Maimonides the Rationalist

By Herbert A. Davidson

The Littman Library, 2011, 318 pages



Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) criticized most people in his monumental Guide of the Perplexed 3:51 when he wrote that “He who thinks about God and talks about him at length without scientific knowledge…does not truly
talk about God and think about Him. For what he has in his imagination and
talks about…is merely a figment of his imagination.” Maimonides was convinced
that Bible study alone cannot help people understand God. God can only be
understood by studying and knowing the laws of nature, the sciences, and using scientific
knowledge to become all that a person is capable of becoming and helping other
people. Religion based on faith without using intellect is not real religion. Humans
are distinguished from animals, vegetables, and inanimate objects by their
intellect, and they have a duty, if they really want to be human, to use it,
and not sit passively in pietistic contemplation, inadequate study, and prayer.

Know God

Maimonides and others emphasized that the first biblical command is to know God, and since it
is impossible to know God’s essence, people must learn how He acts. This is the
meaning of Moses’ experience in Exodus 33:17-23
where the Israelite leader beseeched God to reveal information about Himself.
God responded that people can’t fathom the divine, but they can see His back
after He passes; meaning, the impact of the laws of nature that God created.
Maimonides felt that the patriarch Abraham also understood God by studying the
laws of nature. Maimonides wasn’t alone in having this opinion. There are
rabbinical Midrashim, elaborating stories about the Bible, which depict Abraham
discovering God by studying the heavens.


Herbert A. Davidson, a highly respected professor at UCLA and author of other books
about Maimonides, takes the side of scholars who maintain that Maimonides did
not ascribe to the currently held view that God created the world out of
nothing, but agreed with Aristotle that God formed the world out of preexisting
matter. This view doesn’t threaten religion. It was the understanding of many
rabbis, Christian clergy, Muslim Imams, and philosophers. The Bible itself
reports, before describing God’s acts, that the world was “unformed” in Genesis 1:2. Maimonides also states that
God didn’t form the world over a six day period. He can do so instantaneously,
and this is what He did. This was also the view of many ancients. It is like a
farmer who sows seeds at one time, but the seeds yield their fruit on different

Philosophy and Law

But, not surprisingly, many rabbis, other clergy, and scholars, sticking with the
tradition they were taught, usually as children, are uncomfortable with such
ideas and dislike Maimonides’ emphasis on philosophy. They claim that
Maimonides’s true opinions are found in his legal code, the Mishneh Torah, which outlines all of the
commandments that the rabbis found either explicit or implicit in the Torah.
Remarkably, some go so far as to assert that Maimonides wrote his philosophical
Guide for ignorant Jews who hadn’t
the sense to understand Torah. However, Davidson points out, as many others recognized
before him, that the legal code is filled with Maimonides’ philosophy, in every


Many of these same people also think that a pious God-fearing Jew should not read non-Jewish
writings. Maimonides was appalled at such a misguided elitist notion. He wrote
in his Shemonah Perakim, his medical books, and other places: “Listen to the truth from whoever speaks it.”
Maimonides revealed that he didn’t always identify the non-Jewish sources of some
of his ideas because if he named the non-Jewish source it would lead
narrow-minded readers to assume that the statement is something evil. Thus not
only is it wrong to contend that one should not read non-Jewish writings, Maimonides
felt it is an obligation to read truth wherever it is found. Davidson points
out that many of the Greek and Muslim ideas that Maimonides incorporated into
his philosophy are ideas that Maimonides felt God wants people to know and do.

How much did Maimonides know?

Davidson’s contribution in this respect is to analyze Maimonides writings during various
periods of his life. He shows, in his opinion, how Maimonides read some non-Jewish
philosophical works later in life and did not incorporate these ideas until
that time. He says that Maimonides did not read Aristotle, his favorite
philosopher, when he wrote his early writings. He also contends that Maimonides’
view of Kalam, Muslim theology, which Maimonides disliked, was flawed because
he hadn’t read enough on the subject when he described it. Davidson also shows
which books Maimonides undoubtedly read. Some readers may disagree. They might
argue that the absence of references, explicit or implicit, of philosophers in
his early writings was due to his desire to be generally more subtle about
philosophical ideas in his early rabbinical writings.


Davidson appears to understand that Maimonides believed that a true intellectual does not
make decisions based on morality, but on a careful analysis of facts. I’ve reached a similar conclusion, in “Maimonides teaches that intellectuals should not be moral” in my website, although my sources differ from those of Davidson.

Aristotle’s and Maimonides’ famous “Golden rule” is a simplistic guide that can help the
general population, who are unaccustomed or unable to reason-out problems. The
Golden Rule of always taking the middle path, except regarding modesty and
anger, is an easy guide for them. But intellectuals should analyze all the
facts of every situation, and they will see that it frequently makes good sense
to avoid the middle path. Davidson writes that Maimonides prefers “’rational
virtues,’ that is, the ‘conceiving of intelligible thoughts that give rise to
correct views.’” He also writes that Maimonides “repeatedly belittled moral

Other Views

Davidson makes it clear, as do many but not all scholars, that Maimonides did not believe that angels and
demons exist, the word “angel” refers to a force of nature, such as a wind or
rain. God certainly doesn’t need helpers. Maimonides also reads many parts of
the Bible as allegory, for it is unnatural, for example, to imagine a speaking
serpent or mule, or a fish swallowing a human who survives in its belly for
several days. He also was unafraid to say that the ancient rabbis, who did not
receive their ideas from God, lived in a culture that had little scientific
information, did not know everything, and were frequently wrong. Thus some
rabbinical ideas are legally binding, while others are simply advice, and still
others wrong. However, it must be remembered that despite his great
intelligence and deeper understanding, his “meticulousness in performing the
ritual acts was rooted in a deep-seated attachment to Jewish tradition.”


Davidson contributes much to the understanding of the Great Eagle, as Maimonides was called,
for Maimonides soared high above the general population in intelligence. Davidson’s
especial contribution is his analysis that perhaps Maimonides did know as much
in his youth as he did in later life when he had opportunity to read more. He
notes correctly that many of Maimonides’ ideas are based on the science of his
day, a science that we know was wrong, such as the existence of a sphere called
the active intellect that influences the earth. Davidson concludes from this fact
that therefore much of Maimonides’ ideas crumble when the false scientific
underpinning is swept aside, and his philosophy is out of date.

Some readers may disagree with this conclusion. They may realize that Maimonides’ intelligent
ideas do not need to stand on ancient science. They may say that today’s
thinkers will agree with the Great Eagle that people should rely on their
intellect not faith, beliefs, or traditions; that people have a duty to
understand nature to improve themselves and society; prophecy is not a divine
communication, but the use of a person’s intellect, a phenomenon that can and
indeed should exist today; demons and angels do not exist; everyone, of every
religion, and creed must be respected and listened to; superstition should be
shunned; and people should develop themselves and avoid decisions based on
simplistic moral notions, but on a careful and thorough analysis of facts.