Unit 12: Kinship, Sex and Society

Our last class session focused on the human telos – our end or purpose – regarding our unique rationality; unlike other living beings, humans possess the ability to deliberate the rightness or wrongness of a situation. Consequently, this telos is aligned with the production of laws to uphold the perfection (welfare) of the soul and the perfection (welfare) of the body (Twersky, 314/ Guide Book 3, Chp. 27). To achieve these states of perfection (as much as a human can achieve perfection), aligning one’s thoughts and actions through moral training outlined by the Law is critical. This week’s texts focused on the theological and philosophical aspects of moral training throughout genealogical and covenantal kinships and emphasize the significance of united, ethical kinships.

In Chapter 49 of The Guide, Maimonides elaborates on laws pertaining to marriage and sexual relations. His reading of Aristotle’s human friendship and sociality molded much of his descriptions and reasonings for what he will describe as “moral and intellectual virtues of friendship” or, more generally, ‘ethical kinships.’ In an Aristotelian fashion, Maimonides emphasizes the importance of friendships (more broadly meaning familial relations, teacher-student relations, etc.): “When man is in good health and prosperous he enjoys the company of his friends; in time of trouble he is in need of them; in old age, when his body is weak, he is assisted by them” (Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, Book 9). Further, familial or ‘blood’ relations unite common descendants with a unique kind of love and compassion. Because of this, Maimonides explains why ‘professional harlots’ (prostitutes and those that are sexually promiscuous), sexual relations outside of marriage, etc. violate God’s commandments. This has a double meaning: not only does abiding by these laws maintain familial sanctity and kinship, but it also fabricates a network of moral challenges that, therefore, allow “the full development of intellective capacities” (Maimonides and Friendship, 19). Refraining from excessive lust and engaging in sexual acts with family members (of which Maimonides lists in The Guide)creates a thread of virtuous, rational actions and freedom brought forth from our uniquely human telos.

Similarly, Chapter 49 also focuses on the practice of circumcision and how it “plays a role in at least two different conceptual schemas; one related to sociability and kinship, the other to everyday devotional practices” (Maimonides and Friendship, 22). Similar to the purpose of the mezuzah and dietary restrictions, “the sign of the covenant impressed upon a man’s flesh may be considered broadly analogous to the sign of the covenant bolded to the doorpost of this house: both are practices that are meant to bring god to mind” (Maimonides and Friendship, 22). However, the act of circumcision invokes both a continuous, individual virtuous act and a societal kinship of sorts; not only is sensuality reduced with the practice (echoing the virtues explained within the context of marriage and sexual relations), but the act fosters a ‘universal family friendship,’ fusing the aspects of sociopolitical virtue and contemplative practice (which is why, scholars believe, Maimonides included this passage within his elaboration of virtuous kinships and not within passages concerning contemplative practice).

The act of circumcision unites these societal relations further: “circumcision is related both to character friendship (associated with common values [discussed above]) and family friendship (associated with descent from a common ancestor and a shared bodily sign” (Maimonides and Friendship, 24). Here, it is clear how Maimonides yearns to create a fusion of genealogical and covenantal kinships; further, it insinuates the idea of common flourishing beyond the familial unit into the whole of the Jewish people, or ‘eudiamonia,’ further incorporating Aristotelian ideology within his legal and theological interpretations.

Friendship as a virtue extends further into our human telos within how we choose our friends; Maimonides and Friendshipelaborates: “the central passage linking friendship with virtue is…where Maimonides analyzes Aristotle’s three typological categories of friendship – utility, pleasure and virtue friendship…(where) he identifies the ‘love of a student for teacher and of a teacher for a student’ as the paradigm of friendship based on virtue… ‘about which we are commanded’” (Maimonides and Friendship, 9). Moreover, these friendships between sages and scholars fosters inculcation of ethical behavior and the thirst for knowledge of God. Therefore, a person’s associations through ethical kinships are critical to his wellbeing.

Following this, it is necessary to discuss the role of converts within kinship. In Don Seeman’s “Kinship as Ethical Relation,” the significance of Obadiah the proselyte and the significance of ethical kinship through conversion is explained. For Maimonides, questions regarding the ‘belonging’ or kinship of converts is clear: in one of his responses to Obadiah he writes, “a man who left his father and mother, forsook his birthplace…who recognized the truth and righteousness of this people’s Law, and cast the things of this world from his heart…you (are a) disciple of our father Abraham who also left his father and his kindred and inclined Godward” (Twersky, 477). Here, lineage infractions are cast aside; similar to the intellectual freedom gained through moral practices discussed previously, the act of conversion illuminates a similar struggle to gain freedom. In an Aristotelian manner, he elaborates in The Guide,“accordingly a single tribe that is united through a common ancestor – even if he is remote – because of this love one another, help one another, and have pity on one another, and the attainment of these things is the greatest purpose of the Law.”

This begs the question: from what we have read, is the health and preservation of friendship through ethical kinship the ultimate purpose of the Law (according to Maimonides)? Throughout our study of Maimonides, we have encountered multiple ‘purposes’ of the Law, but do they all point back to a common theme/ reasoning?

On a different note, how does ethical kinship extend beyond those united under commonalities? From “Maimonides and Friendship, “virtue friendship should be considered a form of intellectual pleasure, which cannot be confused with the distractions of buying and selling or eating and cohabiting that Maimonides so caustically dismisses” (Maimonides and Friendship, 30). Can these ‘external’ friendships produce the same virtues as ‘ethical kinships,’ or are these virtues and pleasures exclusive to those produced through ‘ethical kinships’?

Unit 10: The Condition of Exile

Juliet Tresgallo

Unit 10: The Condition of Exile

In the past few weeks, we have discussed why Maimonides wrote Guide of the Perplexed for those who possess a high level of intellect and have deeply studied science, philosophy, and Torah. This week, our readings are mainly revolved around Maimonides’ Epistle to Yemen, which Maimonides intended to be read by both scholars and those of average intelligence. “The Guide might be said to be a guide for the qualified perplexed; the Epistle to Yemen, in contrast, is a guide for the unqualified perplexed” (Lerner 14). Although it was specifically addressed to Jacob ben Nathanael ibn al-Fayyumi, head of the Jewish community in Yemen, Maimonides asked for it to be copied and distributed to the rest of the community (Lerner 132).

In the Epistle to Yemen, Maimonides addressed the concerns of Jacob with regards to a man in Yemen who claimed to be Messiah. Jacob wrote that the man was modest in that he admitted to his limited knowledge, but Maimonides responded that a true Messiah would not have limited knowledge, since he would be the greatest prophet after Moses (Lerner 126). To emphasize how dangerous it is to believe in false prophets, Maimonides described four stories about Jews believing in false Messiahs, and how each situation ended with the Jews experiencing increased suffering (Lerner 128-131).  Maimonides was shocked that someone as scholarly as Jacob would be swayed by a false prophet when there were no rational proofs to support his belief, and he claimed that it indicated a deeper problem in the Jewish community (Lerner 125).

Yemen, which Maimonides described to have once been a land of peace, Torah study, and abundance, had become a place of persecution and forced apostasy (Lerner 15). During their Exile, Jews were likely to lose faith in God, since their oppression and misfortunes seemed to indicate that God abandoned the Jews (Lerner 123). Because of their doubts, Jews were inclined to turn to astrology and divination to explain their suffering. Maimonides explained that the Yemenite Jews needed to look to the natural world around them instead of the stars (Lerner 22). Only then would they realize that their suffering has natural causes that are direct consequences of their actions and are not merely due to unique formations in the sky. Relying on astronomy allowed Jews to shamelessly pursue their desires without fear of divine punishment.

Surprisingly, Maimonides wrote that the Jews should celebrate their calamities. He believed that hardships were “a source of glory and a great achievement for them before God” (Lerner 110). Maimonides explained that misfortune is a way to test and purify the Jews’ piety. Perhaps misfortunes happen to us in order strengthen our faith in God, as well as a punishment for our sins. Despite tendencies of idolatry, Maimonides wrote in his letter to Obadiah the Proselyte that even our ancestors were idolaters before they left Egypt, but that “whoever adopts Judaism and confesses the unity of the Divine Name, as it is prescribed in the Torah, is counted among the disciples of Abraham our Father, peace be with him” (Twersky 475). It is easy to believe in God if everything in one’s life goes according to their wishes, but it becomes much more difficult if one’s life is full of suffering. When facing obstacles, will we hold onto our faith in God and His promise to redeem us, or will we turn away from God in search of more immediate answers?

What can be done to prevent Jews from believing is false prophets? According to Maimonides, it is very important for Jews to strengthen each other’s faith in God and the Torah. The elders should teach the youth, and those of high intellect should teach the commoners (Lerner 23). Jews in Exile are more prone to be swayed by false prophets and by other religions, so it is vital that they spend their time learning Torah. I found it interesting that according to Maimonides, Judaism is simply a physical representation of the true meaning of divine law that is limited by human understanding, while other religions are altered versions of Judaism, and are therefore even more limited and imprecise (Lerner 20).

Maimonides described how an ignorant person can easily recognize surface features but not understand deeper meanings. He used a metaphor of a statue that resembles a man but does not contain man’s inner complexity gifted to him by God. “Man’s interior contains true wonders and matters attesting to the Creator’s wisdom: The distension of his nerves in his muscles and their ramification, and the joining of his sinews and points of their connections, the intertwining of their ligaments and their manner of growth, the structure of his bones and the joints, the egress of his pulsating and nonpulsating blood vessels and their branching out, the setting of his limbs into one another, the open and concealed parts, every one of them in the appropriate measure, form, and place” (Lerner 105). This detailed metaphor made me wonder if one of the reasons that Maimonides chose to become a doctor is because he believed that we should study God’s creations to gain a better understanding of Him, and surely man would be the best creation to deeply study.

Maimonides wrote that anyone who claims to overwrite or change the commandments is obviously a false prophet, since the laws of Moses are eternal and unchanging (Lerner 116). He also wrote that Jews should not try to predict the future or the End of Days like other religions, since disconfirmations of our predictions will only cause us to lose faith in God. The true Messiah will be the only one to predict our future (Lerner 115). He will appear in the land of Israel and will not be recognized until God reveals him to be the Messiah (Lerner 127). By this statement, it makes sense that Jews should not attempt to predict when the Messiah will come or who he will be, since it is written that it will be impossible to recognize him. It seems as though when the Messiah arrives there will not be any doubt that he was sent by God, so any speculation about his identity is pointless. If one thinks he may have found Messiah, then the fact that he is not completely certain is a clear indication that he is not the true Messiah.

Despite all of this, Maimonides gave his own prediction of the End of Days, 4970 years after Creation, even though this proved to be false after that time had passed (Lerner 125). Maimonides claimed that Saadyah, who also predicted the End of Days inaccurately, went against the prohibition in order to unify the Jews and to strengthen their belief in God. Maimonides would probably justify his transgression similarly to how he justified writing down the Oral Torah in the Mishneh Torah. It is clear that he wanted to reignite the passion of the Jews in Exile for learning Torah and serving God.

What do you all think? Do you believe that Maimonides was right to provide his own prediction for the End of Days, after arguing against doing just that? Do you think it is possible for Jews to have a continued belief in Messiah without attempting to predict when he will arrive and who he will be?



Unit 8: Learning how to Read

Noah Brooker

Unit 8: Learning How to Read

Maimonides’ introduction to The Guide of the Perplexed,begins with the establishment of its purpose. However, with close examination, the reader can see that the entire introduction is rife with contradictions. Maimonides states that the guide seeks to explain equivocal terms or obscure parables, but he also makes clear that people are “unable to explain with complete clarity and coherence even the portion that (one) has apprehended.” (Twersky, 239). Additionally, Maimonides references that, ‘proper explanation,’ would lead to both “a state of perplexity,” and deliverance from perplexity. Then, in discussing the structure of the guide, Mamonides mentions chapters “in which there will be no mention of an equivocal term” (Twersky ,241), but then explains how a reader of these chapters might find that “the contrary of the truth is sometimes believed” (Twersky, 241) because of presence of the equivocality of terms.

I personally found that the more closely I read the introduction, the more I could identify contradictions, which, left me feeling… perplexed.

Maimonides also lists seven causes for contradiction or contrary statements, in general, and then identifies two (the fifth and seventh) that appear in his treatise:

  1. “The fifth cause arises from the necessity of teaching and making someone understand.” (245).
  2. “The seventh cause: in speaking about very obscure matters it is necessary to conceal some parts and to disclose other.” (Twersky, 245).

The necessity of teaching requires that obscure matters, be addressed by the teacher, but only to provide a basic understanding of that matter so that it can be used as a premise for others. To facilitate discussion, contradictions are necessary for the procession of certain discussions, however, those contradictions must never be revealed to ‘the vulgar.’

So, the introduction of the guide consists of several contradictions, explanation for those contradictions, and then the acknowledgment that those contradictions are concealed from the many. The brilliance of this introduction, then, is that it shows the nature of the guide rather than explicitly saying what it is. Maimonides says that the reader is supposed to gain an explanation/understanding of the terms and parables in Jewish works, while acknowledging that explaining these things is essentially impossible. Maimonides also states that contradictions exist and are necessary in his work, while simultaneously insisting that those contradictions must not be revealed to most people. It appears Maimonides intends to explain the purpose and ‘nature’ of his treatise by establishing these contradictions, which I believe indicates that the existence and purpose of the guide is to make known these contradictions to the people who can identify them. In this sense, then, Maimonides seems to ‘encourage’ perplexity, so long as it is ‘guided’ towards the true reality of God.


In chapter seven of “Maimonides, Life and Thought,” Moshe Halbertal addresses the issues of the stated purposes and contradictions in the guide. He explains that “the genuine addressee of the treatise will understand on his own what he needs to understand and what he properly may understand.” (277). This indicates that a level of self-understanding is necessary, which only partially elucidates the guide because it does not directly reveal the nature of that self-understanding.  However, the fact that the understanding can come “on his own,” is telling. First, it implies that proper ‘understanding’ is not communicable because of the limitations of language: “that language is defective in the most fundamental structure of its sentences, made up of subject and predicate.” (298). Therefore, to convey an understanding of God through language would be nearly impossible, as the necessity for object and action defies the Unity of God. Furthermore, trying to explain God as anything other than ‘one,’ is also akin to heresy because any adjectives that might be used in this endeavor “impairs not only the pure concept of unity but also the sublimity of God and his absolute otherness from the world.” (298). I believe that self-understanding, then, involves one’s certainty in the unity of God. This partially explains the contradiction of the purpose and intent of the guide itself: If one has not established for themselves the unity of God, he/she will be perplexed in attempting to understand the nature of God. If one wants to believe in God, he/she will become satisfied with a false understanding of God. If one holds a steadfast belief in the idea of the unity of God without learning matters of science and philosophy, he/she will lack the ability to appreciate the significance of what it means for God to be one. However, with the absolute belief in the unity of God and knowledge of human science, one can use the guide of the perplexed to contemplate God without getting ‘lost.’

I think this is reflected in Halbertal’s interpretation as well. In describing Jacob’s ascent and descent of a ‘ladder’ as an example of the proper pursuit of knowledge of God, Halbertal summarizes that, “at the top of the heavenward ladder, a person realizes that the only thing he is able to apprehend is God’s movement within reality, and in the wake of that realization, he returns to reality as an active participant.” (311). Here we see that the highest point of knowledge comes with a precise understanding of our inability to ‘know,’ and that we can observe the workings of God through being in the world.


In Abraham Socher’s commentary on Amos Funkenstein’s analysis of Maimonides’ historical reasoning, we can see a more comprehendible rationalization of Maimonides’ unique method. It is clear, now, that “the strangeness and opacity of such biblical religion is precisely a result of its historical success in eradicating all but the faintest traces of the cultures with which it was engaged.” (pg. 13). Maimonides understands the necessity of tradition and observance, but disagrees with the notion that any innate quality of these aspects of religion can by itself lead one to truth. Maimonides is likely aware as well, that while most people are incapable of discerning God’s truth, they will still attempt to understand God. With this knowledge, Maimonides had to address the needs of both ‘continuing’ and ‘understanding’ religion. To do this he essentially had to conceal the truth from the people that are not already aware of it.


My question for discussion revolves around Maimonides’s insistence that people do not speak about the guide. I do not doubt that Maimonides was aware that people would break this rule, but my confusion surrounds the reason for the rule itself. On one hand, because it is impossible to transmit one’s understanding through language, it makes sense that Maimonides would encourage people not to attempt to do so. On the other hand, with the notion that “silence is praise,” it seems that the prohibition of discussion is because discussion of God is inherently heretical (language issue). So, when Maimonides says not to speak of his guide, does he do so to: protect the truth? Imply truth by reiterating the impossibility of describing God? A mixture of both? Or something completely different?


Unit 7: Understanding Laws (cont.)

Ben Jungreis

Unit 7: Understanding Laws (cont.)

Chapter 27 of Part III of The Guide of the Perplexed establishes an overall rationale for the commandments. It opens with a declaration by Maimonides: “The Law as a whole aims at two things: the welfare of the soul and the welfare of the body” (Twersky 314). These two parts, the body and the soul, are the two parts which man must seek to perfect. Maimonides holds perfection of the soul as more important, calling it the “ultimate perfection”. First, Maimonides explains what it means for each part to be healthy. Bodily health is gained through improving the way people live and interact with each other, it is really societal health. A healthy soul is gained through “the multitude’s acquiring correct opinions” as far as they are capable (Twersky 314). Galston points out that there is only a small resemblance between the states of health and perfection for the two parts. Maimonides explains that the first perfection (the body) must be achieved before perfection of the soul can be because the needs of the body must be met so one can pursue the learning needed for the ultimate perfection. This first perfection is gained through fulfilling the basic human needs, such as food, shelter, and cleanliness. However, Maimonides caveats: “this cannot be achieved in any way by one isolated individual” (Twersky 315). Maimonides believed that this goal could only be achieved by those in society, or as Maimonides puts it “a political association” (Twersky 315). Galston interprets the text as indicating that the society necessary for bodily perfection allows more freedom and independence between individuals than the society which creates bodily health, so the two states (health and perfection) may not be able to coexist. As for the soul, its health can be obtained by acquiring “correct opinions”, whereas its perfection is obtained by becoming rational through knowing as much about all beings as one can. The two states are connected, unlike for the body. In the beginning of chapter 28 Maimonides asserts that the correct opinions that stem from health are necessary before achieving the ultimate perfection. Chapter 27 ends with Maimonides asserting the power of “the Law of Moses” to bring about both perfections.

Chapter 28 begins by outlining what correct opinions are, which is everything associated with believing in God. Maimonides gives examples: “His unity, His knowledge, His power, His will, and His eternity” (Twersky 316). The examples listed are explained to be end goal, which one can only reach by first having many other opinions. The commandments only describe which opinions should be your end goals, not the others that allow you to get there.  According to Maimonides the opinions one must gather first must be of “the numerous kinds of all the theoretical sciences” (Twersky 317). Since opinions seems to mean knowledge of something, this means that one must understand the sciences before one can gain an understanding of God, an idea that Maimonides has presented before. Maimonides then continues by describing beliefs that the commandments prescribe in order to promote “political welfare.” Maimonides uses the example of fear: you must have the belief that God is angry with those that disobey his commandments so that you fear His wrath and do not disobey.

Maimonides draws from these rules about beliefs and opinions three purposes for commandements: abolishing wrongdoing, promoting good relationships by improving people’s’ “moral quality”, or teaching someone an opinion that leads to either of those. If it has one of these purposes then it has clear utility. You do not have to wonder why it exists, like the commandment which forbids murder. Maimonides says the commandments which have controversy over their purpose are those that do not meet one of those three criteria for clear utility, such as the prohibition on mixing meat and milk. He says that these commandments to do not appear to be related to the “welfare of the soul.” However, Maimonides assures the readers that even these seemingly purposeless commandments do have a purpose, and they fulfill one of his three purposes, and that he will explain how in a later chapter. Galston points out that chapter 28 takes the reader from the belief that all commandments must be believed for their own sake, to understanding that some commandments have a utility that improves life, to the realization that all commandments have this utility in some way. Don Seeman points out that understanding the utility of God’s Laws is necessary to love Him, a love that is achieved only through deep understanding.

Chapter 32 of The Guide of the Perplexed begins with Maimonides explaining how God shaped the human body, giving each part utility, likening it to how He also put purpose into every commandment. Maimonides shows how various commandments mandated and prohibited different kinds of worship with the purpose of ending idolatrous practices. This achieves what Maimonides calls God’s first intention: the understanding of God and not worshipping another god besides Him. He then comes to the question of why we have free will, why did God not simply makes us naturally inclined to be obedient to Him instead of creating a system of rewards and punishments? Maimonides says that God could make us naturally follow His commandments, but He clearly does not want to do that or the “sending of prophets and all giving of a Law would have been useless” (Twersky 332). In this chapter Maimonides lays out how God’s restrictions on idolatrous practices, such as restricting sacrifices to the Temple, were done to achieve what he calls God’s first intention. Maimonides rationally explains the purpose of commandments which seem to have no purpose, fulfilling his promise of an explanation from chapter 28.

Don Seeman’s article on The Guide of the Perplexed argues that Maimonides’ reasons for the commandments are Aristotelian in nature, and that his “pleasure-inducing contemplation of both nature and divine commandments should be considered analogous to Aristotle’s pleasure-inducing contemplation of both kosmos and human virtue” (Seeman 305). Maimonides breaks with many of his predecessors by arguing that all commandments are rational, and argues that saying some commandments have no rationality implies God is not perfect. Seeman writes: “Maimonides insists that any conception which is premised on the idea of a God who acts without purpose would impugn divine perfection” (Seeman 302). Seeman explains that Maimonides never substitutes faith for rational explanation when it comes to the purpose of the commandments. Seeman says that the purpose of the The Guide of the Perplexed is to show the reader how God’s Laws all have a rational purpose so that people can understand them (therefore understand God) so that they can truly love God.

Understanding Laws

Samuel Tavakoli

Unit 6: Understanding Laws

In this unit, we read firsthand Maimonides’ account on normative practice of Jewish laws. To me, more interesting than what he states is how he says it. In reading his laws as seen in the Mishneh Torah, we see a continuation of a trend that we have seen previously: the weaving of normative statements on how commandments should be fulfilled, combined with philosophical reasons as to why the practice is the way that it is. The system Maimonides uses is unique, as he departs from previous standards of accounting topics by following the order as seen in the either the Mishnah or the Talmud. Maimonides presents his laws independently of those two norms, and provides “the original and independent presentation of halakhah overall”(Halbertal, 229). Some chapters from the Mishneh Torah in this unit are from his second book in the Mishneh Torah, Sefer Ahavah (The Book of Love). This is another example of his novel organization of Jewish laws. Halbertal provides a breakdown of the schematic organization of the Mishneh Torah, and we see that he is indeed creative and puts forth several topics that are not new in content, but in structure, and did not exist as independent topics in previous halakhic literature. Examples of this are “Laws Concerning the Foundations of the Torah and Laws Concerning Repentance”(Halbertal, 235).
We see in the text of the Mishneh Torah examples of Maimonides using historical reasons to defend certain practices. One thing that jumped out to me specifically was in his discussion on the Laws of Purity, specifically the laws on Uncleanliness of Foodstuffs. He states “The pious of former times used to eat their common food in conditions of cleanness, and all their days they were wary of every uncleanness. And it is they who were called the Pharisees, “separated ones” and this is a higher holiness” (Twersky, 154). He takes this historical context for a stringency and uses it as a base point for a spiritual defense of their practice. He continues “For separation leads to the cleansing of the body from evil deeds, and the cleansing of the body leads to hallowing of the soul from evil thoughts, and the hallowing of the soul leads to striving for likeness with the Shekhinah”(Twersky, 154). This excerpt to me is a prime example of connecting a legal practice with a philosophic rationale that is emblematic of Maimonides’ works. Further, he seamlessly jumps from a historical rationale to a spiritual one, using logic to deduce how cleanliness can bring one closer to the Divine, or Shekhinah. In a later section of the Mishneh Torah, the Laws of Mourning, we see an interesting juxtaposition. The Laws of Mourning are contrasted with a series of commandments that do not deal with mourning, rather they are a series of mitzvot that are Rabbinic and derived from the Biblical verse “And you shall love your neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus, 19:18). These laws include visiting the ill and escorting strangers. It is interesting to me that these laws are discussed under the umbrella of Laws of Mourning, as these do not involve death and ritual mourning in any direct capacity. Yet, at the end of this chapter, Maimonides states “It seems to me that the duty of comforting mourners takes precedence over the duty of visiting the sick, because comforting of mourners is an act of benevolence towards the living and the dead.” (Twersky, 215).
In Strauss’s piece, “Some Remarks on the Political Science of Maimonides and Al-Farabi”, he discusses a political philosophy that drove Maimonides work. In essence, it is the premise that men require laws to drive and shape their lives, towards not only moral perfection, but towards the understanding of “supreme truths and thereby towards supreme perfection”(Strauss, 4). In a time where church and state were one, religious law was political law, and “the prophet occupies in this medieval politics the same place the phisopher-kings occupy in Platonic politics”(Strauss, 5). Further, he points to a precedent set by Al-Farabi that Maimonides continues, namely uniting metaphysics (theology) and politics. This view is essential to understand, and this is a lens that Maimonides works through in order to reach his conclusions. Viewing the Torah as a supreme political document, to which all other laws are imitations qualifies many of Maimonides works, and gives us insight into the conclusions that he reaches.


Unit 5: Basic Religious and Philosophical Commitments

Within the first few chapters of “Basic Principles of the Torah”, Maimonides introduces the reader to his opinion surrounding God.  He states that, “the basic principle of all basic principles and the pillar of all sciences is to realize that there is a First Being who brought every existing things into being” (Twersky 43).  This shows that all living beings are dire need of Him and would not be existing without Him. We cannot live our lives as we know it without the presence of God. As the creator of all things, it is important to realize that this existence stems back to this one figure.  Additionally, human beings naturally try and personify God so that we may create some type of image in our head. As the text states, the Torah speaks in the language of men, and “all these expressions are adapted to the mental capacity of the majority of mankind” (Twersky 44).  In reality, God has no tangible form or visible figure, but the human mind must picture some type of figure anyways.

Another important aspect of the “Basic Principles of the Torah” is that we must love and fear our God.  In chapter 4, we are presented the differences between the Maaseh Merkavah and the Maaseh Bereshit. The latter is not taught in public simply because, “not everyone possesses the breadth of intellect requisite for obtaining an accurate grasp of the meaning and interpretation of all its contents” (Twersky 48).  While this may be the case, it is through the process of learning and studying that humans love and yearn for God. As one’s love increases, so does the fear, “as he becomes conscious of his own lowly condition, poverty, and insignificance, and compares himself with any of the great and holy bodies” (Twersky 48).  Humans love Him because they exist because of his existence, yet they fear him simultaneously for his divines status which makes any human being’s life looks miniscule compared to that of a divine figure.

In chapters 4 and 5 of Maimonides Life and Thought, we dive into the origin of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah and the impact that is has on the Jewish people.  The actual cause for the creation of this text stems from the complexity of the previously implemented Talmudic literature.  Maimonides concluded that, “the jewish people lacked a genuine book of laws” (Halbertal 164) and he needed to find a way to alleviate this issue.  Consequently, the Mishneh Torah came to life.  There are essentially two outcomes that have been produced from the Mishneh Torah.  The first objective was to stabilize the field of the halakhah. By definition, Halakhah is Jewish Law that regulates the spiritual and religious observances from its people.  Maimonides created the Mishneh Torah, in part to initiate a “total transformation of the structure of halakhah” (Halbertal 166).  More specifically, this transformation refers to a process leading toward a more unified approach toward halakhah. The second goal of the  Mishneh Torah is the need for “true and clear opinions” (Halbertal 165), which acted as a motivation factor for Maimonides when writing this text.  In the end, Maimonides needed to create a text that would present the Jewish laws in a much more transparent way. It was the goal of Maimonides to change the difficulties of the text and improve its clarity so that more people may be properly educated in an easier way.  He mentions, in his introduction, “that all the rules shall be accessible to young and old” (Halbertal 166). What was previously hidden behind complex understanding and deep analysis became readily available and easier to understand thanks to Maimonides.

One key distinction that Maimonides makes is the difference between moderate and radical understanding of the Mishneh Torah.  The text states, “a more moderate one that sees it as an accomplished representation of the halakhah; and a more radical and daring one that sees it as halakhah itself” (Halbertal 184).  In other words, a moderate view seems the Mishneh Torah as a form of representation of halakhah while the radical view seems Maimonides’ writing as the actual form of halakhah.  Later on, Maimonides informs the reader that he approves of the moderate approach.  In particular, “nowhere in the introduction did Maimonides argue that the earlier halakhic literature should be suppressed, and he treated his compilation as a response to a complex literary environment and a state of historical crisis” (Halbertal 190).  My takeaway from this is that the radical view of understanding is far too extreme to be taken seriously. Its true purpose is to represent halakhah by attempting to clear up any confusions that were present in previous literatures, but the radical approach is more of an expunging of all previous works to make way for the newly implemented Mishneh Torah.  Is it at all possible to have a radical approach and still gain a full understanding of the matter covered in Maimonides’ text?  

Chapter 5 presents the analysis of an idea that is woven through other areas of Maimonides’ literature.  It is clearly established that, “there is a First Being who brought every existing thing into being” (Halbertal 204).  However, there is more context to the statement than what is read at first glance. Halbertal provides us with an in depth analysis of each line of the first halakhah, finally concluding that “the reader who believes in creation ex nihilo will find support for his view in the first sentence, and one who favors belief in an eternally existing world will look to the second sentence” (Halbertal 205).  There are two ways of thinking here, ex nihilo and external existence, and they generate different images of the divinity (Halbertal 207). In the end, “Maimonides adopts the stance that maintains the eternity of the world” (halbertal 206).  This view states that He does not meddle with creation, but is rather the first cause and the start of an ongoing chain reaction that goes on for hundreds of years. This begs the question, is it possible to achieve the same level of understanding of God and Judaism by taking either the ex nihilo or external existence approach or will they lead to different ends?  

One particular aspect in Lerner’s Maimonides’ Empire of Light that I found interesting was the benefit that the Mishneh Torah instilled upon the Jewish people.  For starters, “the increasing dispersion of the Jews has been accompanied by the fragmentation and decay of Jewish learning” (Lerner 30).  The state of Jewish learning, and the Jewish population, was not in the best overall state at this point in time, which is why there became a need for some other form of learning and new text.  As a result, the Mishneh Torah was implemented to help mend this issue by making it managable to learn and study.  As Lerner states, “composing the Mishneh Torah is thus an action on behalf of the people on the verge of withering away” (Lerner 31).  Maimonides’ text serves the purpose of salvaging the Jewish population from spreading itself too thin while also conserving the religious values and beliefs.  

Unit IV: Moral Dispositions and Ethical Conduct

Howard Kreisel’s titular characterization of contradictions in Maimonides’ approach to ethics deems them to be a problem. In his subsequent writing, he attempts to reconcile this issue with a series of different explanations. From my interpretation of Kreisel’s analysis, my understanding of the primary texts found in A Maimonides Reader, and my current understanding of Maimonides’ life and thought based on the works of Moshe Habertal and Ralph Lerner , I will attempt to discuss the legitimacy of theorizing that the contradictions present may serve a complex utilitarian purpose that refute the discovery of contradiction as a problem at all.

As Kreisel mentions, Maimonides was very intentional about the presence of contradictions in his writing, as evidenced by his explanation of this in the introduction to A Guide for the Perplexed. He also goes on to say, that while this may seem like transparency, there could very well still be aspects of his intention and process that he has chosen to leave unsaid. Understanding his statements in the context of the audience that the Guide was intended to reach may shed light on his usage of this rhetorical tool to aid in etching his contribution to religious and philosophical thought.

The Guide for the Perplexed was written by Maimonides for the education of his students. When the work was written, his brother had long since passed away and he spent his days mostly practicing medicine (Habertal, Ch. 1). From the background provided by Kreisel, it seems as if these explanatory measures were not the norm for Maimonides. Because his communications at this time clearly convey the immense level of pressure and stress he was feeling, I am inclined to believe that Maimonides explicitly calls attention to that which he would prefer not to acknowledge or for his reader to happen upon himself, to solidify the Guide as a credible work. It is possible that absent this caveat, his students would have interpreted the presence of contradictions as a result of his declined mental state and not as an element of his pedagogical craft.

That being said, Kreisel argues that Maimonides avoids a unified approach to communicating ethical viewpoints to

“…signal to the attentive reader that the perspective by which ethics s viewed must constantly be altered to understand the full picture. The nonperceptive reader, on the other hand, remains with the perspective most appropriate for that reader.”

This rationale thoroughly supports that Maimonides contradictions are not really an issue at all. To achieve his means, Maimonides plays his both his reader’s self-perception and moral capability and drive.

From reading his original writings on moral disposition, I sensed that there was something in his writing that was accessible to everyone. Understanding Maimonides as one of the few philosophers whose writing was made for people in all strata of society, he crafted his works to be a tool for everyone and to enact slow, but eventual change in the community by being sensitive to the orthodox views that existed and having them present, while also introducing his viewpoints subtly, intending them to permeate the consciousness of his readers over time, as he successfully has done.

Unit 3: On the Attainment of Human Excellence

Ariel Milewicz

Unit 3

On the Attainment of Human Excellence

In “The Eight Chapters”, Maimonides emphasizes the importance of the soul, and the concept that the soul is equally as susceptible to illness as the physical body. He suggests “A soul that produces bad and dishonorable actions or thoughts is sick and needs healing” (Maimonides, 361). His suggested of therapy for the soul is Pirke Avot. Maimonides later suggests the theory of the “golden mean” (Maimonides, 361) – a concept that looks to identify the balance between two extremes – exaggeration and deficiency (Maimonides, 368) – in the attempt to create a healthy soul. Later, he suggests the idea that a soul cannot be broken down into parts in the standard sense. He puts forth the idea that “parts” that comprise the soul are factions which refer to the activities of the soul. He emphasizes five faculties to the soul: nutritive, sensitive, imaginative, appetitive, and rational. However, Maimonides leaves one distinct question: does each activity of the soul account for equal factions of the soul or is there an unequal distribution of weight amongst them?

Similarly, in chapters two and three of Maimonides: Life and Thought, the description of the soul is heavily emphasized. The soul is characterized by moral traits; “dispositions that imbedded in the soul that manipulate the limbs to perform certain activities without prior” (Halbertal, Chapter Two). The soul is essentially what control the physical body, and those activities which comprise the soul are the most influential. The natural tendency of an action becomes natural through habituation and repetition of the action – it is not something which is innate. Does this learned behavior suggest that the soul itself is something that can be taught to behave in a particular manner, and that is what in turn controls the actions of the physical body?

Sokolow argues a similar point in “Habit and Reason in Jewish and Muslim Educational Theory”: “Actions should be habitual, and defective actions can be remedied through the performance of antagonistic actions (just as physical maladies can be cured through antagonistic remedies) thereby restoring a proper balance to the soul” (Sokolow, 24). The ease to which physical ailments are remedied is mirrored in the ease to which ailments of the soul can be remedied. This is an important concept that that further asks the question: is there a general remedy to ailments of the soul? Or is the soul more complex than the physical body, as one might assume, suggesting even more specific remedies than expected for the physical body?

In The Adaptation of Philosophic Ethics to a Religious Community: Maimonides’ Eight Chapters”, the healing of the soul, as well as finding the middle ground for balance of the soul revolves around the concept of wisdom as a means of attaining balance: “The “wisdom” referred to in this instance is not theoretical in nature. But conduct that brings about an equilibrium within the soul manifests a form of wisdom that “restores” the soul.” It is suggested that knowledge gained has a restorative impact on the soul, allowing an individual to inch closer to the equilibrium that every person is supposed to strive to achieve.

“The Eight Chapters”, chapters two and three of Maimonides: Life and Thought, “The Adaptation of Philosophic Ethics to a Religious Community: Maimonides’ Eight Chapters”, and “Habit and Reason in Jewish and Muslim Educational Theory” all share the same emphasis on the importance of a healthy soul, in addition to or even above that of a healthy body. They do, however, vary somewhat in the distinction of what truly comprises a soul, as well as what makes a soul healthy or unhealthy.

Blog Post: Unit 2: Idolatry, Exodus 33, Moses, and Kavod

Samuel Brush
Unit 2
Idolatry, Exodus 33, Moses, and Kavod
In Mishneh Torah and “Laws Concerning Idolatry”, Maimonides constructed a justification for the laws against idolatry in Judaism. He probably wrote this justification because he saw these laws as Hukkim – laws with less obvious rationale that require specialized knowledge to understand. Maimonides communicated his justification by first recounting the story of the laws’ creation and then reinforcing the story with Torah interpretation that supported his claims. He began by addressing the problem of idolatry at its core: “all know that You alone are God; their error and folly consists in imagining that this vain worship [i.e. idolatry] is your desire” (Maimonides, p. 72). Maimonides made a distinction about those who worshipped idols: while they were aware that only one God existed, which they saw embodied as a “particular star”, they were unaware that idolatrous worship was not God’s desire from man (Maimonides, p. 72). He wrote that the misconception spread through “false prophets who asserted that God” had told them to worship a particular star and to create figures of its image (Maimonides, p. 72). Maimonides went on to assert that the world was continually ignorant of the desires of the one true God until “that pillar of the world, the patriarch Abraham, was born” (Maimonides, p. 73). Maimonides relayed the story of Abraham, who realized at a young age that someone had to have been guiding the celestial sphere that was being worshipped by humans at the time. Maimonides claimed that Abraham was “forty years old when he recognized his Creator” and then went on to spread his revelation until “tens of thousands joined him” (Maimonides, pp. 73-74). Maimonides therefore traced Judaism’s laws against idolatry to Abraham, who he claims taught his non-idolatrous, monotheistic conception of religion and morality to his son, Isaac, and the law was then passed down for generations to the lineage of Abraham. Maimonides’ next section of justification for the commandments against idolatry included Torah interpretation. For example, on page 74, he cited Leviticus 20:23, in which the Jews were told that they would not follow the customs of the Gentiles. Indeed, idolatry was an old practice of gentiles. By this commandment, the Jews could not worship idols. Maimonides’ use of the origin story combined with his insightful Torah interpretation made the reasoning behind the laws against idolatry very clear. He masterfully employed an explanation of performative reasoning.

In Professor Don Seeman’s essay “Honoring the Divine as Virtue and Practice in Maimonides”, Seeman argued that the theme of divine kavod, or divine glory, linked Maimonides’ “philosophical, literary, and even medical concerns” with his “practical religious teaching” (Seeman, p. 195). Seeman wrote that Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed was connected to his other works through his understanding of the divine kavod. Lastly, Seeman examined Maimonides’ “consistent fascination with Exodus 33” and its role in organizing his “reflections on human perfection, ethics, and the relationship between idolatry and everyday religious language” (Seeman, p. 195). Seeman explained that Maimonides thought that one had to honor the divine presence of God by recognizing the appropriate limits of human intellect and speculation on the topic: “the individual who aspires to perfection…must continue to press on with all due modesty against the boundaries of knowledge, precisely in order to establish God’s true distinction or kavod” (Seeman, p. 206). Seeman showed that Maimonides’ guide to achieving kavod would “make even the quotidian routines of daily life into a series of sites for reflection upon “His commandments, may He be exalted,” rather than “that which is other than He.” This is divine incommensurability ritualized” (Seeman, p. 245). Seeman argued that Maimonides’ guide to living with kavod in mind gave the individual an intellectual and ethical purpose in their everyday activities and commandments. Lastly, Seeman highlighted the logic behind Maimonides’ unique reading of Exodus 33: “It is not the specific actions of God described in Scripture that are the real focus of divine emulation…but rather the core values—like mercy and compassion—that can be abstracted from them (and from nature) by reflection.” (Seeman, p. 249). In this passage, Seeman was noting the distinction that Maimonides made in his analysis of Exodus 33: the literal actions of God are less important than the values which inspire his actions, such as “mercy and compassion”. Seeman’s analysis of Maimonides’ interpretation of Exodus 33 is integral in developing our own understanding of how Maimonides viewed the concept of kavod.
To digress, one additional passage from Seeman’s essay that was relevant to our first class discussion of Maimonides can be found on page 231: “Maimonides’ son R. Abraham, by contrast, insists that Maimonides thinks imitatio Dei is an ethical directive distinct from general obedience to the commandments because it requires not only correct actions but also the cultivation of freestanding moral virtues” (Seeman, p. 231). This passage is an example of Maimonides advocating against the use of legislative reasoning (i.e. the simple following of laws because they exist); instead, he promoted the use of performative reasoning, accomplished by implementation of freestanding moral virtues, to understand the Jewish religious laws.

In “The Ethical Views of Maimonides within the context of Islamicate Civilization”, Lawrence Berman highlighted the influence of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics on Maimonides as well as on the greater intellectual community in contemporary Islamic civilization. Berman argued that Aristotle saw “the contemplative life” as “that which is most akin to the divine” (Berman, p. 16). While contemplation was important for Aristotle, “life controlled by practical reason” was the way to have “the life of moral virtues as being flourishing (or happiness)” (Berman, p. 17). Berman used this Aristotelian reconciliation of practical reason and contemplation as ideal to show the Aristotelian influence on Maimonides’ thinking. In particular, Berman applied this concept to Maimonides’ justification of the following of the commandments in the Torah. Berman wrote that the ideal ethical man would be “in constant tension between the two extremes of excess and of defect”; in other words, he would not ethically justify the commandments with strictly performative or legislative reasoning (Berman, p. 27). Lastly, Berman analyzed the relationship between intellectual perfection and the actions of God as they pertain to the commandments in Maimonides’ thought: “moral activity as a prerequisite to intellectual perfection…is not an imitation of the actions of God…once intellectual perfection has been achieved, which entails knowledge of the ways of God, the practical activity performed is…imitation of the ways of God” (Berman, p. 30). Berman argued that Maimonides did not see the following of the commandments before intellectual perfection was attained as an imitation of God. No, only after intellectual perfection was attained could a man be imitating God.