February 25, 2020

Maimonides, the man and the exceptional genius

To call someone “the greatest” in any field is to invite argument. Human achievement and its evaluation are an uncertain business and make such triumphalism suspect.  Yet, there is one man who is consistently, invariably referred to as the greatest Jewish scholar of the last 2,000 years. Considering the range and genius of Jewish wisdom through the centuries, the standing of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides, evokes both astonishment and awe.

Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah arranged and codified all the Jewish laws that governed life in his day. This task required not only a comprehensive mastery of talmudic literature and its byways, but also a power of organization, selection and judicial sagacity that would have been a crowning achievement for a great scholar’s lifetime.  In addition, the book is composed in a lucid, flowing Hebrew that reads easily 1,000 years later.  

Yet, this same man, who died at 69 in 1204, also wrote the single most-important work of Jewish philosophy in our history, “Guide for the Perplexed,” and he wrote it in Arabic, which was the language of philosophers of the day.  

While compiling this extraordinary record of achievement, Maimonides was the most eminent physician of his day, tending to the Sultan of Cairo, maintaining an active correspondence with Jews all over the world who wrote him for advice, and consulting with Jews and non-Jews on matters both spiritual and medical. If his life were not so well-documented, one would suppose him a myth. 

So formidable is this man that in Jewish scholarship there exists a sort of unspoken credo similar to Shakespeare in English literature or Goethe in German literature: If you want to test your scholarly chops, you write about these epochal figures.

Newly translated into English is the book on Maimonides by one of the most accomplished Jewish scholars in the world, Israeli professor Moshe Halbertal.  It is a masterful performance. 

Halbertal begins with “Moses the man,” telling Maimonides’ life story and reminding us of the travails of his family and his own personal struggles. Maimonides’ family fled Almohad persecution in Spain, settling in Fustat, right outside of Cairo. Maimonides’ brother, David, was his friend and support — in the classical rabbinic manner of Ephraim and Menasseh, one was a merchant and supplied the family with resources, and one studied and became a scholar. When David drowned at sea on a voyage to India in 1177, Maimonides was inconsolable: “But the heaviest blow, which caused me more grief than anything I have experienced to this day, was the death of the most saintly man I knew, who was drowned while journeying in the Indian ocean. His little daughter and his widow were left with me.” In a later letter, Maimonides writes, “For almost a year after receiving the sad news I lay on my couch stricken with fever, despair, and on the brink of destruction.” Across the centuries, the sorrow touches our hearts and reminds us that even those who are giants of philosophy and faith are not immune from anguish. 

After outlining his life, Halbertal ushers the reader through the stands Maimonides takes in the philosophy of halachah, beginning with his youthful work, the commentary on the Mishneh, published in his early 20s. Already Maimonides is inclined to systems, seeking coherence and consistency, and given to an anti-mythological and anti-superstitious reading of the Jewish tradition. From trivial to grand notions, Maimonides will be resolutely rationalistic. So when the Talmud suggests magical cures for illness, Maimonides views these as measures intended to psychologically reassure the afflicted. When the prophet foretells that in messianic times the lion will lay down with the lamb, Maimonides explains this as a prophecy that big nations — lions — and small nations — lambs — will dwell together in harmony.  

Writing in prose “several orders of magnitude above that of halachists (legalists) before and since,” Maimonides offered the Jewish world a comprehensive legal code, disdaining sources to make it less confusing for the reader. Criticized for this lack of “footnoting,” Maimonides planned to go back and source his rulings, but the tremendous demands made upon him prevented him from ever accomplishing that task. 

As befits one who wrote (along with Avishai Margalit) an illuminating book on idolatry, Halbertal reminds us that Maimonides’ great battle was against idolatry not only in the world, but in the mind. He insisted that Jews should not carry images of God in their heads, and the truly learned would understand that part of Judaism’s battle with the world was a philosophical battle for the ultimate reality of the intangible. After all, uniquely among the people of the ancient world, the Temple did not hold a picture or image of the Jewish God. As Tacitus reports in his Histories, when the conquering Roman General Pompey entered the holy of holies, he found it empty.  

Maimonides wrote his great philosophic work, “Guide for the Perplexed,” in response to the challenge of Greek philosophy, in particular Aristotle. Islamic scholars of the age were similarly grappling with this challenge, as did (most prominently) Aquinas in Christianity. Some of Maimonides’ thoughts in the “Guide” were set in deliberately confusing or ambiguous ways, and he states at the outset that deeper meanings will be hidden from the reader. Since it was penned, careful readers have indeed disagreed about central questions in the “Guide,” and Halbertal helpfully provides the four basic schools of readership, which he calls the skeptical, the mystical, the conservative and the philosophical. Each has plausible readings of certain parts of the work. Halbertal explores for us Maimonides’ position on evil, providence, the reasons for the commandments and other questions that arise in religious life throughout the ages. 

All of the approaches to the “Guide,” however, share a recognition of Maimonides’ battle against idolatry, his “focus on the causal order and the wisdom inherent in it as the most substantive revelation of divinity” and his innovative “rejection of the distinction between what is within the Jewish tradition and what is external to it.” Maimonides insists that philosophy and science both have a place in Jewish thought, and he claims that truth from all sources must be harmonized with the tradition.  

For a figure as protean and promethean as Maimonides, no single work will be close to the final word. Among the many books about Maimonides’ life and contribution, Halbertal’s is learned, thoughtful and compelling.  It reminds the reader why, even in his lifetime, people began to say of the man often called the “great eagle” that — “From Moses to Moses, there was none like Moses.”