Maimonides’ Legacy of World-Bridging

Maimonides’ Legacy of World-Bridging

By: David B. Burrell, C.S.C., University of Notre Dame /Tantur Ecumenical Institute (Jerusalem)

Exploratory and confirming role of reason in matters religious

Jose Faur delineates, from a rabbinic perspective, the way that the Rambam employs reason to explore and to confirm revelation:

In the Maimonidean system knowledge of God as a transcendent Supreme Being means knowledge of God as the absolute Creator.  It involves three closely interrelated steps:  exiting the realm of imagination, discovering objective reality, and cognizance of the Creator.  The first step consists in freeing the mind from the grip of imagination. … The second step consists of penetrating the realm of reason and perceiving reality as an objective entity governed by precise and universal laws.  Only then can humans begin to realize that the universe in which they reside may be the design of a Creator, Absolute and Supreme.  The source for this doctrine is rabbinic… Only a mythological deity leaves traces of its presence.  The God of Israel, even when performing the most astounding miracles, leaves no evidence of His presence (13).  … In this fashion God, author of the universe, simultaneously bestows existence to the universe and covers His traces “out of existence.”  The Maimonidean doctrine of Creation cannot be demonstrated:  it can only be indicated (14).  … [Yet] only a postrational human can distinguish between what words say and what can only be pointed at but cannot be said (15).

An entire program of philosophical theology is outlined here, culminating with resonances of Wittgenstein.  The first step suggests that analogous uses of language will be indispensable, lest our imagination spontaneously infect statements intending to indicate the creator with inappropriate images.  The second reminds us how using language analogously will presuppose a developed capacity for sensing an order which can never accurately be described (since it transcends imagining), while the third step—cognizance of the creator—takes us to the “postrational” heart of the matter:  “the realm of esoterics and prophecy” (119). 

Before following his lead to trace the Rambam’s rich exercise program, however, we need to free Faur’s image of steps “from the grip of imagination.”  The mention of “esoterics” offers an entry.  As we have suggested, the polarity exoteric / esoteric can easily mislead us into thinking of the first as literal:  “the Torah speaks in human language,” as Maimonides never tired of reminding us;  while the deliberately “contradictory premises“ which he warns us will signal an invitation to “esoteric and prophetic” understanding will require decoding.  But the very image of decoding presumes that intelligent persons will be able to transform scrambled language into something clear, thereby undercutting the signal difference in the third step:  from saying to showing, from words to silence.  As Faur puts it:  ”If one were to regard Creation as God’s speech or writing—as the Scripture and rabbis teach—then a distinction must be established between what the system says and what it only indicates.  [Creation] is structurally connected with the doctrine of silence” (14).  Yet if so, how can he go on to advise us how “to decode God’s speech and writing“?  In fact, of course, much of the discussion of this exoteric / esoteric polarity has been infected with the decoding metaphor, which we shall have to ask the Rambam to help us excoriate, as a vestige of imaginal discourse, in order to be faithful to the path of interpretation which Jose Faur has opened for us.  One way of beginning to do so is to remind ourselves (1) just how analogous are the notions of “God’s speech and writing” in all of the Abrahamic faith-traditions, and (2) to use the deliberately ambiguous ladders of Sufi “stations” to explicate how the three steps which Faur proposes for articulating the Rambam’s intellectual ascent from discourse to silence are not, of course, steps at all!  That is, one never quite mounts from the first to the second and then to the third, since imagination will ever bedevil our notions, while we shall ever be tempted to project the orders which our intellect needs to understand into the source of order itself.  Sufi writers take little care to be consistent in labeling the stations along the way to proximity with the divine, for there seems to be no single path, though a path will open for each, and it will be one of ascent, so steps or stations will prove to be useful metaphors so long as we realize that is what they are.  As the Rambam will suggest, that realization will distinguish a properly analogous use of language from one which simply relies on metaphors themselves to make the point.  And the very structure of the Guide, with its repetitive perambulations, is intended to prompt just such a realization. 

So our minds, as human beings, will never be freed “from the grip of imagination,” nor can our intellects ever claim to have grasped “objective reality.”  Indeed, with the help of our friends, we shall always be freeing whatever discourse we employ from unintended implications which imagination will spontaneously supply, just as we shall ever be directing our critical faculties to more adequate conceptualizations, as the history of science palpably reminds us.  We find this strategy operative in the Guide once its author moves beyond the foundational distinction of knowledge from opinion, largely paralleling that of reason from imagination, to attempt to lead us into an appreciation of the ways revelation can enhance our understanding of matters which surpass demonstration—notably (as Faur identifies it) free creation.  In short, we can learn to employ the very critical capacities we constantly need to move us beyond imagination, to help us ascend to a “postrational” stance—though never without a guide, whose guidance will be displayed as we delineate the structure of his text:  the Guide of the Perplexed.

Let me recall the suggestion of my initial guide in these matters, Joel Kraemer:  that the Guide itself proceeds dialectically.  That means, first, not demonstratively, which is clearly the case.  Yet if demonstration is the signature of reason, must that situate the Guide in the realm of opinion?  Hardly, for then we would be entrusting ourselves to following what the Rambam says, rather than undertaking the exercises he has designed for us to do.  A second meaning for ‘dialectical’ can help resolve this apparent dilemma:  a strategic amassing of examples to lead students to realize where the argument is headed; in short, pedagogy.  This constructive sense also responds to any reader’s appreciation of the author of the Guide as an accomplished teacher.  It is by virtue of such assembled examples that we are led to an ever more articulate way of expressing, say, how necessary emanation differs from free creation.  Moreover, since the emanation scheme offers greater philosophical elegance, one will have to parse ‘free creation’ in such a way as to excoriate any Zeus-like willfulness from the action.  Yet the action of free creating itself will escape positive articulation, since we cannot understand an action which is free yet does not alter the agent in effecting it.  Nor are we able to parse activity which does not take place in time yet whose effect is temporal.  So we are pressed to try as best we can to articulate who and what this agent is.

Here is where Maimonides’ celebrated treatment of divine attributes emerges, for to safeguard the “distinction” between creator and creatures, he will insist that “God is One in every respect without plurality and without additions to His essence” (1.52).  Furthermore, he will deny any relation between creator and creatures, intending, of course, a reciprocal relation of the parent-child sort, best expressed in the Arabic custom of naming parents after their first son, so that the father becomes Abu Samir and the mother Umm Samir, though it is Samir who has come into the world through their agency.  So what would it be like to have an agent who is in no way affected by its agency being operative?  We can have recourse to Aristotle’s teaching that the activity of the cause is in the effect, as the flame burns what is combustible without its being altered as a flame.  Or we can give it a name, as Sara Grant does, using Shankara’s nonduality to express creation in these traditions as a “non-reciprocal relation of dependence.”  Yet while that offers a tidy formula, corresponding to Aquinas’ insistence that while the relation of creatures to the creator is a real one, that of creator to creatures is not; both statements have evoked stiff objections:  would not such a God be uncaring?  Maimonides has a response, of course:  caring cannot be said of God, for that would be adding something to the divinity, though one could certainly speak—as the scriptures do—of God’s actions as exhibiting caring.  Yet those same scriptures often describe divine care in ways which would defy comparison with caring human actions.  This further confirms the Rambam’s insistence that we cannot “imagine a relation between a thing and Him which shares no common trait with anything outside Him at all … .  [So] there is no possible true relation between Him and anything He has created, because relation can at any time be only between things of the same immediate species.  … [Indeed,] how could there be any relation between God and any creature, when there is that immense difference in the nature of existence, greater than which no difference can ever be” (1.52)?  But if the only relations we can imagine will be correlations, can we and do we not affirm a unique relation in naming God creator?  And is not the divine activity of creating itself able to bridge that “immense difference?”  The answer must be yes, of course, yet the Rambam has forcibly reminded us that we have no way of “tracking” such activity.

His way of showing this will be to offer different ways of presenting creation, where the differences in his presentation have led to fierce controversy over whether Maimonides held the universe to have been created such that it has an initial moment of existence or so that it has always existed. Sara Klein-Braslavy has laid out his consistent efforts to interpret the story in each of these ways without attempting to reconcile them.  Yet she goes on to conclude that such a strategy “shows that he wished to conceal his true view—namely, that the universe is eternal—from the common man.”  But following the pedagogical dialectic of the Guide, there is no way of inferring Maimonides’ “true view;”  that would be like asking Socrates what he really thinks!  Yet if Socrates were to tell us what he “really thinks,” we would be inclined to accept his opinion of things, when his goal—like the Rambam’s—is to spur us on to think it out ourselves.  Would it not be more in line with his intent, as manifested in the structure of the Guide, to read the dual presentation as a reminder that we have no way of suitably articulating in human speech the activity of creating, so are impelled to affirm of it what we must—that it is free—and allow for different—even conflicting—conceptual articulations?  For at this point our speech can at best try to show what it realizes it cannot say.  So any attempt to detect and convey “Maimonides’ secret position on creation” will prove to be a vain search.           

The final chapters of the Guide intimate what this comes to, namely:

the obligation of exercising one’s independent power of thinking on the subject of God alone after having obtained the knowledge of Him. … This is a form of service to God which is reserved for those who have apprehended Truth.  The more they think about God and let their minds dwell upon Him, the more intensive their service to Him. (3.51)

Here we find a lead to Jose Faur’s use of ‘post-rational’ to characterize the goal of the Rambam’s pedagogy:  why else would one need to “exercise one’s independent power of thinking … after having obtained knowledge of the truth”?  This is the transition from Faur’s step two:  “perceiving reality as an objective entity governed by precise and universal laws,” to step three:  “realizing that the universe in which they reside may be the design of a Creator, Absolute and Supreme.”  Moreover, that very “exercise of the mind” manifests itself as “a form of service to God … reserved for those who have apprehended Truth.”  In the Islamicate, the Arabic term for ‘service’ is interchangeable with that of ‘prayer’, and in Maimonides’ tradition, with fidelity to the Torah.  The only way for the intellect to “grasp” what is beyond its grasp will be by way of altering one’s life in the direction of the object sought;  in this case, the One who is creator of all.  After a particularly recondite exposition which leads beyond what can properly be said, the Rambam will often close the chapter by “ponder this well!” or in another rendering: “endeavor to understand this fully” (3.52).  Or more fulsomely: 

Train yourself to understand this chapter, and make every effort to increase the number of occasions when you are with God or at least striving towards Him, and to diminish the occasions when you are with things other than He and not striving towards Him.  This guidance is sufficient for the purpose of this treatise (3.51 [Excursus]). 

How might we ponder things well, or endeavor to understand, or train ourselves to understand?  As he himself suggests:  be with God or at least strive towards Him.  The most obvious connection in Maimonides’ cultural environment would be the Sufi practices of recollection [dhikr] leading to “closeness to God.”  Al-Ghazali details these in several places in his magnum opus, Ihya’ ‘Ulum ad-Din (with which most scholars think the Rambam had to be familiar), notably in the Book of Faith in Divine Unity and Trust in Divine Providence [Kitab at-tawhid wa tawakkul].  The structure of this book displays also its strategy:  the first third treats of the foundational Islamic article of faith in the oneness of God;  the last two-thirds on that quality of trust in this One God which testifies to our understanding of that foundational article, which defies a proper articulation.  For Maimonides, “striving towards Him” will involve trusting in “that Divine Providence [which] is constantly guarding those who have obtained a share of that emanation which is granted to all who make an effort to obtain it.  When persons have obtained purity of thought, clear perception of God by the proper methods, and beatitude through that which he perceives, it will never be possible for any evil of any kind to befall them, because they are with God and God is with them” ((3.51).  The “proper methods” for obtaining a “clear perception of God” will involve modes of service which lead to the grades of human perfection which he details in the culminating chapter (3.54).  So we know that ’perception’ must be taken metaphorically (or analogously), and that it will not admit of the articulation proper to knowledge as we obtain it;  it will, in short, be a “post-rational” sort of perception.  That is, the intellectual mode may best describe it, but the manner of apprehension will exceed our intellectual powers as they are exercised in their best manner, in demonstration. 

Whatever it is, it will result from “that emanation which is granted to all who make an effort to obtain it,” where the Rambam identifies the emanation with prophecy, and ‘prophecy’ always refers, in the Islamicate, to the scriptures in their power as the Word of God.  And while our efforts are a sine qua non, prophecy can only be granted;  it can never be an achievement.  This suggests an affinity with Aquinas’ celebrated response to the question whether “besides human reason, there is a further understanding which comes as a result of grace?”  He not only answers yes, but obliges with a lucid explanation of how:  just as the deliverances of the senses are rendered intelligible when penetrated by the agent intellect, so the God-given images of scripture (which he calls “prophetic visions”) are illuminated by the intellect strengthened by grace to offer us an understanding greater than reason could yield (Summa Theologiae 1.12.13).  So the “images of scripture,” the literal sense of the (largely) narrative accounts, take the place of “deliverances of the senses,” while the “light of grace” strengthens the agent intellect to yield the proper—that is, the God-given—sense of these “God-given images” (or “prophetic visions”).  And while ‘grace’ is a term Christians more easily employ, it would falsify the pervasive tone of these final chapters of the Guide were one to attempt to deny its efficacy in Maimonides.  What is of primary interest to us, however, is the manner of employing scripture to enhance our properly human understanding of the universe itself, and especially in its relation to its creator.  We need to learn how to let ourselves be guided by it, but if we may follow Aquinas’ analogies, that guidance will be not unlike the guidance a teacher like Maimonides can offer in his Guide.  God-given as it may be, its mode will follow the modes of understanding proper to us;  we cannot expect any special illumination, but can nonetheless trust to God-given guidance. 

A fine example of this is given in Maimonides’ discussion in the Mishneh Torah of messianic times—an account which a young Jewish student in Jerusalem used to exemplify a “rationalist” position on the matter.  Without pretending to be an authority on intra-Jewish readings of the Rambam, I present this as clarifying confusions which can bedevil other communities as well.  Famously, he teaches:

Let no one think that in the days of the Messiah any of the laws of nature will be set aside, nor any innovation be introduced into creation.  The world will follow its normal course.  The words of Isaiah:  “And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the kid” (11:6) are to be understood figuratively, meaning that Israel will live securely among the wicked of the heathens who are likened to wolves and leopards, as it is written: A wolf of the desert does spoil them, a leopard watches over their cities” (Jer 5:6).  They will all accept the true religion, and will neither plunder nor destroy, and together with Israel earn a comfortable living in a legitimate way, as it is written:  “And the lion shall eat straw like the ox” (Is. 11:7).  All similar expressions used in connection with the Messianic age are metaphorical. In the days of King Messiah the full meaning of these metaphors and their allusions will be come clear to all. 

In denying that “the laws of nature will be set aside,” he may sound “rationalist” in the sense of eschewing any overt miracles, yet his insistence that “all will accept the true religion, and will neither plunder nor destroy, and together with Israel earn a comfortable living in a legitimate way,” could hardly be called “natural” (or customary) comportment in the human world we all know!  So the presence of “King Messiah” will clearly bring about transformations of a monumental sort, which no self-respecting “rationalist” would ever expect or soberly predict. Here again, it seems characteristic of what Maimonides will call “the imagination” to fancy the “supernatural” in overtly miraculous terms, while the Rambam himself has already reminded us of the utterly unlikely transformation which can be worked even in fractious times in “those who have obtained a share of that emanation which is granted to all who make an effort to obtain it;  … it will never be possible for any evil of any kind to befall them, because they are with God and God is with them” ((3.51).  Not much “rationalism” in that description!

Before concluding, let us return to Jose Faur’s third step:  the heart of what he calls the “post-rational realm of esoterics and prophecy.”  This step can be likened to allowing the scriptures of our traditions to guide our reflections, with a guidance which cannot promise an illumination beyond the ordinary, but will prove a reliable guide to properly weighing the factors affecting our understanding.  In this way, we will learn to trust our scriptures as leading us beyond what we could ourselves judge to be the case.  Yet note that such guidance does not translate into a “secret position” or a “special insight” which we could formulate for anyone else.  So it cannot rightly be called “knowledge,” but those who trust in it can be called “post-rational.”  In this sense, the scriptures, meditated and lived over a period of time, can provide a prescient context for the exercise of reason in inquiry, and so rightly be called a “grace.”  Faithful followers of revelation can enter, then, “the realm of esoterics and prophecy,” by allowing themselves to trust the guidance given them by revelation as it is received and elaborated in the community it forms.

World-bridging today

Something is happening in our time; something which offers a serendipitous complement to the world-destroying penchant of our respective religious collectives which shames us all.  Just as Jose Faur has suggested (and persuasively documented) a fresh way of reading the Rambam—notably by showing us how the passage to the esoteric is already inscribed in our shared faith (as Abrahamic believers) in the free creation of the universe—so similar readings have propelled to prominence thinkers in other Abrahamic traditions whose paths are remarkably parallel.  Moreover, unlike Moses Maimonides, these particular thinkers have not often enjoyed such prominence;  though like the Rambam, each of them has been dubbed heretical by his respective tradition.  I am speaking of Ibn al-Arabi and of Meister Elkhart.  And the point of contention has been the same as that which Jose Faur identifies in Maimonides:  the ineffable relation of creator to creatures, as well as of creatures to the creator.  (For these are not reciprocal, as Maimonides presumed they had to be, yet Aquinas famously denied:  a difference which Sara Grant only articulated with Shankara’s help.)  Moreover, it was precisely the way both Meister Eckhart and Ibn al-Arabi struggled to portray the uniqueness of this relation which made them suspect to their respective communities:  Eckhart was publicly tried by ecclesiastical authorities for preaching pantheism, and Ibn al-Arabi continues to be banned in portions of the Arab Muslim world (including, until recently, Egypt) for his famous (or notorious) teaching of wahdat al-wujud, or “unity of existence” between creatures and their creator.  Yet again, neither of them denies that creator and creatures are distinct from one another, but both are struggling to articulate how unique that distinction must be:  that it cannot be at all parallel with the distinctions we draw among creatures.  That should be obvious to anyone who realizes how arresting it is to assert that all-that-is is created freely by one God;  could we coherently diagram the universe and its creator on the same plane, over against one another?  And if not, how can we picture that relation?  We can’t, of course;  though any attempt to articulate it will be forced to deconstruct such misleading pictures, and so be open to the jejune charge of “pantheism.”  The Rambam’s strategy for avoiding a pantheism which effectively denies free creation by eliding any distinction at all between origin and result was to deny any relation at all between creatures and creator.  But that only succeeds in underscoring the “distinction” by making talk of creation itself incoherent, for asserting that all things are freely created by one God clearly requires the unique relation of creating; the trick lies in articulating it.  Perhaps he saw how any attempt to do so would inevitably fall into the diagrammatic trap, given the ubiquitous and diverting power which images have in shaping our attempts to articulate these recondite matters.

Both Ibn Arabi and Eckhart countered this propensity directly by proposing pregnant alternative metaphors, designed to divert the conventional powers of imaging by offering arresting counter-images.  In doing so, they each displayed their respect for the Rambam’s concerns about religious thinkers unwittingly promoting idolatry, and were predictably rewarded for their efforts by religious authorities’ finding them suspect as well.  What to do?  About religious authorities, apparently very little;  but Jose Faur has shown us how the Rambam offers a way for inquirers:  to wean readers away from our own proposals by presenting them in contradictory ways, so returning fellow inquirers to revelation itself, helping them to recognize the times when it directs us not to take its assertions at face value, but rather opens our minds and hearts to a teaching which defies straightforward articulation, but is nonetheless as overt as asserting the free creation of the universe!  The initial challenge will be to recognize those moments, while the next one will be to resist the offer of some to unlock them for us, thereby promising to clarify what scripture itself leaves obscure.  Yet as each of these thinkers joins the Rambam to insist:  neither obscurity nor the idolatrous pretension to know need be the last word.  For we can let ourselves be guided by these liminal moments in our revelations to respond with a willing heart, letting the obscurity lead us to give witness to the truth which emerges from our puzzlement.  Then we will have learned how to apprentice our powers of reasoning to a revelation which can shape both our understanding and our lives, as we allow the power inherent in that revealing activity to be made manifest in thought and in action. 

1.    At this point, Jose Faur directs us to his article:  “God as Writer:  Omnipresence and the Art of Dissimulation,”  Cross Currents 6 (1989) 37-38. 

2.  Jose Faur, Homo Mysticus (Syracuse University Press, 1999) 13-15

3.  His advice is explicitly incoherent, which suggests that he realized how misleading is the decoding metaphor:  “to decode God’s speech and writing, the hearer / reader must fill in the intervals between the letters and the words, discovering the syntax which is manifested but not located in them, like Bezalel, the builder of the tabernacle, who ‘knew how to join the letters by which Heaven and earth were created. Thus ‘proving’ Creation is the same kind of oxymoron as a proposition articulating the syntax of its own syntax” (14).  See also Catherine Pickstock, After Writing (Oxford:  Blackwell, 2001).

4.    Many have difficulty distinguishing analogy from metaphor because they expect the words themselves to differ;  it is the realization, the use itself, which turns the trick.

5. Bas van Fraasen’s Empirical Stance (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2002) develops this latter point elegantly.

6.  For a contemporary analogue, see Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason (Washington DC:  Catholic University of America Press, 1992), who uses his phenomenological skills to elucidate what he calls “the distinction” of creator from creation.  For analogues in Jewish and Muslim tradition, see my “The Christian Distinction Celebrated and Expanded,” in John Drummond and James Hart, eds., The Truthful and the Good (Dordrecht:  Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1996) 191-206.

7. Sara Grant, Towards an Alternative Theology (Notre Dame IN:  University of Notre Dame Press, 2002). 

8. Perush ha-Rambam le-Sippur Beri’at ha-‘Olam (Jerusalem, 1978), cited in Aviezer Ravitsky, “The Secrets of the Guide to the Perplexed:  Between the Thirteenth and the Twentieth Centuries,” in Isadore Twersky, ed., Studies in Maimonides Cambridge MA:  Harvard University Press, 1990) 159-207, citation at 193.

9. Perush, 256.

10. Herbert Davidson, “Maimonides’ Secret Position on Creation”, in Isidore Twersky, ed., Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature I (Cambridge MA:  Harvard University Press, 1979) 15-19. 

11.  Ghazali, Book of Faith in Divine Unity and Trust in Divine Providence [Kitab at-tawhid wa tawakkul], trans. David Burrell (Louisville:  Fons Vitae, 2002). 

12. Shlomo Pines has explored this in an article which places the Rambam firmly in the Islamicate, “The Limitations of Human Knowledge according to al-Farabi, ibn Bajja, and Maimonides,” in Isidore Twersky, ed., Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature I (Cambridge MA:  Harvard University Press, 1979)  83-109

13. See Avital Wohlman’s presentation of Yesheyahu Leibowitz’ views, in her Maimonide et Thomas d’Aquin:  Un Dialogue Impossible (Fribourg:  Presses Universitaires, 1999). 

14. Mishneh Torah 14.12.1, in Isadore Twersky, ed., A Maimonides Reader (New York, Berhman House, 1972) 224; See also Guide 2.29. 



Lecture delivered at Cambridge University, June 1, 2004


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