This is a fascinating comment of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, z”l. Rav Kook was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of 20th century pre-Israel Palestine and was a great mystic and poet. Read it bearing in mind that the emended reading for the Rambam that he proposes is in fact found in the older Yemenite manuscripts of Mishneh Torah, and was also accepted and propounded by Rav Soloveitchik, z”l.
The Righteous Among The Nations
[The Rambam wrote:] “Any [gentile] who accepts the seven Noahide commandments and is careful in their performance is one of the righteous of the nations (chasidei umot ha’olam), and he has a portion in the world-to-come. That is if he accepts them and performs them because the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded them in the Torah and proclaimed through Moses that Noahides had previously been commanded in these. But if they perform them because it makes sense [to them], such a person is … not one of the ‘righteous of the nations’ nor one of their wise men” (Hilchot Melachim 8:11).
[This statement of the Rambam requires emendation.] The correct reading is: “he is not [merely] one of ‘the righteous of the gentiles,’ but one of their wise men.”
I tend to think that the Rambam means to say that having a portion in the world-to-come is an inferior level (although it too is very great). Since even wicked and ignorant Jews attain it, it is-compared to [truly] spiritual levels-low. The Rambam says that intellectual awareness brings a person much closer to [understanding] the righteousness of God’s Providence.
Therefore, having a portion in the world-to-come is a level attained by the righteous of the nations who have not attained an intellectual awareness, but who have rather accepted the faith simply, with heart-felt emotion, and have acted well, as a result of having accepted the concept that the commandments were given by God. But if a person has come to understand the seven Noahide commandments as a result of his own thinking, he is truly wise of heart and filled with understanding. Such a person is considered one of their wise men, for the trait of wisdom is very great. And it is superfluous to say that he has a portion in the world-to-come. [Indeed,] he stands on a holy level that needs to be spoken of with a fuller expression than “having a portion in the world-to-come.”
However, even were we to accept the Rambam’s words simply [without emendation], we will find nothing in them strange if we say that the quality of the world-to-come that the Rambam is speaking of is a particular state that the divine and special nature of our holy Torah gives to those who keep the Torah. But there are other states that can be transmitted by anything good-only, it is not called the “world-to-come.” That special [state called the “world-to-come”] derives from the power of the Torah, and is appropriate for anyone who accepts it and the sanctity of its faith. But this does not in any way deny other qualities that can be imagined regarding every philosophy, each in its own way.
This passage says that the spiritual level conveyed automatically to Jews (and non-Jews) with simple faith in the Torah, “the world to come”, is a lower level than that attained by truly wise gentiles. This reading of Rambam is exactly the opposite of the reading accepted by many pre-modern (and some modern) Ashkenazi Rabbis, who read the Rambam as saying that wise gentiles do not have a portion in “the world to come” since they were not on as high a level as a simple Jew or a gentile with faith in the Torah. R’ Kook’s comment that various attainments result from the various philosophies of the world, and higher attainments can be imagined for those reach knowledge of God’s will based on their own wisdom, is intriguing.