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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

And Now For Something Completely Different: Maimonides - Life and Thought

Now, this is really something very different from the usual content I post on this blog. I include this not just because I spent a while writing this and am about as proud of it as any other piece of criticism I've ever written, but as an introduction to my Goodreads reviews. Along with the stuff I post on this blog, I have very sporadically been posting super-short book reviews on They're mostly on novels and graphic novels/ comics but I do occasionally review non-fiction too. This particular review is obviously a major outlier as it is very long but it's the sort of book you can't review in just a few sentences. Even this is only scratching the surface of such an incredible piece of work.

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Oh, if you have a particularly narrow view of Jewish theology, avoid both this review and the book itself. Or, much better yet, read or don't read my review but do run out and buy yourself a copy of it...

As the title suggests, Moshe Halbertal's astonishing book is split between telling the story of Maimonides, based heavily on Maimonides' own published letters and the treasure trove of documents found in the Cairo Genizah, and exploring his three major works - his commentary on the Mishna, Mishne Torah and the Guide for the Perplexed - from a philosophical point of view.

The biographical portion of the book lasts about ninety pages and it paints a sympathetic but far from hagiographic picture of an extraordinary but quite complicated genius who is, arguably, without peer in the history of Jewish thought. Most importantly, though, it places his various works in context; understanding both Maimonides' own circumstances and the state of the Jewish world in the time and places in which Maimonides lived (specifically Spain and Egypt in the 12th century) is crucial to understanding his often jaw-droppingly controversial views on everything from Jewish Law (Halacha) to religious dogma to nothing less than God Himself.

Which, of course, brings us to the works themselves. Instead of simply summarizing these works and treating them as their own separate creations, Halbertal - a professor of law and philosophy - draws a line from the commentary on the Mishna to the Mishne Torah to the Guide for the Perplexed to create a biography; not of Maimonides' life but of his philosophy and the way said philosophy affected everything he ever wrote.

This is especially crucial in the face of the way Maimonides is treated in the modern, traditionally religious Orthodox world. While his Mishne Torah - a work that attempts to summarize and organize the gigantic corpus of Jewish law found in the Talmud - is wholly accepted and learned by untold numbers of religious Jews throughout the world and his commentary on the Mishna has found its way into various modern editions of the Mishna, his purely philosophical, a Guide for the Perplexed is all but entirely ignored by the same people. This isn't exactly too surprising considering how wholly embraced Maimonides has become within mainstream Judaism; something that would be all but impossible if his radical philosophical thoughts were given the same platform as his halachic works in Orthodox schools and yeshivot (Jewish seminaries).

Halbertal, himself a Modern-Orthodox Jewish Israeli, challenges such conventions by giving equal weight to all of Maimonides' works and, crucially, to the wider context in which he lived. Far from coming across as the cuddly establishment figure of modern Orthodoxy, Maimonides is presented in this book as he truly was: a genuine religious revolutionary who upended established beliefs and traditions; effectively rewriting Judaism along the way. This is a man whose books were burned en masse for a century or two after he died and was called a heretic in his time and after. And it wasn't just his philosophical masterwork, the Guide for the Perplexed, that was the cause of such extreme actions.

Even something as seemingly innocuous as his commentary on the Mishna was itself a radical act. Not just because he was one of the very few to go back to this formative text and extract it from the rest of the Talmud, offering his own commentaries on each individual Mishna but because of a little something that he wrote in his introduction to tractate Sanhedrin. It is here that he laid out his (in)famous Thirteen Principals of Faith: thirteen dogmatic beliefs that Maimonides viewed as such foundational beliefs to the Jewish religion that failure to wholly accept so much as one of them would cause a Jew to "be cut off from his people and lose his or her place in the world to come."

These principals met great resistance in their time and for no less than two centuries afterward but have since been embraced by mainstream Judaism and have become, to this day, a frankly cheap way to shut up anyone who dares question Jewish orthodoxy. This is, of course, laughably ironic when taken in the context of Maimonides' overall work. Aside from a number of Maimonides' great contemporaries being highly critical of the very idea of Jewish dogma, let alone these specific thirteen principals, it is highly questionable just to what extent he himself truly believed them - or at least believed them to be as straightforward as he presents them to be.

One of the core concepts that Halbertal keeps coming back to throughout the book is Maimonides' conception of "true beliefs" vs "necessary beliefs": the idea that while some beliefs that he himself espouses are to be taken as the incontrovertible truth (the Unity of God, as the perfect case in point), Maimonides views many beliefs to be not so much true as necessary for the sake of the maintaining societal norms and keeping the Jewish tradition on track. The idea that God gets "angry" and punishes those who transgress his commandments, for example, is not what one would call a "true belief" as at the core of Maimonides' conception of God is the idea that one can ascribe no positive descriptors to God, let alone something like human emotion, but it's a necessary belief that keeps your "average Jew" from abandoning a Torah lifestyle. This distinction is crucial but clearly not always all that easy to spot.

And this, then, brings us to the elitism that Halbertal presents as underlying all of Maimonides' work. As Halbertal proceeds through Maimonides' three major masterpieces, he notes the target audience of each work and, based on Maimonides' own words, the impetus behind each of them. His Thirteen Principals, for example, are a specific reaction to the needs of the less educated Jewish masses of the time to have something to counter the rigidly dogmatic beliefs of Christianity and Islam, while the Mishne Torah, despite being a work of almost unimaginable genius (that, oh yes, was created in teh couple of hours a day that Maimonides had free from his work as one of Egypt's most respected physicians), was created as a panacea for the majority of Jews who didn't have the time, inclination or ability to derive halacha from the Talmud itself.

Contrast this to the Guide for the Perplexed, which Maimonides meant only for the most elite of the Jews of his day; those who were masters of Torah but were also highly educated in philosophy and who might find themselves caught between the two. To ensure this, he wrote the Guide in a way that would throw off a casual reader by seeming, on the surface, to be utterly contradictory, even confused. Halbertal also concludes that though his earlier work was certainly informed by Maimonides' theology, it is, ironically enough, in the esoteric, veiled and deliberately perplexing Guide for the Perplexed where one can truly see Maimonides' unique theology.

It is in this section, despite it being the shortest, that Halbertal truly exceeds as he presents four distinct readings of the Guide: the "conservative", "skeptical", "mystical" and "radical" readings, as he calls them. To even begin to summarize each of these perspectives, let alone the conclusions that are reached through them, in this short review would be an effort in futility. Halbertal's book is brimming with powerful ideas but each page of this section is filled with more revolutionary, iconoclastic, deeply profound and even more deeply unsettling ideas than the rest of the book put together.

It's hard not to wish, in fact, that Halbertal had devoted a whole other book to examing Maimonides' most controversial work but what we do have here is a remarkably lucid and clear explanation of some of the core ideas of the Guide for the Perplexed from these different perspectives. What is revealed in this section, though, often comes across as being the polar opposite of modern, mainstream Orthodox theology. I don't agree with how the Guide has been all but banned by modern Orthodoxy but I do understand it.

The different readings reveal different levels of radicalism but none are more shocking than the reading of the Guide that posits that God interferes almost not at all in the affairs of humanity; that God created the universe to provide everything that is needed and He only intervenes in the lives of the most elevated human beings. Along the way, he also recontextualizes the commandments as nothing but a means to the end of reaching the highest intellectual levels that are reached, primarily, through using science and philosophy to understand God's creation; completely redefines prophecy; utterly rejects sacrifices and, to a lesser degree, prayer as the Ultimate means of serving God; offers deeply chilling solutions to the Problem of Evil and all but entirely writes off miracles. All this from the man who brought dogma to the Jewish religion...

To deal with such lofty, highly controversial ideas, Moshe Halbertal has crafted a book that is careful to quote liberally from Maimonides himself and is written in such a way that the ideas put forth are presented as clearly and as comprehensively as possible. Maimonides: Life and Thought is a difficult, challenging but deeply rewarding masterpiece of scholarly writing that belongs in the library of anyone with an interest in Jewish theology and philosophy. Though, to be honest, it's probably a book that probably belongs even more in the libraries of those "frum" Jews who don't.

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