The Exoteric and the Esoteric Maimonides


            The period of Judeo-Islamic philosophy is usually characterized as a convivencia, a symbiotic ecumenical relationship, which bound Muslims, Jews, and Christians into a fellowship of students and scholars of philosophy. The topics raised by Greek science and philosophy in its Arabic transmission were those discussed across tradition-specific lines. Philosophers of differing faiths read one another, sometimes even studied with one another, and addressed common issues in their writings even as they often differed on how to interpret those issues.

            The Islamic context for the study of science and philosophy was not, however, quite as sanguine as modern scholars portray it to have been.[2] Philosophy, which encouraged critical thinking, was often seen by authoritarian Muslim powers with a very suspicious eye. As Joel Kraemer has put it:[3]

For Islam, as for Judaism, the religious law is paramount, a comprehensive guide to life in all its aspects. Study of the Qor’an, tradition (hadith), theology (kalam), and jurisprudence (fiqh) dominated Muslim intellectual life. The `ulama’ (clerics) regarded “the ancient sciences” as alien and useless, as an insidious threat to religious faith. Taqi al-Din ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), exemplifying this attitude, says that only science inherited from the prophet [Muhammad] deserves to be called science; the rest is either useless or not science at all.

Ibn Rush (Averroes) (d. 1198), a philosopher and jurist [qadi], justified philosophy as a religious obligation, but his opinion had no effect on the career of philosophy in Islam, which was emphatically rejected by religious authorities. Even the Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) felt the need to refute philosophy.

The medieval Islamic world had no universities as did Europe, where philosophy was taught alongside theology. Muslim rulers sponsored scientific research, which was institutionalized in libraries, hospitals, and observatories. Philosophers taught privately or to circles that met in their homes or in other venues such as bookstores.

            The following narrative by al-Sa`id al-Andalusi concerning the confiscation of his father’s library was typical of the attitude of many Islamic authorities throughout the Islamic world:[4]

Those libraries held the previously mentioned collections of famous books as well as others; he [the chamberlain, Abu `Amir] showed these books to his entourage of theologians and ordered them to take from them all those dealing with the ancient science of logic, astronomy, and other fields, saving only the books on medicine and mathematics. The books that dealt with language, grammar, poetry, history, medicine, tradition, hadith, and other similar sciences that were permitted in Andalus were preserved. And he ordered that all the rest be destroyed. Only a very few were saved; the rest were either burned or thrown in the wells of the palace and covered with dirt and rocks. Abu `Amir performed this act to gain the support of the common people of al-Andalus and to discredit the doctrine of the Caliph al-Hakam. To justify this deed, he proclaimed that these sciences were not known to their ancestors and were loathed by their past leaders. Everyone who read them was suspected of heresy and of not being in conformity with Islamic laws. All who were active in the study of philosophy reduced their activities and kept, as secret, whatever they had pertaining to these sciences.

            Muhammad ibn Masarra, Ibn Hazm, and even Al-Ghazzali also had bans pronounced against them, or had their books burned, or had an interdiction against studying their books proclaimed.[5] Although some Islamic leaders were more tolerant of philosophy than others, in general the life of the philosopher in the Islamic lands was not easy.

            Drawing on this background of the persecution of science and philosophy in the Islamic world, Strauss and those who followed him developed a two-faced image of Maimonides:[6] the “exoteric” Maimonides who wrote codified law and simplified philosophy for the masses, and the “esoteric” Maimonides who wrote recondite philosophical allusions for the elite. The literature on this is vast and it goes to the heart of Maimonides’ political theories; that is, to his reading of Aristotle and Plato’s political works in the context of Islamic political theory.

            Those who argue for an esoteric-exoteric Maimonides use the instrumentalist, or double-truth, approach -- that Maimonides had one teaching for the masses and one for the elite – also for Maimonides’ teaching on the true spiritual life.[7] Following this line of interpretation but more subtly, Fox[8] has argued that there is one teaching for the elite and for the masses but one must bear in mind that the elite are not elite all the time and, hence, they need the practice of the masses. Kaplan[9] has argued much the same and Kreisel[10] has argued that the intellectual worship of God is universally obligatory while Jewish ritual worship of God is obligatory only for Jews.

            I am disinclined to the view that sees Maimonides as two people. Rather, I argue that Maimonides saw himself as the authoritative voice for all Israel in matters of law and belief; he was, after all, the leading halakhic authority of his age and, for a while, the formal head of the leading Jewish community in the Fatimid empire. Knowing his readership well, Maimonides wrote for each according to that person’s ability. For those interested only in knowing what to do, he wrote the Mishne Torah, the code of law. For those interested only in knowing what to believe, he wrote the Principles of Faith and the initial chapters of the Mishne Torah. For those concerned with the reasons behind the law, he wrote about that. For those concerned with the deeper complexities of the law, he left hints and guides in the Mishne Torah. For those perplexed about natural and metaphysical knowledge, he wrote about that in the Mishne Torah and, in greater depth, in the Guide. For those deeply schooled in Islamic science and philosophy, he wrote with great subtlety, mostly in the Guide  – not because of persecution, but because the subject matter and the audience required it.

            As I see it, then, there was a wide range of people for whom Maimonides wrote, from the ignorant to the better educated, to the elegantly formed in the physical and metaphysical sciences. To instruct the full array of his readers, it was necessary, as Maimonides himself wrote in the Introduction to the Guide, to reveal and to conceal, to teach some things directly and others only subtly. To put it another way: What is “esoteric” for one, may well be “exoteric” for another. Yet, in the world of authoritative teaching, there is one Torah that has many, many layers of understanding and the authoritative teacher must write for everyone, each on their own level.[11] This stratifying of people is most clearly seen in those places where Maimonides develops typologies of people – and there are many such places, including the Introduction to The Guide and the opening section of part 3, chapter 51. Always, these typologies are multi-layered; they are never bipolar.[12]

            Given Maimonides’ desire to educate everyone, one could expect that his view of the true spiritual life would be divided into stages; and so it is. The preliminary stage is proper observance of the commandments. For Maimonides, this is an indispensable step; there can be no Jewish mysticism or spirituality without the law. Anyone who wants to be “religious” only needs to look up what to do in the Mishne Torah and then act accordingly. Since the Mishne Torah also includes basic matters of belief, following its prescriptions also guarantees proper belief. After the meticulous observance of the Torah, however, there are three further stages of true religious life: intellectual apprehension of God, intellectual contemplation of God, and continuous contemplation of God.


The Three Stages of the True Spiritual Life According to Maimonides


            The first stage of true spirituality is intellectual apprehension of God (Ar., al-’idrak; Heb., ha-hasaga), also known as “love” of God (Ar., al-mahabba; Heb., ’ahava). In this type of spirituality, one acquires as much knowledge about God as possible. This includes knowledge of God’s creation (the laws of nature: physics and astrophysics with the appropriate math, biology, medicine, etc.); knowledge of what things can, and cannot, be said about God (the theory of attributes with the appropriate knowledge of logic and linguistics); and skill in interpreting holy texts so that they conform to one’s general knowledge.

With these things, I explain the great general principles of the work of the Master of the universe so that they be, for one who understands, an opening to love God, as the Sages said concering love [of God], “From this [i.e., study], you get to know Him Who spoke and the world was created.” (Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Yesode ha-Torah 2:2)

When a person contemplates these things and gets to know all the created beings – the angel, the sphere, humanity, and such things – he or she[13] increases her or his love for the Omnipresent. The soul of such a person will thirst for God, and the flesh will yearn to love the Omnipresent, may He be blessed. Such a person will be in awe and will be afraid of his or her lowliness, poorness [of spirit], and insignifcance when compared with one of the great holy bodies [e.g., the spheres] and, even more so, [when compared with] one of the pure forms which are separate from matter and never had contact with it.[14] Such a person will find herself or himself as a vessel full of shame and embarrassment, empty and lacking. (Ibid., ibid., 4:12)

            The study of creation (nature) leads to love of God. Indeed, the accumulation of knowledge about creation is the love of God. Furthermore, the telos of learning is not knowledge itself. Rather, the purpose of knowledge of the natural world is a series of spiritual emotions – awe, fear, insignificance, shame, and embarrassment. The goal of study is a thirsting of the soul and a yearning of the body for God. Study is a type of religious experience; the intellectual is part of a larger spiritual realm.

            The second stage of true spirituality is intellectual contemplation of God, also known as “intellectual worship of God (Ar., al-`ibada al-`aqliyya; Heb., ha-`avoda ha-sikhlit) and as  “passion” for God (Ar., al-`ishq; Heb., hesheq). In this type of spirituality, one concentrates on abstract thinking, on pondering the most abstract and simple of concepts. But, and this is crucial, as one does this, one places oneself in the presence of God. In intellectual contemplation, one ponders the highest metaphysical concepts and one resides in the Divine presence. Intellectual contemplation (“worship,” “passion”), thus, comes after the intellectual love of God, though it is rooted in, and grows from, the intellectual love of God. Intellectual contemplation is, thus, a step beyond intellectual love. It is the moment when thought fades into mystical experience. It is the transition from thinking-about-God to being-in-the-presence of God. It is a mystical moment or, more appropriately, a mystical-intellectual way of being in the world.

This kind of worship ought only to be engaged in after intellectual conception (Ar., al-tassawur al-`aqli) has been achieved. When you have apprehended God and His acts in accordance with what is required by the intellect, you should afterwards engage in totally devoting yourself to Him (Ar., al-’inqita` ’ilayhi), endeavor to come close to Him (Ar., wa-tas`i nahwa qurbihi), and strengthen the bond (Ar., al-wusla) between you and Him – that is, the intellect … The Torah has made it clear that this (last) worship to which we have drawn attention in this chapter can only be engaged in after apprehension (Ar., al-’idrak) has been achieved. It says: “to love the Lord your God and to worship Him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Dt. 11:13). Now we have made it clear several times (Guide 1:39; 3:28; etc.) that that love is proportionate to apprehension (Ar., al-mahabba `ala qadri al-’idrak). After love comes this worship (Ar., al-`ibada) to which attention has also been drawn by the Sages, may their memory be a blessing, who said, “This is the worship that is in the heart” (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 2a; etc.). In my opinion it consists in setting thought to work on the first intelligible (Ar., ’i`mal al-fikra fi al-ma`qul al-’awwal) and in dedicating oneself exclusively to this (Ar., wal-’infirad li-dhalika), as far as this is within one’s capacity. Therefore you will find that David commanded his son Solomon and fortified him in these two things, to endeavor to apprehend Him and to endeavor to worship Him after apprehension had been achieved. He said, “And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father and worship Him” (I Chron. 28:9). (Guide 3:51; Pines 620-21)[15]

This is followed [in Ps. 91] by what is said about divine providence where it gives the reasons for this great protection, saying that the reason for this great providence being effective with regard to the individual in question is this: “Because he has set his passion upon Me (Heb., ki vi hashaq), therefore I will deliver him; I will set him on high, because he has known My Name (Heb., ki yada` shemi)” (Ps. 91:14). We have already explained in the preceding chapters that the meaning of “knowledge of the Name” is apprehension of Him (Ar., ’idrakuhu). It is as if [the psalm] said that this individual is protected because he has known Me and then afterwards set his passion upon Me (Ar., lima `arafani wa-`ashiqani ba`da dhalika). You know the difference between the terms “one who loves” (Heb., ’ohev) and “one who has set his passion upon” (Heb., hosheq) – an excess of love such that no thought remains that is directed toward a thing other than the beloved is “passion” (Ar., al-`ishq). (Guide 3:51; Pines 627)[16]

            The text is rather straightforward: After the work of thinking and study, a person should ponder the intellectual results. In addition – and this is important – one should set oneself in the presence of the intellectual power which is the source of all thought, that is, God. This latter is a form of “contemplation” or, in the words of Maimonides, “passion for God” or “worship of God.” The difficult work of thinking, of gathering evidence and weighing its truth, is by contrast called by Maimonides “apprehension” or “love of God.” Both of them constitute an integral aspect of the intellectual-spiritual life of the person who strives for perfection (Ar., al-’insan al-kamil).[17] Intellectual effort alone is not enough; one must also make a spiritual, experiential effort if one wishes to attain to the telos of humanity.

            Most interesting is the fact that Maimonides, who was not deficient in the metaphysical and scientific vocabulary of his age, chose to use a series of non-philosophical words to describe this stage in the spiritual life of the person striving for perfection. It is important to highlight these terms by listing them: total devotion to Him (Ar., al-’inqita` ’ilayhi) (twice in 3:51), exclusive dedication to Him (Ar., al-’infirad), drawing close to Him (Ar., al-qurb minhu) (twice), being present to Him in the true way (Ar., al-muthul bayna yadayhi `ala al-jihat al-haqiqa), standing before Him (Ar., al-maqam `indahu), and bliss (Ar., al-ghibta; Heb. parallel, no`am [Guide 2:43]) (five times).[18] Note also: the contact (Ar., al-wusla) that is between you and Him which is the intellect (many times), setting thought to work on the first intelligible (Ar., ’i`mal al-fikra fi al-ma`qul al-’awwal), and an excess of love such that no thought remains that is directed toward a thing other than the beloved which is “passion” (Ar., al-`ishq) (several times). Note especially Maimonides’ use of “union of their intellects” (Ar., ’ittihad `uqulihim) and his use of bliss (Ar., al-ghibta; Heb., no`am).

            All these terms find their source in the world of mysticism, not in the world of physics and metaphysics. It cannot be happenstance that Maimonides uses them; rather, he clearly intends to allude to a spiritual experience and reality that, though rooted in previous intellectual activity, transcends that realm. In order to describe this realm that is beyond rationalism, Maimonides has recourse to these clearly mystical terms. There can be no doubt, then that, for Maimonides, the second phase of the true spiritual life included intellectual contemplation; that is, a pondering of the results of the work of the intellect while, at the same time, doing so within the presence of the living God. Precisely because Maimonides saw himself as, and in fact was, the authoritative teacher of his day, he was obligated to present to the public, even if subtly and with indirection, the experiential reality of philosophic mysticism – which is the proper term for this form of spiritual life. It was his responsibility to do so and, when philosophic-scientific vocabulary failed him, he used mystical vocabulary.

            The third stage of true spirituality is the continuous contemplation of God. It is characterized by the recurrence of the Arabic word da’iman, meaning “continuous, always.” In these passages Maimonides describes a condition in which a person is in extended bliss (Ar., ghibta) or pleasure (Ar., lidhdha). In such a state, the bliss or pleasure is not a fleeting moment in human spiritual life but an ongoing state of mystical consciousness, one that attends a person always. Continuous contemplation is clearly an extension of intellectual contemplation that, in turn, is an extension of intellectual love. Each is an intensification of the previous step. Nonetheless, the three states seem clearly differentiable.[19] It is continuous contemplation that is the end, the telos, of the person seeking perfection.

Thus it is clear that, after apprehension (Ar., al-’idrak), total devotion to Him (Ar., al-’inqita` ’ilayhi) and the employment of intellectual thought in passion for Him always (Ar., wa-’i`mal al-fikra al-`aqliyya fi `ishqihi da’iman) should be be aimed at. (Guide 3:51; Pines, 621)

There may be a human individual who, through one’s apprehension of the true realities and one’s bliss in what one has apprehended, achieves a state in which one talks with people and is occupied with one’s bodily necessities while one’s intellect is wholly turned toward Him (Ar., masruf nahwahu), may He be exalted, such that, in one’s heart one is always in His presence, may He be exalted (Ar., wa-huwa bayna yadayhi ta`ala da’iman bi-qalbihi), even while outwardly one is with people – in the sort of way described by the poetical parables that have been invented for these notions: “I sleep, but my heart is awake,” “The voice of my beloved knocks,” and so on … This is the rank of Moses, our master … this is the level of the patriarchs … Through them is explained the union with God, that is, apprehension and love of Him (Ar., al-’ittihad bi-Allah, ’a`ni ’idrakuhu wa-mahabbatuhu) and that the providence of God for them and their descendants is mighty (Ar. `azima) … Now this is, to my mind, a proof that they performed these actions with their limbs only, while their intellects were constantly in His presence, may He be exalted (Ar., wa-`uquluhum bayna yadayhi ta`ala da’iman). (Guide 3:51; Pines, 623-24)

            These passages, and others like them, clearly show a state of continuous contemplation, of optimal meditation, and equally clearly indicate that this state is the desired state for the person seeking perfection.

            Maimonides extended this state of continuous contemplation into his theory of providence to answer the question of God’s protection and of how evil, including death, befalls the righteous:

[As to] the individual who is striving for perfection of the intellect (Ar., al-shakhs al-kamil al-’idrak), whose intellect never ceases to be occupied with God (Ar., la yabrah `aqluhu `an Allah da’iman), providence will always be over that person (Ar., takun al-`inaya bihi da’iman). On the other hand, an individual striving for perfection, whose thought sometimes for a certain time is emptied of God, is watched over by providence only during the time when one thinks of God; providence withdraws from such a person during the time when one is occupied with something else … Hence it seems to me that all prophets and excellent persons seeking perfection (Ar., al-fudala’ al-kamilin) whom one of the evils of the world befell, had this evil happen to them during such a time of distraction or due to the vileness of the matter with which one was occupied … The providence of God, may He be exalted, is constantly (Ar., takun `inayat Allah da’iman) over those who have obtained this overflow, which is permitted to anyone who makes an effort with a view to obtaining it (Ar., li-kull man sa`a fi husulihi). If a person’s thought is free from distraction in apprehending (Ar., ’idrakuhu) God, may He be exalted, in the right way and if there is joy in what one apprehends (Ar., wa-ghibtuhu bima ’adraka), then that individual can never be afflicted with evil of any kind for, then, one is with God and God is with one (Ar., li-’annahu ma`a Allah wa-Allah ma`ahu). (Guide 3:51; Pines 624-25)

            It is important to note that, in this passage as in others, Maimonides includes not only the prophets and the patriarchs but also people who lead a philosophic-mystical life (Ar., al-fudala’, al-kamilun); they, too, can attain to the state of continuous contemplation.[20]

            The climax of Maimonides’ teaching of continuous contemplation is to be found in his views on the ideal death and life-after-death which he describes as an unending form of continuous contemplation:

Yet in the measure in which the faculties of the body are weakened and the fire of the desires is quenched, the intellect is strengthened (Ar., wa-qawiya al-`aql), its lights achieve wider extension (Ar., wa-’inbasatat ’anwaruhu), its apprehension is purified, and it is in bliss (Ar., wa-taghbut) in what it apprehends. The result is that, when a person striving for perfection is stricken with years and approaches death, this apprehension increases very powerfully, bliss (Ar., al-ghibta) in this apprehension and passion (Ar., al-`ishq) for the object of apprehension become stronger, until the soul is separated from the body, at that moment, into this state of pleasure (Ar., al-lidhdha). Because of this, the Sages have indicated with reference to the deaths of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam that the three of them died by a kiss … Their purpose was to indicate that the three of them died in the pleasure of this apprehension (Ar., fi hal lidhdhati dhalika al-’idrak) due to the intensity of the passion (Ar., min shiddat al-`ishq) … the apprehension that is achieved in a state of intense passion for Him (Ar. `inda shiddati `ishqihi ta`ala)… As he [Solomon] said, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” (Song 1:2), etc. …The sages mention this kind of death, which is, in true reality, salvation from death, only with regard to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. The other prophets and excellent persons (Ar., al-fudala’) are beneath this degree. However, it holds good for all of them that the apprehension of their intellects becomes stronger at the separation ... After having reached this condition of enduring permanence (Ar. al-baqa’ al-da’im), such an intellect will remain in one and the same state (Ar., fi hal wahida), the impediment that veiled it having been removed. One’s state of permanence will be in that state of intense pleasure (Ar., wa-yakun baqa’uhu fi tilka al-lidhdha al-`azima) which does not belong to the genus of bodily pleasures. (Guide 3:51; Pines 627-28)[21]

            In these passages on providence, the ideal death, and immortality, one should note yet again that Maimonides uses mystical terms and images. He describes the last moments of the life of the person who strives for perfection as pleasure (Ar., lidhdha) and writes about the strengthening of the intellect and the extension of its lights (Ar., wa-qawiya al-`aql wa-’inbasatat ’anwaruhu). Most importantly, he introduces verses and images from the Song of Songs to describe the continuous intellectual contemplation of God (“I sleep but my heart wakes,” “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” “My beloved knocks,” etc.).[22] All these terms and images flow from mystical insight, not from metaphysical understanding.

            In his views on continuous contemplation, continuous providence, the ideal death, and the unending bliss of life-after-death, then, Maimonides set forth his true ideal for human existence. The telos of humanity, according to Maimonides, is not philosophy itself. Philosophy is a stage, an instrument, a means to the end. The end is continuous contemplation of God, continuous being-in-the-presence of God, even when one is conducting one’s daily business and especially as one approaches death. This is achieved by following the various stages of self-perfection: meticulous observance of the commandments, the hard work of studying and thinking about creation so that it leads to God, the pondering of one’s intellectual conclusions in the presence of the Divine, and the continuous being before God even in daily activities and especially in death. Permanent pleasure in the Divine is the goal.

            A problem with the text of Guide 3:51: The text does not show clearly the three stages that I have outlined; rather, the text mixes the stages in what appears to be helter-skelter fashion. It requires work to separate out the levels from the text. Thus, the text does not follow a linear exposition of three stages. Thus, too, the love of God and the passion for God are juxtaposed in the same passages. And so on.[23] There are probably two reasons for this.

            First, Maimonides is hiding something. Indeed, he says in the Introduction to the Guide that some thoughts will be consciously hidden from the reader. What, then, is it that he is trying to conceal here in 3:51, even as he reveals it at the same time? I think it is the teaching that the acquired intellect, not the rational soul, is the part of human consciousness that attains mortality. Maimonides teaches that the rational soul is a natural function of the body, much as the vegetative and animal souls are. The latter clearly die with the human body and, to tell the truth, so does the rational soul. It is, therefore, only the acquired intellect that survives humanity.[24] Since, however, the words for soul in Hebrew, nefesh and neshama, are used in contexts that the rabbis understood to teach immortality and, since the term “acquired intellect” has no clear Hebrew designation, Maimonides did not want to teach openly that the rational soul dies with the body. So he concealed that doctrine, though it is there to see for whoever is bold enough to think that the rational soul dies with the body. This desire to preserve the Hebrew nefesh and neshama as the bearers of immortality is the first reason that led Maimonides to weave a complicated and unsystematic picture in 3:51.[25]

            Second, the states Maimonides is trying to describe here in 3:51 and elsewhere are elusive; they are post-rational, post-cognitive, post-linguistic. He can only allude to them. Hence, he mixes the metaphors and images with the intellectualist vocabulary, yielding a mixed text.


Other Passages


            Having established that, for Maimonides, metaphysics is a stage in self-perfection not an end in itself, it is possible to review other parts of his oeuvre to look for consistency of view. One such case is his theory of attributes; that is, his stance on the proper way to describe God. After many chapters dealing with biblical words and images, Maimonides devotes several chapters to the theory of attributes and culminates his exposition with the view that the best one can achieve is the systematic study of various attributes and the realization that they cannot be applied to God.[26] Thus, God cannot be said to be “one” because God does not fall into the category of beings subject to quantity. God cannot even be said to “exist” because that word, too, implies being in time and space, a category that does not apply to God. This is Maimonides’ via negativa: God is categorically different from God’s creation and, hence, cannot be described. Realizing this as fully as possible – that is, systematically offering proofs of this -- is the most humans can achieve. In the end, only silence is left to us.

that everyone understands that one cannot achieve apprehension, within that which we are capable of apprehending, except by negation … that apprehension of Him is the inability to fully apprehend Him (Ar., ’idrakuhu huwa al-`ajz `an nihayat ’idrakihi). All the philosophers say, “He blinded us with His beauty, and is veiled from us by the intensity of His manifestation” (Ar., ’abharana bi-jamalihi wa-khafiya `anna li-shiddati zuhurihi) – as the sun is hidden for those who have sight because they are too weak to perceive it … The clearest thing of all that has been said in this matter is the word of the psalmist, “Silence is praise for you” (Ps. 65:2); meaning, silence for you is a form of praise … and his saying, “Speak in your hearts on your beds, and be silent” (Ps. 4:5). (Guide 1:59; Pines 139-40)

            It could be that Maimonides’ meaning here is simple: Where negation is the only mode of thinking about the truth of God’s being, silence is the most befitting option. However, three elements in this short passage allude to more. First, the phrase “apprehension of Him is the inability to fully apprehend Him.” This phrase could simply mean that recognizing our inability to know God constitutes true knowledge of God. However, this phrase is more likely to be, I argue, one of those widely-found paradoxical sayings that intend to allude to an experience which is, itself, post-cognitive.[27]

            Second, the anonymous but seemingly widespread saying of the philosophers “He blinded[28] us with His beauty, and is veiled from us by the intensity of His manifestation.” This phrase was quoted by Hoter ben Shelomo, presumably from Maimonides, but with the introductory words “The one inspired by the truth has said”[29] and with the variant "by His perfection" (Ar. kamalihi, and not jamalihi).[30] To the best of my knowledge, no one has discovered the source for this saying. The citations I have collected are all clearly from mystical, not philosophic, sources.[31] The culmination of Maimonides’ theory of attributes, then, is being blinded by the beauty of God – a mystical, not a philosophic, image.

            This saying of the philosophers has parallels in Maimonides: “The truth was hidden from them completely, together with the intensity of His manifestation (Ar., wa-khafiya `anhum al-haqq jumlatan ma`a shiddat zuhurihi) (Guide Introduction; Pines 8) and “Exalted be He Whose perfection has blinded us” (Ar., fa-subhana man ’abharana kamaluhu) (Guide 1:72, end; Pines 193). The first quotation describes the utterly ignorant (“They know not, neither do they understand; they go about in darkness” Ps. 82:5). Philosophic as well as mystical truth eludes them.[32] The second of these phrases comes at the end of Maimonides’ review of the usual theology of his day (Ar., kalam) that he finds woefully inadequate to describe God. The culmination of Maimonides’ survey of classic Islamic theology, then, is again being blinded by the perfection of God – a mystical, not a philosophic, image.[33]

            Third, Maimonides’ two quotations from Psalms recommending silence as the best praise for God. Here, too, this may just be good advice to the philosopher, but it may also be a phrase intended to allude to an experience of profound silence that is itself post-cognitive, profound silence being a common mystical state. These three phrases in Guide 1:59 all betray a mystical, not a metaphysical or logical, context; they allude, I argue, to a post-philosophic experience of the divine which is beyond verbal and conceptual silence.

            Guide 1:68, the chapter on the unity of the knower, the known, and mind, is yet another passage that, when read in the light of Guide  3:51, seems to take on a more mystical dimension. As noted above,[34] 1:68 could be read in a non-mystical way. But, it could also be read either as an epistemological prelude to a post-cognitive experience or, as a metaphor for mystical experience itself. In either of the last two cases, 1:68 is another passage that is best read, I argue, as alluding to a post-philosophic mysticism.

            The doctrines of prophecy, providence, and philosophic mysticism constitute yet another set of passages that can best be read in light of a common phenomenology. First, the preparation for all is the same: meticulous observance of the commandments, ethical purification, intellectual study of the sciences and metaphysics and, finally, placing oneself in the Presence of God. Second, the process itself is the same: a permitted (willed) emanation of energy from the Agent Intelligence to the human faculties of the prepared recipient; a “contact” (’ittisal) between the divine and the human on the level of the divine and human intellects. Third, all three are in proportion to philosophic preparation; all three protect the recipient; all three are signs of grace. However, as I have noted,[35] in spite of the interrelatedness of these phenomena, there are two differences between prophecy and mysticism: (1) Prophecy is initiated by God, though only to one who is prepared, while mysticism is initiated by humans, though only if one is properly prepared. And (2), prophecy can be (but is not always) definitive legally; mystical experience can never be appealed to for legal decision-making. The differences nothwithstanding, these three major doctrines are best read in light of one another. Including philosophic mysticism in this common phenomenology vastly expands the scope and consistency of Maimonides’ teaching. 

            The various passages referring to lightning as a metaphor for intellectually based enlightenment[36] may also constitute a key to an integrated view of Maimonides’ teaching on true spirituality. In each case, the phenomenon described by lightning is rooted in intellectuality but constitutes an enlightenment that is more than just the culmination of a sequence of logically proven thoughts. The image always describes an awareness that is preceded by cognition but is itself post-cognitive (or, in the case of prophecy, pre-cognitive). The experience described by the image of lightning, however, varies in intensity and duration -- as do prophecy, providence, and mysticism – thus offering additional evidence of the integrated nature of the phenomena it is used to describe.

            It seems to me that, as scholars begin to use the tool of philosophic mysticism to understand Maimonides, they will discover other passages that will prove Maimonides to have been quite consistent in his teaching on the nature of the true spiritual life, even though he was very reticent in his presentation of that teaching.


On Maimonides’ Sources


            I do not know the origin of the mystical terms Maimonides uses in Guide 3:51, nor of the phrases and images he uses elsewhere. There seem to be three possibilities: that they are drawn from the tradition of philosophic mysticism of Ibn Sina, al-Farabi, and others for whom intense religious-intellectual experience was the telos of humanity; that they are of sufi origin, perhaps through the influence of his family and milieu; and that Maimonides himself fused these terms with his own particular meaning as the most mature form of his lifetime of reflection on these matters. Each of these will be examined separately though I rather prefer the last suggestion. In any case, modern scholars will have to change their conception of medieval rationalism to include the spiritual-experiential dimension of philosophic mysticism within the very definition of the purpose of philosophy.

            Sarah Stroumsa,[37] Steven Harvey,[38] Kenneth Seeskin,[39] Josef Stern,[40] and Gideon Freudenthal[41] have restated the position of classical Wissenschaft thinking most clearly[42]: Maimonides demythologized the world to come, messianism, resurrection, revelation, prophecy, providence, creation -- indeed, all the major rabbinic doctrines – and constructed a system in which intellect alone is the measure of perfection and, hence, the telos of humanity. True felicity is a function of intellectualization. Lidhdha is the state of permanent, abstract, intellectual bliss that is true worship; normative prayer is merely a training ground for intellectual worship. There are no traces of sufi ecstatic experiences in Maimonides. Harvey has even argued that the Yemenites and other easterners were struck by the presence of the sufi term `ishq but, since they were cut off from the philosophic traditions of the west, they imbued Maimonides with a foreign meaning which was the opposite of the non-ecstatic, rationalist, true reading of the west.[43]

            Schwartz[44] has criticized this classical position noting that Maimonides does not have any systematic discussion of the soul, immortality, or happiness, as does Avicenna. Indeed, a reading of the original texts of al-Risala fi al-`Ishq and of al-Risala fi Mahiyyat al-Salat[45] shows that the ideas and the terminology used by Avicenna are not at all present in Maimonides. Thus, chapter one of al-Risala fi Mahiyyat al-Salat is devoted to a long discussion of different types of souls, a subject only adumbrated by Maimonides. It also contains a defintion of the resurrection, a subject avoided by Maimonides. And it states that the goal of prayer is uninterrupted submission to God, a definition not shared by Maimonides. Chapter two discusses the difference between legislated and true prayer, a position not far from Maimonides’, but it continues by defining true prayer as mystical knowledge of God (`irfan Allah) and being intimate with God (yunaji rabbahu) -- both terms conspicuously missing in Maimonides. Chapter three on life after death bears no resemblance in terminology or construct to Maimonides. Thus, too, Avicenna’s al-Risala fi al-`Ishq has long sections on the types of souls, a long discussion of `ishq (passionate love), of shawq (yearning), and even includes the famous passages about the love of beautiful human faces, of the difference between kissing and embracing, the paean to dying a chaste person, and the gazing on the beardless faces of youths as a witness to divine beauty – ideas that could not have been further from Maimonides’ worldview. Lobel, too,[46] criticizes the classic Wissenschaft view stating that: “Ultimately, Maimonides’ God is not the Prime Mover of Aristotle but the unknowable Plotinian One, who cannot be adequately represented in speech.” All speech about God is by tasamuh, poetic license that allows one to use words loosely. Kellner, too,[47] alludes to religious language that is post-philosophical.

            There can be no doubt that Maimonides did follow the Islamic philosophic, intellectualist tradition in several matters: in his method of negation which culminates in silence as the only epistemologically sound way to talk about God; in his identification of the divine as paradoxically knowner, known, and mind; and in his subsequent interpretation, in a philosophic way, of the doctrines of prophecy, revelation, creation, reward and punishment, practical mitsvot, etc. However, he did not form his oeuvre using the systematic style and typical terms of the classical Islamic philosophers. Maimonides’ definition of intellectual worship followed the same path. It was philosophic in content but he did not teach these topics using the same categories and terms that others used; rather, he consciously introduced terms that were sufi in origin. Maimonides was, thus, not completely within the philosophic mystical tradition of the Islamic world. The most one could say is that he was a philosopher who used mystical vocabulary to point to that which is beyond philosophy.

            The argument for sufi influence is particularly tempting. Maimonides’ father-in-law was a known sufi[48]; his wife may have been one too[49]; there were known Jewish sufis  in his entourage[50]; his son was under sufi influence[51]; and the school that developed under R. Abraham was certainly under sufi   influence.[52] Indeed, in his Mishne Torah in Hilkhot Nezirut10:15, Maimonides argues precisely for such pietistic living in spite of its not being a life led according to the golden mean as he requires elsewhere [53]:

But he who vows to God in the way of holiness -- this is pleasing and praiseworthy. Concerning this it was said, “The laurel (Heb., nezer) of his God is upon his head … he is holy unto the Lord” (Nu. 6:4-5). And Scripture has accounted him as equal to the prophet, as it says, “I shall cause prophets to arise from your children, and nazirites from your young men” (Amos 2:11).

Again, in his Mishne Torah in Hilkhot Shemitta ve-Yovel 13:12-13, Maimonides makes an argument for intensely religious living:

Why did [the tribe of] Levi not merit an inheritance in the land of Israel and a share in the spoils of war together with its brothers? Because it was set aside to worship God, to teach His direct ways and His righteous judgements to the public … Therefore, they were set aside from the ways of the world: they did not wage war like the rest of Israel and they did not inherit the land … Rather, they are the army of the Lord, as it says …

The tribe of Levi is not alone [in this]. Rather, every single person of those who live in the world, whose spirit has gratefully welled up, and who has comprehended in his or her mind to be separated and to stand before God, to serve Him, to worship Him, and to know Him; who has walked in the straight path that God has intended for her or him; and who has shed from his or her neck the yoke of the many accountings that humans make [of one another] – this person has become holy [like] the holy of holies, and God will be her or his portion and inheritance forever and ever. Such a person will have sufficient in this world, as did the priests and levites, as David, may he rest in peace, said, “The Lord is my portion of inheritance and my cup; You sustain my destiny” (Ps. 16:5).

            Still, one cannot say that Maimonides was a sufi; his worldview and vocabulary were not the same. Maimonides did not advocate sufi asceticism. He did not teach antinomianism (or better phrased, transnomianism). He did not dwell upon the themes of love, passion, desire, etc. He did not advocate specific ritual practices of sufi influence, even those his son introduced in the next generation. And so on. The most one could say is that Maimonides was a philosophic mystic who used sufi vocabulary, an intellectualist mystic who provided a space within rabbinic, rationalist, halakhic Judaism for persons with intense spiritual practice.


The answer to the question of Maimonides’ relation to his sources may lie somewhere between seeing Maimonides as an Alfarabian-Avicennian and seeing him as a sufi. In a methodologically very important book, Lobel[54] has pointed out that Halevi took terms that were in the Islamic environment and transformed those terms by applying them in a rather strict rabbinic framework of thought. Thus, she argues, Halevi transformed such terms as ’ittisāl, ’ittihād, ’ijtihād, mushahāda, ta’yīd, ’ilhām, wahy, nubuwwa, al-’amr, hulūl, mahall, and others to give them specific Jewish meanings.[55] She particularly noted that Halevi associates ladhdha and ’ittisāl as follows: “Halevi’s language of union does not mean that he regards ’ittisāl as ontological oneness or unio mystica as do the most radical Sufis. On the other hand, his pairing of the term ’ittisāl with ladhda does add an ecstatic, passionate dimension to the divine-human relationship.”[56] Lobel’s argument is best summarized as follows:[57]

We have seen that he never mentions the Sufis by name, that the Sufi is the absent interlocutor in the dialogue, whose presence is evoked only through characteristic terms and themes. These terms and themes are at the heart of the dialogue, however…. The fact that the Sufi is absent as an opponent shows to what extent Ha-Levi has internalized and identified with certain Sufi spiritual ideas. Ha-Levi appropriates Sufi terminology to describe Jewish religious experience, while denying certain ideas … Ha-Levi brings a new texture to the idea by creatively appropriating the potent language of Sufi spirituality.

            The same may be true of Maimonides. First, he built a comprehensive system of Jewish law which set the boundaries of Jewish practice and belief. In doing this, he put the particularity and details of Jewish life at the core of his work. Then, he built an intellectualist scientific and philosophic system rooted largely in Aristotle though drawing on Alfarabi and others.[58] In this, he reached out to the world of universal knowledge and truth. Finally, perhaps on the basis of his own personal religious experience, he added a spiritual teaching that used sufi-like terms, in their non-technical sense, transforming those terms to serve his own purposes. Maimonides, thus, did not “borrow”; rather, he re-worked the scientific and philosophic concepts, as well as the mystical terms and images, of his milieu into a whole to make them fully continuous, and compatible, with the particulars of the rabbinic tradition which had always been his main concern. The result was a harmonious structure of enormous proportions and remarkable consistency, from its smallest legal details to its guidance on the matter of contemplative worship.[59]




             Maimonides did not have an esoteric and an exoteric teaching. Rather, he had one teaching that he presented on many levels, according to the comprehension of his widely diversified readers. This is true of his teaching on the true spiritual life, too.

            In Maimonides’ teaching on the true spiritual life, there are three levels of spiritual life after the initial level of meticulous observance of the commandments: (1) intellectual apprehension of God also called “love” of God – this involves long and tedious intellectual work to get to know creation and the rational energy behind it; (2) intellectual contemplation of God, also called “worship” of God and “passion” for God – this entails pondering the results of intellectual apprehension while in the sensed presence of God; and (3) continuous contemplation of God, characterized by such words as “always” and “intense pleasure” – this comprises sustained being-in-the-presence of God even while one is going about one’s daily business and especially when one is about to die. This hierarchy of the spiritual life shows beyond all doubt that, for Maimonides, metaphysics was only the penultimate stage in spiritual development; that rational work was only the bridge to a more spiritual stage of living; and that it was this sustained being-in-the-presence of God after intellectual effort that was the raison d’źtre of humanity. To make this point, Maimonides used terms that come from a mystical milieu, images that allude to mystical states and, with them, he constructed a teaching that leads toward such a state. Put simply: for Maimonides, philosophy was the handmaiden of mysticism.

            Other passages in Maimonides’ work point to the same teaching, particularly Maimonides’ instruction on: silence and the dazzling presence of God; the unity of the knower, the known, and mind; the phenomenological integration of the teachings on prophecy, providence, and true worship; and the recurrent image of lightning. Put simply: for Maimonides, there is an all-encompassing worldview that sees the life of ritual and intellectual discipline culminate in philosophic mysticism.

            Finally, Maimonides’ thought is fully rooted in the Islamic rationalist philosophic tradition. However, in Guide 3:51 and elsewhere, he consciously chose to use terms of sufi origin to allude to the post-rational experiential reality which constituted the core and ultimate end of his religious teaching. In doing so, Maimonides transformed the concepts, terms, and images of his Islamic milieu to form a larger specifically Jewish synthesis, integrating the new into continuity with the old.


Selected Bibliography


Abrahamov, B. Divine Love in Islamic Mysticism: The Teachings of Al-Ghazali and Al-Dabbagh. London: Routledge Curzon, 2003.

Altmann, A. “Das Verhältnis Maimunis zur jüdischen Mystik,” Monatschrift für Wissenschaft des Judentums 80 (1936): 305-30.

Avicenna. See Ibn Sina

Bell, J.N. “Avicenna’s Treatise on Love and Nonphilosophical Muslim Tradition,” Der Islam 63 (1986): 73-89.

Blidstein, G. “Joy in Maimonides’ Ethical Teaching” (Hebrew), Eshel Beer Sheva 2 (1980): 145-63.

Blumenthal, D. website: <>.

Blumenthal, D. "Maimonides' Intellectualist Mysticism and the Superiority of the Prophecy of Moses," Studies in Medieval Culture 10 (1977): 51-68. Reprinted in Approaches to the Study of Judaism in Medieval Times, edited by D. Blumenthal, 27-52. Chico: Scholars Press, 1984. Reprinted in Philosophic Mysticism: Studies in Rational Religion, Chapter 3. Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2006. Available on my website

Blumenthal, D., "On the Study of Philosophic Mysticism.” In History of Judaism: The Next Ten Years, edited by B. Bokser. Brown Judaic Studies. Chico: Scholars Press, 1980. Reprinted in Philosophic Mysticism: Studies in Rational Religion, Chapter 3. Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2006.

Blumenthal, D. "Was There an Eastern Tradition of Maimonidean Scholarship," Revue des études juives, 128 (1979): 57-68. Reprinted and expanded in The Philosophic Questions and Answers of Hoter ben Shelomo, 32-41. Leiden: Brill, 1981.

Blumenthal, D. “An Illustration of the Concept 'Philosophic Mysticism' from Fifteenth Century Yemen." In Hommage ą Georges Vajda: Etudes d’histoire et de pensée juive, edited by G. Nahon, et al., 219-308. Louvain: Peeters, 1980. Reprinted and expanded in The Philosophic Questions and Answers of Hoter ben Shelomo, 55-72. Leiden: Brill, 1981. Reprinted in Philosophic Mysticism: Studies in Rational Religion, Chapter 8. Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2006.

Blumenthal, D. "A Philosophical‑Mystical Interpretation of a Shi'ur Qomah Text." In Studies in Jewish Mysticism, edited by J. Dan, 153-71. Cambridge, Mass.: Association for Jewish Studies, 1982. Reprinted in The Philosophic Questions and Answers of Hoter ben Shelomo, 83-92. Leiden: Brill, 1981. Reprinted in Philosophic Mysticism: Studies in Rational Religion, Chapter 9. Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2006.

Blumenthal, D. “Maimonides: Prayer, Worship, and Mysticism.” In Priere, Mystique, et Judaisme,  edited by R. Goetschel, 89-106. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1987. Reprinted in Approaches to Judaism in Medieval Times, edited by D. Blumenthal, 1-16. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988). Reprinted in Philosophic Mysticism: Studies in Rational Religion, Chapter 4. Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2006. available on my website – hereinafter: “PWM.” Available on my website.

Blumenthal, D. Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest. Louisville, KY: Westminster / John Knox, 1993.

Blumenthal, D. “Philosophic Mysticism: The Ultimate Goal of Medieval Judaism.” In Esoteric and Exoteric Aspects in Judeo-Arabic Culture, edited by B. Hary and H. Ben-Shammai, 1-18. Leiden: Brill, 2006. Reprinted in Philosophic Mysticism: Essays in Rational Religion, chapter 5. Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2005. Available on my website

Blumenthal, D. Philosophic Mysticism: Studies in Rational Religion. Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2006; hereinafter: “PM

Chitriq, A. “The Guide for the Perplexed in the Light of Habad Hasidism,” Or Ha-Mizrah 32 (1972): 38-43.

Cohen, G. “The Soteriology of Rabbi Abraham Maimuni,” Proceedings of the American Academy of Jewish Research 35 (1967): 765-98 and 36 (1968): 33-56.

Dienstag, Y. Maimonides in the Light of the Scholars of Kabbalah (Hebrew). New York: World Jewish Congress, 1958.

Dienstag, Y. “The Guide for the Perplexed and the Book of Knowledge in Hasidic Literature” (Hebrew). In The Abraham Weiss Jubilee Volume, 307-30. New York: 1964.

Fackenheim, E. “A Treatise of Love by Ibn Sina,” Medieval Studies 7 (1945): 208-28.

Fenton, P. The Treatise of the Pool. London: Octagon Press, 1981. French translation in idem., Deux traités de mystique juive.

Fenton, P. “Some  Judaeo-Arabic Fragments by Rabbi Abraham He-Hasid, the Jewish Sufi,” Journal of Semitic Studies  26 (1981): 47-72.

Fenton, P. “More on Rabbi Hananel, the Master of the Hasidim” (Hebrew), Tarbiz 55 (1986): 77-107.

Fenton, P. Al-Murshid ila al-Tafarrud. Jerusalem: Mekizei Nirdamim, 1987. French translation in idem., Deux traités de mystique juive.

Fenton, P. Deux traités de mystique juive. Paris: Verdier, 1987.

Fenton, P. “La ‘Hitbodedut’ chez les premiers Qabbalistes en Orient et chez les Soufis.” In Priere, Mystique, et Judaisme,  edited by R. Goetschel, 133-58. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1987.

Fenton, P. “Deux traités musulmans d’amour mystique en transmission judéo-arabe,” Arabica 37 (1990): 47-55.

Fenton,P. “A Judeo-Arabic Commentary on the Haftarot by Hanan’el ben Shmu’el, Abraham Maimonides’ Father-in-Law,” Maimonidean Studies 1 (1990): 27-56.

Fenton, P. “La hierachie des saints dans la mystique juive et dans la mystique islamique.” In Alei Shefer: Studies in Literature and Jewish Thought Presented to Rabbi Dr. Alexanre Safran, edited by M. Hallamish, 49*-73*. Tel Aviv: Bar Ilan University Press, 1990. English version: “The Hierarchy of the Saints in Jewish and Islamic Mysticism,” Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Society 10 (1991): 12-33.

Fenton,  P. “’La tźte entre les genoux’: Contribution ą l’étude d’une posture méditative dans la mystique juive et islamique,” Revue d’histoire et de philosophie religieuses 72 (1992): 413-26.

Fenton, P. “A Mystical Treatise on Prayer and the Spiritual Quest from the Pietist Circle,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 16 (1993): 137-75.

Fenton, P. “A Mystical Treatise on Perfection, Providence, and Prophecy from the Jewish Sufi Circle.” In The Jews of Medieval Islam, edited by D. Frank, 301-334. Leiden: Brill, 1995.

Fenton, P. “Solitary Meditation in Jewish and Islamic Mysticism in the Light of a Recent Archaelogical Discovery,” Medieval Encounters 1/2 (1995): 271-96.

Fenton, P. “New Light on R. Abraham Maimonides’ Doctrine of Mystical Experience” (Hebrew), Daat  50/52 (2003): 107-19.

Fox, M. “Prayer in Maimonides’ Thought” (Hebrew). In Jewish Prayer: Continuity and Innovation (Hebrew), 142-67. Tel Aviv: Bar Ilan University: xxxx. English translation in Prayer in Judaism, edited by M. Bernard, 119-41. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Goitein, S. D. “A Jewish Addict to Sufism,” Jewish Quarterly Review 44 (1953): 37-49.

Goitein, S. D. “Abraham Maimonides and his Pietist Circle.” In Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies, edited by A. Altmann, 145-64. Cambrige, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Goitein, S. D. A Mediterranean Society, vol. v. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988.

Goldman, E. “The Special Worship of Those Who Perceive the Truth: Exegetical Notes to The Guide for the Perplexed, III:51-54” (Hebrew), Bar Ilan Annual 6 (1968): 287-313.

Harris, J. “The Image of Maimonides in Nineteenth-Century Jewish Historiography,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 54 (1987): 117-39.

Harvey, S. “The Meaning of Terms Designating Love in Judaeo-Arabic Thought and Some Remarks on the Judaeo-Arabic Interpretation of Maimonides.” In Judaeo-Arabic Studies, edited by N. Golb , 175-96. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publications, 1997.

Harvey, W. Z. “The Return of Maimonideanism,” Jewish Social Studies 42 (1980)” 249-68.

Heschel, A. J. Maimonides: Eine Biographie. Berlin: Erich Reiss Verlag, 1935. French translation. Paris: Payot, 1936. English translation. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1982.

Ibn Sina. See Mehren, Fackenheim, Sabri

Idel, M. The Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1988.

Idel, M. Maēmonide et la mystique juive. Paris: Les éditions du Cerf, 1991.

Jacobs, L. Hasidic Prayer. New York: Schocken, 1975.

Kaplan, L. “’I Sleep But My Heart Waketh’: Maimonides’ Conception of Human Perfection.” In The Thought of Maimonides, edited by I. Robinson, et al., 130-66. Lewiston: Edward Mellen, 1990.

Kasher, H. “The Myth of the Angry God in the Guide for the Perplexed” (Hebrew). In Myth in Judaism, edited by H. Pedayah, 95-111. Beer Sheva: Ben Gurion University Press, 1996.

Keller, C.-A. “Die Religion der Gebildeten in Mittelalters: Averroes und Maimonides.” In Die Religion von Oberschichten, edited by P. Antes u. D. Pahnke, 35-51. Marburg: diagonal-Verlag, 1989.

Kellner, M. “Philosophical Mysogyny in Medieval Jewish Thought: Gersonides and Maimonides” (Hebrew). In Y. Sermonetta Memorial Volulme, edited by A. Ravitzky, 113-28. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1998.

Kellner, M. “Is Maimonides” Ideal Person Austerely Rationalist,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 76:1 (2002): 125-43.

Kraemer, J., “Maimonides and the Spanish Aristotelian School,” Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Medieval and Early Modern Spain, ed. M. Meyerson and E. English (Notre Dame, IN, University of Notre Dame Press: 1999) 40-68.

Kraemer, J. “The Islamic Context of Medieval Jewish Philosophy.” In Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, edited by D. Frank and O. Leaman, 38-68. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Kreisel, H. “The Love and Fear of God in Maimonides’ Teaching” (Hebrew), Daat, 37 (1996): 127-51.

Levinger, Y. “On the Reason for Nezirut in the Guide for the Perplexed” (Hebrew), Bar Ilan Annual 4/5 (1955-56): 299-305.

Lobel, D. Between Mysticism and Philosophy: Sufi Language of Religious Experience in Judah Ha-Levi’s Kuzari. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2000.

Lobel, D. “’Silence is Praise to You’: Maimonides on Negative Theology, Looseness of Expression, and Religious Experience,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 76:1 (2002): 25-49.

Madkour, I. La Place d'Alfarabi dans l'ecole philosophique musulmane.  Paris: Adrien‑Maisonneuve, 1934.

Margulies, R.  “Maimonides and the Zohar” (Hebrew), Sinai 32: 263-74.

Melamed, A. “Maimonides on Women: Formless Matter or Potential Prophet.” In Perpsectives on Jewish Thought and Mysticism, edited by E. Wolfson, 99-134. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Press, 1998.

Merhren, M.A.F. Traités Mystiques d’Abou Ali al-Hosain b. Abdallah b. Sina. III fascicule. Leiden: Brill, 1894.

Pines, S. The Guide for the Perplexed. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963.

Rosenblatt, S. The High Way to Perfection, vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1927. Vol. 2 Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins Press, 1938.

Rothschild, J. “En quel sense l’histoire de la philosophie juive reconnaĒt l’existence d’une ‘mystique philosophique’ dans le moyen Čge occidentale.” In Expérience et écriture mystique dans les religions du livre, edited by P. Fenton and R. Goetschel, 113-29. Leiden: Brill, 2000.

Sabri, T. “Risala fi l’`isq: Le traité sur l’amour d’Avicenne, traduction et étude,” Revue des études islamiques  58 (1990) 109-34 and 61/61 (1993-94) 175-217.

Scholem, G. “From Researcher to Kabbalist” (Hebrew), Tarbiz 6:3 (1935): 90-8.

Schwartz, D. “Avicenna and Maimonides on Immutability: A Comparative Study.” In Medieval and Modern Perspectives on Muslim-Jewish Relations, edited by R. Nettler, 185-97. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publications, 1995.

Schwartz, M. Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed (Hebrew translation and commentary), 2 vols. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University Press, 2002.

Seeskin, K., “Sanctity and Silence: The Religious Significance of Maimonides’ Negative Theology,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 76:1 (2002) 7-24.

Stern, J. “Maimonides’ Demonstrations: Principles and Practice,” Medieval Philosophy and Theology 10 (2001): 47-84.

Stern, J. “Maimonides on the Growth of Knowledge and the Limitations of the Intellect.” In Maēmonide: perspective arabe, hébraique, latine, edited by T. Levy, 1-47. Louvain: Peeters, 2004.

Stroumsa, S. “’True Felicity’: Paradise in the Thought of Avicenna and Maimonides,” Medieval Encounters 4:1 (1998): 51-77.

Twersky, I. Introduction to the Code of Maimonides. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.

Sviri, S. The Taste of Hidden Things. Inverness, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, 1997.

Vajda, G. La théologie ascetique de Bahya ibn Paquda, Cahiers de la Société Asiatique. Paris: Imprimérie Nationale, 1947.

Vajda, G. L’amour de Dieu dans la théologie juive du moyen Čge. Paris: Vrin, 1957.

[1] Maimonides and Mysticism, edited by A. Elqayam and D. Schwartz, Da'at 64-66 (2009): v-xxv; modified and reprinted in D. Blumenthal, Philosophic Mysticism: Studies in Rational Religion (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2006) 128-51. This topic is so complex that I have chosen to create a "Selected Bibliography." With this in mind, footnotes contain only brief bibliographic references. In Philosophic Mysticism, there is no separate Selected Bibliography; rather, the book contains one full bibliography.

[2] The wish to see medieval Islam as a “golden age” of ecumenical, friendly, universal scholarly interchange is part of the “orientalist” mentality which has been exposed in recent years. Among Jewish scholars, it was also part of the assimilationist prejudice.

[3] J. Kraemer, “The Islamic Context of Medieval Jewish Philosophy,” 38 with n. 1.

[4] Cited in J. Kraemer, “Maimonides and the Spanish Aristotelian School,” 47-48.

[5] J. Kraemer, “Maimonides and the Spanish Aristotelian School,” 48.

[6] L. Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Glencoe: The Free Press, 1952; reprinted often).

[7] E.g., Y. Levinger, “On the Reason for Nezirut”; G. Blidstein, “Joy in Maimonides.”

[8] M. Fox, “Prayer in Maimonides.”

[9] L. Kaplan, “’I Sleep But My Heart Waketh’”.

[10] H. Kreisel, “The Love and Fear of God.”

[11] As a member of the Jewish “Establishment,” I have often found myself in this position. When asked to talk about “Jewish mysticism” to large unknown groups, I always talk about Jewish spirituality and never go into the deeper recesses of Jewish mysticism. Similarly, when I first wrote about the Zoharic worldview in Understanding Jewish Mysticism, I consciously omitted writing about the sitra ahra, not wanting unschooled readers to be exposed to such a doctrine. Entitling my book on God and the shoah, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest, may have violated the rule that, when one teaches authoritatively, one must teach subtlety and indirectly.

[12] For a list and anaylsis of these places, see D. Blumenthal, “PWM.”

[13] Maimonides did not include women in those qualified to do work in metaphysics. On this, see M. Kellner, “Philosophical Misogyny in Medieval Jewish Thought: Gersonides and Maimonides” (Hebrew) and A. Melamed, “Maimonides on Women: Formless Matter or Potential Prophet.” In the interest of making Maimonides relevant to the modern world, however, I have added in egalitarian language where appropriate. By contrast, I do not use egalitarian language for God in texts that I translate, though I do use it in my own text.

[14] The reference is to the Aristotelian forms that “in-form” matter to give it individual identity.

[15] I have used the translation of S. Pines but, in all passages cited, I have modified it where I think he missed the point; in addition, I have added emphasis.

[16] Pines renders `ishq / hesheq as “passionate love” which, I think blurs the distinction. I have, therefore, rendered “love” for mahabba / ’ahava and “passion” for  `ishq / hesheq. For a closer linguistic analysis of these and other terms in Maimonides’ mystical vocabulary, see “PWM.”

[17] This phrase is routinely translated as “the perfect person / man” – which is absurd. No one is perfect, least of all in Maimonides’ world. I prefer, therefore, “the person striving for perfection.”

[18] Pines and M. Schwartz translate al-ghibta as “joy” while Qafih renders it as “passion.” It is, however, precisely the mystical term “bliss” that is required by the context.

[19] I did not use this analysis in my previous articles on philosophic mysticism.

[20] At the end of the section dealing with the ability to be wholly turned toward God even when one is going about  one’s daily business, Maimonides writes: “This is not a rank that, with a view to the attainment of which, someone like myself may aspire for guidance. But one may aspire to attain that rank which was mentioned before this one through the training that we have described.” (Pines 624; Joel 460:4-6). In note 32, ad loc, Pines comments that the first sentence can be read in either of two ways: “Someone like myself cannot aspire to be guided with a view to achieving this rank” or “Someone like myself cannot aspire to guide others with a view to achieving this rank.” According to the first reading, the one Pines adopts, Maimonides says he cannot aspire to reach the level of the patriarchs who achieved the simultaneous consciousness of God and of this world and who, therefore, could prosper and preach the word of God. According to the second reading, Maimonides says he can reach such a state but he cannot guide others toward it. In either case, it is clear that one who leads the philosophic mystical life can achieve, or almost achieve, the level of the patriarchs which is the rank of “I sleep but my heart waketh.”

            This is a very important point because it makes clear that some form of almost prophetic consciousness in contemporary society is admitted by Maimonides. If we consider the possibility that the first reading is not Maimonides’ true teaching but expresses his inclination not to reveal his deepest teachings in accordance with the Talmudic injunctions (Talmud, Hagiga 13a), then the point is even stronger: that the well-educated and well-trained philosopher can become a mystic; that is, that he can be in direct contact with the divine as, indeed, did the prophets and patriarchs except that such a person can never reach the level of Moses and probably not the intensity of the patriarchs and biblical prophets.

            Philosophic mysticism is, thus, the reciprocal of prophecy. Both require rigorous preparation plus the consent of the divine to the emanation of pure spiritual-intellectual energy to the recipient. The discussion of Maimonides’ view of the renewal of prophecy in his own days is, therefore, on the wrong track. Maimonides differentiates between prophecy as a legal-dogmatic phenomenon and prophecy as an experiential-mystical phenomenon. The former cannot be renewed at all; legal prophecy is over. The latter, however, does not need to be “renewed” because it is always present, it being a function of the ongoing emanation of intellectual energy from the Tenth Intelligence without which the universe would cease to exist (MT, “Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah” 1:2). On the distinction between legal-dogmatic and experiential-mystical prophecy, see D. Blumenthal, “IM.”

[21] As noted above Ar., al-ghibta is properly translated “bliss” and I have modified Pines accordingly. On life in the world-to-come, see also Maimonides’ Commentary to the Mishna, Pereq Heleq and MT, “Hilkhot Teshuva” 8:1-2. For a closer linguistic analysis of these and other terms in Maimonides’ mystical vocabulary, see “PWM.”

[22] See MT, ”Hilkhot Teshuva” 10:3, that such images are intended to allude to such experiences.

[23] Hannah Kasher has also pointed this out in a paper given at a conference in Tel Aviv (2004).

[24] See Pereq Heleq and also MT, “Hilkhot Teshuva” 8:3. See also “PWM” and PM, chapter 1.

[25] For more on Maimonides’ epistemology, see PM, Introduction.  

[26] For more on this, see PM, chapter 1, and Josef Stern.

[27] See Stern, Chapter 1.

[28] The usual translation of this verb in passive form, while possible, seems to me to miss the point completely. I have, therefore, chosen the active form (with Friedländer, 215).

[29] Ar. qala al-mu’ayyad bil-haqq. This is an Isma`ili term, used in similar form for al-Shirazi, common in the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’, and probably used by Hoter ben Shelomo, a fifteenth century Yemenite savant, of Maimonides as an honorific title – unless Hoter was quoting what he believed to be Maimonides’ source itself though he has not told us which al-mu’ayyad he is talking about. See D. Blumenthal, The Philosophic Questions and Answers of Hoter ben Shelomo  (Brill: Leiden, 1981) 145, n.7.

[30] See The Commentary of Hoter ben Shelomo to the Thirteen Principles of Maimonides (Brill: Leiden, 1974) 55, n. 7, for a discussion of the versions where I have noted that Hoter may have conflated this text with the parallel one from Guide 1:72.

[31] Al-Ghazzali, Maqasid al-’Asna (Cairo edition) 86; Madkour, 59-60; Y. Marquet, La philosophie des Ikhwan al-Safa’, 2 vol., unpublished dissertation, 1:5; al-Hujwiri cited in A. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of  Islam (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1975) 6; Philo’s De Opficio Mundi, 23:71, cited in A. J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962) 2:122; and Al-Ghazzali, Mi`yar al-`Ilm, cited without reference in Y. Qafih, commentary to Guide 1:59 (1:147, n. 31). To all these references cited in The Commentary of Hoter ben Shelomo to the Thirteen Principles of Maimonides and The Philosophic Questions and Answers of Hoter ben Shelomo, add: V. Danner, Ibn `Ata’illah’s Sufi Aphorisms (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973) chapter 17, # 165 (page 47): “Only because of the intensity of His manifestation (Ar., li-shiddati zuhurihi) is He veiled, and only because of the sublimity of His light is He hidden from view.” Still, none of these is an exact source for either the version of Maimonides or that of Hoter.

[32] The usual translation of “in spite of its intensity” seems, again, to miss the point.

[33] See also: “… it behooves us … to aim at, and engage in, perfecting our knowledge of preparatory matters and in achieving those premises that purify apprehension of its taint, which is error. It [apprehension] will, then, go forward to look upon the holy, divine Presence” (Ar., bi-lahz al-hudra al-qudusiyya al-’ilahiyya) (Guide 1:5; Pines 30).

[34]  See PM, Chapter 1 and Chapter 4.

[35] See “IM.”

[36] See PM, Chapter 4.

[37] S. Stroumsa, “True Felicity.”

[38] S. Harvey, “The Meaning of Terms.”  

[39]  K. Seeskin, “Sanctity and Silence.”

[40] See PM, Chapter 1.

[41] See PM, Chapter 1.

[42] See, for instance, Pines, Strauss, Vajda, Altmann, and others. See also I. Madkour, La Place d'Alfarabi.

[43] S. Harvey, “The Meaning of the Terms,” 188-91.

[44] D. Schwartz, “Avicenna and Maimonides on Immortality.”

[45] Mehren, Traités mystiques and J. N. Bell, “Avicenna’s Treatise on Love”.

[46] D. Lobel, “Silence,” esp. 27 and 37-39.

[47] M. Kellner, “Is Maimonides’ Ideal Person.” 

[48] S. D. Goitein, “Chief Judge R. Hanan’el b. Samuel, In-Law of R. Moses Maimonides,” Tarbiz Jubilee Volume 50 (1980-81): 371-95, cited in P. Fenton, “Commentary on the Haftarot,” 29. See also, P. Fenton, “More on Rabbi Hanan’el.”

[49] S. D. Goitein,  A Mediterranean Society, 482-83.

[50] P. Fenton, “More on Rabbi Hanan’el,” 81; P. Fenton, “A Mystical Treatise on Prayer,” 141 and his Deux traités, 36.

[51] G. Cohen, “The Soteriology”; S. D. Goitein, “Abraham Maimonides”; P. Fenton, “A Mystical Treatise on Prayer”; etc.

[52] P. Fenton, Deux traités, Introduction, for a long list of sufi influences in ideas, terminology, and practice. See also P. Fenton, “La hitbodedut,” and “Solitary Meditation” for sufi-colored intellectualist meditation techniques.

[53] Y. Levinger, “On the Reason for Nezirut,” and I. Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980) 467-68. See also Commentary to the Mishna, “Shemonah Peraqim,” ch. 4 and Mishne Torah, Hilkhot De’ot 1:5.

[54]  D. Lobel, Between Mysticism and Philosophy, especially 5 and 161.

[55] Lobel, Between Mysticism and Philosophy. 22-28, 41, 66-67, 90-100, 127-39. For al-amr and hulūl / mahall, see Lobel, “Dwelling,” 117-21 and 106-16.

[56] Lobel, Between  Mysticism and Philosophy, 153.

[57] Lobel, Between Mysticism and Philosophy, 159, 161.

[58] See J. Kraemer, “The Islamic Context of Medieval Jewish Philosophy” and “Maimonides and the Spanish Aristotelian School” for the depth of this influence.

[59] I am told that there is an example of the integration of Islamic concepts and praxis in the issue of bankruptcy. If I understand correctly, there is no such concept in talmudic law though it did exist in Islamic law. Maimonides took the obviously useful concept and integrated it into Jewish law, making it continuous with talmudic thinking.