Commentary Magazine

The Legacy of Maimonides, by Ben Zion Bokser

Maimonides and We
The Legacy of Maimonides.
by Ben Zion Bokser.
Philosophical Library. 128 pp. $3.75.


If this book succeeds, in barely 130 pages, in portraying the religious thought of the great Jewish sage of the Middle Ages, it is the result of three virtues: the author’s thorough knowledge of the subject, his gift of clear and concise statement, and his determination—in the main—to tell us what Maimonides actually said, instead of telling us what he should have said, or what he would say were he alive today.

The last is perhaps what matters most. Overanxious to find props for current views, popular writers on Jewish tradition readily yield to the temptation of reading the present into the past. The Bible turns out to be a source book of democratic ideals, and Maimonides an almost-modern thinker—a thinker, in fact, who, were he alive today, would be a rationalist or a liberal. That this kind of writing does no service to historical accuracy goes without saving. It is perhaps more important to realize that it does no service to any genuine modern orientation either. What, beyond bolstering our collective Jewish ego, is to be gained from the assurance that Jewish tradition at its highest teaches almost the same ideas to which we already subscribe and to which we probably came independently of tradition? Our tradition can be of real value to us only if we understand its true nature and especially the way in which it differs from our modern outlook. In observing these differences, we may come to reflect upon our modern—unconscious and therefore uncritically accepted-assumptions.

Dr. Bokser’s book is a contribution toward such an authentic modern orientation because it clearly shows the differences between Maimonides’ medieval and our 20th-century assumptions, and thereby leads one to see some of our problems in a new perspective.

Thus, in a passage aptly quoted by Dr. Bokser, Maimonides writes: “We are mixed up with other nations; we have learnt their opinions, and followed their ways and acts. . . . Having been brought up among persons untrained in philosophy, we are inclined to consider these philosophical opinions as foreign to our religion, just as uneducated persons find them foreign to their own notions. But, in fact, it is not so.” This statement has an immediate appeal to any enlightened modern man: what is true is universally true. We must, to quote the Union Prayer Book, “welcome all truth, whether shining from the annals of ancient revelations or reaching us through the seers of our own time.” To protect Judaism, we might shut ourselves off from the truths of reason: but in doing so we, and our Judaism, would land in an obscurantism as repugnant morally as it would be indefensible rationally.

But to avow this only gives rise to a really baffling question: what is to become of Jewish separateness? If whatever is true is universally true, is not Judaism absorbed into a universal religion? It is precisely the fear of this which gives rise to such a form of anti-rationalism as modern religious chauvinism. And it is instructive to see that the problem arises for our modern rationalism, but not for Maimonides’ medieval rationalism. What distinguishes the latter from the former is its acceptance of revelation as a historical fact. Reason, while sovereign in its own sphere, is only one of two sources of truth; the other is revelation, embodied in the Torah and given to Israel. Dr. Bokser clearly shows that Maimonides, far from denying the actuality of revelation at Sinai, sets himself the task of making it compatible with the findings of reason. Can it be, the modern reader may ask, that the conflict between the universal demands of reason and the religious grounds of Jewish separateness will be resolved only if we are able, in some way, to return to a doctrine of revelation?

Similarly, much is heard in our time about the need to formulate a “Jewish philosophy.” Did Maimonides engage in such an undertaking? Dr. Bokser clearly shows that the Guide to the Perplexed is not meant to be a philosophical system. Maimonides writes not as a philosopher but as a theologian: accepting on faith the validity of the Torah and the act of revelation on which this validity rests, he seeks to determine the philosophical conditions which make it compatible with the account of reality given by philosophers and scientists. Here, too, we find food for thought: can there be, in principle, any such thing as a “Jewish philosophy”? Or does that not seem an inherent impossibility, and the very phrase, indeed, a contradiction in terms? And if we decide that it is a Jewish theology we are after, how—if we do not accept, as did Maimonides, revelation—are we to prevent it from dissolving into philosophy plain, simple, and non-denominational?



Dr. Bokser’s book could not give rise to questions such as these if it did not state clearly and faithfully the differences between the Maimonidean and the modern outlook. Dr. Bokser’s terminology, however, is open to criticism. He uses, without sufficient clarification, modern language to characterize medieval thought. “Determinism” and “naturalism” do not mean the same thing in modern and medieval philosophy; the Aristotelian God, whatever his religious shortcomings, is certainly not “a kind of blind force” (the quarrel between Maimonides and the Aristotelians is not analogous to that between modern rationalist theology and materialism); and no medieval philosopher would have described his philosophy as “man-made.” Fortunately, the confusion is, on the whole, only one of terminology. A footnote on naturalism and supernaturalism reveals a full grasp of the meaning of medieval “naturalism,” despite the ambiguous use of the term elsewhere.

In the last chapter, Dr. Bokser turns from a description of Maimonides’ thought to an explicit evaluation of its relevance for the modern mind; and here he finally yields to the temptation which he so creditably resisted throughout the rest of his book: the “modernizing” of Maimonides.

We are told that we must reject the “false bravado” of a Bertrand Russell who, unable to offer the comforts of a friendly universe, summons us to live nobly, if tragically, in a dark and alien world. “Faith for living must be built on sterner stuff,” says Dr. Bokser. Men are sorely in need of peace of mind—witness the prevalence of neuroticism and suicides. Moreover, a faith is “needed” to provide strong moral motivations, for “one needs compelling incentives still to cling to the good in spite of the consequences.” In other words, Dr. Bokser looks for a faith which is comforting, and he rejects the views of Bertrand Russell not because they are false but because they fail to give that comfort.

One ventures to suggest that Maimonides would have more sympathy with Bertrand Russell’s dedication to an uncomfortable truth than with what appears to be Dr. Bokser’s maxim: comfort at any cost. Maimonides did indeed teach a truth which was comforting, but he taught it because he believed it to be the truth; and this devotion to truth, at least, he shares with Bertrand Russell. Dr. Bokser tries to claim Maimonides for religious pragmatism: his concern was to give men “the resources of doctrine and life which they needed for their careers on earth.” But the passage quoted in support of this interpretation says something quite different: Maimonides defends the Torah not because men “need” it; it would be more correct to say that, in his opinion, men need it because it is the Torah, i.e., the revealed truth.

It would have been preferable to pass over in silence the one bad chapter in an otherwise good book, were it not for the fact that it, too, teaches a lesson. The substance of Dr. Bokser’s book gives us historical information which may aid our own religious self-examination; the shortcomings of its last chapter illustrate how sorely such a self-examination is needed.



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