Sunday, June 15, 2008

Teaching the Masses - Was Rambam an Elitist?

I left off my last post with Rambam’s statement that in the Treatise on Resurrection he is not adding anything to what he already wrote on the subject because he intends it to be understood by the unsophisticated masses. At first blush, it would seem to be an elitist approach where the “masses” are discriminated against. As we will see this is far from the truth.

The word “knowledge” is not easy to define and is still a matter of discussion by philosophers. For our purpose, I will define it as the totality of information that a human can (theoretically) garner about existence. At a basic level, it is a practical quest for understanding. A person wants to know about his environment so that he can use it for his own, or for his specie’s survival. But there is a deeper need to satisfy a curiosity about everything that is out there and how it works, what made it come into existence and to what end. That curiosity has to be fostered and developed. It does not come naturally to most of us. Left to ourselves most of us would give the whole issue only passing attention. It is however an extremely important subject and is at the core of human existence. In Judaism’s view of the world, humanity has a role to play in the continuity of the whole of existence and it is up to humankind to discover that role and act on it at appropriate times. Discovering what that role is can only be accomplished if we question the reasons for our existence, how we came about and where all this is going. It also has to be a communal effort. The task is so daunting that a single individual alone in his short lifetime can never accomplish it. It is therefore crucial that as many human beings as possible during endless generations are made cognizant of this responsibility and are recruited to this great endeavor. That is the goal of Torah. It is supposed to teach us from childhood to focus on this quest. Although all human beings have to some degree the ability to embark on this quest, it is part of man’s nature that he has free will. For reasons known only to HKBH He wanted us to have that freedom, an apparently necessary trait for the fulfillment of our role and part in existence. Free will demands that we choose to pursue our destiny responsibly. Choice means we do not have to and our other natural tendencies drive us to focus on ourselves ignoring the existential questions that confront us. The Torah’s goal is to trigger us into thinking, questioning and searching for answers. How does it go about it?

One among much method is through the Mitzvah of Kryat Shema. The Halacha requires us to declare twice daily that God is unique – Hashem Echad. The saying of Shema is the first thing taught a Jewish child as soon as he acquires the ability to talk and is the last thing a person says at the time of death. It is so important that it is the only daily Torah obligation. There is no other Mitzvah that is a Torah mandated (as opposed to Rabbinic) daily obligation. When the child asks what the word unique in Shema means, he is told much more than just that God is unique.

For in the same way as all people must be informed and even children must be trained in the belief that God is One, and that none besides Him is to be worshipped, so must all be taught by simple authority that God is incorporeal. There is no similarity in any way whatsoever between Him and His creatures. His existence is not like the existence of His creatures, His life not like that of any living being, His wisdom not like the wisdom of the wisest of men. The difference between Him and His creatures is not merely quantitative, but absolute [as between two individuals of two different classes]. I mean to say that all must understand that our wisdom and His or our power and His do not differ quantitatively or qualitatively, or in a similar manner. For two things, of which the one is strong and the other weak, are necessarily similar, belong to the same class, and can be included in one definition. The same is the case with any other comparisons: they can only be made between two things belonging to the same class, as has been shown in works on Natural Science. Anything predicated of God is totally different from our attributes; no definition can comprehend both; therefore His existence and that of any other being totally differ from each other, and the term existence is applied to both as homonyms, as I shall explain.” (MN1:35)

Of course, Rambam is describing a long process of education where a child is taught the basic ideas and slowly progresses as he matures to a more advanced understanding. However all this is taught “by simple authority” without any logical proof or argument. When the maturing child confronts the new texts he is now learning, the contrast and apparent contradiction with this teaching about God’s uniqueness and the text itself, triggers a series of questions. That forces those that are more intelligent and have the mental capacity to think, venturing farther afield and thus deal with the existential questions.

That God is incorporeal, that He cannot be compared with His creatures, that He is not subject to external influence; these are things which must be explained to every one according to his capacity. They must be taught by way of tradition to children and women, to the stupid and ignorant, as they are taught that God is One, that He is eternal, and that He alone is to be worshipped. Without incorporeality, there is no unity, for a corporeal thing is in the first case not simple, but composed of matter and form which are two separate things by definition, and secondly, as it has extension it is also divisible. Persons having received this doctrine, having been trained in this belief are in consequence at a loss to reconcile it with the writings of the Prophets. The meaning of the latter must be made clear and explained to them by pointing out the homonymity and the figurative application of certain terms discussed in this part of the work. Their belief in the unity of God and in the words of the Prophets will then be a true and perfect belief.” (MN 1:35)

Rambam’s Torah does not suffer of an inferiority complex. On the contrary, it challenges man to question and search for Truth. When man understands rationally the meaning of uniqueness (unity) as applied to God, the idea of transcendence, omniscience, omnipotence etc… and his own place and status in that context, he truly understands the words of the prophets. The prophets teach man about his responsibility and need to discover his role in existence. The prophets teach that man has to try to understand God, His deeds and emulate Him in creation. The Torah defines this goal of humankind in the story of creation.

כו וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם

בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ; וְיִרְדּוּ בִדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף

הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל-הָאָרֶץ, וּבְכָל-הָרֶמֶשׂ, הָרֹמֵשׂ


26 And God said: 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.'

The prophets continue this teaching and apply it to practical day-to-day behavior.

Of course, Torah is not one-dimensional. Shema is only one Mitzvah among many. There are many more Mitzvot that permeate our daily life and force us to constantly confront the question of why we are doing them. The search for an answer invariably leads us back to thinking about God, the lawgiver who is also the Creator and First Cause. Thus, all Mitzvot have the same goals – turn us into thoughtful human beings in search of God and our role in His universe.

Rambam believes that when the Torah and that includes the Prophets and the rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud, teach theology through direct edicts or through stories and metaphors, they use a multi-level language. It is a language that can be understood by the beginner child as well as by the sophisticated philosopher. They both will have an understanding that will trigger further thought at their respective level of apprehension. It is this dialectic between the written text and the “simple authority” at first and the logical understanding and conviction as the person progresses, that induces the person to question it and promotes thoughtfulness. When Rambam is telling us that he is not adding anything more than he has said in the past on the subject so that the masses understand him, he is emulating the way he understands Torah teaches. He will repeat and elaborate on what he has already said, without revealing more, expecting the reader according to his level, to question further and find the answer. He sees the masses, the women and children as he many times refers to them, as the beginners where each has the ability, if properly directed, to gather a deeper understanding of life and their role in it. They thus can contribute to the great mission of humanity; to know God and His ways and emulate Him doing good which is synonymous to promoting continuity of existence in Rambam’s parlance, as we have discussed many times.

I have digressed a little from my discussion of the verse in Devarim 6:19 and I will do so a little more in my next post to discuss Rambam’s presentation on Techyat Hametim and touch a little on the issue of miracles. Please indulge my wandering thoughts.


  1. R' David,
    "Please indulge my wandering thoughts. "
    Indulge indeed!

    This is one of the most imporant blogs/articles that I read by a contemporary thinker!

    Yasher koach!

    David W.