Every group of Jews claims Rambam as their own.
Moses Maimonides aka Rambam is best known as a towering rabbinic scholar of the middle ages and the embodiment of an authentic Jewish life. Every present-day Jewish denomination claims him as one of their own. "If he were alive today, he would definitely belong to my synagogue!"
Less known perhaps are his more controversial ideas of Jewish authenticity, several of which nearly divided the Jewish world toward the end of his life and following his death. Especially controversial was his emphasis on the importance of philosophical speculation and human reason, which Maimonides regarded as necessary counterweights to revelation as a source of truth.
His claim that philosophy (which included what we now call natural science and critical thinking) is an integral and indispensable part of a complete Jewish education elicited harsh criticism and, in some cases, threats of excommunication. Especially critical were those Talmudic scholars who regarded more narrowly the "dalet amot" [four cubits] of Talmudic and rabbinic learning as the only truly authentic texts and the only texts and ideas worth studying.
A telling example of Maimonides' outlook in this regard is his "Parable of the King's Court" that he included in his philosophical treatise the Guide to the Perplexed. For those unfamiliar with this work, Maimonides wrote his Guide for an exclusive audience of educated Jews who had mastered both Talmud-Torah and philosophy/science.
These Jews often found perplexing contradictions between these two bodies of knowledge that Maimonides tried to reconcile in his Guide. Unlike the majesterial law code Mishneh Torah that he wrote in mellifluous and accessible Hebrew for a broad Jewish audience, the Guide was written in Arabic, a language accessible only to an elite group of educated Jews, the equivalent of a present-day Jewish Studies scholar writing for an academic rather than a lay audience.
(He left explicit instructions that the Guide never be translated into Hebrew — an instruction that one of his students ignored, leading to what came to be known as the "Maimonidean Controversies.")
The "Parable of the King's Court" describes a hierarchy of piety and knowledge, arraying people of varied levels and types of education farther from or closer to the king (i.e. God, the source of wisdom and knowledge). Educated people are closer than the uneducated, for example. Among educated people, Maimonides situates Talmudic scholars closer to the king than most, but with the following caveat (Guide Chapter LI):
Those who arrive at the palace (but do not enter) are those who devote themselves exclusively to the study of the practical law (i.e. Halacha); they believe traditionally in true principles of faith, and learn the practical worship of God, but are not trained in philosophical treatment of the principles of the Law, and do not endeavor to establish the truth of their faith by proof [i.e. through scientific speculation and critical thinking].
Only those who have succeeded in finding a proof for everything that can be proved, who have a true knowledge of God, so far as a true knowledge can be attained, and are near the truth, wherever an approach to the truth is possible, they have reached the goal, and enter the palace in which the king lives. [emphasis added]
Accordingly, while Maimonides acknowledged and lauded the study of the Talmud as an essential component of a completely formed Jewish scholar, he believed without reservation that even a lifetime spent studying the Talmud to the exclusion of everything else can bring you only to the "entrance of the palace" but not to the actual throne room, that is, only so close to God but no further. Only by combining Talmudic study with reason and philosophical thinking, he believed, can one complete the intellectual and spiritual journey to the divine.
Centuries later, Maimonides' message resonates even more deeply in a world where Jews have broad and easy access to Jewish and general knowledge alike, and not infrequently have the enviable choice or — in the case of dual-curriculum Jewish day schools, for example — face the dilemma of dividing time and resources between general and Jewish learning. Of course, it is widely agreed upon that Jewish learning should have a top position of priority and prime importance, but it should not be an end in itself.
The goal of studying Talmud, in hevruta or otherwise, must never be merely understanding and repeating discussions between rabbis from a millennium and a half ago. Rather, Jewish learning should be a point of departure that complements and broadens a 21st century understanding of the world, which we can apply toward unraveling 21st century dilemmas and solving 21st century problems.
For Rambam’s sake, then, let us work together to find a proof for everything that can be proved.
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