater philosophical study will be demonstrated clearly by the passages we will quote from the Guide for the Perplexed.

[11] Love and awe in this context are two sides of the same coin: the constant to and fro of seeking out communion with God leads one to realize the gulf that lies between the human and the divine. Maimonides describes Shir Ha-Shirim as an allegory for this experience. See Hilkhot Teshuvah, 10:3.

[12] David Blumenthal, “Maimonides: Prayer, Worship, and Mysticism,” in Philosophic Mysticism: Studies in Rational Religion (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2006), 96-114, available at Blumenthal analyzes the Arabic language carefully, looking for parallels with Islamic Sufi mysticism. Whether he is right in these claims is immaterial to our subject. The human perfection Maimonides describes in the sections Blumenthal addresses is clearly mystical in nature, regardless of whether or not the language is borrowed from or shares commonalities with other forms of mysticism.

[13] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah, 10:6.

[14] Translations from the Guide for the Perplexed are taken from M. Friedlander, republished (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004).

[15] The idea of having our thoughts dwell exclusively on God is already described by Maimonides in Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah, 10:3.

[16] See Nahmanides’ commentary on Deuteronomy 11:22, where he describes a similar process of training oneself to have one’s thoughts dwell on God at all moments in order to fulfill the command to cling to God. In Chavel’s footnotes to the Torat Hayyim Humash (Jerusalem: Mosad Ha-Rav Kook, 1993), 98, note 63, he quotes Ritva, who associates this view of Nahmanides with the opinion of Maimonides that we presented here. It is important to note, however, that Nahmanides does not mention mastery of metaphysics as a requirement to achieve this sort of mystical experience, which likely indicates a more intellectually democratic view of mysticism not reserved for the philosophical elites.

[17] The aspect of awe is not emphasized in the Guide the way it is in Mishneh Torah. This might reflect the fact that the Guide was written for a more philosophically trained audience, who were likely to experience less of a sense of distance in their communion with God.

[18] Gideon Freudenthal, “The Philosophical Mysticism of Maimonides and Maimon,” in Maimonides and His Heritage, ed. Idit Dobbs-Weinstein et al. (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009), 113-152.

[19] See Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, (New York: Schocken, 1941), 122-123; and Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 59-73. See also Scholem, 141, where he acknowledges a level of union with the divine present in the writings of Abraham Abulafia, yet goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Abulafia’s view was rejected by all later Kabbalists. Even here, Scholem is very hesitant to call Abulafia’s mysticism full unio mystica, insisting that, “to a certain extent, as we have seen, the visionary identifies himself with his Master; complete identification is neither achieved nor intended.”

[20] Freudenthal, “The Philosophical Mysticism of Maimonides and Maimon,” 120, 123. See also David Blumenthal, “Maimonides’ Philosophic Mysticism,” in Philosophic Mysticism: Studies in Rational Religion, (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2006), 128-151, available at’%20Philosophic%20Mysticism.htm. Blumenthal also connects providence with the mystical experience brought about by continuous contemplation of God.

[21] Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:3-8 and Guide for the Perplexed 2:6) explains that one of the uses of the term “angel” is the forms or intelligences, the most proximate to the human mind being the Active Intellect. This is the angel that he says merges with the mind of the prophet during a prophetic vision. I will thus use the terms angel and Intelligence interchangeably in discussing prophecy.

[22] Freudenthal, “The Philosophical Mysticism of Maimonides and Maimon,” 123-124.

[23] Elaborating further on this point, there is a tension in the Guide between describing God as the pure self-knowing intellect (1:68) and the more transcendent notion that nothing can be known of God’s essence (negative theology; 1:5859). For an analysis of the roots of these two conceptions of God and their tensions within Islamic philosophy, see Sarah Pessin, “The Influence of Islamic Thought on Maimonides,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta, ed. (Spring 2016 Edition) available at

From the vantage point of negative theology, pure intellect would need to be taken as an emanation of God, not the essence of God. Freudenthal could be reasonably critiqued for overemphasizing the former (God as pure intellect) at the expense of the latter (negative theology). If mystical union is a result of the identity of the intellect with the conceived object of knowledge, and even Moses could not conceive the true essence of God (Guide 1:54), then mystical union would seem to be impossible. Freudenthal answers this critique as follows: “since the Active Intellect is an emanation of God, closer to Him than anything terrestrial,” it remains valid to talk about unio mystica, whether it is “unification with Him or with His proximal emanation” (Freudenthal, “The Philosophical Mysticism of Maimonides and Maimon,” 124). Whether or not one accepts the argument that this is still a legitimate expression of unio mystica, negative theology can still be consistent with powerful mystical communion. Maimonides writes, “each additional negative attribute you advance toward the knowledge of God, and you are nearer to it than he who does not negative” (Guide 1:59). Based on this, the continuous contemplation or meditation upon the idea of God described in 3:51 would consist of removing from a person’s mind every possible intelligible one could possibly conceive. This process would be similar to what other mystics refer to as a meditation upon nothing, except that it is not nothing qua nothing, but the nothing who is the root of all being.

[24] Blumenthal refers to the “anti-mystical myopia” (Blumenthal, “Maimonides: Prayer, Worship, and Mysticism,” note 2) of the Wissenschaft scholars of medieval Jewish philosophy. In another article, he elaborates:

The reason for this curious omission [of mysticism from the scholarship on Maimonides] may lie in the image of Maimonides projected by the presuppositions of past scholars. Maimonides, for nineteenth century German Jewry, was the rationalist par excellence, a kind of pre-Kantian Kant. On the other hand, “mysticism” was medieval, the antithesis of the Enlightenment. (David Blumenthal, “Maimonides’ Intellectualist Mysticism and the Superiority of the Prophecy of Moses,” in Approaches to Judaism in Medieval Times, David Blumenthal, ed. (Chico: Scholars Press, 1984), 27-52, note 2. Available at

Similarly, Freudenthal writes:

But the objections to reading the Rambam as we have are based not on a refutation of what we have said but on the tacit assumption that Maimonides, as a rational philosopher, cannot be a thinker whose philosophy culminates in mysticism, the supposed opposite of rationality (Freudenthal, “The Philosophical Mysticism of Maimonides and Maimon,” 114).

As an example, he cites Hermann Cohen, who despite acknowledging the “magnificent climactic chapters of the Guide,” nevertheless writes of “Maimonides’ principal aversion not only to asceticism but to mysticism” (ibid.).

[25] Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 126.

[26] Blumenthal, “Maimonides: Prayer, Worship, and Mysticism,” note 2.

[27] Adam Afterman, And They Shall be One Flesh”: On the Language of Mystical Union in Judaism, (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 109.

[28] Afterman defines a mystic as one who actively promotes pursuing states of mystical union with God in this world. Thus, for him, Blumenthal’s arguments do not qualify one as a mystic because they deal with communion with God rather than union. He rejects Freudenthal’s claims as well because: a) Maimonides may have believed mystical union with God was only possible after death, and b) even if he believed mystical union with God was possible in this world, he did not actively promote its pursuit. For our purposes, I believe pursuing experiences of communion as well as union can both be considered mystical, and I am interested in showing that Maimonides’ beliefs on ultimate human perfection were mystical in nature, whether or not he actively promoted their pursuit.

[29] The only reference Kellner makes to Blumenthal’s arguments is in a footnote, where he writes, “I would like to avoid being drawn into a discussion of the extent to which Maimonides’ intellectualism shades off into intellectualist mysticism” (Kellner, 89, note 10). It is astonishing that, in a book about Maimonides’ relationship with mysticism, Kellner wants to avoid a discussion of such a key aspect of that relationship. In Blumenthal’s review of Kellner’s book, he writes, “In his rush to turn Maimonides into a hyper-rationalist, Kellner has missed addressing the religious, spiritual dimension of Maimonides’ worldview” (David Blumenthal, “M. Kellner, Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism,” Reviews in Religion and Theology, 14:2 (2007) 253-257, available at:

[30] Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, 62.

[31] Steven Schwarzchild, “Proselytism and Ethnicism in R. Yehudah HaLevy,” in Religionsgesprache im Mittelalter, eds. Bernard Lewis and Friedrich Niewohner (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1992), 27-41.

[32] Kuzari 2:10-14.

[33] Afterman, “And They Shall be One Flesh”: On the Language of Mystical Union in Judaism, 107-108.

[34] Kuzari 1:2. Translations from Kuzari are from the Hartwig Hirschfield translation, 1905, available at: Slight changes have been made to make the English less archaic.

[35] A parallel may be found in Bahya Ibn Paquda’s Hovot ha-Levavot, which begins with rational philosophical explanations of the unity of God and ends with language about mystical communion with God clearly borrowed from Islamic Sufi mystics. (See Afterman, And They Shall be One Flesh, 99-101.) In the eleventh century, this would not have been perceived as contradictory.

[36] Kuzari 4:40.

[37] Yohanan Silman (Bein Pilosof Le-Navi (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan, 1985), quoted in Michael Berger, “Toward a New Understanding of Judah Halevi’s Kuzari.” The Journal of Religion, 72:2 (1992): 210-228, available at: argues that Kuzari shows evidence of an evolution of Ha-Levi’s attitude towards philosophy. Parts that he wrote earlier seem to take a more enthusiastic view of the possibility of using philosophy to discover religious truths, whereas later parts seem to show greater skepticism about philosophy and reliance on history and revelation as greater sources of truth. Berger argues that Ha-Levi’s growing antipathy to philosophy has to do not with not with an epistemic rejection of the use of reason but with the historical context of Jews in Spain devaluing religious observance in favor of the contemplative lifestyle. This would underscore the point we are making here that the essential feature of Ha-Levi’s religious system is action and observance.

[38] Kuzari, Introduction.

[39] Schwarzchild, “Proselytism and Ethnicism in R. Yehudah HaLevy,” 36-37.

David Fried
David Fried teaches Judaics at the Hebrew High School of New England (HHNE). He has semikha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and has learned at Yeshivat Har Etzion. He lives in West Hartford, CT, with his wife Molly and their son Elchanan.