Review: A new book about Maimonides challenges the idea that only Jews have a path to a spiritual life

Religious exclusivity poses a danger to the world-at-large, according to the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Within Jewry, denominational triumphalism and religious exclusivity, based on selective readings of Yehudah Halevi, Zohar and Nahmanides, threaten the unity of the Jewish people.

A new book, Maimonides the Universalist: The Ethical Horizons of the Mishneh Torah by Menachem Kellner and David Gillis, poses a learned challenge to this dynamic and offers an inclusive and ethical vision of spiritual life.

Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), known in Jewish circles as Rambam, was the most significant Jewish scholar from medieval through contemporary times. His Commentary to Mishnah, written in Arabic and composed while he was in his 20s, functions as an authoritative commentary to Talmud. His Guide for the Perplexed, also written in Arabic and published about 1190, takes the form of an extended letter to a student seeking to bridge issues in philosophy, science, Torah and theology.

The Mishneh Torah, composed between 1170 and 1180, grows out of Maimonides’ Commentary and anticipates some aspects of the Guide. Intended for a wider Jewish audience than the other two works, it is a highly structured and detailed exposition of halakhah and Jewish belief. 

In Maimonides the Universalist, Kellner of Shalem College and Gillis, an independent scholar, have written an excellent and detailed exposition of a literary and theological aspect of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, which points to the ethical and universal orientation of this legal code. Kellner and Gillis show how Maimonides integrated philosophy and halakhah to articulate an expression of Torah that encompassed all humanity.

Isadore Twersky identified five characteristics that made Mishneh Torah significant:

  • Language: use of Mishnaic Hebrew
  • Scope: comprehensively deals with all areas of Jewish law, even those pertinent to the Temple
  • Form: using a conceptual order that differed from the arrangement of the Mishnah
  • Authority: by not providing sources, it claimed its own stature
  • Holistic: integrating philosophical and legal ideas

Maimonides presents a spiritual or ethical exhortation at the conclusion of each of the 14 books of Mishneh Torah. Kellner and Gillis demonstrate that these lyrical perorations are more than rhetorical flourishes. They disclose a universal framework that undergirds Maimonides’ jurisprudence and suggest that there is no essential difference between Jew or gentile. The same concept of human flourishing applies to all human beings.

The binding commandments of the Torah of Moses are one path—but not an exclusive one—to universal Abrahamic ethics. This legal work teaches that all people can strive for the intellectual, moral and social perfection Rambam associates with the aspiration “You shall be holy.”

Kellner and Gillis are particularly interested in teasing out the universal implications of commandments usually understood as being exclusively covenantal. Circumcision and tefillin, Temple ritual and festival practices, Hanukkah and Purim, even the laws of slavery all point to common human aspirations.

Kellner and Gillis also provide fresh, incisive and detailed readings that integrate all of Maimonides’ works and provide the most extensive translations of his messianic writings.

In a previous volume, Reading Maimonides, David Gillis demonstrated that the organization of the Mishneh Torah is based on the structure of the universe as understood by medieval science and articulated in the initial chapters of Mishnah Torah.  A fine summary of this pattern is presented in Maimonides the Universalist. The reader can see that, for Rambam, conformance to ritual and moral commandments corresponds to living within the natural structure of the cosmos.

In his earlier books, We are Not Alone and Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism, Kellner warns about insularity and intolerance growing out of a belief in Jewish theological singularity. Here, he and Gillis point to a vision which emphasizes that the intent of the mitzvot is to attain true human happiness.

The Universalism of Maimonides reveals that this great interpreter of halakhah rejected those perspectives that asserted Jews possessed an exclusive vision and path to the divine. The Rambam that Kellner and Gillis present believed that the habituation of mitzvot formed a substantial means to achieve the spiritual and social excellence Maimonides identified with the messianic era.

Since “God’s mercy is over all His works,” the possibility of such flourishing is present in all humans created in the image of God.

Baruch Frydman-Kohl, C.M. is Rabbi Emeritus of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto.