I. The discipleship of a prodigy through denouncing God’s corporeality
The Guide for the Perplexed (hereafter, the Guide) was the last of the Rambam’s masterpieces, begun around 1185 and completed around 1191, just over a decade before he passed. Originally written in Judeo-Arabic, it gained widespread popularity amongst Hebrew speakers thanks to translations done by Samuel Ibn Tibbon and Judah al-Harizi (Kraemer 359). Maimonides’ motivation for drafting the Guide was not initially about dealing with intense philosophy and producing another magnum opus for posterity. Rather, what prompted him was the potential and eagerness that he saw in Joseph ben Judah ibn ‘Aqnin, one of his best students.
At first, he thought that ibn ‘Aqnin’s potential was still too raw, that his intellectual ability was not exactly commensurate with his desire to learn. However, after watching him closely over time, he became convinced that the up and coming scholar had proven his worth. He kept up diligent correspondence with Maimonides, sending him letters that increased his appreciation and respect for him. Many of these letters were maqamas—“short independent narratives written in ornamental rhymed prose with verse insertions, and share a common plot-scheme and two constant protagonists: the narrator and the hero” (Drory 190). The narrator was usually “a naïve, bourgeois type of fellow, whereas the protagonist was usually a bohemian roguish vagabond and adventurer” (Kraemer 360). Given the rarity of a young Jew skilled enough to produce his own edition of a quintessentially Arabic piece of literature, Maimonides recognized in these letters “the mark of a powerful intellect and strong education” (Nuland 132). After himself moving from Morocco to Egypt, ibn ‘Aqnin lived with Maimonides in Fostat. During this time, the two developed what was much more than a teacher-student relationship. Seeing ibn ‘Aqnin as a son of his own, Maimonides both taught him as a student and deputized him as a personal assistant who would even travel on his behalf (Nuland 133). This exciting one-on-one instruction also gradually made Maimonides grow concerned over ibn ‘Aqnin’s struggles in reconciling apparent contradictions in his interdisciplinary studies. After two years, the two parted company when ibn ‘Aqnin left for Aleppo. Kraemer comments that ibn ‘Aqnin’s absence would add to Maimonides’ incentive to write systematically on the topics they discussed together (361).
Maimonides said to ibn ‘Aqnin in the dedicatory letter beginning the Guide: “When, by the will of God, we parted, and you went your way, our discussions aroused in me a resolution which had long been dormant. Your absence has prompted me to compose this treatise for you and for those who are like you, however few they may be” (Guide, introduction., 1). Kraemer notes that “by making Joseph the formal addressee, Maimonides signaled who his target audience was—intellectuals learned in the law and initiated into the arcana of philosophy and science who were perplexed by Scripture’s contradictions of reason” (360). Thus, what spurred Maimonides to put quill to paper was the necessity of providing ibn ‘Aqnin with a book of teachings aimed at clarifying his confusions—a book to which he could refer in Maimonides’ absence. Evidently, through ample time of in-depth study together, Maimonides was convinced that, in ibn ‘Aqnin, he was dealing with “a disciple worthy of receiving his fullest confidence” (Yellin 120).
The Guide “tackled how to speak about God in human language. It squared the anthropomorphism in the Bible with a philosophical understanding of the nature of the divine, and demonstrated that the commandments of the Torah have a rational purpose, to develop the moral and intellectual potential of men” (Goodman 333). Understanding the tension between living i) as a devout adherent to the teachings of the Torah and ii) as one well versed and astute in philosophy and reason, Maimonides sought to bridge the divide between disciplines by demonstrating that, rather than being mutually exclusive, the truths found in both could be reconciled. Such reconciliation would only be possible, however, if the Torah adherent was willing to surrender his tight hold on its literality in certain places, allowing for that which logic and reason claim to be truth to be seen as clearly communicated in the Torah, mainly through the allegorization of difficult passages that seem to assert the corporeality of God. More than just trying to lure out the Torah adherent from his disinclination to incorporating into Jewish theological study the philosophy of Gentiles, Maimonides actually argued for using philosophy as an aid to helping unravel the mysteries of God found in the Torah. Goodman dubs his method as making philosophy “a bulwark for religious doctrine through rational argument” (326). Halbertal calls it “a precondition to interpreting the language of faith in the most fundamental way” (293).
Maimonides blamed what he believed to be the erroneous attribution of both corporeality and attributes to God on “the adherence to the literal sense of the text of the Holy Writ” (I. li., 69). He condemned anthropomorphism on the grounds that it is irreverently reductionistic to attempt to describe God in relation to His creatures or His works. He is altogether loftier and holier than them (cf. Isa. 40:25; 55:9); therefore, He may only be described in negative terms so as to demonstrate the great chasm between God’s being and creation’s being made: “He is simple essence, without any additional element whatsoever; He created the universe, and knows it, but not by any extraneous force. There is no difference whether these various attributes refer to His actions or to relations between Him and His works; in fact, these relations…exist only in the thoughts of men” (I. liii., 74). For Maimonides, “anything attributed to God is intrinsically different from a similar attribute of man; we really know more what God is not, rather than what He is” (Mansoor 255). Abraham Cohen notes that because “human language is misleading when applied to God, one approximates most nearly to the truth by speaking of Him in negative terms. It is preferable to say what He is not than attempt to describe what He is” (89).
Maimonides dismissed the idea that צֶלֶם (ṣelem; cf. Gen. 1:26) is a physical term, asserting that it does not and cannot mean anything related to a physical image or representation if used in reference to God. Such an idea, in the Rambam’s view, had led many to believe that God is corporeal because He has a replicable figure or shape. Many adhered faithfully to this idea, and feared that abandoning it would equal rejecting the truth of the Bible. He said that the only difference his opponents held between God’s corporeality and humans’ was that of God’s exceeding “greatness and splendor, and that His substance was not flesh and blood” (I. i., 13). He thus sought to properly define ṣelem and דְּמוּת (ḏəmūṯ; cf. Gen. 1:26). He distinguished ṣelem from anything physical by asserting that it refers to man’s soul as opposed to his body. He argued that ṣelem is a homonym or a hybrid which can mean either an essential representation or a physical representation, depending on the context. He noted that the Hebrew term denoting specifically someone or something’s physical form is תֹּאַר (tō’ar). This term is applied to Joseph, when describing him as a handsome and brawny man—physical characteristics that would attract unwanted attention from Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39:6–7). Its verb form is also applied to a carpenter who makes an idol statue and uses the human body as a model: “The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out [תָּאַר, tā’ar] with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it [תָּאַר, tā’ar] with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house” (Isaiah 44:13).
The ṣelem of God inherent to man is the characteristic of intelligence, as this cognizance is essential to distinguish humanity from the rest of creation. Human beings are the only creatures said to have been made a living soul, thus, the intelligence in humans is the reflection of God spoken of with the use of ṣelem. Maimonides pointed to an instance in the Psalms to illustrate his point: “thou despisest their ṣelem” (I. i., 13; Ps. 73:20). He argued that this despising or contempt on God’s part is not rooted in the fact that idols are carved in the image of created things, but that God’s anger is against the evil in idolaters’ hearts, as they seek for and imagine evil things, and use the physical thing as a means to an evil end. He said: “I am also of opinion that the reason why this term is used for ‘idols’ may be found in the circumstance that they are worshipped on account of some idea represented by them, not on account of their figure” (I. i., 13). Thus, Maimonides argued, given that the word with a potential double meaning is used when describing God (rather than the one exclusively referring to physical shape), that one cannot attribute corporeality to God, and must realize that the intentional use of ṣelem shows that what God gave to humans was intelligence. As for ḏəmūṯ, he argued that it simply means that humans, like God, have intelligence and perception, which differs from the rest of creation’s lack thereof.
Maimonides also tackled what he calls “a question of great importance” from “a learned man” (I. ii., 14). This learned man posited the idea that “man was originally intended to be perfectly equal to the rest of the animal creation, which is not endowed with intellect, reason, or power distinguishing between good and evil: but that Adam’s disobedience to the command of God procured him that great perfection which is the peculiarity of man…the noblest of all the faculties of our nature, the essential characteristic of the human race” (I. ii., 14–15). Put pointedly, this argument claims that man was originally created equal to animals, but Adam’s disobedience brought to man the reward of the ability to know and distinguish between good and evil. The Rambam’s aggravation with this “learned” man’s claim is palpable in his response: “You appear to have studied the matter superficially, and nevertheless you imagine that you can understand a book which has been the guide of the past and present generations, when you for a moment withdraw from your lusts and appetites, and glance over its contents as if you were reading a historical work or some poetical compilation” (I. ii., 15). His interpretative response was that Scripture makes it clear that man was originally created above the animal creation on account of man’s being given commandments from God, “for no commandments are given to the brute creation or to those who are devoid of understanding” (I. ii., 15). His snarky rebuke served to accuse his questioner of projecting his own baseness onto Adam, functionally yet subtly asserting that education and wisdom have no ultimate bearing on spiritual maturity, for these are powerless to protect from a person’s deep-seated vices and prejudices if they control the person.
Maimonides continued this argument using two principles: i) the difference between good & evil and true & false, and ii) what it means that man’s eyes were opened. Good and evil refer to moral truths; true and false to necessary truths. To say, for example, that the heavens are spherical has no moral quality whatsoever, and is thus simply an objective fact; it is true, but there is nothing good about it. To claim that the earth is flat likewise involves no morality: it is objectively false. It is not evil to argue for a flat earth, it is simply incorrect. Maimonides argues that prior to disobeying, Adam had no perception of morals; he only could decipher between what was and what was not, true and false. Thus, he said, “to appear in a state of nudity was nothing unbecoming to his idea” (I. ii., 15; cf. Gen. 2:25). However, after disobeying, he lost that state of innocence, growing distressed over his nakedness and seeking to cover it, for he then saw it as improper and wrong (Gen. 3:7). Thus, he became like Elohim, knowing good and evil—not in the sense of objective knowledge but of subjective knowledge; experiential rather than observable. Maimonides then subtly used to describe Adam the words with which Scripture explicitly refers to Eve: “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes” (Genesis 3:6). He said that Adam gave way “to desires which had their source in his imagination and to the gratification of his bodily appetites” (I. ii., 15). So, according to the Rambam, Adam was created with the capability to objectively differentiate between good and evil, but he gained a subjective knowledge of good and evil through choosing to eat the fruit. This is merely a taste of the type of exegesis that Maimonides left with ibn ‘Aqnin in order to reassure him of God’s wholly otherness and the principle of the impropriety of describing God in physical terms.
Essay Continued on the Next Page