God of Abraham, God of Aristotle: Soloveitchik’s Reading of The Guide of the Perplexed

In: The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy
Author: Alex Sztuden1
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R. Joseph Soloveitchik’s profound engagement with The Guide of the Perplexed is amply attested by Lawrence Kaplan’s recent publication of Soloveitchik’s lectures on this classic work of Jewish philosophy, delivered in 1950–1951 during a year-long course on the Guide. Soloveitchik’s reading is situated outside the boundaries of the Guide’s usual interpretations, and his lectures offer an entirely new view of the essence of the Guide. For Maimonides, hesed, or loving-kindness, is the foundation of the world. Soloveitchik’s lectures offer an elaborate working out of this fundamental insight.


R. Joseph Soloveitchik’s profound engagement with The Guide of the Perplexed is amply attested by Lawrence Kaplan’s recent publication of Soloveitchik’s lectures on this classic work of Jewish philosophy, delivered in 1950–1951 during a year-long course on the Guide. Soloveitchik’s reading is situated outside the boundaries of the Guide’s usual interpretations, and his lectures offer an entirely new view of the essence of the Guide. For Maimonides, hesed, or loving-kindness, is the foundation of the world. Soloveitchik’s lectures offer an elaborate working out of this fundamental insight.

Scholars have long noted that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik spent much of his time at Yeshiva University teaching classes in Talmud. This clear prioritization by Soloveitchik in his teaching carried over into his engagement with the works of Maimonides. While Maimonides’s legal code, his Mishneh Torah, was minutely dissected by Soloveitchik in the tradition of his illustrious forbears at Brisk, The Guide for the Perplexed, while occasionally cited, did not seem to be held in similarly high regard. In fact, Soloveitchik, in The Halakhic Mind, is at times dismissive of several sections of the Guide, in particular with respect to Maimonides’s approach to the reasons for the commandments, contrasting it unfavorably with the Mishneh Torah.

That Soloveitchik also engaged profoundly with the Guide is now amply attested to by the recent publication of Soloveitchik’s lectures on this classic work of Jewish philosophy. The published lectures are based on a set of notes on a year-long course on the Guide, delivered in 1950–1951 at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University.1 The detailed notes were taken by Soloveitchik’s student, Rabbi Yaakov Homnack, and have been edited and annotated by the Maimonides and Soloveitchik scholar Lawrence Kaplan, professor of rabbinics at McGill University and the translator of Halakhic Man. Kaplan has also produced a thorough and illuminating introduction, discussing the main themes of the lectures in clear and systematic fashion. The published lectures are not only important for the light they shed on Soloveitchik, which they certainly do; perhaps even more important, Soloveitchik’s reading is in many ways situated outside the boundaries of the Guide’s usual interpretations, so it is in these lectures that we come across an entirely new way of seeing the essence of the Guide, an approach that may even disclose to us novel and fruitful ways of reading classic works of philosophy.

In these lectures, there are no technical discussions of Maimonides’s arguments regarding creation and eternity, or of his proofs of the existence of God, or of His incorporeality. There are no detailed examinations of Maimonides’s negative theology, or of his historical and rationalistic approach to the reasons for the commandments. Omitted also is any analysis of Maimonides’s debts or parallels to al-Fārābī, Avicenna, or the other philosophers who influenced him. For Soloveitchik, all this is beside the point; they are not the true source of his religious genius:

Indeed, in the Mishneh Torah, in the realm of Halakhah, he was able to mint new terms, to fashion new philosophic categories. There he was creative in all senses. But in the Guide there is sterility in the form of presentation. He used the old, routine, Aristotelian philosophical jargon…. This lack of creativity extends to Maimonides’ way of proving things…. He displayed great ingenuity … but no creativity.2

It is not then, through the standard historical scholarship on Maimonides that one will come to understand his lasting achievement. Rather, if we are to genuinely appreciate the greatness of the Guide, we will need another approach:

In sum, we may speak of three aspects of the Guide: (1) its literary categories; (2) its mode of argumentation; and (3) the religious experience permeating the work. Only with regard to the third aspect does Maimonides achieve greatness, does he touch subjective heights. This is something historians have lost sight of.3

Historically inclined scholars focus on the outer forms of Maimonides’s philosophy. But Soloveitchik is after his soul, in pursuit of the great “religious experience” from which all else springs. And this is exactly the task Soloveitchik had recommended in The Halakhic Mind, where he had asserted that to understand a seminal thinker, it is insufficient to map out influences or to provide systematic, structural accounts of how their ideas fit together.

We are wont to speak of a causal relationship between Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas. But what is understood by that causal bond? [I]t is nonsensical to speak of a causal nexus between the two works.4

It is nonsensical because this comparative approach obscures the genuine originality and uniqueness of a great work. Instead, the writings, the outer forms, the external garment, must be analyzed in the service of reconstructing the thinker’s uniqueness, his or her subjectivity:

Our exploration of the subjective route … proceeds to penetrate further in the complicated and mysterious sphere of subjectivity. Through the individual subjective philosophizing, the clandestine ego emerges…. We delve persistently into the enigmatic, subjective mists.5

Unlike standard historians, in his lectures, Soloveitchik searches for the religious experience permeating the Guide, the subjectivity that serves as the source of his religious genius.

To get a sense of the originality of Soloveitchik’s reading of the Guide, it is worth contrasting it with that of another recent book on Maimonides, by the scholar Moshe Halbertal. In the opening pages of his masterful account of the life and thought of Maimonides, Halbertal announces the revolution wrought by Maimonides in the religious consciousness:

The second, no less radical element of the transformation of religious consciousness was the placement of the natural and causal order at the center of divine revelation and presence. This fundamental change in religious sensibility away from miracle and toward causality, or, as Maimonides formulated it, from will to wisdom, required Maimonides to reinterpret some of Judaism’s most basic concepts.6

For Halbertal, nature’s lawfulness and governance is associated with wisdom, while miracles are associated with arbitrary, non-rational divine will, and Maimonides’s prioritization of the former lies at the root of much of his transformation of Judaism into a more rational and philosophical religion. But according to Soloveitchik, this description would be not so much false as radically insufficient, because it does not delve deeply enough into the essential nature of this causal order. And once we examine how Maimonides describes the primordial source of this order, we will be in a better position to appreciate his towering achievement. To put matters simply, for Maimonides, hesed, or loving-kindness, is the foundation of the world; everything else is commentary. Such is Soloveitchik’s idiosyncratic and arresting reading of the Guide. As Soloveitchik reads him, the divine attribute of hesed is the fulcrum by which the rest of Maimonides’s philosophy moves.

1 Hesed as the Governing Principle of the Universe

Maimonides famously distinguished between God’s essence and His attributes of action, declaring that only the latter are knowable by us. The rabbinic sages had always understood God’s attributes of action in ethical terms. As they wrote, “Just as God is merciful, so you too shall be merciful.”7 But in the Guide, Maimonides seemingly transforms this classical rabbinic, ethical understanding of God’s attributes into a cosmic-scientific one. For instance, the divine attribute of hesed, at least as it appears to us in various passages in the Guide, is not a straightforward ethical attribute, but the objective, underlying mechanism by which the universe is created and structured. In short, it is an objective-cosmic-scientific principle. And from this change in our understanding of God’s attributes from ethics to science, it follows that in order to know God, who can only be known through His attributes, we need to know the cosmos, that is, we need to study science. The ethical-normative nature of God’s attributes is replaced, in this account, by the objective, scientific nature of how He governs the world, captured most accurately by the laws of nature. It is science that reveals God to us, not ethics or the law.

Soloveitchik thinks that this standard reading of Maimonides is mistaken, and he seizes on a passage in the Guide to ground his own interpretation. This passage recounts a conversation between God and Moses at the cleft of the rock, analysis of which yields the intimate connection between science and ethics:

Moses apprehended all His goodness—I mean to say all His actions—because these [thirteen attributes] are the actions proceeding from him with respect to giving existence to mankind and governing them. This was Moses’ ultimate object in his demand, the conclusion of what he says being, “That I may know You, to the end that I may find grace in Your sight, and consider that this nation is Your people” (Exod. 33:13)—that is, a people for the government of which I need to perform actions that I must seek to make similar to Your actions in governing them.8

In Maimonides’s reading of this passage, Moses asks God to show him His ways in order that Moses may learn how to imitate those ways so that he can properly govern the people of Israel. Now, if the divine attributes of action are the scientific principles of the world, how could knowing them possibly help Moses govern a nation? What do the laws of nature have to do with ethics and politics, and with the commandments by which Moses is to lead a nation? For Soloveitchik, the question Maimonides has Moses pose makes little sense if God’s attributes are understood in purely scientific terms. But if hesed, and other attributes of action, are understood in broader terms, Moses’s question makes eminent sense. Soloveitchik emphasizes that Moses wants God to show him His goodness: “Moses, by perceiving the essence of the universe, arrived at the conclusion that the final principles of the cosmos are ethical principles.”9 It is true, as Halbertal had claimed, that Maimonides placed causality at the center of his thought. But that causal order, according to Soloveitchik, is itself rooted in, and a reflection of, a more primordial and fundamental ethical order of God’s goodness and plenitude that overflows into and maintains the world.

For Moses, the logos is an outward expression of a more primordial mode of being, of something more fundamental, namely, the divine ethos which asserts itself in the cosmic drama. Moses knew that the divine ethical attributes like Rahum v’hanun, cannot explain the fall of a stone. Yet it is the divine ethos which serves as the origin of the logos of nature, the cosmic drama…. For Maimonides, the logos is a reflection of the ethos…. The cosmic drama is thus an ethical drama, and God’s actions are an ethical performance.10

In Soloveitchik’s reading of the Guide, the fall of a stone is made possible only through God’s grace, an ethical act of hesed, which overflows from God and sustains the whole of being. That is why, for Soloveitchik, Halbertal’s account of the Maimonidean revolution would not go far enough, because it does not acknowledge that what underlies the laws of nature by which the planets move and stones fall is God’s ethical performance.11

2 Two Levels of Ethics

This transformed understanding of the ethical core of God’s attributes—which are now neither purely ethical, as the rabbinic sages had conceived them, nor purely objective-scientific, as the scholars of Maimonides were wont to interpret them, but a hybrid of both—allows Soloveitchik to resolve a central puzzle of Maimonides’s personality and writings, and a source of much consternation for many devout Jews whose primary allegiance is to Jewish law. In the Guide, Maimonides seems to subordinate ethics and action to knowledge. The goal of the Mosaic commandments seems to be instrumental and not essential. In an oft-cited passage, Maimonides is clear as to the relationship between ethical action and knowledge, where he writes that moral perfection “is … a preparation for something else and not an end in itself.”12 As Soloveitchik notes, Maimonides’s position here would appear to be that “theoretical virtue is the highest type of virtue and neither the ethical virtues nor deeds are as important.”13 But Soloveitchik cannot believe in this far-reaching statement that downgrades the status of ethics and action:

Did [Maimonides] not realize that the view that theoretical knowledge is the highest ideal and that ethical performance is only of practical value goes against the morality of the prophets? If so, his philosophy is of no value…. It is almost unthinkable that Maimonides, the great student of Halakhah, should have, in the manner of Aristotle, demoted that [ethical] gesture to mere opinion.14

Soloveitchik thinks that Maimonides would never have labored for ten years day and night on his Mishneh Torah, if he really believed that action was of only instrumental significance. “For Maimonides to have deemed, in the manner of Aristotle, ethics to be a matter of practicability, not truth, would have accorded neither with the pattern of the Mishneh Torah nor with that of the Sages in general.”15

In order to address this apparent split personality of Maimonides, Soloveitchik posits a two-tiered ethics. Yes, it is true that during the initial stages of a person’s spiritual development, he or she needs to be guided in proper ethical-halakhic action, and all of this exists for the sake of creating the proper personality and community, such that ethical individuals and societies will then be prepared to undertake the pursuit of cosmic-scientific and metaphysical knowledge, which constitutes the true end of human beings. But, writes Soloveitchik, once individuals have attained the heights of what is humanly knowable, what do they know of God? They know God’s attributes of action, and in knowing God’s attributes of action, they will seek to imitate God by following in His ways. And those ways, as Soloveitchik has argued, implicate hesed as the fundamental attribute with respect to how God relates to the world. So it is by following in God’s ways of hesed that they can most imitate Him and come close to Him.

As Soloveitchik interprets the Guide, morality is initially subordinated to, and instrumental for, the attainment of knowledge, so its first tier is indeed lower than attainment of knowledge of the cosmos in the hierarchy of values. But once one has ascended to the peaks of knowledge, one will understand that hesed is the foundation of God’s actions towards the universe, and in this second, higher tier of ethics, we act in order to imitate God’s ways, and this type of action follows knowledge, and is not preparatory for, or subordinate to, it.

For Soloveitchik then, hesed as the foundation of the world allows him to repair Maimonides’s alleged split personality. There is no more relegation of action to secondary status; on the contrary, in the highest stages of human development, action that seeks to imitate God’s hesed constitutes the ultimate end of human beings.

3 From Philosophy to Prophecy

That hesed is the foundation of the world also plays an essential role in Soloveitchik’s elaboration of the differences between the philosopher and the prophet. In the Guide, Maimonides contrasts philosophical-metaphysical knowledge with prophetic knowledge, in that the prophet also exercises his imaginative faculties in order to translate God’s word into action. The prophet, unlike the philosopher, turns God’s word into laws by which a nation is to be governed.

Soloveitchik, however, in his reading of the Guide, develops these contrasts in more detail, because it is essential to him that the prophet, as a religious personality, should represent the pinnacle of human achievement, and not the philosopher, whose primary mode of being in the world is through knowledge. In Soloveitchik’s account of the relationship between philosophy and prophecy, the prophet is distinguished from the philosopher in three ways. First, as Kaplan points out in his introduction, the prophet makes personal contact with the living God. Second, that personal contact involves much more than the use of cognitive faculties; rather, prophetic-ecstatic contact involves the entire personality, transforming the prophet into the servant of God through his entire being. That self-transformation and self-surrender leads to the third distinction, that the prophetic revelation is turned outward, towards the community.

For Maimonides, the inability to conceal the divine word is the shibboleth of prophecy. The divine word is dynamic and must find external expression and manifestation…. It cannot remain lodged in the prophet’s mind…. This man of God who descends to the crowd is now a man of hesed, of grace and loving-kindness. He lets them share in that great vision vouchsafed to him, allows him to partake of his own self.16

As Soloveitchik elaborates, it is the prophets’ recognition that hesed is the foundation of the world that he seeks to translate into his own life, for as God’s attributes overflow into the universe and sustain it, so too the prophet’s own revelation cannot be contained, but must spill out into the world and the nation he has been called to lead. The prophet, for Soloveitchik, unlike the philosopher, uniquely understands the dynamic, action-infused, and ethical nature of hesed, the axiological-cosmic principle by which the world is governed, and in so doing, turns his philosophical knowledge into ethical action.

However, Soloveitchik’s understanding of what he calls the ecstatic- prophetic revelation should not be confused with other, more mystical strands that seek to replace abstract knowledge of God and the universe with a more mystical, personal knowledge of God. As Judah Halevi writes in the Kuzari:

The Khazar said … I have also understood the difference between the God of Abraham and the God of Aristotle. One longs for Y-H-V-H [the God of Abraham], by tasting and witnessing for oneself, while one inclines to Elohim [the God of Aristotle] by reasoning.17

Aristotle’s God does not even know or care about our own existence, while the God of Abraham is intimately involved in our affairs, and loves us. So we must choose, says Halevi, the personal God of Abraham over the abstract God of Aristotle. But Soloveitchik points out that this is not Maimonides’s position. Rather, prophecy follows philosophy and does not replace it. It is a continuation of philosophical and scientific speculation, and not a rejection of it, because hesed as the foundation of the world is both a scientific and an ethical attribute:

For Ha-Levi, the universe is a natural-ontic affair; it is hard to discern any moral design in the weave of the universe. Given such a scientific universe, a cosmic approach to God can only lead to the idea of an abstract divine formula, an impersonal divine principle lying beyond the universe. For Maimonides, by contrast, the universe is a moral affair18

And what reveals to us that the universe is a moral affair is the study of science and philosophy, which discloses to us the fundamental principles by which the world is created, sustained, and governed. And once we come to understand the ethical nature of the universe, we are then in a position to continue our quest, beyond philosophy, into the world of the prophet, who encounters a living God through an ecstatic encounter with God’s attribute of Hesed, and so turns outward, towards the community, desiring that everyone partake of his vision. Such is Soloveitchik’s understanding of the movement from philosophy to prophecy in the Guide.

4 Varieties of Pantheism

One of Soloveitchik’s most startling claims in his lectures is his elaboration of what he calls the “pantheistic” motifs in the Guide. Maimonides is generally understood as a classical theist, who believes that God is Absolute Being, whose existence is necessary and self-sufficient, while the world is entirely dependent on and sustained by God, through intermediate and orderly processes. God is necessary existence; His creation is contingent existence. But in Soloveitchik’s reading of the Guide, he highlights passages and themes that point to Maimonides’s pantheistic tendencies. Soloveitchik is careful to warn us that this pantheism does not involve what he calls “substance” pantheism, whereby God and the world are the same substance. God is not composed of matter and He does not reside in the atom. However, despite this fairly significant disclaimer, Soloveitchik isolates other ways in which God and His universe are said to be the same, including what he calls a pantheism of “essence,” an “existence” pantheism, and an “intellectual” pantheism.19 For Soloveitchik, while God does not reside in the atom and is not a material being, there is only one order of existence, and it is God’s; everything else is rooted in God. As Soloveitchik writes with respect to existence pantheism, “God by imparting existence to others includes these others in His order of existence. I am in God and with Him.”

In classical theism, there are two orders, or kinds, of existence—necessary existence (God) and contingent existence (everything else)—and they are radically distinct. But in existence pantheism, there is only one kind of existence—God’s existence—and all created beings partake of, and share in, that existence. But can we make this claim intelligible and readily distinguishable from theism? How is what Soloveitchik says different than classical theism? Soloveitchik does not claim that God is in our bodies or that God has the attribute of extension, as Spinoza did. And classical theists also assert that everything “is rooted in God,” in the sense that everything depends on God and is sustained by Him. So what is different in the claim that there is only one order of existence? Why not simply affirm that there is only one absolute and necessary being, and that everything else is contingent on that necessary existent? In short, is existence pantheism a form of pantheism, or just a rewording of classical theism? Soloveitchik states that the world is rooted in God as a tree is rooted in its soil, but the analogy is not helpful, for the tree and the soil are substantively linked.20

Closer inspection, however, may reveal Soloveitchik’s meaning. Consider a table. It is white, extended, four-legged, comprised of swirling molecules. The table’s whiteness or extension, or its swirling molecules, are not of the same order of being as God. None of this is in God, and God is not in any of these properties. But if that table exists, it also possesses one additional property or attribute, just like its whiteness or extendedness: existence. And Soloveitchik’s claim is this: as far as this property of the table—that is, its existence—goes, it is indeed shared by the table and God, for there is only one order of existence, and it is God’s. Only God exists, and so the property of existence that is possessed by any material being that exists is essentially an aspect of God’s existence. There is simply no other existence. Our material properties may not be shared with God, but our existence is part of the only real Existent there is—God. The solidity of the table is not in God, but in so far as this solidity is, that is-ness is in God. In Soloveitchik’s reading of the Guide, the created world and God possess the same property of existence; there is no distinction between absolute and contingent existence as in classical theism. There is only one order of existence. My existence is not something that belongs to me alone; rather, it partakes of the One True Existent, unlike my molecules. This is what Soloveitchik means by “All that is included in God,” and it is a surprising claim, made intelligible only if existence is regarded as a property that is separable from the material properties themselves. In Soloveitchik’s reading of the Guide, the existence of the entire created order is just God’s existence, even as the material properties themselves do not reside in God. We are included in God, not by virtue of our atoms, but by virtue of our existing.21

While we are somewhat hard-pressed to see what is pantheistic about existence pantheism, there are no such troubles with Soloveitchik’s discussion of intellectual pantheism, which most assuredly is a form of pantheism. For Soloveitchik,

Man … in the moment of intellectual illumination partakes of God—not of the divine substance, but of the divine activity of thought…. [W]hile the mystics speak of substantial merger with God, Maimonides speaks of an intellectual merger.22

In Soloveitchik’s reading of the Guide, it is through the human mind and its development and ascent towards knowledge of the cosmos that we can know God, and even merge with Him intellectually. In knowing the forms of the world, we, in a sense, can merge with God’s mind, which also knows those exact same forms.23

In an extended note in his introduction to the lectures, Kaplan points out that Maimonides never says that the human mind can merge with God’s mind, only with the active intellect. Borrowing from Aristotle, Maimonides believed that there was a separate intelligence known as the active intellect that overflowed into the intellect of humans. This active intellect was the lowest intelligence that received overflows from the highest sphere, which in turn received an overflow from God. And when Maimonides speaks of a bond between God and human beings, he is referring to a union of the human mind with the active intellect. So Kaplan wonders why Soloveitchik does not point this out, and even more surprisingly, seems to ignore it in his discussion of the union of God and human beings. Kaplan conjectures, quite sensibly, that part of Soloveitchik’s uneasiness with any discussion of the active intellect is that such a notion, which was part of the science of Maimonides’s day, has become incredible to us today, as we no longer need to posit separate, non-material intelligences.24

But there is another, more explicit reason why Soloveitchik does not discuss the active intellect in relation to the intellect’s bond between humans and God. It is for religious reasons that Soloveitchik rejects the reified notion of an active intellect, and its inconsistency with the rest of Maimonides’s thought. Soloveitchik is well aware of Maimonides’s use of the active intellect. His lectures reference the active intellect on several occasions. But this intellect, if seen as an intermediary, is religiously objectionable.

This view of Maimonides that the angels referred to in the Bible and in rabbinic texts are to be identified with the separate intellects … that mediate between God and man is one of the weakest points in Maimonides’ philosophy…. Wherever an angel appears in the Bible he just prepares the way for God…. [But] it was only later … that angels are hypostasized and become entities. However, in the Talmud the angel is never a mediator. It was only in the medieval period that the concept arose, both in the Kabbalah and in Maimonides’ philosophy, that we do not join with God directly, but only through the mediation of an angel.

Maimonides’ view, however, is inconsistent. On the one hand he reiterates time and again that we should pray only to God and not to any being other than God. Thus he rejects any idea of cultic mediation between man and God…. But why should Maimonides accept intellectual mediation on the part of the angels and reject cultic mediation on their part? It should be one or the other. Again Maimonides is being inconsistent here.25

As Ithamar Gruenwald also noted:

If what a man can conceive of God is restricted to the Active Intellect, it clearly serves as a substitute, or at most, as an intermediary. Thus the notion that man’s intellectual and religious goal is achieved in a state resembling a unification with that intellect is equivalent to the idea of a union with a divine hypostasis. If this is really so, then what we encounter in this doctrine is rather a disturbing parallel to mystical Christology.26

So it is Maimonides’s view of the active intellect as mediator that is religiously problematic, and this seems to be why, more than any epistemological scruples, Soloveitchik does not invoke union with the active intellect.

To readers of Soloveitchik’s other major works, the pantheistic motif found in the Guide will not come as a surprise. In Halakhic Man, Soloveitchik does not spend much time on mystical themes, but his other major work, And From There You Shall Seek, is woven through and through with a panentheistic thread that is never abandoned, especially in Soloveitchik’s discussion of the Maimonidean doctrine of the unity of the knower and the known.27 However, whereas in And From There You Shall Seek, Soloveitchik dwells at some length on the dangers of pantheism, in his lectures in the Guide he depicts the significant—and positive—ethical consequences that follow from his understanding of pantheism. Soloveitchik almost never practices metaphysics for its own sake; he is rather, generally driven by the experiential or ethical implications of metaphysical propositions.28 So what are the ethical consequences of his version of pantheism?

As we have seen, for Maimonides, God creates the world through hesed, and if we are to imitate God, we too must act with an overflowing kindness that spills out to other people. But once we recognize the truth of pantheism, that God and the world are not separate, then we perceive that God’s overflowing hesed through which the world is sustained is not the means by which God acts towards a fundamentally other being; rather, hesed is the expansion of the self, it is the means by which God sustains existence that is fundamentally His own. And this has radical ethical consequences, for on this account, ethics is not what we do for others, but how we are to expand our own selves:

The great ideal is hesed. Hesed is the origin of the ethical norm. God’s hesed refers to His over-abundant, all-inclusive existence…. The universe as a whole and every single thing within it are included in the divine order of existence. Being is a singular order. Ethics at its highest level is imitation of God. God … is egocentric precisely through including everything else in His existence; hence the human personality must strive to be egocentric precisely through including other persons in his existence.29

Soloveitchik explains what he means in making ethics egocentric:

But there is a higher level, ethics as egocentrism. Here in helping out this poor person my personality shifts from being all-exclusive to being all-inclusive. The poor man is no longer an other, separate from me. In God-like fashion, my helping him out becomes a way of letting him share in my existence and reality. My helping him out thus becomes an act of imitatio Dei, an act of God-like hesed in the sense that I do not simply give to him, but I identify with him. On this level, then, it makes no sense to speak of my commitment to the other, for there is no other.30

Whatever Soloveitchik’s true motives may have been for his adoption of a pantheistic reading of parts of the Guide, it is clear that there are significant ethical consequences that Soloveitchik believes flow inexorably from the version of pantheism that he finds in the Guide.

5 Fear of God

In his lectures, Soloveitchik spells out what he takes to be the positive ethical implications of pantheism, yet he is also acutely aware of its problems. One of the substantial dangers of pantheism is the human loss of autonomy. If we are part of God, or identify or can unite with God, there is always the possibility that God, in a sense, will overwhelm us and we will lose our individuality completely. This theme is developed at some length in And From There You Shall Seek, where Soloveitchik is at pains to place limits on the possibility—and desirability—of uniting with God so completely. But there, as a dialectical thinker, Soloveitchik also shows that there is significant gain in merging with God’s will and His thoughts, so to speak, which is that we will no longer feel the heteronomy of the law. To the extent that our will and thoughts merge with God’s will and thoughts, we will experience no compulsion in the performance of the law, for the law will be appropriated completely into our personality. No longer will the law be felt as an alien, external imposition of a master on his obedient servants. Rather, as our wills merge with God’s will, the performance of the law will be felt as the free expression of our entire personalities, for the law will merge with our deepest longings and desires.

But it is precisely at this juncture, after which one senses the natural completion and culmination of the lectures, that they take a rather surprising turn. Soloveitchik presses the dialectic further, pointing out there is one substantial problem with the free appropriation of the law into the recesses of one’s soul, which is that the majesty of the law, the awe and reverence for the law, will be obliterated. In a word, where there is only merger with the law, there can be no fear of God. For awe and reverence demand distance, mystery, and therefore the law must still be experienced as heteronomous.

The fact that fear always accompanies love and both together form a unity is of the greatest importance. For what it means is that the imperative can never be destroyed. If oneness with God were possible, the imperative would be eliminated … [for] morality would become part of one’s personality inasmuch as the human personality would mirror and express the divine personality. But the fear of God means that it is impossible to pursue to the end the goal of merger with God…. In a word, fear rehabilitates the norm.31

For Soloveitchik, this is the meaning of Maimonides’s statement that “fear of God is related to the actions of the law.” In order to preserve the absolute and categorical nature of halakhic obligation, the fear of God must be preserved, and it is this fear of God that “rehabilitates the norm.” Through the norm as an absolute binding imposition, duty and obligation are restored through the fear of God, by which we sense our distance from God. Halakhah cannot devolve into pure autonomous action of our free selves, into action performed freely, with no compulsion, out of love alone, for however lofty those acts performed out of love may be, they do not capture the pull and absolute duty of the law in all its awesome majesty.32 This turns Kant on its head. To feel the full weight of the moral law, of the absolute and binding, obligatory nature of the law, one must experience it, in part, as heteronomous, as externally imposed by an awe-inspiring Lawgiver. The dialectic, then, between love of God as the free appropriation and merger of His will with our own innermost will and desires, and fear of God as the felt distance and alien majesty of the law and its ultimate Source, captured so movingly in And From There You Shall Seek, is here recapitulated in striking form.

6 Philosophy, Halakhah, and Skepticism

Soloveitchik’s reading of the Guide places the divine attribute of Hesed as the foundation of the world. But this attribute of Hesed is no ordinary hesed. It is a hybrid of the ethical meaning of the term and of its scientific-objective transformation in the Guide into the means by which God creates and sustains the world. But more than that, the causal structure of the world is a reflection of the more fundamental and primordial ethical order. It is God’s loving-kindness—an ethical-scientific divine principle and attribute—that governs the world, and it is by knowing this attribute that we can imitate God. And when we imitate Him by generating in us something of that dynamic overflow that sustains the world, our actions will be consonant with the deepest scientific principles of the world, and they will be an expression of the causal-ethical order of being.

Soloveitchik moves beyond parallels or structural similarities with Greek or other thinkers, and beyond the historical influences of Maimonides’s ideas; rather, Soloveitchik attempts to show how Maimonides’s achievement rests on a subjective vision and experience of hesed as the foundational principle of the world. This is not a conclusion derived from reasoning, nor is it devoid of reasoning; rather, it builds upon philosophical reasoning, is then integrated with the rabbinic focus on the ethical attributes of God, and is combined by Maimonides into a singular religious experience, on the part of the prophet, of the foundation of the world as hesed. This way of reading Maimonides—by identifying what is primarily a religious experience as the guiding principle of his philosophy—surely opens up novel ways of getting at the originality of classic works of philosophy.

In its emphasis on a religious experience of hesed as the central thread running through the Guide, Soloveitchik’s reading is no doubt unique. But this uniqueness is also the product of the way in which Soloveitchik incorporates traditional elements and threads of the standard interpretive approaches to the Guide. In Halbertal’s account of the differing interpretive approaches to the Guide, he distinguishes between skeptical, mystical, conservative, and philosophical readings of the Guide. No doubt, Soloveitchik will be placed in the long and distinguished line of the conservative readers of the Guide, for whom the Maimonides of the Mishneh Torah is the same as the Maimonides of the Guide, and for whom the integration of philosophical pursuits with halakhic commitments forms the basis of their understanding of Maimonides’s works. But this account of Soloveitchik’s lectures, while largely accurate, is insufficient as an account of Soloveitchik’s approach to the Guide. That there also is a mystical strand in Soloveitchik’s reading is clear, not only from his discussion of pantheism, under which the All is included in God, but also from his distinction between the philosopher and the prophet. Kaplan captures this distinction well when he notes that for Soloveitchik’s Maimonides, the prophet exceeds the philosopher in part through his “personal” contact with God, that is, through what we may call knowledge by acquaintance or experience, which exceeds purely propositional or conceptual knowledge. And further, the contact that the prophet makes with God is all-inclusive, all-embracing, and not purely intellectual. Soloveitchik at times even labels this experience “mystical.”

Yet neither the conservative nor the mystical readings exhaust the varied interpretive stances found in the lectures. Soloveitchik concludes his lectures with a startling analogy. Pointing to Maimonides’s desire to rehabilitate the norm and preserve a central role for fear of God and the performance of the commandments, Soloveitchik states:

Here Maimonides the halakhist defeated the Maimonides the philosopher. Maimonides, like Koheleth, was very skeptical. Koheleth began his book by declaring … “Vanity of vanities … all is vanity” (Eccles. 1:2). But in the end, he could not escape his own personality. “The end of the matter … fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole of man” (Eccles. 12:13). The same was true for Maimonides. After all his adventures in the field of philosophy, he came back to the Halakhah.33

Soloveitchik’s conclusion bears an unmistakable affinity to the skeptical reading of the Guide, according to which philosophy is ultimately incapable of establishing any truths about God, even claims such as “God exists.”34 And, as Shlomo Pines elaborates in his seminal article introducing us to this skeptical reading, after Maimonides discloses to us the substantial limits of the philosophical project, he counsels that we turn back towards the fulfillment of worldly happiness, found only in society, and in the life of action:

The only positive knowledge of God of which man is capable is knowledge of the attributes of action, and this leads and ought to lead to a sort of political activity which is the highest perfection of man. The practical way of life is superior to the theoretical.35

Just as Soloveitchik did, Pines also thinks that Maimonides’s depiction of the conversation between God and Moses in the cleft of the rock is significant.36 Pines emphasizes that it is God’s goodness that is vouchsafed to Moses, the ways in which one ought to act and govern a nation, and such action constitutes the end of human striving and the highest peak to which our knowledge can aspire.37 So Soloveitchik’s Maimonides, much like Pines’s, turns out to be a skeptic about what philosophy can truly accomplish.38 And that skepticism pushes the philosopher back into the world of the polity, and the life of action, which for Soloveitchik can only mean towards observance of the commandments. After the philosophical journey, one returns to the only way in which we can relate to God—to the details and dictates found in the Mishneh Torah. At the end of the philosophical journey, a journey that discloses to us the limits of human reason, lie the commandments. Far from treating the Halakhah as a secondary or instrumental source of value, Soloveitchik restores it to the pinnacle of Maimonidean thought; paradoxically, he achieves this by adopting some central elements of the skeptical reading of the Guide.39


Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Maimonides: Between Philosophy and Halakhah: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Lectures on the “Guide of the Perplexed,” ed. Lawrence J. Kaplan (Jerusalem: Ktav and Urim Publications, 2016), henceforth cited as Lectures.


Ibid., 76.


Ibid. Emphasis added.


Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Halakhic Mind (New York: Seth Press, 1986), 73.


Ibid. Note, however, that Soloveitchik still carves out an important role for the historian of ideas. See Halakhic Mind, 72–73.


Moshe Halbertal, Maimonides: Life and Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 2.


Sifrei Devarim 11:22.


Lectures, 166.




Ibid., 166–167.


Halbertal, of course, recognizes and discusses the teleological view of nature that Maimonides shared with Aristotle, but this is not the same as God’s dynamic overflowing Hesed as an ethical principle at the source of the order of the world. This is also why Soloveitchik considers Maimonides’s arguments against an eternal world to be so important. Aristotle had argued that the world is eternal, even as it depends on God as the Prime Mover. But for Soloveitchik, the world must have been created ex nihilo by God, for only God’s creation of the world could give rise to an ethical relationship between God and human beings. If the world is eternal, it must have existed of necessity, and not on account of God’s sovereign and free choice to create the world. But ethical relationships can only be born in freedom, and so God’s free act of creation through his overflowing Hesed is what forms the condition for the possibility of an ethical relationship between free partners. An eternal world that exists of necessity disallows for the possibility of this ethical relationship, and therefore would undermine Soloveitchik’s understanding of hesed as primarily an ethical attribute. In short, God’s creation of the world is an ethical act.


Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), pt. 3, ch. 54, 2:635.


Lectures, 27; see also the introduction to the volume by Lawrence Kaplan.


Ibid., 123.


Ibid., 124. Soloveitchik criticizes two logically distinct features of Maimonides’s alleged view of ethics: (1) its subordinate, or instrumental, status; and (2) its pragmatic, conventional nature. These two features often do, but need not, go together. One can believe that ethics is instrumental and yet also the subject of truth and falsehood.


Ibid., 83–84.


Ibid., 227, citing Kuzari 4:16.


Soloveitchik, Lectures, 127. To be sure, there are passages in the Guide that counsel the withdrawal of the prophets from society. However, there are also passages that emphasize their engagement. For instance, in the very same passage that discusses the prophet’s withdrawal, Maimonides writes: “It was the chief aim of [the Patriarchs’] whole life to create a people that should know and worship God…. The object of all their labors was to publish the Unity of God in the world, and to induce people to love Him; and it was on this account that they succeeded in reaching that high degree; for even those [worldly] affairs were for them a perfect worship of God.” Guide of the Perplexed, pt. 3, ch. 51.


See Lectures, 36–37, 144–149.


Ibid., 144–149. Both the tree and its soil are material entities and therefore share material properties at an abstract enough level.


Maimonides explicitly states that the term “existence” when applied to God is equivocal. This claim can actually support Soloveitchik’s reading, as follows: In a classical theistic reading, to say that the term “existence” is equivocal is to say that the existence of God is necessary, while all other existence is contingent, among other distinctions. In Soloveitchik’s pantheistic reading, Maimonides’s claim that the existence of God has nothing in common with the existence of anything else just means that for God, existence is real, while for everything else, it is illusory or unreal. So the pantheist replaces the theistic dichotomy of necessary/contingent—which is responsible for the equivocal uses of the term “existence”—with an even more distant and opposing dichotomy, that of the real existence of God and the unreal or illusory existence of everything else, since only one thing really exists, and that is God.


See Kaplan’s discussion in the introduction to Lectures, 40.


Ibid., XX.


Ibid., 65.


Ibid., 162–163.


Ithamar Gruenwald, “Maimonides’ Quest beyond Philosophy and Prophecy,” in Perspectives on Maimonides: Philosophical and Historical Studies, ed. Joel L. Kraemer (London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1996), 145.


See my forthcoming article, “Everyone Asks Where He is: Mystical-Hasidic Elements in U’bikashtem Mi-sham,” in Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut, ed. Shlomo Zuckier.


See his opening remarks in Joseph B. Soloveitchik, And From There You Shall Seek, trans. Naomi Goldblum (Jersey City: Toras HoRav Foundation and Ktav, 2008), 8.


Lectures, 196, 200.


Ibid., 190. In his interview with Lawrence Kaplan, Alan Brill asks what may be motivating Soloveitchik’s pantheistic reading, and Kaplan speculates that Soloveitchik is after its ethical implications:

“I am not sure, but I believe it is may be [sic] motivated by his conception of what true human Hesed is. That is, formally, the Rav begins by articulating Maimonides’ conception of divine Hesed, and then maintains that human Hesed has to imitate and therefore resemble divine Hesed. But I wonder whether the Rav’s thought, in truth, proceeded in the opposite direction, that is, he began with a conception of what true human Hesed is, and then projected that conception back onto divine Hesed…. But the real point, and, as I said, I think the motivation of all this, is that after this intellectual union with God, man first internalizes the all-embracing divine Hesed, and then imitates that Hesed in the sense that he not only helps and confers benefits upon all who are in need, but, rather, in God-like fashion, he invites them to share in, to participate in his own existence, including them in his own order of being…. And this, to repeat, constitutes the true imitation of God.

So I believe—this is yet another point I did not make in my introduction—that the Rav’s pantheistic or panentheistic reading of Maimonides’ view regarding God’s relationship to the world is motivated by what he perceives as its ethical payoff.”

See the interview of Lawrence Kaplan conducted by Alan Brill, online at (accessed May 9, 2018). It should be noted, however, that in his lectures, Soloveitchik provides an explicit metaphysical rationale for pantheism. According to Soloveitchik, if God were to have created something external to Himself, he would be acknowledging that the created being is higher than Himself in a sense, because it is the goal for which God acts. But this cannot be right. And so according to Soloveitchik, Maimonides’s solution is to state that God did not create anything external to Himself, for the world, in its essentials, is part of God. Nothing new was really created; when it comes to existence and essence, there is only God, and the All is included in God. See Lectures, 170–171.


Ibid., 234–235.


We do not, for instance, speak of an absolute duty to breathe or to walk, since these are natural for human beings. Obligations arise only from the distance between our actual selves and our ideal selves, so to the extent that our actual selves merge with our ideal selves, our acts will never be experienced as obligations, as binding norms; rather, much like breathing, they will be experienced as natural expressions of ourselves. Fear of God, insofar as it is an acknowledgement of the distance between God and human beings, and therefore between His law and our selves, rehabilitates the binding and obligatory nature of the law.


Lectures, 238–239.


Soloveitchik also did not think that the proofs for God’s existence were valid and, in fact, he rereads Maimonides’s proofs in an experiential light in And From There You Shall Seek (pp. 16–17).


Shlomo Pines, “The Limitations of Human Knowledge according to Al-Farabi, ibn Bajja, and Maimonides,” in Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature, ed. Isadore Twersky (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), 100, although see 109 n. 84 for an important distinction between observance of the commandments and the life of action, more broadly conceived. Soloveitchik more or less equates the two, while Pines does not. I do not mean to suggest that the skeptical reading of the Guide is at every point correlated with Soloveitchik’s. Certainly it is not. There are several skeptical claims in Pines’s article, only some of which Soloveitchik’s skepticism would countenance.


Ibid., 100.


What are we to make of all the positive assertions throughout his lectures of what we can know about God? In his essay on the Guide, Marvin Fox posits that there are several competing accounts of divine causality, one of which is the religious strand, in which doctrines are affirmed, not on account of their philosophical cogency, but on account of Maimonides’s commitment to Judaism. See Marvin Fox, Interpreting Maimonides (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 229–250. This can be seen in the Lectures as well. For instance, according to Soloveitchik, Maimonides’s position on personal immortality was not arrived at through philosophical reasoning, but rather came about as a result of his commitment to Judaism. See Lectures, 158. Soloveitchik’s Maimonides is not a sweeping skeptic; he is only a skeptic as to what philosophical reasoning can establish, in particular with respect to the nature of an incorporeal God.


In the Lectures, there are further intimations of this skepticism, such as when Soloveitchik describes Maimonides’s pantheism as utterly “mysterious” and when he notes that the concept of “overflow” does not really explain anything. See Lectures, 173–178. Nevertheless, Soloveitchik’s skeptical conclusion does not flow organically from the rest of his lectures. It may be said that the relationship between the body of Soloveitchik’s lectures and his conclusion resembles the relationship that the rest of Ecclesiastes bears to the very same concluding passage that Soloveitchik cites.


See Dov Schwartz, Religion or Halakha: The Philosophy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, trans. Batya Stein (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 78, on Soloveitchik’s Maimonides in Halakhic Man: “For Maimonides, knowledge of the natural world leads to the negation of the attributes, namely, to the deepening of the hidden and concealed. As human beings acquire further [empirical] knowledge, so do they become increasingly aware of their inability to know God.”

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