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Perspectives on Maimonides: Philosophical and Historical Studies

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Perspectives on Maimonides

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Perspectives on Maimonides
Philosophical and Historical Studies
Edited by Joel L. Kraemer
The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1991, 332 pages
ISBN 978-1-874774-26-6

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - December 28, 2009

Readers of this collection of articles will be struck by two things: First, that, like the Bible, students of Maimonides interpret him in radically different ways. Second, these experts have much to teach us.

Maimonides' philosophy is important because it is a rational down-to-earth presentation of what Jews should know about God, the world, nature, medicine, law, science and Judaism. Thus it is a shame that so many people, unfortunately the vast majority of Jews, know little or nothing about what this great sage taught. They have been blinded by the wide-spread obscurantist thinking: the acceptance of traditions simply because this is how it has always been. They refuse to read what Maimonides wrote because they were warned that Maimonides rejects many traditional beliefs. The more courageous, but insufficiently educated, read it but do not grasp its meaning because they read it with a blind eye and closed mind produced by preconceived notions of what they think Maimonides will say. Thus, it is important to read and understand what scholars teach about Maimonides.

Perspectives on Maimonides contains fifteen articles by leading world-recognized Maimonidean scholars. The following are some of the many ideas in this excellent book.

Maimonides and tradition

Joel L. Kraemer, who edited the volume, admits that Maimonides "evinces now and again a certain amount of independence vis-à-vis his rabbinic sources," meaning that he was more than willing to have his own view. Kremer continues, "and there is considerable evidence that he actually believed in a progressive divine revelation," meaning that Judaism can and should change with the times. This progressive revelation comes about by studying nature, the sciences and philosophy and thinking about what nature, created by God, is revealing.

Lawrence V. Berman agrees. Moses communicated the law. Those who come after Moses have the duty to see that the provisions of the founder "are implemented and adjusted to emerging situations."

Ethics

In regard to ethics, Berman reminds his readers that Aristotle felt that the ideal person is one who always behaves according to the "golden mean," the middle point between one extreme (such as giving all of one's money to charity) and the other (miserly keeping all one's money for oneself). However, he points out that Maimonides disagreed. Maimonides felt that this rule applies only for the common person; however, there is a higher level, the level of the saintly person, who uses reason to sometimes move away from the center toward one extreme, such as being very humble and far from pride.

There is a well-known Jewish concept of imitating God. How do people do this since people cannot really understand God? Berman answers, by copying nature.

What is the ultimate goal of humans?

Joel L. Kraemer points out that the ancients agreed that desire happiness and consider happiness the greatest good. However, Aristotle taught that this happiness does not come through emotions or feelings; it is the use of reason. Reason, says Aristotle, is the thing that distinguishes humans from animals and inanimate objects. Maimonides, says Kraemer, agreed, and Maimonides even wrote that reason is the "image of God" that God bestowed upon humanity.

Ralph Lerner contends that Maimonides advocates that the most intelligent people live in solitude, away from the wicked, separate "from others and their concerns. At his highest, man is not so much a political animal as a transpolitical animal." The perfect person spends his time in contemplation, an activity that could be called "worship." He turns his thoughts from the "affairs of this world to the world of God's commandments."

Steven Harvey addresses the "profound paradox" of thinking, as Lerner does, that Maimonides extolled solitude when we know that he had an extensive public life, as a private and court physician, business man, Jewish communal leader, judge, writer of philosophy and law and medicine for the use of others and correspondences to queries from Jews in many different lands. Harvey disagrees and argues that Maimonides did not advocate a complete life of solitude. True, the best human state is to spend time in study; people need to develop their intellect and acquire knowledge, and this requires periods of solitude, periods away from distractions. However, as a practical matter, the perfect person needs to "recognize the extreme importance and necessity of assuming" the social responsibilities. The need to help others takes "priority over this solitude."

While Harvey contends that the perfect man's political activities is performed reluctantly and only because there is a need to do so, he recognized that others disagree. S. Pines considered the political activity the ultimate requirement of the perfect human, not the acquisition of knowledge, as Harvey states. Knowledge, according to Pines, is only an aid to the ultimate social responsibility. L. V. Berman considered that both knowledge and social activity are equal responsibilities.

Berman also writes that Maimonides agreed with the famous Muslim philosopher that "religions represent theoretical thinking in popular form." Thus religion is not the highest or real truth. It is only philosophy that can search for and approach knowing the real truth. The general population is incapable of understanding and living their lives according to the real truth; so religion gives them as much of the truth that they can handle.

Philosophy vs. Theology

Warren Zev Harvey, Steven's brother, addressed the significant point that Maimonides repeatedly stressed that he was not a mutakallim. Mutakallim was the prevalent theology in Islam. It was not the philosophy of its better thinkers. Maimonides was "interested in the objective and open-minded pursuit of truth, while the mutakallim is interested in (using science only in) supporting religious beliefs. Maimonides does not "make what exist conform to his ideas, (but) his ideas conform to what exists." If science shows that a traditional notion is wrong, Maimonides rejects the tradition, not the science.

Does Maimonides write for two audiences?

Harvey notes that scholars such as Joel Kraemer argue that mutakallim ideas are in Maimonides Guide and in his Mishneh Torah. However, like Leo Strauss, he is convinced that Maimonides wrote his books with both exoteric notions that could be accepted by the masses, even though they were not true such as God becoming angry, because the masses needed to believe this so that they could be controlled by fear of God's anger and punishment. However, Maimonides also inserted esoteric true ideas that more intelligent readers can mine from his writings.

Other discussions

This book contains many other significant studies, such as one on the Neo-platonic notions that Maimonides accepted, and how these now recognized unscientific ideas molded many of Maimonides teachings, such as the after-life. Another is a discussion on what are holy wars, must Jews insist that non-Jews accept the basic Noahide laws in areas under Jewish control, what responsibilities do Jews have toward the land of Israel, is Israel holy and, if so, how, and many other thought provoking issues.


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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