The radical Rambam

The Israel Museum's exhibit is well worth a visit and also offers an accompanying book that contains valuable insights into his importance.

An illuminated and illuminated Mishneh Torah copied in Spain or Provence in the 14th century at the Israel Museum exhibit, Maimonides: A Legacy in Script, on loan from the National Library, Jerusalem (photo credit: OLEG KALASHNIKOV / THE ISRAEL MUSEUM)
An illuminated and illuminated Mishneh Torah copied in Spain or Provence in the 14th century at the Israel Museum exhibit, Maimonides: A Legacy in Script, on loan from the National Library, Jerusalem
The Israel Museum is now presenting an excellent exhibit called “Maimonides: A Legacy in Script.” It features some magnificent illuminated manuscripts gathered together from museums all over the world as well as displays that explain the work and significance of Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam. It is well worth a visit and also offers an accompanying book that contains valuable insights into his importance.
Visiting that exhibit I was impressed by the beauty of these manuscripts. Their uniqueness to my mind was in the fact that these illustrations and decorations, obviously the result of someone’s decision centuries ago to spend enormous sums upon the creation of these works of art, were lavished not on Biblical texts, prayerbooks or other belle letters, but on the Mishneh Torah, a book of laws. Legal codes are not usually turned into works of art. I have never seen an illuminated manuscript of the Mishnah or the Talmud, for example, or of the Shulhan Arukh. If they exist I am not aware of them. Yet more than one wealthy medieval connoisseur saw fit to spend a fortune on these collections of Jewish Law. I can only assume that this is a reflection of the great esteem in which Maimonides was held by some. I say ‘some’ because there were also those who strenuously objected to his teachings and the reasons for that are not difficult to understand. Maimonides was truly a radical thinker.
Inspired by this exhibit, I went back to my copy of the Mishneh Torah and began to read its opening section again. Unfortunately my copy has no magnificent illuminations, just plain text, but I quickly realized just how revolutionary that text really was for its time – the late 12th century. At the very beginning of this work, which took him ten years to write, he makes two radical points perfectly clear. In his introduction, he states specifically that he is writing this in order to provide a complete, orderly, summary of the entire Oral Law that will take the place of all that has come before. So much so that once one studies it, one has no need to study any of the other works such as the Mishnah or the Talmud.  He explains that he calls it the Mishneh Torah – meaning in effect the repetition or re-teaching of the (oral) Torah - “insofar as a person first reads the Written Torah, and then reads this, and understands from it the entire Oral Torah (Law) and has no need to read any intermediate book.” He could not be clearer. So much for the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Tosefta, perhaps even the Tannaitic Midrashim! If this were to be followed, studies in the Yeshivot would be totally different, to say nothing of Daf Yomi! Unfortunately or fortunately his dream was not realized.
As far as Maimonides was concerned, he had done for his time what Akiva and Judah the Prince had done for theirs when they gathered all the material of the Oral Law together in a comprehensible form and created the Mishnah. But others did not agree that he had eliminated the need to study the material on which he had based his work or that his was the last word. In a sense he actually began the work of codifying Jewish Law and thus encouraged others to continue the work.  As a matter of fact his book impelled others to write their own compendia of Jewish Law –such as the Great Book of Commandments by Moses ben Jacob of Coucy, and the Arbah Turim (1340), as pointed out by Sarit Shalev-Eyni in her essay that appears in the catalogue of the exhibit.
The second radical thing he places at the very beginning of his work is his assertion that God has no physical form and that every time there is a reference to such in the Torah – such has God’s hand, finger, face etc. it is not to be understood literally. Time and time again he uses the favorite phrase of Rabbi Ishmael in his disputes with Rabbi Akiva – “the Torah uses the language of human beings.” (See Yesodei HaTorah 1:8-12)
Although it is true that the Sages in their comments in the midrash often deny that God has physical needs or that God is ever tired and needs rest, they never come to the point of actually denying that God has or can assume any physical form. Maimonides carries that idea to its extreme and today it is a basic assumption of Jewish belief. But there were many who opposed it when he made his assertion. According to the Rambam, references to God in the entire Bible need not be read literally, but as metaphors.
He goes even further by incorporating wisdom from Greek philosophy and science that had come down through Arabic translations into this work. There are whole chapters devoted to it, as if it were part of Jewish belief, which it certainly was not (Yesodei HaTorah 3-4). Yet it appears here, in a work of Jewish Law, not in some philosophical treatise. Of course today almost none of what he records there is considered to be scientific truth. What he did was to make the assumption that since truth is God’s teaching and cannot be denied and that, since the Torah is God’s word, it too must be truth, there can be no contradiction between the two. Therefore if the Torah seems to contradict what he believes to be true, it must be interpreted in a way that does not contradict it, and that is what he does.
All of this is found in a work he wrote intended to be read by the masses. In his “Guide For the Perplexed,” which he wrote in Arabic for a more limited audience of the highly educated who were dealing with their problems of belief, he goes into even greater detail and presents many ideas that would seem to be daring and problematic. 
What would Maimonides do today? Would he reinterpret the stories of creation to make them fit the scientific ideas of creation, of evolution etc.? Would he take the position that the Torah is not a scientific book but a book of moral and theological truths? I don’t know, but I am certain that what he would not do is to say that because the Torah records creation in 6 days, for example, that must be believed literally and all different scientific ideas must therefore be denied. That denial is what fundamentalists preach. We hear it from Christian evangelicals who have become the predominant voice in American Protestantism today and we hear it from extremist groups within Judaism as well who have become larger and more influential than ever before. A large percentage of Israeli children receive an education that denies scientific ideas because they are believed to contradict the simple truth of the Torah. That is certainly not the road that follows Maimonides. No wonder some of the Israeli science museums find it necessary to close off certain sections or cover certain displays when receiving school groups from various extreme religious sectors. What does this say about the future of Judaism and what challenges does it have for the state of Israel and for the Jewish People as a whole?
Maimonides was dedicated to the search for truth and for the preservation of Judaism, its way of life and its true beliefs.  His solution to the problems he faced was radical and courageous. We need religious leaders like that today as well if Judaism and its traditions and beliefs are to survive the challenges from within and without.