Maimonides on Perfecting Perfection
What does one do after one has reached apprehension of God? According to Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed, there is indeed more to be done. In Part III, Chapter 51, of this work, Maimonides charts two courses that one might follow in order to further enhance one’s perfection after having reached the first level, that of apprehension: one might engage in a series of spiritual practices, culminating in periods of withdrawal in which one’s mind becomes wholly absorbed in God; or one might, like Moses and the Patriarchs, direct one’s efforts to bringing into being a religious community that would know and worship God. Because Moses and the Patriarchs, unlike most of us, could engage in worldly activities “with their limbs only” while their minds were constantly and fully engaged in God, they could achieve an even higher level of perfection than those in the first group who require solitude and silence.
Most puzzling to scholars is the conclusion of the Guide, where it seems as if Maimonides is advocating imitatio dei—that is, the exercise of loving-kindness, righteousness, and judgment—as the pinnacle of human achievement. Considering Maimonides’ earlier adamant insistence (in III.53) that moral virtue is far less valuable than intellectual virtue, why would he conclude his book by encouraging not intellectual but rather moral activity?
The solution proposed to this question is that the activity urged at the end of the Guide is not moral—that is, it is not to be engaged in for the sake of other human beings. It is to be done, instead, as a form of service to God. Since divine governance cannot extend into the earth directly, the only way it is possible for God not to abandon the earth, for it to be true that “the earth is the Lord’s,” is for perfected human beings, like Moses and the Patriarchs, to draw ever closer to God by doing on earth what God himself cannot.