Moses Maimonides: Philosophy of Judaism and Jewish Law

From a lecture series presented by Professor David Ruderman, Ph.D.

Moses Maimonides, the great 12th-century philosopher and legalist, lived at the pinnacle of Jewish culture in the Islamic world. What is amazing about Maimonides is that, despite making his living as a physician and having an active medical career, he was also a prolific writer. And “prolific” doesn’t do justice to describing the extraordinary output of his writing.

Image of Torah for article on Moses Maimonides
Mishneh Torah, by Maimonides

First, at about the age of 20, he wrote his commentary on the Mishnah, the legal code of Jewish law. Later on he writes his own code of Jewish law, a summary in Hebrew of all the Talmudic discussions, organized according to his own system, which he calls the Mishneh Torah. Not to be confused either with Torah or Mishnah, this is Mishneh Torah, also known as the Yad ha-Chazaka, or the “strong hand.”

Learn more: What is Judaism?

In either case, Jews know this text to be one of the foundational texts of Jewish law. And particularly among Sephardic Jews—that is, Jews living within Spain and within the Islamic orbit—this becomes the basic summary of Jewish law.

Some say that he wrote this text primarily because he wanted people to master the subtleties of the Talmudic arguments and move from the Talmud to study philosophy. While this is not entirely clear, nevertheless it is clear that his other major work underscored the importance of philosophy for him and became the classic of Jewish philosophy. In Hebrew, it is called the Moreh ; in English, The Guide for the Perplexed. This work was clearly significant. It was translated into Latin and eventually many other languages. It was known to Thomas Aquinas; it was known in the Christian world and in the Islamic world, and it became a classic of medieval philosophy.

Philosophy—An Ecumenical Field

Here we have a wonderful example of how philosophy in general is an ecumenical field and that the same kinds of issues, questions, and solutions that are offered can be found within all three religious faiths. It can be picked up and used, for example, by Aquinas in terms of scholastic thought.

Two texts help illustrate Maimonides’s philosophical thinking and subsequent influence. The first is from The Code of Jewish Law, from a section called Hilkhot Talmud Torah, the “Laws of the Study of the Torah.” The text is from chapter 1:11–12, and it is a text that clearly reveals the agenda of Maimonides. The text is a rephrasing of a Talmudic text which says that every Jewish student should divide his time into three parts.

Learn more: The Beginnings of Christian Philosophy

During the first part, you study the Bible; the second part, you study the Mishnah—the legal code of Jewish law; and the third part, the Gemarah or the Talmud, the commentary on the Mishnah.

Now that’s simple enough, but Maimonides takes that same text which everyone knows and reinterprets it. Maimonides says:

The time allotted to study should be divided into three parts. A third should be devoted to the written law—that is, the Bible; a third to the oral law; and the last third should be spent in reflection, deducing conclusions from premises, developing implications of statements, comparing dicta, studying the hermeneutical principles by which the Torah is interpreted, until one knows the essence of these principles and how to deduce what is permitted and what is forbidden from what one has learned traditionally. This is termed Talmud.

Notice what he’s done. In the traditional interpretation, you have the Bible, Mishnah, Talmud. Maimonides has collapsed the Mishnah and Talmud into the generic term “oral law.” Then he has a third category. What is this third category? He calls it by the word pardes which is a word used in Jewish literature meaning esoteric studies.

What he really means here is the philosophical study of rabbinic literature. In other words, not just reading it by rote, not just learning it, not just memorizing it, not being able just to recite it, but to get at its essence, its philosophical essence, its intellectual structure; that’s really what rabbinic study is all about.

The third level of Jewish learning entails a kind of philosophical exposition of the text and that ultimately what he’s deriving here, what he’s trying to pull out of this rabbinic dictum, is that to reach a level of scholarship as a Jew means to study philosophy. In other words, if that is true, if that interpretation is correct, then we have the agenda of philosophy already presented within the legal code, not in the philosophical work, but in the legal code itself. So that’s the first text.

Depiction of Maimonides teaching students about the 'measure of man' in an illuminated manuscript.
Depiction of Maimonides teaching students about the ‘measure of man’ in an illuminated manuscript.

An Audience with the King of Kings

The second text to help us understand Maimonides comes from chapter 25 of the third book of The Guide for the Perplexed and contains his famous metaphor about the palace. To paraphrase, there’s a king sitting in a palace. He’s surrounded by all kinds of rooms, exterior rooms, interior rooms and so on; then around the palace is a wall and then there’s a moat; and then there are areas that are farther away from the palace. He situates all kinds of people. There are people sitting on the other bank of the moat and then there are some who are in the moat, some who are in the castle, some in the exterior rooms, and then those who are in the interior rooms. And then there are those who got into the room to face the king.

Now, what is this all about? He tells us explicitly what the metaphor is. The king, of course, is the king of kings, the holy one, blessed be he—God. And this is about how human beings enter the inner sanctum of God’s world and touch God, so to speak, directly.

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Who are the people on the outside? They’re, of course, the heathens. The ones who are a little closer are the ordinary Jews; they observe the commandments; they do everything right; they’re not immoral.

Then there are those who study the Talmud all day long, and they’re very serious scholars. They get into the external rooms, but they haven’t made it into the internal rooms. Who, of course, gets inside? Obviously the philosopher. In other words, here it is clear there is a priority within Judaism. To be a philosopher is ultimately to see God, to appreciate God, to understand the essence of God directly. And only a philosopher, only a person with that intellectual capacity, is in a position to be in the inner sanctum with God himself. So that’s the second text.

Learn more: The Jewish Library

Something from Nothing?

The third book is also a good example of what medieval philosophy is all about. It deals with the question of creation.

Within Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, there is a very strong belief about creation. The Latin term is creatio ex nihilo or, in Hebrew, yesh me’ayin. That is, when God created the world, he created it out of nothing. Why is that so important? Why couldn’t he have created it out of something? And, in fact, if you look at Aristotle and Plato, you will see that there is a pre-existing material, a kind of unformed matter—huilic matter, it’s called by Aristotle—from which the equivalent to God creates the world. In other words, it is illogical to think that if you’re creating something, you create it from nothing. Nothing produces nothing. You need something to make something. Judaism and Christianity and Islam say creation out of nothing; philosophy says that’s illogical, it has to be out of something.

Now, why is it so important for religions that God creates out of nothing? Because if God is creating out of pre-existent matter, that places the limitation upon God. God can only create what is possible from what exists, but the idea of God is that he is all-powerful; there are no limitations placed upon him. And, therefore, he can create out of nothing. That’s the idea.

The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo
The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo

Now, this is the problem and all kinds of philosophers deal with it in interesting ways. Maimonides’s solution is very illustrative of his own approach. He gives us a metaphor—he’s good with metaphors—of a little boy who was born and dropped on an island; he grew up on the island all alone, kind of a Robinson Crusoe. He grows up and then he finally meets somebody. They get into the discussion about the world, and he asks: How did I come into the world? And the person explains: Well, you had parents; they conceived and your mother was pregnant for nine months and gave birth, and so on and so forth. He said: That’s impossible. That’s totally illogical; it doesn’t make any sense to me. How could I breathe in the womb of a woman? What you’ve told me, based upon my own experience, is simply impossible for me to comprehend.

Learn more: Creation and Chaos in Genesis

Now what is the point that he’s trying to make here? He’s not going to prove to us that creation came out of nothing, although he believes that is the case because he takes the traditional Jewish view. But he’s going to argue by means of inconclusiveness. In other words, on the basis of our human finite experience, we are not in a position to know what happened at the moment of creation. And there’s no way philosophy can prove that. In other words, there are limits to what our rational inquiry can offer us.

In other words, he hasn’t proved it, but he’s argued that, here, rationality just can’t do the job. There are limits to our rationality. And by setting limits to that rationality, to our own human experience, to our own finitude, we are in a position to reconcile better revelation and religion and philosophy.

Notice how different that is from trying to prove that this is equivalent to this, and this equals this, and so on. There are some points where they just don’t mesh, but nevertheless, by recognizing that we cannot solve these problems, that is itself an answer and a solution.

Controversy

When Maimonides dies in 1204, a major controversy breaks out. Part of the reason is that those who are reading Maimonides—who are in northern Europe and not in Spain—now realize how subversive he might be. In fact, we even have a case where his Guide was burned; scholars were involved in enormous fighting over the issue of how to interpret Judaism philosophically. Indeed, the Maimonidean controversy lasted for several centuries, and it really never ends.

But nevertheless, Maimonides survived as a significant scholar in Judaism because of his role as the legislator, as the author of the Mishneh Torah. So even if you didn’t like Maimonides the philosopher, you had to love him as an individual who had created this corpus of Jewish law. Therefore, you had to take him seriously after all.

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From the Lecture Series: Between Cross and Crescent: Jewish Civilization from Mohammed to Spinoza
Taught by Professor David B. Ruderman, Ph.D.
Images courtesy of:
Maimonides_Mishna, By Maimonides (National Library of Israel) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Mishneh Torah, Matthew G. Bisanz [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), GPL (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html), LGPL (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/lgpl.html), FAL or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons