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A Book Review . . . Maimonides And Philosophy’s Role In Religion

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Halberral, Moshe. Maimonides: Life and Thought. Translated from the Hebrew by Joel Linsider. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. Pp. 385.

This is an exposition, analysis, and assessment of two major works of the medieval philosopher and theologian, Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204), known in the West as Maimonides. The two works are Mishneh Torah (14 volumes), a codification of Jewish law, considered to be Maimonides’ magnum opus, and the better-known philosophical work, Guide for the Perplexed.
The Mishneh Torah consolidated and codified an array of Jewish halakhah rules and norms and set them in a unified and accessible structure without the usual back-and-forth discussion of opinions, major and minor, that characterize the halakhah of the period. Maimonides sought to reinterpret Judaism in Halberral’s words “as a religion suitable to the sensibilities of philosophical religiosity and to create a unified and accessible halakhah that would be accepted by all Jewish communities wherever they may be.”
No mean feat, the author reminds the reader, given that “by its very nature, the Jewish tradition contains a streak of stubborn resistance to the setting of shared, binding, principles of belief.”
Maimonides, a native of Cordoba, Spain, belonged to the school of Aristotle and his Muslim interpreters, notably al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes. In all of his writings, philosophical as well as halakhic, Maimonides took philosophy as the medium for attaining the heights of religious experience, namely, the love and awe of God. When science and philosophy conflict with Jewish tradition, the tradition itself is to be reinterpreted or reconciled with the truths of natural reason.
In Halberral’s account, the interpretation of Judaism that Maimonides offers is not meant solely to reconcile belief grounded in the Torah with the findings of philosophy and science but to show that philosophy plays a central role in constructing the religious outlook itself. Knowledge independent of the tradition is necessary for an understanding of the tradition. Without science and philosophy we cannot tell whether a particular term or account in the Torah is to be taken literally or not.
“The immersion in wisdom,” Halberral explains, “is a substantive part of the religious person’s inner journey to the redemption of his soul, and especially in his moving from fear of God to love of God.”
The study of philosophy thus becomes for Maimonides, a religious duty for “to know, love, and fear God” is man’s highest duty. In the early chapters of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, God is described in the philosophical terms of essence and existence, not in personal or historical terms.
Whereas the Mishneh Torah is directed to a wide audience, elite and common folk alike, the Guide for the Perplexed is intended for a narrower group, “people who have been educated to be faithful to the traditions of Judaism but who have also internalized the philosophical view of the world.” They are the perplexed, who, confronted with two sources of authority, the Torah and wisdom, must make an existential choice between religious faith and philosophical certainty.
The Guide offers a way out but is not unequivocal. Deliberately, on the part of its author, the Guide is open to multiple interpretations, much depending on what the reader brings to the text.
Halberral identifies four possible readings. A skeptical reading sees philosophy as a critical tool, leading to the conclusion that no positive knowledge of God can be conveyed through language and thus preserves God’s pristine unity and transcendence, albeit in silence. A mystical reading sees philosophy as a process that clears the way to direct illumination, to a meta-linguistic, meta-rational experience of God. This mystical experience takes place after one’s consciousness is emptied of all positive content, especially through the negation of language. The mystical reading, unlike the skeptical, believes in a direct cognition and non-linguistic illumination of God.
A third reading, the conservative reading, holds that the Guide’s great achievement is in its demonstration that eternal preexistence of the world cannot be proved. The perplexed person thus can adhere to the philosophical way without challenging the foundations of Judaism, which entail the ascription of will to God for it is divine will that is exercised through creation ex nihilo. The philosophical reading, in contrast, maintains that the Guide provides a systematic interpretation of Judaism’s fundamental concepts on the basis of wisdom and on the acknowledged reality of an eternal, preexisting world. Uncovering the hidden meaning of the Torah makes it possible for the perplexed person to internalize the tradition of Greco-Arab philosophy without weakening his tie to Israel’s Torah.
In this excellent study, Moshe Halberral makes it clear, in keeping with Maimonides, that there is no one way to understand the Jewish tradition.
Maimonides, of course, is known not only as a rabbinical scholar but for a major treatise on logic and for his contribution to medicine, the ten volumes produced while he was in Egypt. Those works are beyond the scope of the present volume.

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(Dr. Dougherty is dean emeritus of The School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America.)

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