Thoroughly Modern Maimonides?
by Moshe Halbertal, translated by Joel Linsider
Princeton University Press, 400 pp., $35
by Josef Stern
Harvard University Press, 448 pp., $49.95
by Herbert A. Davidson
The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 336 pp., $64.50
Does Maimonides have anything to say to us today, and if so what? These questions have been raised once again by Moshe Halbertal’s brilliant new intellectual biography Maimonides: Life and Thought (published in Hebrew in 2009 and now available in English), as well as by two other recent major analyses of his philosophy, Josef Stern’s The Matter and Form of Maimonides’ Guide and Herbert Davidson’s Maimonides the Rationalist.
Maimonides, who was a great halakhist, authored three major works of Jewish law: the Commentary on the Mishnah and the Book of Commandments, and, towering above them, that summa of rabbinic Judaism, the greatest work of Jewish law authored by a single individual, the Mishneh Torah. He is also, of course, the author of the most important work of medieval Jewish philosophy, perhaps of all Jewish philosophy, The Guide of the Perplexed. While most rabbinic scholars focus on Maimonides the halakhist and most academics on Maimonides the philosopher, Halbertal is one of the very few scholars equipped to do justice to both sides of Maimonides’ creativity—and their interconnection. Indeed Maimonides: Life and Thought is one of only a handful of scholarly books on Maimonides to fully cover both the halakhic and the philosophical sides of Maimonides’ work.
At the very beginning and end of his book Halbertal sums up what he sees as the two great intellectual transformations Maimonides sought to achieve. In the realm of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah was, Halbertal writes: