By Moshe Halbertal
Princeton, 385 pages, $35
A page from a 15th-century manuscript of Maimonides’ ‘Mishneh Torah.’ The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel / Extended loan from Michael and Judy Steinhardt, New York / The Bridgeman Art Library
Much of what is known about Maimonides’ life comes from an extraordinary source: the Cairo Genizah, a thousand-year-old repository of nearly 200,000 medieval manuscripts discovered in 1897 on the grounds of a Cairo synagogue. Motivated by religious concerns about discarding Hebrew texts, Cairo’s medieval Jewish community saved nearly all written documents, even children’s schoolwork and sales receipts, providing a detailed picture of its civilization. Mr. Halbertal, a philosopher who wrote the Israeli Defense Forces’ ethics manual, draws on Maimonides’ works and correspondence, much of which was found in the Genizah, to situate his subject in the intellectual battles of his time.
The Genizah’s documents present a 12th-century Egypt that feels uncannily familiar: the technology capital of the world, the crossroads of a global economy. Its philosophers, especially Maimonides, asked a question that we in our information age still ask: Are our lives determined by forces beyond our control, or do we have the free will to shape our own destiny?
Maimonides was a physician, rabbi, politician and philosopher, and his life spanned concepts and continents. Born in Córdoba in 1138, he fled with his family to Morocco as a youth when a new, tyrannical Muslim regime took power and demanded that Spanish Jews convert or die. At 17 he published his “Treatise on Logic,” an introduction to Aristotelian logical principles; in his early 20s, while migrating through North Africa and then the Crusader-occupied Holy Land in flight from hostile regimes, he became a physician and began publishing on Jewish law.
He arrived and settled in Egypt and in 1171, he was appointed head of Cairo’s large Jewish community, acting as Cairene Jewry’s liaison to the Muslim ruling class. He later served as physician to a royal vizier and then to the sultan, Saladin, publishing medical treatises along the way, including works on treating chronic illnesses. Maimonides, though, mourned the intellectually rich Spanish Jewish community that had formed him, and he mourned his brother, a merchant who drowned on a trip to India. Mr. Halbertal views his two greatest works—”Mishneh Torah,” his profound distillation of Jewish law, and “Guide of the Perplexed,” his astonishing reconciliation of faith and reason—as in part inspired by these losses.
Scholars often divide Maimonides’ intellectual work in two: first, his efforts at codifying Jewish law, which previously existed mainly in the vast and often unresolved legal discussions in the 63 tractates of the Talmud; second, his philosophical writing that reconciles the science of his time with his Jewish (and by extension, all monotheistic) faith. Mr. Halbertal’s achievement here is that he presents these two projects as a single one: a bold attempt by Maimonides to make sense of faith for an educated audience in an advanced civilization.
Prior to Maimonides, Judaism had little by way of dogma. Jews were expected to believe in one God and to follow the Torah’s commandments, but no list of beliefs defined Judaism. But Maimonides’ quest to delineate Jewish belief, as Mr. Halbertal explains, wasn’t some philosophical exercise but a historical necessity. Ancient Pagan regimes had presented Jews with stark physical choices—martyrdom, flight or practicing Judaism secretly. As for Christianity, Jews saw its God-incarnate as violating the Torah’s prohibition on idolatry. But Islam was unambiguously monotheistic. Was it perhaps compatible with Judaism? And if so, why shouldn’t a Jew convert? In answering this question for the Jews of Yemen, who posed it to him when faced with Islamic persecution—Maimonides’ authority was respected by communities from France to Africa and beyond—the rabbi-philosopher presented not only a practical answer but a conceptual one. If one accepts the Torah as a public divine revelation, he posited, then any subsequent “revised” revelation, particularly one received in private, wouldn’t merely suggest an imperfect Torah; it would suggest an imperfect God. Jews could not convert to Islam.
It is this concept—that God’s perfection itself prevents divine interventions and “miracles” ousting the natural order—that vaults Maimonides’ thought out of the world of mere piety and into the realm of philosophy. Followed to its logical conclusions, the idea of a perfect God demands a belief in a God who reveals himself not through violations of nature, but through nature itself. This sanctification of nature turns Judaism into a rigorously rational faith. Consider, for instance, Maimonides’ idea of divine providence. God’s protection, he insisted, doesn’t come from divine intervention in human affairs, but rather through the divine gift of human intellect, which affords talented humans the capacity to solve human problems. As a physician, Maimonides couldn’t believe that physical suffering was an act of divine will—because if that were true, then how could he cure a disease?
Maimonides’ faith was more modern than medieval. Yet it differs profoundly from today’s casual agnosticism, because it was motivated by a philosophical humility rare in our time. In the discussion of idolatry in the Mishneh Torah, for example, Maimonides identified superstitions as not merely foolish, but as “means employed by ancient idolaters to deceive the peoples of various countries and induce them to become their followers.” Idolatry, here, is less the belief in a false God than the false belief in human control over the world, whether through charlatan leaders or through the worshiper’s own actions (if I do a rain dance, it will rain). In debunking this belief, Mr. Halbertal writes, Maimonides “went so far as to make rationality into a religious obligation.” To be rational is to acknowledge human limitation. It means standing in awe of what we can’t grasp.
“The Guide of the Perplexed” is Maimonides’ greatest work. Written as letters to a Jewish student confused by Greek philosophy and its apparent conflict with the Torah, the “Guide” presents a system of Jewish belief that accommodates a scientific worldview—but in a highly enigmatic style that invites multiple interpretations. Wisely, Mr. Halbertal doesn’t choose a single angle from which to view the text, but rather analyzes it from multiple perspectives, since, as he puts it, “any attempt to propose a single consistent reading of the treatise strikes me as doomed to failure.” Instead, Mr. Halbertal suggests a “skeptical” reading, which veers toward agnosticism; a “mystical” reading, which assumes a hidden spirituality; a “conservative reading,” which keeps the work in line with the Torah; among others. (For those following at home, the most accurate English translation of the “Guide” is the edition by Shlomo Pines.)
The text is also a radical critique of religious language that would be at home in a literary-theory course. In rationalizing the Torah’s descriptions of God’s intervention in human affairs, Maimonides argues that any language describing God as having a body, or even emotions, must be understood metaphorically, as a feeble attempt to describe a presence beyond description. In doing so, Mr. Halbertal claims, Maimonides suggested that language itself is a kind of deception, an idolatry that props up the illusion of human power. As Mr. Halbertal puts it, “Recognizing the limits on language is tantamount to recognizing the limits of our cognition of the world.” Whether this means that God can’t be known at all, or that God simply can’t be known through language, is one of the many questions that Maimonides left unanswered. This ambiguity and others like it give the “Guide” its enduring power, turning it into a fascinating test of the readers’ own beliefs.
Mr. Halbertal’s book isn’t for the uninitiated. Despite its English subtitle, this is no biography. The author isn’t a historian, and while the book’s short biographical section provides the rudiments of Maimonides’ life and a convincing sense of his personality, it takes primary sources at face value and is less reliable as a result. This is a philosophy book that doesn’t try to seduce the non-analytic reader. Mr. Halbertal also assumes—appropriately for his original Hebrew-language audience—a knowledge of Jewish legal concepts that is basic to those with a Jewish education but alien to those without one. Readers unfamiliar with terms like halakhah (literally “the walk,” denoting Jewish law) or geonim (literally “geniuses,” denoting early medieval Babylonian rabbinic authorities) will be swimming upstream. Those merely curious about Maimonides may do better with Joel L. Kraemer’s beautifully written 2008 biography, which provides a more accessible, if less nuanced, summary of his ideas along with ample historical and cultural background.
But those prepared to plunge into the depths will be rewarded with a mind-enlarging perspective that is absent from today’s American culture, where theological arguments are typically reduced to a choice between arrogant atheism or mind-numbing faith. While Maimonides’ ideas won’t convince those wedded to either of the above, it is refreshing for today’s perplexed to listen in on serious thinkers—both Maimonides and Moshe Halbertal—who refuse to check their brains or their faith at the door. As Mr. Halbertal says, the perplexed of every age can learn one thing from Maimonides: No matter what their dilemma may be, “they should never allow it to foreclose human thought and inner integrity.”
—Ms. Horn’s most recent novel is
“A Guide for the Perplexed.”