Maimonides : Life and Thought

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Maimonides was the greatest Jewish philosopher and legal scholar of the medieval period, a towering figure who has had a profound and lasting influence on Jewish law, philosophy, and religious consciousness. This book provides a comprehensive and accessible introduction to his life and work, revealing how his philosophical sensibility and outlook informed his interpretation of Jewish tradition. Moshe Halbertal vividly describes Maimonides's childhood in Muslim Spain, his family's flight to North Africa to escape persecution, and their eventual resettling in Egypt. He draws on Maimonides's letters and the testimonies of his contemporaries, both Muslims and Jews, to offer new insights into his personality and the circumstances that shaped his thinking. Halbertal then turns to Maimonides's legal and philosophical work, analyzing his three great books--Commentary on the Mishnah, the Mishneh Torah, and the Guide of the Perplexed.
He discusses Maimonides's battle against all attempts to personify God, his conviction that God's presence in the world is mediated through the natural order rather than through miracles, and his locating of philosophy and science at the summit of the religious life of Torah. Halbertal examines Maimonides's philosophical positions on fundamental questions such as the nature and limits of religious language, creation and nature, prophecy, providence, the problem of evil, and the meaning of the commandments. A stunning achievement, Maimonides offers an unparalleled look at the life and thought of this important Jewish philosopher, scholar, and theologian.
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Product details

  • Paperback | 400 pages
  • 152 x 235 x 25.4mm | 539g
  • New Jersey, United States
  • English
  • Translation
  • 0691165661
  • 9780691165660
  • 385,192

Back cover copy

"In the gorgeous and rugged terrain of Jewish thought, there is no higher mountain to climb than Maimonides, and no more slippery or exhilarating ascent. Halbertal has made it all the way to the top, and his survey of the whole of the Maimonidean landscape is trustworthy and masterful. This is the richest and most intellectually sophisticated book on Maimonides I have ever read."--Leon Wieseltier

"In this learned and penetrating work, Halbertal offers us a Maimonides who draws on the dominant Greco-Islamic thought of his time while creating a system of thought that is fully Jewish. He shows us how the early Commentary on the Mishnah links up with the Mishneh Torah and with the Guide of the Perplexed, written at the end of his life, to form an unexpected and radical intellectual unity. Beautifully written, Maimonides brings out both Maimonides's intellectual success and the paradoxical critical approaches to him after his death."--David J. Wasserstein, Vanderbilt University

"Insightful and learned. Halbertal is perhaps the leading philosopher of Jewish law today. His book on Maimonides, like his other writings, reflects wide erudition and is written clearly and sharply."--Warren Zev Harvey, professor emeritus, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

"Displaying the marvelous depth and clarity that mark all his work, Halbertal explains in abundant detail the transformations that Maimonides sought to effect in the Jewish world. He provides incisive interpretations of both legal and philosophical writings, yet he is also a biographer, binding together Maimonides's life, self-perception, and intellectual agenda. This is an exceptionally rich book, one that offers fresh perspectives for experts and a highly accessible introduction for general readers."--David Shatz, Yeshiva University

"An outstanding and thrilling portrait of Maimonides. Halbertal's analytic lucidity and psychological depth are singular, and his talents are abundantly apparent on every page. This is an extraordinary book."--Menachem Lorberbaum, Tel Aviv University
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Table of contents

Introduction 1 Chapter One: Moses the Man "Moses of his Generation" 7 Andalusia: 1138-1159 (?) 14 The Maghrib and Persecution: 1159-1166 23 Fustat: 1166-1177 33 Yemen and Islam: 1172 47 In the Sultan's Palace: 1178-1204 56 The Man Moses 74 Chapter Two: The Commentary on the Mishnah, the Book of Commandments, and the Philosophy of halakhah In the Laboratory of the Commentary on the Mishnah 92 The Purpose of the Commentary on the Mishnah 96 Controversy, Truth, and Interpretation 99 The Book of Commandments and the Structure of halakhah 107 On the Place of Revelation 111 Revelation and Interpretation 116 Interpretation in halakhah: Between Explanatory Principles and Deductive Principles 120 Halakhah and Prophecy 126 Chapter Three: Ethics and Belief in the Commentary on the Mishnah Principles of Faith 134 What Is Man: Immortality of the Soul, and the Afterlife 137 Resurrection of the Dead 142 The Ethics of Virtue and the Ethics of Obligation 148 The Sage and the Pietist 154 Nobility and Saintliness 158 Chapter Four: What Is Mishneh Torah? The Aims and Qualities of the Compilation 164 Mishneh Torah and the History of halakhah 168 The Mishnah of Rabbi Judah the Prince and Mishneh Torah 171 The Authority of the Talmud and the Authority of the Geonim 175 Mishneh Torah: The Moderate and Radical Alternatives 181 Mishneh Torah and Jewish Curriculum 184 Ambiguity and Codification 189 Codification and Self-Esteem 194 Chapter Five: Philosophy and halakhah in Mishneh Torah Love and Awe: Philosophy and Religious Experience 197 The Concept of the Divine: Eternal Universe and Creation ex Nihilo 202 Prophecy, Faith, and the Election of Israel 208 Halakhah, Magic, and Idolatry 216 Messianism, halakhah, and Nature 223 Chapter Six: Mishneh Torah and the Conceptual Understanding of halakhah Reorganizing the halakhah: Form and Content 229 "Laws Concerning Mourning" and the Organization of Mishneh Torah 236 Forging Concepts, Distinctions, and Generalizations 243 Mishneh Torah and Talmudic Sources 255 Three Functions of Aggadah in Mishneh Torah 262 Chapter Seven: The Guide of the Perplexed and Its Critique of Religious Language Concealed and Revealed in the Guide of the Perplexed 277 Idolatry and Religious Language 288 "For You, Silence Is Praise" 296 The Skeptical Reading and the Mystical Reading 301 Chapter Eight: The Guide of the Perplexed: Will or Wisdom? The Creation of the World: The Conservative Reading and the Philosophical Reading 313 The Doctrine of Prophecy 321 The Problem of Evil and the Purpose of Existence 329 Providence 335 The Reasons for the Commandments 341 The Commandments and the Philosopher's Spiritual Exercise 349 Conclusion Four Readings 354 Three Common Elements 358 Maimonides' Teachings in Historical Perspective 362 Maimonides' Writings 369 Bibliography 371 Index 381
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Review Text

"Halbertal is a wonderful guide. . . . [An] extraordinary book." - Jay M. Harris, Foreign Affairs
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Review quote

Winner of the 2013 National Jewish Book Award in Scholarship, Jewish Book Council Honorable Mention for the 2015 PROSE Award in Theology & Religious Studies, Association of American Publishers One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2014 "In his rigorous and insightful study Maimonides: Life and Thought, Moshe Halbertal reintroduces readers to this rabbi-scientist, who insisted that faith should be an enterprise based on reason."--Dara Horn, Wall Street Journal "[M]agisterial... Halbertal presents a moving and detailed portrait of Maimonides's life as well as his work... Maimonides is not just a titan of Jewish learning; as Halbertal shows in his timely and definitive book, he can be a surprisingly contemporary guide for our times."--David Mikics, Forward "[Halbertal] pioneers a new path, walking the reader through the different interpretive schools and explaining what supports each one while acknowledging that Maimonides contradicts himself both across and within his many writings--at times purposefully, which inevitably leaves his readers perplexed. Halbertal is a wonderful guide, explaining how different approaches illuminate Maimonides' writings and how certain issues reverberate throughout the sage's work, returning in new forms and contexts... Drawing on all of Maimonides' writings, and especially his many letters, Halbertal crafts a portrait of a refugee who never fully left home and felt the pain of exile for his entire life... [An] extraordinary book."--Jay M. Harris, Foreign Affairs "In a sea of literature about the great twelfth-century Jewish sage and philosopher, one could do no better than turn to Moshe Halbertal's single volume work on Maimonides... Accessible to both scholar and interested general reader, this book should be the first work on Maimonides for an English reader to approach."--David Tesler, Association of Jewish Libraries Reviews "If you are going to read only one book about Maimonides, make it Moshe Halbertal's stunning Maimonides. Even if you have read many other books by and about Maimonides, you have much to learn here."--Menachem Kellner, AJS Review "Halbertal's book provides an introduction to the complexity of Maimonides's work, and should be studied by any serious Maimonides scholar."--Tamar Rudavsky, Journal of the History of Philosophy "Maimonides, then, remains an elusive and fascinating figure: his importance is clear, but it's hard to grasp exactly what made him so important. That is why Maimonides: Life and Thought, the new study by Moshe Halbertal, is such a valuable contribution... Readers who are curious about this difficult but rewarding thinker will find Maimonides: Life and Thought a thrillingly lucid introduction."--Adam Kirsch, Barnes & Noble Review "Moshe Halbertal's Maimonides is a useful guide to the man and his work, with something to offer both novice and scholar... [T]his admirable work invites us to study Moses Maimonides' writings on our own."--Mark Blitz, Weekly Standard "Halbertal, a professor of both law and Jewish studies, is equipped to grasp the richness of Maimonides's thought, which reflects a potent blend of rabbinic expertise and philosophical acumen... If Halbertal's book accomplishes nothing else but to inspire this Maimonidean approach to life and religion, then he has done his job well."--James A. Diamond, Jerusalem Post "[S]tudying the Andalusian refugee Maimonides will be revealing and this terrific book by the philosopher Moshe Halbertal is a great place to begin."--Richard Marshall, "This insightful, well-written book offers a fresh perspective on Maimonides. Halbertal offers an excellent introductory overview of Maimonides's life and contributions to Jewish law, philosophy, medicine, and religious consciousness. He also makes clear how Mainmonides's personality, psychology, and evolving outlook penetrate his oeuvre... The author offers a window into the self-perception of this greatest of medieval rabbinic thinkers, physicians, legalists, and theologians, and the radical transformations he sought to effect in Judaism."--Choice "[A] valuable and impressive achievement."--Eric Shoag, Jewish Journal "[A] brilliant tour de force."--Lawrence Kaplan, Jewish Review of Books "In this excellent study, Moshe Halbertal makes it clear, in keeping with Maimonides, that there is no one way to understand the Jewish tradition."--Jude P. Dougherty, Mary Elizabeth Tetzlaff "[A]n unusually comprehensive overview of Maimonides achievements."--Berel Dov Lerner, Religion & Theology
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About Moshe Halbertal

Moshe Halbertal is the Gruss professor of Law at New York University, professor of Jewish thought and philosophy at the Hebrew University, and professor of law at IDC Herzliya in Israel. His books include On Sacrifice and Concealment and Revelation: Esotericism in Jewish Thought and Its Philosophical Implications (both Princeton).
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77 ratings
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1 1% (1)
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