Maimonides: Life and Thought

Translated from the Hebrew by Joel Linsider
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 408
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Maimonides was the greatest Jewish philosopher and legal scholar of the medieval period, a towering figure who has had a profound and lasting influence on Jewish law, philosophy, and religious consciousness. This book provides a comprehensive and accessible introduction to his life and work, revealing how his philosophical sensibility and outlook informed his interpretation of Jewish tradition.

    Moshe Halbertal vividly describes Maimonides's childhood in Muslim Spain, his family's flight to North Africa to escape persecution, and their eventual resettling in Egypt. He draws on Maimonides's letters and the testimonies of his contemporaries, both Muslims and Jews, to offer new insights into his personality and the circumstances that shaped his thinking. Halbertal then turns to Maimonides's legal and philosophical work, analyzing his three great books--Commentary on the Mishnah, theMishneh Torah, and theGuide of the Perplexed. He discusses Maimonides's battle against all attempts to personify God, his conviction that God's presence in the world is mediated through the natural order rather than through miracles, and his locating of philosophy and science at the summit of the religious life of Torah. Halbertal examines Maimonides's philosophical positions on fundamental questions such as the nature and limits of religious language, creation and nature, prophecy, providence, the problem of evil, and the meaning of the commandments.

    A stunning achievement,Maimonidesoffers an unparalleled look at the life and thought of this important Jewish philosopher, scholar, and theologian.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4847-8
    Subjects: Religion, History, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xii)
    (pp. 1-6)

    Moshe ben Maimon (known in Hebrew by the acronym “Rambam” and in English as Maimonides) attempted to bring about two far-reaching and profound transformations in the Jewish world. The first pertained to thehalakhah(Jewish law, broadly construed) which he sought to change, in a fundamental way, from a fragmented and complex system to one that was transparent and unambiguous. In his great codeMishneh Torah, he consolidated the array of halakhic rules and norms and set them in an orderly, unified, and accessible structure. This brilliant work represented a mighty effort to extract thehalakhahfrom the thicket of...

  4. CHAPTER ONE Moses the Man
    (pp. 7-91)

    In his introduction to the first chapters of Part III of theGuide, Maimonides took the rare step of disclosing his self-image and the role he set for himself in the complex times in which he lived and worked. While writing this section of theGuidearound the year 1180, he was forty-two years old and at the height of his power. Those chapters are devoted to interpreting “the Account of the Chariot” (maʿaseh merkavah, the term applied to the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot), the holy of holies of Jewish mystical teachings. According to a ruling in...

  5. CHAPTER TWO The Commentary on the Mishnah, the Book of Commandments, and the Philosophy of halakhah
    (pp. 92-133)

    One of the most valuable manuscripts in the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem is of Maimonides’ commentary on two orders of theMishnah,MoʿedandNashim, written in Maimonides’ own hand. This manuscript remained in the possession of Maimonides’ descendants in Egypt, and when David (II) b. Joshua Maimonides (1335–1415), leader of the Jewish community in Egypt, moved from Cairo to Aleppo, he brought the authentic manuscript with him, to symbolize the continuity and authority of the Maimonides family.

    The circumstances under which the manuscript survived are astounding. Edward Pococke, who taught Arabic at Oxford, purchased two volumes...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Ethics and Belief in the Commentary on the Mishnah
    (pp. 134-163)

    In hisEssay on Resurrection, Maimonides described an encounter with an illustrious scholar who had doubts about whether or not God was corporeal: “I have met some who think they are among the sages of Israel—by God, they indeed know the way of the Law ever since childhood, and they battle in legal discussions—but they are not certain if God is corporeal, with eyes hands, and feet . . . or if He has a body.” Other scholars that Maimonides knew were certain about the matter: “Others, whom I have met in some lands, assert positively that He...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR What Is Mishneh Torah?
    (pp. 164-196)

    In the Introduction to hisMishneh Torah, Maimonides describes one of his accomplishments in that tract as having madehalakhah(Jewish law) into a transparent, accessible system. Talmudic legal literature had developed as an uncontrollable organism, laden with disputes and fragmented give and take recorded in Aramaic, a language not used in daily life; as a result, the halakhic material had become unapproachable. Even one who had labored to attain a degree of mastery over the literature could not be assured of the ability to extract practical legal rulings from the Talmudic morass. He would always remain justifiably concerned that...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Philosophy and halakhah in Mishneh Torah
    (pp. 197-228)

    The sixteenth-centuryShulẖan Arukhis the most important halakhic code to followMishneh Torah. Its author, R. Joseph Karo, began his treatise with the laws governing the practices to be followed immediately upon awakening in the morning. That opening does more than reflect a useful organizing principle, which presents thehalakhotin accord with the rhythm of a person’s day. It also conveys in a profound way the halakhic ethos of theShulẖan Arukh: a person opening his eyes is immediately summoned, without hesitancy, lethargy, or delay, to fulfill thehalakhotthat govern his entire life. A halakhic life attests...

  9. CHAPTER SIX Mishneh Torah and the Conceptual Understanding of halakhah
    (pp. 229-276)

    In the introduction toSefer ha-Miẕvot, hisBook of Commandments, Maimonides describes his struggle to organize the halakhic material inMishneh Torah. He initially thought to follow the sequence of orders and tractates in theMishnah. That structure appeared to offer substantial benefits, for it was familiar and authoritative; in addition, Maimonides had said in the introduction to theCommentary on the Mishnahthat it was conceptually logical and systematic. Moreover, Maimonides considered theMishnahto be a precedent forMishneh Torah, and it seemed only natural to adopt the earlier work’s organization.

    An alternative to relying on theMishnah...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN The Guide of the Perplexed and Its Critique of Religious Language
    (pp. 277-311)

    In the introduction to theGuide of the Perplexed, Maimonides takes the unusual step of adjuring his readers in the following terms:

    I adjure—by God, may He be exalted!—every reader of this Treatise of mine not to comment upon a single word of it and not to explain to another anything in it save that which has been explained and commented upon in the words of the famous Sages of our Law who preceded me. But whatever he understands from this Treatise of those things that have not been said by any of our famous Sages other than...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT The Guide of the Perplexed: Will or Wisdom?
    (pp. 312-353)

    After the first seventy chapters of theGuide, which deal for the most part with biblical language and religious language in general, Maimonides turns to the work’s great and central metaphysical issue: was the world createdex nihiloor has it existed for all eternity, like God? This portion of the work encompasses thirty-seven chapters, running from Chapter 71 of Part I to Chapter 31 of Part II. It is the most technical and philosophical part of the treatise, but it is important to note that the discussion is not meant to provide a systematic presentation of the philosophical positions...

    (pp. 354-368)

    The four readings of theGuidethat we have seen present different ways of dealing with the fundamental questions Maimonides grappled with in his treatise. Each reading has its own way of confronting such issues as the role of philosophy, the conception of God, the standing of man in the world and its ultimate perfection, and the way in which the perplexed person overcomes his existential crisis.

    Theskeptical readingsees philosophy as a critical tool, able to uncover the fact that language, like painting and sculpture, can provide only a limited and misleading representation of God. It follows that...

    (pp. 369-370)
    (pp. 371-380)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 381-386)