The Many Faces of Maimonides

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Dov Schwartz
Batya Stein
  • Brighton, MA: 
    Academic Studies Press
    , May
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Dov Schwartz’s The Many Faces of Maimonides is a compact but dense collection of essays that focuses on “a new reading of several issues in the The Guide of the Perplexed (University of Chicago Press, 1963),” Maimonides’s explanation of the relationship between theology and philosophy.  This proposed “new reading” forms the basis of chapters 1-5 of the book.

Chapter 1, “The Passion for Metaphysics,” identifies chapters 31-35 of Book 1 of The Guide as a cohesive unit dealing with the proper approach to the study of metaphysics. This may be directed specifically to the recipient of the book, Rabbi Joseph Ibn Aknin, who was “perplexed” and needed guidance, or perhaps Maimonides intended these chapters to be a general argument against what he saw as the general population’s unbridled enthusiasm for metaphysics. Without guidelines and limits people are prone to serious error in their pursuit of metaphysics, such as taking literally the anthropomorphic language in the Bible in their understanding of God. This is why, Schwartz argues, that the larger context of Book 1 deals with topics such as the use of language in the Bible, especially the need to interpret the biblical attributes of God in non-corporeal terms.

Schwartz summarizes the scholarly reception of this unit from Maimonides’ day to the present concluding with a discussion of the use of the Arabic term shawq (“passion” or “longing”). Josef Stern argues it refers only to a longing for what is “purely epistemological,” as in a passion for metaphysics, whereas David Blumenthal argues that it means more: “this desire transcends the epistemological limit: we seek an experience of love and an awareness of God’s presence” (53) Thus “worship of the heart” is not simply a rational process, it also engages one’s love or “desire” (Blumenthal’s discussion also includes Maimonides’ use of the Arabic ‘ishq—“contemplation and desire for God”). Schwartz combines these two options into “two stages of passion . . . The first stage characterizes humanity in general and refers to the passion (shawq) for metaphysics … the second stage, ‘ishq, denotes the second level of spiritual experience” (53) These two stages, he claims, form the “leitmotif of the entire Guide” (ibid) Whereas for Blumenthal this is indicative of Maimonides’ rational mysticism (or, philosophic mysticism), Schwartz has already stated in his introduction that he does not “accept mystic explanations of his endeavor” (vi). In any event, this desire to know God is inherent in the human psyche, argues Schwartz, but to Maimonides, not every human’s desire is equal to the task. There must be guidelines.

In chapter 2, Schwartz states that rationalist interpreters of Maimonides have been too satisfied with a non-critical acceptance of his use of Aristotle, that Maimonides actually took issue with elements of Aristotle’s teaching, and this fact hasn’t received scholarly due diligence. As a test case, he follows Maimonides’ take on the separate intellects as taught by Aristotle and focuses on Book 2, chapters 2 to 12 of The Guide. That this section precedes the chapters on creation, Schwartz argues, demands explanation, the result being that, while Maimonides treats Aristotle as science, he views science as subservient to theology. Thus, a proper knowledge of the laws of science informs one’s understanding of and appreciation for creation, and ultimately, for the Creator.

To physics Maimonides applies the rabbinic term, ma`aseh bereshit. Mastery of this level of knowledge is necessary before approaching the next level, ma`aseh merkavah, or metaphysics. Science is good “for its own sake” but it is also “good as an aid to understanding the prophets’ thought” (70). From this it is reasonable to posit that the ultimate goal of the Guide is theological, and that interpreters who bifurcate Maimonides into rationalist and rabbi have not understood him at all. What is esoteric about Maimonides, according to Schwartz, is not that he was writing in code, but that the prophets, when speaking on behalf of God, had a proper scientific knowledge, even though they related their heavenly message in terms of “angels” and “ladders.”

In chapter 3, Schwartz takes a look at how the Mishne Torah should be read. Historically, scholars have argued over the proper approach. He hopes to make a “modest contribution to the acknowledgment of the Mishneh Torah’s uniqueness” (90-91) in light of much scholarly debate on its purpose. The goal is to demonstrate that Maimonides’ philosophical outlook influenced his halakhic rulings, and that it was intensified by his move from Spain to Egypt and the circumstances that ensued. As a test case, Schwartz examines two of the laws concerning idolatry in the Mishne Torah and “Letter on Astrology” in comparison to his earlier treatments of the same subject (e.g., in the Commentary on the Mishna). His conclusion is that Maimonides’ treatment in the Mishne Torah exhibits an intensification of Maimonides’ view in an aim “for a comprehensive and systematic formulation of the prohibition on making figures” (102).

A related theme in chapter 4, “Idolatry as Mediation,” is a discussion of the use of astral magic in the Middle Ages and its connection with ancient astrology. Just as Maimonides opposed all use of images, he also opposed the use of astral magic for both scientific and theological reasons. Chapter 5, “Immortality and imagination,” deals less with The Guide and more with his other works on the subject of the origin, composition, and final destiny of the soul. Schwartz suggests throughout that because Maimonides never wrote extensively on the subject of the soul, much of his thought was dependent upon the work of Avicenna (Ibn Sina), particularly in works such as Kitab al-Najat al-Shifa. He points out areas of agreement and disagreement between Avicenna and Maimonides. The relevance of this discussion for Schwartz’s thesis is that for both thinkers correct knowledge leads one closer to truth, thus God.

The goal of the studies in this book is to establish the conclusion in chapter 6 that Maimonides was a philosophical theologian and The Guide was “intended as a critique of theology. The purpose of this critique . . . was not to replace it with philosophy but to suggest a new theology based on philosophical considerations” (157). That is, contrary to “radical views” he was not a philosopher in rabbinic clothing, but a true integrator who found that science undergirds theology. In short, he was both pious and scientific. He was “a theologian who is not willing to renounce the Aristotelian paradigm with its Neoplatonic overtones but is willing to reconsider some of its basic assumptions” (134). But there is the irony that “the purpose of the Guide was to dispel doubts, and the absurdity is that a tangle of contradictions and contrary statements was construed as a solution to a tangle of doubts” (162) Thus, the title, The Many Faces of Maimonides.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rev. Tom Edmondson is the Senior Minister at First Christian Church of Atlanta (Disciples of Christ). 

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dov Schwartz, a former Dean of Humanities at Bar Ilan University and head of the departments of Philosophy and of Music, currently heads its interdisciplinary unit, and holds the Natalie and Isidore Friedman Chair for Teaching Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Thought.


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