Maimonides and the sacred quest for truth

A revolutionary thinker ensures Judaism’s survival by a radical synthesis of Torah and science.

Maimonides: Life and Thought By Moshe Halbertal Princeton University Press 400 pages; $35 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Maimonides: Life and Thought By Moshe Halbertal Princeton University Press 400 pages; $35
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Eight centuries have passed since the death of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1138-1204). Known to Christians and scholars as Maimonides, to rabbis as the Rambam, and to Muslims as Musa ibn Maymoun, those very names capture the versatility of his personality and thought. During all that time, serious attention has been given to his intellectual legacy in every Jewish learning environment. So overpowering were his contributions to Jewish philosophy, halacha, biblical interpretation and legal theory that every current in Jewish thought since the Middle Ages intersects, engages or originates with Maimonides.
His “Thirteen Principles of Faith” redefined Judaism as a creed, dogmatizing a dogma-less faith, previously concerned primarily with conduct rather than belief. His pioneering Mishneh Torah is the first code of Jewish law, which organized and systematized what was until his time a chaotic impenetrable body of law, confused by a cacophony of opposing voices diffused across the vast corpus of the Talmud. The Mishneh Torah became the third prong of the Jewish canon, forming a curricular triumvirate alongside the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud. Finally, his philosophical magnum opus, The Guide for the Perplexed, remains the most profound synthesis of science and the Jewish tradition. No serious attempt to broach the issue of reconciling faith and reason can do without some sort of dialogue with that work.
These prodigious accomplishments are all the more remarkable for their realization during a life that was far from idyllic, weathering forcible conversions by Islamic fundamentalists, displacement, family tragedy, depression, the onerous burden of political communal leadership, a demanding position as physician in Saladin’s inner circle and ultimately, the bitter criticism of his own religious compatriots. Maimonides’s formidable intellectual legacy inspired impassioned debate, reaching an ideological intensity that resulted in communities becoming fragmented, bans being issued and books consigned to flames. These debates rage to our own day, with every camp imaginable enlisting his authority as its endorsement, to the point where it is jokingly affirmed, “There is Mymonides, Yourmonides, Hismonides, etc.” Rather than waning, as one would have thought befits an antiquated medieval thinker, interest in this seminal personality has escalated – with a number of learned comprehensive biographies appearing in the last few years.
Micah Goodman’s surprising Hebrew bestseller, The Secrets of the Guide for the Perplexed, attests to this ongoing fascination with Maimonides among both secular and religious alike. Moshe Halbertal’s Maimonides: Life and Thought, largely an English version of a previously published Hebrew work, is the latest which lucidly offers a glimpse into his mind – for what else, other than a glimpse, could any work offer of such a prolific and revolutionary thinker? Too often, Maimonides the rabbi is examined separately from Maimonides the philosopher and scientist, as if they were two entirely different people, depicting a schizophrenic portrait of a complex figure. However, Halbertal, a professor of both law and Jewish studies, is equipped to grasp the richness of Maimonides’s thought, which reflects a potent blend of rabbinic expertise and philosophical acumen. Halbertal appreciates the symbiosis between Maimonides the devout halachic Jew and Maimonides the dedicated student of Greek and Islamic philosophy.
The Rambam’s earliest work, a treatise on logic, written while a teenager, set the pace for what was to be his lifelong love affair with reason. Everything, including the teachings of Torah, must pass the test of logic. For example, although Maimonides ostensibly subscribed to a traditional belief in creation out of nothing, his intellectual honesty compelled his admission that had Aristotle persuasively demonstrated the world was eternal, he would read the first chapters of Genesis accordingly. On this basis every single mitzva has a rationale, and it is unacceptable to perform one simply because of God’s unfathomable will. Religion, for him, was not something shrouded in mystery that required blind submission to authority; the Creator can only be known through his creation.
Therefore, understanding nature via physics, chemistry, and biology is a religious activity, indispensable for attaining knowledge of God – the ultimate religious enterprise – and the very first mitzva launching his code. For Maimonides, the human “image of God” consists of knowing, and therefore one cultivates one’s humanity and imitates God by exercising the mind. The pursuit of knowledge becomes a God-like activity, with its loftiest object being God him-and-herself as the source of all existence.
His motto was to seek the truth whatever its source, even if that source was the likes of Aristotle, who himself rejected two of the most fundamental religious beliefs vital for Jewish existence – of either a creator God or a providential God. Maimonides’s synthesis of Judaism’s “sacred” teachings and texts with scientific “truth” blurs, as Halbertal puts it, “the distinction between what was in and outside tradition.” In other words, there is no religious truth, or philosophical truth – there is only truth.
Maimonides formulates the performance of the cardinal commandment to love God by “contemplating His great and wondrous works and creatures, and from them obtain a glimpse of His wisdom.” Intimacy with the divine is conditional on accumulating wisdom from every possible source. Consistently, he concludes the first volume of his Mishneh Torah, appropriately titled “Book of Knowledge,” with the categorical assertion that “a person ought therefore to devote himself to the comprehension and understanding of those sciences and studies which will inform him concerning his Master.” Maimonides’s Abraham, the founding father of what was to become Judaism, God’s supreme “lover,” rediscovered the lost truths of monotheism by an autodidactic process of philosophical deliberation, after years of painstaking empirical investigation of nature.
The paradigm, then, for achieving the deepest of relationships with God – something every monotheist strives for – does not focus on prayer, submission to an inscrutable divine will, ritual, the study of sacred texts, or tradition – for Abraham had none – but rather on critical thought.
The Guide for the Perplexed was written in Judeo-Arabic (Arabic in Hebrew characters – an intertwining of cultures that is unimaginable in today’s political climate), as a private communication with his beloved student Joseph Ben-Judah. The latter – as other intellectuals like him – was experiencing a familiarly modern crisis of faith. His proficiency in philosophy and science as well as Jewish texts led him to what he considered an either/or choice between two contradictory bodies of knowledge. He and his ilk were confronted with renouncing their allegiance to the Torah, or live with it at the cost of intellectual dishonesty.
The Guide offered a solution to these existentially troubled individuals in the form of a radical new approach to biblical and rabbinic texts, which liberated them from their literal constraints by reinventing the Torah’s basic vocabulary. In Maimonides’s hands, many of the fantastic biblical narratives were intended as parables and philosophical allegory – not as historical accounts. The Guide challenges us to purge both the Bible and the rabbinic traditions of their patent nonsense and thereby, take them seriously rather than literally. In this way, one may depart from a fundamentalist literalist approach to the Bible, which would be the equivalent of reading Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and concluding that human beings turn into bugs.
But, as one reads through Halbertal’s study, Maimonides’s thought raises more questions than answers. The theological implications of Maimonides’s abstract God are disconcerting, since they detract from the traditional notion of a personal God. If God is unchanging, how can He/She respond to historical events, which are constantly in flux? What use is petitionary prayer, another daily mainstay of Jewish religious practice, if God cannot be affected? How can we address Her in prayer as “great, mighty, awesome, etc.,” when He is in fact none of these? Even worse, a belief that these are accurate descriptions of God is tantamount to idolatry.
Many Orthodox synagogues and rabbinic yeshivas might in fact, by Maimonides’s standards, be populated by idolaters whose religious commitment is to some imaginary being – that is, anything but the divine being who is the subject of Maimonides’ first two principles of belief. Divine providence, he asserts, is purely a function of intellectual achievement, If so, what precisely is God’s involvement in watching over human beings? What is the destiny of those who are strictly observant of the mitzvot, but fail to follow the path of knowledge? Are they simply ignored by God and abandoned to the vicissitudes of nature? Prophecy, Maimonides proposes, is an automatic result of rational, moral and imaginative perfection, while it is impossible for God to turn any unqualified person into a prophet “except as it is possible that He should turn an ass or a frog into a prophet.”
This theory seems to deny God any active role in revelation, weaken His/Her omnipotence and do away with any significant distinctions between a prophet and a philosopher. One of the thorniest problems with penetrating Maimonides’s thought is his style of writing, which is self–professedly cryptic and contradictory. It is crafted so as to strategically communicate only with the most sophisticated reader at home in both the worlds of philosophy and Judaism’s foundational texts, while concealing his real opinions from the general audience. Scholars ever since have been exercised by this feature of his writing, and have engaged in passionate debates about Maimonides’s “real” positions on such matters crucial to Jewish theology as creation, providence, God’s nature, unity, miracles, reward and punishment, innocent suffering and indeed, the very purpose of human existence.
Thus, one of the most intriguing aspects of Halbertal’s study is his presentation of alternative palatable readings on these issues that cater to different human sensibilities, represented respectively by the skeptic, the philosopher, the mystic or the conservative traditionalist. Halbertal, thankfully, does not opt for a uniformly dominant interpretation, as others have suggested, arguing that such attempts are “doomed to failure.” What is far more important is that Maimonides expanded the boundaries of Judaism to accommodate a spectrum of perplexed believers, who struggle to remain committed, authentic Jews. Finally, his legacy is noteworthy for his vision of the utopian existence Jews anticipate on a daily basis – the Messianic Age. Here his naturalistic tendencies find their logical fruition, since the messianic period will evolve historically and not miraculously, contrary to popular myth. Its advent will be marked by Jewish political sovereignty and global peace.
More importantly, though, petty tribalism, territorial conflict and ethnic loyalties will no longer distract the human race from cultivating their common humanity, when “the one preoccupation of the whole world will be to know the Lord.” A common ancestry rooted in the universal truths of the Torah will render biological ancestry irrelevant. Thus, Maimonides’s naturalistic vision of the messianic period is the culmination of his single most important teaching. As Halbertal expresses it, “the most profound expression of God’s presence could be found in the causal order itself.” Religion is anchored in the world, and does not demand an escape from it.
Maimonides’s passion for the truth was his own contribution to the realization of this messianic ideal. He both empowered humanity and burdened it by imposing the onerous responsibility of self-attainment, at the cost of forfeiting the comfort of divine paternalism. If Halbertal’s book accomplishes nothing else but to inspire this Maimonidean approach to life and religion, then he has done his job well. Despite the derision and controversy Maimonides himself predicted his writings would elicit, he persisted in publishing for the benefit of posterity.
Therefore, politicians, scholars and all people of faith could do no better than to be mindful of the unwavering commitment to the truth that motivated Maimonides’s courageous efforts to ensure the survival of his teachings, best expressed by his introductory words to The Guide: “I am the man who when he could find no other device by which to teach a demonstrated truth, other than by giving satisfaction to a single virtuous man while displeasing 10,000 ignoramuses, I am he who prefers to address that single man by himself… and guide him in his perplexity, until he becomes perfect and he finds rest.”
The writer holds the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at Canada’s University of Waterloo, Ontario.