Highlights of Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed: Part 9 –
Torah as Educator : Book III Chapters 32 and 46
Rabbi Tuvia Berman – Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi
“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”- John Dewey
Pursuit of religious truth can take a lifetime or even lifetimes. As we saw last time, Rambam views the mitzvoth as educational tools leading to a healthier society and life as well as ultimately a deeper and more meaningful understanding of God. This pursuit, however, takes effort and perhaps even one’s whole life – or in our case, as we shall see, the lifetime of a people.
In one of the more controversial sections of the Guide, Rambam spells out his understanding of the goals of sacrificial worship or korbanot. In response to Rambam’s speculations, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban) also known as Nachmanides, declares that “these words [of the Rambam] are mere expressions, healing casually a severe wound and making the table of the Eternal polluted” (Vayikra 1:9 Chavel translation p.19) Nachmanides views Maimonides’ attempt to explain sacrifices as lacking; however, I would like to investigate not only what Rambam is saying, but also the overarching attitude towards religious Truth.
Many precepts in our Law are the result of a similar course adopted by the same Supreme Being. It is, namely, impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other: it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed. Now God sent Moses to make [the Israelites] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. xix. 6) by means of the knowledge of God. …The Israelites were commanded to devote themselves to His service; comp. “and to serve him with all your heart” (ibid. xi. 13); “and you shall serve the Lord your God” (Exod. xxiii. 25); “and ye shall serve him” (Deut. xiii. 5).
But the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images, and to bum incense before them; religious and ascetic persons were in those days the persons that were devoted to the service in the temples erected to the stars, as has been explained by us. It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God, as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action. For this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue; He transferred His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings, and of things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner;
In this powerful exposition, Rambam seems to argue that the reason for sacrifices was simply a concession to the need of weak people who could not handle the truth – a new form of worship. It is understandable that this passage has disturbed the likes of Ramban, Rav S.R. Hirsch, and many others. In fact, around 50 years before Rambam penned this suggestion, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi had already rejected it. Of course, the problem may stem from the entire pursuit of reasons behind mitzvoth. We saw last time that while Rambam champions the search for reasons, others, such as Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi reject this approach.
Be that as it may, without choosing sides in a battle of the Titans of Jewish thought, I would like to focus on the Rambam’s view of Torah as an educational enterprise. Rambam informs us of a critical aspect of Torah learning and Jewish practice. The Torah ultimately leads us to a profound understanding of HaShem; however, approaching God, serving Him properly, and understanding the Divine Mind requires the entire Jewish people’s effort. Learning Torah and perfoming Avodat HaShem will bring us all closer to the real Truth of God. This process requires the lifetime of the Jewish people.