Imago and imitatio: perfection of the individual and society in Maimonides' theory of religious law

Raphael Dascalu

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Moses Maimonides (d 1204) is one of the most influential figures in the history of Jewish thought and culture. His works made a profound impact upon Jewish philosophy and Hebrew literature. The present chapter explores two themes, often intertwined, that sit at the heart of rabbinic Judaism: Imago dei and imitatio dei. For Maimonides, who subscribed to a thoroughly transcendent theology and preferred apophasis to any direct speech about the Divine, these concepts posed a unique challenge. His solution is to make a sharp distinction between them, and anchor them in separate biblical passages. However, these concepts begin to near each other once again when viewed in terms of the teleology of the commandments, as they both represent different aspects of human perfection: intellectual in one case, and ethical or political in the other. This topic leads us to discuss Maimonides’ theory of the commandments (mitzvot) more broadly. Not only did Maimonides compose the most comprehensive and accessible code of Jewish law that had been produced to date, but he developed a unique understanding of the law itself. Based on medieval Peripatetic philosophy, Maimonides’ held that human beings must cultivate themselves ethically and intellectually, and if they achieve a high degree of perfection in those fields, they will begin to guide others towards perfection (ie to govern in some sense). The law touches on each and every one of these fields: the ethical, the intellectual, and the political. In its broadest sense, the law must create a stable, peaceful, and harmonious society. This harmonious society is not an end in itself; rather, it facilitates the cultivation of the individual in the aforementioned realms. In exploring these facets of Maimonides’ theory of the commandments, the discussion touches upon the place of non-Jews in his scheme. What relationship, if any, exists between non-Jews and the revealed law? Does Maimonides have any concern for the welfare of non-Jews? This study supports an understanding of Maimonides as a relatively universalistic thinker, whose legal writings are shaped by his broader understanding of human beings in pursuit of perfection. Imago dei and imitatio dei provide a lens through which to view Maimonides’ understanding of the Torah and commandments, as ultimately oriented towards the attainment of human perfection and happiness.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLaw, Religion and Love
Subtitle of host publicationSeeking Ecumenical Justice for the Other
EditorsPaul Babie, Vanja-Ivan Savić
Place of PublicationAbingdon Oxon UK
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9781315543734
ISBN (Print)9781138684560
Publication statusPublished - 2018

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