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.
The Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal seems to realize this, and in his new book on Maimonides (originally published in Hebrew in 2009), he does not try to offer a definitive reading, although his preferred interpretations are often clear enough. He nevertheless pioneers a new path, walking the reader through the different interpretive schools and explaining what supports each one while acknowledging that Maimonides contradicts himself both across and within his many writings -- at times purposefully, which inevitably leaves his readers perplexed. Halbertal is a wonderful guide, explaining how different approaches illuminate Maimonides’ writings and how certain issues reverberate throughout the sage’s work, returning in new forms and contexts.
Halbertal’s book also demonstrates why Maimonides should matter beyond the rather narrow confines of Jewish theology, revealing how Maimonides dealt with questions common to all faiths and with some problems also faced by secular philosophies. At its core, Maimonides’ work represents a powerful bastion against the retreat from rationality that too often accompanies contemporary discourse, religious and otherwise. Maimonides insisted that the religious mind should not embrace the absurd or imagine that one honors God by resisting science and human understanding, fallible though they may be. He urged the faithful to include the study of the natural world in their quest for a righteous and loving God, or risk falling prey to “powerful anxieties and urges” that sow confusion and fear. For Maimonides, only religion informed by science and philosophy could allow believers to be at peace with the world and its complex reality, instead of their retreating from reality into a world of imagined demons and angels -- literal or metaphoric.
Halbertal’s book opens with a short but masterful biography of his subject, following Maimonides’ journey from Spain, through the Maghreb, and on to Egypt after a brief sojourn in the Holy Land. Maimonides was born in Córdoba, the provincial capital of what was then al-Andalus (today Andalusia), a region of modern-day Spain that was ruled at the time by the Muslim Almoravid empire. His father was Maimon ben Joseph, a rabbinical scholar in his own right; his mother’s identity remains unknown. Maimonides grew up in a culture that blurred many lines that elsewhere separated Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Poets, philosophers, and scientists all thrived under the Almoravids.
And yet it was an age filled with tension and religious extremism, as Christian crusaders sought to reconquer the Muslim territories of Iberia and retake the Levant and intra-Muslim struggles ultimately brought a militant Islamic regime -- the Almohads -- to power in al-Andalus. The Almohads treated non-Muslims harshly, forcibly converting or killing many Jews throughout their realm. When Maimonides was in his early 20s, his family fled to Fès, in present-day Morocco. But this did not help much, since the Almohads ruled there as well. A few years later, the family moved once more, this time to Acre, then part of the crusader kingdom in the Holy Land. Soon after, the family relocated yet again, this time to Egypt. Maimonides would spend the rest of his life there, ultimately rising to become the semiofficial head of the Jewish community in Egypt. He supported himself by working as a physician in the Jewish community and at the court of the Muslim ruler of the region, Saladin. It was in Egypt that Maimonides established his reputation as a great scholar of Jewish law and thought, his renown spreading throughout the Islamic world and into Europe. Letters reached him from all over the Jewish world, seeking his advice and legal rulings.
Drawing on all of Maimonides’ writings, and especially his many letters, Halbertal crafts a portrait of a refugee who never fully left home and felt the pain of exile for his entire life. This character study forms the backdrop for Halbertal’s discussion of Maimonides’ intellectual output, which covers virtually all the legal and philosophical works that Maimonides produced. Halbertal pays little attention to Maimonides’ medical writings (except when they shed light on legal or philosophical matters) and provides only a limited overview of his other works, focusing on matters that stand out as unique contributions to Jewish ethical, legal, or philosophical discourse or that generated significant controversy. As a result, the novice approaching Maimonides through this book might not fully appreciate the audacity of what Maimonides attempted in each of his major works.
Nevertheless, Halbertal deftly guides the reader through Maimonides’ contributions to Jewish thought. Among these is Maimonides’ embrace of what philosophers refer to as “virtue ethics,” which calls for people to act morally by developing a longing for what is right or a disgust for what is wrong -- in contrast, for example, to desiring the pleasures of the flesh but refraining from them out of a sense of duty. Virtue ethics presents a distinct challenge to a Jew loyal to the laws of Judaism, which seem to insist that obeying God’s commandments -- and nothing else -- should form the basis of one’s moral life. In other words, Jewish law seems to speak to duty, not disposition. It is thus difficult to imagine a strictly observant Jew embracing virtue ethics; the same could be said for strictly observant Muslims or Christians, as well.
Halbertal shows how Maimonides tried to resolve this problem by distinguishing between acts that reason identifies as virtuous (such as caring for others or refraining from violence) and things that have moral importance only because God has weighed in on them (such as consuming some kinds of food but not others). Maimonides argued that fulfilling the latter type of duties can contribute to the cultivation of virtue by encouraging a kind of discipline: learning to follow God’s commands can help one develop the habits needed to lead a virtuous life. Thus, reason came to occupy a central place in Maimonides’ view of the properly lived religious life, in which duty is subservient to the demands of virtue.
CRACKING THE CODE
Halbertal’s most significant contribution comes in his discussion of Maimonides’ two most important works, his code of Jewish law (Mishne Torah in Hebrew) and his great philosophical work, The Guide of the Perplexed. Maimonides attempted to codify the entirety of Jewish law, an unprecedented effort that has never been repeated. Other codes of Jewish law (of which there are many) are selective in one way or another, generally choosing to focus on only a specific set of laws or only those laws that would apply to Jews in exile. Maimonides, by contrast, dealt with laws that involve the sovereign institutions of the state and even with laws that would apply only during a hoped-for messianic age. (It is worth noting that unlike in the apocalyptic visions of the end times so common among many Christians and Jews, in Maimonides’ account, the Messiah’s return will usher in world peace and political maturity without any transformation of nature, human or otherwise. When “the end” comes, people will still live, reproduce, and die but will do so while “accepting the true religion,” leading to a world without plunder or destruction.)
Halbertal, understandably, does not dwell on the minutiae of Jewish law, focusing instead on the broad philosophical themes that form the foundation of the Mishne Torah. In particular, Halbertal shows that in the philosophical sections of his code, Maimonides seems to say that the world exists eternally as an extension of God’s unchanging wisdom and not as a creation of God’s will (as the Bible seems to suggest). In a created world, God is the supreme power in the universe and continuously brings about his desired outcomes. That is the more conventional, familiar religious view of creation. But in Maimonides’ view, the world represents an extension of God’s wisdom, not his will, so it is impossible for God to, say, change the course of someone’s health or determine the victor in a battle. This does not suggest a limitation on God’s power but serves as an expression of God’s perfection; after all, perfect beings do not change their minds.
This is one of Maimonides’ concessions to Aristotelian logic and seems to run contrary to the meaning of the Bible, not to mention the thousands of pages of Jewish commentary on the Bible. It is all the more audacious coming in a code of Jewish law, since such a code seems wholly dependent on the notion of a willing God who responds to human behavior. After all, why refrain from eating pork if not to please a God who will respond with favor?
Of course, a God devoid of a discrete will cannot respond to human behavior at all. So why bother observing any of these laws? For Maimonides, one observes because observance both cultivates and expresses love and awe for a God stripped of all personality or caprice. Observance is not, as generally assumed, a submission to divine will.
In general, Maimonides’ code presents a system of Jewish law that seeks to eliminate the nonrational elements from human life. To be sure, the Mishne Torah presents many laws whose purpose seems less than rational to most people. But as with virtue ethics, the laws’ apparently nonrational dimensions serve a rational purpose: to develop habits of behavior that will encourage virtue. Still, Halbertal concedes that, at times, even Maimonides had to push his considerable interpretive skills to their limits in order to explain how many of the laws and customs inherited from the ancient rabbis, which seem on the surface so distant from rational purpose, actually serve to bring the observer nearer to knowledge of God.
SPEAKING OF GOD
When he turns to Maimonides’ other major work, The Guide of the Perplexed, Halbertal once again finds the philosopher confronting the question of whether the world was created by God’s will or exists eternally by virtue of God’s wisdom. As Maimonides himself notes in The Guide, “everything is bound up with this problem.” As the name implies, The Guide of the Perplexed was written to help those confounded by Aristotelian philosophy, and nowhere did Aristotle challenge the core of Judaism and the other scriptural monotheistic faiths more than in his insistence that the world was not created in time and certainly not as an act of will by a benevolent God. The issue is further complicated by the challenges of language. How does one speak of God? What does it mean to say that God has a will? That God could one day be satisfied with no universe and the next day begin creating one? Does such language even make sense? What does it mean to say, as the book of Genesis does, that God “rested,” or that God created man “in his own image,” or that God was “angry” or “jealous”? Can a sophisticated thinker even take such ideas seriously?
Maimonides devoted much of The Guide to examining the limits of language and the need for metaphor and allegory to communicate basic truths about God and humanity. This led him to the notion of what has come to be called “negative theology”: the claim that one cannot make any affirmative statements about God without introducing corruption but that one can describe what God is not. Further, one can describe how God is manifest in the world. Here, Maimonides presents an interpretive tour de force, explaining the mysterious back-and-forth between God and Moses that takes place in the book of Exodus, in which Moses asks to see God’s glory, and God replies that Moses may not see his face but may see what is usually translated as God’s “back.” Maimonides reads this passage as saying that a human cannot know what God is but can recognize God’s effects in the world, which Maimonides believes will reveal a God who brings about righteousness and loving-kindness.
The Guide also reflects on the reasons for the commandments in the Torah. In other works, Maimonides presents the commandments as an aid in forming the habits of virtue. That notion does not entirely disappear in The Guide, but Maimonides shifts to an emphasis on the commandments’ role in steering observant Jews away from idolatry, considered to be false ideas about God that represent the most corrupting force imaginable. Maimonides insists that a proper understanding of God (knowing what God is not), together with the commandment to imitate God as he is manifest in the world, will lead people to a life devoted to righteousness and loving-kindness -- the essence of God’s impact on the world. A mistaken understanding of God, on the other hand, can lead people to place a divine imprimatur on all manner of evil acts. Thus, the failure to think properly about God is ultimately a moral failure, one that has led to the spilling of much blood. With this extraordinary philosophical and moral vision, The Guide ends. It is to Halbertal’s great credit that he brings this vision to life for the contemporary reader.
O YE OF LITTLE FAITH
The specific challenges of Aristotelian philosophy no longer keep many people up at night. But the question of how to understand the origins of the universe is as alive as ever -- and the retreat from the challenges of existence, the refuge of the imaginative and the “miraculous,” remains as seductive as ever. Maimonides demands something more honest and mature than that. As Halbertal writes, “Many faiths place God’s appearance under the rubric of ‘miracle.’” But, he continues,
"Maimonides considered that belief to offer a flimsy, ad hoc expression of divine revelation. At the focus of religious consciousness, the world must remain as it is, as the highest expression of God’s mercy, justice, and wisdom. Relying on the wondrous and the extraordinary as the basis for religious experience rests on an inability to distinguish the impossible from the possible."
Many of the world’s current ills result from just that inability.
Centuries after Maimonides, Sigmund Freud (among others) would come to see the abolition of religion as the only way to overcome people’s reluctance to face the world as it is. Yet in the decades that have elapsed since the publication in 1927 of Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, religion has shown no sign of disappearing -- nor has contemporary secular political or moral discourse particularly distinguished itself when it comes to dealing with the world in all its complexity.
More than anything else, Maimonides provides an understanding of religion generally, and Judaism specifically, that suggests our species must go through, not bypass, its great spiritual dilemmas. As Halbertal writes toward the end of his extraordinary book, Maimonides believed that
"by grasping the vast beauty and power of the world we learn to perceive it for what it is -- a grand manifestation of God’s wisdom in which we humans are one marginal aspect of its design. In internalizing this non-instrumental attitude we reconcile ourselves with the world, a world that is suited to our potential as creatures capable of knowledge and capable of transcending the initial grip of fear and the imagination."
In this respect, Maimonides’ work has as much to offer today as at any time since his demise more than eight centuries ago.