Maimonides: Life and Thought

Moses Maimonides is generally regarded as the most important philosopher in the history of Judaism. Yet the major theme of his work is, ironically, the profound tension between being a philosopher and being a believing Jew. In his best-known book, The Guide of the Perplexed — written in the 1180s, when he was entering middle age — Maimonides tried to square this circle, arguing that it was possible to believe in both the Bible and Aristotle. Yet he wrote in such an ambiguous fashion, filling his pages with hints about secret meanings and the need for concealing dangerous truths, that exactly what he believed became a subject for intense debate. In the thirteenth century, Jewish communities in France had the Guide publicly burned as an offense to religion. In the twentieth century, the philosopher Leo Strauss cemented his own mystique with his work on the Guide, which he read as the concealed confession of a rationalist in a religious society.

For this and other reasons, Maimonides is not the kind of writer who can be approached simply by sitting down and opening up his books. The title of The Guide of the Perplexed sounds very inviting — aren’t we all perplexed and in need of guidance, even today? — but it is actually a highly technical work, steeped in Islamic philosophy and Aristotelian cosmology. And before he wrote the Guide, Maimonides’ major works were codifications and commentaries of Jewish law — a highly complex field of its own, which is a closed book to practically everyone except traditionally educated Orthodox Jews and academic specialists.

Maimonides, then, remains an elusive and fascinating figure: his importance is clear, but it’s hard to grasp exactly what made him so important. That is why Maimonides: Life and Thought, the new study by Moshe Halbertal, is such a valuable contribution. In this comparatively short book — shorter by hundreds of pages than other recent works on the subject, like the biographies of Maimonides by Herbert Davidson and Joel Kraemer — Halbertal does not just sketch the outlines of Maimonides’ biography and writings. He shows, through deft analyses and well-chosen examples, exactly why Maimonides was, in the context of his intellectual world, a revolutionary figure — almost, in Halbertal’s view, a kind of prophet or religious founder himself. No wonder Jewish tradition compares him to the original Moses, in the saying “From Moses to Moses [Maimonides], there was none like Moses.”

Maimonides — traditionally referred to by Jews as the Rambam, after his initials, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon — was born in Córdoba around the year 1138. For more than a century, Islamic Spain had enjoyed a cultural and intellectual golden age, as Muslim and Jewish writers exchanged ideas and styles with remarkable freedom. But when Maimonides was around ten years old, this comparatively tolerant society came to an abrupt end, when Spain was conquered by the Almohads, a puritanical Islamic group from North Africa. The Almohads offered some Jewish communities the choice of conversion or death, and persecuted others with legal and economic restrictions. In the face of this pressure, Maimonides’ family fled to Egypt, a more tolerant corner of the Islamic world. He spent most of his adult life in Fustat, the capital, which would become the modern Cairo.

While he was still in his twenties, Maimonides announced himself as a major intellectual force with his Commentary on the Mishnah. The Mishnah is the foundational compilation of Jewish laws, edited around the year 200; it extends to sixty-three volumes, and Maimonides made detailed and authoritative glosses on all of them. Then, in his thirties, he completed his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah. This was an immensely ambitious work, in which Maimonides attempted to codify Jewish law on every conceivable subject. Traditionally, Jewish law was studied in the form of the Talmud, a massive and ancient compendium of legal debates, whose meandering structure often made it impossible to locate a decisive answer to a given question. Maimonides wanted, in a sense, to make the Talmud obsolete, which meant overturning a thousand years’ worth of Jewish custom.

Because he was writing commentaries and codes, rather than treatises, Maimonides seldom had the chance in these earlier works to state his philosophical views. Rather, those views have to be deduced from the way he interpreted individual laws and from his approach to the whole system of Jewish legal reasoning. And it is this kind of deduction at which Halbertal excels. He is able to take an apparently dry and recondite subject like Talmudic tort law and show how Maimonides’ treatment of it raised important intellectual and religious issues.

Take, for instance, a question raised in the Talmud about whether neighbors who share a property can compel one another to build a partition. The answer is that in a domestic setting like a courtyard they cannot, but in a field where crops are growing they can, because it is possible that one neighbor might harm the other’s crops by casting a spell on them with “the evil eye.” Maimonides, when he comes to deal with this question in the Mishneh Torah, subtly alters the Talmudic ruling: a field can be partitioned, he says, but only with a short fence. A short fence would be sufficient to mark which land belonged to which owner, but it would not be tall enough to block an “evil eye.” By making this change, then, Maimonides is signaling that he doesn’t believe in evil eyes and malicious spells. His ruling is a small but significant victory for rationalism over superstition.

This promotion of philosophical reason over all kinds of magical and miraculous thinking is the central theme of Maimonides’ work, and of Halbertal’s study. It reaches its climax in The Guide of the Perplexed, where Maimonides systematically rereads the Bible in such a way as to explain away references to prophecy, angels, and miracles as metaphorical or symbolic. Halbertal explains how the Guide gives rise to competing readings — he counts four — depending on how one interprets Maimonides’ views on key questions. Aristotelians, for instance, believed that the universe was eternal, while the Bible clearly states that it was created by God ex nihilo. On this issue hung the basic question of whether God intervenes actively in the world, yet Maimonides made his own position deliberately unclear. The Guide, one might say, needs a guide, and Halbertal’s book does the job expertly. Readers who are curious about this difficult but rewarding thinker will find Maimonides: Life and Thought a thrillingly lucid introduction.