Maimonides and Legal Theory Prof.

Moshe Halbertal

Ariel Beery Paper due since Fall ‘06

In Those Days, In Our Times: Maimonides and the World to Come
R’Chiya bar Abba said in the name of R’ Yohannan: All the prophets prophesized only about the Messianic era, but as for the World-to-Come, No eye except yours, O God, has seen (Isaiah 64:3). And he disagrees with Shmuel, for Shmuel said: There is no difference between this world and that of the Messianic era, except for Jewish independence from the dominion of foreign kingdoms, for it says, For the poor shall not cease from the land (Deut 15:11). [BT Berachot 34b]

The way a culture identifies and reifies the World-to-Come reflects upon the expectations put upon the individual in present life. In terms of law, to borrow from the work of Robert Cover, the World-to-Come becomes the ideal future towards which the law in the present is cast as a bridge.1 As such, many if not most of the major religious systems have focused a strong part of their teaching on their vision of the World-toCome, and how their teaching leads to a more pleasurable experience of the hereafter through restrictions on the here and now. When Christian serfs were told that the reward for their toils was to be found only their passing into the Kingdom of Heaven, and that such reward was predicated upon their keeping their place in the highly structured society of their birth, social calm was traded for individual opportunity and class action. Calvinism’s revolution came in the double-edge of the proposition of this-worldly reward and acknowledgement: as Max Weber points out, its attitude towards one’s ability to prove this-worldly salvation led to the caste-busting ethic of capitalism. Islam has used the World-to-Come as a motivator to both extremes, from the much-remarked upon reward of 72 virgins in carrying out that religion’s struggle to bring that world, to the

Robert M. Cover, "The Supreme Court 1982 Term. Forward: Nomos and Narrative," Harvard Law Review 97.4 (1983).


depths of hell promised to those people who did not accept the Book and retard its coming. Even Buddhism, which could arguably be seen at times as a life philosophy and not a religion, focuses heavily on the existence hereafter, linking the nothingness and freedom of Nirvana to the steps taken by an individual in the span of their own life. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (the Rambam) knew well the way those faiths surrounding him had dealt with the World-to-Come, and, in their light, well understood the social power of their hold. As a resident of the Near East saturated with the messianic idea, he lived in an environment that sought redemption in multiple forms.2 It is in this light that it is interesting to explore Rambam’s perspective on the World-to-Come, especially because of his currently-enjoyed prominence within the Jewish legal tradition. In this light, this short paper will explore the present day implications of Rambam’s ruling when it comes to a disagreement between Rav Chiya bar Abba speaking in the name of Rabbi Yohanan and Shmuel,3 namely the political nature of the messianic age— and how such a this-worldy political understanding of the concept of the World-to-Come may affect policy in the current Jewish polity. If law does indeed serve as a bridge between this imperfect reality and the sought-after state in the World-to-Come, then a law crafted to bring a World-to-Come defined by, to quote Shmuel, an age in which “Israel will be free from the domination of foreign kingdoms,” will be different than law crafted to bring about the traditionally thought about Isaiahesque era of lion-with-lamb, or the more politically hardnosed vision of the religious Zionist movement in which a Greater Israel will be reborn.


Shelomo Dov Goitein, ""Meeting in Jerusalem": Messianic Expectations in the Letters of the Cairo Geniza," AJS Review, 4 (1979).

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brakhot, 34b – for Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah, 9:10


Jewish law as derived from a relationship with the sought-after-future has remained unclear, since the Jewish relationship with the World-to-Come is uncertain to say the least. As opposed to the lifesystems surrounding the Jewish People, the history of the Jewish religion has been anything but explicit when it comes to its relationship to the World-to-Come. The core texts of the Jewish Bible—what have become known as the Five Books of Moses—never directly reference a World-to-Come or an afterlife. More, when Moses exhorts Israel to choose the laws and statues contained in the revelation, he declares: “choose the life so that you and your seed shall live.”4 Live in this life, The Life, capitalized, as the life of The Commandments as revealed by the Deity who ‘Will Be as It Will Be”—and is therefore constantly in a state of becoming. This message of the dynamic future with its uncertainty and potential for good and evil explains the process-oriented nature of the laws and ordinances transmitted and communicated by Moses. With an unclear desired future—and therefore little vision of the world the legal tradition sought to bring—the laws spoken by Moses for the most part governed either interpersonal behavior or the social structures necessary to live a life that honors the Deity—and did not discuss specifics of rewards and punishments as did other religions, beyond the general promise of successful breeding and spreading of seed. Following the Five Books of Moses, the core narrative of the Jewish People switches to a mainly political theme, detailing the campaigns of the Generals of the Children of Israel, the formation of kingdoms, the criticism of the officers of State, and the behavior of the Israelite citizenry. The pyrotechnics of God acting directly in History take a backseat, only occasionally reappearing, as the Judges, Prophets and Kings devote themselves to the historical presence of the collective, seeking to balance political4

Deuteronomy, 30:19


military needs with their relationship with the higher power on this world. Other than brief instances such as the recall of the prophet Samuel by Shaul,5 the focus remains on the terrestrial and the this-worldly, the spiritual serving the higher good of the physical. Discussion of the World-to-Come, and the mystical tradition on reincarnation— or, more correctly here, the quickening of the dead—gained prominence with the rise of the Rabbinic class in the shadow of Rome’s rise and the spread of Christianity. For one reason or another—possibly to compete with the claims of competing religions, perhaps in reaction to the humiliation and desperation of exile—the early Rabbinic class, and especially during the years prior to the Bar Kochva rebellion, was strongly focused on the political messianic miraculous potential, blending the political and military capabilities of the people with a belief in the imminence of God’s help in bringing the World-to-Come.6 With the crushing of the rebellion, and the dashing of this-world aspirations for the messianic age in their era, the reaction of the Rabbis was swift in its banishing of the messianic age from the realm of history into the realm of apocalypse, declaring that anyone who does not believe in the quickening of the dead will be cut off from the world to come. Literature concerning the mystical beliefs that united miracles with politics were banished from the Rabbinic canon of that period—and this state of affairs became normative with the institutionalization of Jewish life in exile under the Babylonian empire, so much so that those mystical-political texts that were kept from the Jerusalem Talmud were readmitted and thereby permitted for integration into Jewish thought with the spread of the Babylonian Talmud.

5 6

I Samuel 28 As strongly reflected in the Gnostic treatment of Bar Kochva by Rabbi Akiva in text that would later make up the tractate of Hagigah in the Babylonian Talmud and its assorted parts.


The Rambam’s own approach to messianism and the World-to-Come was impacted by this course of events, and even more so by the near-universal acceptance of two legal and spiritual traditions: one more messianically-focused religion, Islam, and the other the alluring value-system capturing the hearts and minds of many of his fellow intellectuals, Greek philosophy. Viewing himself in the reflection of Rabbi Judah the Prince, who compiled the Mishna when faced with the crisis of Greek thought and the loss of the Jewish polity, the Rambam chose to compose the Mishna Torah in order to meet the crisis of his day: the competition of Judaism’s particularity with the other two systems universalisms, and their claim on a singular World-to-Come. This struggle against Universalism was one that the Jewish tradition had not traditionally been accustomed to. The roots of the Jewish religion grew in a time in which multiple Gods had been worshiped, and therefore no universal code of law could be expected from humanity. In those times, since each tribe or people had their own deity or in some cases pantheon, the victory of a God and the verification of belief in that God could occur to that tribe or people alone, motivating them to worship without need of further external verification and without inspiring the molestation of their neighbors. Each people thereby also had its own vision of its perfect future, its World-to-Come, and followed laws that would transform the present reality so as to ensure that future would come: certain practices for rain, others to ensure protection from enemies, etc. Relative truth led to relative practice, and no universal vision for the future of man. As such, Jewish thought focused on the obligations of the People of Israel to their God, and the creation of a society that could coexist with others while not compromising their own exclusive relationship with the Deity.


In Rambam’s day, however, the nature of truth had changed, and the truth of law as derived from the value-system of the day was declared as absolute. Islam not only preached itself as the universal and ultimate of solution to religious questioning, but also the ultimate solution as to how one lived a good political life in this world. Alternative modes of thought could coexist with Islam, but were only protected insofar as their first assumptions held that the legal framework as recorded in the Book was ultimate, and that its reach was universal. Philosophy, too, held to its own claims on universalism, rejecting prophecy as mere imagination, and upholding rational thought and argument as the reach towards perfection available to all who had the capacity of rational thinking.7 In addressing these claims on the universality of truth and the universal jurisdiction of law, Rambam seeks to subvert Islam by arguing that its work is in service of the Jewish mission to spread the light of monotheism.8 But he also seeks to distinguish Jewish thought and uphold and justify Jewish particularity through justifying prophecy within the rational framework of politics.9 Or, in other words, Rambam is attempting to explain to his fellow Jews why it is rational to remain part of a Jewish polity that is dispersed and holds with no political jurisdiction, one that is bound solely by its common belief in the truth of its laws as revealed in a revelation that took place remotely from their time and space. This approach holds on one hand that revelation does exist and is justified in making first assumptions, and that prophetic truth therefore has a place in the political decisions of the community. As such, Rambam respects the religious reading of the Bible through faith and justifies that prophecy’s truth and centrality against the challenges brought about by those who might discard the religious as mere imagination.

S. Daniel Breslauer, "Philosophy and Imagination: The Politics of Prophecy in the View of Moses Maimonides," The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series 70.3 (1980). 8 Menachem Kellner, "Messianic Postures in Israel Today," Modern Judaism 6.2 (1986). 9 Breslauer, "Philosophy and Imagination: The Politics of Prophecy in the View of Moses Maimonides."


But to meet the demands of rationality, Rambam situates the effects of prophecy in the current world, at times bending the conceptual framework so that it refers only to those effects that can rationally be measured in this world—and thereby generating a case justifying the logical adherence to prophetic vision. This this-worldly application of the World-to-Come can be seen most clearly in Rambam’s dealing with the disagreement recorded above between the worldviews of R’ Yohanan and Shmuel, where Rambam takes a nearly unprecedented move and records the opinion of the over-ruled party in what he presents as the ultimate code of the law— specifically in this case the nature of the World-to-Come which, in this case, provides a rational justification for why one would follow prophetic law. In reviewing the question of other-worldly reward, Rambam writes in his Mishna Torah, --‫מאחר שנודע שמתן שכרן של מצוות והטובה שנזכה לה אם שמרנו דרך ה' הכתוב בתורה‬ ‫היא חיי העולם הבא…מה הוא זה שכתוב בכל התורה כולה, אם תשמעו יגיע לכם, ואם לא‬ ‫תשמעו יקרא אתכם, וכל אותן הדברים בעולם הזה…ואם עזבתם את ה' ושגיתם במאכל‬ ‫ומשקה וזנות ודומה להם--מביא עליכם כל הקללות האלו ומסיר כל הברכות, עד שייכלו‬ ‫ימיכם בבהלה ופחד, ולא יהיה לכם לב פנוי ולא גוף שלם לעשות המצוות, כדי שתאבדו‬ ‫מחיי העולם הבא. ונמצא שאיבדתם שני עולמות: שבזמן שאדם טרוד בעולם הזה בחולי‬ ‫ובמלחמה ורעבון, אינו מתעסק לא בחכמה ולא במצוה שבהן זוכין לחיי העולם הבא…וסוף‬ ‫השכר כולו והטובה האחרונה שאין לה הפסק ולא גירעון, הוא חיי העולם הבא; אבל ימות‬ ‫המשיח הוא העולם הזה ועולם כמנהגו הולך, אלא שהמלכות תחזור לישראל. וכבר אמרו‬ .10‫חכמים הראשונים, אין בין העולם הזה לימות המשיח אלא שיעבוד מלכייות בלבד‬ With divine reward and punishment reduced to observable cause and effect, the notion of the World-to-Come in effect becomes a measure of one’s success in the world, very much like Calvinist doctrine would claim centuries later. The messianic age then works in service of the World-to-Come—that is, the advent of the King Messiah (a human being serving the role of the chosen and not anointed and divine in-and-of-himself) returns the

Excerpted from Mishna Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva, 9, as published online by Mechon Mamre at


Jews into the field of politics and enables them to build a polity that enables its citizens to live lives that merit a World-to-Come in their own days. Politics, therefore, becomes the necessary prerequisite for creating a life in which religious belief in prophecy can bear reward and access to the World-to-Come. Or, politics becomes the pre-requisite to bringing the World-to-Come, and since bringing the World-to-Come is the focus of law, political consciousness becomes the pre-requisite for legal philosophy: politics determines law. Since Rambam was not a revolutionary, and did not advocate the declaration of political independence by force but rather believed that the natural course of events would lead to the messianic age,11 this did not amount to a declaration of law in service of politics. Rather, an extension of this line of reason would have it that political independence of Israel would amount from the natural course of political life—a notion seemingly widely held during this time of Saladin as maintained by the Cairo Geniza12—and the maintenance of political independence once gotten, by extension, becomes the main religious task for an individual who would like to uphold prophecy and rationally prove its relevance not only to that individual, but to the world. Process wise, then, Rambam’s logical steps would have it that the natural order brings about a leader who overcomes in the political sphere and regains Israel’s freedom from the nations; the legal system enabled to exist by that leader’s actions provides the necessary space for individuals to be rewarded and punished in this world according to what had been stated by revelation—and thereby justify externally the truth inherent in revelation; in order to maintain this state of political reality that justifies prophetic truth,

11 12

Kellner, "Messianic Postures in Israel Today." See Goitein, ""Meeting in Jerusalem": Messianic Expectations in the Letters of the Cairo Geniza."


law needs to uphold the political needs when it comes to maintaining independence. Politics, therefore, becomes in service of justifying the law—and law, therefore, depends on politics in order to be actionable and relevant. One complements and enables the other symbiotically. Reflecting upon these conclusions in the current era in which a Jewish polity exists as a sovereign state among the nations of the world, it is striking that Jewish law and politics in the State seem so often to not complement each other—and sometimes even seem to preclude the existence of the other. If one is to accept the notion that, to Rambam, the messianic era is one in which the People of Israel is free from the domination of foreign kingdoms—sovereign in terms of developing internal laws that include both rewards and punishments—then the State of Israel has indeed brought the messianic age. The reality in the Jewish polity, however, has it that the secular law of the State does not intersect with revelation, and the religious law of revelation does not bend in order to accommodate the political realities of maintaining the messianic age’s core component of independence. If one is to assume the verity of Rambam’s observation concerning the need for causal proof in order to buttress values and truths generated by revelation, then the laws of the Jewish State work against the acceptance of revelation as a this-worldly truth. But if the laws (of the religion) have to first and foremost work for the polity as a whole such that they enable a political reality that will guarantee independence of jurisdiction and jurisprudence, then the laws of the religious Jewish people work against the acceptance of the State as a messianic opportunity. Taking into account Cover’s observations about law’s bridging aspect, and the understanding that the core narrative of a People determines its destiny whether that


People believes in the divinity of that narrative or not,13 The laws and politics of the State would be at least partially aligned by focusing on generating a shared vision of the World-to-Come. Political Zionism, in a sense, did this for the Jewish People in the century past, enabling the religious and the socialists to agree upon the need for a political reality that would enable further perfection – creating a this-worldly messianic moment that generated a platform for additional exploration and envisioning of future Worlds-to-Come. Without a shared narrative expressing what is wrong with the current world and inkling as to what world would be desired to come, as Rambam might have pointed out, law and politics will remain separate and even opposing elements in the Jewish polity.

Secondary Sources Cited: Breslauer, S. Daniel. "Philosophy and Imagination: The Politics of Prophecy in the View of Moses Maimonides." The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series 70.3 (1980): pp. 153-71. Cover, Robert M. "The Supreme Court 1982 Term. Forward: Nomos and Narrative." Harvard Law Review 97.4 (1983): 3-68. Dane, Perry. "The Yolk of Heaven, the Question of Sinai, and the Life of Law." The University of Toronto Law Journal 44.4 (1994): 353-400. Goitein, Shelomo Dov. ""Meeting in Jerusalem": Messianic Expectations in the Letters of the Cairo Geniza." AJS Review, 4 (1979): pp. 43-57. Kellner, Menachem. "Messianic Postures in Israel Today." Modern Judaism 6.2 (1986): pp. 197-209.


For an excellent secular exploration of the centrality of Jewish law to the Jewish reality, see Perry Dane, "The Yolk of Heaven, the Question of Sinai, and the Life of Law," The University of Toronto Law Journal 44.4 (1994).


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