Jewish Thought Medieval Multi-tasker

Nearly all of us have heard of the greatness of Maimonides, but the full range of his ambitions and the contributions he made to Jewish thought still boggle the mind

The Rambam

By Moshe Halbertal. Zalman Shazar Center (Hebrew), 320 pages, NIS 81.50

Just about everyone knows that the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, or Maimonides) was a key figure in the annals of the Jewish people, but not everyone knows why, or just how, this unparalleled Torah scholar was central to our history. Moshe Halbertal's new book, the 10th in the Shazar Center's series of biographies of great Jewish thinkers and writers, makes clear exactly what Maimonides' significance was.

Like the earlier books in the series (which have included volumes on Theodor Herzl, Rabbi Judah Hanasi, and Haim Nahman Bialik), this one too combines the personal life of the subject with the story of his work. In contrast to earlier entries, however, the biography of the Rambam (1138-1204) is crammed into only one chapter (admittedly an exceptionally long one, nearly a quarter of the whole book), with the remainder dedicated to analysis of his work. This choice is completely justifiable, and stems not only from the fact that Halbertal is a professor of philosophy, but also from the fact that the range of the Rambam's writings and their significance remain puzzling to this day. Many religious scholars, not to mention well-educated readers, are not aware of the profundity of the revolution the Rambam sought to bring about in Jewish thought.

Halbertal, a professor of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University and fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, does not offer much that is new in the biographical chapter. He skillfully unfolds the Rambam's childhood in Andalucia, his family's exile in North Africa (to escape an extremist Muslim movement that had conquered Moorish Spain), and their settlement in Egypt. The novelty of Halbertal is his attempt to finally settle the question of the Rambam's purported conversion to Islam, which occupies many scholars. According to the testimony of the Muslim historian Ibn al Kafti, the Rambam was among many Jews forced to appear as though they had converted to Islam (as several centuries later many Spanish Jews would pretend to be Christian). Halbertal rejects this claim, holding that it is unreasonable to think that such sensational information would appear in only one historical source, and that it would not have been exploited by the Rambam's many enemies within the Jewish world.

The book's major importance lies in its explanation of the Rambam's life's work and his way of thinking. Generally, people are amazed by the sheer scope of his writing, and indeed, it is hard not to be impressed:The man lived only 66 years, during seven of which he was shunted aboutNorth Africa, and then there were long years of exhausting work as a doctor in the sultan's palace in Cairo. And yet during this time Maimonides wrote unique interpretations of the entire Mishna; wrote the most important and challenging philosophical work in Jewish history ("The Guide for the Perplexed" ); and he also undertook to reorganize the entire body of Jewish law that had been written up until his generation,in thematic order for the first time ( before this, the order had been according to pages in the Talmud, which jumps from topic totopic in an associative manner ) - all this without a computer, even long before there was such a thing as a printing press.

But Halbertal doesn't have any interest in the scope of the Rambam's writings, and he doesn?t give the matter even one admiring sentence. His interest, rather, is in three major tenets of the Rambam's philosophicalrevolution. First is the battle of Maimonides against all attempts to personify God - that is, conceptions of God that attribute humanbehavior to the divine, or worse, a human body. The many Jewish sources that seem to contradict his view are all, according to the Rambam, only fables. Second, his struggle against the idea that there are divine revelations to be found in changes in the natural order of things ( miracles ), and his claim that exactly the opposite is true: that Godis revealed in natural order, which is not supposed to change even when the Messiah arrives ( in contradiction to common apocalypticbeliefs, popular in many religions and also among some Jewish groups ). And third, legitimization of philosophy and science as non-traditional sources of authority that are of equal importance to the Torah, and even constitute a required part of the path leading to knowledge of God, that highest human aspiration.

Not one of these three revolutions, not to mention the three of them together, could have been taken for granted in the Jewish world before the Rambam, and it is no wonder that so many people fought them aggressively - even going so far as to boycott his writings and burn his books.

To tell the truth, one has to admit that the Rambam's pretensions invited some of the attacks against him. In the history of Jewish tradition - in which it is acceptable to talk about a decline in every generation, and in which each generation is supposed to see itself as smaller than its predecessors, and in any case be very careful in any attempt to overtake their accomplishments or contradict them - there has never been a case of a man of such grand airs as the Rambam, neither before nor after him, in the field of Jewish law or philosophy.

On Jewish law, the Rambam dared to write a book (Mishneh Torah) that explicitly sought to make all such writings before it redundant, including the Talmud itself. In the preface to Mishneh Torah,a comprehensive guide to Jewish law, the Rambam wrote that his goal was that "no man would have to write another such book in the Jewish world." Instead, one would read the Torah, and then Mishneh Torah,and would know all he needed to about Jewish law. Just imagine if someone these days would state that his aim was to make all other books ever written on the subject unnecessary, and what kind of response the author would receive.

On philosophy, the Rambam not only presumed to establish "correct ideas" about art and even science (for example, the correct physical picture of the world), but also established them at the beginning of Mishneh Torah,in order to say that these ideas were binding by Jewish law, exactly like the rest of the laws in the book.

Personification of God

At the end of his book, Halbertal has to deal with the big question of whether the Rambam succeeded in his task. His bottom-line answer is no, if only for the simple fact that contemporary Judaism (and that of many other generations) is full of magic, which Maimonides loathed and fought firmly against, and full of expressions that personify God, and also has many reservations about philosophical and scientific traditions with which it clashes, especially if they are from non-Jewish sources.

But this is only part of the picture. Because, on the other hand, it is hard for us to conceive of Judaism without the Rambam's enterprise. So, for example, we all grasp the negation of the material or bodily existence of God as one of Judaism's most basic tenets, without recognizing that this is the Rambam's innovation, and acknowledge that it was not taken for granted before his time. And the analytic approach to Jewish law, which we certainly take for granted these days (and without which we would not understand the expression "mishpat Ivri" (Jewish jurisprudence) is a Maimonidean innovation too.

Halbertal concludes the book with a personal lesson from the Rambam: not to fear the combining of Judaism with external points of view. But it seems that here, too, he understates the case. There is a lot more to learn from the Rambam. First of all, there is much to learn from his scope. In other words, the ability to conceive broadly of our life's work, and to make great plans and then implement them, is certainly possible today, in the era of information at our fingertips in the most amazing sense, much more so than it was in the Rambam's time. And there is a lot to learn beyond the lesson singled out by Halbertal. We are not only talking about combining Judaism with other ways of thinking, but a new formulation of the concept of Judaism according to tenets of our day and in ways that are not necessarily faithful to the original; about not being afraid of being banned, which was certainly part of the Rambam's experience, because in the end, a determined inner truth will win out over the biggest foes, even in the conservative religious world. Though the Rambam did not manage to bring his approach to the entire Jewish world, no one - not even those who deviate from his path - can deny his greatness: not to be afraid to recognize the heights of human intelligence, and its development and improvement as the highest human goal.

One last remark about the book itself. It is an especially important one, because Halbertal manages to transmit the Rambam's thoughts in a way that any educated reader, even those far from Jewish sources, may understand. In the desire to turn the book into one that is less intimidating, it lacks, like all the other volumes in the series, two characteristic signs of a scholarly tome: footnotes and an index. In my opinion, it would have been possible to supply footnotes at the end, in a manner that would have not disturbed the reading experience, although their absence won't disturb readers who have no need for them. But a non-fiction book without an index is an impossible creation, because even non-professional readers need them. Here's hoping that future books in the series will correct this mistake, even if it stems from good intentions.

Yair Sheleg is a commentator on religious affairs for Haaretz.

Haaretz Books, October 2009