The Revolutionary at the Heart of Traditional Judaism – By Daniel Davies

Daniel Davies on Moshe Halbertal’s Maimonides: Life and Thought

Moshe Halbertal, Maimonides: Life and Thought, Princeton University Press, 2013, 400pp., $35
Moshe Halbertal, Maimonides: Life and Thought, Princeton University Press, 2013, 400pp., $35

The works and personality of Moses Maimonides are imprinted on almost all forms of Judaism and have been ever since the twelfth century. Today he’s known by religious and secular alike, having lent his name to schools and hospitals, fitting legacies for a rabbi and a renowned physician who served at the court of the great Saladin. In Jewish circles, RaMBaM (an acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon) is well known as one of the preeminent Jewish legal authorities of all time and as a great thinker. Today, many seem to want to appropriate his authority for their own ideas. Some consider him a philosopher, forerunner of the rational enlightenment and precursor of reasoned responses to obscurantist superstitions. Others insist that he was a kabbalist, whether during his productive career or on a deathbed conversion. Since he is the single figure of medieval Judaism who looms largest over the subsequent tradition, it might be surprising to hear that he was a revolutionary. But that is exactly the claim of Moshe Halbertal’s welcome addition to the vast literature.

Halbertal opens by explaining that Maimonides’s career can be characterized by attempts to bring about two major revolutions in Judaism. One is in the realm of Jewish legal study, halakhah. His fourteen-book legal code, the Mishneh Torah, was the first attempt to encompass the whole of Jewish law in a single work. Maimonides also transforms our understanding of religious consciousness, moving us away from the notion that religion aims at gaining God’s favor, and toward the notion that God acts through nature rather than through disruptions in the customary course of events. The two transformations are tied together, as Halbertal presents them, because Maimonides structured the Mishneh Torah according to the philosophical principles that drove his attempt to change the worldview of Judaism as a whole. Much of the book investigates the meaning behind these two revolutions and explains the ways in which Maimonides attempted to bring them about, giving a rich portrayal of the man as well as his work.

Maimonides’s first major religious work (Book of the Lamp) was his commentary on the Mishnah, which reports many disagreements between rabbinic authorities and provoked a venerable debate about the nature and origin of the contradictory rulings. Book of the Lamp follows a midrashic comment in Sifre asserting that God revealed two Torahs to Moses at Sinai, one written and one oral. Divine authority undergirds not only the written law but also the oral law, meaning rabbinic legal rulings enjoy divine sanction. But well-informed rabbis often disagreed in their legal rulings, a situation that seems to indicate a problem with the transmission of revelation and calls into question the tradition’s authority. Halbertal explains Maimonides’ argument: when no clear ruling emerged in the rabbinic teachings, one must interpret the law in conformity with the revealed tradition. Disagreements can arise when sages argue over how to extend the tradition to cover new situations, but true revelation remains uncontroversial. The human element of halakhah is not problematic because reason can develop authoritative norms consistent with perfectly preserved revelation, and reason itself is authoritative.

Even if the entire halakhah does not have the backing of revelation, Maimonides could still assert that it nevertheless remains authoritative. He argued that the Mishnah and the Talmud gained their authority from their universal acceptance by the Jewish community. With the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides announced that he wanted to provide a work sufficient to eliminate the need to return to earlier texts. Halbertal presents two possible explanations for such a statement. Maybe Maimonides tried to present a work that everybody could consult as a shortcut to knowing the correct rulings without having to study all of the debates that led to them, though scholars would and should continue to study the earlier canonical texts. Or maybe he meant to replace those earlier texts entirely by rendering them unnecessary for any knowledge of the law’s practicalities. The ambiguity may be intentional, and Halbertal suggests that one’s understanding of Maimonides’s self-perception would determine which alternative one would consider more likely: Did he consider himself capable of replacing all preceding texts of oral law, an assessment some would consider arrogant? Or did he have the more limited goal of wanting to help improve a problematic situation? Halbertal quotes correspondence in which Maimonides appears alternatively to support both interpretations, but these different statements probably just reflect different emphases. No doubt Maimonides hoped to provide a sufficient summary of the entire law, but he did not necessarily expect complete success. Likely he would have been happy for other scholars to check the Mishneh Torah against a previous respected code, that of Isaac Alfasi. One would need to delve further into previous texts only in cases of disagreement between Maimonides’s ruling and Alfasi’s.

Statue of Maimonides, Córdoba. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Statue of Maimonides, Córdoba. Image via Wikimedia Commons

At the base of Maimonides’s revolutionary tendency is his attempt to set the Jewish religion as a whole on a philosophical foundation. Halbertal illustrates how that motivation shaped the Mishneh Torah as well as the more explicitly philosophical Guide, so the two revolutions are intimately connected. When attempting to reorient the people’s religious consciousness, Maimonides actively polemicized against belief in the supernatural. He objected to talismans, astrology, divination, and all forms of magic. Bound up with his fight against folk religion and superstition was his attempt to encourage people to develop their religious sensitivities by urging them to change the way they understand divine worship. At first, fear of punishment or desire for reward would probably motivate obedience, but the higher motivations involve love for God and love for his commandments. One develops love for God not only by fulfilling the commands but also by studying creation. Since God created everything that exists, appreciating God’s creation through scientific study is worship. Love of God is intellectual.

Despite the clarity of Halbertal’s explanation, it is not clear to me that he follows Maimonides to his ultimate conclusion, which is important in his explanation of Maimonides’s approach to evil. Maimonides argues that evil is a lack of existence, and Halbertal quite rightly considers such an explanation to be a poor justification of evil and concludes that this is the weakest of Maimonides’s philosophical arguments. Today it is common to hear that religion is a delusional crutch, that it offers consolation for those who cannot face the meaninglessness of their lives and their sufferings. Halbertal’s presentation seems to view Maimonides’s response to evil in a similar way, as if Maimonides is trying to offer solace and reassurance that things are not as bad as they might seem. For Maimonides, Halbertal indicates, evil is not real. But that cannot be so. People regularly experience atrocious sorrows, and it is no help to point out that what is happening to them does not really exist.

In my view, explaining Maimonides’ response to suffering in such a way misses the point of his wider argument. To deny the reality of evil because it does not exist in the same way as something good does would be a little like denying the reality of a hole in the ground because it is empty of the earth that surrounds it. Maimonides certainly did not wish to deny the reality of evil, or that humans inflict undeserved pain on others. When he defines evil as a lack of existence, he does not intend to diminish the importance of evil. He is trying to explain how evil can exist when God created everything that exists and existence itself is good. He adopts an argument common in the Middle Ages but dependent on ontological assumptions unfamiliar and uncomfortable to most philosophers today.

If differentiating a good thing from a bad thing on the basis that they exist in different ways were a justification of evil, an attempt at theodicy, Maimonides’s approach would be lacking. But it is not his last word on the matter. He does not try to explain evil away at all, but rather encourages people to accept that it is simply a part of the created universe. Again, this seems to be part of the Maimonidean revolution, as it combats what Halbertal calls the “megalomaniacal view of man’s place in the universe.” If someone thinks that creation as a whole is not as good as it should be, Maimonides claims she is judging the entire creation from her own limited perspective, or from the perspective of humanity. But people are not the purpose of creation. Maimonides responds to those who think the world contains too much suffering by emphasizing that people are not as important as they tend to think, an understanding that seems to go along with awe and humility.

One of the better known academic approaches to Maimonides distinguishes his popular works from the Guide for the Perplexed, which is aimed at the elite and contains his technical philosophy. The popular works are seen to encourage obedient actions, while the Guide inspires questioning and understanding. Whereas religion demands observance, the Guide teaches that mere observance is not enough. The aims of the Mishneh Torah and the Guide are therefore fundamentally opposed. Halbertal shows that this view is limited, and that the same ideals that are behind the Guide also drive Maimonides in his other endeavors, so the guiding principles of all his writings are one. But by the time Halbertal turns to the Guide, the work of explaining the philosophical principles behind the halakhah is done, and the final two chapters have a quite different character. He presents the Guide as a kind of garnish to the other works, which were, after all, aimed at a far wider audience but refrains from characterizing the book’s main message, instead summing up four approaches common in today’s scholarship, which he terms skeptical, mystical, conservative, and radical.

Four approaches to understanding Maimonides’s Guide: skeptical, mystical, conservative, radical.

The skeptical approach emphasizes that Maimonides draws strict limitations to what can be known about theological topics. His so-called negative theology is famously extreme, as he denies that any attributes can be used to express God’s essence, insisting that to call God “wise,” “good,” and even “existent” is mistaken, as all these words liken God far too much to beings in the world. Even denying any of these attributes of God won’t do, though, because that appears to attribute its opposite to God. Denying that God is “wise,” for example, could be taken to mean that God is foolish, but what Maimonides wants to say is that no human conceptions can be true of God and no words can refer to God. The best that can be done is to deny the negations of perfections without affirming the perfections themselves. Maimonides is skeptical about any claims to knowledge of God. In its extreme form, the skeptical interpretation involves arguing that Maimonides was skeptical of all claims to knowledge of truth.

The mystical approach resembles the skeptical in that both focus on the limitations of reason, but adherents of the mystical view hold that some other, superior form of apprehension is possible. After progressing through the philosophical stages that purify someone’s belief in God, ridding it of idolatrous anthropomorphisms, a further “flash” can illuminate a person’s perception. Since the mystical apprehension is inexpressible, Maimonides could not explain it properly to his readers but relied on hints and on the reader’s own ability to reach this level of human perfection. Scholars of Avicenna, the seminal Islamic philosopher whose language Maimonides echoes, also debate whether the Muslim thinker considered such illumination possible. Perhaps the approach taken to one of these medieval philosophers could influence the interpretation of the other.

Most of the debates that exercise scholars are between the conservative and the radical readings. Conservatives read Maimonides as a religious thinker who affirmed the creation of the world and other traditional beliefs, such as human free will or God’s knowledge of individuals. This approach assumes that Maimonides argued sincerely on behalf of these beliefs. The radical view holds that Maimonides only pretended to adhere to these traditional doctrines. Most of those who take this line argue that he covertly indicates his rejection of the traditional doctrines without openly stating his true position for fear of scandalizing the masses. In the case of most books, assuming that the author hints that her true position is the opposite of what she openly professes would be a strange approach to adopt. But the Guide is no ordinary book. Maimonides does state that he has something to hide; he explicitly warns his readers that contradictions are hidden in the Guide and that the masses ought not to be aware of some of them. To differing degrees, those who adhere to an interpretation other than the conservative have relied on this warning. The contradictions are often seen as those between the bible and philosophy, or between religion and science. When the two are in conflict, the enlightened few understand that science teaches true doctrines but the masses are led to believe the religious views.

The net result of the radical reading, as Halbertal presents it, is to make Maimonides into a somewhat disappointing philosopher and the Guide into a rather uninteresting philosophical book. Maimonides’s deepest secrets may be philosophical but they are not particularly sophisticated. They are quite simple positions, and they remain secret only because they do not conform with the beliefs of most religious people. When encountering a problem that ought to encourage further reflection there is no need to think about how Maimonides’s positions might challenge some philosophical beliefs or preconceptions. One can simply assume that they do not. And it is far easier to understand a cruder philosophical position rather than refine it further by considering how that position might cohere with others that, at first sight, it appears to oppose. This assessment may not disturb some since, as Leo Strauss stated, the Guide is no ordinary philosophical book but a “Jewish book: a book written by a Jew for Jews”; Strauss argued that it is driven more by political than natural philosophy or metaphysics, so one should not look for Maimonides’s most sophisticated ideas in his theological arguments.

For my part, I would argue that the conservative reading of Maimonides’s philosophy is justified, and that what Maimonides tries to hide is his interpretation of scriptural passages given great importance in the rabbinic tradition. Halbertal explains how forcefully Maimonides opposed many forms of popular religion. But elements of that same folk religion are key to understanding how Maimonides understands the deepest secret of the Torah, the account of the chariot in the book of Ezekiel. When explaining Ezekiel, Maimonides bases his interpretation on premises that conflict with the true scientific premises he employs elsewhere in the Guide. He only presents his interpretation of Ezekiel through hints and allusions, though, so it is difficult to spot, but I think that his exegesis accounts for the “contradictions” that hide something from the masses. It is not necessary to read a hidden philosophical message in the Guide in order to explain Maimonides’s secrecy.

Despite Halbertal’s claim to present the opinions of other scholars rather than his own, he follows the line that the variety of interpretations may themselves reveal the secret message. On this reading, Maimonides did not teach any particular doctrine but presented alternative possible solutions to questions that admit of no definite answer. The different answers are so diverse that a coherent reading of the Guide is “doomed to failure.” Maybe the works of all or most great philosophers contain inconsistencies, and Maimonides would be no exception. But Halbertal presents too little evidence to establish his claim that these inconsistencies constitute the ultimate secret of the Guide. Such a reading might, however, make Maimonides appealing to today’s readers, and it points to another important and brilliant aspect of the Guide: its pedagogical excellence. Maimonides designed this single text to address students of different levels, and it continues to speak to modern readers with diverse interests from different religious traditions.

Halbertal delivers on the promise of his book’s title, offering a graceful and beautifully written introduction to Maimonides’s life and thought, suitable for general readers. Scholars who focus mainly on the Guide will find an exceptional account of Maimonides as a whole. Halbertal ultimately judges Maimonides a failure in his two attempted revolutions. His legal works became central to the rabbinic tradition without replacing their predecessors, and his theology became one of a number of streams common in later Judaism. Many readers find extremely difficult his insistence on viewing Judaism as a rational religion. But Maimonides’s project retains vital. His followers today would consider the battle ongoing, and Halbertal is one of those carrying it forward.

[See a review of Josef Stern’s book on Maimonides by philosopher Dani Rabinowitz.]