(Given during Jewish Living Exhibition, an educational initiative of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, on display at Lincoln Cathedral)

It had been a project of the 19th century reform movement in Judaism to think again about the implications of the Old Testament concept of the Jews as a ‘chosen people’ – apparently here again expressed in the lesson we have just heard by the prophet 19th century scientific Judaism, juden wissenschaft, identified as the Trito-Isaiah —  the third Isaiah, writing in Israel after the return from the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE. It is his (we assume it was a man) — his prophecy that begins:

Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but he the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee…. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.

It was clear to the reformist Jews of the 19th century that this could be easily interpreted not as a reaffirmation of the old promise from the Almighty to choose a people with an implication that they shall rule others but, rather for them to be a light unto the nations, an example to others….

And in answer to the obvious question – an example of what? the chosen people could be better seen, these modernising rabbis thought, as a ‘choosing people’…. That the light shone to allow people to see that the ethical basis of any sort of good life was a matter of choice. Beyond an affirmation of monotheistic faith, beyond the perception of good and evil, at the heart of the light was a further understanding that the existence of even an all-powerful God does not absolve the individual from responsibility for making choices between good and evil. The chosen people were to demonstrate the essential ethical need to be choosers, choosers of what is right.

And this was not some glib modernist attempt at avoiding old clearly – politically, socially – embarrassing interpretations of the ‘chosen concept’. It rather speaks to the heart of one tradition of Judaism and that is at least a millennium old.

(Let me say, the claim of Jewish difference ignores the reality of Jewish sameness – the chosen people have proved through history their flawed humanity as much as they have helped enlighten the world by their ethical mission. For example, the Jews are no less prone to schism and factionalism than are the followers of the daughter Abrahamic monotheisms. So please hear in me a muffled and imperfect reflection of one particular Jewish voice – the voice of ethical rationalism…. the voice I would passionately argue is at the heart of the Jewish contribution to history.)

So, the choosing people rather than the chosen people. Here is the modern rabbis authority for making such a suggestion – articulated by a Jewish thinker already aged 50 when the construction of building in which we speak was begun. His name was Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon. He said:

The theory of humanity’s perfectly free will is one of the fundamental principles of the Law of our Teacher Moses… According to this principle a person does what is in their power to do, by their nature, their choice, and their will… All species of irrational animals likewise move by their own free will… it is due to the eternal divine will that all living beings should move freely, and that humanity should have power to act according to their will or choice within the limits of their capacity.


Moshe ben Maimon, Moses the Son of Maimon, was born in Cordova, in Spain in 1135 and died, aged 69, in Fustat in Egypt which is now a suburb of Cairo. He is buried in Tiberias in the Holy Land. And his importance is, for me, most vividly symbolised by the fact that not only is he for the Jews ‘The Rambam’ – the acronym in Hebrew of Rabbi Moshe the son of Maimon; he is also known to Islam as Mūsā bin Maymūn and to Chistendom as Maimonides: -ides, ‘the son of’ in Greek.


He wrote copiously – medical treatises on, for example, asthma, seizures, poisons and their antidotes, hemerrhoids. (He was, incidentally, Saladin’s physician but I make no connection here between this and that last treatise!) But, of course, he was the major Jewish theologian and philosopher of the early European Middle Ages. His bibliography is immense but, most notably, he wrote a clear and lucid exposition of Jewish law and ethics – the Mishneh Torah in 14 books; the Sefer Hamitzvot, The Book of Commandments, his exposition of the 613 (as he counted them) injunctions to be found in the Old Testament. And in 1190, a Moreh Nevukhim, A Guide for the Perplexed. And, again significantly, I note he first wrote this in Arabic, dalālat al-ḥā’irīn. It is from this that I took the quotation I have just given you.


At the outset of it he states his reason for writing the book: Even well informed persons are bewildered, he claimed, by contradictions seeming irrationalities and opacities in the holy text. He goes on, ‘they understand these passages [only] in their literal signification, but they are entirely relieved of their perplexity when we explain or merely suggest that the terms are figurative. For this reason I have called this book Guide for the Perplexed.’


So, let me return to freedom of choice: ‘How could G‑d [Maimonides asks] command us through the prophets “do this” and “do not do this,”…? What place would the entire Torah have? And by what measure of justice would G‑d punish the wicked and reward the righteous…? ‘ {end quote} if we did not have the freedom to accept or reject the commandments. It is written [Deuteronomy 30:15]: See, I have set before you life and good, and death and evil… but it does not say you must choose only good. Rather, it obviously implies you must have choice to also choose evil. You have free will; otherwise this has no meaning. For Maimonides, logic was more important than metaphysics. It was the clue to faith.


In the Book of Commandments he confronts irrationality directly…. You shall not wear shatnez – wool and linen together, it says in Deuteronomy 22:11. It does not say why, And – the ultra orthodox Rabbis are given to emphasing by this sort of sing-song – ‘aaand, moreover’…. it says in Leviticus 19:19: you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of shatnez.

Repeated injunctions of this kind are of particular significance to rabbinic thinking – the entire business of keeping milk and meat food stuffs apart is grounded in the treble opaque instruction, twice in Exodus, once in Deuteronomy, not to seeth a young goat in the milk of its mother. And for the literalist ‘why?’ does not matter. But for Maimonides, the consummate rationalist, the practices prohibited, he speculates, must have been pagan – shatnez garments worn by Canaanite priests, or some sacrificial ritual too abhorrent to be described directly in the matter of the kid and the milk.

(By the way, other authorities, including the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus say it was not the Canaanites but the Jewish temple priests who wore shatnez garments which were then eschewed after the Temple’s destruction.)

Either way, the commandment is to be obeyed – all the more because there is no logic – the obvious logic of the 10 Commandments, say – to compel obedience. But there can be understanding……

This is the light that draws the attention of the world – the light of rationality married to the practice of faith. For Maimonides’ importance to our shared history and culture is that he sets forth a form of intellectual shatnez – a melding of Hellenistic rationality with monotheistic faith. For Maimonides was an Aristoltelian who keeps the commandments. He has been called ‘the middle-man’ between the three Abrahamic faiths equating Artistotle’s concept of a prime-mover with the Jewish concept of the Almighty. He influenced key Christian thinkers who followed him in the next century, St Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus crucially. This of course says nothing to their views of Jewry (or indeed of each other’s theology) but it reflects the importance of Maimonides as a bridge between the ancient and the medieval world. Shatnez to bring light. Shatnez to foreground choice and logic. Shatnez to insist on the primacy of thinking for one’s self.

As Moshe ben Maimon said:

All the evils that men cause to each other because of certain desires, or opinions or religious principles, are rooted in ignorance.

Give a person a fish, he wrote, ‘and you feed them for a day. Teach them to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.’

Teach thy tongue to say ‘I do not know,’ and thou shalt progress.


That is the sum of our contribution to the light.