Jewish Thought and History

When Rambam Met the Izhbitser Rebbe: Response to a Straussian Reading of Hilkhot Teshuvah

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Bezalel Naor

The renowned German Jewish scholar Leo Strauss revolutionized intellectual history when he published in 1952 his book Persecution and the Art of Writing. Strauss made the bold claim that some of our great authors wrote on two levels within the same work. For the masses, they wrote on the exoteric level, but they tucked away another, esoteric level available only to the cognoscenti, and it is the latter level that contains their true opinion. The three paradigms Strauss provided are three of Judaism’s greatest thinkers: Judah Halevi, Maimonides, and Spinoza.

A decade later, in 1963, the University of Chicago Press published an edition of Maimonides’ The Guide of the Perplexed containing Shlomo Pines’ English translation of the Arabic, and a sprawling introductory essay by Strauss, “How To Begin To Study The Guide of the Perplexed,” employing his hermeneutic. As this edition became the standard English edition of the Guide, it certainly contributed to the mainstreaming of Strauss’ ideas.

Forty years after the appearance of Strauss’ seminal work, another Maimonidean scholar, Bezalel Safran, offered an application of Strauss’ method to Maimonides’ halakhic work, Mishneh Torah. Safran’s article, “Maimonides on Free Will, Determinism and Esotericism,”[1] attempts to demonstrate that not only in the philosophic work, Guide of the Perplexed, did Maimonides write for two very different audiences, but in the Commentary to the Mishnah and in Mishneh Torah as well.[2]The departure point for the discussion is the perhaps enigmatic passage in Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah [Laws of Return] 6:4, which dwells on King David’s guilt-ridden spiritual struggle with sin. The paragraph reads (in Safran’s translation):

And concerning this matter the righteous ones and the prophets ask in their prayer from God to aid them on the Way of Truth, as David had said (Psalms 86:21), “Teach me Your Way, O God, I shall walk in Your Truth,” that is to say, let not my sins prevent me [from attaining] the Way of Truth, through which I will know Your way and the unity of Your name. And also that which [David] said (Psalms 51:14), “And a generous spirit will support me,” that is to say, let my spirit do its desire, and let not my sins cause me to be prevented from repentance; rather, may freedom of the will be in my hand [may it be within my grasp to do repentance] until I return [to the Way of Truth] and shall understand and know the Way of Truth. And in this way [are to be interpreted] all that resemble these verses.[3]

Safran argues that this paragraph flies in the face of the preceding paragraph. Whereas what precedes forcefully argues for free will, this paragraph—when decoded by utilizing Straussian cryptology—sends the exact opposite message of determinism. But again, this true opinion of Maimonides is privileged information reserved for the elite, of which there were very few, even among Maimonides’ rabbinic peers.[4]

Safran puzzles over the fact that three times in the single paragraph of Hilkhot Teshuvah 6:4 Maimonides repeats the term “derekh ha-emet” (the Way of Truth). For Safran, this is more than just a terminus technicus; this is the proverbial smoking gun. “The Way of Truth” is a term loaded with esoteric significance.

After noting the term’s earlier appearance in Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 1:3, Safran traces it back to its biblical root in Genesis 24:48, where Abraham’s servant Eliezer expresses gratitude to God “who guided me on a Way of Truth (derekh emet) to take the daughter of my master’s brother for his son.”[5] And just as in the context of Rebekah’s marriage to Isaac, the gist is clearly deterministic, so too in Maimonides’ lexicon, the “Way of Truth” harbors an esoteric truth, whereby the patina of man’s free will is peeled away to reveal the reality of divine preordination.

This is the secret message that Safran has unpacked from the passage in Hilkhot Teshuvah: King David was praying for some sort of epiphany by which there would be revealed to him that his sin with Bathsheba was in reality engineered from Above, and that he was, so to speak, merely a pawn on a divine chessboard.[6]

The author of the article finds confirmation for his theory that in truth Maimonides subscribes to determinism, in a self-declaredly esoteric passage in the earlier Commentary to the Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1:2. There, Maimonides writes concerning the judgment meted out to earth’s inhabitants on the New Year:

The exoteric aspect of this Mishnaic statement is spelled out as you will see. The esoteric dimension, however, its meaning is indubitably very difficult.[7]

There too, Safran assumes that Maimonides alludes to his deterministic theory, in direct opposition to what he writes elsewhere in his Commentary to the Mishnah. The entire final chapter of the Shemonah Perakim/Eight Chapters, Maimonides’ introduction to Avot, champions man’s free will.

By the time Safran concludes his study of Maimonides, the reader is nudged to the realization that Maimonides’ true opinion is not so far removed from (though not identical with) the philosophy of Rabbi Mordecai Joseph Leiner (the Rebbe of Izbica), famously typecast by Joseph Weiss as “religious determinism.”[8]

Let us attempt to deconstruct Safran’s argument and offer a counter-interpretation of the Maimonidean texts.

First, while in principle I do not find objectionable Safran’s method of searching for biblical precedent to Maimonides’ lexicology, I do find it highly unlikely that a term as generic and sweeping as “the Way of Truth” must be reduced to the rather unique situation of Eliezer’s experience in searching for a spouse to suit Isaac.[9]

Besides the impracticality of subordinating every occurrence of the term “the Way of Truth” in Maimonides’ oeuvre to Eliezer’s narrative,[10] it just so happens that Maimonides penned a responsum in which he disabuses the questioner of the notion that marriages are divinely preordained. The upshot of Maimonides’ response is that in general, matches are not made in heaven but on earth; only in isolated instances is there divine orchestration. (Though one may wish to argue that in Maimonides’ estimation his addressee, Obadiah the Proselyte, was not worthy of being privy to Maimonides’ true opinion on the matter, the effusive praise that Maimonides heaps upon his correspondent would seem to indicate otherwise.)

So germane is this responsum to our discussion that it bears reproduction here (in my translation):

Question: Regarding [the statement] “All is in the hands of heaven except for the fear of heaven.”[11]

Answer: Regarding that which you said, that all of mankind’s deeds are not decreed beforehand by the Creator. That is the impeccable truth, and therefore reward is given if one goes on a good way, and punishment is exacted if one goes on a bad way. All mankind’s deeds come under the rubric of “fear of heaven,” for in the final analysis, all mankind’s deeds produce either [fulfillment of] a commandment or a sin. When the Rabbis, of blessed memory, said, “All is in the hands of heaven,” [they were referring to] the natural order of the world, such as species of trees and wildlife, and the science of the heavenly spheres, and the angels. We have already expanded on this subject in the commentary to Tractate Avot,[12] and brought proofs. Also at the beginning of the magnum opus which we composed of all the commandments.[13]

Whoever leaves behind the things we explained, that are constructed upon the foundations of the world, and sets out to seek in a haggadah or midrash, or in the words of one of the Geonim, of blessed memory, a single word that would refute our words, words of knowledge and understanding—is committing suicide, and what he has wreaked to himself is sufficient [punishment].

This [saying] that your Rabbi quoted to you, “[A heavenly voice goes out, saying:] ‘The daughter of so-and-so [is destined to be wed] to so-and-so.’”[14] If it applies universally to all, and is to be taken literally, then why does it state in the Torah, “[Who is the man who has betrothed a woman and not married her? Let him go and return to his house,] lest he die in battle and another man marry her”?[15] Is there in the world a rational person who would entertain doubt in this matter after what is written in the Torah? Rather it is worthy for one who is understanding and whose heart is prepared to adopt the Way of Truth (derekh ha-emet),[16] that he make this matter explicit in the Torah the fundament and the foundation, so that the building not collapse and the tent-peg not come loose. And if one finds a verse in the Prophets or a maxim of the Rabbis, of blessed memory, that assails this fundament and tears down this premise, let one seek out with the mind’s eye until one has understood the words of the prophet or the sage. If their words are found compatible with that made explicit in the Torah, good! And if not, let one say that: “I do not know the words of this prophet or this sage. They are esoteric and not literal.”

That which the sage said, “The daughter of so-and-so [is destined to be wed] to so-and-so,” refers to the way of reward or the way of punishment. If this man or this woman performed a commandment for which the proper reward is a harmonious marriage, then the Holy One, blessed be He, matches them together. And by the same token, if their due punishment is an acrimonious marriage, He matches them. This is akin to the saying of the Rabbis, of blessed memory: “If there be but one mamzer (male bastard) at one end of the world, and but one mamzeret (female bastard) at the other end of the world, the Holy One, blessed be He, brings them together and matches them.”[17] This does not apply universally to all, rather to those deserving of reward or punishment, as is just in the eyes of God.

All these matters are built upon what we explained in the Commentary to the Mishnah, Avot, as you understood. You are a great wise man and you have an understanding heart by which you understood the things and knew the straight way.

Moses ben Maimon, of blessed memory[18]

It would be difficult to imagine that Maimonides was posturing in this responsum, while truly subscribing to a determinist philosophy. The responsum is a forthright presentation of Maimonides’ firm belief in free will as opposed to predestination. It sums up what has been elucidated previously in the Commentary to the Mishnah and Mishneh Torah. As for the recipient’s intellectual acumen, Maimonides closes by saying: “You are a great wise man and you have an understanding heart by which you understood the things and knew the straight way.”

And then there is the passage in the Commentary to the Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah, which alludes to some esoterica. Safran believes that the allusion is to a theory of determinism. However, it is much more likely that the issue at stake is not determinism versus free will, but rather general divine supervision (hashgahah kelalit) versus individual divine supervision (hashgahah peratit).[19]

The verse from Psalms 33:15 adduced by the Mishnah, “Who forms together their heart, Who understands all their deeds,” follows on the heels of the previous verse: “From the place of His habitation He supervised (hishgiah) all the inhabitants of the earth.” And our own verse of Psalms 33:15 is quoted by Maimonides in the Guide III, 17 in his discussion of this very issue of individual divine providence (see Pines ed., p. 472).

One might counter that unlike the doctrine of determinism, there is nothing esoteric about the doctrine of hashgahah peratit or individual providence. Not so fast! What Maimonides dispenses in the very next chapter of the Guide (III, 18) eminently qualifies as “esoterica.” I am referring to Maimonides’ belief that there are degrees of providence commensurate with how intently one focuses one’s mind on the divine. Those whose intellects are riveted to the divine merit more divine supervision; those easily distracted receive less divine attention. How do I know that Maimonides considers this topic esoteric? He says so explicitly:

A most extraordinary speculation has occurred to me just now through which doubts may be dispelled and divine secrets[20] revealed. We have already explained in the chapters concerning providence[21] that providence watches over everyone endowed with intellect proportionately to the measure of his intellect. Thus providence always watches over an individual endowed with perfect apprehension, whose intellect never ceases from being occupied with God. On the other hand, an individual endowed with perfect apprehension, whose thought sometimes for a certain time is emptied of God, is watched over by providence only during the time when he thinks of God; providence withdraws from him during the time when he is occupied with something else.[22]

Let us summarize our findings.

Safran suggests that the paragraph in Hilkhot Teshuvah 6:4 possesses an esoteric meaning: David is aspiring to a level of esoteric knowledge, to an epiphany, whereby it will be revealed to him that his misdeeds were movements in a divine symphony. But it is possible that there is nothing esoteric about this paragraph at all. David prays that on account of his grievous misdeeds he not be barred from the Way of Return (Teshuvah), as were some of the most vile miscreants in human history discussed in the previous halakhah (the prime example being the Pharaoh of the Exodus). This is the straightforward reading of the halakhah.

Whatever “the Way of Truth” signifies for Maimonides, we shall not find the answer in the peroration of Eliezer servant of Abraham. Maimonides’ opening categorical statement—“Free will is bestowed on every human being. If one desires to turn towards the good way and be righteous, he is at liberty to do so; and if one wishes to turn towards the evil way and be wicked, he is at liberty to do so.”[23]—was never intended as a useful, provisional belief to be discarded upon attaining philosophic maturity. And it is well-nigh inconceivable that Maimonides—like later the Izhbitser Rebbe—was a religious determinist.


[1] Published in Porat Yosef: Studies Presented to Rabbi Dr. Joseph Safran, ed. Bezalel Safran and Eliyahu Safran (Hoboken, New Jersey: Ktav, 1992), pp. 111-128.

[2] Actually, Strauss had already extended his method to Mishneh Torah. See L. Strauss, “Notes on Maimonides’ Book of Knowledge,” in Studies in Mysticism and Religion Presented to Gershom G. Scholem (Jerusalem, 1967), pp. 269-283. Safran credits Prof. Arthur Hyman with reminding him of this article, “a pioneering mode of esoteric reading of Mishneh Torah” (Safran, p. 127, n. 27).

[3] Safran, p. 112.

[4] After positing that the two halakhot (Hil. Teshuvah 6:3 and 6:4) are contradictory (a supposition that I reject), Safran chalks up the contradiction to Maimonides’ “seventh cause” in the Introduction to The Guide of the Perplexed: “In speaking about very obscure matters it is necessary to conceal some parts and to disclose others… In such cases the vulgar must in no way be aware of the contradiction; the author accordingly uses some device to conceal it by all means” (Pines ed., p. 18). Maimonides goes on to say: “Divergences that are to be found in this Treatise are due to the fifth cause and the seventh” (ibid., p. 20).

[5] Though nowhere in the story (Genesis 24) is the servant of Abraham named “Eliezer,” I follow Maimonides’ lead in Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 11:4 where the protagonist of the story is referred to as “Eliezer ‘eved Avraham” (“Eliezer servant of Abraham”).

[6] See Avodah Zarah 4b-5a. Rashi (ibid., s.v. lomar lekha) writes: “It was the decree of the King” (“Gezeirat melekh hi”). Quoted by Safran, p. 124, n. 17.

Safran’s reading of the halakhah in Maimonides is most reminiscent of a passage in the writings of Rabbi Zadok Hakohen [Rabinowitz] of Lublin: “The main Return (Teshuvah) is [not accomplished] until the Lord will enlighten his eyes, [whereby] the sins become merits, which is to say, that he will recognize and understand that whatever sin he committed was also the will of the Lord, blessed be He…” (Zidkat ha-Zaddik [Lublin, 1913], par. 40 [6a]). Rabbi Zadok was the eminent disciple of Rabbi Mordecai Joseph Leiner of Izbica (author of Mei ha-Shilo’ah).

For a discussion of Rabbi Zadok’s determinism as well as that of Rav Kook, see my article, “‘Zedonot Na‘asot ke-Zakhuyot’ be-Mishnato shel Harav Kook” (“‘Sins Become as Merits’ in the Philosophy of Rav Kook”), in Ofer ha-Ayyalim: Sefer Zikaron le-ha-Kadosh Ofer Eliyahu Cohen, ed. Dani Kokhav (Koch) (Jerusalem, 1994), pp. 299-312.

[7] Safran’s English translation (pp. 119-120), based on Kapah’s Hebrew translation from the Arabic, in his edition of Mishnah ‘im Peirush Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Jerusalem, 1965).

[8] See Safran, p. 125, n. 21. In that same endnote, “another great determinist, Hasdai Crescas” is referenced.

[9] When I read Rabbi Abraham Maimonides’ commentary to the story of Abraham’s servant and Rebekah, at first blush it seemed to confirm Safran’s contention that “the Way of Truth” is at the very least a terminus technicus in the Maimonidean lexicon of both father and son. In his commentary to Genesis 24:7, s.v. malakho, Rabbi Abraham Maimonides writes:

Praised be the one who has guided us in the Way of Truth (be-derekh ha-emet) to every correct and fine reason, whose end is beyond our intellect, by opening [for us] a gate to what is written in the Torah. (Peirush Rabbeinu Avraham ben ha-Rambam ‘al Bereishit u-Shemot, ed. Wiesenberg [London: L. Honig & Sons, 1958], p. 54)

One who reads the Hebrew translation might think that Rabbi Abraham Maimonides embedded the Hebrew words “be-derekh ha-emet” in his Judeo-Arabic statement (especially because of its close proximity to Abraham’s servant’s utterance some verses later). However, if one consults the Judeo-Arabic (provided in that edition), one is in for a surprise. The phrase “in the Way of Truth” simply does not occur! In the Judeo-Arabic (f.14r. of the Oxford ms.; p. 55 of the London edition) the phrase reads tout court: “Praised be the one who has guided us to every correct, fine reason…”

This was confirmed for me by my dear friend Rabbi Moshe Maimon, who is in the process of preparing for publication a new Hebrew translation of Abraham Maimonides’ commentary to the Pentateuch. (The Oxford manuscript, Huntington 166, is a unicum.)

Evidently, the translator (according to the introduction of the publisher, Rabbi Solomon Sasoon, the Book of Genesis was translated by Hakham Yosef ben Salah Dori, and the Book of Exodus by Rabbi Efraim Yehudah Wiesenberg), took the literary license of adding the flourish “be-derekh ha-emet” (the Way of Truth) to Rabbi Abraham Maimonides’ statement of gratitude, perhaps in emulation of Abraham’s servant’s peroration a few verses later.

[10] Unnoted by Safran, the term “derekh ha-emet” (“the Way of Truth”) occurs also in Hilkhot Teshuvah 4:2.

[11] Berakhot 33b, Megillah 25a, Niddah 16b.

[12] Maimonides’ Introduction to Tractate Avot, Shemonah Perakim (Eight Chapters), chap. 8; and Avot 1:13 (Kapah ed., p. 271), 3:18, 19 (Kapah ed., pp. 284-285), 4:28 (Kapah ed., p. 295).

[13] While the editor Joshua Blau is certainly correct that the reference is to Mishneh Torah and not Sefer ha-Mitzvot, he mistakenly directs the reader to the beginning of Hilkhot De‘ot, while the proper address is chapters 5-6 of Hilkhot Teshuvah. See Yitzhak Shilat (Greenspan), Igrot ha-Rambam, vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 1995), p. 236, n. 15.

[14] Sotah 2a; Mo‘ed Katan 18b.

[15] Deuteronomy 20:7. In the final chapter of Shemonah Perakim (Kapah ed., p. 262), Maimonides marshals a different proof that marrying a certain woman cannot be divinely ordained but must rather be a matter of choice: Marriage is a mitzvah and God does not preordain that one perform a commandment. Cf. Sefer ha-Mitzvot, positive commandment 213; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Ishut 1:1-2; and Abraham Maimonides’ responsum in Birkat Avraham, ed. Baer Goldberg (Lyck, 1859), no. 44. (However, Rabbeinu Asher disagrees with Maimonides. For Rabbeinu Asher, only procreation [periyah u-reviyah] is a mitzvah; marriage per se is not a mitzvah. See Rabbeinu Asher, Ketubot 1:12 [Ketubot 7b].)

[16] Yitzhak Shilat is convinced that unlike the vast majority of Maimonides’ responsa which were penned in Arabic, the responsa to Obadiah the Proselyte were written in Hebrew. Assuming that Shilat is correct in his pronouncement, and the term “derekh ha-emet” in our responsum is Maimonides’ own language and not a translation, we are certainly justified in making capital of the expression. Clearly, within the context of the responsum, “the Way of Truth” lies on the side of free will and not on the side of causality. See Yitzhak Shilat, Igrot ha-Rambam, vol. 1, p. 231.

[17] Yerushalmi Kiddushin 3:12; Genesis Rabbah 65:2.

[18] Teshuvot ha-Rambam, ed. Joshua Blau, vol. 2 (Jerusalem: Mekitzei Nirdamim, 1960), no. 436 (pp. 714-716).

[19] See Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller, Tosefot Yom Tov to Rosh Hashanah 1:2, and Rabbi Samuel Edels, Hiddushei Aggadot, Rosh Hashanah 18a, s.v. ke-ma‘alot Beit Horon.

[20] The Hebrew translators (Ibn Tibbon, Kapah, Schwarz) render this: “sodot elohiyim.”

[21] Guide III, chaps. 17 and 18.

[22] Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed III, 51 (Pines ed., pp. 624-625). Various commentators of the Guide grapple with the problem of why the rehashing of this doctrine in chapter 51 is considered by Maimonides more wonderful than its earlier presentation in the “Pirkei ha-Hashgahah” (i.e., chapters 17-18). See, e.g., Kapah’s translation of Moreh ha-Nevukhim (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1977), p. 408, n. 75.

One notes with interest that Nahmanides, the great medieval representative of the kabbalistic tradition, quotes approvingly this novel doctrine of the Guide. See Nahmanides’ commentary to Job 36:7; in Kitvei Rabbeinu Moshe ben Nahman, ed. C.B. Chavel (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1968), vol. 1, pp. 108-109; and in the new Sefer Iyov ‘im Peirush ha-Ramban, ed. Yehudah Leib Friedman (Israel: Feldheim, 2018), pp. 451-458.

[23] Maimonides, Hilkhot Teshuvah 5:1 (Moses Hyamson translation).