(Maimonides) The Difference Between Religious & Secular Is The Difference Between Heaven & Earth (Mishneh Torah)


By way of a little contribution via Maimonides to academic arguments about the existence or non-existence of “religion” and “the secular.” The argument is that the two terms along with the judgment that posits either the difference or separation between them is a modern-Christian-Protestant projection onto non-Christian discursive traditions that allow for either no such separation or no such distinction. Part of the argument, in Judaism, is that there are no indigenous terms for what we call “religion.” For instance, the modern Hebrew term for religion (dat), Persian in origin, in ancient, antique, and medieval Hebrew simply means law (h/t Joshua Schwartz).

This is by no means entirely true. There is a structure to things. For an indigenous term in medieval Hebrew to signify what we moderns mean today by religion, look for the term shamayim (heavens), and eretz (earth, land, world).

Right now for the purpose of this short post, I’m looking at Hilkhot Deot, an emblematic textual site dedicated to “laws” dedicated to human virtues and norms, morality and physiology. Situated in the Mishneh Torah, the monumental code of Jewish law coded by Maimonides, it is the second collection of law in the first “book” or section, Sefer Madda (the Book of Knowledge).

Instructive there is this. On one hand, Maimonides  tells his students to direct all their physical actions l’shem Shamayim (for the sake of heaven) (3:3), the consideration of which drops out almost entirely in the next chapter (chp.4) detailing the physician’s best advice regarding how to eat, sleep, engage in sexual intercourse, bathroom etiquette and bathing, etc.  In chapter 6, regarding when to rebuke a fellow person, a distinction is made between “matters between one person and another” (devarim sh’bein adam lachaveiro) versus “matters of Heaven” (divranei Shamayim).  About the former one should never scorn or otherwise abuse one’s fellow. About the former one is  encouraged to do so, as per the practice of the prophets (6:8).

On the other hand is the proper virtue (deah nechunah) that concludes Hilkhot Deot, which is yishuv ha’aretz (stabilizing the land). The reference is to the secular telos of social order and interaction represented by trade and commerce between one human being (ben adam) and another (7:10).  (Fitting into this paradigm we could add the rabbinic concepts bein adam l’chaveiro versus bein adam la’Makom [matters between a human person and their fellow versus matters between a person and God] and also the terms derech eretz [ways of the world] and even the rabbinic tikkun olam [mending the world])

What’s left to work through in their full complexity is the relative separation and non-separation between these two value-orientations. For an outline of the entire Mishneh Torah, see here at Sefaria and pasted below.  Confusing the issue only a little or a lot is that the Book of Holiness considers the laws of forbidden intercourse, forbidden foods, and ritual slaughter. But that only means that, in Judaism, the axis between the religious and the secular does not run completely through the axis of the physical and the non-physical. For the most part, the division of halakhic material is organized according to a more or less clear division between what we today would call religious-ritual law and secular law, between matters of heaven versus matters between one human being and another.

Clear enough and for the purpose here, in the medieval Hebrew of Hilkhot Deot, the difference between the religious and the secular is the difference between heaven and earth.

Mishneh Torah משנה תורה

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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