Maimonides the Rationalist
(The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization)
By Herbert A. Davidson
The Littman Library, 2011, 318 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - July 8, 2011
Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) criticized most people in his monumental Guide of the Perplexed 3:51 when he wrote that "He who thinks about God and talks about him at length without scientific knowledge…does not truly talk about God and think about Him. For what he has in his imagination and talks about…is merely a figment of his imagination." Maimonides was convinced that Bible study alone cannot help people understand God. God can only be understood by studying and knowing the laws of nature, the sciences, and using scientific knowledge to become all that a person is capable of becoming and helping other people. Religion based on faith without using intellect is not real religion. Humans are distinguished from animals, vegetables, and inanimate objects by their intellect, and they have a duty, if they really want to be human, to use it, and not sit passively in pietistic contemplation, inadequate study, and prayer.
Maimonides and others emphasized that the first biblical command is to know God, and since it is impossible to know God's essence, people must learn how He acts. This is the meaning of Moses' experience in Exodus 33:17-23 where the Israelite leader beseeched God to reveal information about Himself. God responded that people can't fathom the divine, but they can see His back after He passes; meaning, the impact of the laws of nature that God created. Maimonides felt that the patriarch Abraham also understood God by studying the laws of nature. Maimonides wasn't alone in having this opinion. There are rabbinical Midrashim, elaborating stories about the Bible, which depict Abraham discovering God by studying the heavens.
Herbert A. Davidson, a highly respected professor at UCLA and author of other books about Maimonides, takes the side of scholars who maintain that Maimonides did not ascribe to the currently held view that God created the world out of nothing, but agreed with Aristotle that God formed the world out of preexisting matter. This view doesn't threaten religion. It was the understanding of many rabbis, Christian clergy, Muslim Imams, and philosophers. The Bible itself reports, before describing God's acts, that the world was "unformed" in Genesis 1:2. Maimonides also states that God didn't form the world over a six day period. He can do so instantaneously, and this is what He did. This was also the view of many ancients. It is like a farmer who sows seeds at one time, but the seeds yield their fruit on different days.
Philosophy and Law
But, not surprisingly, many rabbis, other clergy, and scholars, sticking with the tradition they were taught, usually as children, are uncomfortable with such ideas and dislike Maimonides' emphasis on philosophy. They claim that Maimonides's true opinions are found in his legal code, the Mishneh Torah, which outlines all of the commandments that the rabbis found either explicit or implicit in the Torah. Remarkably, some go so far as to assert that Maimonides wrote his philosophical Guide for ignorant Jews who hadn't the sense to understand Torah. However, Davidson points out, as many others recognized before him, that the legal code is filled with Maimonides' philosophy, in every book.
Many of these same people also think that a pious God-fearing Jew should not read non-Jewish writings. Maimonides was appalled at such a misguided elitist notion. He wrote in his Shemonah Perakim, his medical books, and other places: "Listen to the truth from whoever speaks it." Maimonides revealed that he didn't always identify the non-Jewish sources of some of his ideas because if he named the non-Jewish source it would lead narrow-minded readers to assume that the statement is something evil. Thus not only is it wrong to contend that one should not read non-Jewish writings, Maimonides felt it is an obligation to read truth wherever it is found. Davidson points out that many of the Greek and Muslim ideas that Maimonides incorporated into his philosophy are ideas that Maimonides felt God wants people to know and do.
How much did Maimonides know?
Davidson's contribution in this respect is to analyze Maimonides writings during various periods of his life. He shows, in his opinion, how Maimonides read some non-Jewish philosophical works later in life and did not incorporate these ideas until that time. He says that Maimonides did not read Aristotle, his favorite philosopher, when he wrote his early writings. He also contends that Maimonides' view of Kalam, Muslim theology, which Maimonides disliked, was flawed because he hadn't read enough on the subject when he described it. Davidson also shows which books Maimonides undoubtedly read. Some readers may disagree. They might argue that the absence of references, explicit or implicit, of philosophers in his early writings was due to his desire to be generally more subtle about philosophical ideas in his early rabbinical writings.
Davidson appears to understand, as I do, that Maimonides felt that a true intellectual does not make decisions based on morality, but on a careful analysis of acts, although he does not use my sources. As I point out in "Maimonides teaches that intellectuals should not be moral" in my website www.booksnthoughts.com, Aristotle's and Maimonides' famous "Golden rule" is a simplistic guide that can help the general population, who are unaccustomed or unable to reason-out problems. The Golden Rule of always taking the middle path, except regarding modesty and anger, is an easy guide for them. But intellectuals should analyze all the facts of every situation, and they will see that it frequently makes good sense to avoid the middle path. Davidson writes that Maimonides prefers "'rational virtues,' that is, the 'conceiving of intelligible thoughts that give rise to correct views.'" He also writes that Maimonides "repeatedly belittled moral virtue."
Davidson makes it clear, as do many but not all scholars, that Maimonides did not believe that angels and demons exist, the word "angel" refers to a force of nature, such as a wind or rain. God certainly doesn't need helpers. Maimonides also reads many parts of the Bible as allegory, for it is unnatural, for example, to imagine a speaking serpent or mule, or a fish swallowing a human who survives in its belly for several days. He also was unafraid to say that the ancient rabbis, who did not receive their ideas from God, lived in a culture that had little scientific information, did not know everything, and were frequently wrong. Thus some rabbinical ideas are legally binding, while others are simply advice, and still others wrong. However, it must be remembered that despite his great intelligence and deeper understanding, his "meticulousness in performing the ritual acts was rooted in a deep-seated attachment to Jewish tradition."
Davidson contributes much to the understanding of the Great Eagle, as Maimonides was called, for Maimonides soared high above the general population in intelligence. Davidson's especial contribution is his analysis that perhaps Maimonides did know as much in his youth as he did in later life when he had opportunity to read more. He notes correctly that many of Maimonides' ideas are based on the science of his day, a science that we know was wrong, such as the existence of a sphere called the active intellect that influences the earth. Davidson concludes from this fact that therefore much of Maimonides' ideas crumble when the false scientific underpinning is swept aside, and his philosophy is out of date.
Some readers may disagree with this conclusion. They may realize that Maimonides' intelligent ideas do not need to stand on ancient science. They may say that today's thinkers will agree with the Great Eagle that people should rely on their intellect not faith, beliefs, or traditions; that people have a duty to understand nature to improve themselves and society; prophecy is not a divine communication, but the use of a person's intellect, a phenomenon that can and indeed should exist today; demons and angels do not exist; everyone, of every religion, and creed must be respected and listened to; superstition should be shunned; and people should develop themselves and avoid decisions based on simplistic moral notions, but on a careful and thorough analysis of facts.