By T. M. Rudavsky
Blackwell Great Minds Series
Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, 225 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - April 19, 2010
Tamar M. Rudavsky, professor of philosophy at The Ohio State University, summarizes the philosophy of Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) by referring to all of his many writings, legal, philosophical, and medical. She shows the sources of his ideas, such as the Greek Aristotle and the Muslims Avicenna and Averroes, and how philosophers who lived after him, such as Gersonides, Thomas Aquinas, and Crescas, differed with his conclusions. Her interpretations are excellent summaries of the master's teachings and readers can gain much information and thought-provoking ideas from reading it.
For example, in chapter 3, "What we can say about God," Rudavsky points out that Maimonides contended, like Aristotle, that it is impossible for humans to know anything positive about God. Anyone saying anything positive about Him isn't saying enough, and is therefore degrading and insulting the deity. Gersonides, Aquinas, and Crescas, she points out, disagreed with Maimonides' premise and each thought that we can know some things about God. For instance, Gersonides wrote that while Maimonides insists that God's "knowledge" is so different than human knowledge that we cannot know what it is, Gersonides felt that there are similarities between both knowledges, but God's knowledge is greater.
Dr. Rudavsky writes that many scholars differ today on what Maimonides meant on such subjects as creation, miracles, prophecy, and divine providence. She states that her view is like the scholars of the middle ages who recognized that Maimonides generally accepted the opinions of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Thus, Maimonides was saying that the world existed forever and was not created by God from nothing, prophecy is the highest level of intelligence and that non-Jews can therefore be prophets, miracles do not happen and the world functions according to the laws of nature. He also felt that God does not pay attention to the detailed life of humans, and if one wants to use the term divine providence, it means that people are created with intelligence, and those with superior intelligence, who use it to avoid calamities, could metaphorically be said to be protected by divine providence, the intelligence that God gave them.
"I suggest," she writes, "the cogency of the naturalistic reading." Even as early as the philosopher Isaac Israeli (around 855) "the prophet was presented as an individual who gains (his prophetic) knowledge by means of both the imaginative and rational faculties." She refers us to Guide 2:11, 13, and 28, and says that Maimonides states "that miracles are impossible (because) the works of the Deity are perfect as they are permanently established."
As an aside, Dr. Rudavsky's recognition that thinking people of the middle ages, and this includes both those who agreed with and those who strongly disagreed with Maimonides, recognized that the great philosopher was saying that the world runs with God being "hands off," raises an interesting question. Why were the ancients able to see that Maimonides held this view, while many modern scholars debate the subject and have different views of his philosophy? There are scholars, for example, who see him as a right-wing Jew who only wrote his Guide of the Perplexed for misguided secularly-minded Jews so that they would have at least some connection to Judaism. There are also scholars on the other extreme, like Rudavsky, who see that Maimonides understood the world and God radically different than mainstream Jewry.
It is possible that the modern development of universities and the push to develop innovative new theories about ancient events and ideas and to publish them or perish causes scholars, like rabbis pondering the Torah and Talmud in a pilpulistic fashion, to seek new clever ideas, which they convince themselves must be correct. It is also possible that some scholars see what they see because of cognitive dissonance, seeing what they expect to see, what they feel Maimonides must have meant, because they need Maimonides to agree with their fundamental beliefs. Of course, it is also possible, that the ancients simply misunderstood the master, and only now, 800 years later, do scholars understand what Maimonides intended.