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Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest

by David Hartman

Bibliographic information

TitleMaimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest
AuthorDavid Hartman
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2002


In this original study, noted scholar and theologian David Hartman discusses the relation between Maimonides’ halakhic writings and The Guide of the Perplexed—the connection is much closer than is generally supposed. Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest demonstrates that Maimonides’ total philosophic endeavor was an attempt to show how the free search for truth, established through the study of logic, physics, and metaphysics, can live harmoniously with a way of life defined by the normative traditions of Judaism.

This pioneering work, originally published by JPS in 1976, earned Dr. Hartman a National Jewish Book Award for a book on Jewish thought.

About the Author 

David Hartman ---

David Hartman was born in 1931 in Brooklyn, New York and attended Yeshiva Chaim Berlin and the Lubavitcher Yeshiva. He studied with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University`s Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Theological Seminary, where he received his rabbinic ordination. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from McGill University. Emigrating to Israel in 1971, Dr. Hartman was the founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and is a personal advisor to the director-general of the Ministry of Education. He is the co-author, along with Abraham S. Halkin, of Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides.



FOREWORD / Shlomo Pines


Multiple Responses to the Conflict of Philosophy and Halakhah


Philosophy in Maimonides’ Legal Works


Halakhic and Aggadic Categories and Their Relationship to Philosophic Spirituality


Reason and Traditional Authority within Halakhah and Philosophy


The Philosophic Religious Sensibility


Morality and the Passionate Love for God





The previous chapters attempt to show, in opposition to Husik’s approach, how Maimonides exposed the reader of his legal works to philosophy. He is not articulating a tradition which has no use for philosophy, but instead is portraying a halakhic way to God which must be united with philosophy.

There is yet another aspect of his works which supports this idea. A proper understanding of Maimonides’ attitude toward authority is crucial for substantiating this orientation to his philosophy. A religious tradition which insists on uncritical subservience to its norms of behavior and beliefs tends to generate a specific human type which, in many ways, is incompatible with an intellectual love of God. Obedience to authority is not the basis for love— especially the love awakened by the perfection of the Beloved.

The individual guided by reason would find himself isolated within the community which demanded an uncritical acceptance of its beliefs. If such a person is to remain rooted in the community, it is crucial that the communal forms of spirituality, i.e., Halakhah, do not exclusively stress an obedience-orientation running counter to the independent spirit cultivated by reason. Political considerations may keep such an individual within the framework of community. Yet if the claim is made that such an individual can remain within his community for reasons which are essentially related to his personal spiritual outlook, we must show how the way of reason can flourish within halakhic Judaism. The individual within Halakhah must have room to cultivate his independent reason; he cannot be asked to submit uncritically to the claims of authority.

To fulfill a norm or to assent to a statement solely on the basis of authority is to cultivate a relationship nurtured by obedience. Imperatives can obligate an individual either on the basis of their content or on the authority of their author. Similarly, an individual can assent to statements of belief either because the statements appeal to rational criteria or because the individual possesses an unconditional regard for the authority-figure. In the latter case, one need not examine the content of belief before assenting. All that is necessary is to establish that the statement emanates from an accepted authority; the examination of what is said, for the most part, is irrelevant. Critical reasoning and evaluation, in fact, are dangerous and undesirable; they may introduce doubt and wavering when what is sought is unconditional compliance with authority. We realize that this either/or dichotomy tends to oversimplify a problem that is more subtle than it is clearcut.

Authority can take place within a context of shared values. It is these common values which both confer legitimacy on the person claiming authority and limit the scope of what he can do or say. As Peter Winch points out, the Pope, although often seen as an absolute authority—infallible in his decisions—could hardly maintain the allegiance of his church were he to claim that God does not exist or that cohabitation outside of marriage is a divine command.

Despite this fact (which should caution one from emphasizing exclusively the notion of uncritical obedience in relationships based upon authority), one can still distinguish between the type of person developed by authoritarian systems and the type developed by systems whose appeal is to reason. The former system is most compatible with the obedient personality, whereas the latter encourages the development of an independent person whose commitment is nurtured primarily by his own understanding. A relationship which allows for rational examination encourages an individual to appreciate the wisdom of the author of the norms and beliefs. When God’s activities and dictates can be independently evaluated so that His wisdom becomes manifest to man, the groundwork is set for a relationship which is not based exclusively on obedience.

The Halakhah is a system of norms tracing its ultimate authoritative appeal to God; the revelation at Sinai is the ground of the normative structure of halakhic legislation. Specific laws dictate the behavior of Jews in virtually all aspects of their lives. It is reasonable to expect, that since Halakhah is based on unconditional acceptance of divine authority, it would develop the obedient personality whose primary concern is to fulfill the laws of his tradition. Yet, according to Maimonides, the telos of Halakhah is to create ideal conditions for the realization of intellectual love of God. Maimonides must therefore develop an approach to halakhic authority which will make it compatible with a spiritual life dedicated to philosophic knowledge of God. He must show that obedience to authority is not the sole virtue of Halakhah. If Halakhah encourages the development of a critical mind capable of independent reflection and evaluation, it cannot be exclusively characterized by appeals to authority which demand unconditional obedience.

Our analysis of the Maimonidean theory of halakhic authority will focus on how he restricted the use of appeals to authority within the Halakhah, and revealed instead areas of halakhic law which were independent of those appeals. Further analysis of Maimonides’ epistemology in the Guide will also reveal that he sought to teach his reader to differentiate between norms and beliefs which must be accepted on the basis of the authority of tradition and those which appeal to reasoning, whether through demonstrative inference or through legal argumentation. In doing so he showed that there are common principles operating within Halakhah and Aggadah which determine the legitimate scope of authority. His understanding of the relationship between authority and reason provides a frame within which the halakhic Jew can legitimately engage in those philosophic disciplines which nurture love for God.

Maimonides’ treatment of authority, in his introduction to The Commentary to the Mishnah, begins with a discussion of the scope of prophetic authority. The prophet characteristically calls upon the authority of God to justify his claims. The limits of prophetic authority established within Judaism must be clarified if reason is to possess any legitimacy within the religious life of the tradition.

Maimonides states that the prophet has full authority to decide political questions involving war and peace, economic policy and, if he deems it necessary, to temporarily suspend the laws of the Torah. However, no prophet can suspend—even temporarily—the prohibitions against idolatry. Regarding a “prophet” commanding participation in idolatrous worship, Maimonides writes:

… for the testimony of reason which denies his prophecy is stronger than the testimony of the eye which sees his miracles, for it has already been made clear to men of reason that it is not proper to honor nor to worship other than the One who caused all beings to exist and is unique in [His] ultimate perfection.

Prophetic authority cannot demand obedience to that which is contrary to the testimony of reason. Such demands would immediately prove the prophet to be false, regardless of miracles which might confirm his authority. Miracles do not convince rational men of the validity of such claims.

To Maimonides, such miracles are tests God sets before men. The tests may well be whether authority can be revered without such reverence leading to unconditional and indiscriminate submission, i.e., whether the Jew will abandon the testimony of reason when confronted with the claims of miracle workers. True loyalty to God is manifest by one who trusts his reason and refuses to follow authority indiscriminately.


David Hartman’s study of Maimonides is highly original and clearly and vigorously argued... It should prove to be an important contribution to the ongoing discussion of Maimonides.

- Chaim Soloveitchik

Dr. Hartman’s study impressed me most favorably... His work is an important contribution toward the proper appreciation of the philosopher Maimonides.

- Abraham S. Halkin

Hartman’s interest goes beyond a description of the thought of Maimonides. Based on his description he makes some serious recommendations for contemporary Jewish thought that should be of interest to philosophers as well as to historians of Judaica.

- Norbert M. Samuelson

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