The work of Moses Maimonides loomed large in the thought of the 20th-century sage Joseph B. Soloveitchik, both as a prism through which to understand talmudic law and as a model for reconciliation between Judaism and Western rationalism. Yet Soloveitchik’s published writings contain little analysis of Maimonides’ philosophical magnum opus, the Guide of the Perplexed. A new book, based on one student’s extensive notes on Soloveitchik’s lectures, has changed this. The volume’s editor, Lawrence Kaplan, comments on the rabbi’s solution to one thorny problem posed by Maimonidean thought. (Interview by Alan Brill.)
[A]n old objection to Maimonides . . . [claims that he] follows Aristotle in maintaining that knowledge is superior to morality—in the form both of moral virtue and of moral action—and, furthermore, in arguing that only intellectual knowledge possesses intrinsic value, while morality possesses merely instrumental worth, serving only as a steppingstone to attaining intellectual perfection. From this it would follow that halakhah, dealing with action, is of lesser worth than science, [and that] the study of halakhah is inferior to the study of the sciences. . . .
Soloveitchik counters this objection by claiming that Maimonides distinguishes between two stages of ethics: pre-theoretical ethics—ethical action that precedes knowledge of the universe and God—and post-theoretical ethics, ethical action that follows upon knowledge of the universe and God. Pre-theoretical ethics is indeed inferior to theory and purely instrumental; however, post-theoretical ethics is . . . the imitation of God’s divine attributes of lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness—the ethics referred to at the very end of the Guide. It is this stage of ethics that [according to both Maimonides and Soloveitchik] constitutes the individual’s highest perfection.