By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
I recently heard a talk about Maimonides’ rejection of mysticism. Among the mystical ideas that he seemed to reject were that the Hebrew language is intrinsically holy (citing the Talmud and Mishna as being against this, i.e. the concept of gematria, etc.); the Jewish people are a holy nation; the Torah and mitzvot contain any intrinsic holiness; and the Land of Israel has any intrinsic holiness. So perhaps you could clarify: Are the above ideas mystical? Was Maimonides really against mysticism?
Though mysticism may elaborate on these concepts, the intrinsic holiness of the Torah, of the land of Israel and so on are not reserved to mystical teachings. In fact, they are some of the most basic Jewish beliefs and do not depend at all on the Kabbalah.
Clearly, Maimonides himself held of the intrinsic holiness of the Torah and the Jewish people, as is evidenced in numerous references throughout his works on Jewish Law. The Mishna, the Talmud and many fundamental Jewish texts and sources also elaborate on those ideas. The Talmud itself invokes the concept of gematria, or numerical values of Hebrew words; see for example Tractate Eiruvin 65a. This exhibits the Talmud’s obvious assumption that Hebrew is inherently a holy tongue, in which is encoded hidden, deeper meanings.
Maimonides clearly was not versed in the teachings of Kabbalah in his earlier days. Whether Maimonides, at the end of his life, learned of the authentic teachings of Kabbalah and, thereby, accepted them once he properly understood them has been a matter of great debate for generations, and the jury is still out.
In practice, the question of Maimonides’ acceptance of Kabbalah is irrelevant to the above questions of intrinsic holiness of the Torah, etc, as mentioned above.
In addition, even if Maimonides, in fact, rejected the Kabbalistic tradition, the overwhelming majority of sages at his time and ever since have completely accepted that tradition. The Kabbalistic system developed by R’ Yitzchak Luria, (the renowned Ari’zal) of Egypt and Safed, became the foundation for most Kabbalistic studies throughout the world. The leaders of Lithuanian, Chassidic and Sephardic Jewry — in short, nearly all of world Jewry, accepted it. To reject this tradition would be to reject what has been accepted as mainstream Jewish thought for many centuries.
Even R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch, who expounded a belief system that seems to use purely rational ideas bereft of mystical thoughts, wrote his “Horeb” and other works only after deeply consulting the Zohar and other Kabbalistic texts.
As we mentioned above, Hebrew, known as lashon hakodesh (the holy tongue), is embedded with profound, hidden meanings. Besides Maimonides’ observation that Hebrew is holy because it contains no words describing baser human acts, it is the language the almighty spoke when creating the world; the words themselves are the source of the objects created by them. Hence the words for object, davar, and word, dibur, have the same root in Hebrew.
The object emanates from its source, its word. Furthermore, that object continues to “speak” its “word,” its purpose and message in being part of the creation.
This I bring as one example of our understanding of the kedusha, or holiness of God’s creation. Other examples apply to the holiness of the Torah, mitzvot, Jewish people and the Land of Israel. We don’t have the space to elaborate on them all. These ideas are not mystical, but basic Jewish belief.
The mitzvah upon which the holiness of our people is built is Kedoshim T’hiyu, “You shall be holy, for holy am I, the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:1).
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.