On Rambamism: A Word to the Wise
by Yair HaKohen
In order to better comprehend why some choose to follow the piskei halacha of Rambam to the exclusion of all other Rishonim (Torah scholars who lived during the period from approximately 1000-1500 according to the Christian calendar), it is necessary to grasp the psychological appeal of their approach.
It’s all about authenticity. It is not uncommon to hear well-intentioned Jews express the conviction that ‘standard Judaism’ is not the real McCoy, that it is somehow watered down, that centuries upon centuries of halachic decision making has led us away from the original intent of Hazal. Due to Rambam’s terse style and all-encompassing vision of the Tora as a system of instruction for both the Jewish nation as well as the Jewish individual, it is assumed that by returning to the halachic rulings of Rambam one is living a truer, more pristine version of Judaism.
This perception is essentially correct. HaRav David Bar-Hayim’s teachings are also rooted in this awareness. Rav Bar-Hayim points out, quoting Hazal (TB Haghigha 5b and TB Sanhedrin 24a), that it is the Galuth (Exile) itself which inevitably brought about this degeneration of Torah, and that today the process can and must be reversed.
The Rambamist approach, is therefore, at root, a positive phenomenon, in as much as it is motivated by a search for Emeth (Truth). Yes, it is true: the fact that a practice is widespread among Torah observant Jews is not in and of itself a reason to continue to do so, particularly when said practice contradicts the Torah (based on a Hacham’s clear understanding of the primary sources, viz. Mishna, Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, Tosefta, etc.). How could one take issue with an ideology which strives to serve HASHEM in the most authentic and correct manner possible?
However, as is frequently the case with those looking for a quick fix, Rambamists tend to oversimplify, often adopting extreme and unreasonable positions. We all recognise that regarding many issues in life, careful analysis is required before attempting to suggest a way forward. If this is true of more mundane matters, how much more so is this the case in the realm of Torah.
While the Mishne Torah is probably the best choice for the layman seeking a basic handbook, this is not the way of the Hacham. A Hacham must engage in in-depth study and analysis of the primary sources. Rambam himself stresses (Introduction to Mishne Torah, 24) that only opinions based on such study and analysis can be considered binding and authoritative. To refuse to consider other positions, despite well-reasoned and cogent argument, is not only irrational – it is indicative of an obsession, an obsession which belies Rambam’s express position regarding how Halacha is to be determined. Furthermore, it flies in the face of his fundamental belief in and love of Truth. This very point was emphasized by Rambam’s son, R. Avraham, regarding a point of Halacha on which he disagreed with his father: “This understanding is correct and unassailable….and had my father of blessed memory been made aware of it, he would have accepted it, as he himself often told us ‘Be always ready to accept the truth’. And on numerous occasions we observed how he would adopt the view of even the smallest of his students when the truth was made apparent to him…” (HaMaspiq l’Ov’dhe Hashem, p. 71).
Rambamists would do well to heed the message of HaRav Bar-Hayim. Our generation is in dire need of a well-reasoned Eretz Yisrael-based Halachic system in step with Tradition and reality, as well as the immense and historical task of reconstituting the Jewish nation and providing it with clarity of purpose and direction.
The fact that such an approach can only be based on the collective wisdom of all of Hachme Yisrael of all generations need hardly be stressed even for the layman, let alone for the scholar.