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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2013
Number 78
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

The Rambam Project: Code, Mashal, Hegemony, Sanctity Of Life And Gender in the Mishneh Torah

An essay by Janet Madden

“A code is a perspective of quotations, a mirage of ‘structures;’ we know only its departures and returns.” Roland Barthes

According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, the point and purpose of Jewish Law is inextricably and inherently bound up with Jewish identity and with living a Jewish life. Heschel asserts that “we have forgotten the mystery of being human and the deep responsibility involved in just being alive ... the meaning of God is precisely the challenge of ‘how to be.’ And this is the meaning of Jewish Lawhow to be” (252).

In light of Heschel’s words, it is possible to understand that Maimonides’ purpose in writing the Mishneh Torah was to create a text that would serve as a guide to “how to be” a Jew; more than eight centuries after its compilation, it endures as a central Jewish text and can be understood as an investigation into Jewish identity as well as Jewish law. As Joseph Soloveitchik explains, in the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam “apprehends the religious act in an entirely different light he employed a descriptive method of expounding the content and symbolic meaning of the religious norm” (94). And while the Rambam’s primary objective for the Mishneh Torah was to produce a codification of Jewish law, to construe a narrow legal definition of “code” is to misunderstand the nature of the Rambam’s project; to approach this work so narrowly is to miss much of the nuance that a careful examination of virtually any part of the Mishneh Torah can provide. For beyond its function as a legal work, the Mishneh Torah is, indeed, a reflection of its author’s philosophy, theology, ethical value system, psychological acumen and just plain seichel of the Rambam’s understanding of how to be, of how to be a Jew, and, particularly, of how to be a Jew in a world in which all of the certainties that he might have expected had been stripped away.

Considering the Mishneh Torah as a codification is both an obvious and intriguingly provocative endeavor. The word “code” has a number of applications, connoting not only a systematically arranged and comprehensive collection of laws, and a systematic collection of regulations and rules of procedure or conduct, but also a system of signals transmitting messages, including messages that require secrecy or brevity. And applying these several definitions to the Mishneh Torah raises a number of interesting possibilities. Because it is a compilation of Halachah, the depiction of the Mishneh Torah as a legal code is an obvious if inadequate taxonomic descriptor. In fact, the Mishneh Torah cites neither sources nor arguments, and confines itself to stating the final decision on the law to be followed in each of the situations it presents; unique in the canon of Halachic works, its author provides no discussion of Talmudic interpretation or methodology, and its sequence of chapters follows the factual subject matter of the laws rather than the intellectual principle involved. And Halachah clearly constitutes a value system a set of consistent ethical values that encompasses both personal and cultural values used for the purpose of ethical or ideological integrity. Since a well-defined value system translates into a moral code, notwithstanding its conceptual and stylistic uniqueness, the Mishneh Torah effortlessly fulfills both the legal and procedural definitions of “code.” But this comprehensive yet succinct work was not written in Arabic, as the Ramban’s previous works had been; instead, it was written in Hebrew. Thus, these clues the choice of linguistic medium, the audience, and the cultural and historical milieux in which it was composed suggest that the Rambam’s outward project in fact contains within it the creation of a subversive and subterranean work. Read in the context of these clues, it becomes clear that the true purpose of this work is the addressing of urgent issues of Jewish cultural and religious identity and continuity in the post-Expulsion experience, an experience in which Jews found their communities fractured and their senses of identity and place seismically dislocated. The Rambam’s own geographic, cultural and personal migrant experience is likely to have been a condition that Sander Gilman identifies as “frontier” a psychic location in which all peoples interact to define themselves and others in reality or in fantasy. Gilman emphasizes that a frontier is “not the periphery” (15). Rather, frontier is “the place of the ‘migrant culture of the in-between’ as both a transitional and translational phenomenon, one that ‘dramatizes the activity of a culture’s untranslateability’” (Homi Bhabha quoted in Gilman Frontier 15). And there is much in Jewish life and law that was untranslatable within the context of the non-Jewish world that the Rambam mediated, negotiated and traversed in his roles as physician and community leader and that must certainly have influenced him as philosopher and codifier.

If, as Gilman observes, “Writing plays a central role in defining Jews against the preconceptions of the world in which they find themselves [and] the importance of writing [provides a] general model for the articulation of Jewish identity,” (Jewish Self-Hatred 15), then applying Gilman’s theory of the nexus of writing and identity to the Mishneh Torah facilitates a shift in the perception of Rambam’s purpose from a simplistic understanding of a manual of what and how to do and what not do to a terse and sophisticated investigation both of Heschel’s “how to be” and of traditional Judaism’s understanding of life’s foundational purpose: the location and experience of a relationship with the meaning of God.

Within and without Judaism, the exploration of “how to be” is often expressed in narrative, particularly in the form of parable, or mashal, which JewishEncyclopedia.com defines as “any fictive illustration in the form of a brief narrative.” Thus, parable came to mean a fictitious narrative, generally referring to something that might naturally occur, by which spiritual and moral matters might be conveyed. As one of the simplest of narrative forms, a parable is a short tale that illustrates universal truth. It sketches a setting, describes an action and shows the results; it often involves a character facing a moral dilemma, or making a questionable decision and then suffering the consequences. Further, as the JewishEncyclopedia.com points out, the mashal is integral to explicating Jewish law: “In the Talmud and Midrash almost every religious idea, moral maxim, or ethical requirement is accompanied by a parable which illustrates it.” And while a parable is a literary genre that presents its message concisely, it does not do so simplistically. In midrashic literature, particularly, according to Gilat Hasan-Rokem, the parable is a theoretical device that, precisely because of its obliqueness, is qualified to bear contents of skepticismand self-contradiction” (112).

In considering possible interpretations of and coded-ness within the Mishneh Torah, it is essential to keep in mind that the Rambam lived, worked and wrote the Mishneh Torah as a dhimmi a non-Muslim subject of an empire that imposed on non-Muslims a restricted freedom of religion and worship and that required loyalty to the empire. These conditions conform precisely to Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Gramsci theorizes that a culturally-diverse society can nevertheless be ruled or dominated by one of its social classes, in which the ideas of the ruling class come to be seen as the norm, viewed as universal ideologies and perceived to benefit everyone while in fact benefiting the ruling class. As a Jew in the service of the Sultan, the Rambam could not but have had a constant and keen aware of the hegemonic status of Jews within the Islamic world. And this awareness emerges in his editorial choices in the Mishneh Torah: the inclusion of meshalim in a work that strives for intellectual and verbal economy is an example of self-contradiction so subtle that it might go unnoticed and that might be intended to go unnoticed. In Stern’s opinion:

the mashal is an implicitly esoteric mode of communication, an interpretative event that separates ‘insiders’ from ‘outsiders’ those who understand from those who don’t and that restricts its understanding to a select, or elect, few. It is sometimes claimed that the parable was employed to express controversial or dangerous beliefs that were better not articulated openly, or that could not be for political or doctrinal reasons. The Rabbis themselves would probably have found this subversive or “secretive” conception of the mashal congenial the Rabbis understood how the parable could be used to express controversial opinions in less than fully explicit fashion. (50)

And an essential component of a literary form as compressed as the mashal is the use of symbols concrete representations of abstract ideas that are expressed in symbolic language, the language that Erich Fromm describes as:

a language in which inner experiences, feelings and thoughts are expressed as if they were sensory experiences, events in the outer world. It is a language which has a different logic from the conventional one we speak in the daytime, a logic in which not time and space are the ruling categories but intensity and association. (7)

One of the most arresting meshalim in the Mishneh Torah in terms of its intensity and association appears in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 5:9. In Political Theories of the Middle Ages, O. Gierkeasserts that “The body, like the body politic, is a theatre; everything is symbolic, everything including the sexual act.” (quoted in Brown 131). Thus, the content of Halachah5:9 and its placement in Rambam’s taxonomy point both to its symbolic elements and to its function as mashal.

The case recounted in Halachah 5:9 is taken from Sanhedrin 75a; it relates the predicament of a lovesick man whose life can be saved, according to his physicians, only if he is able to have sexual relations with the woman who is the object of his desire. Initially, Halachah 5:9 might seem incongruously placed in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, laws that are the foundation of the Torah, since it might seem that this halachah should appear in Hilchot Ishut, which addresses the prohibition against sexual relations outside marriage, or Hilchot Issure Bi’ah, the laws of forbidden sexual relations. But, in the sequencing of Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah,Halachah 5:9 is preceded by a discussion of feeding “a sick person insects or creeping animals, or chametz on Pesach, or when one is fed on Yom Kippur” (Maimonides 222) and succeeded by a discussion of one who is not forced to transgress a mitzvah but does so “in a spirit of derision, to arouse G-d’s anger” (Maimonides 226). The Rambam thus bookends the teaching presented in Halachah 5:9 with laws of exceptions to prohibited foods and with the prohibition against provoking God as a result of disrespectful behavior. Therefore, the case of the lovesick man is poised between a life-affirming example of Kiddush HaShem, the sanctification of the name of God, and an example of a behavior that can be subsumed into the general category of Chillul HaShem, the desecration of the name of God. Its placement, therefore, signals the dramatic intersection and the centrality of the theological and social issues that Halachah 5:9 raises, since its narrative connects the idea of using the forbidden to save a life and the right of the man who desires set against that of the woman who is the desired object.

In The Women of the Talmud, Judith Z. Abrams asserts that in the Talmudic era, “it was not uncommon for men to attempt to betroth women when the women were not all that interested in becoming betrothed” (42), but that, male desire notwithstanding, “the transaction had to be effected with a maximum of seriousness and dignity” (42-43). It is not possible to discern whether Halachah5:9 describes an attempt at coerced betrothal through the medium of life-saving necessity or whether the physicians who treat the man are proponents of preserving his life regardless of the consequences that the fulfillment of his desires will cause to the woman he desires. But what can quickly be discerned is that Halachah 5:9 dramatizes the collision between an halachic infraction considered so serious that one must “die rather than transgress," (Sanhedrin 74a) and a concern for the sanctity of life so overarching that the entire Torah is otherwise set aside to preserve life or health (Yoma 82b). If, as the commentary on Halachah 5:9 asserts, the case of the lovesick man “actually occurred and [was] not merely an abstract, theoretical question” (Touger in Maimonides 225), purported fact does not obviate either the problematic content of this narrative or its function as a mashal that operates simultaneously as an exploration of Jewish law and identity, the Toraitic value of the sanctity of life, the status of Jewish women and hegemonic Islamic-Jewish relations that is, the psychic territory of Gilman’s frontier.

In order to explore the theoretical implications of Halachah 5:9 in the Rambam’s world, it is instructive to consider his perspective on brit milah, the em-bodied halachic evidence of Jewish male identity and relationship to God. Shaye J.D. Cohen points out that according to both Philo and Maimonides, a defect “inheres in Jewish men”; Philo explains that the purpose of circumcision is to teach men to moderate their lust, while Maimonides “explains that the purpose of circumcision is to weaken the male organ, thereby in fact reducing lust and diminishing performance” (quoted in Cohen 143-4). In the Guide for the Perplexed, during his discussion of the sexual effect of circumcision, the Rambam opines that circumcision “weakens the power of sexual excitement” (575). And while asserting that performance anxiety underpins Halachah 5:9 is an overly facile reading, on a symbolic level, the remedy of curative sexual relations as, literally, a life-saving measure, may in fact be an expression of the reality of a sense of personal and communally-felt impotence of an exilic Jewish population both in the Talmudic period and in the Rambam’s day. And if this halachah is read as a mashal, it is possible to view the lovesick man as the symbol of the Jew who albeit his presumed circumcision has become thoroughly assimilated into a non-Jewish morality and who, through his failure to moderate his impulses, has become enslaved to his unbridled desire.

In “Ethical Ideas,” the Rambam repeatedly argues that the “right way” (9) to live is achieved by adhering to the virtue of moderation. He takes the position that “every person should always evaluate his dispositions and adjust them in the middle course, so that he may enjoy physical health” (9). But, as Byron Sherwin and Seymour Cohen state, in the Rambam’s opinion, the elimination of bad habits does not merely improve physical health: since “a prerequisite for moral action is moral volition, bad habits are to be avoided since they restrain choice” (112). The moral illness of the man in Halachah 5:9 is both concrete and so acute that it is, literally, life-threatening: a condition that the Rambam likely would have diagnosed as the result of possessing the characteristic of indulging “in appetites without being sufficiently gratified” (9). Thus, the message is that the man’s bad habit has influenced him to such an extent that his unrestrained and fatal fixation on the woman he desires will, literally, kill him. The lovesick man serves as the embodied proof-text for the Rambam’s pronouncement that “by yielding to lust a man loses his intellectual energy, injures his health, and perishes before his time” (17).

The physician-characters of the mashal, who say that the man’s only remedy is the satisfaction of his desire, simply diagnose and prescribe. The mashal does not permit them to express philosophical, ethical, theological or psychological perspectives. But the Rambam and other medieval Jews who worked as practicing physicians incorporated bothhalacha and moral principles in their hanhagot, a genre of ethical writing that focuses on “specific practical details of moral behavior” with the objective of “lead[ing] and guide[ing] one through particular prescriptions toward proper behavioral patterns” (Sherwin and Cohen 115). In this case, the man’s moral illness providesa cautionary example, and in incorporating this mashal into Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, the Rambam illustrates his belief that physical life without a moral foundation cannot be sustained and confirms the rabbis’ teaching that it should not be, if the value of one life can be established only as the result of the immoral co-opting of another.

In Jewish textual tradition, Melanie Malka Landau points out, “Women and Torah are used interchangeably as objects of male desire” (94). In this mashal, the symbolic value of the woman, signaled by the complete absence of detail about her, is indeed aligned with the value of halachah and Jewish ethical values that derive from and are the foundations of the Torah. Throughout the Mishneh Torah, Maimondes clearly communicates that ideally, Jews know that they must go beyond the strict mandates of halachah, which teaches only the basics: they must act lifnim meishurat hadin and go beyond basic legal requirements designed to safeguard Jewish life and values.

In Toward a New Tzniut, Danya Ruttenberg observes that the “ethic of modesty seeks to enable empowered individuals to live in connection with the Divineit is also a communal value” (208). But Halachah 5:9 depicts a man who has allowed his lust to become so utterly ascendant that he has violated his connection with the Divine on both personal and communal level; as the mashal makes clear through the device of repetition, he cannot be saved at the expense of the woman, and must be permitted to die.

The Rambam writes in Hilchot Ishut 15 that “The sages have ordained that a man should honor his wife more than himself,” (quoted in Finkel 225), and the lovesickness of the man in Halachah 5:9 is an indication of his incapacity to enter into a legitimate relationship. Martin Samuel Cohen points out that although “Semen is av tumah, a primary agent there is no moral opprobrium at all directed towards healthy men and women who enter into a state of tumah for rational reasons” (181-2). But in Halachah 5:9, there exists neither health nor rationality. Indeed, as the halachah makes clear, if the lovesick man is permitted to have prescriptive sex with the woman, his moral contagion will cause her to become physically and spiritually tumah; even speaking with him privately will cause her to become socially as well as spiritually tumah. In fact, his own condition of tumah, caused by his unrestrained desire, is so dangerous that any contact with him will inevitably dishonor and endanger not only the woman he desires but Jewish women in general.

Just as Judith Romney Wegner begins her study of the status of women in the Mishnah by stressing the importance of considering male-female relationships within the “crucial” context of the Mishnah’s concern with the “sanctity of human relationships” (4), so understanding Halachah 5:9 as a mashal illuminates the crucial importance of this principle to Jewish identity and Jewish life. This halachah confirms that in Jewish life, of the sanctity of relationships and the value of every human life are primary values. In its extraordinary concern that Jewish women “would not be regarded capriciously” (Mishneh Torah 226) even in a situation where a life is threatened, Halachah 5:9 asserts that Jewish women are not mere objects of desire and that both morally and legally, Judaism takes the position that Jewish women, no less than Jewish men, are divinely endowed with human dignity. Diasporic hegemony does not elide an individual’s responsibility for his own behavior; one life is not privileged over another. As the Mishneh Torah makes clear, to be a Jew is to be in relationship with God and with humanity in the context of a legal and ethical system that provides guidance for “how to be” with the aim of imbuing every aspect of life with possibilities for holiness and meaning.

Works cited:

Abrams, Judith Z. The Women of the Talmud. Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1995

Cohen, Martin Samuel. The Boy on the Door on the Ox. New York: Aviv Press, 2008

Cohen, Shaye J.D. Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised? Gender and Covenant in Judaism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005

Brown, Norman O. Love’s Body. New York: Vintage, 1966

Finkel, Abraham Yaakov. In My Flesh I See G-d. Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1995

Fromm, Erich. The Forgotten Language. New York: Grove, 1953

Gilman, Sander. Jewish Frontiers. Essays on Bodies, Histories and Identities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003

Gilman, Sander L. Jewish Self-Hatred. Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1986

Hasan-Rokem, Galit. Trans. Batya Stein. The Web of Life. Folklore and Midrash in Rabbinic Literature. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000

Heschel, Rabbi Abraham Joshua. “Choose Life!” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity. Ed. Susannah Heschel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996. 251-56

Landau, Melanie Malka. “”Good Sex: a Jewish Feminist Perspective” in The Passionate Torah. Sex and Judaism. Ed. Danya Rutternberg. New York: New York University Press, 2009. 93-104

Maimonides, M. “Ethical Ideas.” Class Reader. 9-20

Maimonides, M. Guide for the Perplexed. 1190; rpt. New York, Dover, 1956

Maimonides, M. Mishneh Torah. 1180. Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah. A New Translation with Commentaries and Notes. Ed. Rabbi Eliyahu Touger. New York: Moznaim, 1989

“Parable.” JewishEncyclopedia.com. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view

Ruttenberg, Danya. “Toward a New Tznuit” in The Passionate Torah. Sex and Judaism. Ed. Danya Ruttenberg. New York: New York University Press, 2009. 203-211.

Sherwin, Rabbi Byron L. and Seymour J. Cohen. Creating an Ethical Jewish Life. Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001

Soloveitchik, Rabbi Joseph B. The Halakhic Mind. London: Seth Press, 1986

Stern, David. Parables in Midrash.Narratives and Exegesis in Rabbinic Literature. Cambridge: Harvard, 1991

Wegner, Judith Romney. Chattel or Person? The Status of Women in the Mishnah. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988


Janet Madden, a contributing editor, is rabbi of Temple Havurat Emet, Chandler, Ariz. and spiritual care counselor at Skirball Hospice, Los Angeles.

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