Moshe Halbertal, Maimonides: Life and Thought

, October 15, 2017

Moshe Halbertal, Maimonides: Life and Thought, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press), 2014, 400 pp.

Moshe Halbertal, Professor of Jewish Thought and Philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the author of several books on Jewish philosophy in the Middle Ages has written a study of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204). Known by the Hebrew acronym, Rambam, Maimonides was the most important Jewish philosopher, authority on Jewish law, and community leader of the Twelfth Century. Maimonides changed Judaism and Jewish life forever. Halbertal’s comprehensive and readable study deals with his biography, his contributions and their lasting impact.

The book divided into four sections. The first part provides biographical information. Halbertal describes and analyzes his personality and shows how his background and character played an important role in his development and accomplishments. Educated in Andalusia (Muslim Spain), Rambam followed the halakhic tradition of the Rif (R. Isaac Alfasi) and his disciple, the Ri Migash (R. Joseph Ibn Migash), the teacher of Rambam’s father, Maimon. Like other Jewish philosophers, such as Judah Halevi, Sa’adya Gaon, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, and Abraham Ibn Ezra, Rambam imbibed much of the Arabic and Greek philosophy and science. This stimulating intellectual and religious world came to an end with the Almohad invasions when all non-Muslims were forced to convert to Islam. Rambam’s family inexplicably emigrated to the Maghreb (North Africa), to territory controlled by the Almohads. Hence, the rumor that they pretended to adopt Islam or actually may have converted. Halbertal seems to doubt this. He points out that in his Epistle on Martyrdom, Rambam deals with an edict which stated that a Jew must not only suffer martyrdom rather than accept Islam, but also, if he submits publicly and continues Jewish observance secretly, doing so is invalid before God. Here, Maimonides displayed his unusual greatness by asserting that one should not surrender, while at the same time, did not denounce those who had submitted. He realized that the future of the entire community was at stake, especially since the children of martyrs often were kidnapped and lost to the Jewish faith forever.

The second part of the book describes Maimonides’ early halakhic works, namely his Commentary on the Mishnah and his Book of Commandments, most of which he wrote in the Maghreb while he was in his twenties. The purpose of the former was to interpret the Mishnah according to the conclusions of Talmudic discussions and to decide which of various opinions would be accepted as halakhah (the final ruling). Unlike the Tosafists (Talmudic scholars in France and Germany who flourished from the Twelfth through the Fifteenth Centuries), who expanded Talmudic discussion and wrote a massive number of glosses on the text, Maimonides was more interested in summarizing and utilizing the Talmud in order to formulate a coherent and comprehensive philosophy of halakhah. Therefore, he included overviews of the principles of various topics of halakhah, such as ethics, tenets of belief, and forbidden sexual relations. While some rabbis maintained that arguments in the Mishnah existed because the details given at Revelation were lost, Maimonides believed that the halakhic contents of Revelation remained intact and that arguments occurred only regarding derivative laws when the different exegetes relied upon variant Biblical references.

Halbertal points out that it is amazing that the original version of the Commentary on the Mishnah, in Rambam’s own handwriting, has survived. Therefore, it possible to document variations between the latter and the extant version. In fact, in his doctoral dissertation, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Adler has documented 700 changes. These emendations were actually used by the Babylonian Geonim to attack its reliability. The author cites Rambam’s response in which he states that the Geonim were responsible for the variants, since Rambam had initially relied on their exegesis, and only upon further study did he become aware of their errors and subsequently corrected his commentary. The Commentary on the Mishnah laid the foundation for the Mishneh Torah, Rambam’s code of law. At first, Maimonides considered arranging the contents of the Mishneh Torah according to the order of the Mishnah. However, since the latter did not encompass the entire halakhah, he decided to arrange the Mishneh Torah according to the commandments of the Torah. Therefore, he first had to list the commandments, which he did in his Book of Commandments.

The third section of the book deals with the Mishneh Torah, written over a ten year period in Egypt, which Maimonides wrote when he was in his thirties. For Rambam, the purpose of the commandments is to create a well-structured, moral society which enables man to provide himself with the necessities of life and to control his impulses. It is a precondition to a life of inquiry, contemplation, and apprehension of God – the main purpose of the creation of man. Maimonides presents this view in his Mishnaic commentary on the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin and Ethics of the Fathers, and in the first of the fourteen books of the Mishneh Torah, the Book of Knowledge. Needless to say, many rabbis agreed with Raavad (R. Abraham ben David of Provence) who differed with Maimonides’ innovative approach, and considered fulfillment of the halachah in all of its particulars to be the ultimate goal and purpose of the creation of mankind.

Rambam regarded the Mishneh Torah as the next stage after the Mishnah of Judah ha-Nasi (c.200 CE), hence the similarity in names. Initially, the oral law was literally transmitted orally. When the Jews were dispersed, there was no way to preserve the law other than by committing it to writing in the Mishnah, and in a later period of calm, the Talmudic discourses on the Mishnah were added. Maimonides looked upon his own era as another period of severe vicissitudes which demanded the formulation of a new, more user friendly compendium. The authoritative status of the Mishnah and the Talmud (but not the Geonic works) derived from their widespread circulation. Maimonides made efforts to do the same for Mishneh Torah.

The final section of Maimonides: Life and Thought is devoted to the Guide to the Perplexed, which Maimonides wrote between the ages of 48-53. Maimonides affirmed that he concealed its deeper meanings from his readers. Halbertal masterfully delineates four different ways to understand the book. One of the major questions in the Guide is whether the world is eternal, as Aristotle argued. The Greek philosopher claimed that if God created it at some point, He must have been stimulated to do so due to a shortcoming of some sort, and its result would cause a change in Him from potential to actual, which would indicate an imperfection which is contradictory to the concept of God. Rejecting divine will, however, would also negate the possibility of revelation, prophecy, and miracles. Maimonides answers these potentially heretical proposals in various ways. He claims that unlike human will, divine will is not caused by a shortcoming or indicate an external force. Also, revelation may have been created potentially from the very start (Gen. Rabbah 1:4). Prophecy may be the natural result of man elevating himself, and miracles being only temporary do not represent a permanent change.

Interestingly, although in Mishneh Torah (his halachic work) Maimonides takes the view that the law is merely a means of achieving the philosophical ideal of contemplation, the Guide concludes by noting the limitations of man’s capacity for metaphysical apprehension and by observing that through speculation one may only know God’s negative attributes, but one can always imitate His positive actions which lead to loving-kindness, righteousness, and honest judgment – bringing one back to the halachic ideal.

The amount of scholarship that went into writing the Guide to the Perplexed is amazing. Indeed, Maimonides is the Leonardo da Vinci of Judaic studies, and anyone who analyzes his works must have expertise in Jewish law and in and Jewish and general philosophy. Professor Halbertal is proficient in all of these fields. In addition, he displays profound understanding of Rambam’s personality and innermost feelings and their relationship to his life and thought. Halbertal uses the sources creatively by examining Maimonides’ letters to his student Joseph ben Judah, Pinchas the Judge, and Ovadiah the Proselyte, and the classic Epistle to Yemen and the Epistle on Martyrdom. On the basis of his life and accomplishments, we may understand the saying: “From Moses [our teacher] until Moses [Maimonides], there was no one like Moses.” In fact, Halbertal claims that to this very day there is no Jewish figure of comparable stature. Interestingly, Halbertal cites a letter in which Maimonides even compares himself to Moses. This must not be regarded as immodest behavior, which Rambam strongly condemns (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 2:3), but rather as the fulfillment of a mission which he realized for which he was particularly suited. In conclusion, from Moses to Moses there may have been no one like Moses, but we must thank a third Moses (Halbertal) for enlightening us and providing this excellent, scholarly and highly readable study.

About Abba Engelberg

Abba Engelberg graduated from Telshe Yeshiva (valedictorian) and Yeshiva University (cum laude), where he received rabbinical ordination. He received a Ph. D. from NYU in operations research and served as professor at Jerusalem College of Technology for 40 years, where he founded and headed the women’s division. He served as a reserve chaplain in the United States Air Force where he achieved the rank of colonel. He has written books and articles in the areas of science and religion, including The Ethics of Genesis and The Ethics of Exodus.