Moses Maimonides, the great 12th-century philosopher and legalist, lived at the pinnacle of Jewish culture in the Islamic world. Most amazing about Maimonides is that, despite making his living as a physician and having an active medical career, he was also a prolific writer. “Prolific” doesn’t do justice to describing the extraordinary output of his writing.
At the age of 20, he wrote his commentary on the Mishnah, the legal code of Jewish law. Later on, he wrote his own code of Jewish law, a summary in Hebrew of all the Talmudic discussions, organized according to his own system, which he called 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.”
In either case, Jewish people know this text to be one of the foundational texts of Jewish law, particularly among Sephardic Jews—Jews living within Spain and the Islamic orbit.
This is a transcript from the video series Between Cross and Crescent: Jewish Civilization from Mohammed to Spinoza. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.
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 significant, as it was translated into Latin and eventually many other languages. It was known to Thomas Aquinas, the broader Christian world, in the Islamic world, and it became a classic of medieval philosophy.
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Philosophy—An Ecumenical Field
Here is 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, as Aquinas did 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 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.
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.
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.”
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Notice what he’s done. In the traditional interpretation, there is the Bible, Mishnah, and Talmud. Maimonides has collapsed the Mishnah and Talmud into the generic term “oral law.” Then he has a third category. He calls it by the word pardes which is a word used in Jewish literature meaning esoteric studies.
What he 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 is ultimately what he’s trying to pull out of this rabbinic dictum: to reach a level of scholarship as a Jew means to study philosophy. In other words, 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.
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, a king is sitting in a palace. He’s surrounded by all kinds of rooms: exterior rooms, interior rooms, and so on. 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. People are sitting on the other bank of the moat and then some 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 some who have gotten an audience to face the king.
This metaphor may seem confusing, but Maimonides 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.
Who are the people on the outside? They are, 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. Only a philosopher, only a person with that intellectual capacity, is in a position to be in the inner sanctum with God himself. That’s the second text.
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Something from Nothing?
The third example of his books 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 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? If you look at Aristotle and Plato, you will see that there is a pre-existing material, a kind of unformed matter—Aristotle called it huilic matter—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, Christianity, and Islam say creation out of nothing; philosophy disagrees and 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?
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. Therefore, he can create out of nothing. That’s the idea.
This is the problem, and many kinds of philosophers deal with it in interesting ways. Maimonides’ 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. 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? The person explains: Well, you had parents; they conceived and your mother was pregnant for nine months and gave birth, and so on. He said: That’s impossible. That’s 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.
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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 using inconclusiveness. In other words, based on our human finite experience, we are not in a position to know what happened at the moment of creation. 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 can’t do the job, for there are limits to our rationality. By setting limits to that rationality, to our own human experience, to our own finitude, we are in a position to reconcile better revelation, religion, and philosophy.
Notice how different that is from trying to prove equivalency between arguments. There are some points where they just don’t mesh, but by recognizing that we cannot solve these problems, that is itself an answer and a solution.
When Maimonides dies in 1204, a major controversy broke out. Those who read Maimonides—who are in northern Europe and not in Spain— realized how subversive he might be. There were even cases 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.
Nevertheless, Maimonides survived as a significant scholar in Judaism because of his role as a legislator and as the author of the Mishneh Torah. 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.
Common Questions About Moses Maimonides
Moses Maimonides’s text More Nevuchim is one of the most controversial in all of Jewish literature. His writings provoked a battle between philosophers and traditionalists, and presented some intellectual problems including his lack of citations, his belief in teaching the Torah without pay, and his ideas about the inability of man to comprehend creation from our standpoint of reason and logic.
The 13 Principles of Jewish faith were composed by Maimonides and reside in all Jewish prayer books. They represent the fundamentals of the Jewish faith. There are 13 variations beginning with “I believe with complete faith that the Creator, blessed be his name…” In essence, they pay tribute to God as being the sole creator and a divine being.