July 27, 2017 § 1 Comment

We begin a new book of the Torah this week: Devarim (‘Words’), as it is known in Hebrew, is named after one of the first words of the book. In English, it is known as Deuteronomy (‘Second telling’) because Moses retells the story of the Israelites’ adventures and mishaps, recapping the past forty years.

But who was this man Moses? Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher and scholar of Jewish law, was one who held Moses in very high esteem.

At the outset, Maimonides argues, Moses’ experience of prophecy was not fundamentally different from the other prophets: All prophets have exceptional understanding, character, and training, and all receive their prophetic understanding through an angel or in a dream.

As Maimonides writes in the Guide of the Perplexed, “Even in the case of Moses our Master, his prophetic mission is inaugurated through an angel: And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord in the heart of fire [Ex 3:2].”[1]

But Moses was a man of unusually high character, training, and intelligence (but not a divine being) who perfected himself so that he ultimately became a prophet of the highest rank.

Thus, Maimonides argues, Moses eventually transcended the usual limits, and achieved the highest possible level of human intellectual understanding.

At this point, Moses became like an angel, for he did not require food or drink for 40 days. And, in that regard, Moses’ perfection is not replicable. We can only get so far on our own intellect, Maimonides says, and then we have to defer to Moses.

Moses is singled out of this kind of praise on account of his extraordinary accomplishment: he was able to achieve union with the Active Intellect – the lowest sphere of the divine – to transmit a perfect reflection of the Divine Will.

Rather than using one’s own imagination to determine how to act, or rather than looking to nature to provide an example, Maimonides suggests that studying the Five Books of Moses provides the key to understanding God’s will.

What is interesting here is not Maimonides’ support of the tradition of divine transmission of the Torah, but the fact that he explained it in the context of Aristotelian philosophy, which was the science of his era. The Active Intellect is an idea taken from the work of Aristotle, adapted to the context of our Biblical heritage.

It took Spinoza, the disgruntled ex-communicated Jew from Spain, someone who spent his days grinding lenses in Amsterdam at the dawn of the modern era, to suggest that maybe it was Moses who created the laws himself.

“…after the Hebrews had gone out of Egypt,” he writes, “they were no longer bound by the right of any other nation, but were permitted to constitute new rights at will and occupy the lands they wanted. For after they had been freed from the intolerable oppression of the Egyptians…they again acquired their natural right to everything they could do, and each could resolve anew whether he wanted to retain or, in truth, yield and transfer it to another.”[2]

The Hebrews, in other words, had been able to free themselves from Egypt and establish their own self-governing nation. Note here that Spinoza does not say that God freed them from Egypt – he sees this event as their own doing.

“But at the first meeting,” Spinoza writes, “they were terrified, and on hearing God speak were so thunderstruck, as to deem that their last moment had arrived. Full of dread, therefore, they approached Moses anew as follows: Behold we have heard God speaking in the fire, and there is no cause why we would want to die. Certainly this immense fire will devour us. If the voice of God is to be heard by us again, we will certainly die. You, therefore, go and hear everything said by our God, and you – not God – will speak to us. Everything that God speaks to you, we will obey, and we will execute it.”

It should be noted here that Spinoza considers revelation to be the unfolding of reason, so what is terrifying them is not the fire on the mountain but the full weight of having to make all of these decisions by themselves.

Thus, Spinoza concludes, “By these words they clearly abolished the first compact and transferred their right to consult God and interpret his edicts to Moses absolutely.”[3]

In Spinoza’s mind, they went from a democracy to a theocracy and that has been the source of the problem. As someone who had been excommunicated from his community for engaging in free thinking ideas such as these, it is not difficult to understand his pained reaction to Moses.

Interestingly, when the academic study of Judaism first became a possibility in the universities of Europe, two separate groups can be identified: those who felt a kinship with the works of Maimonides and those who felt a kinship with the works of Spinoza. You could learn quite a bit about a person, in fact, based on the singular preference for Maimonides or Spinoza. Both were groundbreaking rationalist philosophers who read the Bible in radical ways. But one sought to preserve the tradition while another stood outside of it.

Personally, I tend to prefer Maimonides because he viewed reason and faith as compatible. As he taught: if a contradiction is found between what we learn from science and what we learn from the Bible then you should interpret the biblical text metaphorically. But Spinoza’s comments also get to the heart of the matter as well: some parts do read like they are all-too-human, and we be wary of totalitarian thinking in a religious guise.



[1] Moses Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed. III:45, p. 576. Pines notes that the verse’s word order is altered by Maimonides.

[2] Benedict Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise, 17.4.1-3.

[3] Spinoza, Treatise, 17.5.1-5, pp. 196-7.

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