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Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest

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Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest

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Maimonides
Torah and Philosophic Quest

Expanded Edition
By David Hartman
Jewish Publication Society, 2009, 323 pages
ISBN 978-0-8276-0911-2

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - November 13, 2009

People have been puzzled by what they think are two irreconcilable Maimonides, a radical twelfth century rational philosopher who wrote the Guide of the Perplexed and an apparently conservative halakhist who composed a fourteen volume code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, in which he discusses all the laws of Judaism. The two works seem to have different ideologies and messages and composed for different audiences.

As a result some people dismiss the importance of the code, say that it was composed for the masses, and insist that Maimonides felt that the ideal Jew should only focus on philosophy, meaning the study of the sciences in a search for knowledge about the world. Others say the opposite, the Guide was composed for bewildered people giving them something to hold them within the faith, but the true Jew should focus on the halakhah, the Torah laws as understood by the rabbis. The first is active and focuses on the use of reason, while the second is passive and seeks to obey authority.

David Hartman shows that Maimonides considered both important and there is no conflict between halakhah and reason; in fact each enriches the other. He writes that people cannot understand Maimonides until they realize that he was teaching that a Jew must do both: practice the tenets of Jewish law and engage in philosophic studies.

Hartman published his Maimonides in 1976 and won the National Jewish Book Award. The Jewish Publication Society reissued the book in 2009 with a new postscript.

Hartman proves that Maimonides felt that an ideal Jew is one who integrates both philosophy and halakhah in two ways. He shows many examples where it can be easily seen that Maimonides has incorporated philosophy into his Mishneh Torah and he offers a host of instances, both from the Guide and Mishneh Torah, which prove that the ideal Jew is the philosophical Jew who observes halakhah.

Some examples of philosophy in Mishneh Torah are that he begins his code with several chapters that discuss philosophy. He also incorporates philosophy in his discussions about repentance and study of Torah. His treatment of the first command of the Decalogue is the philosophical mandate that people, Jews and non-Jews, must study and gain knowledge. He interprets the statement that people are created in the "image of God" as containing the same mandate. He writes that the sublime teaching of Judaism is maaseh bereishit and maaseh merkavah, which he explains as science and philosophy. He explains the Song of Songs, unlike the rabbis who say that it depicts the Jew's yearning for God, as the love of God which is gained from knowledge of nature. He similarly defines "worship of God" as knowledge of God and nature. He emphasizes that there is no "Jewish astronomy" upon which the holidays and the monthly calendar are based; astronomy is based upon knowledge of the laws of nature. These are just a sampling of the proofs that Hartman mentions.

Hartman also shows how halakhah and philosophy work hand in hand.

The ideal Jew must know philosophy - the sciences, knowledge about the functioning of the world and observe the mandates of the Torah. Philosophy alone cannot sustain a community and halakhah without a good grounding in the sciences may lead people to forget or misunderstand on what they should be focusing and why. For example, a solely halakhic Jews could believe that God has a human body and human emotions. They might imagine that they should observe Torah simply because God mandated it and restrict themselves to doing only the minimum that the law requires. Philosophy clarifies and enriches halakhah.

"The study of philosophy is not only an intellectual pursuit but also a process that shapes human character." Knowledge can improve how a person should act. Ideal Jews knows that they must go beyond the strict mandates of the law, which teach only the basics; they must learn about humanity, as taught by philosophy, and act lifnim meishurat hadin, beyond basic legal requirements designed to safeguard society. They must transcend self interest and legal obligations based upon reciprocity. Thus, for example, while the Torah does not require a master to treat his slave with special consideration, the philosophic Jew would treat the slave with humanity.

But, Hartman explains, while Maimonides "believed in the value and importance of both Halakhah and philosophic love of God, Maimonides placed the latter above the former in the hierarchy of human activities." In 3:51 of his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides states that the Torah scholar who knows and observes halakhah is outside of the circle that approaches God; he wanders around the palace of the king unable to find an entrance to take him inside.

Hartman also discusses other subjects in this very fine work, including revelation, miracles, why the Torah begins with a discussion of the creation of nature rather than laws, and the three ascending levels of worship: sacrifice, verbal petitional prayers and silent contemplation.


Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on www.ou.org/torah and on www.yutorah@yutorah.org. His website is http://booksnthoughts.com.

The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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