Reason and Tradition in Maimonides according to Jonathan Jacobs

I did not post the Ngram, but in my playing with it I discovered that Maimonides went through a cultural peak in the 1990’s, the way Buber did in the 1960’s. Maimonides’ Guide has entered the canon on many college campuses as part of the general education requirement
To serve these new readers, there is a new book by Jonathan Jacobs of Colgate University, entitled Law, Reason, and Morality, in Medieval Jewish Philosophy. The book places Saadyah Bahye, and Maimonides into the context of Aristotelian tradition as part of an undergraduate philosophy curriculum. The book has not come into the library yet, but the author just published a nice article on the role of tradition in medieval Jewish thought.

Kant declared that rationality meant autonomous reason, if something was know by means of tradition then it is not rationality. Gadaemer returned the respectability of tradition. Here is an article discussing tradition in Saadyah Bahye, and Maimonides. What makes the article interesting is that it does not get involved in history or ideology. Jacobs does not concern himself with Islamic theories of reliable traditions nor with connecting Maimonides to any modern movement.

According to Jacobs, there can be good reason to follow tradition even if we don’t personally know the reason. Moderns care about choice, volition, and decision. Since the Torah is rational and there are reasons for the commandments and Torah is know by reason, we can follow the tradition .trusting that we will see the rationality.

For the medieval, rationality develops over time. All three monotheistic regions share the belief in reason and we all accept tradition. Not Talmudic, Patristic, or Hadith interpretations but tradition that the Biblical faith with its doctrines and observances makes sense. Each particular tradition teaches a universal truth and we can only learn universal truths by means of being in a tradition.

It would be worthwhile to compare this presentation of Maimonides to the Haredi and Centrist uses of Maimonides. For Maimonides, tradition is not an end in itself or about authority or to use tradition to exclude positions. Tradition is individually a moment of one’s education and in community the bearer of universal values. Because of the need to grow in rationality, we temporarily accept tradtion, like medicine.

Jonathan Jacobs. The Review of Metaphysics. Washington: Sep 2010. Vol. 64:1; pg. 55, 20 pgs

Maimonides (and other medieval Jewish thinkers) regarded tradition as an ethical and intellectual resource keeping us directed rightly, and also substantively perfecting us. Tradition sustains continuity with the past and connection with roots, and it is a guide into the future. Tradition sustains faithfulness to normatively authoritative origins and also supplies guidance for how to carry on leading well-led lives.

Jewish philosophers’ repeated reference to Deuteronomy 4:6 and what it says about the importance of understanding the commandments – “observe them and do them, for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples” – is indicative of the importance of the exercise of reason in fulfilling the commandments. Bahya ibn Pakuda wrote,

if you are a man of sound mind and understanding, which qualify you to verify the traditions passed down to you from the prophets concerning the roots of religion and the origins of the acts of worship – then you are obliged to use your faculties in order to verify things both logically and by tradition.

Saadia held a similar view and he argued extensively that the rationality of Judaism could be shown. He wrote:

Moreover, in support of the validity of these laws, His messengers executed certain signs and wondrous miracles, with the result that we observed and carried out these laws immediately. Afterwards we discovered the rational basis for the necessity of their prescription so that we might not be left to roam at large without guidance.

The Introductory Treatise to The Book of Beliefs and Opinions is largely devoted to just that issue and he shows how, with regard to one major concern after another, Judaism can be interpreted in terms of rational considerations.

The strong rationalistic current in medieval Jewish philosophy is distinguished from other forms of rationalism by the way in which it acknowledges that our rational comprehension needs to develop over time, through practices required by tradition.
This bears some likeness to the Aristotelian notion that good habits and dispositions are necessary for attaining sound ethical understanding. The Jewish view differs in regard to the relations between understanding the world on the one hand, and excellent practice on the other. It also differs insofar as the Jewish view has a genuinely historical dimension. The enlargement of understanding is a process occurring in the history of a people and not just in an individual’s maturation and reflective sophistication.

We can now begin to see important differences between the Jewish understanding of tradition and its role, and Aristotle’s understanding of habit, understood as sustained, regular practice, transmitted across generations, and its role. Aristotle’s ethical thought takes habit to be of the first importance, but habit – while it is strongly relevant to tradition – is not the same as it. Tradition is often transmitted by habituation, but tradition is much more than a means of transmission. It can also be the substance of what is transmitted.

In the early portions of The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, in discussing epistemological matters, Saadia noted that the authenticity of religion is attested by the senses and “acceptance is also incumbent upon anybody to whom it has been transmitted because of the attestation of authentic tradition.”29

As for ourselves, the community of monotheists, we hold these three sources of knowledge to be genuine. To them, however, we may add a fourth source, which we have derived by means of the [other] three, and which has thus become for us a fiirther principle. That is [to say, we believe in] the validity of authentic tradition, by reason of the fact that it is based upon the knowledge of the senses as well as that of reason.30

There is no conflict between the givenness or the certainty of revelation and the extensive role of human beings in elaborating and applying what is revealed. The Law speaks through not only the extensive reasoning and argumentation of the rabbis who originated the tradition but also through one’s own reasoning and understanding. In studying Torah one learns strategies of inquiry and argument, not just a fixed code. Moreover, such study includes multiple perspectives, contested interpretations, and enduringly hard cases. The wisdom that would be deployed by someone faithful to the Law would involve knowledge attained in experience and it would involve the cultivation of discerning perception, attention to ethically relevant features of persons, acts, and situations, knowledge of the Law in its complex multi-dimensionality, and knowledge of the ways in which its elements fit together.

There are at least two important observations to make about this. One is that the particularism of a tradition need not be at odds with the objectivity or universality of values it inculcates. The concrete details and specific requirements and practices of a tradition can be the way in which people learn universal values and become habituated to acting on them. A corollary to this is the important moral-psychological fact that the acquisition of values tends to occur in and through experience and contexts thickly textured with certain perspectives, practices, aspirations, and so forth.

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