Littman Library of Jewish Civilization

Reading Maimonides' Mishneh Torah

David Gillis

David Gillis's highly original study of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah demonstrates that its form reflects a belief that observance of the divine commandments of the Torah brings the individual and society into line with the cosmic order. He show that the Mishneh Torah is intended to be an object of contemplation as well as a prescription for action, with the study of it in itself bringing the reader closer to knowledge of God.

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In this highly original study, David Gillis demonstrates that Maimonides' Mishneh torah has the form of a microcosm and that this literary form is consistent with its purpose. Written to help every Jew live a correct life, its structure aims to make it an object of contemplation as well as a prescription for action. This approach reflects a belief that since the divine commandments mirror the cosmic order, contemplating them helps align the individual and society with that supernal order and brings them closer to knowledge of God. Gillis unpacks the metaphysical and cosmological underpinnings of Maimonides' scheme of organization with consummate skill, allowing the reader both to understand it as a work of art and appreciate its power. As he makes clear, uncovering this artistic structure also casts light on one of the great cruxes of Maimonides studies: its relationship to his Guide of the Perplexed. Gillis's painstaking analysis reveals a greater unity between Maimonides the codifier and Maimonides the philosopher than has hitherto been appreciated.

The outcome is confirmation of Maimonides' artistry in composition, an artistry that is repeatedly shown to serve his aims in revealing the coherence and wisdom of the halakhic system. Gillis's own exegetical skill sets in high relief the humane and transcendental purposes and methods of halakhah itself, in an argument whose detailed and substantive analysis is sure-footed and convincing.

'A brilliant piece of work . . . it will have a major impact on the study of Maimonides and on the larger realm of Jewish and cosmopolitan scholarship . . . Gillis pries open a window that affords broad vistas of forests, valleys, mountains, and the heavens themselves.'
Lenn E. Goodman

'Novel, fresh, and creative as well as cogently argued. It is an original contribution to the field of Maimonidean studies in particular and to medieval Jewish thought in general . . . shows how philosophy informs the entire Mishneh Torah from beginning to end in an exquisite structure that is Aristotelian in number, Plotinian in order, and Neoplatonic in overall structure . . . Gillis does not just present purely theoretical theses but applies them in order to resolve some of the problems that have engaged both scholars and the rabbinic world in making sense of various anomalies, inconsistencies, and contradictions in the Maimonidean corpus.'
James A. Diamond

'David Gillis goes far beyond the arguments put forward a generation ago by David Hartman and Isadore Twersky to the effect that the Mishneh Torah includes philosophic material. Gillis proves, not that the Mishneh Torah 'also' contains philosophy over and above its halakhic content, but that the very structure of the entire work reflects both Maimonides' Neoplatonism and his artistry. This work will surely force a paradigm shift in the way in which the Mishneh Torah is read and studied. It is written with the confidence of a mature and seasoned scholar, one who has read widely and deeply in the relevant fields: Maimonides himself, of course, Mishneh Torah criticism (both traditional and academic), Neoplatonism, literary theory, and even the history of aesthetics. It is, moreover, written with the verve of a master stylist: just as Gillis shows that Maimonides brought artistry to bear on the composition of the Mishneh Torah, so does Gillis himself bring artistry to bear on the writing of this exciting book.'
Menachem Kellner

 

About the author

David Gillis grew up in Sunderland in England. His higher education was at St.Peter's College, Oxford, and, somewhat later, at the University of Haifa, where he earned a PhD summa cum laude under the supervision of Professor Menachem Kellner. He works as an editor at the Israeli financial daily Globes and lives in Tel Aviv.

Contents (provisional)

Note on Transliteration
Note on Sources and Conventions Used

Introduction: A Portrait of the Artist
The Cosmic Model • Aggadah in Mishneh torah • Mishneh torah as Art: The History of an Idea • Defining Art • The Poet in Maimonides' Republic • Necessities and Literary Invention • Art as Imitatio Dei • Maimonides and Modern Literary Theory • Literary Models: Hebrew as Genre • Structures of the Commandments • Summary: Philosopher, Statesman, Artist

1 In God's Image
Two Scholars • Man as Microcosm • Man as Microcosm in The Guide of the Perplexed • Intellectual Virtue and Moral Virtue • Moral Virtue in Mishneh torah 1: Preparation for Intellectual Virtue • Moral Virtue in Mishneh torah 2: Consequence of Intellectual Virtue • Moral Virtue in Mishneh torah 3: Self-Knowledge and the Knowledge of God • 'He Who Knows Himself Knows His Lord' • In Maimonides' Workshop • Virtue Ethics and Command Ethics: Abraham and Moses • Portrait of Perfection • Summary

2 The 'Great Thing' and the 'Small Thing': Mishneh torah as Microcosm
The Great Divide in Mishneh torah • How Many Spheres Make a Universe? • The Spheres and the Commandments • The Commandment as Form • From 'Knowledge That' to 'Knowledge Of' • Origin of the Commandments • Performance of the Commandments and Immortality • Fourteen • Some Contrasts • Summary

3 Emanation
Maimonides on Emanation • 'According to Greatness and Degree' • First and Second Intention • The Love–Awe Polarity • The Hierarchy of Holiness • The Flow of Form from the Book of Knowledge • The Sacrifice Paradox • Mikveh as Metaphor • Summary

4 Return
The Ladder of the Commandments and the Ladder of Prophecy • From Dystopia to Utopia • Loss and Restoration • Rationalizing the Commandments: Mishneh torah versus The Guide of the Perplexed • Why Is 'Laws of Mourning' Where It Is? • Summary

5 From theory to history, via Midrash
The Problem of 'Laws of the Foundations of the Torah', 6: 9 • The Scriptural Contexts • How to Read • The Problem of 'Laws of the Foundations of the Torah', 7: 3 • Theory and History in the Prophet's Epiphany • Mishneh torah as Prophecy • Summary

6 Conclusion: Mishneh torah as Parable
The Lost Language of the Commandments • A Jacob's Ladder • The Problem of Obsolescence • Silver and Gold

Appendix I: The Books and Sections of Mishneh torah
Appendix II: Philosophical Background
Outline of Neoplatonism • The World According to Alfarabi and Avicenna

Glossary
Bibliography
Index

 

Reviews

Endorsements

A brilliant piece of work . . . it will have a major impact on the study of Maimonides and on the larger realm of Jewish and cosmopolitan scholarship . . . Gillis pries open a window that affords broad vistas of forests, valleys, mountains, and the heavens themselves.'
Lenn E. Goodman

'Novel, fresh, and creative as well as cogently argued. It is an original contribution to the field of Maimonidean studies in particular and to medieval Jewish thought in general . . . shows how philosophy informs the entire Mishneh Torah from beginning to end in an exquisite structure that is Aristotelian in number, Plotinian in order, and Neoplatonic in overall structure . . . Gillis does not just present purely theoretical theses but applies them in order to resolve some of the problems that have engaged both scholars and the rabbinic world in making sense of various anomalies, inconsistencies, and contradictions in the Maimonidean corpus.'
James A. Diamond

'David Gillis goes far beyond the arguments put forward a generation ago by David Hartman and Isadore Twersky to the effect that the Mishneh Torah includes philosophic material. Gillis proves, not that the Mishneh Torah 'also' contains philosophy over and above its halakhic content, but that the very structure of the entire work reflects both Maimonides' Neoplatonism and his artistry. This work will surely force a paradigm shift in the way in which the Mishneh Torah is read and studied. It is written with the confidence of a mature and seasoned scholar, one who has read widely and deeply in the relevant fields: Maimonides himself, of course, Mishneh Torah criticism (both traditional and academic), Neoplatonism, literary theory, and even the history of aesthetics. It is, moreover, written with the verve of a master stylist: just as Gillis shows that Maimonides brought artistry to bear on the composition of the Mishneh Torah, so does Gillis himself bring artistry to bear on the writing of this exciting book.'
Menachem Kellner