Perplexed By Maimonides? Here's Guide for You.

Book Explains Relevance of Titan of Jewish Learning

Who Was the Sagest of Them All: Maimonides installed Greek philosophy at the heart of Judaism.
Getty Images
Who Was the Sagest of Them All: Maimonides installed Greek philosophy at the heart of Judaism.

By David Mikics

Published February 04, 2014, issue of February 07, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Maimonides: Life and Thought
By Moshe Halbertal
Princeton University Press, 400 pages, $35

About 800 years before the Pew study, Moses Maimonides received a worried letter from the leader of the Jewish community of Yemen asking him how to combat the specter of assimilation. Yemenite Jews had recently been afflicted by persecution and by a false Jewish messiah, but the worst danger of all was now surfacing: the notion that, for Jews who — like the Yemenites — were thoroughly at home in Muslim culture, there was no longer a good reason to remain Jewish.

Maimonides addresses the issue in ‘Letter to Yemen,’ a fervent polemic in which he condemns Muhammed as the “Defective One,” and, for good measure, derides “the spurious manmade faith” of “Yeshu the Nazarite, may his bones be crushed.” But Maimonides’s answer to the question of why Jews should follow Jewish law is in fact a challenging one: If you know the “deeper meaning of the commandments,” he tells the Yemenites, you realize that they “move man closer to perfection,” whereas Islam and Christianity “really have no deeper meaning. They are just stories and imaginary tales.”

Many today would argue against Maimonides’s claim that rival forms of monotheism are mere myths, whereas Judaism is the truth. But Maimonides’s idea that mitzvot are justified by their deeper meaning is still a necessary one. In his masterpieces, the Mishneh Torah and the “Guide of the Perplexed,” Maimonides defended the importance of law by pointing to the ways it makes us reflect on Jewish ethics and Jewish history: Even a commandment like shatnez, the prohibition on wearing garments of mixed wool and linen, is a warning against idolatry, because, Maimonides says, it reminds us that heathen priests wore such clothing. (This was an inspired guess on Maimonides’s part, not historical fact.) The crucial point is to avoid thinking of the mitzvot as magical practices that will protect observant Jews, giving them good luck and warding off the evil eye: Maimonides abhors such superstitions, insisting instead that the purpose of all the mitzvot is to make one think.

And thinking, for Maimonides, is not just Jewish. As Moshe Halbertal argues in his magisterial new book, “Maimonides: Life and Thought,” Maimonides installs Greek philosophy at the heart of Judaism. For Maimonides, pagan knowledge is essential to Judaism. He tells us that we can’t reach the height of spiritual enlightenment unless we grasp Aristotle’s idea that God is not a human-like being with a body and passions like ours, who takes special care of us and watches over our existence, but rather an unmoved mover, the eternal principle that makes the universe work. Yet here Maimonides had to grapple with the fact that the Torah does depict God as a sublime, uncanny personality. He makes the rather weak argument that the Bible describes a personal God, prone to anger and compassion, who intervenes frequently in human affairs, only for the benefit of those Jews incapable of a profounder and truer idea of the divine. Here, the connection between the surface meaning (God is an outsized personality) and the deeper one (God is an impossible-to-imagine being, or even non-being) seems enigmatic, even to Maimonides himself.

Halbertal presents a moving and detailed portrait of Maimonides’s life as well as his work. Born in Andalusia near the tail end of the centuries-long flourishing of Spanish Jewry, and expelled from Spain by its harsh Muslim rulers, the Almohids, he fled with his family to Morocco. He spent a decade on the Mishneh Torah, his perfectly honed new version of the law that, Halbertal argues, Maimonides probably intended as a replacement for the Talmud itself. Then Maimonides’s beloved brother David died at sea on a trading journey, and much of the family’s wealth was lost with him. Wracked by grief and depression, Maimonides found a new home in Egypt, where he began to practice medicine. Near the end of his life, he became an overworked court physician who had time for Jewish study only on the Sabbath, and who wrote treatises for his patients, including one on hemorrhoids and one on how to sexually satisfy multiple wives. Before his appointment as doctor to the Grand Vizier of Egypt, Maimonides completed his greatest work, the “Guide of the Perplexed,” which was meant to address what Halbertal calls an “existential crisis”: How can you hold onto faith once you have acquired philosophical knowledge? Maimonides’s message in the “Guide” was that you don’t have to choose; in fact, you must not — the intellect must remain strong so that faith can survive.

For Maimonides, philosophy includes scientific knowledge. He would no doubt have much to say about the seemingly eternal smackdown battle between science and religion. For Maimonides, there was no conflict between the two camps: religion and science required each other (philosophy “serves a redemptive purpose,” as Halbertal puts it). This is not Torah Ummada, or Torah and secular knowledge, a philosophy whereby religion and science are cordoned off by a non-aggression pact. Instead, in Maimonides, “mada” is Torah and vice versa. Even in the rarified precincts of contemplation, we still need the mitzvot; the lofty philosopher remains tethered to earth.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.