The Philosopher and the Mystic?

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David Fried

Review of Diana Lobel, Moses and Abraham Maimonides: Encountering the Divine, (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2021). (Parenthetical citations refer to this book unless noted otherwise.)

Anyone familiar with the writings of Abraham Maimonides knows that he frequently presents himself as the faithful heir to his father’s teachings. Scholars, though, have seldom taken this self-perception seriously. Conventional wisdom is that Moses Maimonides is the Aristotelian philosopher and his son the Sufi mystic. Only in the last several decades has the Maimonidean scholarship really begun to seriously look at the phenomenology of Moses Maimonides’s religious encounter, and perhaps even mystical inclinations, and not merely his philosophical content.[1] Diana Lobel is one of the scholars who takes this work seriously, and her new book, Moses and Abraham Maimonides: Encountering the Divine, offers us a far more nuanced comparison of Abraham and Moses Maimonides than we have previously seen. Lobel presents a valuable portrait of the interplay between Maimonides’s philosophy and his inner religious life and spiritual practices. Titling her book “Encountering the Divine” elucidates her purpose. By acknowledging that this was a primary goal of both father and son, Lobel is able to point out very real differences between them in both the spiritual and philosophical realms without resorting to facile tropes of saying that one is a philosopher and the other a mystic.

Moses vs Abraham Maimonides
Perhaps the most significant distinction between father and son that Lobel points out relates not to philosophical doctrine but to the spiritual role of philosophy itself. For Moses Maimonides, the study of physics and metaphysics is a spiritual exercise.[2] Meditating upon natural science is the path to love and fear God (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:2) and an important rung on the ladder (if not the ultimate one) towards God’s inner court (Guide of the Perplexed 3:51). Abraham more or less agrees with the content of his father’s science and philosophy, but does not see its study as a primary path to Divine encounter. Instead, he prefers the methods of the Sufis (xiv-xv), who pursued direct encounter with the Divine through ascetic and meditative exercises. One common Sufi meditation that appealed to Abraham Maimonides, which will be discussed later on, was sitting in a dark room while meditating on a single point of light.

This does not mean that there were no differences in philosophical doctrine. One notable philosophical difference between Moses and Abraham Maimonides is the doctrine of the Active Intellect. This doctrine shows up frequently in Moses Maimonides’s writings, which explain that the Active Intellect mediates the encounter between the human and the Divine. The prophet’s mind merges with the Active Intellect, and knowledge of the Active Intellect is the closest we can hope to come to knowledge of the inscrutable Divine Mind. Abraham, by contrast, does not mention this concept even once. He never explicitly denies its existence, but he is clearly seeking a Divine encounter unmediated by the Active Intellect (xv).

The distinction that Lobel spends the most time discussing, though, is exegetical. Abraham is a more contextual reader of biblical narrative than his father. This is not to say that Moses Maimonides was merely eisegetically inserting his philosophical ideas into the text, as other philosophically-inclined biblical commentators of the Middle Ages might have done. Anyone who has studied the first section of the Guide of the Perplexed knows that Maimonides is an extremely close reader of Biblical texts, carefully documenting the legitimacy of any meaning he assigns to a word. In fact, his approach makes a major contribution to the medieval study of peshat.[3] Nevertheless, once he has documented the legitimate meanings of a particular term, he has the tendency to pick the most philosophically convenient one, whereas his son wants to find the one that actually fits best contextually. As Lobel demonstrates, Abraham Maimonides generally accepts R. Sa’adya Gaon’s interpretations as representing the best contextual read. In fact, in two programmatic statements about his commentary, Abraham Maimonides states explicitly that his goal is to harmonize Sa’adya’s interpretations of the text with his father’s philosophy (xiii-xiv).

Lobel spends much of the book taking the reader on a detailed exposition of how Abraham Maimonides harmonizes Sa’adya’s biblical interpretation with his father’s philosophy, doing so by way of two specific examples. The first relates to the term “glory of God (kevod Hashem).” In his general discussion of the term in Guide 1:64, Maimonides lists three possible meanings the term can take: 1) “the created light that God causes to descend in a particular place in order to confer honor upon it in a miraculous way,”  2) God’s “essence and true reality,” 3) “the honoring of Him, may He be exalted.”[4] In several places in the book of Exodus, Maimonides affirms that the Torah is talking about a created light. In other places, however, he makes it clear that it is not his preferred interpretation. There is no harm, he writes (Guide 1:5), in believing this interpretation, since it does not ascribe corporeality to God, but he prefers an interpretation that sees it as a metaphor for intellectual apprehension, perhaps through the Active Intellect, as the vehicle that brings honor to God (see Lobel, chapter 2). Notably, while he does not mention him by name, he is clearly challenging the interpretation of Sa’adya Gaon, who does, in fact, interpret each of these cases as referring to a created light.

Abraham, by contrast, accepts Sa’adya’s read of these verses. The context does seem to indicate the presence of something tangible, and he does not want to reinterpret it as mere metaphor the way his father did. Nevertheless, he characteristically tries to connect the two interpretations by indicating that meditating upon the light can help bring one to a deeper intellectual understanding. As Lobel notes, this meditating upon a light in an otherwise dark room is a classic Sufi practice, one that his father most likely did not engage in, and therefore not a line of interpretation that would have been open to him (see chapters 1, 3).

The second major point of Biblical interpretation that Lobel discusses is the meaning of the phrase Ehyeh asher Ehyeh (I will be that which I will be), presented as God’s name in Exodus 3:14. Here, Sa’adya presents a range of possible interpretations from the historical (“I will be with you,”—see Rashi who interprets it this way as well) to the theological, conveying God’s eternality (“I will be just as I always was”) (see chapters 9, 10). Maimonides (Guide 1:63) also interprets the phrase theologically, but in a different manner from Sa’adya. Rather than conveying God’s temporal eternity, he sees it as speaking to the notion of God as the Necessary Existent (see chapter 13). This notion was first introduced by Avicenna (ibn Sina in Arabic), born several decades after Sa’adya, who saw all physical reality as dependent on something else. Since he believed (following Aristotle) that there couldn’t be an infinite chain of causation, there must be a first cause whose existence is not dependent on anything else. This “necessary existent,” as he called it, is the cause of the existence of the universe. It must be noted that “first cause” does not mean first temporally, or else he would be saying the same thing as Sa’adya. Rather (in classic neoplatonist fashion), he believed that God is constantly causing the universe to exist at every moment but did not create it at a specific moment in time.

Abraham, for his part, accepts Sa’adya’s theological read as the simple peshat of the text. He sees temporal eternity as fitting more naturally with the words than ontological necessity. Once again, though, he endeavors to harmonize Sa’adya’s exegesis with his father’s philosophy, arguing that anything that exists eternally must also exist necessarily (see chapter 12). It is unlikely that Sa’adya himself would have agreed with this interpretation, first because he lived before Avicenna, and second because he tends to follow the Kalam school of Islamic theology in his understanding of God. Crucial to this understanding was seeing God as volitional rather than necessary. The equation Abraham Maimonides makes between eternal and necessary itself long predates Avicenna, going all the way back to Aristotle, though not specifically in relation to God. Moses Maimonides, for his part, seems to accept this equation in Guide 1:73, where he criticizes the Kalam for believing that anything they can imagine is possible. In Guide 3:15, however, he expresses serious doubts about the Aristotelian definition of necessity and leaves it as an open question. It thus is again unclear whether Moses Maimonides would have accepted his son’s attempt to harmonize his philosophy with Sa’adya’s Biblical interpretations.

Is Lobel’s Book Successful?
As we have now seen, the differences that Lobel highlights between father and son are subtle and require a keen philosophical eye to notice them. For better or for worse, the work is clearly an academic one. (Considering that the book was published by Academic Studies Press, this is not surprising.) It lays out its arguments in a careful and nuanced way, and doesn’t sensationalize or overstate what the evidence can demonstrate. At the same time, this can make the book feel a bit dry and overly focused on details. Many of the chapters feel disconnected from one another, as though they were each originally written as separate articles, though Lobel does do her best to tie them together in the introduction and conclusion of the book. She also does her best to make the book accessible to a reader who is not a specialist in the field. A basic familiarity with the works of Moses Maimonides is assumed; however, she gives extensive background on the works of Abraham Maimonides, with whom the average reader is probably less familiar. In doing so, she draws heavily on the scholarship of Elisha Russ-Fishbane[5] and Eli Shaubi.[6] Shaubi’s work is from an unpublished thesis, so it is likely the first time most readers, even more advanced ones, will have seen it.

Lobel’s book provides an excellent comparison between the thought of Moses and Abraham Maimonides. Her contributions to the scholarship, though subtle and nuanced, are certainly important. It is definitely a worthwhile read for anyone interested in Moses or Abraham Maimonides. The title, however, is somewhat of a misnomer. Far more of the book is devoted to discussing exegetical methodology than to discussing Divine encounter. Even when she is discussing Maimonides’s Divine encounter, Lobel largely leaves out any discussion of the role of silence, mentioning it only in the concluding chapter. This is ironic, as she herself wrote one of the seminal articles on this topic.[7] There, she acknowledges how Maimonides recognized the limitations of his own philosophical categories, ultimately giving way to the silence of negative theology. As I alluded to earlier, meditating upon physics and metaphysics is only the penultimate rung on the ladder of Divine encounter in Guide 3:51. As Lobel puts it, Maimonides ultimately sees that Aristotelian conceptions like God as intellect are mere “attributes of action.” She defends not spending more time discussing this in the book because it is but one stage of the Divine encounter for Moses, and a full comparison of the spiritual encounters of father and son needs to look more at the whole picture and not dwell excessively on the final stage. While this point is well taken, there is another point she mentions in her conclusion that is worthy of a separate study in its own right: It is not merely the spiritual exercises derived from Aristotelian philosophy that seem not to interest Abraham Maimonides. Even the Neoplatonist-derived via negativa, the radical silence of Maimonides’s negative theology, seems not to interest him, once again preferring the methods of the Sufis. A thorough study comparing and contrasting the Divine encounters of Moses and Abraham Maimonides ought to include a more detailed comparison of the specifically mystical parts of the Guide. Finally, there is the question of development within Maimonides’s own thought. Guide 3:51, as noted, contains rungs of spiritual development. Abraham Maimonides was born late in his father’s life, being just 18 years old when his father died. The Moses Maimonides that Abraham knew, then, was already at the final stages of his own spiritual journey. Did this impact which of his interests he passed on to his son? Shlomo Pines writes:

Only one of the distinctive traits of chapter 51 will be indicated here, namely the fact that, as far as I can see, it is the only chapter of the work which uses terms and notions borrowed directly or indirectly from the Moslem mystics, the Sufis… Was the very different Sufi mysticism of Abraham, son of Maimonides, influenced by the new departure of his father, made late in life? The question needs further investigation.[8]

Lobel’s work no doubt makes a major contribution to the comparative study of Moses and Abraham Maimonides. She identifies nuanced differences and puts to rest facile oversimplifications. It is the start of the study, though, not the end. There remain important questions that, as Pines wrote, “need further investigation.”

[1] See David Blumenthal, “Maimonides: Prayer, Worship, and Mysticism,” in Philosophic Mysticism: Studies in Rational Religion (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2006), 96-114, available at; Gideon Freudenthal, “The Philosophical Mysticism of Maimonides and Maimon,” in Maimonides and His Heritage, ed. Idit Dobbs-Weinstein et al. (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009), 113-152; Jose Faur, Homo Mysticus, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999); and Diana Lobel, “‘Silence Is Praise to You’: Maimonides on Negative Theology, Looseness of Expression, and Religious Experience,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 76, no. 1 (2002): 31-58. See also my article,

[2] It is worth noting here that philosophy in the ancient and early medieval world always included what we would now term spiritual exercises. See Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

[3] See Mordechai Z. Cohen, Opening the Gates of Interpretation: Maimonides’ Biblical Hermeneutics in Light of His Geonic-Andalusian Heritage and Muslim Milieu (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

[4] Translation from Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 156-157.

[5] Judaism, Sufism, and the Pietists of Medieval Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[6] R. Abraham Maimonides: The Process of Prophetic Attainment, Master’s Thesis, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2019.

[7] Diana Lobel, “’Silence Is Praise to You’: Maimonides on Negative Theology, Looseness of Expression, and Religious Experience,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 76, no. 1 (2002): 31-58.

[8] Shlomo Pines, “The Philosophical Purport of Maimonides Halachic Works and the Purport of the Guide of the Perplexed,” in Maimonides and Philosophy, eds. Shlomo Pines and Yirmiyahu Yovel (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1986), 9.

David Fried is an editor at The Lehrhaus and teaches Judaics at Ramaz Upper School. He has semikha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and has learned at Yeshivat Har Etzion. He lives in New Jersey with his wife Molly and their two sons Elchanan and Saadia.