The Magazine

A Second Moses

Maimonides, philosopher and Jew.

Feb 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 21 • By MARK BLITZ
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Although Halbertal is clear in his rationalistic interpretation of Mishneh Torah, he is less direct in his claims about the Guide. He argues that there are four major ways in which the Guide has been interpreted—skeptical, mystical, conservative, and philosophical—and does not directly adjudicate among them. He indicates that Maimonides’ thought may have changed to some degree between Mishneh Torah and the Guide. Nonetheless, he affirms the dominance of the rational standpoint in each of these possibilities. 

Prophecy, miracles, revelation, the afterlife, and God’s providence apparently support the notion that our rational ability to grasp God is limited, that God may act willfully, and that there is irreducible mystery at the core of His actions. Halbertal shows us how Maimonides meets these challenges. The Torah is revealed directly to Moses; other “revelations” are naturally caused, or the products of imagination, which, as such, cannot distinguish the possible from the impossible. True prophets are not inspired remnants from a divine visit, but those with sufficient virtue, wisdom, and experience to see and speak intelligently. The afterlife is not a bodily afterlife; rather, it is the continuation of the thinking soul. 

What remains of a person after his death is the knowledge he acquired during his life. .  .  . Rather than being a reward for observing the commandments, the world to come is the result of a life devoted to apprehension of the intelligibles.

Miracles have concluded with Moses, and, indeed, Maimonides claims that “all the wonders performed by Moses in the desert were performed by necessity, not to demonstrate prophecy.” 

Scholars will dispute some of Halbertal’s understanding, and he sometimes unconvincingly employs contemporary linguistic and psychological analysis. But these issues do not detract significantly from his book. In any event, this admirable work invites us to study Moses Maimonides’ writings on our own. Perhaps we might even, in the small ways allowed us, follow the light of this man who took time to perfect the law, who recognized and did not try to ignore necessity, and who never ceased to think and to reflect.

Mark Blitz is Fletcher Jones professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College and the author, most recently, of Conserving Liberty.