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Why's Maimonides/Rambam so Emphasized & Controversial


Rabbi Ari Shvat

Tammuz 25, 5777
1. Why is there so much emphasis on the teachings of Maimonides (the Rambam)? His work seemed to be highly contested during his lifetime. 2. Also, the rationalist thought of Maimonides seems incompatible with Chassidus, and yet the Hasids appear to be following the teachings of Maimonides also. How are these two ideas compatible? 3. Maimonides did not seem to like Kabbalah. Did he think it should not be taught? 4. He did not think that the Talmud should be taught to the masses. So why are people learning Kabbalah and Maimonides at the same time? 5. Are the ideas regarding prophecy and Moshiach attributed to Maimonides only?? What did the Vilna Gaon have to say about this subject? 6. Is it right to teach Hollywood celebrities such as Madonna Kabbalah? She is clearly not Torah observant, as evidenced by her stage shows.
You ask excellent questions. 1. In general, Jews tend to be argumentative (“2 Jews have 3 opinions!”), and also religious people tend to be very conservative and wary of change (=reforms). Also, geniuses are often 2 generations ahead of their time. Accordingly innovative geniuses like the Rambam, the Ramchal (Luzzatto), Rav Kook, etc. inevitably are going to be controversial in their time, and only with the passage of time, are properly objectively judged. In this case, the Rambam has been unanimously accepted and no Torah scholar of the last 650 years cannot deal with any issue without relating to the Rambam’s opinion (even if it’s to disagree…). What was contested in the time of the Rambam was his courage (or some claimed: chutzpa) to organize, codify and decide all halachic decisions, including resolving those which the Talmud left open, without citing his sources, together with his openness to philosophy. In the end, it’s this decisiveness and codification, as well as his ingenious phraseology (often answering questions that will only be raised after many centuries!) that turned him into a game-changer! It should be checked out, but my educated guess is that there may be more “running” commentaries on the Rambam even than on the Torah! Another reason for his controversiality in his time, is that technically, he was forced to spend a lot of his time as physician of the Sultan of Egypt and his court, far away from the Torah centers, so he could not have as many yeshiva students (as most other great rabbis), to defend his opinions. 2. See above, that for centuries already, nobody can “move” without the Rambam. Especially Chabad (Lubavitch) which sees itself as the intellectual among the hassidic movements, have a deep affinity for the Rambam and for Kabbala, as well. 3. The Rambam did not relate whatsoever to Kabbala. 4. In addition to what we answered above, you have unfortunately heard the Rambam terribly misquoted here, as is often the case when, for no fault of your own, many learn Judaism today from third or fourth-handed sources. Study the Rambam’s introduction to his Mishneh Torah (even translated to English) and see for yourself what he really says! [In short: he writes there is a contemporary need (which hasn’t changed since!) to bring halacha to the masses, but surely the Talmud should continue to be studied by as many as possible!] 5. The Rambam’s comprehensive writings on the mashiach and prophecy are undoubtedly main-stream. You may find a difference of opinion on a particular issue, but most, including the Vilna Gaon for example, are very similar to the Rambam regarding the natural, non-miraculous process of redemption (as the Rambam himself proves that in R. Akiva’s generation, all (!) of the leading rabbis concurred with him that someone like Bar-Kochva (who was just a warrior and political leader, and did no miracles) could be the mashiach, (M’lachim 11, 3). 6. Even if Madonna were to be Jewish, one should first cover the first floor (basics: Tanach, halacha, ethics, mainstream Jewish philosophy) before going up to the second floor.
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