Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Maimonides on the Trinity

It is not rare that a person aims to expound the intent of some conclusions clearly and explicitly, makes an effort to reject doubts and eliminate far-fetched interpretations, and yet the unbalanced will draw the reverse judgment of the conclusion he sought to clarify. Some such thing occured even to one of God's declarations. When the chief of the prophets wished by order of God to teach us that He is One, without associates, and to remove from our hearts those wrong doctrines that the Dualists propound, he proclaimed this fundamental: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone [Deut. 6:4]. But the Christians utilized this verse to prove that God is one of three, teaching that Lord, our God, the Lord makes three names, all followed by one, which indicates that they are three and that the three are one. Far be God from what they say in their ignorance. If this is what happened to God's proclamation, it is much more likely and to be expected to happen to statements by humans.
-Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam or Maimonides, in his The Essay on Resurrection, trans. Abraham Halkin in The Epistles of Maimonides: crisis and leadership.

It is no exaggeration to state that the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), or Maimonides as he is commonly reffered to in English, is one of the major figures in Jewish history, culture and thought. One of the foremost physicians and philosophers of his day, his fame spread worldwide, and he was held in great esteem even by Christians and Muslims. When facing severe tribulations, Jewish communities as distant as Morocco and Yemen sought his help and advice. As he was court physician to the Ayyubids in Cairo, with his strong political connections the Rambam could also play a vital role in his community's life, and did.
The Rambam wrote many commentaries on the Torah and the Mishnah, that codification of the Halacha, or Jewish oral law, and explained the reasons (or ta'amei hamitzvot) for the 613 commandments of the Torah on rational, philosophical grounds. His thirteen articles of faith were adopted by all Jewish communities, indeed, the 12th of them- professing complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, even were he to tarry- has become a symbol of the unbreakable Jewish spirit, being on the lips of many Treblinka inmates marching to the gas chambers.
The Rambam's lifelong work, however was that of an educator. He seeks to draw the people away from ignorance and idolatry (the two, for him, are inseparably linked) and towards the true intent of the law- knowing God.
This for him is love, an exalted, all-consuming intellectual love, as is made clear from the following two selections.

For we live in a material world and the only pleasure we can comprehend must be material. But the delights of the spirit are everlasting and uninterrupted, and there is no resemblance in any possible way between spiritual and bodily enjoyments.
We are not sanctioned either by the Torah or by the divine philosophers to assert that the angels, the stars, and the spheres enjoy no delights. In truth they have exceeding great delight in respect of what they comprehend of the Creator (glorified be He!). This to them is an everlasting felicity without a break. They have no bodily pleasures, neither do they comprehend them, because they have no senses like ours, enabling them to have our sense experiences.
And likewise it will be with us too. When after death the worthy from among us will reach that exalted stage he will experience no bodily pleasures neither will he have any wish for them, any more than would a king of sovereign power wish to divest himself of his imperial sway and return to his boyhood's games with a ball in the street, although at one time he would without doubt have set a higher worth upon a game with a ball than on kingly dominion, such being the case only when his years were few and he was totally ignorant of of the real significance of either pursuit, just as we today rank the delights of the body above those of the soul.
-Introduction to Perek Helek, trans. Joshua Abelson, in "Maimonides on the Jewish Creed," Jewish Quarterly Revie 19(1906-07):38.

This chapter discusses serving God out of love and fear, how to teach Torah to children and ignoramuses, and those who study Torah solely for the sake of it.

1) One should not think to oneself that one will fulfil the commandments of the Torah and occupy oneself in its wisdom in order to receive the blessings mentioned therein, or to merit life in the World To Come, and to avoid the transgressions against which the Torah warns in order to be saved from the curses mentioned therein, or in order not to be cut off from life in the World To Come, for it is not fitting to serve God in this manner. Anyone who does serve in this manner is doing so out of fear. This was not the [spiritual] level of the Prophets and Sages. Only ignoramuses, women and children serve in this manner, for they are educated to do so until their knowledge has increased sufficiently so that they will serve out of love.

2) Anyone who serves out of love and occupies himself with Torah and mitzvot and follows the ways of wisdom should not do so for any earthly reason[s] or out of fear of the curses or to receive the blessings, but should fulfil the truth because it is the truth. Out of this he will receive goodness. This level is a very high one, and not every wise person attains it. This is the level of Abraham the Patriarch, whom God called His `friend', for the reason that he served God solely out of love. This is a level which God commanded, via Moses, us [to attain], as it is written, "And you shall love the Lord your God". Once a person loves God appropriately, he will fulfil the commandments out of love.

3) What is appropriate love? This is an extremely strong and profound love of God, so that one's soul is committed to the love of God and that one will be so preoccupied with it that one will appear to be lovesick, in which one's mind is perpetually occupied at all times with a particular woman. Apart from this, one's love of God has to be absolute and continuous, as we have been commanded: "...with all your heart and with all your soul"2. Solomon said by way of example, "For I am sick with love". The entire Song Of Songs is exemplary of this concept [of the love of God].

4) The first Sages said that to prevent us from [falling into the trap of] learning Torah in order to become rich or to be called a Rabbi or to be rewarded in the World To Come, the Torah says, "...to love the Lord your God", i.e. all that one does should be done purely out of love. The Sages said further that the verse, "Happy is the man who fears the Lord, who delights greatly in His commandments" refers to the commandments, and not to the reward. In this vein, the greater Sages commanded just their wiser students and told them not to be like a servant who serves his master solely for payment, but to be like a servant whose attitude is that because his master is the master it is fitting to serve him, i.e. to serve purely out of love.

5) Anyone who occupies himself with Torah in order to receive reward or to prevent any troubles is not doing so for the sake of it, whereas anyone who does so out of love for the Master of this world, and not with any ulterior motives, is doing so for the sake of it. The Sages said that one should always occupy oneself with Torah even if not for the sake of it, for out of doing so not for the sake of it one will come to doing so for the sake of it. Therefore, when one is teaching children, women and ignoramuses one should teach them to serve God out of fear and inn order to be rewarded. As their knowledge increases and they become more wise, we reveal this `secret' to them bit by bit and accustom them to this concept in repose until they totally understand it, and will serve out of love.
- Sefer Hamada', Hilchot Teshuva 10:1-5
(This translation is copyright (c) Immanuel M. O'Lvey, 1993. This translation may be distributed in any form (on disk, printed, etc.) provided that it is done so on a non-profit basis and that this copyright and conditions message is left attached. The text used for this translation was the Rambam Le'Am, published by Mossad Ha'Rav Kook, Jerusalem. Words in the text that are in square brackets do not appear in the Rambam's writings. British spelling has been used, and Sephardit pronunciation has been used for words and phrases that have been transliterated. Comments are welcome by email - imo@medphys.ucl.ac.uk.)

In chapter 1 of Maimonides' Empire of Light, Ralph Lerner describes the situation of the various Jewish communities in the Rambam's day. "Theirs is a time of physical and psychic distress, doctrinal and institutional controversy, and general perplexity. Repeatedly, the leaders or disputants in those far-flung communities turn to Maimonides. His writings that they have read and the reputation of works that they haven't seen convince them that he has the power to resolve their misgivings or confusion. They appeal to his learning, or rather to the authority he derives from his learning."
Indeed, there is hardly a more fitting description of the Rambam than the title of his most famous work, the Guide of the Perxplexed.
This philosophical treatise par excellence is directed towards those torn between the conflicting worlds of traditional Judaism as passed down by Moses through the sages on the one hand, and modern philosophy and science on the other. While one may seem incomprehensible as opposed to the logic of the other, the Rambam attempts to bridge the two. He showed that they were not implacable enemies to each other, but went hand-in-hand.
This work, written in Arabic, was translated by others into Hebrew and Latin, both during the Rambam's own lifetime. Its influence was huge, even on the development of Jewish mysticism, which seems at odds with much of the Rambam's own approach.
Rambam's style was terse. "If I could squeeze the entire Law of the Torah into one chapter, I would not write two for it." (from the essay on Resurrection).
This habit landed him in the midst of controversy.
Many had misinterpreted the statements in the Rambam's writings, and the rumours spread that he denied the reality of bodily resurrection. He paid them no heed, never being unduly perturbed by mere babblers, but when the Gaon, head of the Baghdad religious academy, and one the most significant figures of the Jewish diaspora, denounced him in writing for denying the resurrection, this could no longer be ignored. He had to respond, and respond he did through his Essay on the Resurrection.
The tone is perosnal. It is bitter, it is frustrated.
As David Hartman surmised in "Epistles of Maimonides", the "pettiness of the joy of resurrection relative to the joy of the world-to-come, i.e., the joy of intellectual love of God, was a major reason behind Maimonides' anger. Whereas his whole philosophy of Judaism centered around the lovesickness of one who strives after knowledge of God, he was now compelled to write a defense of the belief that God will miraculously restore our bodily existence so that we can enjoy the material pleasures of this world! ...The lover feels degraded when he is asked to discuss his relationship to his beloved in gross utalitarian terms.
The community's disproportionate interest in resurrection relative to more important aspects of his teachings on Judaism must have pained Maimonides deeply, for it was a sign that all that he had attempted to accomplish as a Jewish leader and educator might have failed."
The Rambam opens his essay by showing that if the very words of God, delivered by Moses, the greatest of all prophets, could have been misinterprated by the Christians, then it is no wonder that it happened to his own words by his fellow Jews.
I don't know what exactly the source for this argument using the Shema Israel was, whether maimonides encountered it directly through Christians, or idirectly via Muslim source, but Augustine, the source indicated by Halkin in his notes to this essay, is not making the same argument at all.

The divine generation, therefore, of our Lord, and his human dispensation, having both been thus systematically disposed and commended to faith, there is added to our Confession, with a view to the perfecting of the faith which we have regarding God, [the doctrine of] The Holy Spirit, who is not of a nature inferior to the Father and the Son, but, so to say, consubstantial and co-eternal: for this Trinity is one God, not to the effect that the Father is the same [Person] as the Son and the Holy Spirit, but to the effect that the Father is the Father, and the Son is the Son, and the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit; and this Trinity is one God, according as it is written, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one God.” At the same time, if we be interrogated on the subject of each separately, and if the question be put to us, “Is the Father God?” we shall reply, “He is God.” If it be asked whether the Son is God, we shall answer to the same effect. Nor, if this kind of inquiry be addressed to us with respect to the Holy Spirit, ought we to affirm in reply that He is anything else than God; being earnestly on our guard, [however], against an acceptance of this merely in the sense in which it is applied to men, when it is said, “You are gods.” For of all those who have been made and fashioned of the Father, through the Son, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, none are gods according to nature. For it is this same Trinity that is signified when an apostle says, “For of Him, and in Him, and through Him, are all things.” Consequently, although, when we are interrogated on the subject of each [of these Persons] severally, we reply that that particular one regarding whom the question is asked, whether it be the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit, is God, no one, notwithstanding this, should suppose that three Gods are worshipped by us.
-St. Augustine, Of Faith and the Creed, chp. IX.

Be that as it may, the opening paragraph to the Essay on Resurrection is a fascinating look at the reaction of a fierce montheist and gifted philosopher to the doctrine of the Trinity.

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