The Use of Reason in Maimonidies: An Evaluation by Ahad Ha-Am

By Gottschalk, Alfred | Midstream, November-December 2006 | Go to article overview

The Use of Reason in Maimonidies: An Evaluation by Ahad Ha-Am


Gottschalk, Alfred, Midstream


The medieval Jewish philosopher, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides, the Rambam), was held in special regard by Ahad Ha-am, who considered him his guide and teacher. (1) Among the Sadigura Hasidim, with whom Ahad Ha-Am was reared, studying Maimonides was anathema. Yet it was to Maimonides that the rebellious young Ahad Ha-Am was drawn and whose thought epitomized for him shilton ha-sekhel, "the supremacy of reason." (2) It was his exposure to Maimonides that finally changed him from a mitnaged to a maskil. (3) Ahad Ha-Am paid supreme tribute to the Rambam for having brought him out of the deep religiosity in which he had been steeped from his youth onward. (4) The Moreh (Guide), Maimonides' philosophical magnum opus, awakened in Ahad Ha-Am, it appears, that great inquisitive spirit which was his natural gift and which brought him renown in the intellectual milieu of his time.

Throughout his life, Ahad-Ha-Am venerated Maimonides, for he saw him as the creator of the doctrine of the "supremacy of reason" developed to its most radical formulation. (5) Attempting to render religion meaningful through reason, as far as Ahad Ha-Am was concerned, was a fruitless effort. Ahad Ha-Am never found any satisfaction in a religious philosophy that was built upon metaphysical principles. Religion for Ahad Ha-Am was not a question of belief but the heart, (6) and therefore it seems anomalous that it was Maimonides, the supreme exponent of reason, who led Ahad Ha-Am out of his Hasidic piety and awakened his mind to the fruits of speculative thought. If religion is a matter of feeling, (7) then that feeling would hardly have been changed by Maimonides rational method, or, for that matter, by anyone's rational methods.

One can appreciate how Ahad Ha-Am, whose mind was always alive to new ideas, would have taken to Maimonides so avidly. In Maimonides one can find all the subtleties of philosophic thought as he wrestles with the obvious anthromorphic and anthropopathic passages of the Bible, as well as his controversial discussions on whether the universe was created ex nihilo by a creator-God or has existed from eternity. Relative to Yehudah Halevi's arguments in the Kuzari, Maimonides appears to be providing the intellectual case to make it possible for Jews to entertain the notion of the eternity of matter and the universe. After amassing the evidence, particularly from Aristotle's philosophy, which leads to the conclusion of a non-created universe, Maimonides brings his reasoning to an abrupt halt and casts doubts upon the evidence which he had so brilliantly propounded. He suddenly embraces the position that one cannot conclusively prove Aristotle's contention, (8) and since Jews have a tradition of creation, the latter is to be accepted as binding upon the believer. (9)

For Ahad Ha-Am and other readers of the Guide, even more important than this particular conclusion at which Maimonides arrives, are the arguments that he formulates in readily understandable modes of Jewish philosophical expression. Although Maimonides' conclusion is a traditional one, his method of arriving at that conclusion must be studied on its own terms. It is possible to see how, if one understands Maimonides correctly, massive doubt about traditional Jewish beliefs and dogmas could be generated, notwithstanding that Maimonides posits the thirteen principles of dogmatic Judaism as a credo of faith. Ahad Ha-Am was fully cognizant of Maimonides' introduction of a new dimension to Jewish religious thought, a dimension that was not indigenous to it. This may be gleaned from his reference to Maimonides when he states: "The people have not opposed those of its sages who have filled its cask with new wine from foreign vintages, (sages) such as the Rambam and his school. Neither have they withheld reverence nor honor from them." (10)

The seventh centenary (1904) of the death of Maimonides (datable to December 1204) occasioned essays of tribute in his memory from major Jewish thinkers throughout the world. …

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