Maimonides' Empire of Light: Popular Enlightenment in an Age of Belief

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Much of the writing of and about the twelfth-century rabbi, philosopher, and theologian Moses Maimonides is addressed to an elite audience of philosophers and intellectuals. Here, Ralph Lerner's exploration of Maimonides' popular writings reveals that the education of the common man was one of the great teacher's chief concerns.

Lerner describes the brilliant and sometimes wily ways in which Maimonides sought to break through the despair and superstition that gripped the Jewish people's minds, without sacrificing the dignity and core of his message. These writings—presented here in uncommonly accurate, mostly new translations—also reveal that Maimonides was willing to risk the scorn of his contemporaries to enlighten both his own and future generations. By addressing the writings of Maimonides' disciples, including Shem Tov ben Joseph Ibn Falaquera in the mid-thirteenth century and Joseph Albo in the fifteenth century, Lerner shows how this technique was passed on.

In striking contrast to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, Maimonides' enlightenment is premised on the inequality of understandings and other differences between the elite and the common people. Instead of scorning the past, Lerner shows, Maimonides' enlightenment invests it with a new and ennobling dignity. A valuable reference for students of political philosophy and Jewish studies, Lerner's elegantly written book also brings to life the richness and relevance of medieval Jewish thought for all those interested in the Jewish tradition.

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Editorial Reviews

Lerner (philosopher, U. of Chicago) translates and comments on some lesser known and less accessible works by Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1035-1204) that focus on the education of the common man. He argues that such education was one of the teacher's chief concerns, and shows how, in letters to distressed individuals and communities he sought to break through the superstition and credulity that gripped the minds of people. Only Biblical and Rabbinic passages are indexed. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226473130
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 221
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Ralph Lerner is the Benjamin Franklin Professor in the College and professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He is the co-editor, with Muhsin Mahdi, of Medieval Political Philosophy and, with Philip B. Kurland, of The Founders' Constitution. Lerner also served as editorial assistant to Shlomo Pines in the latter's translation of Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed (1963).

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Table of Contents

Part One: The Politics of Public Teaching
1. Philosophy in the Public Square
2. Winged Words to Yemen
Maimonides' Epistle to Yemen
3. Curricular Reform
Maimonides' Mishneh Torah: Book of Knowledge
4. Hard Lessons for Slow Learners
Maimonides' Treatise on Resurrection
5. Back to Basics
Maimonides' Letter on Astrology
6. Teaching by Example
Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed
7. Persuasive Speech
Falaquera's Epistle of the Debate
8. Postscript: Survival Training
Albo's Book of Roots
Part Two: Addresses to the People
Maimonides, Epistle to Yemen (1172)
Translated by Joel L. Kraemer
Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, Introduction and "Book of Knowledge" (1177)
Translated by Ralph Lerner
Maimonides' Treatise on Resurrection (1191)
Translated by Hillel G. Fradkin
Maimonides' Letter on Astrology (1194)
Translated by Ralph Lerner
Falaquera, Epistle of the Debate (before 1263)
Translated by Steven Harvey

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