Maimonides, Moses (1138-1204)

Called the Rambam in the Hebrew sources, an acronym on his name, and known in Islamic texts as Musa ibn Maimun, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon is best known in the West as Moses Maimonides and generally recognized as the greatest of the medieval Jewish philosophers. Maimonides lived his mature life in Egypt and earned his living as a physician. He was the author of ten medical works but gained fame in his own lifetime from his work on Jewish law (halakhah), chiefly the Kitab al-Fara'id (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, that is, the Book of the Commandments), cataloguing the traditional 613 commandments of the Pentateuch; Kitab al-Siraj (Sefer ha-Maor, Perush ha-Mishnah, Commentary on the Mishnah); and, above all, the Mishneh Torah (The Law in Review), a comprehensive and still authoritative code of rabbinic law. The clarity and definitiveness of the Mishneh Torah led to its criticism and (after Maimonides' death) even condemnation by some rabbis, who prized the ongoing dialectic of Talmudic disputation and felt suspicious of Maimonides' rationalism.

Maimonides' philosophic masterpiece, the Dalalat al-Ha'irin or Guide to the Perplexed, was written in Arabic, with a view to helping the more intellectually inquisitive readers of the Torah, who were troubled by the apparent disparity between biblical and scientific/philosophical ideas. The work frames a powerful but not supercilious rationalism that locates and accommodates many biblical postulates and profits from the instruction of the rabbinic (Talmudic) sources and from critical appropriation of the achievements of Muslim philosophers and theologians and their Greek predecessors. It defends the doctrine of the world's creation against the eternalism of Neoplatonic Aristotelians but rejects the notion that creation (or eternity) is subject to proof. Rather, Maimonides argues, creation is preferable to its alternative, and more plausible, because it preserves the idea of divine volition as an explanation for the emergence of complexity from divine simplicity, and because it marks the difference God's act made to the existence and nature of the world.

God is pure perfection and absolute simplicity. The Torah's anthropomorphisms themselves lead us to that realization, if we follow the dialectic by which prophetic language directs us to ever higher conceptions of divine transcendence. Biblical poetry and the concrete demands of the Law are accommodations to our creaturely limitations. Such accommodations are made possible by the material side of the prophet's nature, as manifested in language and imagination, which are, no less than intellect, expressions of God. For matter in general is an expression of God, apprehensible to us through what seems wilful or arbitrary in nature. It is not a positive principle or hypostasis, but it is a necessary concomitant of the act of creation itself. For without it nothing other than God would exist. Our task as humans is to discipline our material natures - not to battle or seek to destroy them but to put them to work in behalf of our self-perfection, through which our inner, intellectual affinity to God will be realized.

Maimonides' synthetic approach, accommodating to one another the insights of reason and the teachings of Scripture and tradition, was highly valued by Aquinas, who frequently cites him, and by other European philosophers such as Jean Bodin. Leibniz warmly appreciated Maimonides' thought, as his reading notes reveal. Among subsequent Jewish thinkers, Maimonides' work became the paradigm of Jewish rationalism for his admirers and detractors alike. His philosophy was at the core of the philosophic tradition that Spinoza addressed. Even today practitioners of Jewish philosophy stake out their positions in reference to Maimonides and formulate their own views as appropriations, variants or interpretations of the elements of his thought.

  1. Life and works
  2. Guide to the Perplexed: its literary form and intent
  3. Guide to the Perplexed: creation and eternity
  4. Guide to the Perplexed: God's governance of nature
  5. Guide to the Perplexed: anthropomorphism and the human connection with God

1. Life and works

Called the Rambam in the Hebrew sources, an acronym on his name, and known in Islamic texts as Musa ibn Maimun, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon is best known in the West as Moses Maimonides and generally recognized as the greatest of the medieval Jewish philosophers. A physician and jurist as well as a philosopher, Maimonides was born in Cordoba, but his family fled the forced conversions of the Almohad invasion in 1148. From about 1160 they lived quietly in Fez, the heart of the Almohad movement, but came to public attention with the youthful Maimonides' publication of a defence of a rabbinic ruling his father had made promulgating full acceptance by the Jewish community of those who had undergone a nominal conversion. Journeying to Palestine in 1165, the family were nearly lost in a storm at sea but made their way to Acre. Maimonides prayed at the ruined Temple site and fulfilled a shipboard vow of pilgrimage to Hebron, burial site of the biblical patriarchs. Abraham bore a special significance for Maimonides. In keeping with the biblical and midrashic tradition, he viewed the patriarch as a natural theologian whose religion was formed not in the tradition of his fathers but by reason confronting nature and experience.

Finding permanent residence impossible in the undeveloped land, then under the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, the family settled in Cairo, where Maimonides was prostrated with grief by the death of his younger brother David, a jewel merchant, in a shipwreck on the Indian Ocean. Recovering and taking over the support of the family, Maimonides turned to medicine. Like the ancient Talmudic sages, he disdained making his livelihood from his Judaic learning and judicial authority. He developed an active medical practice and became court physician to the wazir of Saladin, who overthrew the Fatimid dynasty in 1171. Late in life Maimonides wrote ten medical treatises, but it was his work in rabbinic law that gave him fame and made him a leader of the Egyptian Jewish community as early as 1167.

Three works secure his place among the greatest rabbinic jurists: his Kitab al-Fara'id, known in Hebrew as the Sefer ha-Mitzvot, cataloguing and classifying the traditional 613 biblical laws, lays the foundations; his Arabic Kitab al-Siraj or Book of the Lamp, known in Hebrew as the Sefer ha-Maor, Perush ha-Mishnah (1168), expounds the rational purposes of the ancient rabbinic code; and his Mishneh Torah (c.1185), written in rabbinic Hebrew and popularly known as the Yad Hazakah (The Strong Hand), or simply the Yad, an allusion to its fourteen volumes, since the numerical value of the letters of the Hebrew word yad, or hand, is fourteen. This work organizes the vast complexity of Talmudic and post-Talmudic Jewish law in a still authoritative codification, allowing clear access to definitive legal rulings on matters of halakhah (see Halakhah).

Despite the prestige of these works - in part because of it - Maimonides' jurisprudence was not universally hailed. The Mishneh Torah in particular was criticized: its title, which might be rendered 'The Law in Review', and which echoes a title traditionally assigned to the biblical book of Deuteronomy, seemed almost to promise a second revelation. The economy of the work, which placed a premium on stating clear-cut practical decisions, demanded the omission of rabbinic citations and dispensed with the voluminous dialectic which for many was the heartsblood of the Law as an intellectual discipline, even a way of life.

Maimonides was in fact sometimes impatient with the digressive and midrashic (homiletical) methods of rabbinic discourse. His insistence on juridical clarity, determinateness and Socratic conceptual organization (as sharply contrasted with the associative exposition of the Talmud) were clearly much on his mind when he turned from writing commentaries on parts of the Talmud to his more distinctive commentary on the Mishnah. The notion that study of the law could somehow supplant the robust life that the law meant to regulate seemed especially unwholesome to him - as it had to his Andalusian predecessor Judah Halevi.

A brilliant and faithful jurist, Maimonides drew the axioms of his theology from scriptural rather than rabbinic sources; he worked eclectically and creatively with the rabbinic responses to biblical ideas to forge a coherent and appropriable framework of thought - just as his rabbinic predecessors had done. But traditionalists, legal positivists and fideists could not fail to note that where Maimonides could not find room to cite his legal authorities (and some of them are still being found, giving the lie to long-standing claims that he based some of his legal doctrines sheerly on his own opinions) he did make room, in the first volume of his code, to frame a thematic ethics and to elaborate a natural theology and cosmology - and, in the last volume, to develop a biblically grounded theory of sovereignty and public law. Similarly, he does not regard it as digressive in discussing the laws of penitence to include a defence of human freedom of will. Reacting against what they viewed as an excessive rationalism, a number of rabbis condemned the Mishneh Torah, although others defended it vigorously. Denounced to Church authorities by Jewish adversaries, the first and most thematic volume of Maimonides' code, the Sefer ha-Mada (Book of Knowledge), was burnt at Montpellier in 1232, along with the seemingly heretical Guide to the Perplexed. Despite the reservations of some Jewish traditionalists to this day about the rationalism of his philosophical and jurisprudential work, Maimonides remains a towering figure in halakhah. His work is the cornerstone of all subsequent Jewish philosophy, and it has had a significant impact on philosophy at large. His synthetic approach, accommodating to one another the insights of reason and the teachings of Scripture and tradition, was highly valued by Aquinas, who frequently cites him, and by other European philosophers such as Jean Bodin. Leibniz warmly appreciated Maimonides' thought, as his reading notes reveal. Maimonides' work became the paradigm of Jewish rationalism for his admirers and detractors alike. It was a major philosophic backstop to the thinking of Spinoza, providing a clear paradigm of the committed Jewish philosophy that Spinoza would address, whether by way of refutation, accommodation or revision. Even today practitioners of Jewish philosophy stake out their positions in reference to Maimonides and formulate their own views as appropriations, variants or interpretations of the elements of his thought.

2. Guide to the Perplexed: its literary form and intent

Maimonides' philosophic masterpiece, Dalalat al-Ha'irin (Guide to the Perplexed) (c.1190), was written in Arabic but widely circulated in Hebrew translations as the Moreh Nevukhim. Aiming to mediate between the scriptural and philosophic idioms, it opens by deriving a sophisticated negative theology from a subtle deconstruction of the anthropomorphisms that had long troubled thoughtful readers of the Torah. This discussion, filling the first seventy chapters of the Guide, is widely but erroneously read as a refutation of anthropomorphism. I say erroneously, because Maimonides assumes that the falsity of anthropomorphism is well established by argument and well known to his reader. But Maimonides does not do much to prevent such misprision. He does not state the objective of his discussions in this extended section of the first part of the Guide but leaves casual readers to fend for themselves. One natural outcome is the commonplace assumption that what Maimonides takes for granted is what he is seeking to prove. That, in Maimonides' view, is better than allowing his philosophic work to do more harm than good.

The difficulty that Maimonides confronts is this: the Guide is written to aid a reader who is confused by the seeming disparity between biblical and scientific/philosophical ideas. To mention only the most obvious issues: Scripture tells us that the world is created, but Aristotelian philosophers present numerous proofs to show that the world has always existed with the same, invariant nature that we observe today. Scripture speaks of God as the ruler of nature and the lawgiver of humanity in general and of Israel in particular. But the philosophical tradition argues that the divine transcends all knowledge of particulars, let alone concern for them. Indeed, it is readily enough argued that chance seems to rule, in this life at least, and that sufferings outweigh happiness. So where are the divine justice and judgment that loom so large in the vision of the Torah and the prophets? How is prophecy even possible, if God is so far above us as philosophy seems to teach? And how can we relate the philosophical teaching of divine transcendence to the vivid concreteness of prophetic imagination?

Maimonides unifies these problems about transcendence and immanence, providence and revelation, creation and eternity, finitude and privation under the rubrics of two rabbinic problematics: the account of creation and the account of the chariot. The first rubric alludes to the opening of Genesis, the second to that of Ezekiel, in whose epiphany, despite all his reverent periphrasis, God seems to take human form. Voicing a sense of the paradox or mystery surrounding these two passages, the rabbis of the Talmud (Haggigah 11b, 13a) forbade public instruction in the issues they involve. Only in private teaching were these to be discussed, and then only the subject headings were to be broached.

Interpreting this ruling, Maimonides understands 'the account of Genesis' as the rabbis' name for cosmology, the principles of nature or physics, understood in relation to God; 'the account of the Chariot' is, by metonymy, the entire realm of theology, that is, metaphysics understood in relation to God. The core issue in both cases: how can the Infinite be manifest in finite terms?

The cosmological side of this question is evident in the Neoplatonists' problematic of the Many and the One - why is there anything other than God? It crops up polemically in the sensitive and vexed area of creation, where philosophers of Aristotelian stamp find it incongruous to ascribe an origin to the world, in part because their naturalism balks at subjecting the cosmos to external interference but in part because they wish to avoid compromising divine transcendence in temporality.

Viewed in this light, creation itself appears to be an instance of theophany. The problem of evil and that of prophetic revelation reflect the same issue: why does divine creation content itself with a world as flawed as this one? Why would revelation single out one people or individual to hear God's word, leaving others dependent or unenlightened altogether; and why should God's expression, as epiphany or as law, take the precise form ascribed to it by individual prophets, with all their human weaknesses and differences of outlook and circumstance?

The ordinary mind, Maimonides finds, is generally content to accept what is familiar, not noticing the difficulties a tradition may contain. But such faith, if faith it may be called, is of limited value and entirely dependent on the veracity and coherence of those who establish a tradition. In the strictest sense, such unreflective acceptance is not faith at all. For belief is commitment to what one understands; it cannot be confined to mere conformity.

To the more questioning, especially those who have read scientific and philosophical literature, theological problems are apparent. Responsible intellectual leaders must work creatively to discover for themselves and show others how these problems can be addressed. Progress here, as in other areas of intellectual inquiry, is possible. Indeed, our progress towards God can be asymptotic, Maimonides argues, invoking the geometrical image of two lines that grow ever closer together, even though they will never meet. But progress, to be cumulative, requires writing and teaching, and that presents a difficulty; it is not responsible to introduce others to problems whose solutions they might not grasp. Maimonides takes this issue very seriously, holding a teacher responsible even for the misinterpretations of followers and disciples.

Taking a hint from the language of the ancient Talmudic restriction, Maimonides adopts an 'esoteric' mode of writing in the Guide. Not that he writes obscurely or treats his subject as occult or hermetic. He simply does not state the problems to be addressed. A reader who has grappled with the same questions will readily enough discover the relevance of the discussions in the Guide. But that relevance is not spelled out - let alone promoted in the mercantile manner of twentieth-century pedagogy. The order of exposition, moreover, as with the texts that Maimonides studied most closely - the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, the Aristotelian corpus - demands that one read well into the text before being able to make much of it, since every part is relevant to the rest, and no passage is wholly self-explanatory or transparent.

Maimonides' work, like Aristotle's, and the Jewish canonical sources, is clearly not part of the Cartesian modernist project, with its Euclidean pyramidal structure, designed to move upwards from foundational axioms, postulates and definitions to theorems, scholia and lemmas. Rather, the work is bound together like a Gordian knot - not impenetrable, but resistant to simple unravelling by the teeth and fingers of the unprepared.

Uncritical thinking is probably just as common today as it was in Maimonides' time, but exposure to doubt and (somewhat conventional) lines of objection to biblical categories and assumptions is far more widespread. Today's unexamined faith is often a form of scepticism. So the Guide to the Perplexed, although written to address specific issues at a very particular historical juncture, has the character of a classic - not only because it is synthetic, original and insightful, but also because readers today find its approach and many of its arguments as relevant as when first set down.

Following the rabbinic injunction that the problems of creation and theophany are to be taught not publicly but in a direct and idividual communication, Maimonides adapts to his purposes the Arabic literary genre of the epistolary essay (risala). The Guide is written in the form of a letter addressed to a particular disciple, whose needs and questions can be addressed in an informal, dialectical style, rather than the formal, systematic style of a treatise like the Mishneh Torah. Having sketched the background, skills and uncertainties of this first intended reader, Maimonides has created a persona, not in the authorial voice but in the figure of the reader, clearly alerting others to the scope and relevance to their own concerns of the arguments they will encounter.

In keeping with his expository strategy, Maimonides never calls the Guide a book. He moves with seemingly casual, conversational rhythms from exegetical remarks to philosophical observations, arguments, typologies and critiques, relying on sensitive readers to follow his hints, supply the unstated problematic, and piece together the larger argument. He well understands that the broader impact of the opening chapters will be fully felt only by readers who take the time and trouble to read them once again after having progressed through the work as a whole.

It might seem that Maimonides has simply employed a legal fiction, and a thin one at that, to skirt the rabbinic restriction on the sort of teaching he wants to pursue. But his strategy is far subtler than that. He has successfully kept the Guide's problematic within the circle of its intended audience. Casual readers typically emerge from an encounter with the Guide without any knowledge of its subject matter; most casual readers do not finish it, let alone begin again, so as to be able to piece together the scattered elements of its larger argument.

3. Guide to the Perplexed: creation and eternity

If we begin not where Maimonides did, with the deconstruction of biblical anthropomorphism, but where Genesis does, with the beginning, we find Maimonides in a spirited defence of the idea of creation against the eternalism of al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Aristotle, and the whole Neoplatonic Aristotelian tradition (see Eternity of the world, medieval views of). The problem is not, Maimonides argues, that philosophical proof contradicts scriptural dogma. On the contrary, if we had proof that creation was impossible, as Aristotelian philosophers long argued, we would simply allegorize the biblical account of creation, just as we allegorize biblical anthropomorphism. But Aristotle knew that he had no such proof. That is why he speaks so emphatically when he tries to assure us of the world's eternity. After all, it was he who taught us the difference between proof and mere persuasion.

What the philosophers of the Aristotelian tradition have done is simply read into the metaphysics of being the familiar character of nature: no event without a prior event, no process without potentiality, no potentiality without matter as its substrate. Of course assumptions like these will generate an eternal cosmos. But they amount to nothing more than an aprioristic attempt to generalize the conditions of the settled order of nature and impose the assumptions we derive from study of that order on the wholly unknown conditions of the world's disputed origin - as if a brilliant young man who knew nothing of sex or procreation were to infer the impossibility of embryogenesis and foetal development from his knowledge of the biology of mature adults: how could a human live in an enclosed sac, without breathing, moving about, ingesting solid food, or excreting bodily wastes?

Rejecting efforts to demonstrate the world's eternity, Maimonides even-handedly rejects creationist attempts of the same sort. If it is really true, he argues, that the world must reflect God's timelessness, as eternalists suppose, then change itself becomes impossible, and the argument has proved too much. If the claim is that God, to be a creator, must be a constant creator, then creation becomes not impossible but necessary. Those who try to demonstrate creation, not surprisingly, produce a similar result: the world is new at every instant. The radical occasionalism of Arabic dialectical theology that results from such thinking, Maimonides argues, renders nature unintelligible and divine governance irrational (see Islamic theology §§1-2; Occasionalism). Creation, in that case, to be the outcome of a clear proof, must cease to be God's choice and become a sheer necessity and unending chore.

But, although efforts to demonstrate the world's creation or its eternity fail, there are grounds for choosing between the rival cosmological visions. Creation is more plausible conceptually and preferable theologically: more plausible, because a free creative act allows differentiation of the world's multiplicity from divine simplicity, as the seemingly mechanical necessitation of emanation, strictly construed, cannot do; preferable, because Avicennan claims that God is author of the world and determiner of its contingency are undercut by the assertion that at no time was nature other than it is now (see Ibn Sina). Without the notion of creation at a particular time, one cannot say that atheism ensues, as al-Ghazali had supposed. The view of the Neoplatonic Aristotelians is neither incoherent nor insincere. But it does unduly attenuate the world's dependence on God's act, and it does leave unexplained the emergence of complexity from simplicity - problems which the human idea of a will that is not simply reducible to intellect or understanding far more readily addresses.

4. Guide to the Perplexed: God's governance of nature

In discussing God's governance of nature, Maimonides adopts and adapts the emanative ideas of the Neoplatonic philosophers (see Neoplatonism). But he modifies their notion that emanation is a necessary progression, poetically compared to the radiation of light from the sun (which, after all, cannot help but shine) but more perspicuously described in terms of the necessitation of theorems by their axioms. In place of such deductivist, intellectualist models, Maimonides uses a more voluntaristic model, allowing for creativity and novelty in nature's unfolding, while rejecting the more radical voluntarism of the occasionalists, who make God the immediate author of all events, without the intervention of natural causes or human volitions (see Voluntarism). If persons and things do not act and react, Maimonides argues, was it not otiose of God to create foodstuffs that play no role in our sustenance, or to ordain commandments that we have no power to obey or disobey?

Taking the Neoplatonists to task for not exploiting adequately the resources of their own ontology for addressing the problem of evil, Maimonides couches his response to the Epicurean dilemma in a gloss on the Book of Job. The Satan (or 'adversary') responsible for Job's sufferings, he notes, is not called one of the 'sons of God' but is said only to have come along with them, 'in their midst'. One might suppose, with the Talmudic sage Resh Lakish, that Job's adversary was sin - equating sin and death with the adversary (see Sin). Maimonides likes the allegory but rejects its application here. For it is a premise of the Book of Job (which Maimonides, like Resh Lakish, quite clearly takes to be a fiction, although he regards it as one with considerable verisimilitude) that Job was without sin (see Evil, problem of).

The Satan, then, would be Job's vulnerability, that is, his materiality, the physical nature that makes us all subject to sufferings and loss. For, as Galen explained, one should not expect bodies of the sort of matter that makes our own to last forever. Here we see the weight of Scripture's saying that the Satan came 'in the midst of' the sons of God: matter, that is, otherness, alienation from the unity of the Divine, is not a positive principle, a hypostasis, angel or Form, but a concomitant to the emergence of finite being, a requisite of creation and createdness. The existence we enjoy has vulnerability as its price; divine generosity could not be expressed and vouchsafed to lesser beings at all unless those beings were indeed made other, given a reality that is at once their own and (by the same token) inevitably deficient. Matter is that independence and deficiency. It is at once the good woman of Proverbs 31, constantly active on our behalf, and the married harlot of Proverbs 7, never contented but constantly changing forms/partners.

Our human task is to overcome the limitations of matter, but we can do so through its strengths. Thus mortification of the flesh is not a worthy but an unwholesome ideal, based on the illusion that if a little medicine is good for us a lot will be that much better. Medical arts, politics, and otherworldly endeavours are precious but instrumental efforts, since they sustain the human individual and community, allowing us the necessary time and opportunity to seek and reach the human goal.

What is that goal? Maimonides categorically agrees with Plato (Theaetetus 176b) and Leviticus (19:2): it is to become as like to God as humanly possible, to emulate and pursue God's holiness, to realize and fulfil what is divine and holy in ourselves. Job's reward is not in the restoration of his family and possessions but in the epiphany he is granted, a communion with God that is not the recompense of his sufferings but an emblem of the sort of human attainment that makes all sufferings if not bearable then at least outweighed.

It is not true, as Muhammad ibn Zakariyya'al-Razi and even Saadiah Gaon supposed, that sufferings overbalance good fortune in this life. But the deeper flaw in the emotively appealing notion that life is a vale of tears is that it assays human life in terms of pain and suffering, whereas the ultimate coin is not hedonic at all but intellectual. Reason is the surest guide to the good life and test of sound and unsound norms and precepts; but it is also our closest bond with God, our purchase on immortality, and the focus of divine providence within us. For providence, in the human case, is not confined to the level of the species and its generalized nature. Indeed, it was Aristotle, once again, who taught us that only individuals are real, not species as such.

Contrary to the Aristotelian teaching (expounded by Peripatetics such as Alexander of Aphrodisias in the face of the Stoic doctrine of providence - see Alexander of Aphrodisias; Stoicism §20), providence does extend to the individual, through our capacity to perfect the mind, realize our inner affinity to God, and grasp the immortality that lies so close at hand. This is symbolized in the biblical account of Adam, whose ready access to the fruit that would give him eternal life represents not a long vanished moment of apotheosis in the mythic past (and still less a damning fall) but the universal human condition, of an immortal intelligence strapped to a body that is at once its trap and its springboard to the divine.

5. Guide to the Perplexed: anthropomorphism and the human connection with God

Quietly celebrating the human affinity with God, Maimonides (as noted by the medieval commentator Narboni) begins his survey of biblical anthropomorphisms with 'image and likeness' (see Narboni's Be'ur le-Sefer Moreh Nevukhim (Commentary on the Guide): I 1). Maimonides explains that some Hebrew words (as, for example, when we read that Joseph was fair of form) denote only physical appearance; but 'likeness' can refer to spiritual affinities. Thus in Psalms (102:6), the psalmist likens himself to a pelican in the desert: not that he looks like a pelican, but that he is as desolate as a pelican would be in such a place. As his survey proceeds, Maimonides unfolds a hierarchy of meanings, with the most physical at the bottom, social and other senses rising higher, and the spiritual/intellectual surmounting the rest: wherever the Torah applies to God a term that bears physical (or other privative) connotations, that term can always be taken in a higher, spiritual/intellectual sense, and that is the sense we must pursue.

Maimonides does not here refute anthropomorphism but assumes it to have been refuted by well-known arguments based on the incompatibility of divinity with privation. Correspondingly, he pursues the idea of perfection, the opposite of privation, as the notion that orients this hierarchy, as it orients the ladder of love in Plato's Symposium - or Jacob's ladder in the Book of Genesis. What Maimonides finds here is an ontic hierarchy that fuses higher degrees of reality with higher degrees of intellectuality. He shows that none of the Torah's anthropomorphisms need be taken literally ('jealousy' refers to exclusivity, 'coming and going' to manifestation in a human awareness), but in the process he vindicates the legitimacy of conceptualizing the Divine in terms of the human mind (and will).

We begin to see how prophecy is possible, as a human response to the exigency of relating to others the sheer power of Perfection. The Torah, using human language, speaks of action in terms of motion, of existence in terms of matter. Only the Tetragrammaton signifies God directly, signalling nothing more (but nothing less) than the absoluteness of God's being - 'I am that I am'. All other epithets only point towards Perfection, assigning to God some notion humanly regarded as a perfection, while other passages systematically exclude the privations concomitant with the perfections known to us. Thus the deconstruction of biblical anthropomorphism is the work of Scripture itself; the Torah teaches of divine transcendence through the medium of ordinary human language. It uses terms intelligible to us through their generality to convey the idea of divine uniqueness. This was what the rabbis meant in saying, 'Great is the boldness of the prophets' to speak of the Creator in the language of his creations.

Prophets are historically situated human beings, but they are not and cannot be mere ignoramuses whose minds are magically filled with divine words; nor can they be immoralists, simply plucked up to be inspired. They are and must be wise individuals, filled with the kind of philosophic insight that can grow only within an upright character. But they are gifted also through the material side of their nature, with the language and imagination to body forth these ideas in concrete visions, laws, rituals, poetic and rhetorical symbols, to speak of them persuasively and act on them with conviction.

Prophets themselves learn nothing new from revelation, although it may bring to the surface ideas that were only latent in their minds. The ignorant remain ignorant; but the gift of imagination in the wise, if they are disciplined by the moral virtues, especially courage and contentment, gives wing to ideas, rendering them accessible to the masses and setting them into practice. The message of all true prophets is thus coherent and universal, an expression of the truth itself.

In principle, any philosopher of character and imagination might be a prophet; but in practice the legislative, ethical and mythopoetic imagination that serves philosophy finds fullest articulation in Judaism. Its highest phase, where imagination yields to pure intellectual communion, was unique to Moses, elaborated in Judaism and its daughter religions. This judgment, that the burden of prophetic teaching finds its epitome in the Torah, is no mere subjective preference: it is grounded in intensive study of the means by which the biblical commandments, read thematically, serve to inform human character and understanding. The most general summary of the outcome of that study is in the Maimonidean thesis that the Mosaic law is no mere personal code, private vision or closely held teaching like Abraham's; nor is it a mere derivative faith. Rather, it is a systematic way of life based on sustained, intellectual contact with the Divine. When courage and contentment - read here 'self-confidence and independence' - return, with the restoration of Israel to her land, prophecy will resume among this people, to the great benefit of the nations of the world, who will observe the peace and prosperity of Israel living under God's law and will flock to follow not her religion but her example. It is this that is to be understood by the lion's lying down with the lamb: the nations will learn the ways of peace, and Israel will be the little child that leads them (see Prophecy).

God governs through nature. The forms of things are the objective manifestations of his wisdom, intelligible through their fit with the subjective rationality of our own divinely imparted intelligence. Where a human discoverer must take apart the waterclock to understand its workings, the inventor knows it first: his knowledge does not follow but anticipates the design. The same is true with God, whose knowledge is prior to the realities we know, since it is their cause.

But the matter of things, readily enough associated with chance and the irrational, is another aspect of God's manifestation in nature, the aspect that we would link, through its seeming arbitrariness, with the human faculty of willing. In God's ultimate and absolute unity, will and wisdom are united; their multiplicity is subjective. So in biblical parlance all the operations of nature but also the workings of sheer chance are ascribed to God. But we humans must always think in human categories, so it is not possible for us, while we live, to grasp the absoluteness of God's unity and hold in one mental breath what we can conceptualize only as the wisdom and the will of God.

Human finitude, accordingly, denied Moses the vision he requested, of God's face; but a perfect mind allowed him to see God's 'back' - what follows from God, the effects of God in nature, where divine absoluteness becomes specific and can be apprehended as if in attributes like those of a person. God, of course, in his infinitude, transcends personality, as even little children should be taught. Attributes belong only to composite beings. But Moses' request, after all, was a practical one: he wanted to know God so that he would know how to govern; and for practical purposes, we have knowledge of what God is like by examining the attributes that should be perfected in ourselves, the very attributes named in Moses' epiphany: mercy, compassion, justice - and, of course, the human power that all of these presuppose, that of reason, our direct link with the Divine.

See also: Aristotelianism, medieval; Aristotelianism in Islamic philosophy; Bible, Hebrew; Creation and conservation, religious doctrine of; God, concepts of; Halakhah; Maimonides, A.; Midrash; Nahmanides, M.; Religion, philosophy of; Theology, Rabbinic

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

List of works

Maimonides, Moses (1168) Kitab al-Siraj (Commentary on the Mishnah), complete translation available in Hebrew only, Sefer ha-Maor, hu Perush ha-Mishnah, ed. M.D. Rabinowitz, Tel Aviv: Rishonim, 1948; English translation of the part of the work entitled Shemonah Perakim (Eight Chapters), trans. J. Gorfinkle, The Eight Chapters of Maimonides on Ethics, New York, 1912; repr. New York: AMS, 1966. (Expounds the rational purposes of the ancient rabbinic code. Shemonah Perakim is a thematic introduction to the mishnaic collection of ethical aphorisms known as Pirkei Avot (The Sayings of the Fathers). It develops a capsule virtue ethics and sketches a theory of action aiming to rebut determinism.)

Maimonides, Moses (c.1185) Mishneh Torah (The Law in Review), Books I and II trans. M. Hyamson, The Book of Knowledge and the Book of Adoration, Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1974; Books III-XIV trans. as The Code of Maimonides, Yale Judaica Series, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1949-72. (Maimonides's authoritative fourteen-volume code of rabbinic law, written in mishnaic Hebrew with a view to providing lucid and comprehensive guidance to the requirements of halakhah. The work opens with detailed discussions (in the first volume) of the intellectual and moral foundations of rabbinic law. It closes with an exposition of public law and a description of the Messianic age of Israel's political restoration. The intervening volumes discuss each requirement of the civil, criminal and ritual law of Israel.)

Maimonides, Moses (c.1190) Dalalat al-Ha'irin ( Moreh Nevukhim, Guide to the Perplexed), ed. S. Munk, Le Guide des Égarés, Arabic text, critically edited, with annotated French translation, Paris, 1856-66, 3 vols; repr. Osnabrück: Zeller, 1964; trans. S. Pines, with an introductory essay by L. Strauss, The Guide of the Perplexed, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1969; Rambam, extensive selections from the Guide with commentary by L.E. Goodman, New York: Viking, 1976; reissued, Los Angeles, CA: Gee Tee Bee, 1984. (Maimonides' philosophic masterwork, written in Arabic in the form of a letter to a disciple who has confronted the apparent disparities between philosophic/scientific and biblical ideas.)

Maimonides, Moses (before 1204) Millot ha-Higgayon (On Logic), ed. Y. Satnov, with commentary by M. Mendelssohn, Berlin: B. Cohen, 1927. (Maimonides' work on logic.)

Maimonides, Moses (before 1204) Kitab al-Fara'id ( Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Book of the Commandments), trans. with notes by C.B. Chavel, The Commandments (Sefer ha-Mitzvot), London and New York: Soncino, 1967. (Maimonides' listing of the 613 commandments traditionally held to be conveyed in the Pentateuch. In keeping with his thematic approach, Maimonides lists first among the 248 positive commandments 'I am the Lord thy God' and first among the negative commandments 'Thout shalt have no other gods before me'. These are the two commandments that were rabbinically said to have been learned from God himself, as Maimonides explains, citing the Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23 b.)

Maimonides, Moses (before 1204) Iggerot ha-Rambam (Maimonides' Epistles), trans. with notes by A. Halkin and discussions by D. Hartman, Epistles of Maimonides: Crisis and Leadership, Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1993. (Comprises 'The Epistle on Martyrdom', 'The Epistle to Yemen' and 'Essay on the Resurrection'.)

References and further reading

Baron, S.W. (ed.) (1941) Essays on Maimonides: an Octocentennial Volume, New York: Columbia University Press. (Papers of the historic Maimonides conference held in the 1930s in Cordoba for the 800th anniversary of the philosopher's birth, then dated in 1135.)

Buijs, J. (1988) Maimonides: A Collection of Critical Essays, Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press. (Includes studies by Harry Wolfson, Alexander Altmann, Seymour Feldman, Larry Berman, and others, including some reprinted classics.)

Hartman, D. (1976) Maimonides, Torah and Philosophic Quest, Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society,1976. (Seeks to overcome the polarity some find between Maimonides' rabbinic and his philosophical work.)

Katz, S. (ed.) (1980) Maimonides: Selected Essays, New York: Arno Press. (Reprints a number of classic essays, some of them now fairly inaccessible.)

Kellner, M. (1990) Maimonides on Human Perfection, Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press. (A careful examination of Maimonides' conception of the ultimate goal of human existence.)

Kraemer, J. (ed.) (1991) Perspectives on Maimonides: Philosophical and Historical Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Includes essays by Alfred Ivry, Warren Harvey, Arthur Hyman, Tzvi Langermann and others on Maimonides' logic, theology and jurisprudence, along with historical studies of his environment.)

Leibowitz, Y. (1987) The Faith of Maimonides, trans. J. Glucker, New York: Adama Books. (Monograph by a well-known exponent of Jewish legal positivism and fideism.)

Narboni, Moses (1355-62) Be'ur le-Sefer Moreh Nevukhim (Commentary on Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed), French trans. M.R. Hayoun, Moshe Narboni, Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1986. (The French translation is marred by an excessive attempt at literalism, but this volume provides valuable information about Narboni and a valuable text.)

Pelaez, J. (ed.) (1991) Sobre la Vida y Obra de Maimonides, Cordoba: Ediciones El Almendro. (Proceedings of a major international conference celebrating the 850th anniversary of Maimonides' birth.)

Pines, S. and Yovel, Y. (eds) (1986) Maimonides and Philosophy, Dordrecht: Kluwer. (Proceedings of an anniversary conference with papers by a number of distinguished scholars.)

Robinson, I., Kaplan, L. and Bauer, J. (1990) The Thought of Maimonides: Philosophical and Legal Studies, Queenston, Ont.: Edwin Mellen. (Another anniversary symposium gathering a representative sampling of recent work on Maimonides.)

Sarachek, J. (1935) Faith and Reason: the Conflict over the Rationalism of Maimonides, repr. New York: Hermon Press, 1970. (Wide-ranging study of the figures and issues of the 'Maimonidean controversy'.)

Silver, D.J. (1965) Maimonidean Criticism and the Maimonidean Controversy, 1180-1240, Leiden: Brill, 1965. (Reviews the same ground.)

Strauss, L. (1952) Persecution and the Art of Writing, Glencoe, IL: Free Press. (This brief collection of essays, including chapters on Maimonides, al-Farabi, and Spinoza, was the manifesto of Strauss' approach to the reading of esoteric texts. It spawned a cottage industry of exegesis, the lesser examples of which link laboured and mannered readings of texts with inferences or innuendoes about the cynical insincerity of their authors, among whom Maimonides remains a focal point of interest.)

Twersky, I. (1991) Studies in Maimonides, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center for Judaic Studies. (Papers by Shlomo Pines, Aviezer Ravitzky, Jacob Levinger, Moshe Idel, and Gerald Blidstein on the relationship of Maimonides' thought to law and mysticism and on his literary impact and communal role.)

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