Maimonides: Faith in Reason 

Yale University Press (Jewish Lives)

By Alberto Manguel

256 pages, 2023

ISBN 978-0-300-21789-6

$14.84

                                              Maimonides: Faith in Reason

 

Alberto Manguel’s 2023 “Maimonides: Faith in Reason,” a significant addition to Jewish studies, is published by Yale University Press. This book is a comprehensive introduction to the life, books, and ideas of the great Jewish philosopher, law writer, and physician Moses ben Maimon, also known as Rambam and Maimonides. Manguel, the author of ten nonfiction and three fiction books not on Jewish subjects, contributes his book to the series of Jewish Lives. In partnership with the Leon D. Black Foundation, Yale University Press has published over sixty books, including this volume in Jewish Lives. Jewish Lives is a prizewinning series of interpretive biographies designed to explore the many facets of Jewish identity, with over thirty more books forthcoming.

The Manguel book is 256 pages long, with a four-page preface, sixteen chapters comprising 178 pages, a three-page conclusion, extensive learned notes ending on page 212, a two-page list of Maimonides’s principal works, two pages of acknowledgment, and a two-column fourteen-page index. Manguel frequently compares Maimonides’s ideas with those of prominent, highly respected thinkers, Jewish and non-Jewish, which is enlightening and helps readers better understand Maimonides. Readers will learn much from Manguel’s interpretations.

In his first four chapters, he provides a fascinating biography and history of the great sage. He then follows this with chapters devoted to Maimonides the physician, scholar, philosopher, and believer, lessons drawn from the Exodus, Talmud, the Law, Mishneh Torah, The Guide of the Perplexed, what virtue is, and a lengthy chapter on the many famous Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers who read and thought about Maimonides. These include those who immediately reacted to the publication of his books and later renowned thinkers such as Spinoza and St. Thomas Aquinas. He describes how these scholars agreed and disagreed with Maimonides.

In this chapter, he also reveals the widespread disagreements on interpreting what we read Maimonides is saying. I experienced this disagreement also. For example, when I had correspondence with the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, a mystic requested that I, who was then on active duty as a general in the US Army, speak about the Noahide Commandments. I agreed. In a letter I wrote to him after doing so throughout the world. I said I did so as a follower of Maimonides, not because I am a Lubavitcher Chasid. He responded that he was also a follower of Maimonides. While some scholars would agree that Maimonides had mystical ideas, I think he did not.

To cite another example. I corresponded with a highly respected professor who was an expert on Maimonides. I have read and am still reading his many books and articles. In one book, he wrote his interpretation of Maimonides’s statement that prophets needed a high level of imagination. I wrote suggesting that the need for a high-level imagination was more straightforward than he suggested. I said that since each prophet needed to articulate their vision in clear language and did so in their way with their poetic expressions, metaphors, and examples, they needed an excellent imagination to do so effectively. This made him very angry at me.

I am emphasizing these differences in interpretation to alert readers that while the book is very good, not everybody will agree with everything that Manguel states. I do not know of any book about Maimonides that everyone would think is entirely correct.

While praising and recommending this book, I also do not agree with everything he writes. What bothered me the most is that Manguel did not reveal that Leo Strauss took the position, written as the Introduction to Pines’ Guide of the Perplexed, which I agree with, that Maimonides wrote his Guide for two audiences: enlightened, educated people and the average reader who might feel threatened by philosophical ideas. As a result, there are often statements in the Guide that Maimonides expected his educated readers to ignore. These were ideas written to please the average reader.

Many scholars reject Strauss’ understanding. Among them is the famed scholar Isadore Twersky, who knew more about Maimonides than I and the formerly mentioned scholar. But, of course, even great minds make mistakes. What is important to note is that accepting the views written for the typical reader as Maimonides’s actual view leads, in my opinion, to wrong conclusions.

An example is Manguel’s discussion of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles. Many scholars who accept Stauss’ view recognize that Maimonides only accepted the introductory principles that spoke about God, not the rest. Manguel, who ignores Strauss’ view and seems to disagree with it, treated the thirteen as Maimonides’ actual view. An example is the principle that the Torah in our hands today has never changed. Maimonides was very familiar with the multiple changes in the Torah wording, such as those introduced by the Men of the Great Assembly and the changes known as Tekunei Sopherim, which were changes made by other ancient sages for the honor of God. Maimonides wrote the contrary idea in his Thirteen Principles because he felt the average reader would be threatened by the idea that changes were made in what they considered God’s words.