The Rad­i­cal Enlight­en­ment of Solomon Mai­mon: Judaism, Heresy, and Philosophy

Abra­ham P. Socher
  • Review
By – March 23, 2012

Shlo­mo ben Yehoshua (1753 – 1800), bet­ter known as Mai­mon, was born into a well-heeled and book­ish Lithuan­ian Ortho­dox fam­i­ly, and was quick­ly noticed as an illui or Tal­mu­dic prodi­gy. His sharp mind was honed by Tal­mu­dic dialect, which served him well in his pur­suit for truth in a uni­verse which was grad­u­al­ly expand­ing as the auton­o­my of fun­da­men­talisms was slow­ly but sure­ly col­laps­ing under the weight of ques­tions raised by David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Benedict/​Baruch Spinoza. 

Mai­mon would seem to have been a rather strange per­son. Mar­ried at the age of eleven and a father at the age of four­teen, he evi­dent­ly had lived a rather dis­solute life when he final­ly became part of Moses Mendelssohn’s Berlin cir­cle. His first book, a com­men­tary on Kant’s Cri­tique of Pure Rea­son, and laud­ed by Kant him­self, was pub­lished in 1790. The next year Mai­mon pub­lished a com­men­tary on the first part of Mai­monides’ Guide for the Per­plexed, the first work on mod­ern phi­los­o­phy pub­lished in Hebrew. His best known work and, indi­rect­ly, a sem­i­nal auto­bi­og­ra­phy, is his idio­syn­crat­ic and some­times rib­ald memoir. 

Ulti­mate­ly, Mai­mon wasn’t accept­ed as part of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of his day because of his con­tention that Kab­bal­ah is embed­ded in phi­los­o­phy — not based on Jew­ish pri­ma­ry writ­ing (such as the Hebrew Bible and its rab­binic inter­pre­ta­tion). His work has been stud­ied by Abra­ham Geiger, Ger­shom Scholem, and Moshe Idel, offer­ing the read­er much insight into the dynam­ics and maze of Jew­ish enlight­en­ment. Socher is direc­tor of Jew­ish Stud­ies at Ober­lin College.

Mor­ton Merowitz holds degrees from Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty, the Drop­sie Col­lege for Hebrew and Cog­nate Learn­ing, and the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York at Buf­fa­lo. He was involved in Jew­ish edu­ca­tion for some ten years and cur­rent­ly reviews non-fic­tion lit­er­a­ture which may be of inter­est and rel­e­vance to stu­dents and teach­ers of Jew­ish studies.

Discussion Questions