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Maimonides Meets Modernity
Contemporary Lessons from Judaism's Greatest Sage
JAY M. HARRIS is Dean of Undergraduate Education and Harry Austryn Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University.See more by this author
Maimonides: Life and Thought. By Moshe Halbertal. Translated by Joel Linsider. Princeton University Press, 2013, 400 pp. $35.00.
In the fall of 1993, as my daughter was getting ready to enter first grade at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts, a friend of mine asked her where she was going to school. “Mommy’s-monides,” she replied. Apart from making clear which parent carried the most weight with her, this reply gave a new twist to the old quip, generally attributed to the Israeli scholar Shalom Rosenberg, that “there is my-monides, your-monides, and their-monides.” Indeed, the medieval Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides (1138–1204, although frequently said to have been born in 1135) has been read in myriad ways. Surely the greatest Jewish intellectual of the Middle Ages (and arguably of any age), Maimonides has been invoked to support or challenge virtually all forms of Jewish life and discourse since the thirteenth century. Historians and scholars of Judaism have interpreted Maimonides in countless, sometimes contradictory ways: as a philosopher and as an anti-philosopher, as an upholder of Talmudic authority and as a subverter of Talmudic authority, as a religious zealot and as a herald of religious tolerance, and as a model of clarity and as a model of opacity.
Maimonides’ readings of the Bible turned that document into a remarkably flexible text, capable of bearing interpretations that incorporate the insights of Aristotle, among others. Ever since it was “rediscovered” by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian thinkers in the Middle Ages, Aristotelian thinking has posed a fundamental challenge to the monotheistic traditions by, among other things, questioning the notion of a theistic God who manages nature and intervenes in human affairs. Because he incorporated many, but not all, Aristotelian ideas into his understanding of Judaism -- while often striving to conceal that he was doing so -- Maimonides remains one of the most challenging major thinkers to understand and explain. Many have tried, but no one has succeeded completely. There is no definitive interpretation of his works, and one can probably never be produced.