Saturday, February 28, 2009

Moses Maimonides

I have been sampling sections of Moses Maimonides's treatise, The Guide for the Perplexed. His writings have left me more perplexed than when I began.

Maimonides (1135-1204) was a brilliant philosopher and Jewish theologian, born in Cordova in Mohammedan Spain. When Maimonides was thirteen, he and his family were forced to emigrate when Cordova was taken by an aggressively intolerant Mohammedan sect, the Alomhades. After many years of wandering in northern Africa, the family settled in Fostat, Egypt. Shortly thereafter, when Maimonides was thirty three, he finished his great work, the Commentary on the Mishnah. The Mishnah, the first major work of Rabbinic Judaism, was a consolidation of Jewish oral traditions arranged by subject matter into six orders: 1) prayer and blessings, tithes and agricultural laws; 2) laws of the Sabbath and the Festivals; 3) marriage and divorce, some forms of oaths and the laws of the nazirite; 4) civil and criminal law, the functioning of the courts and oaths; 5) sacrificial rites, the Temple, and the dietary laws; and 6) laws of purity and impurity. Maimonides's commentary gave notice that a new hotshot rabbi had arrived on the scene.

Maimonides, like Aristotle, his chief influence in natural philosophy, had a mind that was comprehensive and systematic. Maimonides's next work, a compilation of a complete code of the Written and the Oral Law, required all of his abilities to organize what amounted to a one-stop solution to every Jewish question about religious, moral, or social duties. The genius of the work was widely recognized. But a backlash from the rabbinic community arose in response to the sheer ambition of Maimonides's undertaking and the judgments that he made between figurative and literal interpretation as he fitted his material into a unified system.

Maimonides had little patience with his critics, whom he regarded as philosophical light-weights. This prickly attitude was reflected in his introduction to The Guide for the Perplexed, which was a later treatise on theology, metaphysics, and natural philosophy:

When I have a difficult subject before me -- when I find the road narrow, and can see no other way of teaching a well established truth except by pleasing one intelligent man and displeasing ten thousand fools -- I prefer to address myself to the one man, and to take no notice whatever of the condemnation of the multitude; I prefer to extricate that intelligent man from his embarrassment and show him the cause of his perplexity, so that he may attain perfection and be at peace.

The Guide for the Perplexed displays Maimonides's impressive skills in logical exposition, especially the sections that attempt to harmonize Old Testament teaching with Aristotle's teaching about the Cosmos. If you agree with Maimonides's assumptions, you are swept along by his reasoning to his inevitable conclusions. His self-confidence was supreme. He and Aristotle had everything figured out. Of course, if Maimonides's assumptions are baloney, everything collapses into a heap of nonsense. Take, as an example, Maimonides's linking of Scripture with the Aristotelian notions of the heavenly spheres that direct the motions of the sun, moon, stars, and planets:

Scripture supports the theory that the spheres are animate and intellectual, i.e., capable of comprehending things; that they are not, as ignorant persons believe, inanimate masses like fire and earth, but are, as the philosophers assert, endowed with life, and serve their Lord, whom they mightily praise and glorify; comp. "The heavens declare the glory of God," etc. (Ps. xix. 2). It is a great error to think that this is a mere figure of speech; for the verbs "to declare" and "to relate" when joined together, are, in Hebrew, only used of intellectual beings... Only ignorant or obstinate persons would refuse to admit this proof taken from Scripture.

I once worked with a man who would frequently buffalo others with the cleverness of his arguments. As long as he could keep the focus of the debate on his chain of reasoning, his position was unassailable. But his conclusions were only as valid as his initial assumptions. If you disagreed with his conclusions, you had to prod him to return to the very beginning and carefully examine his assumptions. However, he would often react to your challenging his assumptions by dismissing you as an ignoramus.

I quickly learned to restrict my conversations with this man to the topics of weather and sports.