Mai­monides: Life and Thought

Moshe Hal­ber­tal
  • Review
By – December 13, 2013

The rab­bis of Al Andalus, or Mus­lim Spain, have had a last­ing impact on the Tal­mud, halakhah, and Jew­ish phi­los­o­phy, though none as last­ing as Moses Mai­monides (1138- 1214) — Rabbeinu Moshe ben Mai­mon the Sefar­di, so he signed him­self, known too by the acronym RaM­BaM. While he wrote prolifi­cally on med­i­cine in his lat­er years and car­ried on an exten­sive cor­re­spon­dence through­out his life, Maimonides’s endur­ing works include exten­sive far-reach­ing com­men­tary on the Mish­nah, Mish­neh Torah—an auda­cious recon­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of the entire Tal­mud that he worked on night and day for ten years.” Mai­monides intro­duced the work this way: In order that no one should be in need of any oth­er work deal­ing with the laws of Israel.” Maimonides’s bold, unprece­dent­ed pur­pose was to tame the wild­ly dis­or­ga­nized halakhah of the Talmud. 

While many rab­bis enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly embraced Mish­neh Torah, oth­ers reject­ed it vio­lent­ly, not only for its auda­cious­ness or even hubris, but for some of Maimonides’s fun­da­men­tal assump­tions that went against pre­vail­ing Gaon­ic author­i­ty. That depends on how we read it, Moshe Hal­ber­tal argues in Mai­monides: Life and Thought. He gives a mod­er­ate read­ing, which takes the work as a com­pre­hen­sive, acces­si­ble sum­ma­ry of the [Mai­monidean] halakhah for those unable to dwell on it in depth, and a rad­i­cal read­ing, in which the work does not sum­ma­rize the ear­li­er halakhic lit­er­a­ture but actu­al­ly replaces it.” In the end, Hal­ber­tal con­cludes, we can­not tru­ly deter­mine the author — all we can do is for­mu­late the ques­tion, what is Mish­neh Torah?’”

Hal­ber­tal inte­grat­ed his crit­i­cal read­ings with Maimonides’s biog­ra­phy to give us con­vinc­ing insights into the man, includ­ing his escape from Cor­do­ba after the Berber inva­sions, the lit­tle-known years in North Africa where the Mai­mon fam­i­ly may have con­vert­ed to Islam to save them­selves, the influ­ences of Aris­to­tle as well as Arab thinkers on his fun­da­men­tal beliefs, his jour­ney to the Holy Land, and final­ly set­tle­ment in Egypt. Mai­monides was able to work full-time on the Mish­neh com­men­tary and Mish­nah Torah because his younger broth­er David the most saint­ly man I knew … went abroad to trade.” But David died at sea in the Indi­an Ocean — his death threw Mai­monides and both fam­i­lies into a finan­cial cri­sis that forced him to earn a liv­ing, which he did as a physi­cian. David’s death also led to a ter­ri­ble per­son­al cri­sis: For almost a year,” Mai­monides wrote in a let­ter, I lay on my couch strick­en with fever, despair, and on the brink of destruction.” 

There are numer­ous schol­ar­ly guides to Maimonides’s texts (the Library of Con­gress lists more than 300 Mai­monidean titles in the past decade alone), though few in Eng­lish are like­ly to com­pare with the breadth and depth of Moshe Halbertal’s schol­ar­ship, fur­ther buoyed by a grace­ful prose, assured and yet mod­est in tone, mas­ter­ful­ly trans­lat­ed by Joel Linsider. 

Moshe Halbertal’s book will serve the aims of dif­fer­ent read­ers — for seri­ous stu­dents of Mish­neh Torah and halakhah, he sets out foun­da­tion­al argu­ments that are like­ly to stim­ulate fur­ther explo­rations of Maimonides’s con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance, while the broad­er read­er­ship for the Guide for the Per­plexed will be chal­lenged by Halbertal’s provoca­tive analy­sis of dif­fer­ent inter­pre­tive read­ings that this great text embeds with­in it.

Relat­ed content:

Mer­rill Lef­fler has pub­lished three col­lec­tions of poet­ry, most recent­ly Mark the Music. A physi­cist by train­ing, he worked in the NASA sound­ing rock­et pro­gram, taught Eng­lish at the U. S. Naval Acad­e­my, and was senior sci­ence writer at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land Sea Grant Pro­gram, focus­ing on Chesa­peake Bay research.

Discussion Questions