Maimonides: Life and Thought
By Moshe Halbertal
Princeton University Press, 600 pages
Over the past decade, more than eight centuries after the death of Maimonides, popular biographies and studies dedicated to the great Jewish philosopher, jurist, physician, and community leader, born Moses ben-Maimon, have been coming fast and furious. Three such works have appeared in English in the past eight years, and they are now joined by Moshe Halbertal’s Maimonides: Life and Thought. A scholar of Jewish law and thought who is now a professor at New York University, Halbertal examines the Rambam’s life as well as Commentary on the Mishnah, the Mishneh Torah, and the Guide of the Perplexed.
Halbertal claims that Maimonides’s monumental self-confidence and acute historical consciousness formed in him a profound sense of mission. Born into a period of devastation for the Jews living in al-Andalus on the Iberian peninsula, Maimonides sought to make use of the crisis in order to revolutionize both the legal and the intellectual-spiritual dimensions of the Jewish tradition. He did this, Halbertal reminds us, as he fled from Muslim fundamentalists across North Africa and without institutional backing or any claim to divine revelation—relying only “on his own great ability, his prodigious halachic and philosophical learning, his linguistic and literary Midas touch.”
Halbertal traces the development of his subject’s career, beginning with his first major work, the Commentary on the Mishnah. It is overshadowed by his latter efforts, but, as Halbertal points out, writing a commentary on the foundational document of rabbinic Judaism and the very core of Talmudic discourse was a literary innovation of the first order. In the leading academies of the time, the Mishnah was taught only as part of the Talmud. Maimonides treated it as an independent text.
Maimonides integrated various philosophical topics into his Commentary on the Mishnah, and Halbertal offers a particularly insightful examination of how Maimonides reconciled the tension between virtue-based ethics and duty-based ethics.
The commentary was a stunning achievement, but it pales in comparison to his comprehensive code, the Mishneh Torah.
In that work, Maimonides took the Byzantine labyrinth of Talmudic law and transformed it into a model of clarity and order. Halbertal demonstrates how, in fundamentally reorganizing the Jewish legal tradition, Maimonides fashioned new areas of Jewish law, thought, and spirituality such as “The Laws of the Foundations of the Torah,” wherein he ruled that Jews should study science in order to arrive at the love and fear of God.
Halbertal also highlights the parallel that Maimonides drew between the composition of the Mishnah in the second century C.E. and Maimonides’s masterwork in the 12th century: “Just as the Mishnah of Rabbi Judah the Prince was a dramatic literary reaction to halacha’s first geopolitical crisis, Mishneh Torah was a literary and halachic reaction to the second, even more intense crisis.” The dispersion of the Jewish people following the Roman conquest of Israel led to Rabbi Judah’s writing of the Mishnah, which laid the foundation for rabbinic Judaism and made it possible for the faith and the people to survive without a temple or a homeland. The geopolitical crisis to which Maimonides responded began with the Islamic conquest and culminated with the dispersal of Andalusian Jewry.
His more radical interpreters claim the code was intended to render the Talmud irrelevant and lay the foundation for a new, philosophically inspired Judaism that elevated the religious philosopher to the status of the ideal Jew in place of the expert Talmudist. If they are right, then Maimonides basically sought to found a new Judaism; this may be why the old saying has it “that from [the biblical] Moses to Moses [Maimonides], there was none like Moses.” Halbertal writes: “The monumental character of his life’s work invites the association, and Maimonides himself internalized it.”
It is possible, however, to attribute a more moderate intention to Maimonides, according to which the Mishneh Torah was intended to be “a comprehensive, accessible summary of the halacha for those unable to dwell on it in depth.” A summary, not a replacement. Halbertal does an excellent job delineating these two interpretations. But, as he points out, even according to this more moderate interpretation, the Mishneh Torah revolutionized the religion by integrating science into Judaism and anchoring the revelation of divinity in the natural order, as opposed to the miraculous disruption of that order.
This new, naturalistic interpretation of Judaism confused Jews who were open to the claims of reason but who also accepted the simple meaning of the Bible. Halbertal says Maimonides composed the Guide of the Perplexed precisely for such readers. Halbertal identifies four possible interpretations of the Guide—skeptical, mystical, conservative, and philosophical—and he does an excellent job delineating how each offers an internally coherent teaching.
“The Guide of the Perplexed leaves multiple possibilities open to the reader,” Halbertal writes, and in so doing, Maimonides was trying to teach that “perplexity is not a paralyzing fracture.” Instead, it “opens before you various possibilities for religious existence and meaning.” This projection of the postmodern notion of layered narratives onto Maimonides is discomfiting. It’s true that the Guide is composed of various layers appropriate for different audiences, but that’s because Maimonides recognized that enlightenment proceeds by degrees and depends on the moral and intellectual preparation of the reader. He was not preparing a religious buffet. Still, Halbertal’s words will surely resonate with many of his intended readers.
Who are these readers? Maimonides was first published in Hebrew in 2009 as part of the Shazar Center’s series dedicated to “The Great Creative Spirits of the Jewish People.” Alongside Halbertal’s book, the series has taken on Rashi, Herzl, Agnon, and Bialik, among others. The original, intended reader is thus an intelligent and intellectual Israeli who perhaps has read a bit about Maimonides and wants a more complete picture and an explanation of how Maimonides might be relevant to contemporary concerns. That will surely be true for American Jewish readers whose interests by and large align with those of their Israeli brothers and sisters.
That said, both Israeli and American audiences may have more to gain from discovering what makes Maimonides foreign to contemporary sensibilities. Halbertal performs an important service in our democratic age by demonstrating how a single, great man can move the world. But while he repeatedly emphasizes that Maimonides’s monumental “self-image” was “deeply rooted in his biography,” he doesn’t tell the reader why it’s no accident that Maimonides would have sprung forth from the world of Andalusian Jews. For that one needs to turn to Joel Kraemer’s Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds (2008). There, Kraemer delineates how the Andalusian Jewish elite drew its models of perfection from the Bible and understood themselves to be world-historical variations on biblical giants such as Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. They believed they were great, and they sought greatness. Samuel the Prince, an 11th-century jurist, general, prime minister, and revolutionary poet, openly proclaimed himself to be “the David of my age.” His poem, “Soar, Don’t Settle,” reflects a worldview that Maimonides surely shared:
Soar, don’t settle for earth
and sky—soar to Orion;
and be strong, but not like an ox
or a mule
that’s driven—strong like a lion
Maimonides soared, very high, and Moshe Halbertal’s Maimonides gives us a better view of him. It is not a complete view, but it is engaging and occasionally inspired. And as there is no end to the making of books, there will certainly be no end to the surprising contemporary outpour of volumes about Maimonides.