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Friday, February 05, 2010

הרמב”ם, משה הלברטל

You know the famous hypothetical question: “if you could meet 3 people from history, who would they be”? Well, in my case – when the question is posed specifically about figures from Jewish history – my reply is: “Moses, Maimonides and I haven’t decided about the third”. I guess there is no need to explain Moshe, the greatest Jewish leader of all time and the only person who has spoken with God “face to face”.

RabamAs for the other Moshe - R. Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam, Maimonides - he is not only by far the most prominent Jewish thinker and Torah scholar of all time. He also stands out for his rational approach to Jewish law and his unbelievable capacity for writing outstanding scholarly works on subjects ranging from law to medicine to philosophy. All this against a background of a harsh life that saw his family fleeing from Spain to find refuge in Morocco and in Eretz Israel before settling in Egypt, the loss of a brother who supported him financially, a demanding and time-consuming job as the Sultan’s doctor and attacks on his writings and thoughts from Jewish leaders worldwide. To have accomplished what Rambam accomplished in his 68 years is unfathomable to mere mortals like us. It is no wonder the epitaph on his tombstone reads: “from Moses (the prophet) to Moses (Rambam) there were none like Moses”.

The writings of Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz first introduced me to the world of the Rambam more than two decades ago. I have studied, and am continuously studying, the Rambam’s Halachic works, most notably his codification of Jewish Law, the Mishne Torah. I have also read (and only partly understood) his great philosophical work The Guide for the Perplexed. I read the various letters (Igrot) he wrote to Jewish individuals and communities who sought his opinion. I have also read a couple of biographies and many academic books and treatises on his works and his philosophy.

So when I picked up Prof. Halbertal’s book about the Rambam I didn’t have great expectations. Halbertal is indeed a renowned Rambam scholar, but the book is part of a series published by the Zalman Shazar Institute in Jerusalem about prominent Jewish thinkers in history. I found most of the books in the series tend to be somewhat confused in their approach, probably a result of trying to blend an academic work with the need to satisfy the wide audience the books aim to address.

But Halbertal surprised me. He managed to write 300 brilliant pages encompassing almost every facet of the Rambam. He covers his life in the first chapter and then goes on to describe every major body of work and philosophy of the Rambam, from his early work on the Mishnah, through his colossal Mishne Torah and ending with The Guide to the Perplexed. Throughout, Halbertal classifies and explains the thoughts behind what Rambam wrote, and highlights the different approaches to his philosophy. This is all done in clear and concise prose, never lapsing into convoluted academic text nor into over-simplifications. One is left with a good, solid understanding of what a revolution the multi-faceted. multi-disciplinary Rambam brought about in Jewish thought.

I cannot say whether this is a book that a person who knows nothing about the Rambam will enjoy. But to someone who has studied or read some of Rambam’s works, Halbertal’s book is a must. It will bring order from chaos, summarise many of the ideas succinctly and elucidate some of the finer points of Rambam’s philosophy. It is a book I highly recommend (currently available only in Hebrew, I believe).

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