In my last few posts and comments on them, I proposed that most secular study such as the sciences and most of the humanities are necessary to get to Yediat Hashem – Knowledge of God - which is the objective of humanity. Rambam often tells us that we learn Halacha to know how to do the Mitzvot which help us perfect our personality and thinking so that we can understand the sciences from a perspective that will lead us to God. In this sense, the Mitzvot and the Halacha that teaches us how to perform them are tools that precede and at best are equal in importance with the necessary sciences. The most telling statement is in MN 3:51 where he presents the allegory of the king living in the inner chambers of the palace and his subjects looking to find the way in. He places the Halachik authorities who have no philosophic inclination in the courtyard circling the palace, together with those who learn the basic laws of logic and Math.
“Those who arrive at the palace, but go round about it, are those who devote themselves exclusively to the study of the practical law. They believe traditionally in true principles of faith, and learn the practical worship of God, but are not trained in philosophical treatment of the principles of the Law, and do not endeavor to establish the truth of their faith by proof… My son, so long as you are engaged in studying the Mathematical Sciences and Logic, you belong to those who go round about the palace in search of the gate.”
He places the scientist who has no philosophical training in the antechambers together with those who seek to understand the proofs for God.
“Those who undertake to investigate the principles of religion have come into the antechamber; and there is no doubt that these can also be divided into different grades… If you however understood the natural things you have entered the habitation and are walking in the antechambers.”
However, there is one additional point that is not accepted by all who read Rambam but is to me clear like day. The objective is Yediat Hashem but not for knowledge alone. Knowledge of God is equated with Olam Haba and with the highest levels of experiential attachment to God – Deveikut – and “Kiss of Death” - Mitat Neshikah. Knowledge of God however is not the ultimate objective but a stepping-stone and has as its own objective the emulation of God. When one knows God through His actions and analyzes them properly, he can understand what God wants from us and what our role is in the universe. That is the meaning of the 13 attributes of God that we declaim as part of our Teshuvah process.
“Our Sages call them Midot (qualities), and speak of the thirteen Midot of God … only the thirteen Midot are mentioned, because they include those acts of God which refer to the creation and the government of mankind, and to know these acts was the principal object of the prayer of Moses.” (MN 1:54)
In other words if man wants to perfect himself, in the process of searching for God he has to meditate on God’s action or attributes so that he can emulate them. As Rambam states many times “good” is the promotion of existence and continuity. When we say God is good by definition, we are saying that He is the reason and First Cause for existence. If we want to do “good”, there is only one approach; emulate God who is good by definition and do our part in promoting existence and continuity.
After explaining in MN 3:54 that –
“The fourth kind of perfection is the true perfection of man: the possession of the highest, intellectual faculties; the possession of such notions which lead to true metaphysical opinions as regards God. With this perfection, man has obtained his final object; it gives him true human perfection; it remains to him alone; it gives him immortality, and on its account, he is called man… And that the religious acts prescribed by the Law, the various kinds of worship and the moral principles which benefit all people in their social intercourse with each other, do not constitute the ultimate aim of man, nor can they be compared to it, for they are but preparations leading to it.”
Rambam makes the point that Knowledge is not enough.
“The prophet [Yirmyahu 9:22-23] does not content himself with explaining that the knowledge of God is the highest kind of perfection… The prophet thus, in conclusion, says, "For in these things I delight, says the Lord," i.e., my object [in saying this] is that you shall practice loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. In a similar manner, we have shown (MN I: 54) that the object of the enumeration of God's thirteen attributes is the lesson that we should acquire similar attributes and act accordingly. The object of the above passage is therefore to declare, that the perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired--as far as this is possible for man--the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. Having acquired the knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God.”
Clearly, Rambam does not stop at knowledge of God alone. Humanity’s objective is to figure out how to act appropriately and perform its role in creation through knowledge. I believe that this point is the most important idea in Rambam’s thought and without it, we miss the greatest insight he teaches us. Only the intellectually perfected man can know what his role is in creation and act appropriately. That person is represented by the prophet and Moshe the greatest and unique prophet is the paradigm of such a human being. Moshe gave the world, through the Jewish people, the eternal Torah, the divine approach to man’s perfection. In practical terms, Judaism sees human knowledge as a way of serving God by acting to fulfill His wish that each component of the existence He created play its role in the continuity of His creation.
The limits of human knowledge and the implications thereof will be the subject of my next post.