A few contemporary reviews of the Rambam and his impact on Yiddishkeit today. טוב

Before learning the 6th Mishna, based upon how the Rif halachic commentary learned the Talmud.  It appears necessary to introduce positive comments contemporaries have made on the Rambam.  The contrast to what they write with what this super commentary on the Rif brings as evidence.  In his introduction to the Mishna Torah, the Rambam never once mentions the kabbala of Rabbi Akiva and how it defines the Oral Torah – which the Mishna and Gemara works codify.  This fact represents a significant omission.

Who questions the “RULES” established by the Rambam and his peers, which determines which and which rabbis in the Talmud – from these restricted opinions comes present day halacha?  As a young student, acceptance of these rules became mandatory upon all Yeshiva students!  Why?  During the Dark Ages, where the condition to travel, both difficult and dangerous – in those times these rules permitted rabbis living in isolated communities to poskin halacha for their “Island” communities of Jewish refugees. These rules of how to poskin halacha, effectively maintained a consistent tradition for all g’lut Jewry.  But when travel became far less difficult and dangerous, why maintain a dictatorship of how to poskin halacha?

Remember scratching my head, wondering how the Tannaim and Amoraim scholars ever derived the concept of “Halacha” in the first place.  Halacha, existed as, at least to me, an undefined and troubling “given”.  As an atheist – praise HaShem, have always challenged the validity of rhetoric which Universally never defines its key terms upon which that same rhetoric thereafter hangs “mountains of theology” upon floating strings – never once ever defined.  Then Rav Aaron Nemuraskii came into my life.  He taught me that the Torah teaches mussar NOT theology.  Neither halacha nor the rules by which later scholars poskin halacha from rabbinic authorities within the Sha’s Talmud qualify as mussar.  This caused me to challenge the validity of the ever so popular, “mandatory rules” by which the famous halachic codes poskined “their” halacha. 

How does halacha define mussar?  This question caused me to likewise reject the rhetoric premises by which virtually all rabbinic authorities blindly accept halacha, as a dogmatic act of faith.  This put me on a head on collision course with Yiddishkeit.  Almost from day one in the Yeshiva, through a comparative study first of the Rif, Rosh, and Rambam codes, and later expanded my search to find a definition for halacha, studied the B’hag, Beit Yosef, and Tur\ Shulchan Aruch codifications as well.  None of these works truly wet my whistle.  After making a close study of them, still had no clarity just how the Tannaim and Amoraim developed the concept of “halacha”. 

Then came Rabbi Nemuraskii, his instruction made a study Midrashic sources. And suddenly out of the blue, it dawned upon me the meaning of Rabbi Akiva’s פרדס chariot mysticism!  How the פרדס format of logic defined the revelation of the Oral Torah at Horev; how through this logic system, how to derive and define “halacha” such that this definition learned hand in glove with mussar.  Rav Aaron then introduced me to the Yerushalmi which teaches that over 247 prophets occupied themselves in writing the Shemone Esrei … and at a stroke, like an apple falling upon my head, it all came together!

To da’avin with k’vanna requires mussar.  Because Torah teaches mussar NOT theology and definitely, emphatically NOT dogmatism.  It bothered me after reading Rambam’s introduction to the Mishna Torah wherein he declared that the Babylonian Talmud exists as an obligation upon all Israel.  He lumped the Gemara up together with the Mishna, and made no distinction between the two!  Furthermore, the Rambam makes not a single reference to the Siddur!  Halacha and the Siddur work hand in glove together – a most basic definition of terms.  When the Rambam introduction addressed the subject of the Gaonim scholarship, he fails to mention their works of Midrashim!  Rav Aaron’s sh’itta of learning centered around how Midrash interprets the Talmud.  It became clear to me, from thereon that the Rambam had not learned Midrash.  He did not grasp how Midrash interprets the Talmud.  Visited many Yeshivot in Jerusalem and Bene Beraq, not one of those institutions make a study of Midrash!

Rav Avigdor Miller on The Rambam and Aristotle

Q: 
You quoted from the Rambam that we should stay away from the gentiles and wicked people. But the Rambam himself was very much involved with gentiles, in particular with Aristotle. Why?

A:
I’ll explain it to you.  When you’re sitting now by that tape recorder recording this lecture, you’re taking something made maybe by goyim and thought up perhaps by goyim. You ride on buses driven by goyim. If you have a car, so the car and the gasoline are made and supplied by goyim. Before

The answer is, whatever useful things goyim have to give you, you take it; if it’s an implement, technology, you can use it. And Aristotle to the Rambam was just a useful mechanism.  He supplied him with information.  But the Rambam wouldn’t sit with him.  He wouldn’t sit with him!

Now the truth is that the Rambam wouldn’t advise us even to read Aristotle’s books. He was able to read the books and pick out of them the things that seemed to him useful. And the truth is, after all is said and done, the Rambam took from Aristotle things which he thought were completely true but they weren’t.  You know, today it’s a pity because we learn the Rambam in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah and everything there is perfect except for the few things that come from Greek philosophy. Today they’re meaningless.

So what the Rambam took from Torah is forever and ever.  But what the Rambam took by following the ways of Aristotle are useless today.  That’s why certain parts of Moreh Nevuchim are meaningless today.  And the Vilna Gaon, the Gra, says about the Rambam: הפילוסופיה הארורה הטתו ברוב לקחה, that the cursed philosophy deceived him.  The Gra says that; the accursed philosophy deceived the Rambam! So even when the Rambam tried to pick out the useful things, in some cases he was deceived.  

But that was the Rambam’s approach to Aristotle.  It’s like our approach, let’s say, to medicine.  If a gentile specialist tells you that this and this diet or this or this medicine is good for you, so it’s not associating with him.  It’s just like using his tape recorder.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Moses ben Maimon [known to English speaking audiences as Maimonides and Hebrew speaking as Rambam] (1138–1204) is the greatest Jewish philosopher of the medieval period and is still widely read today. The Mishneh Torah, his 14-volume compendium of Jewish law, established him as the leading rabbinic authority of his time and quite possibly of all time. His philosophic masterpiece, the Guide of the Perplexed, is a sustained treatment of Jewish thought and practice that seeks to resolve the conflict between religious knowledge and secular. Although heavily influenced by the Neo-Platonized Aristotelianism that had taken root in Islamic circles, it departs from prevailing modes of Aristotelian thought by emphasizing the limits of human knowledge and the questionable foundations of significant parts of astronomy and metaphysics. Maimonides also achieved fame as a physician and wrote medical treatises on a number of diseases and their cures. Succeeding generations of philosophers wrote extensive commentaries on his works, which influenced thinkers as diverse as Aquinas, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Newton.

Conclusion

How one assesses Maimonides’ philosophy depends on one’s own philosophic view. For a traditional theist like Aquinas, he is right to say that there are issues, e.g. creation, that cannot be resolved by demonstration and to insist that all attempts to anthropomorphize God are misguided. The problem is that in rejecting anthropomorphism, he may have gone too far. If God bears no likeness to the created order, and if terms like wise, powerful, or lives are completely ambiguous when applied to God and us, the conception of divinity we are left with is too thin for the average worshipper to appreciate.

For a naturalist like Spinoza, Maimonides is too willing to dismiss science and take refuge in traditional concepts like creation and divine volition. Granted that medieval astronomy did not have a good explanation of planetary motion; with the advent of the scientific revolution, it found one – at least in Spinoza’s opinion. If Maimonides were to remain true to his word and accept the strongest argument wherever it leads, as far as Spinoza’s is concerned, he would have to embrace the new science, the eternity of the world, and the necessity of every event that takes place in it. In order to do this, he would have to abandon the idea that the Bible is a source of philosophic and scientific truth and look to it only for the light it sheds on how to live. Needless to say, this would be a disaster for Maimonides.

Even if Maimonides were to make this move and read the Bible for its ethical content, problems would remain. Maimonides is an elitist. Closeness to God is measured by how much knowledge one acquires. The result is that people whose situations prevent them from pursuing advanced studies cannot be close to God or love God. Whether it is right or wrong, this view offends modern sensibilities, which are much more democratic.

Finally for an atheist, Maimonides’ philosophy shows us what happens if you remove all anthropomorphic content from your conception of God: you remove all content of any kind. In the end, you are left with a God whose essence is unknowable and indescribable. Of what possible value is such a conception either to philosophy or religion?

At his trial for impiety in 399 B.C., Socrates was asked how it is that the wisest person in Athens claims to be ignorant of the knowledge he seeks. His answer (Apology 23a-b) is that he is wise because unlike others, he recognizes that when measured against divine wisdom, human wisdom is of little or no value. Although it is doubtful that he read Socrates’ words, there is little question that this is the insight Maimonides is trying to preserve. That person is wisest who recoils in awe and humility in the face of something infinitely greater than he or she can fathom. This insight explains why, despite his best efforts, Maimonides was unable to find airtight demonstrations for many of his insights about God, creation, and revelation and is often content just to tip the scales in one direction or present an honest assessment of the problem. In a recent work, Alfred Ivry (2016, 4) contends that Maimonides himself is one of the perplexed for whom the Guide was written.

Viewed in a sympathetic light, Maimonides’ elitism stems from the recognition that few people will be satisfied with this. Although not everyone in the history of philosophy would agree, there is no question that Maimonides’ view has a long history and remains a powerful alternative.

Maimonides (Rambam) and His Texts | My Jewish Learning

Maimonides lived under Islamic rule for his entire life, and he both benefited and suffered greatly because of it. Maimonides spent his formative years in a society in which tolerant Muslim leadership catalyzed vibrant cultural exchange with its Jewish and Christian minorities. Islamic scholarship in particular influenced him, especially later in his life. Unfortunately, when Maimonides was 10 years old, a fundamentalist Berber tribe called the Almohads entered Córdoba and presented Jewish residents with three choices: conversion, exile or death. The Maimoni family chose exile, leaving Córdoba and eventually emigrating to Morocco in about 1160, when Maimonides was in his early 20s. Many scholars believe Maimonides may have outwardly practiced Islam during this period, not out of belief but in order to protect himself, and that he continued to practice Judaism secretly. In 1165, the Maimoni family set sail for Palestine. After a brief yet formative visit to the land of Israel, then under Crusader rule, they finally settled in Egypt in 1166 — first in Alexandria, and eventually in Fustat (part of present-day Cairo). Maimonides lived there until his death in 1204.

Mishneh Torah (written 1168-1178)

Maimonides composed the Mishneh Torah (literally, a “repetition” or “second” Torah) over a 10-year period, continuing to edit it until his death. Comprising 14 books and nearly 1,000 chapters, it was the first ever comprehensive code of halakha (Jewish law). In writing the MT, Maimonides drew from earlier source, such as the Mishnah, Tosefta, Midrash,

and Talmud, with an encyclopedic memory and considerable attention to both intertextuality and literary aesthetics. His admiration for these works notwithstanding, he designed the MT to be so exhaustive and accurate that it would make all but the Torah itself obsolete. In his introduction, he instructs, “One should read the written Torah and then read [the MT]. Then he will know the oral Torah in its entirety, without needing to read any other text beside.”

In order to make the Mishneh Torah accessible to the entire Jewish world, Maimonides organized it topically and composed it in clear, concise Hebrew. In a radical departure from tradition, Maimonides omitted from the MT both the names of earlier scholars and most of their opinions, preserving only those rulings he deemed correct. Critics attacked him for this decision, spawning an even greater literature that grows even to this day. Among his fiercest critics was Abraham ben David, the Ravad, (c. 1125-1198) a great Provençal Talmudist who criticized Maimonides for omitting his sources, among other things. Nonetheless, the Mishneh Torah inspired important scholars such as Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (c. 1269 – 1343) and Rabbi Joseph Caro (c. 1488 – 1575), two of the most important later codifiers, changing the landscape of Jewish thought forever.

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