Moses Maimonides, the historic Rabbi, physician, and philosopher born in Cordoba in 1138 in what was then Muslim Spain, was a man of scientific reason as much as a man of faith. Living in different regions of the Islamic Empire at the height of its civilization throughout his life, at a time when young Jews were encouraged to become courtier-rabbis and to achieve fluency in both religious and secular studies, Maimonides’ cultural, social, and intellectual environments shaped his development into a thinker that fused Judaism with rationalism, ‘…the single greatest thinker in Jewish history who stressed the role of reason and philosophy in the understanding of Torah’ (Angel xii). His compilation of the Mishneh Torah represents the broadest reconciliation between religious dogma and philosophic reason ever to have taken place in Judaism. By interpreting the myriad Talmudic texts with an eye for their reasonableness and categorizing his findings into a single religious book that banished much of the ‘superstition’ inherent in Judaism, Maimonides went farther than anyone before him in rationalizing his religion.
To understand how Maimonides achieved such a lasting influence on Judaism, it is essential to understand his methods of interpretation. Maimonides viewed the sacred texts as the inalterable word of God, and representative of ultimate truth as such. He also believed in the inviolate character of human reason, as given by God, in pursuit of an intellectual understanding of God’s nature (Angel 5). Thus, he believed that any facets of Judaism which defied human reason were mistaken interpretations of scripture, and that ultimately the correct interpretations would reconcile the word of his God with the truth arrived upon by human reason, that ‘Judaism…was founded on intellectually solid foundations.’ (Angel 4).
This paring of reason and faith in Maimonides’ thought led to statements that had powerful effects on Jewish life across the Diaspora. In his Guide for the Perplexed, he went so far as to write, ‘if Aristotle’s belief in the eternity of the universe were proven, he (Maimonides) would interpret Scripture to conform with Aristotle.’ (Kraemer 66; Guide II 25).
Equally learned in Judaic Law and mathematics, astronomy, medicine, logic and politics, his embrace of both Judaic and Islamic culture and his rise to power in Islamic society made him an icon in Jewish history (Kraemer 1). By advocating that Jews threatened with the choice between conversion or death could chose conversion while remaining Jews at heart (Epistle on Forced Conversion), Maimonides applied his love of reason towards the preservation of his religion in turbulent times, thus saving many Jewish lives by justifying feigned conversion under certain circumstances. By putting devout Jews’ lives above what they were forced to say, Maimonides proved himself to be the middle ages’ most reasonable rabbi, a man willing to stretch dogma to fit around the sanctity of life.
While Maimonides was not the first to attempt to ‘…turn Judaism into a religion of reason’ (Kraemer 18), his historical circumstances made him the most successful at this lofty venture. Elisha bin Abuyah, a Rabbi who lived a bit more than a thousand years before Maimonides, had tried to use Hellenistic philosophy to prove the existence of God to himself, and he ended up being excommunicated for his troubles (Ginzberg 1). Saadia Ben Joseph (882-842), gaon of Sura, is another important figure who bridged the gap between Judaism and philosophy, by cultivating an interest in subjects other than scripture and writing the first Judaic texts in Arabic(Scheindlin 78).
Saadia’s work, while influential, did not have the effect of Maimonides’ own because Saadia was writing in a time when Judaism was tolerated in the Islamic Empire and needed no intellectual defense. Maimonides wrote his works when Judaism was being attacked intellectually by Islamic scholars such as Ibn Hazm of Cordoba, who posited unreliable transmission of biblical texts, suppression of biblical references to Muhammad and Jesus, crass anthropomorphisms of God, and no mention of an afterlife in the Torah (Kraemer 17) as some of the faults of Judaism, which was viewed as a primitive religion by the dominant Muslims of the day.
So while Abuyah tried to bridge his faith and philosophy too early, and Saadia at a time too safe, Maimonides bridged the two in defense of an intellectual attack on all fronts. This historical context made it easier for the Jewish people to accept his revisions of their collective tradition, which led to the reinvigoration of Judaism in the Middle Ages.
In this paper, the reader will find evidence illustrating the significance of Maimonides’ original combination of his faith and philosophy. The range of his works will be examined for examples of his synthesis of what were to him the two dominant sources of truth – Judaism and reason – and the results will be critiqued in search of an overall affect that his process had on Judaism. The reader will see Maimonides the Jew, Maimonides the philosopher, and Maimonides the Rabbi. Modern interpretations of Maimonides will be consulted, and Maimonides’ critics’ perspectives on certain issues will be compared to his own perspective, thereby establishing his rationalism and reasonableness in contrast to his contemporaries.
Before one can understand Maimonides thought, however, it is important to understand the cultural, intellectual, religious, and social context in which it was originated.
Moses Maimonides was born in Cordoba, Spain, around 1138 (Kraemer 1). During his childhood, his father Rabbi Maimon ben Joseph taught him mathematics and astronomy (65), as well as the rabbinic literature which informed the laws of Jewish communities - the Talmud, the Torah, and the Midrash (58). Living within the liberal Islamic civilization of southern Spain, Maimonides also came into contact with the thought of the ancient Greeks, Arabian philosophy, poetry, and science, and importantly, the thought of Avicenna – an Islamic philosopher who tried to prove the existence of God through reason alone (41). The cross-cultural intellectual ferment Iberia experienced under Islamic rule was a formative influence on Maimonides’ subsequent syncretism of philosophy and religion.
In 1148 the extremist Muslims known as the Almohads of North Africa conquered the more liberal Islamic Kingdoms of Spain, introducing a severe policy forcing Jews to decide between exile, conversion, or death (35). After 12 years of wandering from town to town in southern Spain to avoid the decision, Maimonides’ family moved to Fez, Morocco (85). By the time they had settled in Fez, Maimonides had written a treatise on the Jewish calendar, the Treatise on the Art of Logic, and began his commentary on the Mishnah, a codification of the Oral Law arranged categorically (69, 76, 79). It was in Fez that he began his study of medicine and received his first clinical training (89). Between the years 1160-65, Maimonides wrote his Epistle on Forced Conversion, in which he ‘condoned conversion to Islam, discouraged martyrdom, and recommended migration and exile.’ (Kraemer 105).
Still faced with the three unfavorable options the Almohads offered non-Muslims, Maimonides and his family opted for exile – the only choice that allowed them to remain living Jews. They left Morocco and sailed for Palestine on April 18, 1165, a voyage which at the time took about a month (Scheindlin 85). The Christian crusaders held much of the ‘Holy Land’, and their tolerance of Judaism allowed Maimonides and his family to search for a suitable place to resettle. From Acre, they passed through Jerusalem and Hebron, before crossing Sinai into Egypt.
Eventually the family settled in Al-Fustat, or Old Cairo, in Egypt. It would be here that Maimonides accomplished his great feats of religious scholarship, philosophy, and his prominent social and political roles. His father died only a year after the family moved to the Middle East, in 1166, and Maimonides's younger brother David supported the family for a time with his work as a Jewel trader (Kraemer 147).
It would be David’s death at sea on a voyage to India which led Maimonides into his career as a physician. With his intellectual prowess and immense powers of concentration, Maimonides eventually became the personal physician of al-Qadi al-Fadil, the vizier of Saladin. With the prestige this position brought, Maimonides was made the head of all the Jewish communities in Egypt, and remained so until his death.
Maimonides completed his commentary on the Mishnah in 1168 (164), his monumental splicing of reason and faith, the Mishneh Torah, in 1180 (316), and his seminal ‘The Guide of the Perplexed’ was completed in 1190 (359).
In this latter work, Maimonides tried to reconcile faith and reason philosophically, as he had done in compiling his Mishneh Torah through what he chose to include in it and how he interpreted those Midrashim, scriptures, and commandments. The Guide was written primarily for educated Jews who had been led to believe religion and philosophy contradicted each other.
Maimonides believed that philosophy led to truth, and should coincide with scripture when that scripture was properly interpreted. Philosophy and reason led to a greater understanding of the Torah, supporting rather than destroying Judaism by allowing the devout to rationally interpret the word of God, and thus arrive at the ultimate truth inherent in the original scripture.
Maimonides died in al-Fustât on Dec. 13, 1204, and he was transported to Palestine and buried at Tiberias in Galilee (Kraemer 471). When he died, he was already of a stature in Jewish life that has rarely been equaled. One can see how the intellectual hybridization occurring around him for much of his life may have influenced his later passion for the reconciliation of faith and reason, both in defense of his religion and for the sake of Truth. The value of scientific and philosophic knowledge in the Islamic civilization he lived within led him to value philosophy as the God-given way to fulfill the commandment ‘Know him in all his ways’. This essentially turned philosophy into Maimonides’ method for fulfilling that Judaic commandment.
The flourishing of the arts and poetry, ready access to the ancient masterworks of the Greeks, and the confluence of cultures which was Muslim Spain all contributed to turning Maimonides into a renaissance man who allowed both faith and reason to guide his search for truth. Being a very principled man who loved his people and his faith, Maimonides was forced to apply his reason to the problem of forced conversion. Living in a time when Jews were persecuted for their beliefs, but equipped with the reason to analyze the situation rationally, Maimonides broke with tradition in saying feigned conversion was permissible under certain circumstances. In this way, Maimonides reasoned that God wouldn’t want Jews to be killed for their faith in him, and went further to say that any teachings within Judaism that said otherwise couldn’t be the word of God, but the false interpretations of men.
The Syncretism of Faith and Reason in the Works of Maimonides
The range of Maimonides works alone suggests a mind that grasped at knowledge as a way of seeking an understanding of the divine. Maimonides wrote works on logic, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, Torah, the commandments, the philosophy of Judaism, ethics, law, and Midrashim, as well as epistles of consolation, hope, and brotherhood in the Epistle of Forced Conversion and the Epistle to Yemen. His medical writings have been cited by modern scholars as the source of cognitive-behavioral therapy (Pies 1), and his Guide for the Perplexed stands as the seminal work of medieval Jewish philosophy.
While all of Maimonides’ texts contain elements which would strengthen the argument of this paper, only a brief selection will be examined due to space constraints. Thus examples of the syncretism of faith and reason in Maimonides’ thought will be presented from Laws Concerning Character Traits in the Mishneh Torah, Eight Chapters in his commentary on Pirkei Avot, Guide of the Perplexed, and the Treatise on the Art of Logic.
In Maimonides’ Laws Concerning Character Traits, the author describes laws to attain both tranquility of mind and the well-being of society. Chapters one through four describe the way of the sage, which is to follow the middle path towards attaining perfect knowledge of God. Chapter five is aimed at disciples of the sage, prescribing his sexual practice, his manner of conversation, his mode of walking, his business ethics, etc. Finally, chapters seven and eight of the work are aimed at the Jewish population as a whole. These last chapters command the Jews to emulate the conduct of the sages and their disciples, and lay out the rules for how Jews should deal with their fellows.
The work starts out with the first command to imitate God’s ways, which is commonly interpreted as following the middle way, a lifestyle of moderation in all things. This philosophical concept spans many cultures, and Maimonides presents it in a rational manner. Anger is allowed only to correct others who are caught performing immoral acts, bodily desire is confined to the body’s needs, and in general it is a lifestyle complementary to the contemplation of God. A fine example of Maimonides’ reasoning with faith can be found in the following excerpt from the text:
‘A man shall not be irascible and easily angered nor like a corpse which feels nothing, but in between; he shall only become angry about a large matter that deserves anger so that something like it shall not be done again…he shall only labor at his work to acquire what he needs to live…he shall not be exceedingly tight-fisted nor squander his wealth, but give charity according to his means…he shall not be gay and buffoonish nor sad and mournful, but rejoice all his days, calmly, with a cheerful demeanor.’ (Laws V4)
The above excerpt points to a pertinent aspect of Maimonides’ syncretistic thought process: in providing the above philosophy of life at the beginning of a book of religious law, Maimonides bridges the gap between faith and reason. The methodology he uses to describe the various traits through examples of what they are not points to a kind of scientific process of negation. Maimonides uses cool rationalism to define how the sages should act, in accordance with the maintenance of their health by resisting extremes, for the purpose of allowing them to pursue knowledge of the divine. This makes the Laws Concerning Character Traits a kind of holistic guide, including physical, mental, and spiritual health, for the sage to use in pursuit of knowledge of God, both spiritual and scientific.
The Laws very structure points to a scientific approach which may have made it more accessible to the Jewish population at large. By organizing the text with the laws of the sage first, those of the sages’ disciples second, and the Jewish population at large last, Maimonides systemized the Laws in a logical progression that would make it easier for all Jews to understand which parts related to themselves. These quantitative aspects of Maimonides’ syncretism of reason and Judaism are probably as important as the qualitative interpretations he authored; by organizing Judaism logically, Maimonides reinvented and reinvigorated the religion. Nowhere is this more evident than in his massive Mishneh Torah, of which Laws Concerning Character Traits is but a small part.
The next text of Maimonides to be examined is his Eight Chapters, which is the introduction to his commentary on Pirkei Avot, or the Chapters of the Fathers. This document is concerned largely with the health of the soul, and it stresses ‘whoever wants to be a pious man shall fulfill the words of Avot.’ (Weiss 11). The work starts off with a discussion of the human soul, based largely on the works of the Greek philosophers (though Maimonides refused to cite his sources because he knew many Jews would reject the teaching if it had sprung from a foreign source), and concludes by proving that ‘Judaism, in agreement with philosophy, affirms human freedom.’ (Weiss 12).
Raymond Weiss described the basic structure of the work as follows: ‘The movement from philosophy to religion, seen in an overview of the work, is repeated in most of the individual chapters, where Maimonides begins with a philosophical doctrine and then reconciles or compares it with the relevant Jewish teaching.’ (12).
Again, Maimonides uses a structural tool to magnify the coupling of reason and faith he is attempting. In Eight Chapters there is a hierarchy of form, where the overall theme of the work is also visible in each of its individual chapters, that theme being that philosophy flows naturally into religion. This organizational method is reminiscent of modern scientific classification systems.
Also, in Eight Chapters one is shown that imagination can wreak havoc on the sick soul, ‘causing him to grieve about things past, and make him fearful of the future.’ (17). This approach to imagination can be seen as an attempt to squash superstition and replace it with a logical view of life, which was one of Maimonides’ main concerns with Judaism’s adherents.
Indeed, in his introduction to the Eight Chapters, Maimonides writes:
‘Know that the things about which we shall speak in these chapters…are not matters invented on my own nor explanations I have originated. Indeed, they are matters gathered from the discourses of the sages in the Midrash, the Talmud, and other compositions of theirs, as well as from the discourse of both the ancient and the modern philosophers, and from the compositions of many men. Hear the truth from whoever says it. ‘ (Eight 1)
It would be difficult to find a passage in which Maimonides more explicitly states his thesis of the validity of a variety of sources of knowledge. The last line, ‘Hear the truth from whoever says it.’, is a wonderful, pithy exhortation to his fellow Jews to embrace the knowledge of God in both its religious and scientific facets, from any source which might increase their understanding. It is a call to accept the evolution of understanding, rather than defending the stagnant dogma of interpretations based on ancients who had less knowledge of the world. It could even be seen as a precocious herald of the Enlightenment, in that Maimonides draws on the works of the Greeks to reinvigorate a partially decrepit system under intellectual attack, just as Western Civilization would do centuries later in response to the Ottoman threat.
In Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides sets out to prove that Judaism is philosophically defensible. In it, he defines the difference between laws and intelligibles, the former being commanded morality while the latter are generally understood moral norms. He then takes all of the obscure-seeming traditions and attempts to justify them on grounds of their utility. He describes how the idea of ‘forbidden foods’ could be seen as a mechanism for lessening instances of the vice of gluttony.
In this way, Maimonides can be seen trying to rationalize his religion’s traditions in a way that would bear up under intellectual scrutiny. It is almost as if Maimonides believed he needed to repaint the walls of the house of Judaism with a more modern analytical methodology in preparation for visitors of a higher intellectual skepticism – visitors bent on undermining the validity of Judaism. That Islam was burgeoning on the boundaries of Judaism’s legitimacy with claims to more recent revelation and a more perfect perception of God, devoid of anthropomorphisms, is certainly part of the reason Maimonides wrote his Guide. But also, he wished literally to guide Jews who had studied philosophy through the many questionable aspects of Jewish tradition to an understanding of it which left them devout, rather than perplexed. An excerpt from the work illustrates Maimonides intent:
(About the statutes whose intent is obscure) ‘They are not believed by the sages to be things for which there is no cause at all and for which one must not seek an end. For this would lead…to their being considered as frivolous actions. On the contrary, the multitude of the sages believe that there indubitably is a cause for them – I mean to say a useful end – but that it is hidden from us either because of the incapacity of our intellects or the deficiency of our knowledge. Consequently there is, in their opinion, a cause for all the commandments; I mean to say that any particular commandment…has a useful end. In the case of some of them, it is clear to us in what way they are useful – as in the case of the prohibition of killing or stealing. In the case of others, their utility is not clear – as is the case of the interdiction of the first products (of trees) and of (sowing) the vineyard with diverse seeds.’ (Guide, Chap. 26 V. 2)
The above excerpt from the Guide of the Perplexed shows Maimonides reassuring his readers that every single commandment, no matter how obscure, has a meaning that is legitimate and logical. None of the commandments, states Maimonides, command frivolous actions. He goes on to say that some of the logical meanings of the commandments are not yet known, but that this is the fault not of the commandments but of the limited human intellect. Thus, Maimonides opens the door to future interpretations of commandments which could rationalize them, thereby emphasizing the necessity of logical attention being paid to the tenets of Judaism.
Finally, we come to Maimonides’ Treatise on the Art of Logic. As one of his first attempts at writing for a public audience, written in his early twenties, the treatise isn’t as polished as Maimonides’ later works. However, the very subject matter of the work coincides with the theme of Maimonides’ life: the combination of scientific and philosophical pursuits of truth with the truth inherent in religion. The work, which was written in response to a jurist’s request for a short explanation of the rules of logic (Weiss 155), covers the basics of logic and speaks about modalities and the three meanings of the term ‘logic.’ Aristotle is directly referenced in the text.
This last work’s relation to the subject of this paper is obvious, as it reflects young Maimonides wrestling with logic at a time it is known he was also wrestling with rabbinical matters and broad, Jewish concerns such as those expressed in his Epistle on Forced Conversion. This varied interest made it natural for Maimonides to be equipped with the intellectual tools he would need to complete his monumental coupling of religion and reason, as well as the moral drive to defend his religion against the attacks of Islam.
The Treatise on the Art of Logic stands as a testament to Maimonides the philosopher, as opposed to Maimonides the Rabbi. An excellent excerpt from the text which illustrates his inclusion of religion into this otherwise rational work comes when he is discussing the different sciences:
‘ The science of mathematics does not investigate bodies as such, but rather ideas abstracted from their matter – even if those ideas are found only in matter…Natural science investigates the bodies existing by nature, not by the will of man – such as the species of minerals, plants, and animals…Divine science is divided into two parts. One part is the investigation of every being, which is neither a body nor a power in a body. It is the discourse about what pertains to the deity, may his name be magnified…the second part of divine science investigates the very remote causes for everything which all the other sciences encompass.’ (Weiss 159)
Here one can see that Maimonides was not afraid to include ‘divine science’ in his list of the sciences, an inclusion which acts as a kind of statement of his belief in the nature of truth and the nature of religion as one possible method, or science, of pursuing truth.
Maimonides devoted his life to the pursuit of knowledge of God in all of His works. He defined the devout Jew as a religious and secular scholar who sought truth in all places and heard truth from all who spoke it, one who followed the middle path and carried a calm, joyful demeanor. By defining the character traits and the broader Jewish law in the Mishneh Torah, with a constantly revising eye which edited interpretation based on reasonableness, he made it the goal of Jews everywhere to become learned in both religious and secular studies while simultaneously transforming his religion from one viewed as archaic to one which could be defended against the most modern philosophical quandaries.
In Laws Concerning Character Traits and Eight Chapters, Maimonides used philosophical language to speak about the proper lifestyle of the people of Israel and the correct method of caring for the health of the soul. By using philosophy to underwrite religion, Maimonides showed himself to be truly remarkable for his day and age. For while his historical context promoted his development into the Jew who would reinvent his own religion, his commitment to revitalizing and bolstering Judaism for the changing world by adding logical structure represents one of the landmarks of religious evolution in Western Civilization. To have even attempted such a titanic undertaking speaks much to Maimonides’ incredible character.
The truly remarkable thing, however, is how reasonable the man was in light of the time period he lived within. Somehow, a man who lived in the 12th century managed to see through the decrepit dogma of his faith, filter out the wisdom and reinterpret the obscure, support it all with logic, then sell it to the majority of Judaism’s other adherents.
Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, more than any other of his works, defines what Maimonides wanted to achieve for his religion. He sought to explain away Judaism’s weak links by reasoning out their underlying meanings. His Treatise on the Art of Logic, an early work, shows the nascent great mind already including both his religious and scientific bents in a single work – a harbinger of things to come.
Maimonides added an intellectual support system to Judaism by structuring the sacred texts into logically organized systems, and by removing or explaining away the awkward intellectual conundrums therein. His focus on reconciling stories, legends, commandments, etc. with human reason reinvented Judaism for a sustainable, defensible position in the emerging multicultural intellectual environment.
Maimonides, having achieved the reinvention of his religion, stepped beyond all of his contemporaries and became the seminal Jewish thinker of the age. He achieved this by accepting the world he lived in and incorporating all of the aspects of truth he discovered into his philosophy of Judaism. He accepted these features of his environment based on the premise that everything he ever experienced was a facet of his God. He reasoned his way through his religion and emerged not excommunicated but revered.
Why did Maimonides decide to change everything? Why did he not, like Spinoza later on, rebel against the decrepit, ungainly inheritance of traditions which was his religion and turn solely to philosophy? The answer lies in his character: Maimonides loved his people and their religion. This is clearly illustrated by the immense amount of effort he put into revamping Judaism. He would not let it be swept aside by the ascendant Islam, and he was smart enough to know that only a reasoned approach would appease its detractors while affirming its adherents. He thus defended from it without and defined it from within, proving himself, in the process, to be the Middle Ages most reasonable Rabbi.