Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Write-Up: Maimonides, by Joel Kraemer

Joel L. Kraemer.  Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds.  Doubleday, 2008.  See here to buy the book.

Moses ben Maimon, or Maimonides, was a twelfth century Jewish philosopher, leader, and physician.  I decided to read more about him after I recalled a conversation that I had with a student at Jewish Theological Seminary years ago.  The student, as I recall, was saying that Maimonides was against saying that God had attributes, for that undermined the notion that God was one and indivisible.  This intrigued me, and I figured that I should learn more about Maimonides.  As a result, I checked out this 600-plus page book from the library.

In reading this book, I did not learn about Maimonides’ stance on the divine attributes.  Actually, I am still not entirely clear about what exactly Maimonides thought about God.  On the one hand, Maimonides believed that God was unlike anyone or anything and could not be likened to anyone or anything, so we could legitimately say what God is not as opposed to what God is.  On the other hand, Maimonides also held that humans and God overlap in their use of reason, and that God, on some level, made himself known through his actions, particularly his creation of an orderly cosmos.

Other tensions in Maimonides’ thought would appear in this book: Did Maimonides agree with Aristotle that the cosmos was eternal, or did he regard it as created?  (One thinker, Averroes, tried to have it both ways, positing that God was eternally creating the cosmos!)  Maimonides opposed the use of music in worship, not just because the Temple was destroyed and he thought that Jews should be saddened by that (which was why many traditional Jews opposed it), but also because he considered music to be worldly; yet, Maimonides recommended that people listen to music if they were struggling with depression.  Maimonides believed that God commanded sacrifices as a concession—-because people were used to sacrifices; yet, Maimonides regarded sacrifices as something that would be reinstituted once the Temple was rebuilt.

The most interesting parts of this book, for me, were the insights that it provided me into Jewish thought and custom before and during the time of Maimonides.  Did medieval Jewish men practice polygamy?  In Islamic societies, they did, but not in Europe.  Did Jews still engage in levirate marriage, the biblical practice in which a man would marry his brother’s widowed wife to produce offspring for his deceased brother?  Sometimes, but there was a loophole by which a marriage could be annulled, freeing the widow and her brother-in-law from that obligation.  What were Jewish stances towards abortion and birth control?  Maimonides allowed women to use a birth control device because they were not the ones commanded to be fruitful and multiply in Genesis 1 (according to him).  Regarding abortion, it was discouraged within Judaism except in extreme cases, but, according to Kraemer, this was not because Judaism regarded the fetus as a human being.  (Yet Kraemer acknowledges the Jewish tradition that Genesis 9’s ban on murder prohibits the Gentiles from abortion.)  Did Jews believe that a man who emitted semen had to wash before praying or studying the Torah?  Different regions had different answers on this.

Another area of interest to me was eschatology.  Maimonides did not care for people coming forward and claiming to be the Messiah, and yet Maimonides appreciated that the Jewish people needed hope.  At the same time, Maimonides himself engaged in date-setting and thought that the Messiah would come soon.  Maimonides believed that he himself fulfilled a significant role for the last days: to prepare the people of Israel for the soon coming of the Messiah by helping them to keep the Torah.  Maimonides interpreted Islam and Christianity in light of the Book of Daniel—-Islam, for him, was the lawless one in Daniel, and Christians were the lawless ones of Daniel 11:14 who failed to establish Daniel’s vision, yet Maimonides said that the Christians ended up spreading their lawless undermining of the Torah; while these were negative views of Islam and Christianity on Maimonides’ part, however, Maimonides did believe that Islam and Christianity would sensitize people to monotheism and the biblical tradition and thus prepare them for the Messianic age.  There was also the question of what the Messianic age or the reward of the righteous would be like, and if there would be a resurrection.  A number of Muslims believed that the reward of the righteous had a physical dimension and would include sex, and they did not particularly care for the Jewish idea that the reward of the righteous would be basking in the glory of God’s presence.  Yet, Jews themselves had an idea that sex would be a part of the Messianic era, and Maimonides agreed with them on this, even though Maimonides also thought that the Messianic era would be followed by a disembodied existence in which the soul would engage in spiritual delights, free from physicality.  Maimonides tended to interpret the wolf peacefully dwelling with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6) metaphorically, but there were people who interpreted it literally: they said that animals would be at peace with each other because they would no longer need to compete for food, with all the abundance in the world.

I learned some about Maimonides’ view on divine providence in a class that I took about the Book of Job years ago.  I was happy that this book refreshed my memory on this, even though there are some areas in which I am unclear.  Aristotle did not believe that divine providence was focused on the individual, but rather on the whole.  Maimonides, however, believed that individuals, by connecting with God and God’s reason, could somehow avoid chance and be able to navigate themselves successfully through life.  Kraemer mentioned the analogy of animals’ instinct—-they can pick up when something bad is about to happen and prepare themselves accordingly.  That made me wonder if Maimonides had any room for God blessing people, or if, in his scenario, we were the ones blessing ourselves because we had the wisdom to navigate our way through life (perhaps with God’s help).  Maimonides also thought that even disaster in the cosmos was part of some wise order, even if we do not see how that is the case.  Maimonides himself was no stranger to suffering, for he lost a brother at sea, and that would disturb him for a very long time.  At the same time, Maimonides tried to be Stoic in terms of his emotions, avoiding anger and sorrow.  He believed that prophecy did not come to people who were overly sad, and he regarded Israel’s exile as an unproductive time (though many biblical scholars see it as very productive—-as the time when a lot of biblical literature was produced!).

Kraemer navigates his way through scholarly debates.  Some scholars believe that we do not know anything about Maimonides’ mother because she died in childbirth, but Kraemer disagrees, saying that we do not know anything about her because people did not write that much about women in that time.  Kraemer believes that, overall, Islam was not as tolerant in those days as some scholars may think.  He acknowledges that some branches of Islam were more tolerant of others—-the Fatimids, for example, believed that different religions had a common core—-and yet Kraemer says that Maimonides at one point may have faked conversion to Islam in order to get by.  Kraemer disputes the scholarly view that Maimonides allowed wife-beating; according to Kraemer, Maimonides supported civic corporal punishment of men and women, but that was different from spousal abuse.  Overall, Kraemer depicts Maimonides as one whose rulings elevated the status of women, even though Kraemer also points out examples that (in my mind) reflect Maimonides’ misogyny: Maimonides did not allow women to go to synagogues alone, for example, for he feared that they would be too much of a temptation for men.

I should also note that, according to Kraemer, Maimonides sometimes felt free to disregard the Torah or Jewish tradition in his rulings.  Maimonides rejected as superstitious, for example, the Talmud’s rule that women who lost two husbands were cursed.  In another case, Maimonides advised a man to free his slave and then marry her, even though that was legally forbidden within Judaism.  (According to Kraemer, Islam allowed men to have sexual relations with their slaves, while Jewish and Christian law forbade that, while also forbidding a man to marry one of his freed slaves.)  Maimonides’ reason was that, in his eyes, the man was at least taking a step in the right direction by marrying the woman.  Maimonides interpreted Psalm 119:126—-“It is a time to act for the Lord, for they have violated your teaching” (in whatever translation Kraemer is using)—-to mean that one could honor God sometimes by disregarding God’s law.

Maimonides’ views on socializing stood out to me, as one with Asperger’s.  Maimonides did not believe in frivolous small talk, but be believed that it should be a part of sexual relations: a man should try to woo his wife with banter, according to Maimonides.  Maimonides himself, according to Kraemer, preferred being alone so he could study, and yet he accepted that he had a social role to perform.  Maimonides regarded study and philosophy as ways to ameliorate depression, yet he also acknowledged, on some level, that fun should be a part of life.

There were things in this book that did not particularly interest me, though they may interest historians and others.  Yet, there was so much in this book that I found fascinating, even if my question about Maimonides’ views on the divine attributes was not addressed in my reading of this book.


  1. This is off-topic, but since I don't have your contact info, I'll pose the question here. According to traditional Protestant theology (e.g. the Westminster Confession of faith), there's a threefold division of the Mosaic law into moral, civil, and ceremonial categories. Modern scholars often challenge that subdivision as artificial. They view the Mosaic law as more of a unit–although critical scholars regard it as an editorial patchwork.

    Here's my question: as a practical matter, didn't Jews, under Roman rule, have to subdivide the Mosaic law to some extent? I think they were basically free to maintain the priesthood, sacrificial system, and purity codes. What's traditionally dubbed the "ceremonial law."

    But in terms of the civil/criminal law, wasn't OT penology largely superseded or suspended by Roman penology? How much leeway did Roman authorities give Jews to practice OT penology? Wasn't that pretty restricted? 

    The stock example is that Jews under Roman subjugation couldn't carry out the death penalty. But what about other Mosaic punishments for other infractions of the Mosaic law code? How much did Roman civil/criminal law take precedence over Mosaic law–much less the oral Torah?

    I'm just curious about the degree to which Jews under Roman rule were forced to selectively observe OT law, were forced to prioritize. Was there already a de facto ceremonial v. civil law distinction in play, given the constraints of living under Roman law? 

  2. That's a very good question, Steve. It has been in my mind over my years of writing this blog, and there have been times when I have noted observations from my readings that pertain to it, directly or indirectly. Here are a couple of posts that pertain to it, in some way:

    See the second item, which is about the death penalty.

    That doesn't address your question about the Romans, but is does concern Judaism choosing not to enforce certain laws.

    There are rabbinic statements about application of the law changing with context. One says that, because there were so many adulterers at a certain point in time, the death penalty for adultery did not have to be applied. I do not recall where exactly that reference is, though. You may find footnote 156 in the following link to be helpful:

  3. I’m not sure if that answers your questions directly. I am unaware of any Jewish delineation among moral, civil, and ceremonial laws. But Judaism has said that certain laws can change due to changing historical contexts. Whether that has anything to do with imperial control, I do not know.

  4. On contact information, my e-mail address is


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