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In the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful


Suzy Ashraf

Maimonidean Controversy:

The Question of Resurrection


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In the amazing mixture of peoples and cultures present in the Middle East throughout the ages, no science could remain within the boundaries of one religion or group. Development of Philosophy during the Middle Ages was a result of the great exchange of ideas between all parts of the Medieval world.

Torah and candleMoses Maimonides is the greatest name among Jewish representatives of this discipline. While being part of the "Oriental" tradition, and largely following his Muslim predecessors, his impact was equally significant in both Muslim and Christian world. In common with some other philosophers of the Muslim world, he combined his philosophical pursuits with religious authority, and for most of the Middle Ages Maimonides' fame among the Jews was based on his achievements in the Halachic rather than philosophical field. Largely, this had been connected with the overall rejection of philosophy as a study compatible with orthodox religiosity, and, to an extent, Maimonides' philosophical standing had been concealed so as not to damage his reputation as a religious authority.

In the times soon after his death, his writings in fact had provoked a considerable controversy, or, better to say, controversies, because the topics and books which caused unrest differed between times and places. Both in the East and West, Jewish sensitivities were largely determined by the surrounding culture. It is fascinating to see how in the Middle East Maimonides was attacked for the rulings which contradicted the Muslim decisions in similar cases, for example, in the question of the prayer leader requiring ritual bath after a night emission. Maimonides' apparent laxity in this question was immediately seized as a weapon by his opponents. This fact shows Muslim interference in the Jewish internal polemics, their frequent role of arbiters in communal disputes, for which reason every statement likely to affect their opinion was carefully highlighted. Even without such arbitration, influence of the surrounding culture would make such issues more prominent.

Similar situation existed in the Christian world. Eventually, involvement of the Church authorities led to burning of Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed in 1232 and further ban on its study together with Sefer ha-Maddah part of Mishneh Torah. However, the controversy in the Christian and Muslim world centred, for the most part, on different works: in the Middle East, "Mishneh Torah" (1180), its first part, fuelled the debate, in the West, the thorn of the Orthodoxy had become "The Guide of the Perplexed". Particular focus of the debates was the question of resurrection. In the East, this question had a rich background, important when considering positions of Maimonides himself and his contemporaries.

One of distinguishing features of the medieval Muslim culture was its great achievements in philosophy among other sciences. The peculiarity of Muslim philosophical development was in the bounds of the strict Islamic monotheism, together with other religious notions being superimposed upon the free philosophical discourse. Unlike in Christianity, Neo-Platonic categories did not become integral part of Islamic theology, rather, any attempts at philosophising the religious tenets met with fierce opposition from the orthodoxy. This led to numerous attempts at reconciling religious and philosophical notions, using philosophical categories to express religious dogma, exercises in bending and tying together different kinds of trees in an attempt to produce a viable mixed breed. Because of the intellectual elitism common in those times, delving into the deep waters of philosophy was reserved to the intellectual aristocracy, thus protecting and separating it from the more commonly accessible field of fikh (religious learning). Nevertheless, apparent incompatibility of the orthodox beliefs and philosophical conclusions has given philosophers a bad name in Islam, so that pursuit of philosophy was popularly equalled to heresy. This generally implied avoidance of philosophical methods of enquiry too, and the 'Ashari principle of not pondering theological matters was instrumental in such avoidance. A historically definitive decision with regard to philosophy came from al-Ghazali, the greatest Muslim theologian, and, at the same time, proponent of undeniably orthodox views. In his Tahafut al-Falasifa (Refutation of Philosophers), he rejects their views on certain religious issues, but accepts their methods of enquiry as long as they don't lead to the wrong conclusions. He enumerates twenty of their heretical ideas, three of them even tantamount to disbelief. One of these three is denial of bodily resurrection, which, according to al-Ghazali places one outside the fold of Islam. Apart from evidence of the views common among the philosophers we have from al-Ghazali, there are few other pieces on the subject. Brethren of Purity quite straightforwardly state:

"Know, O brother, that those who believe that man is no more than a bundle of flesh and bones, etc., animated by accidentiae, regard resurrection not otherwise than the restoration of the decomposed body with its effaced accidentiae to its former integral state, in preparation for final judgement. This sort of doctrine befits women, children and the ignorant rabble, inasmuch as it can best spur them on to good and best deter them from evil."

Ibn Sina expounds on the subject in several of his treatises. Without denying bodily resurrection, he dismisses it as a clear and well defined subject. He says that it is only spiritual future existence which is of interest to a philosopher, "The philosophers of divinity are more concerned with the spiritual than with the bodily rewards, so much so as to appear not to care for the latter, even if they were offered to them as an immediate reality". Elsewhere he says, "One of the tasks of the science of theology is the analysis of the concept of resurrection. It proposes to expound the fact that were it to be assumed theoretically that the body would not be quickened after death, the surviving soul alone would then be subject to reward and punishment." Even a theoretical assumption like this would place one in a doubtful position with regard to his Islamic belief. It also calls for the accusation that rather than being a theoretical assumption, it in fact reveals the authors real views, necessarily concealed from the public. To further explain his statements, Ibn Sina proposes a balance of prophesy and rationality, where prophesy supersedes rational arguments, and thus rationally problematic bodily resurrection acquires certainty through the confirmation by prophesy.

Despite all efforts to bring philosophical thinking in line with the official religion, it was still met with much suspicion. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that rationalistic tendencies were widespread, and not all intellectuals were as circumspect as the great masters whose works have come down to us. Because of the inherent contradiction between faith and reason, philosophical rationalism necessarily presented problems, especially when applied to the more obscure and illogical religious matters. So, inevitably, some rationalists have philosophised themselves deeply into heresy, giving bad name to the Philosophy in general. Some individuals who readily supported Maimonides' implied unorthodox views are a proof of this.

Another important feature of the background is the turn from the Neo-Platonic to Aristotelian philosophy. While offering some attractive ideas to its monotheistic followers, it remained naturalistic and non-religious in essence. Particularly problematic were its notions of the infinite existence of the Universe, which denied both creation and destruction by God, and rejection of separate existence of soul and matter. At many points, even those Aristotelians of the Middle Ages, including Maimonides, who sought return to pure Aristotelianism, and rejected Neo-Platonism as itself an attempt at reconciling Platonism and Aristotelianism, had to include some Neo-Platonic ideas, especially in the questions of eschatology.

In both Islam and Judaism, resurrection is a basic tenet of faith. According to the Brethren of Purity, resurrection is mentioned in the Quran more than 1500 times. Devoid of physical existence, the whole concept of Islamic hereafter becomes meaningless. In Judaism the term is Olam ha-Ba, the world to come. In popular understanding it denotes the period following the resurrection, when the righteous will be ultimately rewarded and the wicked punished. Resurrection comes in the wake of the Messianic Age. In fact, more attention has traditionally been paid to the Messianic events than to the posthumous existence proper. Several Jewish philosophers before Maimonides touched on the subject. Saadya firmly supported the traditional view, he stated that once resurrected, people will not die again. Among the footnotes, Bernard Septimus mentions that Ibn al-Muqammis expanded on the variations in the views of the resurrection, and Ibn Gabirol also mentioned the subject.

However, for many years before Maimonides there were intellectuals who rejected resurrection of the body and adhered to a purely spiritual view of Olam ha-Ba. So when in the first section of Mishneh Torah, Sefer ha-Madda, Maimonides mentioned that the Messiah should not be expected to resurrect the dead, and made other confusing remarks, his statements brought him under fire from various directions. Unlike the previous philosophical works which may have propounded the principles of spiritual Olam ha-Ba, Mishneh Torah was not restricted to the circle of the intellectual elite, it had been widely used as a halachic manual, and thus any controversial views had the potential of becoming widespread among the general public. The fact that Maimonides' standing gave the book an unprecedented weight from the moment of its first appearance made his views unarguably authoritative. A fierce opponent of Maimonides statements in the Mishneh Torah, Ramah of Toledo commented, " I was zealous for belief in resurrection which was already lost among the majority of the people of our time. How much more so now that they have found fortified cities [the authority of Mishneh Torah] in which to escape."

It is interesting to note that his statements in the Mishneh Torah did not necessarily imply the meaning given to them by both the opponents and proponents of the spiritual future state. From the perspective of another scholar, B. Septimus, "There is no denial of resurrection in Mishneh Torah", rather, it is explained that understanding Olam ha-Ba in purely spiritual terms is tantamount to denial of bodily resurrection. And a denier of resurrection (tehiyyat ha-metim) is declared a heretic in the same book. Such reading seems to be much more consistent with Maimonides' placing belief in the physical resurrection as one of the principles of faith in Commentary on the Mishna, Introduction to Chapter X of Sanhedrin.

Yet Maimonides' position was misunderstood in Damascus, Yemen and Baghdad. A scholar of the Academy in Damascus openly spoke of his disbelief in the resurrection of the body, basing it on Mishneh Torah. This sparkled a bitter debate, ignored by Maimonides. Yet, it did not stop there. A large number of scholars in Yemen, where writings of the Brethren of Purity were widely known, had rejected physical resurrection, quoting Maimonides in support. A letter sent to Maimonides in 1189 informed him of a widespread denial of resurrection among the Jews of southern Arabia, so that he had to reply clarifying necessary points in Mishneh Torah.

This did not end the debate. At the same time with Maimonides, Baghdad Gaon Samuel ben Ali received a similar enquiry from Yemen. Tensions between Maimonides and the Gaon existed for some time, centering on the debate over halachic and secular authority of Gaon versus Exilarch, with Maimonides opposing the academic control of the judicial system to which the Gaons aspired, and supporting the Exilarch. Samuel ben Ali thus contested Maimonides' rabbinic authority. Soon after the appearance of the Mishneh Torah, the Gaon broadcast his criticisms of some of the Maimonides' rulings. Partly it contunued previous controversies, for example, over some Shabbath laws. On receipt of the enquiry from Yemen, the Gaon seized the opportunity to attack Maimonides, focusing on two charges: that Maimonides in fact denied the resurrection by interpreting Talmudic and Biblical passages in a certain way, and that he postulated a purely spiritual bliss in Olam ha-Ba.

Following these events, Maimonides eventually was pressured into producing an explanatory statement on the issue, clarifying his views and his statements in the Mishneh Torah. The Treatise on Resurrection written in 1190 indeed solves most of the controversial questions. It explicates Maimonides' views of resurrection in detail, even though he himself claims it to be a useless piece of work, because he had already sufficiently expanded on the topic in his other works.

Preceding publication of the Treatise, curious polemic had occurred in Christian Spain. Ramah wrote a forceful letter to the rabbis of Southern France, denouncing Maimonides' apparent denial of physical resurrection. The French rabbis responded with a statement of full support for any Maimonidean opinion, and attempted to bring together the views of Maimonides and traditionally accepted views of Saadya. Another, Spanish rabbi of authority interfered in the debate with an outright denial of bodily resurrection in support of Maimonides' alleged opinion. When Maimonides published his Treatise on Resurrection, all three letters were proven wrong with regard to his views. Neither did he deny the bodily resurrection, nor in any way followed Saadya, whose views he actually openly rejected.

In the Treatise, Maimonides does not miss an opportunity to charge his opponents with deliberately misinterpreting his teachings. He calls those "who chose to speak falsely about us and attribute to us an opinion that we do not believe... to be judged like any [wicked] man who suspects the innocent." With reference to the Gaon Samuel ben Ali, he makes specific remarks about his philosophical incompetence.

He then presents a detailed exposition of his views of the resurrection and the world to come. He refutes those who blamed him for not referring to the numerous Biblical passages which talk of the resurrection by saying that he did quote one passage which is sufficient to prove a matter beyond doubt. Unlike the immortality of the soul, it cannot be substantiated rationally, because it is supernatural. It will be an "ordinary miracle", not accompanied by any cosmic cataclysms, however, its denial leads to the denial of all miracles.

Maimonides separates the Messianic period basing it on the famous phrase by R. Samuel, "Between this world and the Messianic Age there will be no change save the end of Israel's subjection to alien governments." Maimonides says, " And so it appears to me from these verses that the individuals, whose souls will return to their bodies, will eat, drink, marry and procreate, and then die after enjoying that very long span of life characteristic of the Messianic era."

Following this, begins the immortal existence of the souls of those men who had perfected their deeds and intellect. In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides says that the conventional view of Heaven and Hell appeals to humans because of their inability to disengage from the desires of this world and projecting their longings on the next life. He dismissed as figurative the Talmudic statements which seemingly promise physical pleasures, and continued to state that in terms of reward and punishment, it is the resurrection and continued existence in "the form of its [the soul's] intelligence by which it attained the knowledge of the Creator Being according to its capacity and by which it attained knowledge of all non-concrete intelligences and the works of God" itself which is the reward of the righteous, and the wicked are punished by being deprived of such eternal life. It can be inferred from such statements, further elaborated in the Guide of the Perplexed, that only the souls of the enlightened intellectuals who have attained unity with the Divine Intellect will attain eternal existence. Digressing from the course of this essay, it is worth noting that such Aristotelian views continued to feed the Resurrection Controversy for centuries longer, even though it took a slightly different direction in focusing on the physical or spiritual future state. Views of resurrection expressed by Maimonides in the Guide caused him to be charged with "undermining the principles of all faiths" by an influential courtier of Salah ad-Din Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, an event which was possibly more troubling to him than the religious controversies within the Jewish community. Considering Salah ad-Din's uncompromising attitude to all types of heresy, it is easy to understand how dangerous such a charge could be, and how much it enforced the need for circumspection.

In the Treatise on the Resurrection, he explains that the basis for his statements is a Talmudic definition that "There will be no eating, drinking, etc. in the world to come", and logical discourse that our physique is designed by the creator to be suitable for our earthly conditions, but since these conditions will not continue in the afterlife, there can be no bodily existence there.

In defending his statement that Messiah will not resurrect the dead, he answers that only God is capable of such action, and thus denial that the resurrection will be performed by the Messiah does not lead to the denial of resurrection as such. He stresses that resurrection is a pure miracle, and can have no philosophical explanation. It is beyond doubt to the believers because of being foretold in the Bible. Thus he arrives at an important hierarchy of the religious sources, subordinating reason to the prophetic revelation. What cannot be rationalised in the religion but can be determined beyond doubt from prophesy is truth in the first degree. This is similar to Ibn Sina's reasoning, who also stresses superiority of the prophetic over the rational sources in religion. The Jewish model of a two-fold future existence had allowed Maimonides to arrive at a much neater solution to the problem of reconciling physical resurrection with the spiritual future state than that possible for a Muslim philosopher, in particular saving him the need to dismiss all the Scriptural statements with regard to the physical existence in the hereafter as pure allegory.

The most important feature, lying at the root of the controversy is elitism of Medieval philosophers. One set of views was presented to the general public, which was fed the most simplified, orthodox definitions; another matter pertained to the genuine philosophical ideas, which had to be concealed from the ignorant majority, lest they should misunderstand it and be led away from the religion. Because of this, every statement pronounced by Maimonides is not usually taken at its face value, but rather hidden meanings are searched behind the words. It becomes even more extreme in the cases where he made contradictory statements, or had been vague in a question. With the knowledge of Aristotelian doctrines, his words are often understood in the light of the doctrines to which he is supposed to have adhered, even if his words openly contradict it. In such cases, Maimonides is interpreted as speaking specifically for the common audience, who he did not want to confuse with the philosophical truth of the religion. Such technique in reading Maimonides' works is not new to the contemporary scholarship, the controversy partly started because people were eager to fill the gaps in Maimonides words with what they expected him to say, non-believers in resurrection happily finding support in him, the orthodoxy suspecting him of philosophical views contrary to the religious doctrines, even despite the lack of substantial evidence in his words. The Guide of the Perplexed is the crown of such obscure style. It served as the basis of speculation for centuries and fuelled flaming (literally too!) debates across Medieval Europe. Ultimately, anything said about this book is necessarily a speculation, and, apparently, this is so by the author's design. This seems to be alluded to in the introduction to the Guide of the Perplexed, and the reader is enticed into looking for hidden meaning behind the words. Despite the clarity of his explanations in the Treatise, contemporary scholars continue to suspect him of concealing his real views behind the generally acceptable principles, and making the truth apparent only to a reader familiar with all the intricacies of the subject. Vagueness and contradictions common not only to Maimonides' works, but also to those of the Muslim philosophers of his time, enabled scholars (for example H Davidson) to suspect them of following the Aristotelian views to the extent of denying posthumous existence at all.

The controversy illustrates how the separate existence of naturalistic philosophy and religious dogma cannot be smoothly brought together even by a genius. One of the functions of religion is to provide definitive answers to the questions of life, but complex philosophical doctrines cannot become such a simple base. Rationality and logic as the main philosophical methods cannot solve all the inconsistencies presented by religious sources.

It appears to me, writings of many medieval philosophers reveal an intense internal struggle of deeply religious people, unable to achieve in their mind a peaceful coexistence of the archaic, illogical tenets of their religions and Aristotelian logic.

The very need to be circumspect, inhibiting all free philosophical discourse and obliging multi-layered language shows that philosophical truth could not be generally accepted as an integral part of a religious doctrine. It seems, in the question of resurrection as well as in many other questions, two parallel doctrines continued to exist, rather than being fused into an acceptable doctrine, relating the truth seen by philosophers, yet accessible to the general public.

Historical role of the Maimonidean Controversy had been in transferring the polemic over rationalism from the Muslim East to Europe, and in determining the future course of religious development in both Judaism and Christianity, by forcing the religious authorities to struggle with the new notions, gradually pushing the barriers of accepted dogma.





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