Lecture #1: The Life of Maimonides In light of
Rav Eli Hadad
Maimonides (known as the Rambam, Rabbi Moses ben
Maimon) stands out as the most important Jewish figure of the Middle
Ages. No other Jew of the post-Talmudic era even compares to him. Popular Jewish tradition has gone as far
as to assert that "From Moses [our Master] to Moses [the son of Maimon] there
has not arisen anybody like Moses [the son of Maimon]."
however, many sides to Maimonides. In the world of the yeshivot, he is
known as the great arbiter of Halakhah and author of the Mishneh Torah, a
systematic halakhic code that summarizes and codifies all of Jewish law. In
academic circles, he is known primarily as the great thinker who authored The
Guide of the Perplexed, a philosophical work that was meant to remove the
confusion created by the clash between philosophy and religious faith.
Historians relate to Maimonides as the highly influential communal leader who
served as Nagid – leader of the Egyptian Jewish community. In the
world at large, he is also recognized as one of the most famous physicians in
Our objective in this lecture series is to study the thought of
Maimonides, as reflected in his various writings, and compare it to what we know
about his life and work. And, in reverse, we shall also examine his life and
understand it in light of his thought and literary oeuvre. Our starting
assumption is that Maimonides strove to realize in his own life that which he
called upon others to do in his various writings, and therefore his life may be
viewed as a thoroughgoing application of his thought and rulings. Obviously, the
constraints and vicissitudes of life did not pass over Maimonides, and he too
was forced, at times against his will and to his detriment, to live his life in
a manner not of his choosing. But even the choices and decisions that he made
within the framework of these constraints were presumably in line with his
Man's Goal in life - to achieve
In several places in his writings, Maimonides discusses man's ultimate
aim in life, painting a portrait of the perfect man. According to this
description, man's fundamental goal is to know and comprehend God via his
intellect. The comprehension of God is not a matter of simple faith; rather, it
requires a grand intellectual effort that develops through a systematic
progression from the study of logic, through the physical sciences, to
metaphysical knowledge, and ending with the intellectual apprehension of God. We
shall examine several passages in Maimonides’ writings and try to elicit from
them his position on this issue.
Already in the introduction to his earliest work – his Commentary to
the Mishnah – Maimonides presents the position to which he would adhere
until the end of his life. At the beginning of the work, Maimonides writes:
that exists has of necessity a purpose for which it exists, for there is nothing
that exists in vain.
This assertion is first
formulated in positive terms and then explained by way of a negation of its
opposite. To paraphrase his words, one might say: Everything has a purpose,
for there is nothing that has no purpose. At first glance this assertion
seems to be nothing more than a tautology, but a precise reading of his words,
with careful attention paid to the fact that he identifies that which lacks a
purpose with that which exists in vain, clarifies his argument.
Everything that he says is based on the assumption that vain existence – that
is, existence that has no purpose – is impossible. Maimonides gives expression
here to his great faith in the rationality of the world and the wisdom that is
concealed behind the entirety of being. Nothing exists without a purpose;
nothing exists in vain. The idea of the purposefulness of the world in
Maimonides’ thought requires a separate discussion. For our purposes, it
suffices to say that this assertion is based on seeing the world as the
handiwork of God, on the simple assumption that God's actions cannot be in vain
In order to clarify this position, Maimonides distinguishes between
artificial things, the handiwork of man, and natural beings, the handiwork of
God. Common to all existing things is that they have a purpose, but there is a
difference between them with respect to the possibility of knowing what that
purpose is. The purpose of artificial, man-made articles is clear. Anything
fashioned with deliberation is made for a certain purpose, and "what ends in
creation, starts in thought." Everything made by man then is fashioned for a
certain purpose; a tailor sews a garment so that it may be worn, a carpenter
builds a table off of which to eat a meal, a builder builds a house to be lived
in. The existence of anything fashioned by man is justified by its purpose.
In light of the assumption mentioned above, it is clear that all natural
beings must also have a purpose, for God does nothing in vain. Clarifying that
purpose, however, is difficult, for that involves the uncovering of God's
wisdom. Is it possible to establish with any degree of certainty why certain
plants or animals exist? Despite this difficulty, Maimonides asserts that all
plants and animals in the material world were created for the sake of man. This
does not necessarily mean that they serve man directly, but only that their
existence is in some way necessary for the existence of the most complex
material being, i.e., man.
What remains is the question: Why does man exist and what is his purpose?
To this, Maimonides provides the following answer:
[Man's] purpose is but a single activity. The
other skills [man possesses] serve only the purpose of assuring his survival, to
insure the [fulfillment] of that one activity. This [cardinal] activity is the
following: to grasp in his mind the secrets of the fundamental truths, and to
understand the verities [in life] as they are.
Maimonides means to say that only when man
activates his intellect does he realize his purpose as a human being. The
rest of man's activities are solely means of assuring his survival. His
survival, however, is merely a means to fulfill his human destiny, that is, to
think and use his intellect. All of man's activities may then be divided into
two groups, intellection on one side, and all other human activities on the
other. Rational thinking is the purpose of man, whereas all other human
activities, such as eating, sleeping, working, and the like, and even activities
to which great importance is attached, such as helping others, are merely the
means that allow man to achieve his purpose.
Maimonides goes even further in his Guide of the Perplexed (I, 1),
where he states that man is not a combination of various components that
together create a single person. For this reason, the intellect cannot be
described as one of the various elements of which man is comprised, and not even
as the most noble of his elements. Rather, it and it alone is man. Man
is intellect, and for this reason, the Torah states that man was created "in
the image of God."
The term image, on the other hand, is
applied to the natural form, I mean to the notion in virtue of which a thing is
constituted as a substance and becomes what it is. It is the true reality of the
thing in so far as the latter is that particular being. In man, that notion is
that from which human apprehension derives. It is on account of intellectual
apprehension that it is said of man: "In the image of God created He
A precise clarification of the meaning of the term "natural form" would
require a deep analysis of Maimonides’ understanding of the structure of the
material world. For our purposes, it suffices to say that "natural form" refers
to the basic essence of a natural being, that internal essence that makes each
thing what it is and not something else.
Here too a comparison with man-made articles may help us clarify the
matter. The essence of a chair, for example, is the fact that it can be sat
upon. A chair that cannot be sat upon is a contradiction in terms. From this it
follows, for example, that a chair's color is not part of its essence.
Similarly, it makes no difference whether it is made of metal or of wood.
Obviously, if it is made of a very flimsy material that does not allow for
sitting, it is not a chair. In a parallel manner, man's essence is his
intellect, and the rest of his components - physical and even spiritual, such as
his emotions, imaginations, and desires - are not essential to him as a human
From this it follows, according to Maimonides, that when the Torah speaks
of man's image ("tzelem"), it is not referring to man's external form,
but to his inner essence, that which was called during the Middle Ages "natural
form." Man's having been created "in the image of God" means that man's inner
essence is similar to that of God. Just as God comprehends and knows Himself and
all of reality without a body, so too man can comprehend and know the verities
of the world by way of his intellect alone, without any physical organ.
Man is intellect; a person who lacks intellect is not a person. There is
no comparing a man engaged in thought with a man engaged in his other
activities. When a person thinks, he realizes and expresses his human essence in
actual practice, and when he engages in any of his other activities, he is not
man in realia, but only in potentia. For all of his other
activities are like "those of a beast, with respect to his food and most of his
The purpose of understanding – knowledge of
Maimonides defines the activity of the intellect as "understanding the verities [in life] as they
are," that is, understanding the world as it is and not as man's imagination
or feelings are liable to distort it. This is the precise definition of true
knowledge as opposed to false imagination - absolute correlation between the
facts and the image created by the intellect. More precisely, we may say that
the intellect does not take hold of the perceptible object, but rather of its
rational essence. This essence is called in the language of the Middle Ages
muskal, "fundamental truth." If so, the activity of the mind is to
"grasp the fundamental truths" with the intellect, rather than comprehending the
tangible facts by way of the senses.
For example, a man who was bitten by a black
dog may be greatly influenced by the dog's color that he comprehends through his
sense of vision. In the wake of this, he may develop a fear of black animals,
such that he may begin to sweat at the sight of a black cat cutting across his
path. Clearly, understanding the facts in this manner does not constitute true
knowledge. The deep impression left by the color results from the person
allowing himself to be excessively swept away by his senses, and from the memory
of his childhood fears that overwhelmed him when he was left alone in the dark.
His imagination draws a connection between the color of the dog and his fear of
darkness, and only intensifies the fear.
intellectual understanding of the world would not be overly impressed by the
color black; it would restrain the person's imagination and fears, and identify
what truly brought about the biting. Through a precise identification of the dog
and its kind and the biological mechanism that causes a dog to attack, it is
possible to truly identify the reason for the bite. This understanding is a
scientific understanding of the universe, and not merely an impression of the
senses. This is the intellect's understanding of dog as a rational truth and not
its comprehension of it as a sensible fact.
In truth, the
intellect cannot comprehend the tangible fact, but only the rational truth that
lies behind these tangible phenomena. The senses identify the sensible data, but
it is the intellect that must penetrate the sensible phenomena and distinguish
the abstract rational truth (which is the true cause of these phenomena) from
all its material coverings.
entirety of existence in an intellectual manner is the purpose of the intellect.
Using modern terminology, this knowledge may be called scientific knowledge of
all the components of reality. Maimonides, however, does not view scientific
knowledge of the world as the ultimate objective of the intellect; rather, its
ultimate object is the knowledge of God.
verity to grasp is the unity of the Holy One, blessed be He, and all that
pertains to that Divine matter. Other verities serve only to exercise one toward
the attainment of Divine knowledge.
True scientific knowledge of the world cannot stop at the intermediate
stages; it strives to know and comprehend the primary and fundamental cause of
all these phenomena.
We saw earlier that the notion of purpose rules Maimonides’ thought. Just
as it is possible to divide up the natural beings and say that animals are means
and man is the purpose, so too it is possible to categorize man's activities and
assert that thought is the purpose and all other human activities are merely
means. Here Maimonides argues that such a distinction may be made even with
respect to the various acts of thought themselves. The knowledge of God is the
objective and all other wisdom and sciences are merely the means by which to
the love of God
The aspiration to know the prime cause of all reality characterizes the
active nature of human thought that strives to understand the root of all
existence. According to Maimonides’ interpretation, this aspiration, which
begins with knowledge of the natural world and aims at knowing God who exists
beyond it, is called by the Torah "the love of God."
person contemplates His great and wondrous works and creatures and from them
obtains a glimpse of His wisdom which is incomparable and infinite, he will
straightway love Him, praise Him, glorify Him, and long with an exceeding
longing to know His great Name. As David said: "My soul thirsts for God, for the
living God" (Psalms 42:3).
The duty to
love God is not a mitzvah performed with one's emotions, but rather a
mitzvah performed with one's intellect. It marks the intellect's striving
to acquire understanding to the very limits of its ability. This idea is found
in Maimonides’ Book of the Commandments, repeated in his Mishneh
Torah, and reiterated in his Guide of the Perplexed. In his Book
of the Commandments, Maimonides counts the duty to love God among the
mitzvot performed with the intellect and not with the emotions.
In the Mishneh Torah,
he asserts that "one only loves God with the knowledge with which one knows Him.
According to the knowledge, will be the love."
And in the Guide of the Perplexed he explains that this mitzvah
embraces the knowledge of all the sciences.
regard to all the other correct opinions concerning the whole of being –
opinions that constitute the numerous kinds of all the theoretical sciences… the
Torah, albeit it does not make a call to direct attention to them… does do this
in summary fashion by saying: "To love the Lord" (Deuteronomy 11:13). You
know how this is confirmed in the dictum regarding love: "With all your
heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:5).
We have already explained in the Mishneh Torah that this love
becomes valid only through the apprehension of the whole of being as it is
and through the consideration of His wisdom as it is manifested in it.
The love of God, then, is the
intellect's ceaseless striving to expand its knowledge, to delve deeply into
what it knows, and reach its ultimate end: knowledge of the foundation upon
which all else depends. Knowing this principle is the first mitzvah in
the Mishneh Torah.
principle of all basic principles and the pillar of all science is to know
that there is a First Being who brought every existing thing into being. All
existing things, whether celestial, terrestrial, or belonging to an intermediate
class, exist only through His true existence…
Knowing this truth is an
affirmative precept, as it says: "I am the Lord, your God" (Exodus 20:2;
Once again, it
should be noted that we are not dealing here with belief in God, but rather with
knowing Him solely by way of the intellect. Both loving God and
knowing Him are duties imposed upon the intellect. They mark man's obligation to
realize his human purpose and invest all his energy and talents into
comprehending God by way of his intellect, while recognizing that this
comprehension is not possible without knowing the world in which God's wisdom
manifests itself, this being the way through which to know Him.
If we try to
conjure up an image of the person described in these sources, we picture
somebody immersed in study, deep in active and constant thought, who tries to
embrace with his mind all the scientific knowledge regarding the universe.
Further, such a person does not suffice with this knowledge, but strives to
recognize God, who is the cause of all existence. Maimonides goes even further,
and in the Mishneh Torah, at the end of the Book of Knowledge, he
likens one who loves God and whose only aspiration is to know Him to "one who is
the love of God that is befitting? It is to love the Lord with a great and
exceeding love, so strong that one's soul shall be knit up with the love of
God, and one should be continually enraptured by it, like a love-sick
individual, whose mind is at no time free from his passion for a particular
woman, the thought of her filling his heart at all times, when sitting
down or rising up, when he is eating or drinking. Even more intense
should be the love of God in the hearts of those who love Him. And this
love should continually possess them, even as He commanded us in the phrase,
"with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deuteronomy 6:5). This, Solomon
expressed allegorically in the sentence, "for I am sick with love" (Song of
Songs 2:5). The entire Song of Songs is indeed an allegory descriptive of this
The duty to love God is demanding and uncompromising, constantly
troubling and drawing out man's personality. This is the extent of the love of
God. It would seem to follow from this that a person should reduce his other
human activities to the barest minimum, and engage in them only to maintain the
minimal existence of his body. Such a person will certainly not try to expand
the scope of his practical activities beyond what is necessary for his
existence. It is also difficult to see such a person investing himself in public
roles that will consume his time and energy. Rather, he will isolate himself in
thought and meditation, at most engaging in conversation with his disciples, who
in their thirst for knowledge will enrich the thought of their master.
We may add to this Maimonides’ assertion that the intellectual
apprehension of God is best achieved when a person is in absolute isolation,
when he contemplates God without being able to convey his thoughts to another
person, this comprehension being indescribable - "Let them be only your own, and
not strangers' with you".
Such a person's desire to realize his purpose will lead him to live a solitary
and meditative life, totally severed from his clamorous surroundings.
In light of all this, how can we account for all the varied aspects of
Maimonides’ actual life? How can we explain his ceaseless occupation in halakhic
writing rather than philosophical contemplation? How are we to understand his
serious occupation in medicine and his dedication to leading his people? In our
next lecture, we shall outline Maimonides’ biographical details and examine his
literary oeuvre, with the hope of solving this riddle.
(Translated by David Strauss)
Rav Eli Hadad, an alumnus of
Etzion, teaches at Yeshivat HaKibbutz HaDati in Ein Tzurim.
This series is posted in
conjunction with the Maimonides Heritage
Questions and comments can be
sent to Rambam@etzion.org.il.