Born into a Jewish family living in Cordoba, Spain, Moses Maimonides (or Moshe ben Maimon) (1135-1204 CE) had a substantial influence on both philosophical and Jewish theological thought. He was educated in Hebrew and Arabic, and his father was a rabbinic judge who taught him Jewish law within the context of Islamic Spain (1).
Maimonides’ family fled the country when the Berber Almohad dynasty came into power in 1148 and he later settled into Fez (Morocco) and finally Cairo (Egypt). Maimonides trained as a physician which led him to receive an appointment for the royal family. Maimonides also worked as a rabbinic judge and was recognized as the head of the Jewish community in Cairo.
Despite Jewish belief transitioning from monolatry to monotheism at some point in Old Testament history, the belief in the existence of one God has since been a fundamental and central doctrine to the Jewish religion. This was no different during the Middle Ages. Maimonides argued that God possesses no plurality, attributes, or parts. This view, a product of a school of negative theology of which Maimonides was a part, contends that God’s oneness excludes all other possibilities. It says that God cannot be ascribed any positive attributes (akin to stating that “God is” X or Y) although one can describe what God is not. He thus deals with biblical texts presenting God in anthropomorphic ways (i.e. God walks through the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:8) or in Exodus 7:5 where God says “I stretch out my hand against Egypt” etc.) by viewing them as allegories with the purpose of transitioning the Israelites from idolatry to monotheism. Maimonides also believed that one could look to the effects of divine activity to comprehend things about God,
“Every attribute that is found in the books of the deity… is therefore an attribute of His action and not an attribute of His essence” (2).
As such, rather than speaking about God’s attributes, one can speak of the features of God’s actions. Maimonides says that the human being is unable to speak of God in the positive sense because of God’s absolute transcendence, “It has also become clear in metaphysics that by our intellects we are unable to attain perfect comprehension of His existence, may He be exalted” (3).
The idea that God is “one” has produced diverse theological interpretations because it can be understood in several ways. God’s oneness could constitute God being the greatest of many divine beings, or God could be a single being composed of several different elements. Or God could be, as Maimonides argues, a being of absolutely pure unity,
“God is not two or more entities, but a single entity of a oneness even more single and unique than any single thing in creation” (3).
He reasons from the created order that God must be the purest unity. God is “simple” in that he is not composed of parts or properties, and his oneness differs from the oneness of any other entity or being: he is a single, unique, indivisible entity beyond human understanding and description, and who cannot be given specific attributes. God thus cannot be categorized because he is not a member of a species or of a group of beings who share characteristics. God’s oneness is also indivisible which differs from any other body which is divisible. God is therefore not akin to any physical object that can be broken down into parts.
Maimonides believed that reason and revelation are key in comprehending and accessing religious and spiritual truth. Like other theologians and philosophers throughout the ages have argued, faith and reason are not enemies but rather essential to each other if one is to understand God.
1. Ambalu, S. et. al. 2013. The Religions Book. p. 184-185.
2. Moses Maimonides. The Guide for the Perplexed, I, 53, p. 121.
3. Moses Maimonides. Eight Chapters. In Ethical Writings of Maimonides. Ch. VIII, p. 94-95
4. Moses Maimonides. 1170-1180 CE. Mishneh Torah, Mada 1:7.