- Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works
Herbert Davidson is a scholar of exceptional brilliance whose previous studies of medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy have been widely acclaimed. In the present work, he ventures beyond philosophical argument to encompass an analysis of every aspect of the life and work of one of the most celebrated—and controversial—figures in Jewish history, Moses Maimonides (1138–1204). In so doing, Davidson discloses a formidable knowledge of Talmud and rabbinic literature, as well as of the history, science, astronomy, medicine and philosophy of Maimonides' day. Davidson offers elegant descriptions and often challenging evaluations of Maimonides' life, education, and work: the rabbinic oeuvre, philosophical and medical treatises, and miscellaneous epistles.
Maimonides' accomplishments do not include a number of works commonly but mistakenly attributed to him, in Davidson's opinion. He offers persuasive reasons (though admittedly not always conclusive proof) for rejecting Maimonidean authorship of a "Treatise on Logic," and the Epistles "In Opposition to Astrology" and "On Religious Persecution." Davidson's rejection of the last named epistle abets his interpretation of the early period of Maimonides' life, according to which he was not compelled to convert or to dissimulate a faith in Islam, as many think. [End Page 484]
It is a cardinal principle for Davidson, though he does not identify the term as such, that Maimonides never practiced dissimulation in any significant way, or as Davidson sees it, that he did not lie. Davidson's Maimonides, for all the personal failings he notes, is a figure of immense rectitude and religious sincerity, to be taken at his word.
Davidson comes, then, to defend Maimonides against his past and present critics who see esoteric and heretical teachings lurking behind Maimonides' protestations of orthodox belief. Davidson is no simple apologist for Maimonides, however, and does not hesitate to identify places in Maimonides' writings where the Master nodded. Such places abound for Davidson in Maimonides' philosophical masterpiece (as it is commonly thought), the Guide for the Perplexed, raising the strong suspicion that Davidson hardly regards it as such (creation arguments apart). He is much more taken with Maimonides' rabbinic acumen and achievements than with his philosophical work, arguing that Maimonides did not, when writing the Guide, have the time and concentration he possessed when composing the Commentary on the Mishnah and the Mishneh Torah.
Davidson is assured by the strong and traditional affirmations of faith expressed in Maimonides' rabbinic writings that he maintained the same beliefs in his philosophy. The reconciliation of faith and reason is a theme that runs through all of Maimonides' writings. For Davidson this issues in a religious philosophy both radical and conservative: radical in that the Jewish God assumes an Aristotelian mien; conservative in that a "measure of personality" (365) is expressed through the act of creation and the performance of other miracles, notably the revelation at Sinai, prophecy, and resurrection. Problematic as he acknowledges the latter notion is for Maimonides, Davidson yet believes he held it.
This is typical of Davidson's iconoclastic posture towards much of contemporary Maimonidean scholarship. Davidson does not believe Maimonides knew all that much philosophy and was not as careful with his writing as he claimed; that he did not have a first-hand knowledge of Aristotle, using Avicenna mostly instead; that his vaunted secret "Accounts of Creation and of the Chariot" were thinly disguised common notions of medieval physics and metaphysics; and that his entire claim to secret or esoteric teachings has none of the significance scholars in the past or present have given it.
Here Davidson's bête noir is Leo Strauss, whom he regards as projecting his own dissimulating tactics upon Maimonides, turning him into an atheist (400). Davidson sees Shlomo Pines, adopting Strauss' methodology, as foisting an agnostic posture upon Maimonides. Davidson does not consider a Deistic alternative, probably assuming it incompatible with a creator God. Yet Maimonides' God functions dispassionately in His governance of the world, not knowing individuals directly, and offering them only a collective immaterial immortality.
Maimonides exempts Moses and...