Moses Maimonides Writes

Philosopher Moses Maimonides’s work The Guide of the Perplexed attempted to reconcile Classical reason with Islamic faith and piety. It stands as the most learned Jewish presentation of rationalist philosophy in the Middle Ages.

Summary of Event

Jews in the medieval world were caught between the hostile worlds of Islam and Christianity and also between the challenges and doubts that science and philosophy brought to the growing intelligentsia of traditional Judaism Judaism . This segment of society became increasingly aware of the seemingly irrational character of much Jewish teaching when Greek philosophy and science became available through numerous Arabic commentaries. [kw]Moses Maimonides Writes The Guide of the Perplexed (1190)
[kw]Maimonides Writes The Guide of the Perplexed, Moses (1190)
[kw]Guide of the Perplexed, Moses Maimonides Writes The (1190)
Guide of the Perplexed, The (Maimonides)
Maimonides, Moses
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Moses Maimonides
Isaac Alfasi
Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon
Abraham ben David of Posquieres

Moses Maimonides became one of the greatest Jewish philosophers Philosophy;Jewish of all times, not as a result of any innate drive to speculate on the riddles of existence but as a response to that very real and urgent intellectual need of his day. So effective and well recognized was the work of Maimonides that it was said of him from Yemen to France: “From Moses to Moses (ben Maimon), there was none like Moses.”

As a youth Maimonides fled with his family from his native Spain before the invasion of the Islamic Almohads, a Berber dynasty. The family actually lived for about five years as Muslims until they could openly return to the practice of Judaism. Maimonides’s training in Jewish law and lore was supervised by Isaac Alfasi, Alfasi, Isaac one of the greatest Talmudists of the time, a man whom Maimonides acknowledged as the best of his teachers. Besides being a firm student of Jewish culture, Maimonides became an outstanding physician in Egypt, writing many learned and popular medical studies. Influenced greatly by the outstanding Muslim interpreter of Aristotle, Avicenna Avicenna , he became so influential as an interpreter and critic of Aristotle that even Thomas Aquinas came to owe him much.

Maimonides stands as an interesting focal point around whom three faiths concentrated their intellectual efforts. The central objective of Maimonides was to synthesize classical rationality and Hebrew piety. Judaism was presented as a rational system completely in accord with Aristotelian philosophy. Dalālat al-Hā՚rīn (1190; The Guide of the Perplexed, 1881-1885), written in Arabic toward the end of his life, aims to resolve the problems of the “perplexed” caused by the conflict between the literal understanding of the language of the Jewish Scriptures and the demands of trained reason. Like Philo many centuries before, Maimonides believed that the application of allegory to the Bible would solve most inconsistencies. Maimonides, therefore, set out to “translate” the language of metaphor and allegory into the language of reason.

In a person’s proper quest to know God, the only two available approaches are through observation and philosophy. The former seeks God in created things, tangible evidence of his providence. The alternative of studying God directly forces one into a philosophy of negation. The limitations of language and the human intellect compel humans to describe God through negative assertions that are themselves denials of negations. To say God exists, Maimonides declared, is not to affirm the existence of God but to deny that God does not exist.

Shlomo Pines, a translator of Maimonides’s work, argued that Maimonides was not an eclectic or apologist but a true scholar following his own search for philosophic truth. If his goal had been to merely devise some sort of compromise between amalgams of philosophy and religion freed from obscurantism, he need only have followed the more than adequate solution devised by Avicenna. Maimonides chose, instead, to follow the ninth-tenth century Muslim philosopher al-Fārābī in interpreting prophets basically as philosophers rather than to echo Avicenna, who deemed them mystics. Similarly Maimonides preferred to abandon Avicenna, who taught the immortality of the soul, and to borrow from the views of Avempace, a forerunner of Averroës.

Maimonides found ways of working distinctly Jewish religious dispensations into his classical philosophical framework. Prophecy, for instance, he regarded as a rational aid in understanding the universe, a cooperative enterprise carried on by a rational God with the help of his creatures. The ritualistic observances commanded by the Jewish Scriptures became for Maimonides sacramentals, psychological reminders of greater verities. His other monumental work, Mishneh Torah (1180; The Code of Maimonides
Code of Maimonides, The (Maimonides) , 1927-1965), which reorganized and summarized the decisions of the entire Talmud, made that disorganized labyrinth accessible to more readers.

Moses Maimonides.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Opposition to Maimonides began to develop as soon as his work was translated in Provence, especially when a translation of The Guide of the Perplexed by Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon appeared on November 30, 1204, shortly before Maimonides’s death. The criticism was so violent that after 1230, it split Provence and Spanish Jewry into two hostile camps. Led by such obscurantists as Abraham ben David of Posquieres Abraham ben David of Posquieres , the reaction enlisted the assistance of the Inquisition Inquisition that condemned The Guide of the Perplexed in 1233 as heretical and dangerous for both Jew and Christian. However, during his own lifetime and generally since, Maimonides has been recognized as one of the great minds of Judaism.


Maimonides attracted educated, secular-minded persons of the upper classes who were eager to find in his views an excuse for abandoning both Jewish law and literal revelation. Such men seemed to some of their contemporaries to present a threat to the security and safety of the Jewish community by encouraging a schism that the militant Christian Church could exploit to degrade Judaism.

Scholar Daniel Silver denies that economic, social, or political forces were significant in marshaling opposing factions in the argument. Likewise, altercations did not stem from the scholarly world, since those who involved themselves in the intricacies of Maimonidean thought were loyal Jews. Silver, in any case, deplores the escalation of the criticism into heated controversy as a tragedy eclipsing, as it did, the merit of many able anti-Maimonists.

Another view of the controversy presents it as associated with the rise of a new cultural and social order in Western Europe that caused corresponding bitter struggles for leadership and authority within the Jewish communities of Provence and Spain.

Maimonidean thought entering a scene uncongenial to it became the ideological focus for already existing tension. The new order, based on the triumph of an irrational feudal disorder disclaiming any orderly urban integration, could no longer sustain or nurture a Maimonidean rationalism. God seemed to reveal himself to the Jews on the defensive in Spain as more arbitrary and willful than legal and national. The Maimonidean controversy therefore reflects the mortal battle that was going on between the old and the new orders.

Further Reading

  • Arbel, Ilil. Maimonides: A Spiritual Biography. New York: Crossroad, 2001. A brief biographical introduction to Maimonides as a rabbi and Jewish philosopher. Bibliography, index.
  • Bokser, Ben Zion. The Legacy of Maimonides. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950. A good general introduction to the thought of Maimonides.
  • Inglis, John, ed. Medieval Philosophy and the Classical Tradition in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Richmond, Surrey, England: Curzon, 2002. Places medieval Islamic philosophy in the context of classic philosophy. Bibliography, index.
  • Maimonides. The Guide of the Perplexed. Translated by Shlomo Pines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. A good translation of Maimonides’s work with two compelling introductory essays.
  • Margolies, Morris B. Twenty Twenty: Jewish Visionaries Through Two Thousand Years. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 2000. Provides biographies of leading visionaries in the Jewish tradition, including Maimonides. Bibliography, index.
  • Martin, Richard C., Mark R. Woodward, and Dwi S. Atmaja. Defenders of Reason in Islam: Mutazilism from Medieval School to Modern Symbol. Boston: Oneworld, 1997. Examines Islamic Mutazilism, the belief in the primacy of reason over theological teachings, during the Middle Ages and through the twentieth century. Bibliography, index.
  • Neusner, Jacob, ed. Collected Essays on Philosophy and on Judaism. 3 vols. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2003. Vol. 1 discusses Maimonides and Greek philosophy. Part of the Studies in Judaism series.
  • Seeskin, Kenneth. Searching for a Distant God: The Legacy of Maimonides. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Discusses the far-reaching influence of Maimonides’s work in religious philosophy. Chapters cover “the urge to philosophize,” monotheism, monotheism and freedom, creation, and more. Bibliography, index.
  • Silver, Daniel J. Maimonidean Criticism and the Maimonidean Controversy. 1180-1240. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1965. This interesting study tries to explain the nature and source of the criticism against The Guide of the Perplexed.
  • Yellin, David, and Israel Abrahams. Maimonides. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1903. An old but particularly useful biography with excellent background material about the Muslim world.