Mistakes of Maimonides
Moses Maimonides (my-MON-i-deez) is considered to be one of the greatest sages and rabbis of Judaism. He was born in Córdoba, Spain in the year 1135. He is better known by his nickname Rambam, which is an acronym formed out of his Hebrew name Rabbeinu Mosheh Ben Maimon. He was a rabbi, a philosopher, and a doctor of medicine. He is credited with codifying Jewish law and authored a number of important Jewish books that are still studied today. He passed away in the year 1204 at the age of 69. It is my intent to present a review of the writings of Maimonides as summarized in the book Ethical Writings of Maimonides, by Raymond L. Weiss and Charles E. Butterworth, New York University Press, 1975, so that you can get an understanding of the man whose writings influenced the growth and development of Rabbinic Judaism, which is the religion of today. The word “ethics” in this context is defined as “teaching that supports good morals.”
Because of the Almohad (extremist Muslim dynasty) persecution in Spain, Maimonides moved first to Morocco and then to Egypt to escape as a youth. In Egypt he studied law and philosophy, supported by his brother who was a merchant. When his brother died on a journey, Maimonides studied medicine, becoming a physician for his livelihood. He had the good fortune to be employed by a certain sultan living in Cairo. This position enabled him to be paid sufficiently and to work around those in the Muslim world of some political influence that favored the Aristotelian sciences. From a philosophical point of view, Maimonides favored “natural law” over “rational law” as a way to govern human life. Natural law says that the creation and the natural order is the basis of all laws, while rational law says that laws should be based on reason and logic. This answers a very important question for governments. Do human rights derive from the Creator (naturally) or are they granted with reason and logic by a governmental body or a leader? Being Jewish, Maimonides favored the thought of God creating and establishing the natural order of things.
Six days a week Maimonides was a doctor in the sultan’s palace, at night he was a doctor to the local Jewish community, and on sabbath he would teach Torah to the local community, thus becoming their beloved rabbi. It is fascinating that one of the foremost Jewish scholars of Judaism, who is credited with codifying Jewish law, admits that his basis of thinking first began with Greek and Islamic philosophy, comparing them to Jewish theology. Maimonides admits that his personal journey of understanding the Torah and teaching of spiritual men began with the thinking of worldly men and transitioned to Jewish theology without any credit being attributed to the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, Maimonides never purposed to codify Jewish law. In his letters to his favorite disciple, Joseph ben Judah, Maimonides admits that he was only trying to sort out his own thinking and was on a journey of self-discovery (further philosophical thought). Maimonides gives no credit per se to the leading or inspiration of God for his conclusions and teachings. However, he did primarily focus much of his work on Jewish Law, the Torah and the Talmud (the rabbinic writings from 250 AD to 450 AD). So, why did his studies and works become the standard for Judaism? Probably because of the Jewish community he served in Egypt and the efforts of his own disciples.
Maimonides wrote a number of important documents that are with us today, including the Mishnah, a commentary of rabbinic law, and his massive work, the Mishnah Torah, which was used by later rabbis to codify Jewish law today. The only exclusively philosophical work he wrote was a short effort entitled Art of Logic. He also wrote the ethical documents Laws Concerning Character Traits and Eight Chapters, works defining a person’s character and soul. Within these works, however, is the most popular—The Guide for the Perplexed, which is required reading for all Yeshiva students. It was actually written to one of Maimonides’ students, counseling him to gain and maintain moral virtue in the unbelieving world. This particular treatise focuses on imitating God’s ways and thus diminishing the ways of the world. As I said before, anyone studying Judaism will find themselves reading this particular book.
Maimonides is the author of the Jewish creed, a statement of faith if you will, referred to as the Thirteen Articles. Why he chose this particular number has been the subject of much discussion, as God Himself is said to have 13 attributes. But others argue that it was mere happenstance without design. I tend to agree with the latter assessment as Maimonides never credits spiritual inspiration for the end result. This is also why other elements of Judaism don’t hold to all of the articles. In any case, they come as close as any teaching you can find trying to summarize what Judaism believes. When a Jew expresses them verbally, he utters them in the first person.
1. I believe with perfect faith that God is the Creator and Ruler of all things. He alone has made, does make, and will make all things.
2. I believe with perfect faith that God is One. There is no unity that is in any way like His. He alone is our God; He was, He is, and He will be.
3. I believe with perfect faith that God does not have a physical body. Physical concepts do not apply to Him. There is nothing whatsoever that resembles Him at all.
4. I believe with perfect faith that God is first and last.
5. I believe with perfect faith that it is only proper to pray to God. One may not pray to anyone or anything else.
6. I believe with perfect faith that all the words of the prophets are true.
7. I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moses is absolutely true. He was the chief of all prophets, both before and after him.
8. I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that we now have is that which was given to Moses.
9. I believe with perfect faith that this Torah will not be changed, and that there will never be another given by God.
10. I believe with perfect faith that God knows all of man's deeds and thoughts. It is thus written (Psalm 33:15), "He has molded every heart together, He understands what each one does.”
11. I believe with perfect faith that God rewards those who keep His commandments, and punishes those who transgress Him.
12. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah. However long it takes, I will await His coming every day.
13. I believe with perfect faith that the dead will be brought back to life when God wills it to happen.
Maimonides is also famous for a few other things. He is the author of this famous proverb:
“Give a man a fish and he will eat today; teach a man to fish and he will eat for life.”
Maimonides was without question a very intelligent man in his day and diplomatic in his tone. However, not everyone among the Jews holds to everything he said or believed. There are other highly respected sages who offer different rationale for various teachings and principles. But no one can question that Rambam has set a number of precedents and developed a consensus in Jewish thinking. In particular, his arguments against Messiah Yeshua of Nazareth make up the de facto answer against Christianity by religious Jews even to this day.
On this point in particular, I would say that Maimonides was clearly mistaken. Actually, he was mistaken in a number of his Thirteen Articles beliefs, which contributed to his error concerning Yeshua. Allow me to explain.
It is understandable that Maimonides knew of Christians during his lifetime. Christianity by the 12th and 13th centuries had spread throughout the entire Mediterranean area. There were Christians in Egypt right along with Muslims; so he was fully aware of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish theology and their intersecting points of thought. Given that he was under Muslim rule, it follows that he was more critical of Christian thinking as opposed to Islam. But this also gives us more insight into his own struggle in dealing with the testimony of Yeshua.
Maimonides was biased against Yeshua of Nazareth from the beginning. You can clearly see the bias in many of his statements in the Thirteen Articles that were specifically added to counter the testimony of Yeshua. You would have thought that a creed of Jewish belief would be limited to Scriptural truths. Such is not the case in the Thirteen Articles as we will see.
Article 2 says that God is One and only One, emphasizing the absolute oneness of God. This is to counter the idea of God being plural with parts. I am sure that he had heard Christians claiming the Yeshua was Divine, having the full Godhead in Him as the Son of God. Maimonides’ logic fails him here. Echad, the Hebrew word for “one,” means a unified one, suggesting parts come together to form a One. The Hebrew word Adonai is the word “Lord,” which is masculine gender plural (literally “lords”). Adon is the singular word in Hebrew. Yet, he used the word Adonai and referred to our one Lord. The same can be said for the Hebrew word Elohim, translated as the word “God,” which is masculine gender plural and literally “Gods.” Eloha is the singular word in Hebrew for god. Moses wrote the Lord God in the plural in all instances in the Torah. There are other evidences that present God in the plural form. God explains that man must be removed from the garden because we had become like one part of God (the Creator part), as God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us …” (Genesis 3:22). Us is plural. The patriarchs Abraham and Jacob heard multiple voices of God at various points. Even Moses himself had the same experience. Abraham had three guests for lunch at the oaks of Mamre, referring to them as Adonai, and yet negotiated with them (God) for the number of righteous in Sodom. I could go on and on with more examples, but it is clear that Maimonides’ Article 2 is more about defiantly countering Christian thought than his own declaration of doctrine based on Scripture.
Article 3, which denies that God has a body, is more of the same. It is intended solely to counter the testimony of Messiah Yeshua coming in the flesh among us. Jews many times argue that God cannot take on the shape or figure of a man, but God has on a multitude of occasions manifested Himself in various ways and who says that He CANNOT do it? What about the angelic presence Jacob wrestled with, the angel who spoke with Joshua, the angel who spoke with Samson’s parents? This is a classic case of putting God in a box, which is by its very nature illogical. God’s ways and thoughts are above our ways and thoughts. We men do not put limitations on God and how He can or wishes to manifest Himself.
Article 5 is intended to counter those who pray to God in the name of Yeshua. Prayer is a very important part of Jewish worship. For those who wish to pray as a Jew, you will discover that there is a very definite way based on the instructions of the rabbis. They will even state what you are to specifically pray with words supplied by them. This leads to rote and almost trance like experiences for some. Yeshua, on the other hand, taught His disciples to speak to God in a respectful and thoughtful manner, praying with your heart and soul (emotions and intellect). He even gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us pray even when we do not know how to pray. Praying in the name of Yeshua is not just saying the words at the closing of prayer. It is about a different kind of prayer from your own heart. Perfectly worded prayers, repeated over and over, were specifically addressed by Yeshua as being meaningless and ultimately ignored by God. Yeshua was very terse saying this:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows' houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you shall receive greater condemnation. Matthew 23:14
I am sure that Maimonides did not like this rebuke and took his own action accordingly attempting to dismiss all of Yeshua’s teachings on prayer.
Article 12 is nothing more than a logic statement that Yeshua was not the Messiah and that Maimonides is looking for another messiah yet to come.
Maimonides’ definition of the Messiah was primarily developed to counter Yeshua, but it has become the foundational thinking of the Jewish community today. Maimonides favored a messiah who would bring about an end to Jewish suffering such as he had experienced in exile. He saw the future Messiah as both a great prophet and king whose wisdom and teaching would compel all of mankind to follow him toward peace and understanding. Yes, he would be a military leader of sorts, but the force of his person would eventually carry the day for all peoples. He envisioned a messiah who would follow the oral and written Torah as a natural man and then win the day in the debate for theology, philosophy, and law for the whole world. He saw the Messianic Age (“the world to come”) as this same world but without the subjection of other kingdoms morphing into the kingdom. Israel would be heralded as the government of the world. Jewish sages, those who keep the Torah perfectly, would become world leaders.
But let’s specifically focus on why he rejected the testimony and conclusions of Yeshua of Nazareth being the Messiah. Remember that Maimonides lived long after the days of Yeshua and that in forming his definition of the Messiah, he had to also disagree with what Yeshua did and said. That is to say, Maimonides shaped his Messianic definition as an objection to Yeshua as the Messiah and only used Scripture as a support for his personal belief. I believe that had he let Scripture be his primary focus and then compared the words and deeds of Yeshua, he would have concluded differently.
According to Maimonides, a person inherits the “world to come” as a reward for “performing the commandments and is the good we merit if we have kept the way of the Lord referred to in the Torah.” (Ibid pg 169) His logic is as follows: if we keep the commandments, then we reap the blessings; if we transgress the commandments, then we reap the curses. The “world to come” is the ultimate blessing after keeping the commandments. At first blush, this sounds correct – kind of, but what it completely misses is what to do about sin, how we are redeemed, how we are reconciled (atoned) to God for what we have done. Part of Maimonides’ problem was that he never understood the altar system and animal sacrifices. He considered them to be nothing more than ritualistic practices for the ancients, not as values and principles of God’s substitution system. Essentially, Maimonides dismissed the testimony of Moses and the Torah, replacing it with man-made philosophy. As a result, he did not see the “Lamb of God” as being the acceptable substitute for sins against God, sins worthy of death. He believed that a man could live in such a way that the issues of sin and death just fade away as one devotes his lifetime to walking in a certain spiritual way. He believed in “salvation by good deeds and keeping commandments,” not by God’s grace and mercy!
Consider this strange thought that Maimonides had concerning God speaking His Ten Commandments to the children of Israel at Mount Sinai. He believed and taught his disciples that the children of Israel did not actually hear God speak the words of the Ten Commandments—that they only heard the voice (the loud sound, thunder, and rumblings). He believed that only Moses heard the words and recounted them to the people in the written Torah. How does he conclude that?
In the written Ten Commandments, the word “you” is singular in the Hebrew. For example, “You shall have no other gods before Me” is spoken to a single person, not to a group. In our English language, the word “you” can be singular or plural. You can be a person or a group of persons. Maimonides failed to understand that God had the power to speak to every person personally at Mount Sinai and give each one commands. Look at the commands. Individuals keep the individual commandments. God did not say that the group, called the children of Israel, could not murder, but it was okay for individuals to murder at will. He spoke directly to every heart and said “You [individually] shall not murder!”
It escapes me that Maimonides, who is heralded as a great thinker in ethics and morality, cannot grasp the profundity of God’s Ten Commandments and their personal application. Furthermore, the promised New Covenant by the prophet Jeremiah focuses on this very point, saying the commandments would be written on the tablets of the heart of every person. Maimonides knew this prophecy well and yet ignored the implications and goals of Yeshua the Messiah for this purpose.
Maimonides did not believe that the Messiah should ever die. This thought was expressly developed to counter the death, burial, and resurrection testimony of Yeshua. Maimonides flatly stated that Yeshua of Nazareth could not be the Messiah because “he imagined himself to be the Messiah and was killed by a court of law.” (Ibid pg 173) He further argued that “all the prophets declared the messiah will redeem Israel, save them, gather their dispersed, and strengthen their [obedience to] the commandments. But he [Jesus] caused Israel to perish by the sword and to have their remnant scattered and degraded. He replaced the Torah and led astray most of the world to serve a god besides the Lord.” (Ibid pg 173) He went on further to say, “All those words of Jesus of Nazareth and of this Ishmaelite who arose after him are only to make straight the path for the messianic king and to prepare the whole world to serve the Lord together.” (Ibid pg 173) In other words, he said Yeshua and Christianity, along with Muhammad and Islam, were a giant mistake to set the stage for Judaism to win in the end! Can you detect the antagonism in Maimonides?
Maimonides did not understand the great plan of redemption and that the Messiah would be the redemption—the savior—by giving His own life. It is true that historical Christianity dismissed the Torah, opposite of what Yeshua taught, but Maimonides was so filled with bias that he slandered both Christianity and Islam together knowing that Christianity and Islam do not agree with one another. For the record, that is not a complimentary statement.
The fact is that Yeshua did teach Torah, but it was not as the Jews understood the Torah to be. He taught what Moses taught, not as the Pharisees did, who twisted and ignored Moses’ writings to elevate themselves. The Christian world bought into the notion that the Torah taught “salvation by keeping commandments,” as the Pharisees and rabbis said, but that Yeshua was teaching was something different from the Torah, called “grace” and “forgiveness of sin.” This is the primary reason the church claims for Jesus doing away with the Torah and “replacement theology” in the church. But if Yeshua did not teach salvation by keeping commandments, different from the Pharisees, then they have rejected the word of God, the Torah, and find themselves no better off than the Pharisees.
Let us turn back to Maimonides. “If your argument doesn’t carry the day, then revert to name calling and personal slander,” is rule number one for losing an argument. You would have thought that a scholar and intellectual as brilliant as Maimonides would have used a much more sophisticated argument than redefining God, dismissing what the prophets said, and reverting to name calling and slander as his final point.
But let me expand His argument against Yeshua. As I said before, Maimonides claimed that the Messiah would not die. But the Akedah (the story of the binding of Isaac for sacrifice) points to a plan of the father offering up his son. Isaac was not killed; God stopped Abraham from carrying through with slaying his son. Instead, a ram whose head was caught in thorns was offered up. Is it not the testimony of Yeshua that He was the Son of God, sent by the Father, whose head was caught in thorns (crown of thorns) when He was offered up? God foreshadowed what He was going to do with His own Son through Abraham and Isaac. Doesn’t the prophet Daniel say that the Messiah would be “cut off” (a Hebrew idiom meaning that He would die before the age of 50 years)? Maimonides’ definition of the Messiah on this point is nothing more than an effort to dismiss Yeshua’s testimony of His sacrificial death as the Lamb of God. Yeshua proved He had power over death. I can assure you that Jews do believe and hope in the resurrection. Maimonides’ argument for the Messiah to not die is baseless and without merit. Just because you say something conclusively does not make it so.
Maimonides also disliked being in exile. I can understand that. He hoped for the day when he and his family would live in the Promised Land again. Instead of remembering God’s threatened judgment upon Israel from Moses and the prophets to be scattered, instead of remembering the flagrant misbehavior of our Israelite fathers bringing on that judgment of disbursement, he blames Yeshua and His followers for the Roman conquest and siege of Jerusalem, which cast the Jewish people into the nations. In this case, Maimonides does not seem to have a grasp of the historical facts. But it is, again, slanderous to blame Yeshua of Nazareth. With such declarations, is it any wonder the Jews since his day are so adamant against Christianity?
It is flat wrong to lay the blame on the Jewish people for the death of Yeshua; it is equally wrong to blame Yeshua for the destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jewish people.
Maimonides also claims that Yeshua didn’t bring the exiles of Israel (the northern tribes) back to the land, which is one of the messianic prophecies. On this point, he is correct, at least, for now. The prophets of Israel, however, describe the greater exodus (the return of the remnant) from the nations to include the House of Judah and the House of Israel at the same time (i.e., Jeremiah 30:3, etc.). The House of Judah did not go into worldwide captivity until after the days of Yeshua (30-33 AD), the siege of Jerusalem (70 AD), and the Bar Kokhba rebellion (160 AD). The return of the remnant, the great exodus, and the return of the exiles is and was a future prophecy of the Messiah in the days of Yeshua. Thus we are still looking for it even to this day. All of the prophets of Israel are in agreement that a great worldwide conflict (Gog and Magog, tribulation, Jacob’s trouble) precedes the joining of the two houses and the return to the land.
Furthermore, the end of the age prophecies do not determine who the Messiah is. There are other specific prophecies used to make that determination, of which Maimonides completely dismissed. The Gospel of John specifically reviews the signs and prophecies to determine whether Yeshua of Nazareth is the Messiah, not the end of the age events. Moses was determined to be God’s messenger by the signs he gave when he came bearing the message of salvation and deliverance. The determination that God sent Moses was not made after they left Egypt, Mount Sinai, and crossing the Jordan River. Moses was credited with being God’s messenger and leader by the signs he gave the people at the beginning of the exodus story. The same is true for the Messiah. The Messiah gave His signs (the same signs as Moses) and presented Himself as the Lamb of God promised by Abraham.
And Abraham said, "God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." Genesis 22:8
We don’t believe Yeshua is the Messiah after the great tribulation and His return on the clouds of heaven and the resurrection of all the saints. Moses was sent; Yeshua was sent. Moses foreshadowed the Messiah (the Anointed One sent by the Father). Moses taught us how to identify the Messiah when He would come. Why is it that Maimonides could not see the wisdom and profundity of the examples of Abraham and Moses?
Let me elaborate further how Maimonides attempts to dismiss the testimony in the Gospel of John. Maimonides argued that a real messiah should not give signs, proving that he was the messiah. Really? Why did God give Moses three signs to convince the children of Israel that God had sent him? Why was the measure of a prophet based on prophesying an event and observing that it happened as he said? This was the sign that God had told them and sent him to speak to the people on God’s behalf. Maimonides decided to dismiss all of the evidence of Yeshua’s works (the works of God) by redefining how the Messiah should be proved. Yeshua rightly said that unbelievers dismiss the evidence (the works of God) He has presented because they first do not believe the Father who sent Him, the same God who gave Moses and the prophets signs to believe.
But the testimony which I have is greater than the testimony of John [the Baptist]; for the works which the Father has given Me to accomplish—the very works that I do—testify about Me, that the Father has sent Me. And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form. You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life. John 5:36-40
Yeshua spoke these words against the religious rulers of his day. These words are also appropriate for countering Maimonides. Maimonides did not have the authority to define a messiah apart from the prophecies and then dismiss Yeshua because He fulfilled the prophecies in Scripture. His approach and conclusions are patently absurd and not rational.
I am convinced that Maimonides formed his understanding and the teaching of Torah out of three primary elements: first, he was trying to defend himself and his brethren from the oppression of Islam by debating and playing to the intellect of the Muslim rulers, secondly by distorting the Scriptures to suit his situation and reality, and thirdly out of animosity against Yeshua and the Christians near him (who were a minority with no one to counter him at that time). On this latter point, Maimonides took advantage of there not being a Christian spokesperson to counter his assertions, since his commentaries were not in the public forum open to debate.
Don’t misunderstand what I think of Maimonides. I do not hate him whatsoever. He was a fellow Jew like me, but I do disagree with his spiritual training path and conclusions concerning our Messiah. There are many other elements in Maimonides' teachings that are excellent that could be addressed. Maimonides was a good man, and much of what he taught was an effort to counsel men how to maintain a good character, to be appropriate in all of one’s dealings, and to avoid extreme behaviors that lead to risk taking. I cannot in this one article begin to fully survey his many topics, but I would like to conclude this article by addressing Maimonides’ thoughts about the end times, looking for the coming of the Messiah, and the study of eschatology.
In Maimonides’ Articles 12 and 13, he speaks of waiting for the Messiah to come and of the resurrection of the dead at the end. In other writings, he speaks of the Gog and Magog conflict preceding the Messiah’s arrival as outlined in the Midrashim. He speaks of Elijah the prophet’s return heralding the restoration of fathers to sons prior to the messianic kingdom and its specific reference in the Passover Haggadah that teaches it every year. Yet, he says these paradoxical things:
“A man should never occupy himself with the words of Haggadah nor spend much time on the Midrashim which speak of these matters and the like [the end times]. Nor should he regard them as having the status of a principle, for they bring about neither fear nor love. Nor should he calculate the end. The wise men [the Talmudic rabbis] said: ‘May the spirit of those who calculate the end [of days] expire.’ But he shall wait [for the messiah] and believe in the matter in general, as we have explained.” (Ibid, pg 175)
Today, many Jews hunger to hear the prophetic teachings, yet the rabbis will not teach them. Zionism is the belief that the modern state of Israel is a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, the return of the Jews to the Promised Land. Did you know that religious Jews (rabbinic authorities) argue against Zionism!?! This is partly done because of Maimonides’ position on not studying nor seeking to understand the prophecies of the restoration and return.
Yeshua taught us much prophecy and offered instruction on how to sort out the issues, avoiding false prophets, seeking specific signs, and not losing hope. Maimonides dismisses the entire subject by saying it has nothing to do with fear or love. Truly, I would love to sit down with Maimonides and have him explain that part to me. In my humble opinion, the study of eschatology must be a highly principled study, and it has everything to do with dealing with fears of the future and the love of God overcoming the world as it ends.
In conclusion, Maimonides helps us to understand much of Jewish thinking today. Understanding his point of view clears the haze away to see what rabbis really teach and believe. It also makes the teaching of Yeshua of Nazareth stand out like a beacon of hope for all men. Maimonides was mistaken; Yeshua of Nazareth is the Messiah, and He will restore all things very soon.