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Divine Teaching and the Way of the WorldA Defense of Revealed Religion$

Samuel Fleischacker

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199217366

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199217366.001.0001

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(p.476) Appendix II: Maimonides on the Evidence for Revelation

(p.476) Appendix II: Maimonides on the Evidence for Revelation

Divine Teaching and the Way of the World
Oxford University Press

My understanding of what it is to stand at Sinai can be aligned quite nicely with Maimonides’ reading of that event. Maimonides tells us in his Guide that not everyone at Sinai experienced the same event. “All saw the great fire, and heard the fearful thunderings,” he says, “but only those of them who were duly qualified were prophetically inspired, each one according to his capacities.”1 So the fire and the sound—the apparently miraculous goings on—are not the important part of the event, and if one attended merely to them, or to anything else that can be picked up by the senses, one would miss the fact that God was speaking: one would not be “prophetically inspired.” Maimonides is quite clear that prophecy, knowledge of what God has to say, depends on a humiliation of one’s sensory faculties, on suspending one’s senses and subduing the desires that come with sensation.2 Prophecy is not possible until one has developed one’s capacity for abstract understanding of God to a high degree, recognized the kind of commands God gives,3 and broken the hold of one’s natural tendency to trust the senses over the understanding. But then it is precisely a turning away from empirical evidence, and the tendencies in human nature that lead us to put our trust in such evidence, that allows us to “see” or “hear” God.

So what can Maimonides mean by saying, in the Mishneh Torah, that the Israelites believed in Moses, not because of miracles or signs, but because they “were themselves witnesses to the truth of [Moses’s] prophecy”? What does he mean by saying that at Sinai the Israelites and Moses were “like two persons who saw an event together,” that “each of them [was] a witness that the other [was] telling the truth”?4 The comparison to witnessing, to testimony in a court, suggests that we are dealing with an empirical event here, which the Israelites directly experienced along with Moses.

Well, first we should note that Maimonides speaks repeatedly here of witnessing to, or “seeing and hearing,” Moses’s prophecy, or even the truth of that prophecy,5 not to the events on Sinai, or the fact that Moses, or God, literally spoke this prophecy. It’s not at all obvious how one could perceptually witness—see or hear—the truth of a prophecy; this is already a hint that the “seeing and hearing” are to be taken metaphorically.

Second, the way we grasped what happened at Sinai is supposed to remove all doubts we might have about its truth, unlike the way we might grasp a sign or miracle. Maimonides stresses that the Sinaitic event is supposed to remove all “lurking doubts” and “musings and speculation” about whether God really appeared to us or not.6 But nothing we literally saw or heard could possibly remove such doubts, as Maimonides would have been the first to insist. If we may doubt whether the division of the Red Sea was produced by witchcraft, as Maimonides suggests earlier in this chapter,7 then we may certainly doubt whether the voice and atmospheric show at Sinai were not also products of witchcraft.

And third, the chapter in the Mishneh Torah slips quietly between talking of what the Israelites at Sinai might have experienced and what all Jews—including the ones reading Maimonides’s book—firmly believe. What are the grounds of our faith in Moses, Maimonides asks? “The standing at Sinai which our eyes saw and not [those of] a stranger, which our ears heard and not (p.477) those of another.” Later he tells us that we would know that a would-be prophet who claimed to refute Moses was wrong since “with our eyes and our ears we heard the divine Voice.” But we didn’t. We weren’t there—at least if “being there” means literally being present at Sinai.8 No reader of Maimonides is going to say, “Ah yes, I remember experiencing Sinai myself, so of course I am more certain of that than of any other prophecy.”

So it seems clear that we can make best sense of the Mishneh Torah chapter, both in itself and in its relation to the Guide, if we understand what we “saw and heard” at Sinai as a metaphor for grasping the content of the Torah. Ultimately, for Maimonides, what shows that the Torah is divine is the fact that its law lives up to the criteria he lays out for what a divine law is supposed to accomplish.9 So it is the content of the Torah, not its mode of transmission, in which its divinity lies. But that is something he believes we can know with certainty—as if we were seeing or hearing it—and that we can know today just as readily as anyone literally standing at Sinai could have known it. That is also something that, if we attain the highest moral and intellectual level, we can know together with Moses (“…like two persons who saw an event together…”). Standing at Sinai is standing in the space of the highest prophecy, attaining the highest knowledge of what God wants of us, and it is the ability to grasp the goodness of the Torah from that standpoint that all Jews are supposed to share.

Of course, Maimonides would not have approved of my view that it is our imaginations, more than our reason, with which we grasp the Torah’s content. For him, imagination was a weak and misleading cognitive tool, in need of correction by reason.10 But that, I think, is the source of all that is most disappointing, and threatening to traditional Judaism, in Maimonides’ views: of the excessive rationalism by which he reduces Jewish law to Aristotelian ethics, to a degree that makes it hard to understand why a properly philosophical person need maintain the law at all. Maimonides is an ancestor of what I have called the “too-knowing adult’s view” of revelation, the Kantian or Cohenian view that virtually eliminates it. I think we can embrace the understanding he offers us of what it is to stand at Sinai without accepting the excessively rationalistic way he reads the content of that experience.


(1.) Maimonides, Guide, II.32.

(2.) Guide II.41, 36, and 40.

(3.) See the end of Guide II.39.

(4.) MT I.i.viii.2; 44a.

(5.) They were edim al nevuato shehi emet.

(6.) MT I.i.viii.2; 44a.

(7.) MT I.i.viii.1; 43b.

(8.) There is a famous Midrashic tradition to the effect that we were all at Sinai. But Maimonides is here trying to provide foundations for all Jewish belief, so he cannot appeal to Midrash. Anyone still trying to figure out why he should believe the Torah is not going to be convinced that he experienced something he can’t remember on the basis of a Midrash.

(9.) See the whole of Guide III, but especially chapters 27–28.

(10.) See, for instance, Guide I.2 and II.12, 36–37.