The Medieval Review 11.08.07

Rudavsky, T.M. Maimonides. Blackwell Great Minds. Chichester: John Wiley Sons Ltd., 2010. Pp. 225. . . $29.95. ISBN 978-1-4051-4898-6.

Reviewed by:

Kalman Bland
Duke University

Pilgrims, tourists, and travelers converging on the same destination behave differently. Pilgrims seek devotional activity and spiritual regeneration at sacred spaces, often involving direct contact with relics; tourists, for whom vacation means an escape from work, seek the excitement of night time entertainments, fabulous shopping, memorable dining, interesting excursions, and cursory visits to museums and other cultural monuments, all the while collecting souvenirs and gaining a modicum of familiarity with the unknown; travelers, for whom happily there is no distinction between work and play, seek intimate knowledge of the history and meaning of the landscapes, artworks, and architecture they scrutinize. To prepare for their journeys and inform their on-site visits with illuminating commentary, each of the three groups chooses for company distinctive sorts of guide books. Sophisticated travelers with patience for detail and hearty appetites for learning probably prefer the justly famous series of Blue Guides. Written by experts, they are rewarding, even to the select circle of specialists.

Parallels may be drawn with the history of philosophy. Although its sites are conceptual and textual rather artifactual or spatial, its monuments are no less alluring than many of the most frequented cathedrals and castles of Europe. No less than museum galleries, episodes in the history of philosophy can provide unmatched opportunities for work and play in rendering the obscure intelligible. The history of philosophy also attracts diverse classes of visitors. Like pilgrims, some visitors seek inspiration and edification; like tourists, some seek a memorable, if occasional and cursory familiarity with the unknown; and like travelers, some seek intimate knowledge of the history and meaning of the texts they scrutinize during intense and sustained bouts of inquiry. To prepare for their encounters and inform their ongoing investigations with illuminating commentary, each group chooses for company distinctive sorts of guide books. Maimonides (1138-1204), for example, is the subject of innumerable publications. With the appearance of T. M. Rudavsky's judicious and masterfully crafted monograph, the corpus of Maimonidean writings no longer lacks its Blue Guide. Serious tourists, veteran travelers, and specialists are no longer deprived of a reliable cicerone to both the vexatious complexities of Maimonides' philosophic worldview and the controversies that swirl among his modern interpreters.

Rudavsky's exemplary point of departure for extracting authentic Maimonidean doctrines while navigating the whole corpus of Maimonidean texts in medicine, religious law, and philosophy is two-fold: an insistence on attending to Maimonides' strict adherence to philosophic canons regulating "language, logic, and the art of demonstration" (Chapter 2), and an insistence on acknowledging Maimonides' systematic devotion to "naturalistic determinism," by which is meant the cosmological worldview inherited by Maimonides from thinkers steeped in Aristotelian and Neoplatonic sources, especially the Islamic sages, al-Fārābī and ibn Bājja. Those sources axiomatically interpreted the world as "governed by natural law and exhibit[ing] a rational order" (viii). The central plot of Rudavsky's perspicuous exposition discloses the means by which Maimonides managed to integrate or reconcile this naturalistic worldview with the apparent supernaturalism and theological voluntarism articulated in traditional Jewish texts. That Maimonides himself may have been at peace with uncertainty and skepticism regarding the domain of metaphysics and may never have expected the integration of Judaism's Torah and Greek philosophy or their reconciliation to be perfectly tidy or static is suggested by the irreproachable conclusion developed in Chapter 3. It emphasizes Maimonides' readiness to confess the inadequacies of language, concede the limits of human knowledge, and embrace the chaste ecstasies of apophatic theology: "Once we recognize with Maimonides that God inhabits a unique class of one, we realize that human language simply cannot talk about this unique ontological entity, and so, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, one must remain silent" (48). The references to linguistic analysis and Wittgenstein are refreshing in the modern phase of Maimonidean studies, as is the helpful section invoking Aquinas's reaction to the provocative Maimonidean treatment of divine attributes and their negation (49).

After absorbing the lessons of Chapter 3, "what we can say about God," and solidly grounded in Maimonidean epistemology and linguistic analysis (Chapter 2), readers are conducted by a gifted pedagogue along a classic itinerary favored by medieval Neoplatonists. First come chapters describing the "downward way." They discuss natural science, or "philosophical cosmology" (Chapter 4) and "philosophical anthropology" (Chapter 5). Subsequent chapters explore the "upward way." Chapter 6 addresses "naturalism and supernaturalism: prophecy, miracles, and divine will." Chapter 7 focuses on the knotty topics of "philosophical theology: divine providence, human freedom, and theodicy." Chapter 8 unpacks the related issues of "morality, politics, and the law." Chapter 9 culminates, as does Guide of the Perplexed, in a tantalizing investigation of "human felicity." Rudavsky concludes that "on Maimonides' taxonomy, moral perfection cannot be supreme since the ultimate perfection must be achievable by a solitary individual with no social interaction." This claim breaks no new ground in Maimonidean studies, but it does set the stage for prodding readers to venture beyond the conventional wisdom that assumes Maimonides' goal to have been the elimination of troubling cognitive dissonance and nagging intellectual perplexity: "Reading the Mishneh Torah might in itself be sufficient to raise a reader from casual acceptance to perplexity. Maimonides ends the Guide with a poem, reminding us that God "'is found by every seeker'...But a 'seeker' must first recognize a lack, something missing to be sought. Perplexity thus represents the first step on the road to wisdom" (196). By implication, according to Rudavsky's argument, graduated perplexity may constitute and represent all the subsequent steps and stages on the dynamic and individuated road to wisdom, a road perpetually marked by the human awareness of something missing to be sought. The Maimonidean inculcation of perplexity certainly explains why the Guide is intentionally replete with contradictions and enigmas, a set of stylistic features admirably accounted for by Rudavsky's exposition of the esoteric and exoteric strata of the Guide, just as the accommodation to perplexity is reinforced by the discoveries that "it is not clear what Maimonides advocates for his readers" (195) and that "there exist deep tensions in Maimonides' discussions of the [ethical] mean that cannot be reconciled easily" (165).

This monograph therefore proves to be far more valuable than an accurate survey of Maimonidean philosophic doctrine and a reliable digest of current scholarly arguments over what those doctrines are. Each chapter is amply furnished with precise bibliographic references and valuable critical commentary. The monograph also provides a detailed Index and a useful bibliography that includes sections on works composed by Maimonides, primary sources composed by other philosophers, and secondary works composed by modern scholars. Beyond all this, the monograph redescribes Maimonides. The new portrait allows readers an intimate glimpse into a medieval Jewish thinker and jurist who disdained the false comforts and stagnation of intellectual closure, regardless of its origin in religious or philosophic authorities, and took upon himself the pedagogic burdens of bringing the Socratic habits of socially-responsible, critical inquiry to his people. All travelers to the sites of Maimonidean thought will profit immensely from the expert and insightful guidance offered by T. M. Rudavsky. If nothing else, those travelers will come away from this book better prepared to understand why Maimonides evoked such divisive partisan debate in medieval Jewish societies and why modern scholars still find him as fascinating and elusive as a true holiday, and therefore an opportunity for fully engaged work and play.