The Universalist Horizons of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah
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 the Mishneh torah, Maimonides’ code of Jewish law, has the structure of a microcosm. Through this symbolic form, Maimonides presents the law as designed to perfect the individual and society by shaping them in the image of the divinely created cosmic order. The commandments of the law thereby bring human beings closer to fulfilling their ultimate purpose, knowledge of God. This symbolism turns the Mishneh torah into an object of contemplation that itself communicates such knowledge. In short, it is a work of art.

Gillis unpacks the metaphysical and cosmological underpinnings of Maimonides’ scheme of organization with consummate skill, allowing the reader to understand the Mishneh torah’s artistic dimension and to appreciate its power. Moreover, as he makes clear, uncovering this dimension casts new light on one of the great cruxes of Maimonides studies: the relationship of the Mishneh torah to his philosophical treatise The Guide of the Perplexed. A fundamental unity is revealed between Maimonides the codifier and Maimonides the philosopher that has not been fully appreciated hitherto.

Maimonides’ artistry in composition is repeatedly shown to serve his aims in persuading us of the coherence and wisdom of the halakhic system. Gillis’s fine exegesis sets in high relief the humane and transcendental purposes and methods of halakhah as Maimonides conceived of it, in an argument that is sure-footed and convincing.

‘David Gillis proves, not that Mishneh Torah 'also' contains philosophy over and above its halakhic content (as is often claimed), 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 Mishneh Torah is read and studied. It is written with the confidence of a mature and seasoned scholar, and with the verve of a master stylist: just as Gillis shows that Maimonides brought artistry to bear on the composition of Mishneh Torah, so does Gillis himself bring artistry to bear on the writing of this exciting book.’
Menachem Kellner

'Novel, fresh, and creative as well as cogently argued. It is an original contribution to the field of Maimonidean studies in particular and of 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 and Plotinian in order . . . 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

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

 

About the author

David Gillis grew up in Sunderland in England. His higher education was at St Peter’s College, Oxford, where he read English Language and Literature, and, somewhat later, at the University of Haifa, where he earned a Ph.D. summa cum laude with a dissertation on Maimonides written 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

‘David Gillis proves, not that Mishneh Torah 'also' contains philosophy over and above its halakhic content (as is often claimed), 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 Mishneh Torah is read and studied. It is written with the confidence of a mature and seasoned scholar, and with the verve of a master stylist: just as Gillis shows that Maimonides brought artistry to bear on the composition of Mishneh Torah, so does Gillis himself bring artistry to bear on the writing of this exciting book.’
Menachem Kellner

'Novel, fresh, and creative as well as cogently argued. It is an original contribution to the field of Maimonidean studies in particular and of 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 and Plotinian in order . . . 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

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