One approach to understanding Maimonides

Maimonides

Essential Teachings on Jewish Faith & Ethics

The Book of Knowledge & the Thirteen
Principles of Faith

Annotated & Explained

By Rabbi Marc D. Angel, PhD

Skylight Illuminations, 2012, 177 pages

There are many divergent interpretations of the great sage Moses Maimonides
(1138-1204). Some scholars, such as Leo Strauss of the University of Chicago and
I, the present reviewer, are convinced that Maimonides wrote for two audiences,
intellectuals and the general population, and that he frequently hid his true
views from the non-intellectuals, convinced that the more
philosophically-minded could mine what he wrote and understand what he really
thought. Others, such as Menachem Kellner of the University of Haifa, believe
that this is not true. Maimonides meant what he wrote and did not hide ideas so
as not to disturb the common people or say things just to make people feel
better. Rabbi Marc Angel, the founder and director of the prestigious Institute
for Jewish Ideas and Ideals (jewishideas.org) takes to latter approach and
presents it well.

 

He includes texts from Maimonides’ Book of
Knowledge
and from his famous Thirteen
Principles of Judaism
. He chose these two sources because they give a clear
presentation of Maimonides’ teachings on morality, ethics, Torah study,
idolatry, and the principles of Judaism. He places Maimonides’ words on the
right side of the book, puts numbers where there are ideas he wants to explain,
and he explains them on the left side. For example, he quotes Maimonides’
teaching about when Jews should give up their lives for Judaism on the right
and gives historical examples on the left. Similarly, he mentions Maimonides
view that prophets must be philosophers on the right and explains on the left
that people do not have to accept his view and gives his opinion why. (I think
that Maimonides was saying that prophecy is a natural event. It is a higher
level of knowledge derived because the individual is smarter than the average
person. Rabbi Angel rejects this view.) Also, he quotes Maimonides that
righteous people do more than what the law requires and deviate from the middle
path on the right and describes the higher standard on the left. (I understand
that while Maimonides uses the term “righteous,” he means a person with higher
intelligence; one who can reason.) His explanations are clear and he frequently
refers to other books that help clarify and supplement Maimonides’ thoughts,
including other books that Maimonides composed.

 

Rabbi Angel starts his book with a thirty page introduction that introduces Maimonides, his
history, and writings to the reader. He tells readers that Maimonides was both
a religious man and a philosopher; contrary to some people who think he was
only one or the other. He describes the Book of Knowledge and the Thirteen
Principles. (I and others are convinced that Maimonides wrote these thirteen
principles for the general population but only thought that the first four, and
the fifth under certain conditions, are true. Rabbi Angel disagrees.) He points
out that Maimonides insisted that religion must have a sound intellectual
foundation. “His approach (to religion) allows a person (of every religion) to
be religious without turning off his or her brain.” He tells readers that
Maimonides never wrote, as most people think, that Jews must believe in God.
The translators misunderstood what he wrote. He said that people should study
and understand as well as they could about God. Maimonides emphasized knowledge
not belief.

 

Rabbi Angel tells us that Maimonides felt strongly that there is no distinction between Jews and
other human beings; humans are humans. The Torah emphasizes this message when
it states 36 times that we should love the stranger. Non-Jews know things Jews
do not know and everyone should learn from everyone else; the truth is the
truth no matter what its source. One cannot be a true Torah scholar without
deriving wisdom from all sources.  Non-Jews have the identical rights to the
world to come.

 

The book is filled with Rabbi Angel’s interpretation of Maimonides and this great
sage’s important teachings, such as the following: Maimonides believed in
miracles, “but God does so very rarely.” People should not be ascetic, such as
fasting when not required to do so. Contrary to the thinking of some
ultra-Orthodox, Maimonides stressed that Torah scholars should work and not
depend on the charity of others. (I do not think that Maimonides thought
miracles occur.)

 

In summary, readers will gain much by reading this book because Maimonides was the
greatest sage since the biblical Moses and Rabbi Angel explains gives us a good
explanation of one approach to his views.

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