Morality and the Law in Moses Maimonides

by Daniel H. Shulman

"From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses." - Jewish adage


Debate over Torah[1] has, for millennia, been an integral, even life sustaining feature of Jewish heritage.[2] For countless centuries, that debate has included the question, "What does Rambam have to say about this?"[3] Few if any Jewish scholars have contributed so much to the Jewish tradition as Rambam, Moses Maimonides.

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) was born in Cordova March 30, 1135. He lived under Islamic rule his whole life, always subject to one of several warring sects. Until the age of 13, he lived under the Omeyades, a tolerant Muslim sect. In 1148, an excessively intolerant Muslim sect, the Almohades, took Cordova. The king proclaimed Muslim rule or death, but he died within a month. His son, believing his father's death to be due to his cruelty to Jews, allowed Jews to practice without conversion.

In the succeeding years, fleeing unstable and often inhospitable circumstances, Maimonides wandered North Africa until 1165 when he took to the sea to travel to Palestine. During his voyage, he worked on his Commentary on the Mishnah, which he finished at the age of 33. He settled in Egypt in the early 1170s.

In 1178 Maimonides completed Mishneh Torah, what he had hoped would be a compete authoritative code of Jewish law (both Oral and Written). Circa 1185-1190 he completed The Guide for the Perplexed, his major philosophical work.

Maimonides is considered a giant in the history of Jewish thought. The great thrust of his life's work was to combine the Aristotelian philosophy of his age with a correct and distinctly Jewish theory of Torah and ethical conduct. In so doing, Maimonides revolutionized the way Jews and non-Jews alike think about scripture and law. His creativity, however, was also his greatest impediment to success. In a religion founded upon unbroken traditions that link one generation to the next, the entirety of Maimonides' views have never been accepted as authoritative. His impact, though, cannot be denied. His theological work continues to spark debate in Jewish academies. His legal treatises are still an invaluable resource in the understanding of complex legal texts. His views on faith and piety are now part of everyday Jewish experience. His Thirteen Principles of Faith,[4] for example, are recited by devout Jews every morning as part of the morning prayer.

This paper will explore Maimonides' views on morality and the law. This paper will first explain why Judaism rejects natural law.[5] This paper will next address the role of reason in Maimonides' philosophy.[6] This paper will then focus on Part I, Chapter 2 of Maimonides' The Guide for the Perplexed to explain the non-cognitive source of morality.[7] Once the source of morality is identified, the paper will look at how Maimonides rejects morality as a source of law.[8] This paper will then analyze how Maimonides' belief in a non-cognitive morality is not fatal to an ordered society.[9] This paper will then conclude by identifying how Jew and non-Jew can benefit from a study of the great scholar, Moses Maimonides.[10]


To understand Maimonides' legal and theological positions in regard to the use of reason, one must first be keenly aware of the role reason, and hence, natural law play in Jewish legal theory.[11] Given Judaism's rich legal tradition, it might seem surprising that the doctrine of natural law has received so little attention in Jewish scholarship. Even a cursory look, however, at the doctrine of natural law reveals how the doctrine is repugnant to the principles of Judaism.

Natural law is man's inclination to act in accordance with Supreme Reason - it is the law discoverable by each individual, independently, through the right exercise of man's divinely endowed faculty of reason.[12] A source of law that is discoverable through reason alone, however, is abhorrent to Judaism for two reasons. First, on theological grounds it undermines the authority of the revealed law, the Torah, by subordinating the infallible word of G-d to the human (and therefore fallible) faculty of reason. A people founded upon a covenant relationship to G-d, where the identity of the people is founded upon a single, miraculous communal revelation of His word at Mt. Sinai and through His prophets, could not stand a theory that did not accept the law as divine and supreme in and of itself. Second, on legal grounds, natural law introduced an element of selectivity, allowing its proponents to retain precepts from the Torah needed to order society while disregarding all ritual or cultic laws for which no rational basis could be posited.[13]

It is not surprising, therefore, that the idea of natural law is introduced prominently only a few times in all of Jewish scholarship.[14] The earliest possible example of a natural law doctrine is attributed to Saadia Gaon (892--942).[15] Saadia Gaon routinely used the expression "rational precepts of the Torah" to describe legal principles for which humans may posit a social utility.[16] It is important to realize, however, that utility is a post-hoc judgment. Rationality cannot be used to discover the law because the law was revealed by G-d. Saadia Gaon's point is that even if one were to reject revelation, those "rational precepts" would nevertheless have some social utility, and we should be in awe of G-d's wisdom in having commanded them.[17] Saadia Gaon's is not a real theory of natural law, however, as belief in divine revelation and not man's faculty of reason provides the basis for observing those precepts.[18]

The sole Jewish philosopher who positively addresses a natural law theory is Joseph Albo (1380-1444).[19] Albo classifies the laws as divine, covenantal, and natural.[20] There can be no question, however, that divine law is the supreme law in Albo's hierarchy and natural law occupies the most inferior position.[21] For Albo, the scope of natural law is limited solely to prohibitions of theft, robbery and murder.[22] Additionally, Albo himself likely recognized a divine authority for these prohibitions from discussions in the Talmud.[23] Albo considered natural law to be of such limited scope as to not really be useful. Ultimately, man must rely on the wisdom of G-d and His divine commandments for guidance.[24]

A final word should be said regarding Maimonides rejection of natural law. According to the Jewish tradition, the laws of the Torah were not laws of general application. Rather, the Torah speaks directly to Jews - non-Jews are not to be bound by their precepts. Jewish tradition does, however, hold seven commandments to be commandments applicable to Jew and non-Jew alike. The commandments are derived from G-d's commandments to Noah after the flood. As Noah was the progenitor of all man after the flood, commandments to him were held to be applicable to all people. These laws, called the Noahide Laws, are considered by some to be Judaism's natural law.[25]

The fact that the Noahide Laws are of universal authority does not create out of them a natural law. Referring specifically to the seven Noahide Laws, Maimonides says that gentiles who meticulously observe the seven commandments have a share in the world to come only "if he accepts them and performs them because G-d commanded them in the Torah." If, however, he performs them because of the determination of reason, he "is not a resident alien and he is not of the pious of the nations nor of their wise men."[26] Maimonides' rejection of natural law is clear.


Despite the rejection of a natural law theory, it would be incorrect to say that reason were absent from Jewish philosophy. Maimonides, like most theologians of his day, inherited the Aristotelian tradition. Wedded as he was to the philosophical tradition, Maimonides could not have taken up any philosophical issue without first determining whether it were within man's power to grasp the issue, and if so, applying reason to its fullest extent.[27] The application of reason, in turn, requires that a proposition be accepted if it can be demonstrated, and that propositions can be demonstrated based upon principles of Logic, Mathematics and Physics.

Maimonides makes clear that things exist which are beyond man's comprehension[28] and the pursuit of which is either harmful or prohibited.[29] For example, it is prohibited under Jewish law to teach the mystery of creation except in the presence of two qualified persons, and even then only "chapter headings" are to be communicated.[30] Maimonides further states throughout his chief philosophical treatise, The Guide for the Perplexed, that it is impossible to "know G-d" because He cannot be described with any positive attributes. Reason is incapable of grasping the knowledge of G-d.[31]

The importance of reason to Maimonides' philosophy, however, cannot be understated. Maimonides intended The Guide to the Perplexed to be literally that - a guide for the advanced student of metaphysics who might experience difficulty in reconciling scripture with reason.[32] Maimonides considers it axiomatic that scripture cannot be read in any way inconsistent with reason.

Maimonides' immediate concern in The Guide is to provide a reasonable reading of the Bible's anthropomorphic language that affirms the incorporeality and unity of G-d.[33] To that end, Maimonides begins his discourse with an explication of the word "tzelem" (okm) from the verse, "Let us make man in our tzelem."[34] There are two reasons that Maimonides begins The Guide with this verse. First, the verse is the first anthropomorphic phrase in the Bible and relates immediately to a supposed image of G-d. Interpreting the verse as positing that G-d has an image or form is abhorrent to the doctrine of incorporeality and would constitute a mortal sin. Second, Maimonides explanation of the verse provides the foundation for his views on man and reason.

Maimonides explains that tzelem applies not to physical form, but to a metaphysical form. Tzelem refers to "the essence of a thing."[35] The essence of man is his "intellectual perception," his reason.[36] Man's intellectual perception, however, is exercised without use of his senses.[37] Man's reason, the true essence of the man, is incorporeal - it is unconfined. Hence, when the Bible says that man is created "in the tzelem of G-d," the Bible tells us that the true essence of man is that which is also incorporeal - his reason.[38]

In arriving at this interpretation, Maimonides places reason at the apex of man's faculties. For Maimonides, the perfect man is perfectly reasonable. He can discern the truth of things proven to be so and the falsehood of things proven to be impossible. The perfect man is concerned only with truth and falsehood.

One must bear in mind, however, that Maimonides gives reason power only within its sphere. Reason, combined with a certain amount of piety, is a prerequisite of prophecy. Prophecy, by its nature, however, is man's receipt from G-d that which He wishes to communicate. Hence, while reason does not enable man to discern a natural law, it may qualify him to receive prophetic communication from G-d, if He should so desire.[39] That reason is related to prophecy is critical to understanding Maimonides - even with perfect reason, man will not independently come to "know G-d" without His direct intervention. Furthermore, no man is perfectly reasonable, and for Maimonides, the most perfect intellect was possessed by Moses who came closest to "knowing G-d" and gave us His laws by which man must live.


Having established at least some basis for understanding the role of reason in Maimonides, one may now proceed to explore how Adam's transgression in the Garden of Eden proves morality to be non-cognitive. Maimonides addresses the issue in only the second chapter of The Guide. Maimonides presents the discussion as a response to the argument that man was improved by his transgression since he learned good and evil.[40]

Maimonides first points out that intellect had already been granted to man.[41] This point has just been established for the reader in the preceding chapter's discussion of man's creation and the term tzelem,[42] but Maimonides offers further proof by noting that G-d commanded Adam with respect to the Tree of Knowledge, and commandments are not given to beings without intellect.[43] Maimonides proceeds to make a point essential to the understanding of his moral theory. Before the fall, Adam possessed the ability to distinguish Truth from Falsehood "perfectly and completely."[44] Right and wrong, however, refer only to "apparent truths" of which Adam, being of perfect reason and concerned only with True and False, had no knowledge.[45] Maimonides proves this point by citing the verse after the sin wherein "the eyes of [Adam and Eve] were opened; and they knew that they were naked[.]"[46] Previously, they had seen that they were naked but did not know that they were naked.[47] Previously they could only cognize true and false, and their perfect intellect prevented them from knowing anything other than true and false.[48]

Man is unique in creation because he alone has bodily form (unlike angels)[49] and incorporeal intellect (unlike animals). G-d presented Adam with the following choice. Live a life of perfect intellect in Eden, or disobey G-d's single commandment by following physical desires and eating from the tree that gave the same food but was also "delightful to the eyes."[50] In partaking of the forbidden food, man relinquished his perfect intellectual capacity.[51] Where he had had reason (knowledge of true and false), he now had only knowledge of apparent truths (morals).[52] Rather than be fully absorbed in a life of reason, discerning true from false, he would be fully absorbed in a life curbing his physical desires, discerning proper from improper.[53] Consequently, man received a new faculty whereby he perceived wrongs of which he had no knowledge before.[54]

Maimonides' interpretation of the Eden story makes clear how morality was created as a result of man's inability to utilize reason. More importantly, his exegesis provides a basis for rejecting arguments and legal theories on moral grounds. An appeal to morals is an appeal to apparent truths, to a man-made fiction created by defective reason. Moral judgments are necessarily unable inform as to true and false. As a result, Maimonides creates a framework whereby one must appeal to Torah (i.e., directly to G-d) for true law and correct judgment.

It is appropriate here, I think, to discuss briefly a methodological problem in studying Maimonides. Maimonides wrote on a variety of topics relating to philosophy, ethics and legal theory. It is often difficult, a difficulty exacerbated by limited exposure to his work and the difficulty of obtaining reliable translations, to infer a consistent viewpoint on a subject from a single passage. Some of this is due to Maimonides purposeful use of esoteric language - he presumes his students to already be familiar with his other works and presents "divergences" as a challenge to the reader.[55] Another source of this difficulty may be the use of inconsistent translations so that different words in Maimonides' manuscript are translated to be the same word by different translators.

One example of this difficulty relates directly to the present discussion; hence this methodological issue is discussed here rather than in an appendix to this paper. We have seen how Maimonides believes that after Adam's sin he will be "wholly absorbed in the study of what is proper and what improper,"[56] meaning non-cognitive pursuits. In Maimonides short treatise on ethics, Eight Chapters, he discusses the five faculties of the soul, one of which being the rational faculty.[57] There, Maimonides says the rational faculty enables man to "discriminate between proper and improper actions."[58]

This might at first seem to contradict Maimonides' statement in The Guide that proper and improper are non-cognitive judgments. Further study, however, reveals that there is no contradiction at all. A close reading of the next passage in Eight Chapters reveals that either Maimonides has challenged us to contemplate what he means by "proper and improper,"[59] or the editors' translations are inconsistent. In the next passage, Maimonides makes clear that the rational faculty is occupied with observances and transgressions only insofar as they relate to a "true or false doctrine."[60] Maimonides is carefully telling us that when applied to the rational faculty, "proper and improper" should be read to mean "true and false." This reading is confirmed later in the passage where he writes "[m]oral virtues belong to the appetitive faculty,"[61] which faculty deals with a man's physical desires.[62] Hence, a close and faithful reading of this apparent inconsistency may be firmly resolved.


If Maimonides had only written The Guide for the Perplexed, his place in the pantheon of Jewish sages would be secure. The greater part of the corpus of Maimonides' works, however, are his legal commentaries and codifications rather than his philosophical works. Maimonides was, in a word, prolific. In addition to countless shorter treatises, he produced three monumental works of scholarship, Commentary on the Mishnah,[63] Mishneh Torah,[64] and The Guide for the Perplexed, any one of which would have secured his place in history. By studying Maimonides' legal writings, we can gain a keener understanding into the role morality plays in his legal theory.

The Talmud is generally not shy about positing possible moral justifications for a particular ruling or precept. Routinely, discussion of a particular legal issue is accompanied by debates among rabbis as to the application of the law relating to that issue, and often each rabbi has his own proof or justification for his particular view. It should not be surprising that Maimonides, when codifying or commenting on legal issues, either ignores or rejects outright moral arguments made in the Talmud in favor of a competing rabbinical argument based on strict legal grounds, or alternatively, based upon his own amoral viewpoint. As we have seen, legal precepts founded upon morality would undermine Maimonides' legal and theological vision.

One example of Maimonides' rejection of a moral justification for a law involves the requirement of sending away a mother bird before taking baby birds or eggs from the nest.[65] The rabbis interpret this law as a moral precept to save the mother bird the agony of witnessing the capture of her children.[66] Maimonides rejects this argument saying that if compassion for animals were a moral requirement, we would be prohibited from eating meat.[67] Rather, Maimonides puts forth no justification for the commandment other than it is G-d's decree.[68]

In another example, the Talmud requires that one pay another whom he has injured compensation for any humiliation or embarrassment the injured party has suffered.[69] The Mishnah, however, provides that payment must be calculated based upon the status of the offended party.[70] The rabbis argue that for the purposes of this payment, the poor and the wealthy ought to be considered of equal status.[71] Maimonides, on the other hand, eschews such a moral view and holds that the Mishnah should be applied literally.[72] Further, he says that some people are so willing to degrade and humiliate themselves that they are virtually subhuman and not worthy of compensation.[73] In this case, Maimonides has taken a stance that seems to oppose a moral requirement to preserve human dignity. He is unwilling to support a rule, accepted by the sages, that we might consider morally sound, if not morally mandated.

In this manner, Maimonides affirms a belief that is consistent throughout his work. Maimonides is firmly of the belief that Torah is complete and true, that we should neither add nor detract from it lest we judge G-d's purpose for enacting it.[74] In Mishneh Torah, Maimonides warns that one should refrain only from those things expressly prohibited and not inhibit himself in those things permitted.[75] He paraphrases a passage from the sages, asking "Do not the prohibitions of the Torah suffice you, that you add others for yourself?"[76] In Eight Chapters, he gives the complete quote, saying "Said Rabbi Iddai, in that name of Rabbi Isaac, `Do you not think that what the Law prohibits is sufficient for you that you must take upon yourself additional prohibitions?"[77] For Maimonides, morality is not only non-cognitive, it is unnecessary, the complete instruction for spiritual fulfillment being already contained in the Torah.


Maimonides certainly intended his work to be read and accepted by pious Jews. To be useful, though, one would expect Maimonides' theories of morality and the law to lay the foundation for all ordered societies. In other words, if Maimonides only intended his philosophies to be understood and practiced by Jews, then how are his followers to survive in a society dominated by non-Jews or secular Jews? If one is to accept Maimonides, then morality is non-cognitive because the only true law (and therefore rational law) is Torah. What, then, can one make of a society that does not accept Torah and therefore is not guided by any rational principles at all?

To phrase the question as we have would certainly make the situation seem hopeless. Maimonides, who lived his entire life under the domination of non-Jewish authority (as all Jews have done since the Roman War in the first century of the common era until Israel's founding in 1948), could not have intended so desperate a conclusion. Rather, an ordered society may be ruled by non-Jews, provided they believe in G-d.

It is important to now bring together Maimonides' moral theory with his interpretation of the Noahide Laws. Morality is non-cognitive - it cannot be discovered independently through reason. Only the divine law is true and it alone must guide behavior. Maimonides therefore has room in his social paradigm for a just and ordered society founded upon the laws given to all man and not just the Jews. For Maimonides, the Noahide Laws (which would incidentally coincide with any natural law doctrine) provide a foundation for society if accepted as given by G-d.[78] Maimonides envisions a moral society, therefore, even among the gentile nations.

Finally, one should not be led to think that Maimonides somehow favors an immoral society. The fact is, Maimonides believes in Torah above all, and a life according to Torah would in any case conform to any vision of a moral society. To label something "moral" or "immoral" would be to impose a distinction that did not exist in Maimonides' schema. To that end, Maimonides and others who have advanced theologies of law (perhaps most notably, St. Thomas Aquinas), were concerned with the same issue - how does one create an ordered society? For Maimonides, as a pious Jew, knowledge of G-d and holiness create an ordered society. For him, the Torah is authoritative and complete on this matter. For Aquinas, rejection of Torah left a void to be filled by a different theology of law, namely natural law. Except for the ritual and ceremonial precepts of the Torah (which are only binding upon Jews in any case), in practice the two legal theories produce virtually the same result.


A study of Maimonides' theology of law and morality ought to benefit both Jew and gentile alike. For the Jew, Maimonides' legal theory encourages piety and devotion to Torah by affirming that absolute belief in Torah, even without accepting cognitive morality, can and should govern one's life. For the non-Jew, a study of Maimonides' should encourage tolerance of Jews and the practice of Judaism since Jewish practice leads to behavior that would conform to natural law.

[1] The word "Torah" (vr,) has several meanings. Commonly, Torah means the first five books of Moses, i.e., the actual Torah scroll. This is known as the Written Law. Torah, however, has a broader meaning which encompasses all Jewish learning, i.e., the Oral Law also. The Oral Law consists mainly of the Talmud and the interpretation of the Oral Law which is part and parcel of the Jewish legal heritage. Throughout this paper, Torah will refer to the former definition, unless otherwise noted. Back to body

[2] Debate over Torah has immense significance in the Jewish tradition. The brand of Judaism that has survived to the present is a direct descendant of the Pharisaic movement around the turn of the common era. Unlike other contemporaneous Jewish sects, the Pharisees practiced a jurisgenerative form of Judaism, fathering an Oral Law tradition to explicate and adapt the Written Law to massive social and political upheavals, specifically the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and the subsequent dispersion of the Jewish population. See LAWRENCE H. SCHIFFMAN, FROM TEXT TO TRADITION: A HISTORY OF SECOND TEMPLE & RABBINIC JUDAISM 119 (1991). The Pharisaic movement, out of which Rabbinic Judaism was born, was a "portable" Judaism that could, unlike the Judaism of the priestly Sadducees or that of the separatist Essenes, be practiced in dispersion, outside of the land of Israel. See id. To study Torah, therefore, is to continually identify with one's roots and forever engage in the kind of discourse that has given life to a people. Back to body

[3] Rambam is an acronym for Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (RaMBaM), a.k.a. Moses Maimonides. Back to body

[4] Maimonides posited the following principles as requirements of faith for every Jew: (1) G-d was, is, and always will be; (2) He is one G-d; (3) He has no form or shape; (4) He existed before anything was created; (5) He is the Lord of the whole universe; (6) He chose great men to be our prophets; (7) Moses was the greatest prophet of them all and saw G-d's image; (8) G-d gave us a Torah of truth through His prophet; (9) G-d will never change His laws; (10) He knows all our secret thoughts; (11) He rewards the righteous man and punishes the evil man; (12) One day He will send us our Messiah to redeem us; and (13) He will bring the dead to life. See SIDDUR M'FORASH 31-33 (Ktav Publishing House, 1965) (Jewish prayer book). Back to body

[5] See infra Part II. Back to body

[6] See infra Part III. Back to body

[7] See infra Part IV. Back to body

[8] See infra Part V. Back to body

[9] See infra Part VI. Back to body

[10] See infra Part VII. Back to body

[11] A real scholarly examination of Maimonides position on the use of reason is far beyond the scope of this paper. Indeed, from his own time until the present, the true meaning of Maimonides' work has achieved anything but a consensus. Within generations of his death, his books were burned and he was branded a closet heretic for exalting reason over revelation. Other scholars, on the other hand, have steadfastly supported the position that Maimonides was a pious Jew whose philosophical writings were purposely vague to discourage the untrained student from studying and misconstruing his positions. Back to body


[13] This was precisely the purpose of the Christian adoption of natural law. See MARVIN FOX, INTERPRETING MAIMONIDES 145 (1990). Aquinas distinguished between the moral and ceremonial precepts of the Hebrew Bible, selecting moral precepts (such as prohibition of murder) as natural law, while rejecting ceremonial precepts (such as dietary laws) as precepts to be disregarded where not useful, i.e., rational. See id. Back to body

[14] See id. at 128. Significantly, there is no word for "nature" in Biblical Hebrew. The crux of the Hebrew Bible is to demonstrate G-d's supremacy and plan for His creation and His people. "Nature", which implies some rational force by which the universe (G-d's creation) is governed, is clearly inconsistent with the Biblical theme of G-d's supremacy and mastery of His creation. Back to body

[15] See id. Back to body

[16] See id. at 129. Maimonides apparently had mixed emotions regarding Saadia Gaon. See id. at 135. In some instances, Maimonides criticizes rabbis who hold that morality is discoverable through reason, and these criticisms are generally believed to be (thinly) veiled attacks on Saadia Gaon. See id. In other instances, however, Maimonides expresses deep admiration for Saadia Gaon, saying that without him Jewish learning might have been completely lost. See id. Back to body

[17] See id. Back to body

[18] See id. Back to body

[19] See J. David Bleich, Judaism and Natural Law, in JEWISH LAW AND LEGAL THEORY 85, 93 (Martin P. Golding, ed., 1993). Back to body

[20] See FOX, supra note 13, at 129-30. Back to body

[21] See id. at 130. Back to body

[22] See BLEICH, supra note 19, at 94. Back to body

[23] For a more complete discussion of Albo's source for these prohibitions, see BLEICH, supra note 19, at 94. Back to body

[24] See FOX, supra note 13, at 130. Back to body

[25] The specific commandments are as follows:

Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it; and at the hand of man, even at the hand of every man's brother, will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of G-d made He man.

Gen 9:4-6. Rabbis have interpreted these verses to comprise seven fundamental laws applicable to all man: (1) establishment of courts of justice, (2) prohibition of blasphemy, (3) prohibition of idolatry, (4) prohibition of incest, (5) prohibition of murder, (6) prohibition of robbery, and (7) prohibition of eating flesh cut from a living animal. Back to body

[26] See BLEICH, supra note 19, at 87 (quoting MOSES MAIMONIDES, MISHNEH TORAH, Hilkhot Melakhim 8:11). This statement is not without controversy. Some manuscripts of Mishneh Torah read the last line as "but of their wise men" rather than "nor of their wise men." The Hebrew term for "nor", "velo" (tku) looks very similar to the term for "but", "elo" (tkh) and was likely changed as a gloss by a copyist. See BLEICH, supra note 19, at 87, endnotes A and B for a discussion of this issue and why the quoted language is probably correct. Back to body

[27] The first step, namely identifying the limits of man's rational powers, is often ignored by critics of Maimonides who claim that Maimonides exalted reason as supreme, even above religion. See, e.g., ACHAD HA-AM, THE SUPREMACY OF REASON (Leon Simon, trans. 1917). Back to body

[28] See MOSES MAIMONIDES, THE GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED I, 31 (M. Friedlander, trans., 2d ed. 1956)(hereinafter GUIDE). References to The Guide will be made to the part and chapter only without specific page references. First, the chapters are typically only two to three pages in length and the cited material may easily be found. Second, a particular idea may be the result of an entire reading of the chapter and a page cite may not be helpful in explaining the noted material. Back to body

[29] See GUIDE I, 32. Back to body

[30] See GUIDE, INTRODUCTION. Back to body

[31] See, e.g., GUIDE I, 59. Interestingly, Maimonides elsewhere states that it is a commandment to "know G-d." One of the challenges of reading Maimonides is to make sense of the apparent contradictions or divergent statements made by him throughout his works. In his Introduction to The Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides intimates that he has purposefully written divergences into the Guide so as to encourage the reader to resolve them and obtain a fuller understanding of the tensions between the arguments he presents. Note also that "knowing G-d" is different from knowing that He exists. The existence of G-d is provable, according to Maimonides, and hence arrived at through reason. For a detailed discussion of one such divergence and related methodological issues, see infra notes 55-62 and accompanying text. Back to body

[32] See GUIDE, INTRODUCTION. Back to body

[33] For Maimonides, the incorporeality and unity of G-d are not only demonstrable and hence may be arrived at through reason, but they are principles of faith that are required for every Jew. See supra note 4. Back to body

[34] Gen. 1:26. Back to body

[35] See GUIDE I, 1. Back to body

[36] See id. Back to body

[37] See id. Back to body

[38] See id. Back to body

[39] See GUIDE II, 32-48. Maimonides' views on prophecy and reason are beyond the scope of this paper. According to Maimonides, a man could receive prophecy according to the quality of his intellect. Maimonides hence classifies prophecies, and prophets, according to the ways in which they received prophecy (i.e., waking vision, during sleep, audio only, audio-visual, through angels, etc.). The highest prophet, and hence the greatest intellect, was Moses, who spoke to G-d "face to face" (Ex. 33:11). For a summary of Maimonides' views on reason and prophecy, see Mark R. Sunwall, The Suprarational Grounds of Rationalism: Maimonides and The Criteria of Prophecy (visited Mar. 17, 1999) <>. Back to body

[40] See GUIDE I, 2. Back to body

[41] See id. Back to body

[42] See GUIDE I, 1. See also supra Part III for a discussion of Maimonides' argument. Back to body

[43] See GUIDE I, 2. Back to body

[44] Id. Back to body

[45] See id. The passage dealing with this point is translated by Friedlander (see GUIDE, supra note 28) as "Through the intellect man distinguishes between the true and the false. This faculty Adam possessed perfectly and completely. The right and wrong are terms employed in the science of apparent truths (morals), not in that of necessary truths[.]" GUIDE I, 2. Marvin Fox, in his Interpreting Maimonides, (see FOX, supra note 13) provides what is likely a better translation: "Through the intellect one distinguishes between truth and falsehood, and that was found in Adam in its perfection and integrity. Beautiful and ugly, on the other hand, belong to things generally accepted as known (i.e., conventions), not to those cognized by the intellect." FOX, supra note 13, at 136. For Fox's discussion of competing translations of The Guide, see FOX, supra note 13, at 47-54 (discussing inaccuracies in Friedlander's translation). It should be noted that despite Fox's valid criticisms, it is Friedlander's and not Fox's preferred translation by Shlomo Pines that is available in the mass market. Back to body

[46] Gen. 3:7. Back to body

[47] See Gen. 2:25. "And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed." Id. Back to body

[48] See GUIDE I, 2. Back to body

[49] Maimonides cites Psalm viii, verse 6, "Thou hast made him [man] little lower than the angels." GUIDE I, 2. Back to body

[50] Gen. 3:6. Maimonides is concerned here with explaining the source of G-d's simple yet enigmatic commandment regarding the Tree of Knowledge. According to Maimonides' reading of the Eden story, G-d planted a tree "delightful to the eyes" to be a reminder to Adam to choose a life of reason. A perfect intellect without bodily form would have seen the trees only for their food and would have had no temptation to partake of something only because it was "delightful to the eyes." Man's dual existence in body and mind created a tension that he was to work to overcome. Adam (i.e., man) failed to overcome this tension. Back to body

[51] See GUIDE I, 2. Back to body

[52] See id. Back to body

[53] See id. Back to body

[54] See id. Back to body

[55] See supra notes 11 and 31. Back to body

[56] See GUIDE I, 2. Back to body

[57] See MOSES MAIMONIDES, Eight Chapters, in MAIMONIDES READER 365 (Isadore Twersky ed., 1972) (hereinafter TWERSKY ed., Eight Chapters). Back to body

[58] Id. Back to body

[59] This is the first source of divergence, see supra text accompanying note 55. Back to body

[60] See TWERSKY ed., Eight Chapters, supra note 57, at 365. Back to body

[61] See id. at 366. Back to body

[62] See id. at 364. Back to body

[63] The Mishnah is part of the Talmud, redacted circa 200 C.E. comprising most of the Oral Law. The Gemara, the second part of the Talmud and read together with the Mishnah, was redacted about 400 years later and consists of commentary, discussion and legal arguments relating to the Mishnah. Back to body

[64] Mishneh Torah was Maimonides attempt to codify all of Jewish law into a single work. Back to body

[65] See Deut. 22:6-7. Back to body

[66] See Talmud Mas. Ber. 33b. Back to body

[67] See FOX, supra note 13, at 210. Back to body

[68] See id. Back to body

[69] See Talmud Mas. Baba Kama, chapter VIII. Back to body

[70] See Talmud Mas. Baba Kama 86a. Back to body

[71] See id. The rabbis argue that all men should be considered as if they had become impoverished. Id. Back to body

[72] See FOX, supra note 13, at 213. Back to body

[73] See id. at 213-14. Back to body

[74] See GUIDE III, 26. Maimonides notes that the purpose of commandments was concealed from us lest we learn their cause and despise them as Solomon did. See id. Back to body

[75] See MOSES MAIMONIDES, Mishneh Torah, in MAIMONIDES READER 57 (Isadore Twersky ed., 1972) (hereinafter TWERSKY ed., Mishneh Torah). Back to body

[76] Id. Back to body

[77] TWERSKY ed., Eight Chapters, supra note 57, at 374. Back to body

[78] See supra notes 25-26 and accompanying text.

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