Notes from the Maimonides Foundation/NNLS day seminar on Maimonides
The Role of Reason and Rationality in Maimonides' Approach to the Commandments
Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs
Unless you understand that Maimonides was a believing Jew you can't understand his attitude to the role of reason with respect to the commandments. By "reason" what he means is "purpose": What purpose did G-d have in commanding certain things? He is not talking about the ethical commandments but the חוקים ["statutes", for which there is no obvious explanation]: שעטנז [the prohibition on wearing wool and linen together], dietary laws, etc. The Jews were written of in the Talmud as being ridiculed by Satan and the nations of the world [on account of the חוקים].
By the time of Maimonides, Satan was not believed in any more (at least by him); he regarded Satan in this context as being Jews who spoke against their faith.
Maimonides virtually denies that there are חוקים. He says there are theologians who object to asking what the reason is, or even say that there is no reason. They say if there is a purpose the חוקים can't be divine.
Maimonides disagrees, saying why then does the Torah hold up the Jewish laws to the eyes of the world and say "this is your wisdom" to the world? Therefore, the מצות [commandments/precepts] must have a purpose. So what, then, are the purposes?
Some encourage proper notions. It is necessary for humans to have correct notions. Others are beneficial to body and soul; others prevent damage or harm to society. In his Guide to the Perplexed, volume III, he goes through all the מצות which seem unreasonable.
His main contention is that the main purpose of the Torah and its laws is to wean people away from idolatry. Why did G-d tell the Israelites to built a Temple and offer sacrifices? (For Maimonides this was a purposeless thing—a world apart from the Talmud's view that the Temple and its sacrifices constitute the lynchpin of the world!)
Maimonides' explanation is as follows: He explains G-d as using the ruse of making the people believe sacrifices were what He wanted; he comes close to saying this was a trick. This was a source of offence to many people. He also used the word "ruse" in the context of explaining the existence of the Temple. There is nothing special about any part of it, even the Holy of Holies, other than as a psychological effect.
Sometimes Maimonides' reasons seem banal. Why is there incense in the Temple? The mystics talk about it resembling the rising of the soul to on high. Maimonides feels this is magical; and he wants to avoid magic, because it is purposeless [Maimonides was very much a rationalist]. He says the incense was because of the stench of the sacrifices. If people experienced the smell, they would lose respect for the Temple. This also was a source of offence; the mystics took offence to this.
Another example: He denies the mezuzah [attached to the doorpost of Jewish homes] to have magical connotations. He says if you write it backwards or with the letters tapering to a point this is forbidden because it is using it as a talisman. This, he says, is demeaning to the sacred precept of the Torah.
He treats the dietary laws as being for hygienic reasons. He says there is nothing for any reason other than health except the prohibition on eating pork. (Note he was writing in an Islamic context!) This, he says, is very gross food, and makes the market places of the Franks horrible to travellers. So he is looking for universalistic reasons—he wants that all people would keep the dietary laws.
What is the purpose of circumcision? He goes to great lengths in the Guide on this, but he can't find a reason. He gives two candidates. One is that it is the sign of the covenant, which can only be something which would not be undertaken lightly. But why is a father commanded to circumcise his son? Because the child is young and will not remember the pain—unlike, he says, the Muslims, who do it when the child is about eight.
The second reason he gives is to weaken the sex urge. (Maimonides did not, it seems, like sex.) In a number of passages in the Guide he quotes Aristotle that the sense of touch is the most shameful of all the senses. Prof. Pines [author of a translation of the Guide into English] holds that he was an ascetic qua philosopher but not qua halachist.
What to do when he wants to give a rational interpretation and the rabbis [sc. of the Talmud?] give a non-rationalist one? Consider the Four Species [shaken on the festival of Succos]. He says don't listen to what the rabbis say, that the לולב is like the backbone, etc. Maimonides is not satisfied with this; why, then, not do this all year? He says that as Succos is the harvest festival, you give thanks to G-d with the four plants for which ארץ ישראל [the Land of Israel] is known. He says the traditional interpretation is a quaint fancy, and that the rabbis intended it as such!
When the Torah says you should have a tent-peg amongst your weapons, the rabbis interpreted it as putting your finger in your ear (reading אוזניך for אזוניך) so as not to hear rubbish. This is Maimonides' philosophy. The Kabbalists make issue with his view and held the very action influences the upper world.
The irony is that they eventually made Maimonides'over as a Kabbalist, and said if he had had his time over again, he would have rewritten the Guide in the light of the Kabbala!