"One spring Martin Buber came to Chicago,” Seth Benardete tells us in his Encounters and Reflections, “and [Leo] Strauss was asked to introduce him. . . . ‘I have the great pleasure to introduce Martin Buber,’ Strauss began, ‘who is probably the greatest Jewish thinker since Mmm . . .’ And after a long time it finally came out ‘Moses.’ Then he went on, ‘since Moses Mmm . . .’ Everybody thought—”
“Maimonides at least,” Benardete’s student Ronna Burger interjects.
“Right,” Benardete goes on. “But Strauss continued, ‘Mmm . . .’ and at last, ‘Mendelssohn.’ . . . What happened was—you could see from Buber’s face—when Strauss said ‘Moses,’ he blew up like a frog, and then he was slightly deflated when Strauss said ‘Moses Mmm . . .’ and completely so by the end.”
From Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) to Moses Mendelssohn to Martin Buber—a veritable mosaic of spiritual decline. And we have not even descended on this list to Freud’s Moses and Monotheism (1939). Yet the lowest hill on this range is a daunting peak for today’s small minds and souls.
Maimonides wrote a guide for those perplexed about how to square the philosophic or Aristotelian understanding that the cosmos is eternal with the revelation that it was created ex nihilo. Today, Yeshiva students worry about how to resolve some problem in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, a difficult Rambam (the Hebrew acronym for Maimonides), as they say in the trade. Our Ph.D. hopefuls are taught to begin from a “puzzle” that is often a pointless concoction to which they and everyone else (at least before and after dissertation-derangement) already know the commonsensical answer. From perplexity to pilpul to pretense: Our predicament is our lack of predicament.
Maimonides is Judaism’s most significant thinker. What praise could be higher, even in our age, when both Judaism and thought are apparently in decline? Perhaps attention to his methods and achievements, to his passions and concerns, can remind us of the sanctity beyond our vulgarity and the light above our darkness. Examples of excellence breed dissatisfaction with the oppression of the ordinary.
Moshe Halbertal’s Maimonides is a useful guide to the man and his work, with something to offer both novice and scholar. Halbertal, a professor at NYU and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, begins biographically and then details the goals and much of the substance of Maimonides’ The Guide of the Perplexed, Mishneh Torah, and other works. This book is a good introduction to what is at stake in these efforts.
Maimonides’ immediate purpose was to save Jewish law and, thus, Judaism’s heart, by organizing it coherently. The Jewish diaspora meant the disappearance of any center of political authority. Maimonides belonged to this diaspora. He was born in Córdoba in 1138 and left with his family once the Almohads—“a radical Muslim movement that shattered the Judeo-Arabic culture of Andalusia”—gained power. “After years of wandering and persecution,” he settled in Egypt, where he resided until he died in 1204.
Halbertal suggests that Maimonides meant especially to distinguish the accretion of rabbinical interpretations and counterinterpretations of the law from Judaism’s unimpeachable core: namely, what was given to Moses. He also intended to make the law congruous with classic, or Aristotelian, thought, as transmitted through Alfarabi (in the 9th century) and other Arabs. Halbertal discerns this intention as early as Maimonides’ first major work, the Commentary on the Mishnah. He does not doubt that, for Maimonides, the demands of faith must be judged rationally.
The pinnacle of religious life is the understanding of God to the extent of a person’s ability, and it can be achieved only through knowledge of physics and metaphysics. . . . For Maimonides, engaging in science is the pinnacle of religious existence.
Maimonides writes of matters in The Guide of the Perplexed that, legally, he should have presented only orally and individually, if at all. He did so because he believed that Jewry’s fragmentation meant that deep and significant material would be lost forever if he did not put in writing what he had discovered. But he makes it available only to those who can follow his clues. He writes esoterically, and says so. This mode allows him to save what he believes will be lost, but not lose it in a new way through vulgar misinterpretation borne from easy access. So, while Maimonides rescued this material, it remains difficult to find.
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.