What was the importance of Jewish philosophy in medieval thought?

Moses Maimonides, or Moses son of Maimon (1135-1204), who is also referred to as Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (RaMBaM), had an extensive influence on subsequent Jewish scholarship, the ideas of Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), and many scholars thereafter. Maimonides, like Averroes (c. 1126-c. 1198), was born in Córdoba, Spain, and, also like Averroes, pursued an intense interest in Aristotle. While he intended his writings to be restricted to Jewish readers, his insights about the relationship between monotheistic religious beliefs and classical philosophical insights were studied by both Catholic and Islamic thinkers, as well as Jewish philosophers and theologians.

The title page from Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed in which he attempted to reconcile religion and philosophy (Art Archive).

The title page from Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed in which he attempted to reconcile religion and philosophy (Art Archive).

What were Maimonides' main intellectual contributions?

After Maimonides (1135-1204) and his family fled forced conversions in Spain, they settled in Cairo, Egypt, in 1165, where Maimonides was the physician of the vizier of Saladin (c. 1138-1193). He wrote 10 books on medicine, but it was his works on Jewish theology that represented his most important contribution to Judaism: Book of the Commandments treated the 613 laws from the Old Testament; Commentary on the Mishnah explained the practical purposes of the old rabbinical code; and Mishneh Torah, codified Talmudic law in 14 volumes and retains its classic status to the present. However, it was Maimonides' philosophical treatise, Guide of the Perplexed, that had direct influence over a broad range of Western philosophy.

Why is Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed still considered a great philosophical text?

Maimonides (1135-1204) addresses his Guide to contemporary educated men who were intellectually torn between the claims of Greek science and religion. Maimonides' intention in writing seems to be to help his readers understand philosophy, without giving up their religion. To weed out or not upset readers who lacked the mental fire power to follow his reasoning, he said that he deliberately scattered Aristotelian insights throughout the text, instead of putting those together that first occurred together. He often stated both a position and its opposite. In other words, Maimonides' first step toward guiding those already confused was to deepen their confusion. But because Maimonides deepened existing confusions so brilliantly, his Guide of the Perplexed has attracted lasting scholarly disputation.

What are some examples of the perplexities Maimonides set out in his Guide of the Perplexed?

First, and perhaps foremost, was the question posed in Guide of the Perplexed of what kind of knowledge it is possible for people to have of God. According to the Doctrine of

Why did philosophers love Maimonides?

Maimonides (1135-1204) provided a justification for philosophical thought in a religious context at a time when philosophers feared persecution from religious authorities. The problems Maimonides raised in reconciling Aristotelian philosophy—or the best conclusions of reason at that time—with religion brought into religion itself philosophical problems about the limits of knowledge and what ought to be concluded when reason has run out. That is, should we say that the limits of reason are the limits of human knowledge, or should we extend the limits of reason into the domain of religious faith and revelation? Strictly speaking, these are questions of how we ought to think about religion.

In the Middle Ages, which was the Great Age of Religion, philosophers were constrained to begin their philosophizing with basic assumptions that God existed and that he was good. But philosophers have always been motivated to push through to the limits of knowledge and seek certainty within those limits. By deploying Aristotle as the personification of philosophy, Maimonides was able to raise necessarily covert questions of whether reason could justify belief in the existence and teachings not only of the Judaic version of God, but also of the Christian (and perhaps Muslim) God.

We should remember that such questions, had they not been posed under the cover of the august and unquestionable authority of The Philosopher Him-self—namely, Aristotle—would have resulted in loss of livelihood, excommunication (banishment or ostracism from the community of the devout and faithful) and also death itself. Philosophers were not stupid in the Great Age of Religion, not withstanding their apparent devotion to varied theological regimes and their leaders, who—it just so happened!—controlled all aspects of social, political, and economic life in Europe and the Middle East, at the same time that they upheld specific religious doctrines.

Negative Theology, which Maimonides took over from Avicenna (980-1037), nothing positive can be known about God, because God has nothing in common with any other being experienced by humans, and humans have no experience of God. All that we can know is what God is not. (Negative theology is the doctrine that God cannot be known by man.)

Second, there is a contradiction between the idea of God on which Judaism is founded, and the philosophical, Aristotelian idea of God. The philosophical idea is that God is intellect, whereas the religious idea is that it cannot be known what God is. Maimonides (1135-1204) sums up this problem with what he calls "very disgraceful conclusions" in the following passage.

Namely it would follow that the Deity, whom everyone who is intelligent recognizes to be perfect in every kind of perfection, could as far as all beings are concerned, produce nothing new in any of them; if he wished to lengthen a fly's wing or shorten a worm's foot, he would not be able to do so. But Aristotle would say that he would not wish it and that it is impossible to will something different from what is; that it would not add to his perfection, but would perhaps from a certain point of view be a deficiency.

Third, Maimonides rejected the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity of the world. Although he could offer no conclusive rational justification for this rejection, neither did he affirm that this was an issue in which religion was definitively correct.

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