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Maimonides on the Fall of Man

  • Lawrence V. Berman (a1)


The forms of interpreting sacred texts are many, and, of course, the concept of sacred text is fluid and part of a process depending on the attitudes of society which change over time. For Maimonides, an important method of interpretation was the philosophical mode. In order to get a better understanding of what Maimonides understood by that method of interpretation, Chapter Two of the First Part of his Guide of the Perplexed on the fall of man is examined in terms of structure and content. Then, the principle underlying the possibility of the philosophic mode of interpretation of the Hebrew Bible according to Maimonides is discussed. Finally, the general place of the philosophic mode of interpretation within the general theory of the interpretation of literature is touched on briefly.



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Note: A preliminary version of this paper was delivered at the annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies in 1975. An abstract was published in the Association for Jewish Studies Newsletter, no. 17, June, 1976, p. 13.

1. Cf. Hirsch, E. D. Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven and London, 1967), in general and with respect to the use of meaning and interpretation as technical terms. On interpretation as a fundamental category of Jewish intellectual history, see Rawidowicz, Simon, “On Interpretation,” in his Studies in Jewish Thought, ed. Glatzer, N. N. (Philadelphia, 1974), pp. 4580. I did not find Bacher's, WilhelmDie Bibelexegese Moses Maimuni's (Budapest, 1896) (Hebrew translation by Rabbinowitz, A. Z., Ha-RaMBaM parshan ha-miqra [Tel Aviv, 1931/1932]) of use in this study. I hope to discuss the forms of interpreting sacred texts more generally on another occasion with full bibliographical references.

2. See Scholem, Gershom, Kabbalah (New York, 1974), pp. 168–74 (especially pp. 172–74) and idem, “The Meaning of the Torah in Jewish Mysticism,” in On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (New York, 1965), pp. 3286.

3. See Strauss, Leo, “Spinoza on Interpretation,” Persecution and the Art of Writing (Glencoe, 1952), pp. 142201.

4. See Guide, 3:25–26; Strauss, Leo, “How to Begin to Study The Guide of the Perplexed,” in Maimonides, Moses, Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago, 1963), pp. xxxiiixliv, but cf. below n. 14.

5. See Guide, 1:62. See also his Responsa, ed. Blau, Joshua, 3 vols. (Jerusalem, 1957), 1: 200–1. The negative attitude to Shi'ur Qomah in his responsum represents a development from the time he wrote his Commentary on the Mishnah. See his commentary on Heleq, Pereq in Qāfiḥ, Joseph, ed., Mishnah ‘im perush Mosheh ben Maimon: Neziqin (Jerusalem, 1964), p. 213, n. 42. See also Altmann, Alexander, ed. and trans., Epistle on Shi'ur Qoma [by Moses of Narbonne], in Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), p. 232, n. 37. Blau's translation of lam arā qatt by lo ḥashavti me-‘olam is not necessarily correct. It could also have a present meaning in Middle Arabic. See Blau, J., Diqduq ha-‘aravit ha-yehudit (Jerusalem, 1961), p. 142.

6. In what follows, Pines refers to Maimonides, , Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Pines, S. (Chicago, 1963), and Joel to the edition of Salomon Munk's Arabic text by Joel, Issachar, Dalālat al-ḥā'irīn (Jerusalem, 1939). I also refer the reader to the acute analysis of this chapter and related material in Schwarzschild, Steven S., “Moral Radicalism and ‘Middlingness’ in the Ethics of Maimonides,” Studies in Medieval Culture 11 (1978): 6594 (esp. 73–75). In general, I find Schwarzschild's analysis compelling. However, I am unable to agree with him that Maimonides posits a sphere of ethical activity which is essentially rational in nature. To the very end, Maimonides holds to the doctrine that ethical and political matters belong to the category of “generally accepted things” (see Guide, 2:33, Pines, p. 364; Joel, p. 256). However, it still remains to be clarified exactly what the relationship is between the natural order and the ethical and political order which is to be bridged by the imitation of the actions of the Deity. On the other hand, I also do not agree with Fox's, Marvin conclusion in his “Maimonides and Aquinas on Natural Law,” Diné Israel 3 (1972): xxxv (cf. also Schwarzschild, p. 87, n. 65) that “Maimonides, finding no rational ground for moral distinctions, avoids the dangers of social chaos by returning to the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic tradition.” It seems to me that a more fruitful approach to this problem would be the investigation of the sources of moral and ethical behavior in Alfarabi's and Maimonides' understanding of Aristotle's depiction of the prudent man in his Nicomachean Ethics (see below). A very interesting and suggestive article connected intimately with the theme taken up here has appeared recently. See Harvey, Warren Zev, “Maimonides and Spinoza on the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” ‘lyyun 28 (1979): 167–85 (in Hebrew). In the course of his argument much of the material we have discussed here is taken up. In addition, Spinoza's view on the interpretation of the fall of man is expounded. A main point of this article is that the knowledge of good and evil, “generally accepted things,” is not something accessible to the intellect, but rather to the imagination and, accordingly, the practical intellect is not mentioned specifically any place in the Guide. Here we have the opposite view to that of Schwarzschild. However, Harvey mentions as well that Maimonides in the Guide, 1:53 (Pines, p. 121.9–13; Joel, p. 82.4–7) does recognize that one of the functions of the rational faculties is to rule (yasüs) cities, thus implying that intellect may know good and evil. Harvey's solution to this difficulty is to say that once the imagination knows good or evil actions or intentions, it may employ the intellect to distinguish between them. For further elaboration, see Harvey's article. What he does not take into account, along with Schwarzschild, is the case of the prudent man in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. See below references in n. 30. I must leave full treatment of this subject for another occasion.

7. The use of the word ‘ibrāni here is striking. I understand it to mean Hebrew speaker. He is quite conscious of the fact that the traditional knowledge of Hebrew has been interrupted. Therefore, he implies that one of the difficulties in understanding the biblical text is simply semantic, i.e., the range of meanings easily accessible to the ancient Hebrew is not easily accessible to us.

8. Onqelos has “and you shall be like great ones, deciding between good and evil.” I believe that Maimonides’ interpretation rests on the word “deciding” (ḥakimin) for his interpretation. For rulers, he uses the word ḥukkām. Cf. also, for example, Exodus 21:6 for ‘elohim in the sense of “judges.” Maimonides does not mention Genesis 3:22, “And the Lord God said, Indeed, man has become like one of us to know good and evil,” which on the face of it clearly conflicts with his interpretation of 'elohim. It is typical of Maimonides that he alludes to the allegorical character of the story of the fall without going into details, as he states clearly at the beginning of his introduction to the Guide: “But if we explain these parables to him or if we draw his attention to their being parables, he will take the right road and be delivered from this perplexity” (Pines, p. 6; Joel, p. 2.27–29).

9. Compare the way Maimonides begins his Treatise on the Art of Logic: “Some lord (sayyid) of the legal-religious sciences asked a man (rajul) who theorizes about the art of logic, etc.” For bibliographical references, see my Some Remarks on the Arabic Text of Maimonides’ Treatise on the Art of Logic.Journal of the American Oriental Society 88 (1968): 340–42.

10. Ẓāhir al-naṣṣ. Pines translates “clear sense.” The objector asks according to the apparent meaning, while Maimonides answers according to the inner meaning (bāṭin).

11. Al-qaṣd al-awwal.

12. See Alfarabi, , Risālah ft 'l-'aql, ed. Bouyges, Maurice (Beirut, 1938), for an examination of the different senses of the word intellect ('aql). The beginning of Alfarabi's epistle is left out of Arthur Hyman's translation in Philosophy in the Middle Ages, eds. Hyman, Arthur and Walsh, J. J. (Indianapolis, 1973), pp. 215–21. This treatise is important for understanding Maimonides’ concept of the intellect. For contrast, see Hourani, George, Islamic Rationalism (Oxford, 1971), for an extensive treatment of the rationality of ‘Abd al-Jabbār, an eleventh-century Mu'tazilite theologian.

13. S. Munk in his notes to his French translation of the Guide thinks of stories of Nimrod, who revolted against God, constructed the Tower of Babel, and who was said to have been placed in heaven, identifying him with the constellation of Orion. See also Julian the Apostate, , “Against the Galilaeans,” in his Works, trans. W. C. Wright, 3 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 19131923), 3: 327; Jonas, Hans, The Gnostic Religion, 2d rev. ed. (Boston, 1963), pp. 9194. Jonas remarks that “Gnostic allegory, though often … conventional … is in its most telling instances of a very different nature. Instead of taking over the value system of the traditional myth, it proves the deeper ‘knowledge’ by reversing the roles of good and evil, sublime and base, blest and accursed, found in the original” (pp. 91–92 and see pp. 93–94 with reference to the gnostic view of the serpent). In this light, the objector wishes to make the biblical myth out to be a gnostic myth.

14. For Maimonides’ attitude to history and its relation to the prevailing Jewish attitude, see Lewis, Bernard, History: Remembered, Recovered, Invented (Princeton, 1975), pp. 23ff. but cf. above n. 4.

15. See Guide, 2:40 end.

16. See Alfarabi, , Compendium Legum Platonis, ed. Gabrieli, Francesco (London, 1952), p. 3 (English translation in Lerner, Ralph and Mahdi, Muhsin, Medieval Political Philosophy: A Sourcebook [Glencoe, 1963], p. 84).

17. See Ṭufayl, Ibn, Ḥayy b. Yaqẓān, ed. and trans. Gauthier, Leon (Beirut, 1936) (partial English translation in Lerner, R. and Mahdi, M., Medieval Political Philosophy: A Sourcebook, pp. 134–62).

18. See my The Political Interpretation of the Maxim: The Purpose of Philosophy is the Imitation of God,” Studia Islamica 15 (1961): 5362, and my forthcoming “Maimonides on Political Leadership,” to be published in a volume of essays on the Jewish political tradition, edited by Daniel J. Elazar.

19. For the meaning of pardes in the thought of Maimonides, see my Maimonides, the Disciple of Alfarabi,” Israel Oriental Studies 4 (1974): 164, n. 30, and 167, n. 44, with references quoted there. See below n. 26 and see also Harvey, , “Maimonides and Spinoza …” reference above n. 6), p. 171 who takes essentially the same position with respect to the function of the Mosaic law and its rabbinic development.

20. Cf. Pines, S., “Translator's Introduction,” in Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, pp. xcviixcviii.

21. Thus he was not interested in sexual activity, which can only be a distraction and is disgraceful in Maimonides’ view. See references in Pines, “Translator's Introduction,” p. lxii. The same is true of Ḥayy. He lives the solitary life and achieves happiness without sexual activity.

22. See Guide, 2:36 and 37, for a description of prophecy which fits Adam. In fact, according to Maimonides, imagination did not enter in Moses' prophecy (Guide, 2:36 end and 2:45 end) and thus Adam and Moses were identical, the difference being that Adam, before the fall, represents the ideal for man, not living in society, while Moses represents the ideal for man living in society.

23. See Aristotle, , Nicomachean Ethics, 1.3.1094b13ff., with Hardie, W. F. R., Aristotle's Ethical Theory (Oxford, 1968), pp. 32ff.

24. See Aristotle, , Topics, 1.1.100b21.

25. See Guide, 1:68, and reference in n. 20 above.

26. It is interesting to point out that pardes is cognate with English “paradise,” since they have the same ultimate origin. See above, n. 19.

27. See Guide, 2:40.

28. The Adam story is to be taken as a parable (mathal or laghz), which is the method used by Pythagoras, Plato, Empedocles, and the prophets. See my review of Alfarabi, , Utterances Employed in Logic, in Oriens 2324 (19731974): 511–13.

29. See Guide, Introduction, beginning.

30. Adam in his prefall state represents the ideal for Maimonides, and he is the temperate man who does not have excessive or evil desires, not the self-restrained man who controls his desires. See Aristotle, , Nicomachean Ethics, 7.2.1146a 1016; Maimonides, , Introduction to 'Avot, Chap. 6, ed. Qāfiḥ, p. 392; and Davidson, Herbert in his “Maimonides’ Shemonah Peraqim and Alfarabi's Fuṣūl al-Madanī,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 31 (1963): 3437, 43–45. See in general, Gauthier, R. A., L'éthique à Nicomaque, 2 vols. (Louvain-Paris, 1970), 2: 236–38 and especially p. 596. Thus, how can the temperate man become intemperate is another way of phrasing the question.

31. See Guide, 1:6 and 17 and 2:30 (pp. 355–57 Pines; Joel, pp. 249–51 with commentaries [esp. Munk ad locum who sums up the prevailing interpretation]). See further Harvey, , “Maimonides and Spinoza …” (above n. 6), p. 171, n. 33 who also mentions the minority position that the snake represents the appetitive faculty. He brings some evidence to support this view.

32. Ps. 49:13.

33. “Aim” is in the singular in the Arabic and Pines' translation should be corrected accordingly. “Aim” and “wisdom” both refer back to “will,” not to “Master.” I have therefore translated the phrase awkwardly, but, I hope, intelligibly, in order to make this clear. In connection with the term for will, mashīah, see Nuriel, Abraham, “The Divine Will in the Guide” (Hebrew), Tarbiz 39 (1970): 3961; and Altmann, A., “The Religion of the Thinkers: Free Will and Predestination in Saadia, Baḥya, and Maimonides,” in Religion in a Religious Age, ed. Goitein, S. D. (Cambridge, Mass., 1974), pp. 3551. See also Schwarzschild, , “Moral Radicalism …” (reference above n. 6), p. 91, n. 99.

34. See the commentaries on this passage, especially that of Tob, Shem in Maimonides, Moreh nevukhim (Warsaw, 1872), pp. 17b18a.

35. See my “Maimonides, Disciple of Alfarabi,” (reference above n. 19). See also Mahdi, Muhsin, “Alfarabi on Philosophy and Religion,” Philosophical Forum 4 (1972): 525.

36. See “Maimonides, Disciple of Alfarabi,” pp. 166–67.

37. See above, n. 7.

Maimonides on the Fall of Man

  • Lawrence V. Berman (a1)


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