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.
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.”