One of the most profound disagreements in Judaism is the one between Moses Maimonides and Judah Halevi on the meaning of the first of the Ten Commandments.
For Maimonides (1135-1204), the first command is to believe in G-d, creator of heaven and earth:
“The basic principle of all basic principles and the pillar of all sciences is to realize that there is a First Being who brought every existing thing into being. If it could be supposed that He did not exist, it would follow that nothing else could possibly exist. If, however, it were supposed that all other beings were non-existent, He alone would still exist … To acknowledge this truth is a positive command, as it is said in Exodus 20:2 and Deuteronomy 5:7, ‘I am the Lord your G-d’ ” (Yesodei HaTorah 1:1-5).
Judah Halevi (c. 1080-c.1145) disagreed. The greatest of medieval Hebrew poets, Halevi also wrote one of Judaism’s philosophical masterpieces, The Kuzari. It is framed as a dialogue between a rabbi and the king of the Khazars. Historically, the Khazars were a Turkish people who, between the seventh and eleventh centuries, ruled a considerable area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.
Many Jewish traders and refugees lived there, and in 838 the Khazar King Bulan converted to Judaism after supposedly holding a debate between representatives of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths. The Arabic writer Dimashqi writes that the Khazars, having encountered the Jewish faith, “found it better than their own and accepted it.” After their conversion, the Khazar people used Jewish personal names, spoke and wrote in Hebrew, were circumcised, had synagogues and rabbis, studied the Torah and Talmud, and observed the Jewish festivals.
The Kuzari is Judah Halevi’s philosophy of Judaism, cast in the form of the imagined conversation between the king and a rabbi that led to the king’s conversion. In it, Halevi draws a portrait that is diametrically opposed to what would later become Maimonides’s account. Judaism, for Halevi, is not Aristotelian but counter-Aristotelian. The G-d of the prophets, says Halevi, is not the G-d of the philosophers. The key difference is that whereas the philosophers found G-d in metaphysics, the prophets found G-d in history.
This is how Halevi’s rabbi states his faith: “I believe in the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt with signs and miracles; who fed them in the desert and gave them the land, after having brought them through the sea and the Jordan in a miraculous way…” (Kuzari I:11).
He goes on to emphasize that G-d’s opening words in the revelation at Mount Sinai were not, “I am the Lord your G-d, creator of heaven and earth” but rather “I am the Lord your G-d, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Kuzari I:25).
Halevi lived before Maimonides. Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) lived after, but he too disagreed with Maimonides’s interpretation of the opening verse of the Ten Commandments. His objection is based on a passage in the Mechhilta:
“You shall have no other gods besides me.” Why is this said? Because it says, “I am the Lord your G-d.” Here’s a parable: A king of flesh and blood entered a province. His servants said to him, “Issue decrees for the people.” He, however, told them, “No. When they accept my sovereignty, I will issue decrees. For if they do not accept my sovereignty, how will they carry out my decrees?”
According to Nachmanides the verse, “I am the Lord your G-d, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery,” is not a command, but a preliminary to the commands. It explains why the Israelites should be bound by the will of G-d. He had rescued them, liberated them, and brought them to safety. The first verse of the Decalogue is not a law but a statement of fact, a reason why the Israelites should accept G-d’s sovereignty.
Thanks to a series of archeological discoveries in the 20th century, we now know that Nachmanides was right. The biblical covenant has the same literary structure as ancient near eastern political treaties, of which the oldest known are the “Stele of the Vultures” (before 2500 BCE). There are other, later treaties as well.
These treaties include the following elements: (1) the preamble, identifying the treaty’s initiator; (2) a historical review, summarizing the past relationship between the parties; and (3) the stipulations, the terms and conditions of the covenant. The Ten Commandments’ first verse is a highly abridged form of (1) and (2). “I am the Lord your G-d” is the preamble; “…who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” is the historical review. The verses that follow are the stipulations (commands). Nachmanides and the Midrash are therefore correct in seeing the verse as an introduction, not a command.
What is at stake in this difference of opinion between Maimonides on the one hand, and Judah Halevi and Nachmanides on the other? At the heart of Judaism is a twofold understanding of the nature of G-d and His relationship to the universe. G-d is creator of the universe and the maker of the human person “in His image.” This aspect of G-d is universal, and accessible to anyone – Jew or gentile. Today, many people reach the same conclusion as Aristotle (a proponent of G-d as the “prime mover” who set the universe into motion) through science: the universe is too finely tuned for the emergence of life to have come into being through chance (the anthropic principle). Some arrive at it not through logic or science but through the simplicity of awe and wonder. The Torah calls this aspect of G-d, Elokim.
There is, however, a quite different aspect of G-d that predominates throughout most of Tanach. This is G-d as He is involved in the fate of one family, one nation: the children of Israel. He intervenes in their history. He makes a highly specific covenant with them at Sinai – not at all like the general one He made with Noah and all humanity after the Flood. Unlike the Noahide covenant’s mere seven commands, the Sinai covenant, by contrast, covers almost every conceivable aspect of life. This aspect of G-d is signaled by the use of the four-letter name for which we traditionally substitute (since the word itself is holy and could only be pronounced by the High Priest) the word Hashem (see Kuzari IV:1-3; and Ramban to Exodus 3:13).
Maimonides, the philosopher, emphasized the universal, metaphysical aspect of Judaism and the eternal, unchanging existence of G-d. Judah Halevi, the poet, and Nachmanides, a mystic, were more sensitive to the particularistic and prophetic dimension of Judaism: the role of G-d in the historical drama of the covenant. Both are true and valid, but in this case, Halevi and Nachmanides are closer to the meaning of the biblical text.
Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem, in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.