Science and Medieval Philosophy: Maimonides

Maimonides drew upon scientific knowledge in his interpretations of Jewish law.

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Reprinted with permission from Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe (Yale University Press).

In proscribing astrology and magic, Maimonides had demonstrated his awareness of their corrosive effect on Judaism (see Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah, chapter 11). In his emphatic denial of the legitimacy of these arts, he had sought to establish barriers against the incursions of astral determinism and theurgy to insure the integrity of Judaism. But he was no less infatuated with the natural world than Bahya, Bar Hiyya, or ibn Ezra [other medieval Jewish philosophers and mathematicians, who were interested in astrology and magic].

 

In fact, in a manner quite different from them, he allowed the authority of Jewish revelation to be severely constricted and even undermined in those areas where recent knowledge about the natural world, particularly astronomical matters, appeared to challenge the wisdom of the rabbis.

Passion for Nature

Reminiscent of Bahya ibn Pakuda's enthusiastic outpourings about the majesty of nature and its relation to divine worship, Maimonides was no less passionate in his own pronouncements, even situating them in the beginning of his code of law as a basic principle of the Torah:

nature and science"And what is the way that will lead to the love of Him and the fear of Him? When a person contemplates His great and wondrous works and creatures and from them obtains a glimpse of His wisdom, which is incomparable and infinite, he will straightway love Him, praise Him, glorify Him, and long with an exceeding longing to know His great name; even as David said, 'My soul thirsts for God, for the living God' (Psalm 42:3).

"And when he ponders these matters, he will recoil frightened, and realize that he is a small creature, lowly and obscure, endowed with slight and slender intelligence, standing in the presence of Him who is perfect in knowledge. And so David said: 'When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers--what is man that You are mindful of him?' (Psalm 8:4-5)."

Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei haTorah, 2:2.

Torah Grounded in Reason

In the introduction to his Guide of the Perplexed Maimonides argues that Torah must be grounded in reason and that divine science (metaphysics) can only be successfully undertaken after studying the natural sciences (physics).

Among the natural sciences, he favored medicine, as his own medical practice and extensive writings testify. Unlike his contemporary Judah Ha-Levi, he refrained from claiming that all the sciences originally came from Israel, but he did believe that the rabbis once cultivated the sciences until, because of the exile, they neglected them.

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David B. Ruderman

David B. Ruderman is the Joseph Meyerhoff Professor of Modern Jewish History and the Ella Darivoff Director of the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.