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Chapter 11

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

David Yellin and Israel Abrahams

Jewish Publication Society of America
Philadelphia, 1903

The text is in the public domain.

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 p205  Chapter XII
The Influence of Maimonides

The first effect of the life-work of Maimonides was a cleavage in Jewish opinion. But this cleavage was in no sense a disintegration. In the end, both his Code and his Guide were adopted as text-books by conservatives and liberals alike. Were it not that the cleft between men of simple faith and men given to philosophical apprehension of religion is perennially recurrent, the struggle between Maimonists and anti-Maimonists would strike the modern reader as trivial and obsolete. Though, however, such conflicts are chronic in human life, every age agrees in calm compromise on the doubts that assailed its predecessor, reserving its own excitement for its more immediate problems. Both Maimonists and anti-Maimonists  p206 exaggerated their differences. On the one hand were the enthusiastic worshippers of the master who could see truth in him alone; on the other side stood an equally convinced party of opponents who denounced the teachings of Maimonides as heretical. There were unpleasant features in the struggle, but these and not the good results were ephemeral. The medieval weapon of excommunication was freely used, and the incriminated books were committed to the pyre in an unavailing attempt "to quench the flame of truth with fire." An appeal was made to the secular arm, and Dominicans were invited to decide questions affecting the most intimate concerns of Judaism.

This is ancient history, in the sense that it has left no disfiguring mark. The good that these men did lived after them, the evil was buried with their bones. The triumph of Maimonides was complete all along the line. But the opposite party  p207 gained something for which it contended. The philosophical convention in Judaism was allowed a high place in the schools, but Judaism was not merged into Rationalism. This was due to the anti-Maimonists, while the medieval Kabbala (or mysticism) applied to Jewish religion that touch of emotion which Maimonides so conspicuously lacked. Again, the aim of Maimonides to provide a Code which should form a final court of appeal in Jewish life was unsuccessful. Into Spain itself, the French methods of studying the Talmud were introduced in the century following the death of Maimonides. So far from destroying pilpul — casuistical discussion — the Code, or Mishneh-Torah, itself became the object of pilpulistic comment. This was to the advantage of Judaism. Pilpul is to law as laboratory work to science.

Despite these facts, it is nevertheless accurate to assert that Maimonides won  p208 all along the line. Whereas before his day the philosophical study of Judaism had numbered but a handful of adherents, the band of such students has always been large and powerful since the completion of the Guide. If, again, the Kabbala did good, it was because the sane influence of Maimonides prevented the harm which, but for him, might have ensued. For Maimonides not only introduced an intellectual principle. He also applied a spiritualising principle. The grossness, the materialism of medieval religion could not survive the idealism of the Guide. Especially in the face of the Kabbala, the antagonism of Maimonides to an anthropomorphic conception of God saved Judaism from succumbing to the alluring, sensuous charms, inseparable from mysticism. So, too, the Code had a permanent value. Not only has it been the means by which Judaism has become known to Europe, but it supplied to those  p209 within the pale a rallying point amid the troubles that were soon to befall the Jewish people. If the Torah remained a badge of honour which prevailed over the badge of shame imposed by Innocent III; if the physical walls of the coming ghetto made no prison for the Jewish spirit; if the varying degrees of persecution applied by local governments failed to produce a permanent disintegration of Judaism into a number of local cults; then to Maimonides and his Code belongs a large share of the merit. From the Mishneh-Torah to the Shulchan Aruch — the Code which now regulates the life of the majority of Jews — the direct genealogical line is unbroken, and though the parent is in many ways superior to the descendant, still the value of the latter as a norm for Jewish life must not be depreciated because its effects have not been all good.

The influence of Maimonides on European thought in general is greater than  p210 is usually allowed. It is becoming clearer that the Guide was very early known through translations. Apart from this, there is nothing more characteristic of the middle ages than the easy flow of influence between the representatives of various schools and creeds. In the sphere of philosophy, for instance, no distinction can be drawn between Christians, Moslems, and Jews as such. The spirit of Greece enjoyed a threefold revival, leading a new life in Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew.88 What is more, the three channels often ran together and intermingled, they did not merely start from the same fount. The scholars of the Mosque, Church, and Synagogue worked in the same studies, and some remarkable cases of collaboration might be cited. The books of Jewish writers, known under Latinised names, were often used by Christian students. But we are now dealing only with Maimonides. His Biblical  p211 exegesis, as expounded in the opening chapters of the Guide, was epoch-making, as Professor Bacher has shown.89 His Commentary on the Mishnah gains yearly in repute, and one of the most interesting phenomena of the last quarter of the nineteenth century has been the activity displayed by Jewish scholars in editing the Siraj. To return to the Guide, Maimonides' doctrine that God cannot be defined attributively, but only negatively, has been of permanent moment in the philosophy of monotheism. His account of the Mohammedan Kalam, with which the first part closes, has been found by scientific historians one of the most useful and keen examinations of the Islamic afterglow of the ancient atomic theories. His rejection of the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity of the world helped Christians to use Aristotle in their theology.90 His psychological analysis of prophecy has worth even for present-day inquirers.

 p212  The Guide was written in Arabic, but in Hebrew characters, and it is said that the author objected to its transcription into Arabic script.91 But we know that such transcriptions were soon made. ʽAbd-el‑Latif read it; and citations of it are found in the works of Moslem philosophers. Moslem commentaries were written on parts of the Guide; Moslem teachers lectured on the work to their students; and to a Moslem historian of medicine, Alkifti, the Guide represented the highest product of his age. Of the translations of the Guide, Samuel ibn Tibbon's is the more noted. It was completed in Arles in 1204, a fortnight before Maimonides died. Of the influence of this translation on Jewish thought and on the language in which that thought expressed itself, it is impossible to speak with exaggeration. But another translation, that made a little later by Judah al‑Charizi, though inferior in excellence (except in  p213 so far as style is concerned) to Ibn Tibbon's was more important from our present point of view. For it was from Charizi's Hebrew that the first Latin translation was made during the first half of the thirteenth century.92 Alexander of Hales, the great Franciscan, who died in 1245, shows traces of acquaintance with the Guide, while his contemporary, William of Auvergne, was even more deeply influenced by it. From Maimonides, William derived his whole knowledge of Judaism. But the real influence of the Guide on Christian thought begins with the Dominican Albertus Magnus (died 1280).93 Albertus Magnus cited "Moyses Aegyptius," but Maimonides was more to the Dominican than would appear from these citations taken alone. As regards Thomas Aquinas, "his dependence on Maimonides," says Guttmann,94 "is not confined to philosophical details, but in a certain sense may be detected in the  p214 whole of his theological system." As Emile Saisset puts it: "Maimonides est le précurseur de Saint Thomas d'Aquin, et le Moré Neboukhim annonce et prépare la summa theologiae."95 If the Guide of the Jew and the Summa of the Christian bear this relation, then Maimonides deserves a place among the fathers of the Church. The Encyclopedist of the middle ages, Vincent of Beauvais, makes use of the Guide in his Speculum Majus.96 Duns Scotus, too, knew the Guide, and held its teachings in esteem.97 Of the later Latin translations, of the renderings into Castilian, Italian, and other languages of Europe, it is unnecessary to speak. Suffice it to say in general, that the Guide, while it ceased directly to affect European thought after the age of Descartes, was a potent force in Judaism at various epochs. Elias del Medigo, the first great product of the Italian and Judaic spirit, the teacher of Pico di Mirandola, was  p215 inspired by Maimonides; in Poland, in the sixteenth century, the Jewish revival owed much to the same influence; in Moses Mendelssohn Maimonides produced an intellectual awakening; while Isaac Erter, one of the prime movers in the Hebrew renaissance of the nineteenth century, was much affected by the Guide.98 Solomon Maimon, the brilliant, the wayward admirer and critic of the Guide, recognised in the man whose name he adopted the most powerful influence on his mental development. "My reverence for this great teacher," he writes, "went so far that I regarded him as my ideal of a perfect man. I looked upon his teachings as if they had been inspired with divine wisdom itself. This went so far that when my passions began to grow, and I had sometimes to fear lest they might seduce me to some action inconsistent with these teachings, I used to employ as a proved antidote the abjuration: 'I  p216 swear by the reverence which I owe my great teacher, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, not to do this act.' And this vow, so far as I can remember, was always sufficient to restrain me."99

Spinoza, of whose intellectual relation to Maimonides very opposite views are maintained, paid to the Cairo Rabbi the homage of practical imitation. As Professor Pearson well says: "Maimonides' theory of how a wise man should earn his livelihood seems to me the keynote of Spinoza's life by the optical bench — his refusal of a professorial chair. 'Let,' writes Maimonides, 'thy fixed occupation be the study of the Law, and thy worldly pursuits be of secondary consideration!' After stating that all business is only a means to study, in that it provides the necessities of life, he continues: 'He who resolves upon occupying himself solely with the study of the Law, not attending to any work or trade but living on charity,  p217 defiles the sacred name and heaps up contumely upon the Law. Study must have active labour joined with it, or it is worthless, produces sin, and leads the man to injure his neighbour. . . . It is a cardinal virtue to live by the work of one's hands, and it is one of the great characteristics of the pious of yore, even that whereby one attains to all respect and felicity of this and the future world.' Why," asks Professor Pearson, "does Spinoza's life stand in such contrast to that of all other modern philosophers? Because his life at least, if not his philosophy, was Hebrew!"100

A valuable testimony this to any teacher's influence. Both Solomon Maimon and Spinoza were affected in their lives as well as in their mind by Maimonides, and the same may be said of the Jewish people as a whole. Maimonides taught his brethren how to think; he showed them how to live. Few men have been so little  p218 spoiled by success, so little embittered by opposition. Amid praise and blame he stood calm, unflinching. His life was actuated by a consistent purpose. He sowed the ideal, and he won the most priceless of rewards when he in turn became the ideal of many, leading them ever onwards to a higher conception of God and of man's place in the divine universe.

The Authors' Notes:

88 Kaufmann, essay cited in note 92 below, p336.

89 Bacher, Die Biblexegese Moses Maimuni's, 1897; cf. also Goldberger, Die Allegorie in ihrer exegetischen Anwendung bei Moses Maimonides, 1902.

90 Guttmann, Die Scholastik des dreizehnten Jahrhunderts, 1902, p10.

91 All extant copies of the Arabic original are certainly in Hebrew characters, but Ibn Tibbon used a copy in Arabic characters. (See Friedländer, Guide, I p. xxx, n. 2).

92 See Steinschneider, Hebr. Uebersetz., p432. On the translations in general see Friedländer, Guide, vol. III pp. xi seq., and Kaufmann, Der Führer Maimuni's in der Weltlitteratur (Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, XI pp335 seq.) Dr. Friedländer also gives a long list of commentaries and works on the Guide.

93 M. Joel, Verhältniss Albert des Grossen zu Moses Maimonides, 1863; Guttmann, Die Scholastik, p85.

94 Guttmann, Das Verhältniss des Thomas von Aquina zum Judenthum, 1891, pp31 seq.

95 Saisset, Maimonide et Spinoza, in Revue des Deux Mondes, 1862.

96 Guttmann in Brann-Kaufmann's Monatsschrift, vol. XXXIX, 207; Die Scholastik, p121.

97 Guttmann, ibid., vol. XXXVIII, 37; Die Scholastik, p154.

98 These facts may be found in the later volumes of Graetz.

99 Solomon Maimon's Lebensgeschichte, II p3; J. C. Murray, Solomon Maimon: an Autobiography, 1888, p. xiv n.

100 Karl Pearson, Maimonides and Spinoza, in Mind, vol. VIII pp339 seq. Pearson finds the parallel to many of Spinoza's characteristic doctrines in the works of Maimonides, especially in the Code. "I wished," he says, "to show that the study of Maimonides was traceable even in Spinoza's most finished exposition of his philosophy" (p352). So, too, M. Joel (Zur Genesis der Lehre Spinoza's, 1871) says, p6: "Not merely in his youth, but in his maturity, Spinoza was affected by Jewish thought, and among its exponents by Maimonides."

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