by Thomas Block
Moses Maimonides (1135-1204 C.E.), one of the most important philosophers in Jewish history, played a seminal role in infiltrating Sufi ideas into the heart and soul of Jewish practice. His well-known works on Jewish life and law – the Guide for the Perplexed, Mishneh Torah, and other writings, all of which are still studied in Yeshivas and schools today – were deeply infused with Sufi philosophy. For instance, his Guide for the Perplexed developed and conveyed to the general Jewish population ideas which had been occupying the Muslim mind for centuries; in addition, it utilized for the first time the Jewish/Sufi device of justifying new, Sufi-inspired ideas by attaching them to the far-off Jewish Biblical and Talmudic past. Ultimately, this hybrid work was studied closely and even taught by Muslims, to both Jewish and Muslim students.
Maimonides’ idea of Jewish prophecy, a defining aspect of the Jewish religion dating from the Biblical era, became suffused with specific Sufi concepts. Hearkening back to the Prophet Muhammad, Maimonides believed that the prophet had a divinely ordained social role. In general, the mixture of religious awareness and social mission was essential to Islamic thought and, hence, became essential for Maimonides, as well. Hundreds of years later, this ideal would permeate the Hasidic mystical practice.
Maimonides also gently turned ideas of Jewish prayer away from his contemporary Jewish practice and towards the Sufi manner. He raised silence in importance in the pantheon of Jewish prayer methods, based, perhaps, on this Sufi mystical ideal. “Silence” as a method of approaching God led to solitude as a prayer method, which ran contrary not only to the practice of 12th century Egyptian Jews, but to the Jewish tradition of the community of prayer rituals – and specifically, the idea of a minyan, or minimum of ten men necessary to perform specific prayers – that had underpinned Jewish worship for the 1000 years prior to Maimonides’ life.
Ultimately, as the Encyclopaedia Judaica points out, “the influence of Maimonides on the future development of Judaism is incalculable. No spiritual leader of the Jewish people in the post-Talmudic period has exercised such an influence both in his own and subsequent generations.” What this illustrious tome fails to mention, however, is how inspired by Sufi ideas was the Maimonidean philosophical legacy – and how this began a series of events that would lead, in the ensuing centuries, to a comprehensive shift in the direction of Jewish mysticism.