Reading Maimonides Through Islamic Glasses

Haim Watzman

statue of Maimonides in Cordoba
statue of Maimonides in Cordoba
In his introduction to the Mishna, Maimonides (known as “the Rambam” in Jewish tradition) tells a story about the revelation and transmission of the Torah. Reading this story in light of Islamic doctrines about sacred revelation and transmission reveals that Maimonides, who lived in an Islamic society, sought to ground the written and oral law of the Jews in a way commensurable with the standards set by Islam.

This view of Maimonides, the foremost medieval Jewish philosopher in the Islamic world, is offered by Yoav Phillips, who is offering a series of classes in the new beit midrash (study hall) sponsored jointly by Kehilat Yedidya and a group of graduates of the recently-closed Religious Kibbutz Movement yeshiva at Kibbutz Ein Tzurim.

The third chapter of Maimonides’ introduction relates, Phillips showed, how the Torah given to Moshe (Moses) on Mt. Sinai was transmitted to the Israelites in the desert and to Joshua, who then transmitted it to the elders and prophets, who then transmitted it to the rabbis.

As Westerners, Phillips pointed out, we accept our culture’s unstated assumption that the transmission of written texts is more reliable than that of oral texts. Jewish rabbinic tradition also differentiates between the written and the oral law; both were given to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, but the written law nevertheless has a higher status.

So it is surprising to see that in Maimonides’ account of the revelation, Moshe does not write the Torah down.

Read more

Son Sacrifice: Humility and the Significance of the Akeda

Haim Watzman Many years ago, when I lived at Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, a storm erupted in synagogue on Shabbat Vayare—the Shabbat, like this coming one, on which we read the story of Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac. The shouts of anger and dismay were occasioned by one of the plethora of pamphlets that appear … Read more

More On The Torah–Who Needs It?

Haim Watzman

In response to my post The Torah-Who Needs It, “Haskalah” asks:

Can a Jew “think hard about every action, about what it means and what its consequences will be, without the Torah?” Did no one do so before the first Sha’vuot? In short, is it possible for a Jew to be moral and ethical and responsible without being observant?

It’s possible for anyone, not just a Jew, to be moral, ethical, and responsible without being religious or observant. And, as I noted in that post, observing the Torah’s commandments does not automatically make the observer a moral person.

Read more

The Torah–Who Needs It?

Haim Watzman

So what do we need this Torah for anyway? Why should our lives be bound by a collection of tales and precepts that claims to have been conveyed by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, seven weeks after the Exodus? It’s a legitimate and important question as we embark, tonight and tomorrow, on Shavu’ot, the holiday that commemorates the revelation at Sinai.

The psychological view is that human beings need a framework, discipline, and the Torah provides us with a life-plan that makes us better people. The problem with that is that if we look around us we can see people who are meticulous in their observance of ritual but are not just or righteous in their ways. The sages had a name for this kind of person: naval be-reshut ha-Torah-a scoundrel with Torah sanction.

The simplistic view is that God made a deal with us and, if we keep up our end of the bargain by observing the commandments, we get rewarded. The problem is that, objectively, if we put this concept to empirical test, it doesn’t work. The rabbis knew that. On page 9b of the Berachot tractate of the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Zeira performs just such a test. Discussing the proper order of prayer, Rabbi Yehuda Ben-Elyakim declares that everyone who goes straight from the blessing of redemption into the Amidah prayer can suffer no harm. Rabbi Zeira shoots back: “I went straight from redemption to prayer and I was harmed.”

And there are other answers-we observe the commandments because that’s what Jews have always done (well, usually, until recently), or to get back at Hitler and his like, who wanted to rid the world of the Torah.

What’s clear is that the Torah doesn’t guarantee any of these things. It doesn’t automatically make us better people, it doesn’t automatically reward us, it doesn’t guarantee Jewish continuity. So why bother?

Read more

The Parting of the Red Sea: Robert Frost’s “The Silken Tent”

Contrary to the common wisdom, the Israelites were not liberated from slavery at the time of the Exodus. Many midrashim and commentaries stress that what actually happened was a change of ownership: they had been slaves to Pharoah, and then they became slaves to God.

When I was younger, this interpretation rang false to me. The opposite of slavery is freedom, and freedom means being able to do whatever you want, with no master to tell you otherwise. The claim that true freedom lay in subjugation to God seemed oxymoronic. But later I came to understand the rabbis’ meaning, in part with the help of Robert Frost’s exceptional poem “The Silken Tent.” (You can read it here and hear it read here.)

Read more