Maimonides - a philosopher for all time

By David Conway, April 25, 2014
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Maimonides, By Moshe Halbertal, Princeton University Press, £24.95

In each of his three successive main works, Moses Maimonides made a major contribution to Jewish thought any one of which would have secured him a place in the annals of Jewish history.

First, in his comparatively youthful Commentary on the Mishnah, written while in his twenties, Maimonides drew up a definitive Jewish creed in the form of thirteen principles of faith. They have since been incorporated in the Jewish liturgy through the ubiquitous prayer, Yigdal Elohim Chai (Great is the living God).

Second, in his fourteen-volume Mishneh Torah, Maimonides compiled a comprehensive and systematic code of Jewish law. It was written during his middle years after he had settled with his family in Egypt to escape the intolerant Almohads, a Berber Muslim sect who conquered not only the Maghreb, where they had initially moved to escape them, but also his sorely missed Andalusia, where Maimonides had been born and raised.

Maimonides had intended his code to rid Jewish law of all the confusing web of associative rabbinic fancy in which it had become encumbered by the Talmud and which had made that latter work so inconvenient and unwieldy a source of authoritative opinion about Jewish law.

Although Maimonides never succeeded in replacing the Talmud with his law code, that code did inspire Joseph Caro’s much later Shulchan Aruch which pretty much did.

Finally, in his last major work, Guide for the Perplexed, written while he was both court physician to Saladin’s vizier in Egypt and leader of its Jewish community, Maimonides explained how and why pagan Greek philosophy posed no threat to Judaism. Rather, he argued that it should be seen as an aid to realising what he felt ought to be its supreme goal — to enable all humanity, by Jewish example, to achieve loving intellectual communion with God.

Each of Maimonides’s three contributions has generated endless debate and controversy, underlying all of which has been how far Maimonides genuinely accepted traditional Jewish teaching about prophecy, revelation, miracles, immortality and resurrection.

Even during his own lifetime, and certainly ever since, many have supposed that Maimonides secretly regarded and cryptically taught those with enough discernment to appreciate his teaching that most of the Torah was but politically expedient fiction, needed to achieve the tranquil social order and personal moral habits essential for a society’s philosophical elite to engage in the kind of contemplation of God that Maimonides favoured but which in reality was far removed from the original Jewish religion.

In this quite outstanding study, Moshe Halbertal, who holds professorships in Jewish law and thought in both America and Israel, expertly plots a course through the vicissitudes of Maimonides’s life as well as the intricacies of his various works and the scholarly debates to which they have given rise.

What emerges above all from Halbertal’s outstandingly clear, instructive and well-organised exegesis is just how modern and relevant to present-day concerns Maimonides’s thought continues to remain.

This is despite the eight centuries that separate it from the present. Halbertal’s book cannot be recommended highly enough to all in quest of a Judaism and Jewish thinker fit for all seasons.

David Conway is a philosopher and author of ‘The Rediscovery of Wisdom: From Here to Antiquity in Quest of Sophia’

Last updated: 4:02pm, April 25 2014