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Law, Reason, and Morality in Medieval Jewish Philosophy

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Law, Reason, and Morality in Medieval Jewish Philosophy

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Law, Reason, and Morality in Medieval Jewish Philosophy
Saadia Gaon, Bahya ibn Pakuda, and Moses Maimonides
By Jonathan Jacobs
Oxford University Press, 2010, 232 pages
ISBN 978-0-19954283-3

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - December 6, 2010

Jonathan Jacobs, head professor of philosophy at Colgate University, examines the philosophies of three medieval Jewish thinkers: Saadia Gaon, Bahya ibn Pakuda, and Moses Maimonides. He focuses on morality. However, he also discusses the teachings of these scholars on revelation and other subjects. He compares the three to other philosophers and concludes that although the three emphasized that people should use their intellect, they were convinced that morality is not the result of rational thinking, but a divine mandate revealed by God to the Israelites through Moses and the prophets.

Jacobs writes that the three felt that: "Life lived in accord with tradition, shaped by the covenant (revelation), is needed in order for the rationality of much of the covenant to become evident to people" (page 219). Revelation supplements what people are unable to understand. "A crucial difference between Jewish thought and the practical wisdom approach is that in the former all of our ethical knowledge is ‘from' the law" (page 111).

Jacobs's conception of the three thinkers is interesting and is the general understanding of their teachings. But there is another approach to the three philosophers that reaches a different conclusion. This seems clear in the writings of Maimonides (1138-1204) who arguably demeaned the importance of morality and may have questioned whether revelation actually occurred in his Guide of the Perplexed.

What are morals? Jacobs cites the working definition of Henry Veatch on pages 175 and 176: "the laws of ethics and morals might be understood as laws that govern the art of living or living well. They teach us how to be human." Maimonides seems to disagree; the best life is not based on morality. He stresses that people must develop and use their intellect throughout his Guide. In 1:2, he interprets the story of the Garden of Eden as a parable, that "When Adam was yet in a state of innocence (before he ate from the forbidden fruit), and was guided solely by reflection and reason…he was not at all able to follow or to understand the principles of apparent truths (such as nudity being morally wrong. However after he ate the fruit, he suffered) the loss of part of that intellectual faculty which he had previously possessed." Before eating the fruit, he knew reality, "what is true and what is false." After eating the fruit, he only knew "apparent" or "necessary truths," moral truths, ideas that are "necessary" for the general population to exist. (Maimonides borrowed the terms "apparent" and "necessary truths" from the Greek and Muslim philosophers.) In short, Maimonides saw the Torah parable teaching that an intelligent person should live a life based on reality, on what is true and false, while the average person who lacks the ability to do so should live according to "necessary truths," morality. Thus Maimonides does not teach the importance of morality, just the opposite. Morality is only "necessary truths." Yes, he repeatedly stressed good behavior, but good behavior is behavior that is rational, such as the Aristotelian "middle path," the rational need to avoid extremes, or the "the way of the pious," the carefully considered rational behavior beyond the middle path, when reason dictates such behavior.

Maimonides also did not consider prophecy a revelation from God, as Jacobs states. Repeatedly, in Guide 2:32-48, Maimonides writes that prophecy is a higher level of intelligence; the more intelligent person is passing on his or her understanding to other people. In fact, many scholars have recognized that according to Maimonides' definition of prophecy, even the pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle could be called a prophet. Significantly, while discussing the revelation of the Decalogue in 2:33, Maimonides dismisses the notion that the Israelites heard the first two Decalogue commands as a prophecy. He states that the Israelites "learnt the truth of the principles contained in these two commandments in the same manner as Moses, and not through Moses," by the use of reason (italics added). Thus, Maimonides seems to say that revelation, like prophecy generally, is a product of human intelligence. While one may argue that Maimonides stated that one of the thirteen basic doctrines of Judaism is divine revelation, scholars and rabbis such as Isaac Abrabanel recognized that Maimonides wrote the thirteen principles for the general population as "necessary truths."

Maimonides' position regarding prophecy is consistent with his overall vision of a transcendental God who created or formed the world and then allowed it to function according to the laws of nature. Thus, for example, he sees divine providence, not as God interrupting natural law to aid people in danger, as most people think. He states that divine providence means that intelligent people will use the intelligence that God/nature gave them when danger is imminent (Guide 3:17).

Additionally, Maimonides does not state anywhere that people could not know the Torah laws unless they were revealed by prophets. In fact, in Guide 3:25-53, he offers rational reasons for all of the commands.

Thus, while Jacobs may be correct, and most people would argue that he is, Maimonides' writings seem to stress the use of reason rather than morality, and that he did not believe that moral teachings were revealed to the Israelites by prophets. The prophets chastised the people for their failure to act properly, but they did not invent the rational idea of proper behavior.


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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