Was Moses Ben Maimon, the famous Middle Eastern rabbi-doctor known as the Rambam, high when he wrote The Guide for the Perplexed? Judging by how he interpreted some of the most provocative stories in the Torah, that would certainly seem a possibility.
How else to explain the Rambam’s branding of Abraham’s binding of Isaac as, essentially, a hallucination, a waking nightmare?
Or, on the question of whether angels can perform the physical act of eating – as in the story of Lot in Sodom – Maimonides was clear: What was depicted in the book of Genesis “did not occur in any other way than in a dream or in a vision.”
Were there really 10 plagues, a sea that parted, and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of slaves?
The Garden of Eden with its seven days of creation and a sinister talking snake?
The flood and Noah’s Ark?
Balaam and his talking donkey?
Moses at the burning bush?
Well, someone was clearly smoking something when they wrote that.
Now, barring a time machine, we can’t know if the Rambam was actually high on mushrooms or some other psychedelic (and the sage’s well-known aversion to physical pleasure would suggest otherwise).
Moreover, he was the consummate rationalist; he would argue it’s “rationality that demands we admit metaphysical beings do not assume physical form,” notes Dr. Elliot Malamet, who spoke on the topic “Can Myths Be True? Maimonides’ Philosophical Rewriting of Biblical Narratives” during a lecture at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.
Whatever the motivations, the Rambam placed “less weight on actual history [and more on emphasizing that which] is most sublime – philosophical and ethical truth,” writes Rabbi David Frankel in an essay on TheTorah.org website entitled “Torah Narratives with Angels Never Actually Happened: Heretical or Sublime?”
“So, if certain things didn’t really happen, it doesn’t really matter, since that isn’t what the text was ‘about’ to begin with,” Frankel continues.
“Maimonides suggests that certain philosophically challenging parts of the Torah were really ‘visions,’ partly symbolic and partly imaginative, that came to teach us things – rather than events that transpired in the external world.”
The conception that Maimonides cared more about what we can learn from the stories in the Bible than their historical veracity is not a new one. It’s part of why he was so controversial in his day, with many of his writings banned and even burned. And let’s make no mistake: Maimonides was no ancient atheist. His belief in an incorporeal deity was uncompromising.
“Maimonides thinks more highly of a Creator who creates a cosmos that functions well without tinkering than one who must constantly ‘pull strings and push buttons’ to make it work,” writes Prof. Menachem Kellner in the essay “Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism.”
The ever-rational Rambam makes his opinions abundantly clear in The Guide: “In the case of everyone about whom exists a scriptural text that an angel talked to him or that speech came to him from God, this did not occur in any other way than in a dream or in a vision of prophecy.”
The opposite – that God can take on human form and eat and drink – “would be tantamount to attributing physical characteristics to God which, for Maimonides, is both religious heresy and philosophical nonsense,” Frankel writes.
We need the Rambam more than ever these days. Not to enhance our religious beliefs and practice but rather to take them down a notch.
Israel needs Rambam to take our religious beliefs down a notch
This is playing out daily in the news, where the current Israeli government – the most religious in the country’s history – has fertilized a toxic environment where ministers feel free to spew some of the most offensive things imaginable, ostensibly in the name of that same religion.
Hatred for the stranger, rampant misogyny, unbridled homophobia, and xenophobia – every day there seems to be another statement coming from religious members of Knesset that should frankly floor any clear-thinking citizen, religious or otherwise.
These MKs are convinced they have God on their side. They are sure their interpretation of the Torah is accurate, that history unfolded just as it says in the “good book,” and that if Lot invited the angels in for a snack, they must have transformed themselves, at least temporarily, into physical beings with working digestive systems.
This fundamentalist interpretation allows our political “leaders” to act with what they believe is God-given impunity when they propose laws opposed by much of the population. Maimonides’s approach suggests that those politicians shouldn’t be so sure of themselves.
“Maimonides takes the radical step of turning all stories with angels into prophetic visions,” writes Frankel in TheTorah.org. “Since it is rationally impossible for [angels] to walk, talk, eat, fly or be seen, biblical stories that depict ‘angels’ in physical terms must be accounts of dreams or visions.”
Do I have any evidence that the Rambam was high when he wrote his seminal texts? No. But by subverting the literal-historical elucidation of key biblical stories, Maimonides pulls the rug out from under those religious pundits who state with absolute certainty what’s acceptable and who’s an abomination.
“Maimonides has completely rewritten the biblical text,” Malamet says. “He’s telling Jewish readers that we don’t believe this stuff. We don’t believe in magic. We don’t believe in fairy tales. We don’t believe in potions. We don’t believe gods visit the earth and take on human form and inhabit bodies.”
The next time you hear a so-called religious authority pontificate that he (and it’s always a “he”) knows “what God wants,” refer him to The Guide for the Perplexed.
Or find a friendly angel looking for an invitation to afternoon tea. Can’t locate one? That’s just as Maimonides would have thought.
The writer’s book Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. brianblum.com