Was Maimonides a philosopher or a theologian?….ask the rabbi

November 23, 2015 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple answers your questions….


Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. How can some texts describe Maimonides as a philosopher? Wasn’t he a theologian? Aren’t the two roles contradictory?

A. Despite the common view, you may well be right since philosophy has to reason things out without preconceived notions, and Maimonides as a believer began with axioms such as the existence and oneness of God.

Of course Maimonides works extensively on philosophical concepts, but my teacher Isidore Epstein argued in a famous essay for what he called the Supremacy of Faith in Maimonides, as against Ahad HaAm who argued for the Supremacy of Reason in Maimonides’ thinking.

As a theologian Maimonides uses rigorous philosophical methodology to reason about the faith and tradition which he upholds. It should be said, however, that modern philosophy also analyses the meaning and use of words and it is still called philosophy. Maybe this proves the pragmatic view that philosophy is what philosophers do, analogous to the definition of law which I heard as a law student, that law is what lawyers do.


Q. Maccabi or Maccabee – which is the right spelling?

A. Both. The Hebrew word is spelled M-K-B-I, possibly from a word meaning “hammer”; a well-known interpretation sees it as the initials of the words, “Who is like You among the powerful, O Lord?” (Ex. 15:11). There is also a view that it is the initials of “Mattityahu Kohen ben Yochanan” – “Mattathias the kohen, son of Yochanan”.

References in English to the Mattathias family generally use the Maccabee spelling, but this is not essential.

General usage is to apply the spelling “Maccabi” to sporting teams, though there is a paradox; one of the things the original Maccabees opposed was the Greek athletic contests that valued physical form over spiritual attainment.

However, one might fittingly quote the words of Justice Brandeis, “The Maccabees’ victory proved that the Jews – then already an old people – possessed the secret of eternal youth: the ability to rejuvenate itself through courage, hope, enthusiasm, devotion and self-sacrifice.”


Q. Why do parents bless their children on Friday evenings?

A. Blessing one’s children goes back to the patriarch Jacob, who blessed his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh with the wish that future generations might say, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh” (Gen. 48:20).

The equivalent blessing for girls is, “May God make you like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah”. The girls’ blessing is not a direct Biblical quotation, but is suggested by Ruth 4:11 (“The Lord make the woman who has come into your house like Rachel and Leah”).

After these blessings, the priestly blessing (“The Lord bless you and keep you…”) is invoked upon both boys and girls (Num. 6:24-26).

Friday night, according to the kabbalists, is the appropriate time for this ceremony because that is when Divine emanations come together in the world. A Spanish/Italian scholar, Yosef ben Chayyim Jabez, says that children need extra blessings on Shabbat because “they lack the power to draw down the flow of abundance through their own deeds”.

Adults have to earn their own blessings through the way they live their own lives. We would all dearly love to be children again and hear a parent or grandparent wish us a good Sabbath and a good life. If that is not going to happen, we have to bless ourselves through our deeds.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.


2 Responses to “Was Maimonides a philosopher or a theologian?….ask the rabbi”
  1. Jennifer Guinane says:

    I just love reading “Ask the Rabbi”and indeed J Wire itself. As a Catholic Teacher of Religion I truly appreciate the wonderful insight your publication gives into our shared heritage.

  2. Otto Waldmann says:

    The notion that philosophers do their jobs without any preconceived…notions is as true as the ..notion that we, humans, are incapable of …thinking, particularly when ..thinking that we are…thinkers, i.e. philosophers.
    The indispensable premise we call accumulated knowledge combined with the desire to utter “stuff” related to life end etc. is the concept we need to start our daily job as philosophers. That in itself is the necessary construct which any “objective” person will refer to as his or her PRE-conceived tools of trade.
    Est modus in rebus some would say in Latin, meaning that there is a method in everything we do, such as indulging in philosophy. So, philosophers labour exclusively on preconceived notions just as theologians do. This leads to another need for clarifications. Is there any distinction between what a theologian does and what some may think a philosopher is supposed to do !!!?? Me says : ABSOLUTELY NONE !! If there were a distinction then not only Augustine and Francis of Assisi were not philosophers, but also Kant and Hegel should be disqualified and perhaps only one Jew would stand out as a kosher philosopher averse to religion, our own Karl Marx. NOT FAIR AT ALL !!!
    Thus, Maimonide addressed some of the most ardent philosophical maters and to exclude him as an important philosopher and attribute only “theological” value to his works would be highly unfair, actually, fundamentally very false.
    To say that Judaism is an all encompassing philosophy is an understatement and the beauty of it is that one can ( I have ) found plenty issues with Maimonide which I can quite comfortably without the fear of an avera argue against, strictly philosophically speaking, of course…..

    Will hasten to add:
    the division between “divinity” as an academic discipline and “philosophy” as such was an artificial one and prompted by the cannonical principles of not allowing classic philosophers ( you know the usual Greek suspects ) to “interfere’ with the actual scriptures and the writings of mainly the Church Doctors and their followers. Happily (!!) in Judaism we did not have those impositions and freedom of thinking and associate musings has been the very bedrock of our …philosophical/theologian survival/continuity and Maimonide is one of the best we have produced. Rabbi Apple is another one …( he also married me to Florence, how can I forget !!!).

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