Book review – Maimonides the Rationalist

Aside from biblical Moses, no single individual has had more of an impact on Judaism than Moses Maimonides. 800 years after his death, the works of Maimonides are still studied and analyzed, and highly relevant.

Maimonides wrote extensively, and his three major works are: the Commentary on the Mishnah, Mishneh Torah, and the most important work of medieval Jewish philosophy, and arguably all Jewish philosophy: The Guide of the Perplexed.

As a scholar, his influence touches every aspect of Judaism. Be it law, philosophy, ethics, and more. One aspect of his that permeated all of his writing was his rationalist world-view.

In Maimonides the Rationalist (Littman ISBN-13: 978-1904113584), author Herbert Davidson, Professor Emeritus in the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures department at UCLA, provides a comprehensive outline of the various aspects of Maimonides worldview.


Of the 9 chapters in the book, 6 of them have been previously published, with a few of them going back decades. Of the following, chapters 3, 5 & 9 are new:

  1. The Study of Philosophy as a Religious Obligation
  2. The First Two Positive Divine Commandments
  3. Maimonides’ Knowledge of the Philosophical Literature in his Rabbinic Period
  4. Maimonides’ Eight Chapters and Alfarabi’s Fusul Muntazaa
  5. Maimonides’ Knowledge of the Philosophical Literature of his Later Period
  6. Maimonides on Metaphysical Knowledge
  7. A Problematic Sentence in Guide for the Perplexed
  8. Maimonides’ Ethical Systems
  9. Maimonides the Rationalist

The book provides the reader with a good understanding of the multi-faceted scholar that Maimonides was. Not just a scholar and philosopher, Maimonides was a physician, scientist, and leader of the Jews of Egypt.

An interesting point Davidson makes is that while Maimonides generally preferred to take a rationalist perspective, he didn’t necessarily reject the possibility of miracles (which are clearly not a rational possibility), rather he maintained that the intellectual elite, in contract to the general populace, triers to minimize rather than maximize divine intervention in the world.

In a number of the essays, Davidson shows how a number of Maimonides’ proofs of God’s existence, unity, and the nature of his incorporeality were based on medieval scientific arguments that have since been disproved. This does not minimize the importance of his writings, given that the bulk of the writings are still highly relevant.

Davidson notes that the Arabic-Aristotelian picture of the universe, which Maimonides embraced as the most philosophically and scientifically reputable, lent itself to his rationalist enterprise.

The author closes with the observation that Maimonides rationalist enterprise was valiant and intriguing. But the philosophical and scientific pillars on which it rested have since crumbled. He notes that a new marriage of a wholly rational picture of the universe with traditional Jewish religious thoughts would seems to be possible only, oxymoron it may be, thought a study act of faith.

The book provides the reader with a wide-ranging overview of the various aspects of the often complex worldview of Maimonides. For the serious reader, Maimonides the Rationalist will certainly enhance their understanding, and increase their appreciation of one of the greatest Jewish minds in history.

About the Author
Senior information security and risk management professional. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. Here for Times of Israel, book reviews on religion and philosophy.
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