Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved November 28, 2023, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/maimonides-moses-1138-1204/v-1
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.
Goodman, L.E.. Maimonides, Moses (1138–1204), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-J014-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/maimonides-moses-1138-1204/v-1.
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