The goal of the human species is to conceive intelligible thoughts… . [It is attained by those who are] students of science and philosophize.MAIMONIDES Commentary on the Mishnah, introduction
RABBINIC WORKS ARE NOT a place where one would expect to encounter philosophy. Although recent scholars have given us books bearing such titles as The Philosophical Mishnah and The Philosophy of the Talmud, they use the term philosophy in the broad sense of the views or attitudes of a person or group. When philosophy is understood in the technical sense of the discipline practised by such figures as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Wittgenstein, and their peers, rabbinic works have not been hospitable to it. The statement holds good for all strata of rabbinic literature—the Mishnah and Talmud corpuses, the classic midrashic compilations, post-talmudic law codes, commentaries on the Mishnah and Talmud, the ḥidushim (new interpretations) on the Talmud that are still being composed today. Except for a handful of kabbalistic customs that have been taken up by the law codes, kabbalah, despite the oddly warm reception it has received in traditional Jewish circles, has likewise been shut out of rabbinic literature. Jewish Bible commentaries, by contrast, have proved to be much more open to both philosophy and kabbalah.
Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishnah and his law code, the Mishneh torah, are striking exceptions. They incorporate a considerable amount of philosophy, an astonishing amount when the contexts are taken into account. One of the digressions with which the Commentary on the Mishnah is peppered states Maimonides’ rationale.
At issue is a theological problem that he does not treat in depth because discussion of it by expert philosophers is ‘abstruse and subtle, requiring numerous premisses and a training in the sciences’. He nonetheless permits himself the digression on the grounds that his ‘aim is always to offer some explanation whenever a whiff of a statement involving belief comes up. For to give instruction regarding a root [or: principle (Arab.: aṣl)] is, for me, preferable to giving instruction regarding anything else’. He is implying a contrast between beliefs, which are the roots, or principles, of the Jewish religion, and the legal and ceremonial side, which are the branches. Although laws and ceremonies are the primary subject of his rabbinic works, he is asserting that the underlying religious beliefs are even closer to his heart.