Maimonides, as previously noted, is the only person to have more than one section in our list. This is because he was so influential in two very distinct categories, philosophy and halacha. Those who study him for his philosophy tend to lean towards the academic side of things, and they call him by his Latin name. Those who focus on his halachic works tend to be from the ‘yeshivish’ side of the street, and invariably refer to him as Rambam. Hence, in this section, he is Rambam and not Maimonides.
His major work was the Mishna Torah, meaning ‘Review of the Torah’. Its scope is the entire spectrum of Halacha. He sometimes took what are considered to be radical or even incomprehensible positions in his halachic decisions. Furthermore, it is very common to find apparent contradictions between various sections of his work. As if this wasn’t enough, he never quotes the Talmudic source for his decisions, leading to all kinds of speculation as to what he intended and from where he got it. Because of all these problems and because of the enormous stature he attained even during his lifetime, resolving problematic halachot of Rambam has become a favorite pursuit of rabbinic scholars.
He also wrote what was probably the first rabbinic commentary to the Mishna, a work that is still widely used. It is not altogether rare to find contradictions between his rulings in the Mishna Torah and his commentary to the Mishna. He wrote a highly influential introduction to the Mishna, which established the rules for understanding the Mishna and the various rabbinic techniques for interpreting the Torah. In addition, it laid out the chain of tradition passed from rabbi to student, going back to the time of Moses.
The Introduction to the Mishna includes a brief section dealing with the purpose of creation. What he writes in this introduction is paralleled by a couple of sections of the Mishna Torah. Interestingly enough, it happens to contradict what he wrote explicitly in the Moreh Hanevuchim, the Guide for the Perplexed. It contradicts the very point that we discussed earlier in the philosophy of Maimonides. In other words, Rambam contradicts Maimonides.
In the Guide, Maimonides rejected the idea that everything was created for the sake of man. Instead, he claimed the ultra-universalist idea that everything was created for itself. In the Introduction to the Mishna, he states: ‘...When we find that the purpose of everything is for the existence of man, we must ask why does man exist and what is his purpose?...Man is only distinguished from the animals through his ability to reason, since he lives as a rational being. This refers to (the ability) to develop intelligent concepts. The highest of these is the conception of the oneness of the glorious and exalted Creator and all that is related to this concerning knowledge of the divine, since all other uses of the intelligence are only to train a person to think so that he will be able to attain the knowledge of God’.
He reiterates this point in the Mishna Torah in the final section of the work, dealing with kings, government, and the Messiah. In the last sentence of the entire work he writes (in describing Messianic times): The preoccupation of the entire world will only be to know Hashem. Therefore, there will be great sages who know deep hidden matters who will understand the knowledge of their Creator according to their ability as it says, ‘For the world will be filled with knowledge of Hashem like waters cover the sea’.
As far as the contradiction between the Introduction and the Guide, is possible that he ‘wore two different hats’, a rabbinic cap for halacha and a philosopher’s turban for philosophy. While it seems a bit shaky to even suggest such a thing, it may very well be true. He was a multifaceted person, and such people are able to think deeply in more than one way. It is entirely possible that when he thought about the purpose of everything in the world as a philosopher, he was unable to see it all as subservient to man, even taking into account man’s lofty quest of knowledge of God. Perhaps, as a philosopher he had considered each thing as a distinct being having its own independent purpose. To admit that it was only created for man would be to deny that purpose. However, when he approached the same question from a halachic point of view, perhaps he was so taken by the ultimate purpose of Judaism and religion, namely to understand God to whatever degree possible, that he saw the entire world as existing only to contribute to that goal.
Regardless of the answer to this contradiction, the purpose of man is an indisputable theme in Rambam’s (and Maimonides’) writings. He writes a similar idea in the second to last chapter of the Mishna Torah, dealing with the signs that the Messiah has indeed arrived. At the end of this chapter is a paragraph that is so controversial that it was censored from the standard printings of the Mishna Torah until recent decades. He writes about Jesus and Mohamed, the founders of the dominant religions of the world both in Rambam’s time and in ours. He writes that despite the harm they may have done to the Jews, they were both part of God’s plan to ‘repair the entire world to worship Hashem together’. It took a person of the stature of Rambam to write a bold and somewhat ironic justification of the bitter religious rivals of Judaism. It all comes down to knowing God.
What does it mean to know God? Perhaps Rambam hinted to his intention in that section from the Introduction. He wrote there that the purpose of man is to ‘understand the oneness of the Creator’. Oneness. That’s the key that opens up the ultimate secret door. To gain any sort of understanding of God, one must delve into God’s most essential and basic quality – oneness.
Elsewhere in the Mishna Torah, Rambam discusses the oneness of God. In the first chapter of the first section, he writes that the oneness of God is unlike the oneness of anything else. In chapter two he makes the baffling statement that God is one with His own knowledge. His summation is that God is ‘one from every aspect, from every angle, and in all manner of oneness; so it emerges that God is the knower, the known, and the knowledge itself, it is all one’. This statement, a version of which is found in the Guide, is the core of Rambam’s thesis of oneness. It is a statement that ranks at the pinnacle of Jewish philosophy, but also hits at the core of Jewish mysticism. Yet, here it is in the most influential work on halacha ever written. What does it mean?
First of all, it must be noted that in the very next sentence Rambam writes that the human mind can never fully understand this idea. Nevertheless, he himself writes that our purpose is to understand God’s oneness. So, impossible as it may be, we have to try.
Perhaps it can be understood from the familiar experience of dreaming. Imagine yourself dreaming of some people doing whatever it is people do in dreams. They think, they talk, they make choices, they act - all seemingly on their own volition. But we know that they are really subject to the whims and thoughts of the dreamer. But they, apparently, don’t know that. Now imagine you, the dreamer, entering the dream and informing these people that you are dreaming them up and that they are really nothing more than a thought in your mind. How would they come to grips with this impossible notion? Difficult as it may be for them to understand, you press on, telling them, that it is the truth. They are just figments of your imagination. You, to them, are God. They exist only because you enable them to exist. You are the dreamer, the dreamt, and the dream itself – it is all part of your mind.
This, perhaps, is how Rambam would have us view creation. It is simply a thought in God’s mind. God is the knower, the known, and the knowledge itself. When all the dust clears, it is all one. This is the essence of God’s oneness. It is truly a oneness that is unfathomably unlike that of any other oneness. To understand God’s oneness is the ultimate window into understanding God, because it cuts as close to the core as possible of what God is. When one wanders and wonders along this amazing line of thought, one begins to understand what Rambam might have meant by man’s purpose being to know God. It is not some emotional feeling; nor is it purely intellectual. It is almost a meditation, penetrating to the core of the mind, to realms that are on the very edge of human perception and contemplation. Yet it is our purpose in being here. Not only that, it is the goal of all humanity.
Understanding and feeling the oneness of God is not a onetime thing. It should be a lifetime quest, to be experienced at regular intervals. Most of us are not ready to set out on the long and laborious road of philosophical speculation concerning God’s essence. But all of us can take periodic dips into the great ocean of God’s oneness. As seen from that thought exercise mentioned above, it’s not all that difficult. Anyone can do this. It can take only about ten minutes if done with appropriate concentration and without distractions. Of course, there is a second step in addition to seeing oneself as the dreamer. The second step is to imagine yourself not as the dreamer but as the dreamt. Imagine God as the dreamer and you as one of the people in God’s dream. Feel yourself as a part of God, created and yet a piece of the whole. Feel everything and everybody else as an equal part of that whole. You and all of them, in a very real sense, are one.
If you have the opportunity to engage in Jewish prayer, or even if you are a regular davener but are looking for a something a little more experiential, you can insert this little meditation into the service. The perfect place to do it, of course, is the recitation of the Shema. This verse from the Torah, which Rambam quotes as his basic source for the very idea of the oneness of God, means many things to many people. On one level, however, it means exactly this experience that we are discussing. Try it next time you find yourself bored in the middle of davening. It may wake you up a bit. It may even make you look forward to davening.
This is an actual exercise to experience God’s oneness. It can be done at any time and in any place. If really experienced, it induces a wonderful feeling, quite unlike anything else in the world. This is the feeling of oneness. It means that you have tasted what it means to be within God’s mind. You may not believe in the God of the Bible. You may not consider yourself to be a believer in God at all. Nevertheless, this feeling is undeniable. It is as real as the sunset; as palpable as a warm shower on a cold day. It is the very human feeling of oneness, which we all crave to some degree, but only rarely make any attempt to discover. It is also a taste of the ultimate, just a brief journey outside of the confines of everyday life into the mind of what we can call God. God is one. God’s oneness envelops us and we are one with it. Oneness.
Food for Thought
Halacha is invariably associated with religious rules and customs that that are all too rarely spiritually inspiring. Why can’t more things like this experience of oneness be found in Halacha?
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