The King and I: Maimonides and the Besht’s Views on Man’s Obligation to Cleave to the Divine

Introduction

We all grew up hearing stories about mighty kings who ruled their kingdoms from their magnificent palaces. Often, the plot in these stories involves a lower-class commoner who moves into this palace, transcending his social status and breaking through the proverbial palace walls. We love these stories. Is it not great to see the ascent from rags to riches? But how real are these stories? What does it really take to live in the king’s palace? Are stories like these merely fairytales and fantasies?

Sometimes stories are just stories. But, throughout history, great Jewish thinkers have used stories like these to convey important theological doctrines. Parables about kings sitting on their thrones can actually relate to profound theosophical ideas about the divine nature and praxeological ideas about human worship.

These parables can help us better understand our religious obligations. As worshipers, we are certainly obligated to cleave to God, the King of all Kings. But how is this accomplished? What is one obligated to do to approach the king in his palace?

With certainty, we can deem R. Moses ben Maimon, commonly referred to as Rambam or Maimonides, and R. Israel ben Eli’ezer, commonly referred to as the Ba’al Shem Tov or the Besht, as two of the most influential Jewish thinkers in history. Each of them presents a parable about a king in his palace. Although these parables may seem similar in some initial sense, the two parables are actually representative of two very different theological perspectives. Maimonides’ parable highlights his transcendent view of God, while the Besht’s parable highlights his immanent view of God. As we will see, these opposite world views will also yield opposite perspectives regarding elitism, human worship, and man’s religious obligations.

 

Maimonides and the Elite

At the tail end of The Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides brings his parable, which relates to the superiority of the intellect and the worshiper’s obligation to gain a philosophical understanding of God. Maimonides writes:

A king is in his palace, and all his subjects are partly in the country, and partly abroad. Of the former, some have their backs turned towards the king’s palace, and their faces in another direction; and some are desirous and zealous to go to the palace, seeking to inquire in his temple, and to minister before him, but have not yet seen even the face of the wall of the house. Of those that desire to go to the palace, some reach it, and go round about in search of the entrance gate; others have passed through the gate, and walk about in the ante-chamber; and others have succeeded in entering into the inner part of the palace, and being in the same room with the king in the royal palace. But even the latter do not immediately on entering the palace see the king, or speak to him; for, after having entered the inner part of the palace, another effort is required before they can stand before the king – at a distance, or close by – hear his words, or speak to him.[1]

Maimonides’ parable depicts a king in his palace with six different levels of surrounding citizens, spanning from those who are completely outside of the country to those who sit in the palace but do not actually meet the king. It is obvious that the king represents the Almighty God. How, though, do we understand these six different gradations of proximity? Maimonides continues with an explanation of what these different positions correspond to in worship of the divine:

1. The people who are abroad are all those that have no religion, neither one based on speculation nor one received by tradition…I consider these as irrational beings, and not as human beings; they are below mankind, but above monkeys, since they have the form and shape of man, and a mental faculty above that of the monkey.

2. Those who are in the country, but have their backs turned towards the king’s palace, are those who possess religion, belief, and thought, but happen to hold false doctrine.

3. Those who desire to arrive at the palace, and to enter it, but have never yet seen it, are the mass of religious people; the multitude that observe the divine commandments, but are ignorant.

4. Those who arrive at the palace, but go round about it, are those who devote themselves exclusively to the study of the practical law; they believe traditionally in true principles of faith, and learn the practical worship of God, but are not trained in philosophical treatment of the principles of the Law, and do not endeavor to establish the truth of their faith by proof.

5. Those who undertake to investigate the principles of religion, have come into the ante-chamber.

6. Those who have succeeded in finding a proof for everything that can be proved, who have a true knowledge of God, so far as a true knowledge can be attained, and are near the truth, wherever an approach to the truth is possible, they have reached the goal, and are in the palace in which the king lives.[2]

Corresponding to those who can actually see and speak to the king, Maimonides continues with one final level, a level attained only by the greatest of prophets:

7. There are some who direct all their mind toward the attainment of perfection in Metaphysics, devote themselves entirely to God, exclude from their thought every other thing, and employ all their intellectual faculties in the study of the Universe, in order to derive therefrom a proof for the existence of God, and to learn in every possible way how God rules all things; they form the class of those who have entered the palace, namely, the class of prophets.[3]

There are certainly some very controversial aspects of this passage. For example, Maimonides’ suggestion that general masses who fulfill the commandments are not even considered to be in the palace, and his opinion that those who engage in philosophical study are on even a higher level than the sages who devote themselves to Torah study certainly have engendered a plethora of critical responses. It is not my goal, however, to focus on these controversial views. Rather, I want to focus on one specific idea that arises from Maimonides, regardless of who is ranked in what order. This is the idea of elitism.

It is clear from Maimonides’ parable that not everyone is afforded the opportunity to encounter the king. There are various levels, and some people are just closer than others. Access to the palace is completely dependent on one’s capabilities, opportunities, and production. In the continuation of this passage, Maimonides outlines a rigorous philosophical curriculum that obligates man to master mathematics, logic, physics, and metaphysics. The study of Jewish law alone does not cut it. The study of physics alone does not cut it. Describing this rigorous program required to achieve these heights, Steven Harvey writes, “Maimonides’ meaning here is quite clear: total devotion to God requires complete concentration and the absence of distractions; therefore, solitude is recommended. In the terminology of 3:51, if man is to achieve his highest end, the intellectual worship and love God, the emptying of the mind of all thought, save that of God alone, then clearly solitude is required. The longer one remains in this state, the stronger the intellect will be until that individual becomes rational in actuality and attains his ultimate perfection.”[4] This is certainly no program for the masses.

What results, therefore, is that the ability to encounter God is extremely limited and exclusive. This elitism is not merely limited to experiencing God, but even to worship; Maimonides says that “true worship of God is only possible when correct notions of Him have previously been conceived.”[5] Put in extreme terms – although this formulation does seem to reflect Maimonides’ intention – those who fall short of elite philosopher status do not truly worship God. Divine worship requires a lot of work.

 

Divine Transcendence

This elite outlook on religious worship seems to be a direct result of Maimonides’ general understanding of divine unity. Maimonides formulates his view on divine unity in the first section of The Guide to the Perplexed, where he addresses the topic of God’s attributes and other terms that are commonly applied to God. The starting point for this discussion is Maimonides’ unique understanding of divine unity. He explains:

If, however, you have a desire to rise to a higher state, viz., that of reflection, and truly to hold the conviction that God is One and possesses true unity, without admitting plurality or divisibility in any sense whatever, you must understand that God has no essential attribute in any form or in any sense whatever, and that the rejection of corporeality implies the rejection of essential attributes. Those who believe that God is One, and that He has many attributes, declare the unity with their lips, and assume plurality in their thoughts.[6]

This formulation of divine unity is not simply that there are no other deities; but, rather, Maimonides adopts a notion of divine simplicity. Leo Strauss explains, “As Maimonides indicates, the meaning of ‘the Lord is one’ is primarily that there is no one or nothing similar or equal to Him.”[7] The moment you attach any human attributes to God, you have limited God and His unity. Because of this understanding, Maimonides assumes that no human terms can be used to describe God. Using human terms in reference to God would imply a connection between God and the physical, something that is simply impossible. Later Maimonides explains:

That there is no correlation between Him and any of His creatures can easily be seen; for the characteristic of two objects correlative to each other is the equality of their reciprocal relation. Now, as God has absolute existence, while all other beings have only possible existence, as we shall show, there consequently cannot be any correlation between God and His creatures…It is impossible to imagine a relation between intellect and sight, although, as we believe, the same kind of existence is common to both; how, then, could a relation be imagined between any creature and God, who has nothing in common with any other being; for even the term existence is applied to Him and other things, according to our opinion, only by way of pure homonymity. Consequently there is no relation whatever between Him and any other being. For whenever we speak of a relation between two things, these belong to the same kind; but when two things belong to different kinds though of the same class, there is no relation between them.[8]

Maimonides, therefore, adopts a doctrine of apophatic theology –also known as negative theology– which claims that the only way to describe God is through negation. He explains:

Know that the negative attributes of God are the true attributes: they do not include any incorrect notions or any deficiency whatever in reference to God, while positive attributes imply polytheism, and are inadequate, as we have already shown…The negative attributes have this in common with the positive, that they necessarily circumscribe the object to some extent, although such circumscription consists only in the exclusion of what otherwise would not be excluded. In the following point, however, the negative attributes are distinguished from the positive. The positive attributes, although not peculiar to one thing, describe a portion of what we desire to know, either some part of its essence or some of its accidents: the negative attributes, on the other hand, do not, as regards the essence of the thing which we desire to know, in any way tell us what it is, except it be indirectly, as has been shown in the instance given by us …It is clear that He has no positive attribute whatever. The negative attributes, however, are those which are necessary to direct the mind to the truths which we must believe concerning God; for, on the one hand, they do not imply any plurality, and, on the other, they convey to man the highest possible knowledge of God; e.g., it has been established by proof that some being must exist besides those things which can be perceived by the senses, or apprehended by the mind; when we say of this being, that it exists, we mean that its non-existence is impossible. [9]

What emerges from all this is that the Maimonidean concept of God is a God completely separate from the world. There is nothing we can even say about God. Any connection we make between God and this world will result in a faulty understanding of divine unity. God, according to Maimonides, is completely transcendent. Summarizing Maimonides’ view on the divine, Alvin J. Reines writes, “The absolute transcendence concept of deity is set forth by Maimonides in his formal discussion of God’s attributes. By absolute transcendence is meant that God is in no way an entity that is to be found in human experience, neither as an object of knowledge nor as an object that enters into relation with humans in any other way…In presenting his absolute transcendence view, Maimonides states that persons who think or feel that they have knowledge of God or that they are otherwise in relation with Him not only commit fundamental philosophic errors, but are also deluded by their imaginations into mistaking fantasy for reality.”[10]

With this appreciation for Maimonides’ transcendent view of God, we can now return to the parable we opened with. The parable presented in the end of The Guide speaks about approaching God and experiencing the divine. But for Maimonides, God is distant. God is not at all in this world. Therefore, one must transcend this world to experience the divine. It is understandable why this is a goal that can only be attained by an elite few. The masses do not have ability to encounter God because God is beyond. The masses, living only in this world, cannot approach a transcendent God. Rising from the lower class to the royal palace is, in fact, a fantasy. Most people are never given this opportunity. Maimonides’ elitist approach to divine worship is a direct result to his transcendent approach to divine unity.

 

The Besht and Divine Immanence

Like Maimonides, the Besht also incorporated a parable about ascending to a royal palace in his teachings. This Hasidic teaching, however, because of a much different understanding of divinity, has a very different message. R. Jacob Joseph of Polnoy’s version of the parable, recalling what he heard from the Besht, opens with a question based on a Zohar.[11] It goes as follows:

It seems to me that it is written in the Zohar that there are places of prayer, one higher than the other, and angels receive the prayer[12]…And behold, the Holy One, blessed be He, fills the entire world, and there is no place that is empty of His glory, and wherever someone prays, His glory, blessed be He, is found there. Therefore, why is there a need for the angels to go from one palace to another, in order that his prayer will be accepted?[13]

If God is everywhere, why do the prayers need to be delivered to God? R. Jacob Joseph quotes the Besht’s parable to explain:

And it seems to me that I wrote elsewhere what I heard from my teacher, blessed be his memory, in a parable that he told before the blowing of the shofar: There was a great, wise king, and he made walls and towers and gates by means of illusion. And he commanded that people will come to him through these gates and towers, and he commanded that the treasures of the king be spread out at each of the gates. And there was one person who went until the first gate and took the mammon and returned. And there were others… [Each wall is higher, broader, and more terrifying than the one preceding, in order to induce fear so that not everyone who wants to approach the king will do so.] Until his son, his beloved one, made a great effort to go to his father, the king. Then he saw that there was no screen separating him and his father because everything was an illusion.[14]

He concludes with a message:

And the meaning of the parable is understandable. And the words of the wise are attractive. And I have written elsewhere what I heard from my teacher, may his memory be blessed, that it is known that God, blessed be His name, who fills the entire world with His glory, and each and every movement and thought are from Him, blessed be He, and by this knowledge and by means “all the wrongdoers will fall apart…” (Psalms, 92:10),  and all the angels and palaces, were all created and made as if from His substance, blessed be He…and there is no screen separating man from Him, blessed be He.[15]

Like Maimonides, the Besht tells a story about a king in his palace and the different barriers that prevent outsiders from entering. For Maimonides, the starting point is God’s transcendence, for the Besht, however, the starting point is God’s immanence. If God is truly everywhere, why do we need assistance approaching Him? Therefore, the Besht explains that the barriers are actually illusions, and, in reality, God is immanently present in this world.

One of the key components to Hasidic teachings, an idea quoted throughout the Besht’s teachings and in the passage above, is that “there is no place that is empty of His glory.” Elsewhere the Besht teaches:

The Creator is found in every act of physical movement. It is impossible to make any motion or to utter any word without the power of the Creator. That is the meaning of “The whole earth is full of His glory (Isaiah 6:3).”[16]

The Besht takes this verse, “The whole earth is full of His glory,” quite literally. We get a much different picture when considering Maimonides’ interpretation of this very same verse. Maimonides explains that when we speak of the earth being filled with God’s glory, this does not mean that God Himself actually fills the world. Rather, when man uses his intellectual capabilities to praise God, he brings God’s glory into this world.[17] For the Besht, however, this verse is the prime formulation of God’s immanence.[18]

 

Access for the General Public

Let us return to the two palace parables. If, for Maimonides, it was the transcendent nature of God that contributed to his elitist approach, conversely, we can say, that for the Besht, his immanent view of God will result in a non-elitist approach. This is because, if, in fact, God is immanently present in this world, He is available to everyone, even the masses. Communion with God does not require transcending this world, something only the elite can do after rigorous study in isolation. God can be found everywhere, thus anyone can approach God. “There is no place that is empty of His glory.” The only necessary requirement to enter God’s palace is a realization that God fills the entire universe, thus breaking down the illusionary barriers that mask God’s presence. This is certainly not analogous to the rigorous curriculum required by Maimonides. For Maimonides, the barriers surrounding the king are not only real, but also they are difficult to pass. For the Besht, the barriers are only hallucinations. All that is required to pass is an adjustment of one’s mindset. This can be achieved by even the simple Jew. The barriers are not even really there.

Highlighting the Besht’s idea that  connection to God is attainable by every single Jew, not just the elite, Moshe Idel writes, “The clear accent on the divine presence in the world according to the plain sense of the parable fits well the direction of the interpretation according to which it is the divine presence in man, the neshamah, which stands at the core of the spiritual exegesis of the grandson…By the adoption of such an exegesis by the hasidic masters…every Jew becomes a potential candidate for the special status of a son of God, by the very existence of his soul.”[19] Every single Jew has the ability to speak to the king. This is a logical extension of the Besht’s view of divine immanence.

The Besht does not put the elite on a great pedestal. Elsewhere, in a discussion about divine immanence, again we see the Besht focusing on the masses. He teaches:

An explanation of the verse: “And David blessed God before the eyes of the entire congregation (kol ha-kahal) etc’(I Chronicles 29:10), is that David showed through the senses, to the eyes of the whole congregation, that God fills the world in its entirety, and there is no place devoid of God. How did he show this to everyone? By saying: “To You, God, is greatness and strength etc. and kingship etc.” Then everyone saw, even the masses (va-afilu hamon ha-am), that God is the source of everything and its happenings…each movement is sourced in God. For it is impossible to move or speak without the power of God.[20]

Noting the words kol ha-kahal, or entire congregation, the Besht teaches that David conveyed the message of divine immanence to the entire nation, including the hamon ha-am, or the masses. The immanent understanding of God could be grasped even by the masses. This being the case, the masses, and not just the elite, are able to approach God in His palace. While Maimonides required the elite philosopher to go to God, the Besht is of the opinion that God is actually the one who travels into this world making Himself available to everyone.[21]

 

Conclusion

Let us return to our opening questions: Are stories about commoners ascending to the king’s palace simply fairytales and fantasies? Or, when it comes to religion, is the common folk really given the opportunity to dwell in the king’s presence? What is required from man to approach God? For Maimonides, it might very well be true that the masses do not have the ability to experience the divine presence. God’s transcendent nature limits divine accessibility to the elite philosopher. The Besht, on the other hand, who highlights God’s immanence, believes that communion with God is attainable even by the masses. For him, ascending to the royal palace is not necessarily a fairytale.

Whether we accept the elitist approach of Maimonides or the egalitarian approach of the Besht, or something in the middle, the goal we should all be striving for is certainly agreed upon by all: In the words of the great King David, “One thing I have asked of the Lord, this I seek: that I may dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the pleasantness of the Lord, and to visit His Sanctuary” (Psalms 27,4).

Zev Kahane is a junior at YC majoring in Jewish Studies.



[1] The Guide to the Perplexed, trans. by M. Friedländer, (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1904), available at www.wikisource.org, 3:51.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. Maimonides continues with a description of Moses, who achieved these lofty levels: “One of these has attained so much knowledge, and has concentrated his thoughts to such an extent in the idea of God, that it could be said of him, ‘And he was with the Lord forty days etc.’ (Exodus 34:28); during that holy communion he could ask Him, answer Him, speak to Him, and be addressed by Him, enjoying beatitude in that which he had obtained to such a degree that ‘he did neither eat bread nor drink water (ibid.);” his intellectual energy was so predominant that all coarser functions of the body, especially those connected with the sense of touch, were in abeyance.”

[4] Steven Harvey, “Maimonides in the Sultan’s Palace,” in Perspectives on Maimonides: Philosophical and Historical Studies, ed. Joel L. Kraemer and Lawrence V. Berman (Oxford: Published for the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization by Oxford University Press, 1991), 67-68.

[5] The Guide to the Perplexed, 3:51.

[6] Ibid., 1:50.

[7] Leo Strauss, “How to Begin to Study The Guide of the Perplexed” (Introduction), in Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, ed. By Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963), xlvii.

[8] The Guide for the Perplexed, 1:52.

[9] Ibid., 1:58.

[10] Alvin J. Reines, “Maimonides’ True Belief Concerning God,” Maimonides and Philosophy: Papers Presented at the Sixth Jerusalem Philosophical Encounter,” ed. by Shlomo Pines and Yirmiyahu Yovel. (Dordrecht, Netherlands: M. Nijhoff, 1986), 24.

[11] The parable is told in the name of the Besht by many of his students, including R. Joseph Jacob of Polnoy, R. Moshe Hayyim Efrayyim of Sudylkov, and R. Nahman of Bratzlav. Each version has its own nuances and additions. See the Moshe Idel article cited below, which deals with these different versions and their different meanings and interpretations.

[12] Zohar Hadash, 2:244.

[13] Keter Shem Tov, 51, transl. by Moshe Idel.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Keter Shem Tov, 273, my translation.

[17] The Guide to the Perplexed, 1:64.

[18] Commenting on the Besht’s aforementioned parable, Gershom Scholem notes, “Its literal sense conveys no pantheistic meaning but rather an ‘acosmic” one: the world is denied real existence, reality is seen rather as a sort of ‘veil of Maya’… External reality is but an illusion.” (The Messianic Idea in Judaism, 224). Continuing his analysis of the nature of God as described in the parable, Scholem writes, “Others, as for instance the Rabbi of Polnoye, give it a pantheistic turn: ‘People with true insight know that all the walls and partitions, all the outward clothes and covers are in truth of His own essence, for there is no place void of him.’ If the formula alone were decisive, we might safely say that there is, indeed, a pantheistic element to be found, at least in some of the Baal Shem’s disciples” (ibid.). Scholem himself suggests a more nuanced approach: “As to the Baal Shem himself, there is no proof, in his authentic sayings, of any doctrine which might properly be called pantheistic. In contradistinction to this absence of an identification of God and the universe, of the Creator and Creation, there is full proof of his belief in the immanence of God in every one of His creatures. It is what most philosophers call ‘panentheistic’ teaching –all being in God, but not all Being God” (ibid., 223). Moshe Idel also rejects a pantheistic interpretation of the parable: “The main point that permeates the parable as well as its interpretation is the Hassidic stand that God is found everywhere. This is the reason the term ‘illusion’ is used so often, since the distance between God and the worshiper is understood as a sign of misunderstanding. Such an approach is important in Hasidism, which combined some pantheistic elements with strongly personal imagery as we may amply see in the above parable. It should be emphasized that in the material addressed above, no full-fledged pantheism is assumed, despite the resort to the concept of illusion” (“The Parable of the Son of the King and the Imaginary Walls in Early Hasidism,” 102). The exact nuances of the Besht’s views may be up to debate, but it is clear to all that the Besht, at the very least, had a decidedly immanent view of God. According to the Ba’al Shem Tov, God is found and involved in everything that goes on in the world.

[19] Moshe Idel, “The Parable of the Son of the King and the Imaginary Walls in Early Hasidism,” Judaism – Topics, Fragments, Faces, Identities, ed. by  Haviva Pedaya and Ephraim Meir, (Beer Sheva: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 2007), 103.

[20] Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov, Genesis 47, my translation.

[21] It is important to point out an approach taken by Immanual Etkes, which claims that even the Besht maintains an elitist approach despite his immanent understanding of God. Etkes writes:

 

The knowledge that the partitions that divide man from God are a kind of hallucination has the potential of helping those seeking devekut to surmount the obstacles set in their path. Yet this assertion also entails a risk: an over-simplistic understanding of the idea of divine immanence can lead a person to infer that devekut is attainable easily or without a large spiritual investment…It is in fact the immanent conception that expresses the state of affairs as they actually are. The transcendental conception, by contrast, is a sort of optical illusion. Yet this illusion is a pedagogical artifice that the Almighty employs: the illusion of distance is designed to stimulate man to invest the necessary effort to attain proximity to God. More generally, although the idea of divine immanence plays a decisive function in the path towards devekut, nothing about it diminishes the effort that is required of those who seek to take this path (The Besht: Magician, Mystic, and Leader, 135-137). See also Keter Shem Tov 169, 200.