“Romano-Arabica”, nr. II/2002,
Editura Universităţii, Bucureşti, 2002

Folds of love (t)issue

 in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed

Madeea Axinciuc

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“Let him kiss me

with the kisses of his mouth”

 (The Song of Songs 1, 2)

The “love issue” does not represent in Maimonides’ Guide for the perplexed[1] a well-defined and easy to approach subject. One cannot indicate a “doctrine” of love or some clear lines of demarcation regarding this very problem within the treatise[2]. Different kinds of love appear in different places and at different levels under different names. Moreover, the significance of the term(s) does not derive from a simple (even if rigorous) analysis of the different occurrences in the text, but it supervenes or crops up as a result of combining and comparing these occurrences, on the one hand, and by discerning or/and bringing together the related terms, subjects or strata of the treatise, on the other hand. The complexity of this (t)issue is thus relevant for the uncovering of some explicit and non-explicit articulations of the whole construction offering new starting points for a fertile re-reading of the Guide.

Two premises encouraged this study by shaping a problem-situation and by announcing significant and clearing up results:

The first premise is offered by the text itself. Especially in the third part of the Guide love appears to be the climax of the human knowledge experience; it represents the fulfillment of all commandments and the superior stage fully attained by the prophet in the moment of his separation from matter/body.

The second (and more perplexing) premise is represented by the article of Prof. Moshe Idel from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem “Sitre Arayot in Maimonides’ Thought” (1986, pp. 79-90). Prof. Idel draws the attention to Maimonides’ references to sitre arayot (the mysteries regarding the forbidden sexual relations) as an esoteric subject, together with Maase bereshit (the Account of the Beginning) and Maase mercava (the Account of the divine Chariot) in his earlier works: “I would like to discuss Maimonides’ understanding of arayot as an esoteric topic, and to comment on why in his later works he omits mention of arayot when discussing the two companion secrets of the Accounts of the Beginning and of the Chariot” (ibid., pp. 79-80).

Before entering and developing the created problem-situation a methodological framework-distinction is necessary, the distinction (I usually make use of when approaching Maimonides’ philosophical work[3]) between visible and invisible.

The visible is the thematization, the instanciation, the embodiment of the invisible. If the invisible is the essence, then the visible is the existence. As existentialization, the visible is, metaphorically, the ecstasy of the invisible. The latter can be identified with the transcendence: “Principle: not to consider the invisible as an other visible “possible”, or a “possible” visible for an other […]. The invisible is there without being an object, it is pure transcendence, without an ontic mask. And the “visibles” themselves, in the last analysis, they too are only centered on a nucleus of absence” (cf. M. Merleau-Ponty, 1968). From the ontic level to the ontological one the visible presents itself as a limit, as the “body” of man and the “flesh” of the world: “What there is then are not things first identical with themselves, which would then offer themselves to the seer, nor is there a seer who is first empty and who, afterward, would open himself to them – but something to which we could not be closer than by palpating it with our look, things we could not dream of seeing “all naked” because the gaze itself envelops them, clothes them with its own flash […]. How does it happen that my look, enveloping them, does not hide them, and, finally, that veiling them, it unveils them?” (ibid., p. 131).

I. Mystery (seter) and secret (sod)

The Hebrew words sitre Tora (“mysteries of the Tora”) subscribe an horizon usually identified with the core of the Jewish esotericism. As for Maimonides, metaphysics is the science which unveils the divine truths the philosophers are looking for, truths called, following the traditional line, "secrets" (sodot) or "mysteries of the Tora” (sitre Tora)[4]. According to Prof. Moshe Idel, the "loss of secrets" is in fact the true cause of the spiritual perplexity: " Maimonides assumes that he can restore the broken line of transmission of the secrets of the Torah, and recreate thereby a pre-existing ideal situation" (1994, p. 292).

I intend to differenciate between mystery (seter) and secret (sod), as the distinction proves extremely efficient and illuminating in what follows.

The secret (sod) makes reference to the visible realm: something visible is hidden by someone who keeps the secret. No transcendence or ontological matters are implied. The secret is kept simply by not being divulged, that is, by the personal specific attitude engaged in a specific human dialogue-situation. It depends on someone’s will whether to divulge or not a secret to someone else.

On the contrary, the mystery (seter) relies more on the invisible, that is, on the invisible hidden part which ontologically refuses itself to any kind of discourse. Something invisible is hidden by/through the visible and the very invisible can never be attained, but only indicated, suggested, pointed out (of course, by means of the visible). The mystery can not be divulged as there is no one in the visible world possessing it. That is why the mystery does not suppose a dialogue-situation. Every one, alone, faces the mystery and this experience is unique. The mystery can not be taught. One can only be initiated in these matters. The invisible and the visible together create the mystery. As a principle the mystery consists of both phanic (what is revealed/seen) and cryptic (what is hidden) (cf. Lucian Blaga, 1983).

In this new light sitre Tora represent the mysteries of the Tora as opposed to the secrets which can be fully explained and easily translated into visible terms.

II. Sitre Tora: Maase bereshit, Maase mercava (and sitre arayot?)

In his Introduction to the Guide, referring to sitre Tora Maimonides explicitly mentions Maase bereshit and Maase mercava. Moreover, he identifies Maase bereshit with physics (the science of the created, changing nature), and Maase mercava with metaphysics (the science of the Law, of the eternal, unchanging truths): “We also stated (Mishne Tora, I.ii.12, and iiv.10) that the expression Maase bereshit (“Account of the Creation”) signified “Natural Science”, and Maase mercava (“Description of the Chariot”) Metaphysics […]” (Introduction). 

Maase bereshit and Maase mercava are so closely related that someone can not refer only to Maase mercava without taking into account the truths of the Natural Science, Maase bereshit. The understanding of the relation which therefore exists between Maase mercava and Maase bereshit offers a key to understanding the mysteries of the metaphysics: "Know that also in Natural Science there are topics which are not to be fully explained. […] because there is a close affinity between these subjects and metaphysics, and indeed they form part of its mysteries. Do not imagine that these most difficult problems can be thoroughly understood by any one of us" (Introduction).

Consequently, metaphysics essentially signifies Maase mercava, but secondary, it is strongly related to (and could even include some parts of) Maase bereshit.

Using the distinction visible/invisible, we could say that physics is nothing else but the science of the visible uncovered as multiple.

Maase bereshit is dealing, as the denomination already indicates, with the “beginnings”, that is, the creation, the coming into being of the visible, while Maase mercava stands for the human-divine endeavor to discover/to reconstruct the way upwards having for a target the invisible.

The distinction reveals its real significance by an attentive analysis. Both terms bereshit and mercava have a special echo in the Jewish tradition.

Bereshit is the first word and also the name of the first book of Moses. Maase bereshit will designate everything related to the created world, all that appears directly as multiple in all its manifestations.

The second term, Mercava, means throne, chair, chariot[5]. Maimonides insists upon the fact that what Ezekiel and Isaiah saw in their visions[6] was only the throne of God and by no means God Himself[7]; the two prophets have seen only the place where God stood, His trace: “The prophet likewise says “that is the likeness of the glory of the Lord”[8]; but “the glory of the Lord” is different from “the Lord” Himself, as has been shown by us several times. All the figures in this vision refer to the glory of the Lord, to the chariot, and not to Him who rides upon the chariot; for God cannot be compared to anything. Note this” (III, 7).

Maase merkava points to a form of esoteric knowledge that is transmitted only to the initiated ones, and not even to these entirely, since it refuses the discursive form par excellence. This is why, the disciple is merely to receive a few elements, which lead him, if he possesses appropriate skills, to the veiled science of un-veiling: “The Maase merkava must not be fully expounded even in the presence of a single student, unless he be wise and able to reason for himself, and even then you should merely acquaint him with the heads of the different sections of the subject [rashei peraqim]” (Babyl. Talm., Hagigah 11b). What is concealed, must stay concealed. Unveiling equals veiling. Discourse, as wording, becomes the instrument of arcane concealment, of oblivion, of hiding what is utmost hidden;rashei peraqim (“the primeval elements/headings”) are truly beneficial to him only who knows how to advance in silence, liberated from words (see III, 1-7).

After all precaution, Maimonides leaps to the presentation proper of the Account of the divine throne, Maase merkava. The starting point for this is represented by the two visions of Ezekiel (chapter 1 and chapter 10) and the vision of Isaiah (chapter 6), texts that have engendered in Jewish mysticism (starting with the 1st century CE, and going on to the 10th century) what is called “the throne mysticism”. Of course, only “the primeval elements/headings” [rashei peraqim] are exposed[9].

“Two of the crucial issues of Jewish esotericism, the Accounts of the Beginning and of the Chariot, are discussed by Maimonides several times in his works. In his opinion, they are identical with two philosophical domains, physics and metaphysics, respectively. This interpretation is proposed already in Maimonides’ earlier work, the Commentary on the Mishna. No significant change is discernible between his first treatment of these issues and his later discussions. Only in the Commentary, however, did Maimonides refer to the third issue which is mentioned in the Mishna of Hagigah, namely arayot or sitre arayot” (Moshe Idel, 1986, p. 79).

The esoteric dimension of arayot (forbidden sexual relations) is obvious. Whether the arayot interdictions represent a step in a progressive curriculum (the first step of an ascending ladder having at the top Maase mercava) or a separate subject is not clear (cf. ibid., p. 83). A significant problem is the change in Maimonides’ attitude towards arayot. “First they are considered as “secrets” together with the two main esoteric issues, the Accounts of the Beginning and of the Chariot. In the Mishne Tora the arayot, still viewed as “secrets”, are, however, separated from the other esoteric issues. Finally, in the Guide, the content of the previous discussions of arayot, together with additional remarks on this matter, cease to be “secrets” at all. We perceive a shift from an esoteric perception of arayot to an overtly exoteric one” (ibid., p. 84).

Why did Maimonide exclude arayot from the larger framework of sitre Tora thus limiting, apparently without any explanation, the realm of Jewish esotericism? Prof. Moshe Idel suggests an answer which pertinently and critically takes into consideration both the context and the tradition Maimonides belonged to and reacted to in his works: “Writing on these two Accounts alone, Maimonides could offer an alternative to the commonly accepted interpretation of these esoteric topics. However, as the secrets of arayot had never been the subject of a special Hekhalot text, there was no particular need for Maimonides to submit an elaborate interpretation of his own as an alternative” (ibid., pp. 86-87).

From within the framework of the Guide alone and considering the distinction made between mystery and secret together with the self-delimitation cleared up by Prof. Idel, one more reason/answer could be inferred with regard to Maimonides’ exclusion of arayot from under the heading of sitre Tora. The need to clearly define within his system of thought the Jewish esotericism by settling once again its boundaries obliged Maimonides to resort to precise, explicit or implicit distinctions and demarcations. Such explicit distinctions are: matter and form, corporeal and uncorporeal, proper and figurative meaning, existence, likeness (appearance) and essence. I suggested that an implicit distinction would be mystery/secret with a special stress on the significance of the mystery. From this very point of view, the arayot, referring exclusively to corporeal “hygiene” and supposing a submission to the body alone and its desires, have no connection at all with the mystery; nothing points to the invisible, moreover, the visible is self-referent, narcissiac and there is no place for mystery which always stands in between the visible and the invisible. The interdictions in the form of commandments are a self-evident prerequisite situated in the Guide on the same level with the rejection of the idolatry.

The first consequence regarding Maimonides’ attitude towards human love stresses the importance (in every kind of relation) of the understanding that the body/the matter in itself does not represent the ultimate value.

III. Human and/or divine love

The first and main description/understanding of love has in the center the idea of the relation. Love implies a special kind of relation/connection/intercourse. Now, this relation is usually (inter)personal, but one can apply the term also for describing similar/analogous relations and this is done, according to Maimonides, only by the use of homonymy. It is the case of the so-called relation between man (or any other creature) and God:

“It is quite clear that there is no relation between God and time or space. [...] But what we have to investigate and to examine is this: whether some real relation exists between God and any of the substances created by Him, by which He could be described? 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. [...] 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 homonymy” (I, 52).

All creatures have the attribute of corporeality whilst God is uncorporeal. Words can be used with their proper meaning only with regard to the visible realm (as a referent) and by no means with regard to the invisible itself as the latter can only be indicated in a figurative manner and never referred to properly.

Taking into consideration this aspect I will differentiate at the level of the significance between human and divine love. The table below presents the main different (love-)relations referred to differently in the treatise:




invisible → visible

 (form) (matter&form)

hesed: divine love, loving-kindness, providence; the mystery of the creation (Maase bereshit);

ahava (by way of homonymy): divine love for man/creatures;

visible → visible

 (matter&form) (matter&form)

ahava: human love; lust, the problem of (sitre) arayot (sexual intercourse);

hesed: human mercy, charity and generosity as imitatio Dei;

visible → invisible

 (matter&form) (form)

ahava (eventually by way of homonymy): human love for God; the mystery of the divine essence (Maase mercava); amor Dei intellectuallis;

invisible → invisible

 (form) (form)

hesheq: divine kiss, unio mystica; amor Dei intellectuallis (climax).

Prof. W. Zeev Harvey[10] described these three different kinds of love designated by the three different Hebrew terms as follows: hesed represents the love of the strong for the weak, a love that derives from power; ahava represents the love of the weak for the strong, a love that derives from need; and hesheq represents the intellectual love.

The mataphor of the divine kiss as an expression for the intense love of God is highly significant. As long as man is in body his love and knowledge of God are imperfect. “The more the forces of his body are weakened, and the fire of passion quenched, in the same measure does man’s intellect increase in strength and light; his knowledge becomes purer, and he is happy with his knowledge. When this perfect man is striken in age and is near death, his knowledge mightily increases, his joy in that knowledge grows greater, and his love for the object of his knowledge more intense, and it is in this great delight that the soul separates from the body. To this stage our Sages referred, when in reference to the death of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, they said that death was in these three cases nothing but a kiss[11]” (III, 51).

This is also the hidden meaning of Songs 1, 2: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth”.

The intellectual union suggested by the metaphor of the divine kiss represents the climax of the human ascension to God while in body. The man experiencing this kind of death/separation from body attains perfection. As a matter of fact, the perfection is seen paradoxically as both a precondition and a state attained in the very moment and by the very fact of “being kissed”. Human perfection implies “the possession of the highest intellectual faculties. [...] With this perfection man has obtained his final object; it gives him true human perfection; it remains to him alone; it gives him immortality, and on its account he is called man” (III, 54).

The “intellectual love” appears as a contradiction in terms. Love is usually restrained to sensibility and has nothing to do with the intellect. Maimonides rather refers here to love as a homonym and this would be an easy-to-understand presumption after following Maimonides’ line of thought[12]. Another reason is offered by the use of the word “delight” when referring to the precise moment of the separation from the body. Interestingly enough, Maimonides asserts that the intellect once separated “continues for ever in that great delight, which is not like bodily pleasure.” (III, 51) The difference in register is obvious. The invisible can only be indicated by way of figurative meaning/homonymy. The kiss is no more an ordinary (human) kiss since the love is no more an ordinary (human) love (within the visible realm and between “visible” partners).

Any  discourse  aiming  to  the invisible   (in itself - with reference to the essence of God, or as separate form/intelligence - with reference to angels, or even as human intellect - in body) is double.

IV. Love and/or knowledge of God

“[...] man’s love of God is identical with His knowledge of Him. [...] man concentrates all his thoughts on the First Intellect, and is absorbed in these thoughts as much as possible” (III, 51).

Maimonides repeatedly identifies the love of God with His knowledge (and “His” is to be understood here as both “object” and subject, for indeed God is the Subject par excellence). An active and totally engaged attitude is required whenever one tries to approach God. This equals in Maimonides’ thought to a concentration of all human bodily powers/forces and intellectual faculties on God. This concentration necessary implies a detachment, a withdrawal from the senses, i.e. from the body, since matter supposes multiplicity and dispersion. “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deut. 6, 5)[13]. Only the invisible is one, this is why the unity belongs to the intellect, as unity of the form: “I explain “with all thy heart” to mean “with all the powers of thy heart”, that is, with all the powers of the body, for they all have their origin in the heart; and the sense of the entire passage is: make the knowledge of God the aim of all thy actions [...]” (I, 39).

The love of God and the knowledge of God are identical or precede one another mysteriously reinforcing each other[14]. Spiritual cleaving to God supposes the “practice” of death[15] as melete thanatou.

The withdrawal from the senses is made possible by (and eventually leads to) retirement and seclusion. “Every pious man should therefore seek retirement (le-hipared) and seclusion (le-hitboded)[16], and should only in case of necessity associate with others.” (III, 51) The retirement from the visible realm implies first the retirement from society and then the “retirement” from the body. Love unifies and guides all the forces towards an “intellectual identity” (hence the immortality of the soul) meant to always “be in touch” with God. Love refines the human identity by bringing the man as much as possible nearer to the likeness of God (otherwise, a relation at this level, as we have already seen, is impossible).

The worship of God must be  preceded by  His  knowledge and love. “David therefore commands his son Solomon these two things, and exhorts him earnestly to do them[17]: to acquire a true knowledge of God, and to be earnest in His service after the knowledge has been acquired” (III, 51).

Loving God is the supreme liturgical act which ennobles man and delivers him from the chains of the death.

Madeea Axinciuc


[1] I used the English version, The Guide for the Perplexed, translated from the original Arabic text by M. Friedlander, Dover Publications, New York, 1956. The biblical verses follow The Jerusalem Bible, Koren Publishers Jerusalem LTD., Jerusalem, 1997.
[2] In fact, this is also the (methodological) aim of the treatise: not to offer a philosophical system with clear determinations, but to show/indicate a way meant to overpass the perplexity caused, I would say, by the inadequate “doctrine-oriented” approach of the perplexed ones (nevokhim). “[...] the aim is not “to prove” or “to demonstrate” or “to establish some ultimate truth”, but to point out as a ‘signpost’, which is the accurate meaning of Guide (Arabic: Dalala)” (José Faur, 1999, p. XI).
[3] See also Madeea Axinciuc, 2002, “Moise Maimonide. Călăuza rătăciţilor ca itinerar al minţii în Dumnezeu” [”Moses Maimonides. The Guide of the Perplexed as itinerarium mentis in Deum”], Bucharest: Academia Română, Fundaţia Naţională pentru Ştiinţăşi Artă, pp. 18-20.
[4] "[…] he likewise interprets the "secrets" (sodot) or "mysteries of the Torah” (sitre Torah) of ancient mysticism as being identical with philosophical ideas" (Sara Klein-Braslavy, 1990, p. 58). Is Maimonides "working within the framework of Aristotelianism" (ibid., p. 57), is The Guide for the Perplexed  trying to identify and thus to reduce Judaism to Aristotelianism, or Maimonides is working within the framework of Judaism, using Aristotle as an instrument (undoubtedly a precious one) in order to express philosophically his interpretatio authentica?
[5] “[…] the earliest Jewish mysticism is throne-mysticism. Its essence is not absorbed contemplation of God’s true nature, but perception of His appearance on the throne, as described by Ezekiel, and cognition of the mysteries of the celestial throne-world” (Gershom Scholem, 1974, p. 44).
[6] Ezekiel 10, 1 and Isaiah 6, 1-2.
[7] “[…] we comprehend only the fact that He exists, not His essence” (I, 58).
[8] Ezekiel 1, 28: “[…] This was the appearance (mare) of the likeness (demut) of the glory (cavod) of the Lord (IHWH)”.
[9] “Do not expect or hope to hear from me after this chapter a word on this subject, either explicitly or implicitly, for all that could be said on it has been said, though with great difficulty and struggle” (III, 7).
[10] On the occasion of his two lectures (“Love in the Philosophy of Maimonides”) given at the Center for Hebrew Studies, Bucharest, December 2001.
[11] “And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab by the mouth of the Lord (al-pi Adonai)” (Deut. 34, 5); “And Aaron the priest went up into Mount Hor by the mouth of the Lord (al-pi Adonai), and died there [...]“ (Num. 33, 38). In Miriam’s case the phrase “by the mouth of the Lord” is not used because “it was not considered appropriate to use these words in the description of her death as she was a female” (III, 51).
[12]A similar problem has been rised, for example, with regard to Hasdai Crescas, a medieval Jewish critic of Maimonides, whose major philosophical work, The Light of the Lord, mentions joy and love as divine attributes. Prof. W. Zeev Harvey makes a necessary distinction which also functions, I would say, in Maimonides’ Guide: “Although Crescas held joy and love to be passions, and although he attributed joy and love to God, he nonetheless did not attribute passions to God. When he attributes joy and love to God, he attributes them to Him not as passions, but as actions” (1998, p. 106).
[13]“Clearly, the language of love evokes more than legal loyalty. It claims the total self” (Michael Fishbane, 1996, p. 3).
[14]In his Light of the Lord (Book II, Part 6, Chapter 1) Hasdai Crescas asserts: “[...] in proportion to the perfection [of the lover] will be the love” (translated by W. Zeev Harvey, 1998, p. 124).
[15] See Michael Fishbane, 1996, p. 21.
[16]For a detailed analysis of hitbodedut and its multiple meanings (including both “concentration” and “isolation”, “seclusion) especially in later texts, see Moshe Idel, 1996, Hitbodedut as Concentration in Ecstatic Kabbalah, in Jewish Spirituality from the Bible through the Middle Ages, Edited by Arthur Green, vol. I, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company. “This connection between apprehension and providence indicates a possible influence of Maimonides’ approach (Guide 3, 51) to the relationship between them [between shutting one’s eyes and hitbodedut]” (ibid., p. 435).
[17]“And thou, Solomon my son, know thou the God of thy father, and serve Him with a perfect heart [...]”(I Chron. 28, 9).

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