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Maimonides’s Judaism answers what Halbertal calls our “grievances against reality” not through messianic fantasy or the comforts of an afterlife, but instead through a philosophical understanding that our human limits are necessary and cannot be changed — bodies wear out and die; life is subject to chance. Religion for Maimonides is the science of how things work: The goal is to know the universe and in doing so, to know God. Such knowing is not cold or neutral, but full of desire to get closer to the divine. Reason does not merely give us knowledge of physical cause and effect; it extends all the way through the human world, and fosters a passionate interest in justice and fairness.
Maimonides’s Judaism is not of the big tent variety. He requires correct belief, not just the doing of mitzvot. Yet he also turns his readers into detectives who are eager to follow every twist and turn of his thinking: His use of contradictions in his writing is like Plato’s, a way of making us realize that the highest matters might themselves appear contradictory. As Halbertal argues, Maimonides had an intellectual boldness unmatched in Jewish philosophy before or since. His project to make religion fully rational, and to show that reasoning is a religious imperative, was revolutionary in its time: Three decades after Maimonides’s death, the “Guide” was publicly burned by his fellow Jews in Provence, France.
Maimonides is not just a titan of Jewish learning; as Halbertal shows in his timely and definitive book, he can be a surprisingly contemporary guide for our times.
David Mikics is the author, most recently, of “Slow Reading in a Hurried Age.”