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The Utter Silence of the Andalusian Refugee

By making what had once been confused and convoluted clear and lucid he built within his ‘marvelous transparency’, as Halbertal puts it, a creative ambiguity. Halbertal asks why Maimonides produced this work and thinks that by looking at the history of the halakhah he can begin to understand why he produces something that has ambiguity embedded in it. The oral history of the halakhah from Moses to himself had been broken at the time of Rabbi Judah the Prince. The written transmission by Rabbi Judah the Prince at that point changed its nature according to Maimonides. He writes, ‘ Because he saw that the number of disciples was diminishing, fresh calamities were continually happening, the [Roman] government was extending its domain and increasing in power, and Israelites were wandering and emigrating to distant countries. He therefore composed a work to serve as a handbook for all, the contents of which could be rapidly studied and not be forgotten.’ The written book was a bridge for the dispersion of all believers, a response to the geo-political context of dispersion and oppression. What Rabi Judah the Prince produced under the pressure of his historical time included unresolved disputes. Maimonides saw his own work as a completion of this process, eliminating the unresolved disputes and achieving a fundamental unity of meaning. Casting himself in the same light as his predecessor, facing a similar geo-political crisis he wrote into the crisis to achieve an authoritative work that would largely supersede any other claim to authority. Naturally, he was seen as an iconoclast and a critical storm blew up in Baghdad. In a letter to a student he transforms his Mishneh Torah from aspiration to vision when he writes: ‘ All you have told us about those who refuse to accept it as they ought to be accepted – that is only in my time. In future times, however, when jealousy and the drive to dominate wane, all Israel will be satisfied with it alone, and all else without doubt will be set aside.’

Out of this emerge the two possible readings of his work. One reading sees it as ‘ an accomplished representation of the halakhah; and a more radical and daring one sees it as halakhah itself.’ He’s either summarizing it, or replacing it. The book serves both normative and formative functions, and so is not just great literature, nor just canonical law. Halbertal writes: ‘ Great literature is not a collection of instruction; rather, it instills sensitivity and contributes to establishing people’s self-understanding. As great literature, it sometimes forms worldviews and occasionally provides the background narrative that gives the law its meaning, but it does not determine the law itself.’ What the book was was disputed.

What was the book saying the goal of divine law was? It was to lead a person to perfection, and that perfection was the actualization of the person’s potential as a creature of understanding. The philosophical ideal is the meaning of life: ‘ The basic principle of all basic principles and the pillar of all sciences is to know that there is a First Being.’ Love and awe of that principle is buckled to knowledge. The good life is defined in these terms according to Maimonides. The pinnacle of religious experience is binding love with awe. ‘When a person contemplates His great and wondrous works and creatures and from them obtains a glimpse of his wisdom which is incomparable and infinite, he will immediately love Him, praise Him, glorify Him, and long with an exceeding longing to know His great name… And when he ponders these matters, he will recoil affrighted, and realize that he is a small creature, lowly and obscure, endowed with slight and slender intelligence standing in the presence of Him who is perfect in knowledge.’ Maimonides saw philosophy and science as the way to refuse the instrumentalism born out of fear and dependence, transforming our relationship to our natural state into one of love.

In the middle ages the question troubling Jewish theologians was whether God was infinite or born at a certain moment. The Aristotelian image of an infinite divine being without wishes and hopes and will calls revelation and creation narratives into question. Maimonides is clear that the issue is undecideable but he sides with the view that the world was created ex nihilo for without such a belief the whole of Judaism would be entirely undermined. There were three choices considered by the medieval theologians: Aristotle’s – the world existed forever , the universe is eternal; The Torah’s – the world was created by God ex nihilo and is novel; and Plato’s – there was raw stuff before the creation of the world and God used it to make the world. By refusing to argue for the idea that creation of the world was a logical necessity he enabled the perplexed to remain devoted to both the Torah and philosophy. He argued that belief in the creation of the world doesn’t conflict with the belief that nature has a stable causal order. As Halbertal says, this reading of the Guide ‘… makes it possible to accept creation without rejecting nature and science.’ However there are radical readings which hold that beneath this apparent meaning lie an Aristotelian one. Ibn Tibbon began this reading and it continues. Such a reading claims that chapters seemingly refuting the Aristotelian position are actually merely concealing his true Aristotelian position.

He doesn’t see God as a God of history. This has been hugely influential in Jewish thought. Omitting the idea of the God of history, Herbertal explains, ‘follows from those chapters being meant to forge a religious consciousness constructed solely on the causality of nature itself, not on departures from the normal course of nature through the intervention of sovereign divine will.’ Recent discussions on this old medieval topic from the likes of Sean Carroll, Tim Maudlin and William Lane Craig suggest that this is not an obsolete subject, and it continues to show how the ascetic naturalism of Maimonides remains of influence even for contemporary atheists.

The idea of teleology as providence, where God treats good people differently from bad, is explored amongst topics such as the nature of evil and prophecy. He examines five possibilities. Epicurus states that there is no providence, everything is random. Aristotle holds that there is structure and order but this doesn’t bear on individuals but is expressed in the maintenance of the species as a whole within a framework of general causal, natural regularity. Maimonides differs from Aristotle in holding that for the perfected human there is providence, although for everyone else there isn’t anything other than what Aristotle says.

The radical idea of Maimonides here is to direct religious consciousness towards a specifically philosophical and not anthropomorphic and supernatural divinity. So, for example, prophecy for Maimonides is not a supernatural breach in nature. Rather, ‘… the spirit of prophecy only rests upon the wise man who is distinguished by great wisdom and strong moral character, whose passions never overcome him in anything whatsoever, but who by his rational faculty always has his passions under control, and possesses a broad and sedate mind.’ Free from the domination of passions and urges, the prophecies are a causal outcome of a certain way of life. Herbertal summarises it: ‘Prophecy is the prophet’s ascent to the divine world, not the divinity’s address to a human.’

Maimonides read idolatry as a falling away from an originalist monotheism. Maimonides thought that people at first believed in a monotheistic deity, then transferred the attributes of this deity to the stars and then finally to idols. In so doing, the masses lost their sense of the sublime. They became immersed in just the materiality of the world. The struggle and ascent back towards the sublime is the narrative he reads into Abraham who was forty before he recognized the divine. Maimonides reads Abraham as a heroic, troublesome Socratic figure reestablishing the monotheism of the first people.

He opposed magic and divination. To say: “Since my piece of bread dropped out of my mouth, or my staff fell from my hand, I shall not go today to such a place, for if I go, my business will not be successfully completed”… or if one sets for himself a sign and says, “If certain things happen to me, I will follow this course of action; if it does not happen, I will not do so”…’ he writes. Astrology was also out, and casting spells too: ‘… All these strange and uncouth sounds and names do no harm, nor have they power to do good.’ All this was part of the transformation of religion into something that made rationality a religious obligation. Many believers dispute this, thinking that faith is mysterious and supernatural. But nature is divine wisdom for Maimonides, so how could it be breached?

His ‘Guide of the Perplexed’ is a work whose meaning has been hidden. It is aimed at a limited audience who deal only with the halakhah. Maimonides announces that it contains secrets. This esotericism protects the mass faithful who haven’t been fortunate enough to receive scientific understanding of the world and so who would lose their faith if they read his work. It would destabilize the masses faith by refusing the anthropomorphic image of the deity. Idolatry and myth tend to be overthrown by new idols and myths. Their fabrications seem essential to social and political well being. So esotericism is required to protect political and social well being. Fateful results would befall if secrets were to be known by all. Some beliefs are necessary to do this, other beliefs are true. Drawing a line between these two different kinds of belief is difficult.

Weakening the constraints of secrecy because of crisis is made more serious when the audience for the breach is ‘perplexed.’ The breach is committed for the sake of heaven, ‘ a mortal risk assumed by the exalted individual.’ Committing mysteries to writing, taking them out of the oral tradition, and admitting to the perplexed reader that there are concealed meanings that will resolve her perplexities, obliges the reader to begin to read in a certain way, to read seeking those hidden meanings.

Halburtal summarises the book as follows: ‘ … philosophy is an esoteric science, and since Maimonides identified physics and metaphysics with ‘the account of Creation,’ and the ‘Account of the Chariot’, thereby linking the esoteric philosophical tradition to the esoteric Talmudic tradition, he has the basis for persuading the educated reader person that that there is an esoteric stratum to the Torah itself., the recognition of which will resolve his perplexity.’ It results in a tension between placing philosophy, as an esoteric discipline, as a stand-alone activity, and integrating it into the heart of the Jewish religious tradition. This ‘exquisite’ tension, as Halbertal calls it, of concealment and disclosure, is something that Frank Kermode’s wonderful ‘The Genesis of Secrecy’ explores and is the basis of much modern literary exegesis. The limitations of language’s ability to express the philosophical truths is a second reason for Maimonides esotericism. Jewish tradition draws a distinction between picture and word. Pictures were forbidden but verbal depictions were allowed. Idolatry for Maimonides including mental pictures. The traditional distinction collapses. But then all Scripture is idolatrous. Maimonides uses the distinction between literal and metaphorical meaning as the key to understanding what is happening, and what is permitted via a critique of religious language.

God is unlike other expressions for there is no basis for distinguishing between its literal and its metaphorical meaning. So for example, when we read ‘the hand of God’, are we to read it metaphorically or literally? Maimonides argues that to resolve this peculiar situation there is a need for prior metaphysical enquiry into God independent of Scripture. Metaphysical understanding is not a threat to faith but a precondition to interpreting the language of Scripture in the most fundamental way. Maimonides spends much time in part 1 of the Guide to explaining biblical terms pertaining to God. He is a subtle reader. Language is not transparent and fatal errors can occur. His work anticipates much of modern philosophy of language. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus concludes: ‘ Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ Silence is the recognition of the limits of language, the medium through which we shape the world and our knowledge and understanding of it and ourselves. Shlomo Pines argues that this is the way to understand the esoteric meaning of the Guide.

A skeptical view presents the conclusion that if the critique is taken seriously and language is so flawed then ‘God exists’ means nothing at all. From this it follows that the immortality of the soul, depending on the cognitive proof of God’s existence and the reality flowing from Him, is also meaningless. The skeptical reading denies that mankind can know the essence of the world and redirects her to look at the world which can be known and understood. It is an argument for a naturalism of sorts. Internalising the limitations on religious cognition the natural order becomes the sole medium through which the characteristics of Gods’ actions can be known. It presents a rereading of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, whereby the philosopher, freeing herself from the shadows of the cave, finds her eyes burned away by the divine light of truth and returns, not out of a social responsibility to the group left behind all filled with enlightenment, but rather because she knows that divine truth is more than can be understood and that her true realm is in the shadows. The ideal of the contemplative life turns the philosopher into a person of action.

What might be a push-back is a mystical reading? In the space of silence cleared by the critique of the limits of language the field is left for ‘intimate, meta-linguistic cognition.’ ‘Silence redirects consciousness from language to experience’, and this mystical reading does, according to Halbertal, fit with the religious atmosphere in which Maimonides worked, being closely tied with traditions of the Sufi Muslim.

Halbertal offers four different readings of ‘The Guide’. The skeptical reading sees philosophy as a critical tool that is required once its understood that language is too limited to portray the truth about the divine. ‘Silence leads one to action in the world, which is the exclusive and direct path to adopting the ways of god in human life.’ The mystical reading gives philosophy a critical role as well but sees it as a process through which it clears away barriers to a meta-linguistic, meta-rational experience of God. Through the negation of language the mystic believes it is possible to then have direct cognition and non-linguistic illumination of god. Philosophical argument is the process achieving theis enlightenment. Rather than turning back to action, as in the skeptical reading, the mystic concludes her journey ‘in direct, meta-linguistic experience of the sublime.’ The conservative reading takes it that the preexistence of of the world can’t be proven and by breaking the claims of necessity opens up the possibility that a person of faith can also be engaged in philosophy. The person of faith retains the philosophical ethos without sacrificing the sacred fundamentals. The philosophical reading maintains that it provides a systematic interpretation of ‘… Judaism’s fundamental concepts on the basis of wisdom and an eternal, preexisting world.’ The perplexed can internalize Greco-Arab philosophy whilst maintaining Israel’s Torah.

Halbertal thinks any attempt to offer a single unified reading is doomed. He thinks the treatise doesn’t offer a single way of understanding the Jewish tradition. Perplexity enabled Maimonides to identify profound perspectives within the Jewish tradition. However, he does propose that there are three key elements running through it, those mentioned at the start of this review. Recapping, one element is a struggle against idolatry and the anti-anthropomorphizing of God in the religious consciousness. By placing man away from the centre of the universe he proposed a profound shift in religious consciousness against a terrible hubris that had arisen. A second element is the focus on causal order and the wisdom inherent in it as the ‘most substantive revelation of the divinity.’ The third element is his rejection of the distinction between what is in and what is out of the Jewish tradition. This enables philosophy to develop via rational thought rather than canonical sources. Aristotle plus imported Muslim thought – Ibn Sina (Aviccena), al-Farabi, Ibn Bajja and Ibn-Rushd (Averroes) were important to him. Science also was able to develop without sacred sources. Knowledge of the world showed us knowledge of God and freed us from fear and the imagination. For Halbertal, these three elements formed the basis of the new religious sensibility that Maimonides inaugurated.

Maimonides didn’t achieve the unifying final word as he’d hoped. Rather than stabilize the growth of hallakhic interpretation, he rather hastened its proliferation. The demanding features of his own approach marginalized it from the centres of Jewish religious thought. Halbertal has with clarity and incisiveness written a tremendous book which takes the reader into the various readings and issues I’ve sketched out. Maimonides’ metaphysics of fundamental reality coming from silence underlying the truth of science and rationality leading on to action in the world seems oddly modern. The ‘Guide Of the Perplexed’ speaks to those with existential perplexities and reminds us that no crisis, no matter how terrible, should ‘ … foreclose human thought and inner integrity,’ as Halbertal puts it. His fierce redirection of language and thought towards silence lies oddly conjoined with contemporaries like Bolano, Beckett, Borges and Blanchot.

Bob Dylan recently did an advert for Chrysler. He did one before that for Victoria’s Secret underwear and another for the Cadillac Escalade. He is accused of selling out. But Dylan’s whole oeuvre is based on differentiating between different manifestations of a halakhah that on their face appear identical. It’s as if all his accusers want a ‘Hard Times,’ ‘Diamond Joe,’ and ‘Dixie’ that are immediately recognisable. They should listen in harder. Where he comes from, his ancestors, they keep wine in long narrow jugs buried under the earth. What he gives you is his fundamental reality breathing underground. Lying mysteriously in the earth, fermenting like the wine, there’s an intoxication, a science fiction dreaming, as basic as food, sex, drugs, ploughing the earth and building America out of Elvis in a plenum of silence. Maimonides might have understood this, as he might have understood ‘…the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.’

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, February 9th, 2014.