Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Demons of Maimonides

In his Guide to the Perplexed, the Rambam categorically denies the colloquial understanding of the existance of demons. His understanding of talmudic passages such as Berachot 6a work around this fact, but I find his explanation of a different midrash much more interesting.

The Torah (Gen. 5:3) states that Adam gave birth to many children besides Kayin, Hevel and Shes. Midrash Rabbah (Gen. 24:6) explains that these were children of a fractured relationship between Adam and Eve, and they were demons. What does Maimonides do with this midrash?

In the Guide (1:7), the Rambam explains this phenomenon. Demons, he says, are human beings that are born with all the normal faculties of Man, but their minds are not fully perfected. These souless beings are essentially animals in human form. Because of their vastly superior intellect to other animals, however, they are capable of much more complex thought and action. The fact that they lack a truly human soul gives them sociopathic tendencies. Hence, Maimonides explains, they have a propensity to damage and contributee to the development of evil in this world.

And so, to the Rambam, demons are not figaments of our imagination or products of our nightmares. They are humans that have no conscience. Absent is that part of the human soul that ennobles it, elevating it beyond the realm of mere beast. Their superior intellect allows them to ensnare others into tremendous pain and suffering, bringing evil into our world.

Reading this passage, my thoughts immediately turned to the sadistic smiles on the faces of the German (and other) guards during the Holocaust (image). The title of demon befits these brutes well.

UPDATE 3 Nov 2009: In Shapiro's Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters, Rambam's view is stated as I have presented it here. Furthermore, Professor Shapiro quotes R Shlomo Duran in Milchemet Mitzvah as holding the same view: "לא שיהיו שידין ממש אלא בני אדם הדומין לשידין במעשיהם כלשון בני אדם שאומרים על אדם רע זה שד הוא וכל אדם שמשחית במעשיו ג"כ נקרא שטן" (p 111 f 75).

He also points out the fact that the Meiri similarly reinterperts many talmudic passages that deal with demonology, turning them into rationalistic rules. For example, while the talmud (B'rachot 4-5) states that the reason for the recitation of שמע at bed-time is to afford protection from demons, Meiri states, "להבריח את המזיקים, וביאורו אצלי המזיקים הידועים והם הדעות הכוזבים, והזקיקוהו בעתות הפנאי ליחד את השם שלא יטעה באמונות השניות וכשיקרא על הכונה הראויה תהא מטתו בטוחה מהם".