Who Owns Maimonides?
Abraham Joshua Heschel once suggested that if one didn't know that "Maimonides" was a person, one would assume it was the name of a university. Heschel was referring to the monumental breadth and influence of the 12th-century philosopher's work. But he could just as easily have been referring to the endemic turf wars, among academics and religious Jews alike, over the true legacy of the man known variously as Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, and Musa ibn Maimoun.
For theologians and philosophers, the essential Maimonides is Maimonides the metaphysician, and the essential text is his canonical Guide of the Perplexed, a rationalistic expounding of Judaism. This means that they often overlook, out of either ignorance or willful disregard, Maimonides' comprehensive legal code, the Mishneh Torah.
Likewise, for centuries, the Maimonides of Greek appellation meant little to traditional religious Jews. The man they revered was the Rambam (a Hebrew acronym for "Rabbi Moshe, son of Maimon"). It was his magisterial Mishneh Torah that occupied their studious attention, not his discomfiting philosophical writings, which they avoided or rejected. (Jacob Emden, a zealous 18th-century rabbi, insisted that the author of the Guide must have been a heretic and a forger, for it could not have been written by the saintly Rambam.)
There were, of course, always a few important exceptions, students of Maimonides at home on both sides of this rough divide. The good news is that the many books on Maimonides published in recent years—popular biographies as well as more abstruse exegeses—signal a growing acceptance of this wider embrace. Many of these works are written by authors fluent in Arabic (the language in which Maimonides composed most of his works), well-versed in the Islamic philosophical milieu of the Middle Ages, and, at the same time, able and willing to parse the details of his corpus of applied Jewish law.
But while we can applaud rigorous, accessible scholarship for its own sake, a number of current authors go beyond this to urge the special relevance of Maimonides to contemporary Judaism. In particular, they encourage an appreciation of Maimonides' allegiance to rationalism, a philosophical appeal to reason that has been largely cast aside in Jewish thought (as it has in religious philosophy across the board).
On the ground, this means that for Maimonides, religious conviction must have a basis in scientific evidence and logical argumentation. In a new book, Herbert A. Davidson not only reviews how Maimonides was committed to this approach philosophically but also demonstrates that it influenced his halakhic decisions. Thus, Maimonides averred that true human perfection and grace in God's sight is achieved not by piety, moral virtue, or even the fulfillment of the commandments, but through the acquisition of metaphysical truth. Unlike most rabbis before and after him, Maimonides interpreted the first two commandments of the Decalogue ("I am the Lord your God . . ." and "You shall have no other gods . . .") as requiring knowledge of the existence of God and His unity. Faith alone does not suffice; the commandments are only fulfilled through knowledge derived from empirical evidence and valid proofs. Davidson carefully shows how Maimonides' adherence to rationality led him to interpret scriptural references to angels as mere visions or dreams (not corporeal entities); to dismiss the causal power of the Talmud's spirits, demons, astrological forces, and incantations; and to deny the legal authority of talmudic aggadah and even to ignore talmudic rulings when they were based on fallacious medicine or physics.
For the Maimonides scholar Menachem Kellner, Maimonides' rationalism is a welcome antidote to what he sees as a lamentable turn to the mystical in Judaism—even, and perhaps especially, within Kellner's own Orthodox Judaism. The popularity of kabbalah, Hasidism and neo-Hasidism, and "spirituality," along with the rejection of science and corresponding appeals to the supernatural capacities of "holy rabbis" would appall Maimonides—as, Kellner and others contend, they should appall us too.
These authors remind us why Maimonides' positions can seem so astonishing to modern readers. But in fact, Jewish adoration of Maimonides was countered from the start by pockets of hostility. Contemporaneous Yemenites included his name in their Kaddish, praying for "the kingdom of God in the lifetime of our master Moses ben Maimon." When he died in 1204, Egyptian Jews observed three full days of mourning. But his work also invited bitter revulsion. Many rabbis blamed Maimonides' errant rejection of kabbalah and dangerous defense of unencumbered rationalism on his devotion to secular philosophy. Maimonides himself encouraged confusion about his true beliefs by noting that his philosophical thought was intended not for the masses but only for a select few sufficiently enlightened to understand his intentions, which he often deliberately disguised (thus launching a thousand doctoral dissertations).
But however prescient or protean, Maimonides was a medieval thinker. And the particular supports on which he built his theological edifice—the operations of the celestial spheres, Aristotelian notions of the active intellect—no longer comport with our modern worldview. Davidson ends his book with an almost wistful acknowledgment that, oxymoronic though it may seem, the marriage of traditional thought to a wholly rational picture of the universe may be possible only through a sturdy act of faith.
Perhaps Davidson is right about the futility of reinventing the rationalism of the Middle Ages as an approach to contemporary Judaism. More pressing, in any case, is the need to resurrect a basic underpinning of the Maimonidean approach: namely, the effort to address central metaphysical questions, whether posed in the language of rationalist or of faith-based Judaism.
These primary religious concerns are not about personal growth, or communal politics, or even living the ethical life. They are, rather, enduring attempts to understand the nature of the Divine, the purpose of human life and the limits of human understanding, the reality of the soul, and a host of other traditional challenges that our contemporary culture regards as antiquarian, useless, or downright embarrassing. Fortunately, Maimonides is there to teach us otherwise.
Joshua Halberstam teaches at Bronx Community College/CUNY and is the author of the novel A Seat at the Table. He's been awarded a 2010-2011 NEA grant to translate Hasidic tales from their original Yiddish.
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