Photo Credit: Urim Publications and Ktav

Title: Maimonides: Between Philosophy and Halakhah: Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik’s Lectures on the Guide of the Perplexed
Editor: Lawrence J. Kaplan
Publishers: Urim Publications and Ktav, Jerusalem and New York, 2016




It is well known that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903–1993), better known as “the Rav”, did not publish many works in his lifetime. This has led his disciples to posthumously publish books in his name, based on notes he may have written or tapes of lectures. Maimonides: Between Philosophy and Halakhah, edited by Lawrence J. Kaplan, is in that mold; it is based on the first half of a series of very complete lecture notes compiled by Rabbi Gerald (Yaakov) Homnick from a course taught at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University in the 1950–1951 academic year by Rabbi Soloveitchik on the seminal philosophical work of the Rambam (Moses Maimonides [1135–1204]), the Guide of the Perplexed. The result is a topical commentary on some aspects of the Guide. In the course of his lectures, the Rav puts Rambam’s philosophy in the Guide into the context of the Rambam’s other philosophical writings, such as the philosophical flourishes found in the Rambam’s code of Jewish law, the Mishnah Torah, and into the Western philosophical tradition, from Aristotle to Kant.

One book Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik did publish in his lifetime was Ish Halakhah (Halakhic Man, translated by L. Kaplan, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1983). The title Ish Halachah aptly describes the Rav as well as the book, and indeed the Rav does read the Guide in a halakhic manner, as the title of Kaplan’s book implies. The Rav concludes this first set of lectures by stating that “Maimonides the halakhist defeated Maimonides the philosopher” (p. 238) and that “After all his adventures in the field of philosophy, he came back to the halakhah” (p. 239). Not many would agree with this conclusion (see for example p. 18, where in his Preface, Kaplan thanks a colleague, Sarah Pessin, for critiquing the manuscript, even though “she disagrees with the Rav’s reading of Maimonides”).

A good example of the Rav’s halakhic reading of the Guide is the way the Rav handles Maimonides’ attitude to mitzvot (commandments). As is well known, one of the more controversial aspects of the Guide is the Rambam’s apparent diminution of the importance of many mitzvot, the best known example of which is the Rambam’s characterization of sacrifices in Book Three Chapter 32, as a “divine ruse”. Rambam explains sacrifices as a condescension to human frailty, whose purpose was to wean the Israelites away from idolatry, for at the time the Torah was given the Israelites had no other way to worship God. In a similar vein, because, according to the Rav, the Ish Halachah, the Guide teaches that one learns to fear God through obeying His commandments, mitzvot become a significant part of Rambam’s program, (pp 234–5), instead of being prefatory to philosophy, as the Guide is generally taken to mean (see for e.g., Book Three Chapter 27).

While for the most part deferential to the Rav, Kaplan does point out several instances where the Rav appears to have misquoted something from memory or to have been inconsistent or mistaken in his lectures (see for example, p. 41 note 30, p. 61 note 44, p. 65, p. 88 note 1, p. 123 note 6, p. 163 note 10, p. 208 note 11, and p. 212 notes 14–16). There are also instances in which the Rav tries to bring Maimonides into the mystical realm (see for example pp. 106, 113, 131, 136, and 163), which is a questionable enterprise since the Rambam was, as Kaplan himself points out, a rationalist (p. 21; see p. 210 for the Rav’s opinion on the matter). Nevertheless, the book does offer many interesting insights into Maimonides’ Guide by one of the 20th century’s greatest rabbinic minds.

The importance of ethics permeates the Rav’s reading of the Guide. The Rav argues that for Rambam, a great deal of man’s striving to understand God is related to trying to understand His deeds and imitating them. The direct consequence of imitating God’s deeds is ethical behavior, because God acts with chesed (grace and lovingkindness); thus if we are imitating God, we too need to act in an ethical manner (see e.g., p. 128, pp 202–3, 210–11, and p. 215). Another example of the Rav’s unique approach is the way the Rav characterizes Rambam’s understanding of man’s striving to love God and thus achieving immortality (via a sort of union between man’s perfected soul and some aspect of the Divine [Book 3, Chapter 27]) as “not a promise, but a task [which requires doing mitzvot and studying philosophy]” (p. 159). It is for nuggets such as these that we eagerly await volume 2.