The Three Stages of True Spiritual Life According Maimonides

On the Matter of Maimonides' Sources


Selected Bibliography



Almost two decades ago, I set forth the idea that Maimonides must be properly considered among the mystics as well as the philosophers. [2] Two previous papers had adumbrated the argument [3] and a subsequent paper restated the case. [4] Two other studies suggested the category "philosophic mysticism" for Hoter ben Shelomo, a 15 th century Yemenite savant. [5] Over time, the term "philosophic mysticism" has found some resonance with scholars of medieval Judaism even as further study of the sources has caused me to adjust my views. This article represents yet a further refinement of the argument. [6]

When dealing with Maimonides' religious life, scholars face two problems: (1) the image of Maimonides in the eyes of several generations of modern researchers and (2) the view of Maimonides himself, insofar as this can be deduced from his writings.

Gershom Scholem, the dominant scholar of Jewish mysticism, did not list Maimonides among the mystics. He studied carefully, among other subjects, the literature of the Heikhalot, of Sefer Yetsira, and of the Zohar; the works of the Hasidei Ashkenaz, of Abraham Abulafia, and of Isaac Luria; and two mystical groups, the Sabbatean movement and hasidism. However, although he acknowledged the influence of Maimonides on Abraham Abulafia, Scholem never devoted a full study to "our Rabbi, of blessed memory," as Maimonides was known among generations of readers. Following Scholem, two generations of scholars of Jewish mysticism did not include Maimonides in their studies though these disciples corrected many of Scholem's errors and omissions. [7]

By contrast, for 150 years, scholars of Jewish philosophy have seen Maimonides as the philosopher par excellence. They have written extensively about his intellectual system: about his theories of attributes, of creation, and of providence; about his views on good and evil, on the structure of the heavens, and on will and chance; as well as about his views on prophecy, logic, and linguistics. But, these researchers have not written about Maimonides' spiritual, religious life. There is an occasional article on Maimonides' analysis of kavvana (intention in prayer) but these deal more with his halachic views than with the integration of the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of Maimonides' life. [8]

There are, in my opinion, three reasons for this. First, the followers of Maimonides in southern France and Spain interpreted him in the spirit of the extreme rationalism of Ibn Rush (Averroes) which denied the possibility of trans-rational experience. This tradition was followed by modern philosophers who sought to adopt a world of empirical, rational truth and to avoid a world of mythical, mystical truth. Second, the critics of Maimonides in southern France and Spain strove mightily to combat the rationalist implications of Maimonides' philosophy and to affirm the theurgic meaning of the commandments and, indeed, of Jewish spirituality, thus also separating philosophical and mystical truth. [9]

Third, Jews in the modern world, beginning with Graetz and continuing through the Jewish Enlightenment, regarded Jewish mysticism as something "medieval," as a burdern to be disposed of as one entered the modern world of rationalism and assumed membership in modern society. Thus, even after Scholem made the study of Jewish mystical texts scientific, and hence respectable, scholars of Jewish mysticism continued to distance themselves from describing and analyzing the mystical experiences that stand behind such texts. They created meticulous textual studies and analytic works but, until recently, there has been no true acknowledgement of the deeply spiritual experiences of God that underlie mystical texts. Perhaps, it is as the psychoanalyst, Viktor Frankl, is reported to have said, 'A person's spiritual experiences are among the most intimate components of one's personality and not every person is willing, or able, to talk about that dimension of his or her identity.' Modern academics who do speak of live religious experience have been largely religious themselves and, in the world of modern scientific Jewish studies, these people have been suspect precisely because of their personal commitments.

Instead, modern Jewish scholars and thinkers turned to Maimonides as the very epitome of rationalism. The Ibn Rushd approach which emphasized consistency and logic while deprecating mystical experience enabled modern Jewish intellectuals to shape the image of Maimonides into a rationalist to be admired, studied, and followed; a thinker who foreshadowed modern rationalism and the modern scientific spirit. Modern Jewish intellectuals, to put it clearly, made a cultural hero of Maimonides. He became a kind of "Jewish Kant." The less professionally trained followed the lead of the intellectuals and also claimed Maimonides as a model and hero of enlightened modern life. One might say that, in the zeal to join modernity and its intellectual and social liberation, modern Jewish thought made a golden calf of Maimonides, honoring his rationalism and ignoring his mysticism. [10]

Even if my analysis of the reasons for the modern view of Maimonides are wrong, the facts stand plainly clear: Maimonides appears in the annals of philosophic and history-of-thought studies, and he does not appear in the realm of Jewish or Islamic mystical studies. It is worth noting in this matter that there are several streams of interpretation that did see Maimonides in a more mystical light. Thus, the descendants of Maimonides saw him that way, as Paul Fenton has shown. [11] Abraham Abulafia surely saw Maimonides as more than an "influence"; rather, he adopted Maimonides' view of the structure of the universe as central to his system and built his meditation techniques on top of that structure. [12] The Jews of Yemen also saw Maimonides in a more spiritual light, as I have shown. [13] Lubavitch hasidism, too, saw Maimonides as a mystic, not only because of the tradition of his alleged conversion to mysticism in old age, but because Maimonides was seen as one who merged mind and spirit, intellect and heart, law and mysticism. [14] There are, thus, precedents -- if one needed them -- for considering Maimonides as a philosophic mystic.

What, then, was Maimonides' view of the true spiritual life, insofar as this can be reconstructed from the sources? A preliminary issue: There are those who claim that there is the "exoteric" Maimonides and the "esoteric" Maimonides. The former is the persona who wrote codified law and simplified philosophy for the masses, and the latter is the one who wrote recondite philosophical allusions for the elite. I am disinclined to this view; rather, it seems to me, that Maimonides saw himself as the authoritative voice for all Israel in matters of law and belief. Knowing his readership well, he wrote for each according to that person's ability. For those interested only in knowing what to do, he wrote a code of law. For those interested only in knowing what to believe, he wrote the principles of faith. For those concerned with the reasons behind the law, he wrote about that. And, for those perplexed about natural and metaphysical knowledge, he wrote about that. There was, thus, a range of people for whom Maimonides wrote, from the ignorant to the elegantly formed in the physical and metaphysical sciences. To instruct the full array of one's readers, it is necessary, as Maimonides himself wrote in the Introduction to The Guide for the Perplexed, to reveal and to conceal, to teach some things directly and others only subtly. What is "esoteric" for one, may well be "exoteric" for another. In the world of authoritative teaching, there is only one Torah though it has many, many layers of understanding. [15] This stratifying of the people is most clearly seen in those places where Maimonides develops typologies of the people -- and there are many such places, including the Introduction to The Guide and the opening section of part 3, chapter 51. Always, these typologies are multi-layered; they are never bipolar.

Given this, it seems to me that Maimonides' view of the true spiritual life can be divided into stages. The preliminary stage is proper observance of the commandments. For Maimonides, this is an indispensable step; there can be no Jewish mysticism or spirituality without the law. For this reason, he wrote his Mishne Torah (Code of Law). Anyone who wants to be "religious" only needs to look up what to do in the Code and then act accordingly. Since the Code also includes basic matters of belief, following its prescriptions also guarantees proper belief. After the meticulous observance of the Torah, however, there are three further stages of true religious life: intellectual apprehension of God, intellectual contemplation of God, and continuous contemplation of God.

The Three Stages of True Spiritual Life According Maimonides

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The first stage of true spirituality is intellectual apprehension of God (Ar., al-'idrak; Heb., ha-hasaga), also known as "love" of God (Ar., al-mahabba; Heb., 'ahava) . In this type of spirituality, one acquires as much knowledge about God as possible. This includes knowledge of God's creation (the laws of nature: physics and astrophysics with the appropriate math, biology, medicine, etc.); knowledge of what things can, and cannot, be said about God (the theory of attributes with the appropriate knowledge of logic and linguistics); and skill in interpreting holy texts so that they conform to one's general knowledge.

With these things, I explain the great general principles of the work of the Master of the universe so that they be, for one who understands, an opening to love God, as the Sages said concering love [of God], "From this [i.e., study], you get to know Him Who spoke and the world was created." ( Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Yesode ha-Torah 2:2)

When a person contemplates these things and gets to know all the created beings -- the angel, the sphere, humanity, and such things -- he or she [16] increases her or his love for the Omnipresent. The soul of such a person will thirst for God, and the flesh will yearn to love the Omnipresent, may He be blessed. Such a person will be in awe and will be afraid of his or her lowliness, poorness [of spirit], and insignifcance when compared with one of the great holy bodies [e.g., the spheres] and, even more so, [when compared with] one of the pure forms which are separate from matter and never had contact with it. [17] Such a person will find herself or himself as a vessel full of shame and embarrassment, empty and lacking. ( Ibid., ibid., 4:12)

The study of creation (nature) leads to love of God. Indeed, the accumulation of knowledge about creation is the love of God. Furthermore, the telos of learning is not knowledge itself. Rather, the purpose of knowledge of the natural world is a series of spiritual emotions -- awe, fear, insignificance, shame, and embarrassment. The goal of study is a thirsting of the soul and a yearning of the body for God. Study is a type of religious experience; the intellectual is part of a larger spiritual realm.

The second stage of true spirituality is intellectual contemplation of God, also known as "intellectual worship " of God (Ar., al-´ibada al-´aqliyya ; Heb., ha-´avoda ha-sikhlit ) and as "passion" for God (Ar., al-´ishq; Heb., hesheq). In this type of spirituality, one concentrates on abstract thinking, on pondering the most abstract and simple of concepts. But, and this is crucial, as one does this, one places oneself in the presence of God. In intellectual contemplation, one ponders the highest metaphysical concepts and one resides in the Divine presence. Intellectual contemplation ("worship," "passion"), thus, comes after the intellectual love of God, though it is rooted in, and grows from, the intellectual love of God. Intellectual contemplation is, thus, a step beyond intellectual love. It is the moment when thought fades into mystical experience. It is the transition from thinking-about-God to being-in-the-presence of God. It is a mystical moment or, more appropriately, a mystical-intellectual way of being in the world.

This kind of worship ought only to be engaged in after intellectual conception (Ar., al-tassawur al-´aqli ) has been achieved. When you have apprehended God and His acts in accordance with what is required by the intellect, you should afterwards engage in totally devoting yourself to Him (Ar., al-'inqita´ 'ilayhi ), endeavor to come close to Him (Ar., wa-tas´i nahwa qurbihi ), and strengthen the bond (Ar., al-wusla) between you and Him -- that is, the intellect ... The Torah has made it clear that this (last) worship to which we have drawn attention in this chapter can only be engaged in after apprehension (Ar., al-'idrak) has been achieved. It says: "to love the Lord your God and to worship Him with all your heart and with all your soul" (Dt. 11:13). Now we have made it clear several times ( Guide 1:39; 3:28; etc.) that that love is proportionate to apprehension (Ar., al-mahabba ´ala qadri al-'idrak ). After love comes this worship (Ar., al-´ibada) to which attention has also been drawn by the Sages, may their memory be a blessing, who said, "This is the worship that is in the heart" ( Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 2a; etc.). In my opinion it consists in setting thought to work on the first intelligible (Ar., 'i´mal al-fikra fi al-ma´qul al-'awwal ) and in dedicating oneself exclusively to this (Ar., wal-'infirad li-dhalika ), as far as this is within one's capacity. Therefore you will find that David commanded his son Solomon and fortified him in these two things, to endeavor to apprehend Him and to endeavor to worship Him after apprehension had been achieved. He said, "And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father and worship Him" (I Chron. 28:9). (Guide 3:51; Pines 620-21) [18]

This is followed [in Ps. 91] by what is said about divine providence where it gives the reasons for this great protection, saying that the reason for this great providence being effective with regard to the individual in question is this: "Because he has set his passion upon Me (Heb., ki vi hashaq ), therefore I will deliver him; I will set him on high, because he has known My Name (Heb., ki yada´ shemi )" (Ps. 91:14). We have already explained in the preceding chapters that the meaning of "knowledge of the Name" is apprehension of Him (Ar., 'idrakuhu). It is as if [the psalm] said that this individual is protected because he has known Me and then afterwards set his passion upon Me (Ar., lima ´arafani wa-´ashiqani ba´da dhalika ). You know the difference between the terms "one who loves" (Heb., 'ohev) and "one who has set his passion upon" (Heb., hosheq) -- an excess of love such that no thought remains that is directed toward a thing other than the beloved is "passion" (Ar., al-´ishq). ( Guide 3:51; Pines 627) [19]

The text is not difficult to grasp: After the work of thinking and study, a person should ponder the intellectual results. In addition -- and this is important -- one should set oneself in the presence of the intellectual power which is the source of all thought, that is, God. This latter is a form of "contemplation" or, in the words of Maimonides, "passion for God" or "worship of God." The difficult work of thinking, of gathering evidence and weighing its truth, is by contrast called by Maimonides "apprehension" or "love of God." Both of them constitute an integral aspect of the intellectual-spiritual life life of the person who strives for perfection (Ar., al-'insan al-kamil ).[20] Intellectual effort alone is not enough; one must also make a spiritual, experiential effort if one wishes to attain to the telos of humanity.

Most interesting is the fact that Maimonides, who was not deficient in the metaphysical and scientific vocabulary of his age, chose to use a series of non-philosophical words to describe this stage in the spiritual life of the person striving for perfection. It is important to highlight these terms by listing them: total devotion to Him (Ar., al-'inqita´ 'ilayhi ) (twice), exclusive dedication to Him (Ar., al-'infirad), drawing close to Him (Ar., al-qurb minhu ) (twice), being present to Him in the true way (Ar., al-muthul bayna yadayhi ´ala al-jihat al-haqiqa ), standing before Him (Ar., al-maqam ´indahu ), and bliss (Ar., al-ghibta; Heb. parallel, no´am [Guide 2:43]) (five times). [21] Note also: the contact (Ar., al-wusla) that is between you and Him which is the intellect (many times), setting thought to work on the first intelligible (Ar., 'i´mal al-fikra fi al-ma´qul al-'awwal ), and an excess of love such that no thought remains that is directed toward a thing other than the beloved which is "passion" (Ar., al-´ishq) (several times). Note especially Maimonides' use of union of their intellects (Ar., 'ittihad ´uqulihim ) and his use of bliss (Ar., al-ghibta ; Heb., no´am).

All these terms find their source in the world of mysticism, not in the world of physics and metaphysics. It cannot be happenstance that Maimonides uses them; rather, he clearly intends to allude to a spiritual experience and reality which, though rooted in previous intellectual activity, transcends that realm. In order to describe this realm which is beyond rationalism, Maimonides has recourse to these clearly mystical terms. There can be no doubt, then that, for Maimonides, the second phase of the true spiritual life included intellectual contemplation; that is, a pondering of the results of the work of the intellect while, at the same time, doing so within the presence of the living God. Precisely because Maimonides saw himself as, and in fact was, the authoritative teacher of his day, he was obligated to present to the public, even if subtly and with indirection, the experiential reality of philosophic mysticism -- which is the proper term for this form of spiritual life. It was his responsibility to do so and, when philosophic-scientific vocabulary failed him, he used mystical vocabulary.

The third stage of true spirituality is the continuous contemplation of God . It is characterized by the recurrence of the Arabic word da'iman, meaning "continuous, always." In these passages Maimonides describes a condition in which a person is in extended bliss (Ar., ghibta) or pleasure (Ar., lidhdha). In such a state, the bliss or pleasure is not a fleeting moment in human spiritual life but an ongoing state of mystical consciousness, one which attends a person always. Continuous contemplation is clearly an extension of intellectual contemplation which, in turn, is an extension of intellectual love. Each is an intensification of the previous step. Nonetheless, the three states seem clearly differentiable. [22] It is continuous contemplation which is the end, the telos, of the person seeking perfection.

Thus it is clear that, after apprehension (Ar., al-'idrak), total devotion to Him (Ar., al-'inqita´ 'ilayhi ) and the employment of intellectual thought in passion for Him always (Ar., wa-'i´mal al-fikra al-´aqliyya fi ´ishqihi da'iman ) should be be aimed at. ( Guide 3:51; Pines, 621)

There may be a human individual who, through one's apprehension of the true realities and one's bliss in what one has apprehended, achieves a state in which one talks with people and is occupied with one's bodily necessities while one's intellect is wholly turned toward Him (Ar., masruf nahwahu ), may He be exalted, such that, in one's heart one is always in His presence, may He be exalted (Ar., wa-huwa bayna yadayhi ta´ala da'iman bi-qalbihi ), even while outwardly one is with people -- in the sort of way described by the poetical parables that have been invented for these notions: "I sleep, but my heart is awake," "The voice of my beloved knocks," and so on ... This is the rank of Moses, our master ... this is the level of the patriarchs ... Through them is explained the union with God, that is, apprehension and love of Him (Ar., al-'ittihad bi-Allah, 'a´ni 'idrakuhu wa-mahabbatuhu ) and that the providence of God for them and their descendants is mighty (Ar. ´azima) ... Now this is, to my mind, a proof that they performed these actions with their limbs only, while their intellects were constantly in His presence, may He be exalted (Ar., wa-´uquluhum bayna yadayhi ta´ala da'iman ). ( Guide 3:51; Pines, 623-24)

These passages, and others like them, clearly show a state of continuous contemplation, of optimal meditation, and equally clearly indicate that this state is the desired state for the person seeking perfection.

Maimonides extended this state of continuous contemplation into his theory of providence to answer the question of God's protection and of how evil, including death, befalls the righteous:

[As to] the individual who is striving for perfection of the intellect (Ar., al-shakhs al-kamil al-'idrak ), whose intellect never ceases to be occupied with God (Ar., la yabrah ´aqluhu ´an Allah da'iman ), providence will always be over that person (Ar., takun al-´inaya bihi da'iman ). On the other hand, an individual striving for perfection, whose thought sometimes for a certain time is emptied of God, is watched over by providence only during the time when one thinks of God; providence withdraws from such a person during the time when one is occupied with something else ... Hence it seems to me that all prophets and excellent persons seeking perfection (Ar., al-fudala' al-kamilin ) whom one of the evils of the world befell, had this evil happen to them during such a time of distraction or due to the vileness of the matter with which one was occupied ... The providence of God, may He be exalted, is constantly (Ar., takun ´inayat Allah da'iman ) over those who have obtained this overflow, which is permitted to anyone who makes an effort with a view to obtaining it (Ar., li-kull man sa´a fi husulihi ). If a person's thought is free from distraction in apprehending (Ar., 'idrakuhu) God, may He be exalted, in the right way and if there is joy in what one apprehends (Ar., wa-ghibtuhu bima 'adraka ), then that individual can never be afflicted with evil of any kind for, then, one is with God and God is with one (Ar., li-'annahu ma´a Allah wa-Allah ma´ahu ). ( Guide 3:51; Pines 624-25)

It is important to note that, in this passage as in others, Maimonides includes not only the prophets and the patriarchs but also people who lead a philosophic-mystical life (Ar., al-fudala', al-kamilun ); they, too, can attain to the state of continuous contemplation. [23]

The climax of Maimonides' teaching of continuous contemplation is to be found in his views on the ideal death and life-after-death which he describes as an unending form of continuous contemplation:

Yet in the measure in which the faculties of the body are weakened and the fire of the desires is quenched, the intellect is strengthened (Ar., wa-qawiya al-´aql ), its lights achieve wider extension (Ar., wa-'inbasatat 'anwaruhu ), its apprehension is purified, and it is in bliss (Ar., wa-taghbut) in what it apprehends. The result is that, when a person striving for perfection is stricken with years and approaches death, this apprehension increases very powerfully, bliss (Ar., al-ghibta) in this apprehension and passion (Ar., al-´ishq) for the object of apprehension become stronger, until the soul is separated from the body, at that moment, into this state of pleasure (Ar., al-lidhdha). Because of this, the Sages have indicated with reference to the deaths of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam that the three of them died by a kiss ... Their purpose was to indicate that the three of them died in the pleasure of this apprehension (Ar., fi hal lidhdhati dhalika al-'idrak ) due to the intensity of the passion (Ar., min shiddat al-´ishq ) ... the apprehension that is achieved in a state of intense passion for Him (Ar. ´inda shiddati ´ishqihi ta´ala )... As he [Solomon] said, "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth" (Song 1:2), etc. ...The sages mention this kind of death, which is, in true reality, salvation from death, only with regard to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. The other prophets and excellent persons (Ar., al-fudala') are beneath this degree. However, it holds good for all of them that the apprehension of their intellects becomes stronger at the separation ... After having reached this condition of enduring permanence (Ar. al-baqa' al-da'im ), such an intellect will remain in one and the same state (Ar., fi hal wahida) , the impediment that veiled it having been removed. One's state of permanence will be in that state of intense pleasure (Ar., wa-yakun baqa'uhu fi tilka al-lidhdha al-´azima ) which does not belong to the genus of bodily pleasures. ( Guide 3:51; Pines 627-28) [24]

In these passages on providence, the ideal death, and immortality, one should note yet again that Maimonides uses mystical terms and images. He describes the last moments of the life of the person who strives for perfection as pleasure (Ar., lidhdha) and writes about the strengthening of the intellect and the extension of its lights (Ar., wa-qawiya al-´aql wa-'inbasatat 'anwaruhu ). Most importantly, he introduces verses and images from the Song of Songs to describe the continuous intellectual contemplation of God ("I sleep but my heart wakes," "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth," "My beloved knocks," etc.). [25] All these terms and images flow from mystical insight, not from metaphysical understanding.

In his views on continuous contemplation, continuous providence, the ideal death, and the unending bliss of life-after-death, Maimonides has set forth his true ideal for human existence. The telos of humanity, according to Maimonides, is not philosophy itself. Philosophy is a stage, an instrument, a means to the end. The end is continuous contemplation of God, continuous being-in-the-presence of God, even when one is conducting one's daily business and especially as one approaches death. This is achieved by following the various stages of self-perfection: meticulous observance of the commandments, the hard work of studying and thinking about creation so that it leads to God, the pondering of the intellectual conclusions in the presence of the Divine, and the continuous being before God even in daily activities and especially in death. Permanent pleasure in the Divine is the goal.

An additonal problem with the text of Guide 3:51: The text does not show these layers clearly; rather, the text mixes the stages in what appears to be helter-skelter fashion. It requires work to separate out the levels from the text. There are probably two reasons for this. First, Maimonides is hiding something. As he says in the Introduction to the Guide, some thoughts will be consciously hidden from the reader. What, then, is it that he is trying to conceal, even as he reveals it at the same time? I think it is the teaching that the acquired intellect, not the rational soul, is the part of human consciousness that attains mortality. Maimonides teaches that the rational soul is a natural function of the body, much as the vegetative and animal souls are. The latter clearly die with the human body and, to tell the truth, so does the rational soul. It is, therefore, only the acquired intellect that survives humanity. [26] Since, however, the words for soul in Hebrew, nefesh and neshama, are used in contexts that the rabbis understood to teach immortality and, since the term "acquired intellect" has no clear Hebrew designation, Maimonides did not want to teach openly that the rational soul dies with the body. So he concealed that doctrine, though it is there to see for whoever is bold enough to think that the rational soul dies with the body. This desire to preserve the Hebrew nefesh and neshama as the bearers of immortality is the first reason that led Maimonides to weave a complicated and unsystematic picture in 3:51.

Second, the states Maimonides is trying to describe are elusive; they are post-rational, post-cognitive, post-linguistic. He can only allude to them. Hence, he mixes the metaphors and images with the intellectualist vocabulary, yielding a mixed text.

Having established that, for Maimonides, metaphysics is a stage in self-perfection not an end in itself, it is possible to review other sections of his oeuvre to look for consistency of view. One such case is his theory of attributes. After many chapters dealing with biblical words and images, Maimonides devotes several chapters to the theory of attributes and culminates his exposition with the view that the best one can achieve is the systematic study of various attributes and the realization that they cannot be applied to God. Thus, God cannot be said to be "one" because God does not fall into the category of beings subject to quantity. God cannot even be said to "exist" because that word, too, implies being in time and space, a category that does not apply to God. This is Maimonides' via negativa: God is categorically different from God's creation and, hence, cannot be described. Realizing this as fully as possible is the most humans can achieve. In the end, only silence is left to us.

... that everyone understands that one cannot achieve apprehension, within that which we are capable of apprehending, except by negation ... that apprehension of Him is the inability to fully apprehend Him (Ar., 'idrakuhu huwa al-´ajz ´an nihayat 'idrakihi ). All the philosophers say, "He blinded us with His beauty, and is veiled from us by the intensity of His manifestation" (Ar., 'abharana bi-jamalihi wa-khafiya ´anna li-shiddati zuhurihi )[27] -- as the sun is hidden for those who have sight because they are too weak to perceive it ... The clearest thing of all that has been said in this matter is the word of the psalmist, "Silence is praise for you" (Ps. 65:2); meaning, silence for you is a form of praise ... and his saying, "Speak in your hearts on your beds, and be silent" (Ps. 4:5). ( Guide 1:59; Pines 139-40)

It could be that Maimonides' meaning here is simple: where negation is the only mode of thinking about the truth of God's being, silence is the most befitting option. However, three elements in this short passage allude to more: first, the phrase "apprehension of Him is the inability to fully apprehend Him"; second, the anonymous but seemingly widespread saying of the philosophers "He blinded us with His beauty, and is veiled from us by the intensity of His manifestation"; and third, his two quotations from Psalms recommending silence as the best praise for God. The saying of the philosophers has parallels in Maimonides: "The truth was hidden from them completely, together with the intensity of His manifestation (Ar., wa-khafiya ´anhum al-haqq jumlatan ma´a shiddat zuhurihi) ( Guide Introduction; Pines 8) [28] and "Exalted be He Whose perfection has blinded us" (Ar., fa-subhana man 'abharana kamaluhu ) (Guide 1:72, end; Pines 193). [29] These phrases, yet again, betray a mystical context, not a metaphysical or logical one; they allude to a post-philosophic experience of the Divine which is beyond verbal and conceptual silence.

On the Matter of Maimonides' Sources

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I do not know the origin of these terms. There seem to be three possibilities: that they are drawn from the tradition of philosophic mysticism of Ibn Sina, al-Farabi, and others for whom intense religious- intellectual experience was the telos of humanity; that they are of sufi origin, perhaps through the influence of his family and milieu; and that Maimonides himself fused these terms with his own particular meaning as the most mature form of his lifetime of reflection on these matters. Each of these will be examined separately though I rather prefer the last suggestion. In any case, modern scholars will have to change their conception of medieval rationalism to include this spiritual-experiential dimension within the very definition of the purpose of philosophy.

Sarah Stroumsa, [30] Steven Harvey, [31] and Kenneth Seeskin [32] have restated the position of classical Wissenschaft thinking most clearly [33]: Maimonides demythologized the world to come, messianism, resurrection, revelation, prophecy, providence, creation -- indeed, all major rabbinic doctrines -- and constructed a system in which intellect alone is the measure of perfection and, hence, the telos of humanity. True felicity is a function of intellectualization. Lidhdha is the state of permanent, abstract, intellectual bliss which is true worship; normative prayer is merely a training ground for intellectual worship. There are no traces of sufi ecstatic experiences in Maimonides. Harvey has even argued that the Yemenites and other easterners were struck by the presence of the sufi term ´ishq but, since they were cut off from the philosophic traditions of the west, they imbued Maimonides with foreign meaning which was the opposite of the non-ecstatic, rationalist, true reading of the west. [34]

Schwartz[35] has criticized this classical position noting that Maimonides does not have any systematic discussion of the soul, immortality, or happiness, as does Avicenna. Indeed, a reading of the original texts of al-Risala fi al-´Ishq and of al- Risala fi Mahiyyat al-Salat [36] shows that the ideas and the terminology used by Avicenna are not at all present in Maimonides. Thus, chapter one of al- Risala fi Mahiyyat al-Salat is devoted to a long discussion of different types of souls, a subject only adumbrated by Maimonides. It also contains a defintion of the resurrection, a subject avoided by Maimonides. And it states that the goal of prayer is uninterrupted submission to God, a definition not shared by Maimonides. Chapter two discusses the difference between legislated and true prayer, a position not far from Maimonides', but it continues by defining true prayer as irfan Allah, mystical knowledge of God, and yunaji rabbahu, being intimate with God -- both terms conspicuously missing in Maimonides. Chapter three on life after death bears no resemblance in terminology or construct to Maimonides. Thus, too, Avicenna's al- Risala fi al-´Ishq has long sections on the types of souls, a long discussion of ´ishq (passionate love), of shawq (yearning), and even includes the famous passages about the love of beautiful human faces, of the difference between kissing and embracing, the paean to dying a chaste person, and the gazing on the beardless faces of youths as a witness to divine beauty – ideas that could not have been further from Maimonides' worldview. Lobel, too, [37] criticizes the classic Wissenschaft view stating that: "Ultimately, Maimonides' God is not the Prime Mover of Aristotle but the unknowable Plotinian One, who cannot be adequately represented in speech." All speech about God is by tasamuh, a poetic license that allows one to use words loosely. Kellner, too, [38] alludes to religious language that is post-philosophical.

It seems to me, however, that there can be no doubt that Maimonides follows the philosophic, intellectualist tradition in his method of negation which culminates in silence as the only epistemologically sound way to talk about God; in his identification of the divine as paradoxically knowner, known, and knowing; and in his subsequent interpretation in a philosophic way of the doctrines of prophecy, revelation, creation, reward and punishment, practical mitsvot, etc. Even his definition of intellectual worship is in this tradition, granted that he does not teach these topics using the same categories and terms that others use but seems to consciously introduce terms that are sufi in origin to describe the states beyond rational thought.

The argument for sufi influence is particularly tempting. Maimonides' in-law was a known sufi [39]; his wife may have been one too [40]; there were known Jewish sufis in his entourage [41]; his son was under sufi influence [42]; and the school that developed under R. Abraham was certainly under sufi influence. [43] Indeed, in his Mishne Torah in Hilkhot Nezirut 14:15, Maimonides argues just for such pietistic living in spite of its not being a life led according to the golden mean as he requires elsewhere [44]:

But he who vows to God in the way of holiness -- this is pleasing and praiseworthy. Concerning this it was said, "The laurel (Heb., nezer) of his God is upon his head ... he is holy unto the Lord" (Nu. 6:4-5). And Scripture has accounted him as equal to the prophet, as it says, "I shall cause prophets to arise from your children and nazirites from your young men" (Amos 2:11).

Again, in his Mishne Torah in Hilkhot Shemitta ve-Yovel 13:12-13, Maimonides makes an argument for intensely religious living:

Why did [the tribe of] Levi not merit an inheritance in the land of Israel and a share in the spoils of war together with its brothers? Because it was set aside to worship God, to teach His direct ways and His righteous judgements to the public ... Therefore, they were set aside from the ways of the world: they did not wage war like the rest of Israel and they did not inherit the land ... Rather, they are the army of the Lord, as it says ...

The tribe of Levi is not alone [in this]. Rather, every single person of those who live in the world, whose spirit has gratefully welled up, and who has comprehended in his or her mind to be separated and to stand before God, to serve Him, to worship Him, and to know Him; who has walked in the straight path that God has intended for her or him; and who has shed from his or her neck the yoke of the many accountings that humans make [of one another] -- this person has become holy [like] the holy of holies, and God will be her or his portion and inheritance forever and ever. Such a person will have sufficient in this world, as did the priests and levites, as David, may he rest in peace, said, "The Lord is my portion of inheritance and my cup; You sustain my destiny" (Ps. 16:5).

Still, one cannot say that Maimonides was a sufi. His worldview and vocabulary are not the same. Maimonides did not advocate sufi asceticism. There is no antinomianism (or better, transnomianism) in Maimonides. He does not dwell upon the themes of love, passion, desire, etc. He does not advocate the specific ritual practices of sufi influence, even those his son introduced in the next generation. And so on. The most one could say is that he is a philosophic mystic who uses sufi vocabulary, an intellectualist mystic who provided a space within rabbinic, rationalist, halakhic Judaism for persons with intense spiritual practice.

Those who argue for an internal development have usually used the instrumentalist or double-truth approach: that Maimonides had one teaching for the masses and one for the elite. [45] Following this line of interpretation but more subtly, Fox [46] has argued that there is one teaching for the elite and for the masses but one must bear in mind that the elite are not elite all the time and, hence, they need the practice of the masses. Kaplan [47] has argued much the same and Kreisel [48] has argued that the intellectual worship of God is universally obligatory while Jewish ritual worship of God is obligatory only for Jews.

The answer may lie somewhere in between. Lobel [49] has pointed out that Halevi took terms that were in the Islamic environment and transformed those terms by applying them in a rather strict rabbinic framework of thought. Much the same may be true of Maimonides: that he first built an intellectualist, philosophic system rooted largely in Aristotle though drawing on Alfarabi and others; and then, on the basis of his own personal religious experience, he added on top of that a spiritual teaching which used sufi-like terms in their non-technical sense, transforming those terms to serve his own purposes.


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In Maimonides' teaching there are three levels of spiritual life after the initial level of observance of the commandments: (1) intellectual apprehension of God also called "love" of God -- this involves long and tedious intellectual work to get to know creation and the rational energy behind it; (2) intellectual contemplation of God, also called "worship" of God and "passion" for God -- this entails pondering the results of intellectual apprehension in the sensed presence of God; and (3) continuous contemplation of God, characterized by such words as "always" and "intense pleasure" -- this comprises sustained being-in-the-presence of God even while one is going about one's daily business and especially when one is about to die. This hierarchy of the spiritual life shows beyond all doubt that, for Maimonides, metaphysics was only the penultimate stage in spiritual development; that rational work was only the bridge to a more spiritual stage of living; and that it was this sustained being-in-the-presence of God after intellectual effort that was the raison d'être of humanity. To make this point, Maimonides uses terms that come from a mystical milieu, images that allude to mystical states, and constructs a reality that leads toward such a state. Put simply: for Maimonides, philosophy was the handmaiden of mysticism.

Finally, while Maimonides' thought is fully rooted in the Islamic rationalist philosophic tradition, in Guide 3:51, he consciously chose to use terms of sufi origin to allude to the post-rational experiential reality which constitutes the core and ultimate end of his religious teaching.


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* Maimonides and Mysticism, ed. A. Elqayam and D. Schwartz, Da'at 64-66 (2009) V-XXV; reprinted in D. Blumenthal, Philosophic Mysticism (Bar Ilan University Press, Ramat Gan: 2006) 128-51.

[1] This topic is so complex that I have chosen to create a "Selected Bibliography." With this in mind, footnotes contain only brief bibliographic references.

[2] D. Blumenthal, "Maimonides: Prayer, Worship, and Mysticism"; hereinafter: "PWM."

[3] D. Blumenthal, "Maimonides' Intellectualist Mysticism and the Superiority of the Prophecy of Moses" (I now prefer the term "philosophic mysticism" because of its greater focus) and "On the Study of Philosophic Mysticism."

[4] D. Blumenthal, "Philosophic Mysticism: The Ultimate Goal of Medieval Judaism"; hereinafter: "PM."

[5] D. Blumenthal, "An Illustration of the Concept 'Philosophic Mysticism' from Fifteenth Century Yemen," and "A Philosophical-Mystical Interpretation of a Shi'ur Qomah Text."

[6] I am grateful to the Institute of Advanced Studies, located at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as well as to my colleagues in Israel and elsewhere for the opportunity to reformulate my argument with, I hope, greater clarity.

[7] See, for example, A. Altmann, "Das Verhältnis." Exceptions to the rule: Y. Dienstag, Maimonides in the Light of the Scholars of Kabbalah ; idem., " The Guide for the Perplexed and the Book of Knowledge in Hasidic Literature"; and R. Margulies, "Maimonides and the Zohar."

[8] Exception to the rule: A. J. Heschel, Maimonides.

[9] See M. Idel, Maïmonide et la mystique juive, who argues that it was precisely to counter Maimonides' rationalism that Spanish kabbalah was created. See also the literature on the "Maimonidean Controversy."

[10] See, for example, J. Harris, "The Image of Maimonides in Nineteenth-Century Jewish Historiography" where Harris argues that there were three images of Maimonides in early modern Jewish thought: Maimonides, the adulterator, who fixed Jewish law and thought contrary to the rabbinic pattern (S.D. Luzzato); Maimonides, the rescuer of rationalism in Jewish culture (Krochmal); and Maimonides, the accomodator of Jewish religion to contemporary life (Geiger and Graetz). See, too, W. Z. Harvey, "The Return of Maimonideanism" where Harvey points out that most of early modern Jewish philosophy was aware of Maimonides but not written under his influence while more recent work (Roth, Leibowitz, and Hartman [one could add others now too]) see in Maimonides' rationalism various models for modern Jewish thought and practice.

[11] Paul Fenton, see Selected Bibliography.

[12] M. Idel, The Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia, especially 138, 179, and 189.

[13] D. Blumenthal, "Was There an Eastern Tradition of Maimonidean Scholarship."

[14] See, for example, A. Chitriq, "The Guide of the Perplexed in the Light of Habad Hasidism" and L. Jacobs, Hasidic Prayer, 72-73. On the falsity of Maimonides' late conversion to kabbalism, see G. Scholem, "From Researcher."

[15] As a member of the Jewish "Establishment," I have often found myself in this position. When asked to talk about "Jewish mysticism" to large unknown groups, I always talk about Jewish spirituality and never go into the deeper recesses of Jewish mysticism. Similarly, when I first wrote about the zoharic worldview in Understanding Jewish Mysticism (New York, Ktav: 1978), I consciously omitted writing about the sitra ahra, not wanting unschooled readers to be exposed to such a doctrine. Entitling my book on God and the shoah, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest , may have violated the rule that, when one teaches authoritatively, one must teach subtlety and indirectly.

[16] Maimonides did not include women in those qualified to do work in metaphysics. On this, see M. Kellner, "Philosophical Mysogyny in Medieval Jewish Thought: Gersonides and Maimonides" (Hebrew) and A. Melamed, "Maimonides on Women: Formless Matter or Potential Prophet." In the interest of making Maimonides relevant to the modern world, however, I have added in egalitarian language where appropriate. By contrast, I do not use egalitarian language for God in texts which I translate, though I do use it in my own text.

[17] The reference is to the Aristotelian forms which "in-form" matter to give it individual identity.

[18] I have used the translation of S. Pines but, in all passages cited, I have modified it where I think he missed the point; in addition, I have added emphasis.

[19] Pines renders ´ishq / hesheq as "passionate love" which, I think blurs the distinction. I have, therefore, rendered "love" for mahabba / 'ahava and "passion" for ´ishq / hesheq. For a closer linguistic analysis of these and other terms in Maimonides' mystical vocabulary, see "PWM."

[20] This phrase is routinely translated as "the perfect person / man" – which is absurd. No one is perfect, least of all in Maimonides' world. I prefer, therefore, "the person striving for perfection."

[21] Pines and M. Schwartz translate al-ghibta as "joy" while Qafih renders it as "passion." It is, however, precisely the mystical term "bliss" that is required by the context.

[22] I did not use this analysis in my previous articles on philosophic mysticism.

[23] The discussion of Maimonides' view of the renewal of prophecy in his own days is to my mind on the wrong track. Maimonides differentiates between prophecy as a legal-dogmatic phenomenon and prophecy as an experiential-mystical phenomenon. The former cannot be renewed at all; legal prophecy is over. The latter, however, does not need to be "renewed" because it is always present, it being a function of the ongoing emanation of intellectual energy from the Tenth Intelligence without which the universe would cease to exist ( Mishne Torah , Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 1:2). On the distinction between legal-dogmatic and experiential-mystical prophecy, see D. Blumenthal, "Maimonides' Intellectualist Mysticism and the Superiority of the Prophecy of Moses."

[24] As noted above Ar., al-ghibta is properly translated "bliss" and I have modified Pines accordingly. On life in the world-to-come, see also Maimonides' Commentary to the Mishna , Pereq Heleq and Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva 8:1-2. For a closer linguistic analysis of these and other terms in Maimonides' mystical vocabulary, see "PWM."

[25] See Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva 10:3, that such images are intended to allude to such experiences.

[26] See above Pereq Heleq and also Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva 8:3. See also "PWM."

[27] This saying was quoted by Hoter ben Shelomo but with the variant: "by His perfection" (Ar. kamalihi, and not jamalihi). Hoter's version is almost "less" mystical. Cf. D. Blumenthal, The Commentary of Hoter ben Shelomo to the Thirteen Principles of Maimonides, 55, n. 7, and The Philosophic Questions and Answers of Hoter ben Shelomo, 145, n. 7, for my discussion of the most direct parallel passage in Guide (1:72) and for the possible sources. To these add: V. Danner, Ibn ´Ata'illah's Sufi Aphorisms (Leiden, E. J. Brill: 1973) chapter 17, # 165 (page 47): "Only because of the intensity of His manifestation (Ar., li-shiddati zuhurihi ) is He veiled, and only because of the sublimity of His light is He hidden from view."

[28] The usual translation of "in spite of its intensity" seem to miss the point.

[29] See also "Then he advances to contemplation of the holy, divine Presence" (Ar., bi-lahz al-hudra al-qudusiyya al-'ilahiyya ) ( Guide 1:5; Pines 30).

[30] S. Stroumsa, "True Felicity."

[31] S. Harvey, "The Meaning of Terms."

[32] K. Seeskin, "Sanctity and Silence."

[33] See, for instance, Pines, Strauss, Vajda, Altmann, Wolfson, and others. See also I. Madkour, La Place d'Alfarabi.

[34] S. Harvey, "The Meaning of the Terms," 188-91.

[35] D. Schwartz, "Avicenna and Maimonides on Immortality."

[36] Mehren, Traités mystiques and J. N. Bell, "Avicenna's Treatise on Love" .

[37] D. Lobel, "Silence," esp. 27 and 37-39.

[38] M. Kellner, "Is Maimonides' Ideal Person."

[39] S. D. Goitein, "Chief Judge R. Hanan'el b. Samuel, In-Law of R. Moses Maimonides," Tarbiz Jubilee Volume, 50 (1980-81) 371-95, cited in P. Fenton, "Commentary on the Haftarot," 29. See also, P. Fenton, "More on Rabbi Hanan'el."

[40] S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, 482-83.

[41] P. Fenton, "More on Rabbi Hanan'el," 81; P. Fenton, "A Mystical Treatise on Prayer," 141 and his Deux traités, 36.

[42] G. Cohen, "The Soteriology"; S. D. Goitein, "Abraham Maimonides"; P. Fenton, "A Mystical Treatise on Prayer"; etc.

[43] P. Fenton, Deux traités, Introduction, for a long list of sufi influences in ideas, terminology, and practice. See also P. Fenton, "La hitbodedut," and "Solitary Meditation" for sufi-colored intellectualist meditation techniques.

[44] Y. Levinger, "On the Reason for Nezirut," and I. Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (New Haven, Yale University Press: 1980) 467-68. See also Commentary to the Mishna, "Shemonah Peraqim," ch. 4 and Mishne Torah, Hilkhot De'ot 1:5.

[45] E.g., Y. Levinger, "On the Reason for Nezirut"; G. Blidstein, "Joy in Maimonides".

[46] M. Fox, "Prayer in Maimonides."

[47] L. Kaplan, "'I Sleep But My Heart Waketh'".

[48] H. Kreisel, "The Love and Fear of God."

[49] D. Lobel, Between Mysticism and Philosophy, especially 5 and 161.

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