Thursday, October 1, 2009

Maimonides on Reward and Punishment

Menachem Kellner is the author of some absolutely fascinating books on Rambam. I plan to review one of them, Must a Jew Believe Anything? on this website. In the meanwhile, I asked Professor Kellner if he can make the appendix, which deals with Rambam's views on reward and punishment, available for free, and he kindly consented. You can download it here, and you can buy the book here. Happy reading, and Chag Sameach!


  1. R. Slifkin - You recently distinguished between 21st Century rationalists and medieval rationalists living in the 21st Century. What are we to make of the Rambam's opinion on s'char ve'onesh, seeing as it is based on obsolete Aristotelian philosophy? How would a 21st Century rationalist understand the concept?

    Would a 21st Century rationalist, cognisant of the many critiques that have been laid against this 'pure' Maimonidean version of s'char ve'onesh be happy to write off the multitude of pious yet philosophically unsophisticated Jews?

    Additionally, the problem with this whole approach is how transparently it has been lifted from the rationalistic Islamic concepts of the time.

    To put it Talmudically "ha'ikar chasser min ha'sefer". If the point of Judaism is for us to acquire correct philosophical beliefs, then overall it doesn't seem like the Torah and 'Chazalic' literature have done a very good job in communicating this message.

  2. Additionally, as Kellner himself notes towards the end of his article, the Rambam's linking of intellectual to moral perfection is objectively false, and, to us moderns, positively odd.
    Also, how do we determine which intellectual truths are the 'worthy' ones? For the Rambam, knowledge of nature is an important part of knowledge of God. It therefore seems that for those of us who are at peace with the findings of modern science, an evolutionary biologist has come closer to true 'knowledge' in certain respects than a philosophically unsophisticated talmid chacham, which seems somewhat strange to say the least (I'm not sure how the evolutionary biologist's lack of beliefs in the 13 central dogmas would play into this scenario).
    As an aside, R. Slifkin, I presume you have come across the purported teshuva from R. Chaim Kanievsky (linked here for members: , although I am not sure how reliable the sefer it is copied from is), which declares that one should not allow anyone who is not a young Earth creationist to convert, and that it is doubtful if the conversion of a non-young Earth creationist is valid). I find this teshuva disturbing on several levels. Firstly, on an obvious level, he is simply wrong about the age of the Earth. However, the most worrying aspect of this is the potential to create a schism between those who hold like this and those who don't, especially when it affects matters such as geirus, and presumably also eidus (and by extension mamzeirus and the like).

  3. "Must a Jew Believe Anything?"

    According to the Alter of Slobodka, the first commandment (or maybe I should say "first commandment" with quotation marks to allow for rhetoric) is "Don't be a fool!"

    So, according to him, if one must not be a fool, perhaps one must believe certain things.

  4. Thank you very much for the link. It's a very interesting appendix. I knew Rambam supposed believed what Kellner claims he does, but I had never actually seen the evidence for myself. I may actually get a hold of the book now as well. Thanks again.

  5. According to the Alter of Slobodka, the first commandment (or maybe I should say "first commandment" with quotation marks to allow for rhetoric) is "Don't be a fool!"

    So, according to him, if one must not be a fool, perhaps one must believe certain things.

    From that dictum I would conclude one must disbelieve certain things, i.e. nonsense. I don't see a positive mandate to believe particular ideas, given that there are non-nonsensical alternatives to asserting, for example, that no navi will meet/exceed the level of Mosheh Rabeinu.

  6. Interesting link. I would suggest that Prof. Kellner's general thesis is rather weak.
    First though, I'll observe that at least one of his assumptions is simply wrong: A Maimonidean belief that a “moral pygmy” will never achieve the intellectual perfection needed for eternal reward is hardly “objectively” refuted by the existence of Heidegger (as per note 37). Maimonides would never have considered someone who, like Heidegger, completely failed to grasp the God of the Torah and His spiritual world as intellectually perfect in the first place! Even Aristotle lacked that assessment.
    Now to the thesis. There is an apparent contradiction in the words of the Rambam. Hardly the first or even the biggest. On the one hand he clearly advocates the “traditional” approach to reward for mitzvot and on the other hand he suggests that reward both constitutes and is the result of purely intellectual considerations.
    I suppose it is within the realm of the possible that Rambam covered up his understanding of the truth through some commitment to expedient social policy. But it's hardly very likely (Rambam took the truth very seriously). And direct evidence is, shall we charitably say, rather sparse on the ground. Hardly justification for committing such literary violence to such straightforward words.
    Instead, why assume there is a contradiction in the first place? The observance of each individual mitzva leaves its mark on a person's intellectual essence. Behavior has long been known to strongly influence attitudes (see Deyot 6: 1). God created His world and gave the Jews His Torah knowing that the only realistic path to intellectual perfection is through a combination of both study and practical observance. Thus, “life in the world to come” is a much a product of picayune observance as of rigorous intellectual effort.
    Something of a tempest in a teapot, I would suspect.

  7. I've read that book and it's great although I disagree with some political undertones (land for peace etc.). The main issue is that people today pay lip service to Rambam's 13 principles without really and fully understanding them. Rambam himself never espoused blind faith or "faith" which is only pronounced. He required full conviction. On the other hand Rambam did require correct dogma as a ticket to Olam Haba. And that's quite problematic for rational Jews today - even for his followers.
    I'm looking forward to reading your review.

  8. As Next Guy pointed out, Kellner's thesis that the Rambam conclusively links intellectual with moral perfection is probably not true, which means I was wrong to describe what the Rambam wrote as 'objectively false', and I should have been a lot less hasty in writing that, and a lot more respecting of one of the giants of our tradition. I take back what I wrote, and I (figuratively) ask the Rambam mechila.


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