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One Maimonides or Two?

Isadore Twersky vs. Leo Strauss, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Moshe Halbertal, and the faculty of Harvard University

Warren Zev Harvey
March 26, 2024
Bas relief of Maimonides in the U.S House of Representatives


Bas relief of Maimonides in the U.S House of Representatives


Professor Isadore Twersky’s programmatic essay “Some Non-Halakhic Aspects of the Mishneh Torah,” published in 1967, wrought a revolution in Maimonidean studies. Indeed, Twersky refuted in it the approach of Leo Strauss, who had presumed an irreparable conflict between Maimonides the rabbi and Maimonides the philosopher, and concluded that the true Maimonides was Maimonides the philosopher. However, he also refuted in it the contrary approach of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who agreed with Strauss that there is an irreparable conflict between Maimonides the rabbi and Maimonides the philosopher, but concluded, contrary to Strauss, that the true Maimonides was Maimonides the rabbi.

Furthermore, Twersky, in this revolutionary 1967 essay, refuted not only the extreme and controversial approaches of Strauss and Leibowitz, but also the moderate, conservative, and supposedly uncontroversial position of most of the Maimonidean scholars at the time, who spoke of Maimonides’ having made a “synthesis” of Judaism and philosophy.

Maimonides, as Twersky portrayed him now, was not interested in a synthesis of Jewish law or halakhah and philosophy, but rather he sought an integration of Jewish law and philosophy. The key word to understanding Twersky’s approach is “integration.”

“Integration” and “synthesis” are not synonyms. In a synthesis, the thesis and antithesis are replaced by something new, the synthesis. The synthesis supersedes the thesis and the antithesis, rendering them both anachronistic. The synthesis of black and white is: gray. In an integration, however, all elements remain true to themselves. Black remains black, white remains white. An integration of black and white might give us a beautiful checkered, striped, or spotted design.

Maimonides’ writings, explained Twersky, are “informed by an integrated community of interests embracing theology and law.” The “entire Maimonidean corpus” reflects an “integrative-holistic approach.” It illustrates a “skillful integration of diverse disciplines.” In particular, Maimonides “wanted … to integrate the thought of eternity [= philosophy] with the life of temporality [= law or halakhah], to combine religious tradition with philosophical doctrine.”

Integration does not mean homogeneity and it also does not mean resolving all contraries and contradictions. Explaining the title Guide of the Perplexed, Twersky writes soberly: “Maimonides suggests that perplexity is a noble result of the need to maintain the integrity and respectability of both religion and philosophy.” In other words, the Great Eagle does not wish to guide us out of our perplexity, but to guide us in our perplexity. Perplexity is “noble.”

Twersky’s views on Maimonides’ “integrative-holistic approach,” first set down in his 1967 essay, were developed further in his later writings, particularly in his 1980 Introduction to the Code of Maimonides.

In analyzing Maimonides’ integration of religion and rationalism, Twersky, unlike Strauss and Leibowitz, did not focus on religion as faith (emunah), but rather religion as law or halakhah. Twersky’s focus was not on the tension between faith and reason, but on that between law and philosophy. This was in his judgment Maimonides’ main concern. In addition, I suspect that Twersky considered the conflict between fides and ratio to be more of a Christian problem than a Jewish one.

Twersky found in Shlomo Pines’ researches a useful way to define the place of religion in Maimonides’ epistemology. In the course of a discussion of Maimonides’ critique of Aristotelian physics, Pines writes: “Like Kant, he is interested in showing that some of the so-called verities and certainties of science are unfounded; as a consequence, room can be left for faith.” Revising Pines’ conclusion, Twersky comments that Maimonides’ critique of science left room for “trustworthy tradition” (ha-qabbalah ha-ne’emanah). Twersky thus replaced Kant’s faith with Maimonides’ trustworthy tradition. Maimonides, Twersky seems to be implying, wasn’t interested in leaving room for faith, but was interested in leaving room for tradition. In other words, one might infer, Christianity is based on faith, whereas Judaism is based on tradition.

Maimonides, Twersky insisted, did not compromise halakhah for philosophy or philosophy for halakhah. His goal was not to turn black and white into gray. His Maimonides was committed uncompromisingly to Jewish law, that is, halakhah; but he was simultaneously committed uncompromisingly to Reason, that is, philosophy. Moreover, Twersky continued, Maimonides was an uncompromising philosopher when he wrote the juridical Mishneh Torah, and he was an uncompromising halakhist when he wrote the Aristotelian Guide of the Perplexed. Maimonides was not a compromiser or a synthesizer. He was an absolute 100% Talmudist and an absolute 100% philosopher—both in the Mishneh Torah and in the Guide of the Perplexed. He was neither a compromised Jew nor a compromised philosopher.

Furthermore, Twersky insisted, it is a distortion to try to study Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed without his Mishneh Torah, or his Mishneh Torah without his Guide; “for a major part of Maimonides’ achievement, and his historical significance, is the integration of both [law and philosophy].”

Twersky saw Maimonides’ integration of halakhah and philosophy as part of his general “integrative-holistic approach.” Maimonides’ thought, as Twersky was fond of describing it, was “all-embracing,” “all-encompassing,” and “all-inclusive.” His Maimonides rejected any form of a fragmented, partial, abridged, expurgated, or amputated Judaism. He rejected any Torah that was shebarim-shebarim, ḥabilot-ḥabilot, megillot-megillot. He sought to codify all the laws for all the people (ha-kol la-kol).

Referring to Maimonides’ “integrative-holistic approach,” Twersky was able to explain compellingly two unprecedented and enigmatic phenomena in the Mishneh Torah—two big riddles concerning Maimonides’ codification of Jewish law.

The first riddle. Why did Maimonides, as opposed to the Geonim, Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, and almost all previous interpreters of Talmudic law, include in his Mishneh Torah all the manifold laws of the Temple service? Three of its fourteen volumes (= The Books of the Temple Service, Animal Sacrifices, and Ritual Purities) are devoted wholly to these non-practical subjects. After all, there is no longer a Temple in Jerusalem, Jews today do not offer animal sacrifices, and the laws of the sacrificial cult are now only theoretical. Why did Maimonides, unlike almost all his predecessors, devote himself so fervently to the clarification and elaboration of the laws of the Temple service? Maimonides commented that none of his contemporaries, not even “the greatest sages,” had mastered the laws of the Temple service. The one exception to this generalization would be Rashi and the Tosafists, but Maimonides had limited access to their writings.

The second riddle. Why did Maimonides, as opposed to all authorities that preceded him, include in his codification laws concerning philosophy and science—for example, the halakhot requiring the study of physics and metaphysics codified in Hilkhot Yesode ha-Torah 1:1-7;2:1-2? After all, these laws concern things that are not practical but only theoretical.

Twersky solves both of these very different riddles in precisely the same way. Maimonides’ codified the Temple service and he codified philosophy and science because he sought all-inclusiveness and holism.

Maimonides’ motivation regarding his codification of the laws of the Temple service is explained thus by Twersky in his Introduction to the Code:

[The codification of the laws concerning the Temple reflects] the author’s indomitable determination to destroy all barriers between the theoretical and the practical, tempestuously bursting the bounds and bonds of shrunken Spanish Talmud study. The all-embracing theoretical approach of Maimonides is fresh and energetic, a decisive … attempt to retrieve substantial parts of the Talmud from obscurity … He calmly went into regions where his predecessors feared or failed to tread. His gesture was bold and creative, powerful and passionate.

In a parallel passage from his early Hebrew lecture on the nature of the Mishneh Torah, Twersky adds: “The very same is true for philosophical speculations.” This same theme is reiterated in his late Hebrew essay on “Maimonides’ Image and Imprint”:

Just as Maimonides refused … to differentiate between the laws of the shofar and lulav on the one hand, and the cult of the animal sacrifices on the other hand, so he … rejected any attempt to divide between the laws of these [ceremonial] commandments and those similar to them and between the Account of the Creation and the Account of the Chariot, which he identified everywhere … with physics and metaphysics.

Twersky’s description of Maimonides the Talmudist is Nietzschean: Maimonides destroys all barriers, tempestuously bursts the boundaries of previous Talmudic scholarship, breaks the bonds of old conventions. He is fearless. He proceeds calmly where his predecessors feared to tread. He is audacious, innovative, powerful, and passionate. Maimonides is in effect portrayed here as the paradigm of the brave, creative, heroic Halakhic Man, who had been vividly depicted in the 1944 Hebrew essay Ish Ha-Halakhah, written by Twersky’s distinguished father-in-law, Rabbi Dr. Joseph Ber Soloveitchik. Indeed, Soloveitchik is described by Twersky as “the Maimonides of our generation.”

I sincerely don’t know whether Leo Strauss could have understood this, but in the eyes of Twersky’s Maimonides, the juridical problem of the animal sacrifices and that of physics and metaphysics is one and the same problem! An all-embracing law must codify everything—the everyday practical, as well as the extraordinary, the abstract, the non-practical, the apparently irrelevant, and the purely theoretical. It must codify both the antiquated and the futuristic. Everything! This includes the laws concerning the sacrifice of bulls, rams, and lambs in the Jerusalem Temple, and equally the laws concerning our knowledge of the Prime Mover in the highest heavens. It also includes the laws of the messianic era. That’s what Twersky means by an “integrative-holistic approach.”

Deep in Twersky’s reconstruction of Maimonides’ theory of halakhah is the equation of the Arabic concepts ilm and amal, the Hebrew concepts talmud and maaseh, the Latin concepts vita contemplativa and vita activa, and the English concepts “philosophy” and “law.” This equation, which is characteristic of Twersky’s distinctive approach, is due, in part, to his famed teacher at Harvard, Harry Austryn Wolfson. However, it is also due in part to Ignác Goldziher and Shlomo Pines.

Twersky’s concept of Maimonides’ “integrative-holistic approach” did not concern law and philosophy alone, but also aggadah and other expressions of the Jewish tradition. He thus depicts the relationship between halakhah and aggadah in the Mishneh Torah:

Maimonides’ unremitting concern with aggadah is … mirrored … in the extensive role assigned to it in [his] codification of law and its function as a leaven causing the framework to rise and expand. Whether he quotes … aggadic motifs used in the Talmud or makes novel literary-exegetical-conceptual associations … [t]heir presence … [has a] lyricizing-softening effect ... The student of Maimonidean thought following an integrative-holistic approach … will be especially attentive to this material.

Twersky himself took an “integrative-holistic approach” to Jewish intellectual history as a whole. Jewish tradition, in his own view and not only in his representation of Maimonides’ view, felicitously integrates different trends of thought and creativity. He illustrated this integration by his unforgettable Parable of the River:

Jewish intellectual history … is comparable to a fast-moving stream coursing through a complex network of tributaries and offshoots. The waters of the rivulets which poured into or eddied alongside the mainstream of Judaism were colored by a dazzling variety of cultural disciplines: philosophy and mysticism, rationalism and pietism, exegesis and commentary, poetry and belles-lettres, linguistics and grammar. They did not always flow evenly or simultaneously. At various times, the philosophic tributary swelled in certain areas while the mystical waters raged elsewhere; or the philosophic tributary changed its course, only to have its former bed occupied by mystical currents. Poetry and belles-lettres were like wadis; their waters might reach inundating proportions and they might dry up completely. The courses of these streams deserve to be—and, to a great extent, have been—charted, their ebbs and peaks registered, their force and calm measured; each of them left an imprint on the evolving Jewish intellect and spirit. The mainstream, however, was the halakhah (Jewish law)—its ever-expanding corpus of literature and its cumulative body of practice.

In Twersky’s parable, Jewish law, the halakhah, is the mainstream, the age-old flowing river. The river has many rivulets, tributaries, offshoots, eddies, and wadis, which form an integrated system of water-ways. These rivulets constitute a “dazzling variety of cultural disciplines”—philosophy, kabbalah, biblical exegesis, Hebrew poetry, grammar, belles-lettres, and much more. Sometimes these rivulets may be great in size and in force and, yes, even more dazzling than the main river (as they were in the Spain of Maimonides’ youth). Sometimes the stream of philosophy is the greatest and most forceful watercourse, and sometimes the stream of the kabbalah is the greatest and most forceful one. Sometimes the most dazzling body of water is that of Hebrew poetry, and sometimes it is grammar and philology. The river, the mainstream, is always there—whether wide or narrow, deep or shallow, it just keeps rolling along. In Twersky’s halakhocentric parable, the halakhah is always the mainstream, although not always the most dazzling watercourse.

But it is always the most fertile. It makes all the rivulets and tributaries possible. This, for Twersky, has been the historical greatness of the halakhah. It is also the secret of Jewish cultural creativity. This halakhic river has a marvelous creative power. The halakhah is not barren, not dry—but fertile. It makes all the other dazzling disciplines possible.

Twersky’s Parable of the River was no doubt intended in part as a polemic against what he took to be the general bias against halakhah among academic historians of Judaism. As he wrote explicitly: “Halakhah has constituted the mainstream of Judaism and Jewish history, and yet most modern writers … have shown little sympathy for it … They have tended to view it as a barren, stultifying discipline which yields neither intellectual benefit nor spiritual satisfaction.” In all his scholarly work, Twersky devoted himself to debunking that bias. Far from being barren, the halakhah is wondrously fertile!

Twersky’s historiosophy of Jewish culture was halakhocentric—not in the sense that the halakhah is always the most important element, but in the sense that it is that which always makes all the other elements possible. It is the most fecund element. Twersky cited fondly Wolfson’s dictum about “the nomistic character of Judaism.”

As a scholar, Twersky’s focus was not on philosophy in itself, not on kabbalah in itself, not on aggadah in itself, not on poetry in itself, and not even on halakhah in itself. His question—the question that excited him and drove his magnificent researches—was: How does the halakhah make possible the integration of all these other luminous disciplines? And how do they, in turn, contribute to the halakhah? How is the divine mainstream related to the dazzling rivulets? How are they integrated?

In this connection, Twersky observes that Maimonides frequently cites the Mishneh Torah in the Guide with regard to such fundamental philosophic or religious subjects as “love of God, knowledge of God, prophecy, [and] reasons for the commandments.” These references, he says, “deserve to be singled out because they are so plentiful and suggestive.” Maimonides evidently expected the philosophic reader of the Guide to consult the Mishneh Torah extensively. The Guide offers logical and conceptual elaborations on various philosophical or religious subjects in the Mishneh Torah. As Twersky puts it, the Guide is a gemara or a talmud to parts of the Mishneh Torah. Just as one cannot fully understand the Talmud without the Mishnah, so one cannot fully understand the Guide without the Mishneh Torah. The two works are holistically integrated.

If Maimonides’ works are integrative and holistic, then a discussion of them must also be integrative and holistic. Twersky’s integrative-holistic discussion of Maimonides thus echoes Maimonides’ own integrative-holistic doctrine. Twersky was indeed similar to Maimonides in his integrative-holistic approach. But there is a huge difference. In their evaluation of the non-halakhic disciplines, Twersky was a pluralist and Maimonides was not. Maimonides was a philosopher who prioritized the life of philosophy. In his eyes, for example, poetry was much inferior to philosophy. In Twersky’s Parable of the River, however, all the dazzling tributaries and offshoots of the main river are equal. Philosophy, kabbalah, poetry, exegesis, belles-lettres, grammar, etc., are all equal. Twersky gives preference to none. For him, unlike for Maimonides, all of the dazzling non-halakhic disciplines of the Jewish tradition are equal, and all equally deserve our admiration—and our study.

Questions and Answers

Q. Professor Moshe Halbertal. Is integration truly possible? You observed that for Twersky the issue is not faith vs. philosophy but law vs. philosophy. This was a deep insight. Twersky chose an easy way. I want to say a word for Leo Strauss, who took philosophy seriously and held that Maimonides did so too. If as the Aristotelians held the world is eternal, then God has no will. He is not a willing entity. The moment you deprive God of will, you undermine the authority of the Torah, which rests on a willful Revelation. The language of “integration of law and philosophy” is just too easy because it ignores the metaphysical point-of-view of the philosopher which undermines Revelation. Is it possible to integrate Revelation and philosophy? Maimonides dedicated much sweat and effort to this question in the Guide. What did Maimonides ultimately think? Did Twersky confront this perplexity?

A. A great question! Is it possible to integrate Revelation and philosophy? I have five different answers. One goes according Maimonides, one according to Strauss, one according to Twersky, one according to you, and one according to me. The easiest answer to understand is that of Strauss. I refer to the early Strauss, not the later Strauss, who modified his views on these subjects. Strauss was formatively influenced by early modern Protestant theology, especially by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi on whom he wrote his doctoral dissertation under Ernst Cassirer. According to Jacobi, there is an insurmountable contradiction between Revelation and philosophy. Following Jacobi, Strauss held that if you believe in Revelation, you must reject philosophy; and if you accept philosophy, you’re an atheist. Quite obviously, no integration is possible. Now, I don’t deceive myself into thinking that I understand precisely what Maimonides thought about Revelation, even though I’ve been teaching him for more than 50 years. However, I’m absolutely certain that he didn’t share the fideistic view of Jacobi and Strauss according to which Revelation and philosophy are contradictory. The first four chapters of Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesode ha-Torah, illustrate a robust integration of Revelation and philosophy. Whatever he thought of Revelation, Maimonides considered it an intellectual event, and not a supernatural one that conflicts with science. As to what Twersky thought, I don’t think he was committed to any one view of Revelation and he certainly was not committed to any one definition of philosophy, but he was passionately committed to the integration of Revelation and philosophy. He had no problem mentioning in his Introduction to Maimonides’ Code that Maimonides’ proofs of God presume the premise of the eternity of the world. I don’t think Twersky cared one whit whether the world is eternal or not, but he did care very much about how various cosmogonic beliefs may be integrated with halakhah. When Twersky speaks about law and philosophy instead of “faith and reason,” he does so not only because it is easier for him to do so, but because that’s what he takes to be the focus of Judaism. Well, Moshe, what about you and me? We both are aware that the proposition “God gave the Torah on Mount Sinai” has been interpreted in many different ways throughout the history of Jewish thought—although you may hold that it makes sense to speak of its true meaning in Jewish tradition and I would deny that. In any case, we both in practice are able to integrate our notions of Revelation with our philosophy—although you, like Strauss, believe such an integration involves a problem that one should worry about, and I, like Twersky, don’t give the problem a second thought.

Q. Professor Shaye Cohen. What were the influences on Professor Twersky’s notion of integration? Why does he argue the way he does? Is he responding to someone or something?

A. I thank the third Nathan Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy for his question about his predecessor. In arguing for integration, Twersky is reacting against scholars like Husik, Guttmann, Strauss, Scholem, and Leibowitz; and developing ideas of scholars like Goldziher, Wolfson, Altmann, and Soloveitchik, his father-in-law. He was extremely well read, and thus it is not always easy to say which source he had in mind in any given passage, even though he wrote copious footnotes.

Q. Professor Noah Feldman. We’re celebrating the 25th anniversary not only of the end of Professor Twersky’s work but also of the end of his life. The man himself was profoundly committed to the project of integration—with all of the extraordinary difficulties that it entailed. Yes, he was influenced by others, but he had his own distinct personal project of pulling off integrationism. The commitment to this project [of integrating the role of a Harvard professor with that of a Hasidic rebbe] has to be seen in the context of the broader set of social movements that were imagining the possibility of that kind of integration being successful in his time and place.

A. True, Twersky’s concept of an integrative and holistic Judaism reflected the integration and holism characteristic of his own self. Noah’s reference to the broader set of social movements dominant in mid-twentieth-century America is very apt. It was a time in America of relative open-mindedness. Would Twersky’s brand of integrationism have been possible, for example, in America in 1925, when Harry Austryn Wolfson inaugurated the Nathan Littauer Chair of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard? Would it be possible in today’s Harvard where identity politics sets the tone?

Q. Professor Lois Dubin. You mentioned Scholem in your response to Shaye Cohen’s question. I’d like to hear something about Twersky’s reaction to his views on kabbalah and to his opinion that the halakhah lacks vitality. Maybe it’s obvious but maybe there’s more to say.

A. You’re right, it’s obvious—and you’ve put your finger precisely on the point where Twersky directly opposes Scholem: the notion that the halakhah lacks vitality. Scholem is the caricature of the idea that the halakhah is sterile and we had to wait until the kabbalah came along in order for it to transfuse some juice into Judaism. Twersky respected kabbalah for what it is, namely, one of those many rivulets that flow in and out of the main river, the halakhah. He spoke highly of Scholem’s pioneering researches on the kabbalah, but fought against his idea that the halakhah is sterile. He insisted that it is not the kabbalah that provides the vitality of Judaism, but the halakhah.

Q. Rabbi Dr. Kalman Neuman. Could you comment on Strauss’ esoteric interpretation of the Mishneh Torah in his 1967 article “Notes on Maimonides’ Book of Knowledge”?

A. The later Strauss is different from the early Strauss. There’s a very good book on this subject by Aryeh Tepper, Progressive Minds, Conservative Politics: Leo Strauss’s Later Writings on Maimonides (2013). In his later writings, like “Notes on the Book of Knowledge,” Strauss revised his earlier views concerning the conflict between the Mishneh Torah and the Guide. He came to see that the former was not simply “Jerusalem,” and the latter was not simply “Athens.”

Q. Professor David Stern. What is the current status of the integrative approach to Maimonides that Professor Twersky proposed? Do scholars accept it today?

A. There’s no question that it’s had a tremendous effect on Maimonidean scholarship. After Twersky’s work, scholars are more inclined to see the Mishneh Torah and the Guide as part of an integrated literary project. One sees this approach, for example, in the prize-winning book by Josef Stern, The Matter and Form of Maimonides’ Guide (2013).

Q. Professor Talya Fishman. I want to return to the question of the relationship between Twersky himself and the subject he was exploring. I think that many of the aspirational claims that he makes about integrationism and its viability are really spoken from his own soul. They fit him well but do they fit others? Do they fit Maimonides? This is something some of us could debate.

A. I agree it can be debated. Did Twersky forcibly project his own integrated soul onto Maimonides’ conflicted soul? To put the question more moderately, is Twersky’s integration the same as Maimonides’? These questions can be debated. Talya was a student of Twersky’s and could observe closely his own personal brand of integration. It is true that Twersky accepted as doctoral students a large number of Orthodox male rabbinic scholars (yeshiva-bokhrim), who, like him, sought to integrate in their lives halakhah and science. However, it is also true that he welcomed students of very different backgrounds—including non-Orthodox ones, modernists, and women, like Lois and Talya. This pluralism was part of his integrative approach. He sought to integrate into his program different kinds of students, as long as they exhibited scholarly excellence. In short, we can all agree that Twersky’s soul was integrated and holistic. As for Maimonides’ soul, well, that can be debated.

Remarks delivered at a conference on “The Legacy of Isadore Twersky: Twenty-Five Years After His Passing,” Harvard University, 19 January 2023, and published in Warren Zev Harvey, “Isadore Twersky on Maimonides’ Philosophy” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Institute for Jewish Research and Publications, 2024), and reprinted with permission.

Warren Zev Harvey is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he has taught since 1977.

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