Maimonides: between philosophy and Halacha

Ktav/Urim, 2016

‘In 1950-1951, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, better known to all his students and admirers as “the Rav”, gave a year’s course on Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. Unfortunately, we do not possess the Rav’s own lecture notes of the course… We are fortunate, however, in possessing a complete set of students’ notes on the course taken by Rabbi Gerald (Yaakov) Homnick… These very full notes allow us to reconstruct the Rav’s lectures with a high degree of confidence.’

This is the opening paragraph of Lawrence J. Kaplan’s Preface to Maimonides: Between Philosophy and Halakhah which lets the reader know that this scholarly book is an attempt to recapture the insights of “the Rav” on Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim (‘Guide of the Perplexed’).

However, as is evident from Rabbi Dov Schwartz’s Foreword, this endeavour of reconstruction is not merely driven by a desire to better understand the Rambam. As he explains, the ideas, terms and approach of Rav Soloveitchik appear to shift in the 40’s and 50’s, while, at the same time, ‘R. Soloveitchik carried on a constant dialogue with the thought of the “great eagle”’ (ie. Rambam).

Thus, Maimonides: Between Philosophy and Halakhah ‘is an important work of R. Soloveitchik that fills a void by opening window into a relatively unknown period in his philosophical development, while also enriching our knowledge of the connection between him and Maimonides’.The book is divided into two halves.

The first is an important 48-page introduction by Professor Kaplan which, as R’ Dov Schwartz observes, serves two ends: ‘It imparts an independent perspective to the connection between R. Soloveitchik and Maimonides, and aids the reader in understanding R. Soloveitchik’s intentions and insights.’

The second is the reconstructed lectures themselves which are divided into eight units (‘The Motto of the Guide and its Significance’; ‘Maimonides on the Knowledge of God’; ‘Maimonides on Moral Excellence’; ‘Maimonides vs. Aristotle’; ‘On the Nature of Knowledge’; ‘The Nature of God’s Creative Act’; ‘Human Ethics’ & ‘Fear of God’).

As Professor Alan Brill explains in a lengthy and detailed review of this work, beyond the experience of hearing Rav Soloveitchik explore the Guide, Maimonides: Between Philosophy and Halakhah includes three entirely new elements.

‘First, in the lectures the Rav presents his basic argument as a response to the claim of medieval commentators on the Guide and, in the modern period, of Heinrich Graetz that Maimonides considers Halakhah (Jewish law), both its study and practice, as secondary to philosophy. Second, though in U-Vikashtem mi-Sham the Rav maintains that according to Maimonides, “The existence of the world [is] not only caused by God, but [is] also rooted in Him,” he carefully avoids any use there of the word “pantheism.” In the lectures, by contrast, he does speak of Maimonides’ pantheism—to be sure, with certain important qualifications.  Third, the penultimate section of the book on Yirat ha-Shem, the fear of the Lord, is, to my knowledge, new, and, in important ways, it goes against what he states both in Halakhic Man and in U-Vikashtem mi-Sham’.

This is clearly an important work, especially for those with a deep interest in the philosophical work of Rav Soloveitchik. For all of you who do, this is a must have sefer!