Did Maimonides Value Philosophical Knowledge over Jewish Law?

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.

Read more at Book of Doctrines and Opinions

More about: Aristotle, Halakhah, Jewish Thought, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Maimonides, Religion & Holidays

Recognizing a Palestinian State Won’t Help Palestinians, or Even Make Palestinian Statehood More Likely

While Shira Efron and Michael Koplow are more sanguine about the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and more critical of Israel’s policies in the West Bank, than I am, I found much worth considering in their recent article on the condition of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Particularly perceptive are their comments on the drive to grant diplomatic recognition to a fictive Palestinian state, a step taken by nine countries in the past few months, and almost as many in total as recognize Israel.

Efron and Koplow argue that this move isn’t a mere empty gesture, but one that would actually make things worse, while providing “no tangible benefits for Palestinians.”

In areas under its direct control—Areas A and B of the West Bank, comprising 40 percent of the territory—the PA struggles severely to provide services, livelihoods, and dignity to inhabitants. This is only partly due to its budgetary woes; it has also never established a properly functioning West Bank economy. President Mahmoud Abbas, who will turn ninety next year, administers the PA almost exclusively by executive decrees, with little transparency or oversight. Security is a particular problem, as militants from different factions now openly defy the underfunded and undermotivated PA security forces in cities such as Jenin, Nablus, and Tulkarm.

Turning the Palestinian Authority (PA) from a transitional authority into a permanent state with the stroke of a pen will not make [its] litany of problems go away. The risk that the state of Palestine would become a failed state is very real given the PA’s dysfunctional, insolvent status and its dearth of public legitimacy. Further declines in its ability to provide social services and maintain law and order could yield a situation in which warlords and gangs become de-facto rulers in some areas of the West Bank.

Otherwise, any steps toward realizing two states will be fanciful, built atop a crumbling foundation—and likely to help turn the West Bank into a third front in the current war.

Read more at Foreign Affairs

More about: Palestinian Authority, Palestinian statehood