Monday, February 25, 2013

The Guide to Serving God - Avraham son of Maimonides

The Guide to Serving God, by Avraham ben HaRambam, the son of Maimonides, is unlike any Jewish book you are likely to read.  The Maimonides family was a dynasty of sorts.  At least four generations of his descendants led the Jewish community in Cairo, and to an extent Jews in the entire Muslim world. 

The base of their fame was the stature of their illustrious ancestor, and to one degree or another, they each capitalized on the reputation of Maimonides in their own works.

This can be seen in The Guide of Serving God in the frequent quotes and notations in the text of the son to the father.  Avraham viewed himself as the biological and spiritual heir of his father, both defending his work, and adding to it.  For Avraham, this consisted of taking certain ideas that are either found in his father’s writings, or implied, and amplifying them.

First is the influence of Sufism, or mystical Islam.  Scholars have long seen a connection between Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed and Sufi study manuals.  In the son the connection to Sufism grows even stronger.  

He endorses numerous Sufi practices and outlooks, and is particularly attracted by the Sufi’s retreat from the world of reality to that of the spirit.  Here, Avraham takes an idea found in his father’s writing, and presents it more explicitly.  For Avraham, the body and the things of the world are not only to be avoided, but are positively despicable.  For him, connection with God leads away from the world and its distractions

In the end we get a book that endorses spiritual positions that are very much at odds with modern, mainstream liberal Jewish notions about religious duty.  For Avraham Maimonides, true religious connection is for the few; the descendants of the prophets who separated from the community, ate simple food, lived in modest dwellings, had sex merely to procreate (and with great reluctance) and eschewed life in society.  

His Judaism has more to do with individual salvation and spiritual growth rather than participating in the affairs of a religious community.  In this way, he has taken yet another notion from his father, the idea of an esoteric, or secret teaching for the intellectual elite, and the exoteric teaching for the masses.  Here, the esoteric teachings is the retreat from the world.  The exoteric is the law of Moses, with all its binding social rules.

The loftiest goal of Judaism is away from the crowd, and toward God.  This is very much at variance with mainstream Rabbinic Judaism and most modern notions of the Judaism’s spiritual elements.

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