Rabbi Mendy Cohen, a Sacramento Jewish leader who spends most of his day assisting the local community as co-director of the Chabad-Lubavitch center in the California capital, has written a new book analyzing the philosophical underpinnings to Maimonides’ landmark code of Jewish law and the critical gloss authored by Rabbi Abraham ben David, the 12th-century French commentator better known by his acronymic, the Raavad.

With his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides, a medieval rabbi and doctor known as one of the greatest Torah scholars, ushered in an age of carefully-distilled legal codes summarizing the definitive rulings among the full corpus of Torah scholarship. His, however, is the only such code that covers the entire scope of Jewish law, including those rulings that only applied when the Holy Temple was in existence.

As a contemporary of Maimonides, the Raavad felt strongly that releasing a compendium of laws would undercut the widespread study of the Talmud and the arguments underpinning legal decisions. He therefore penned an extremely critical commentary now found in most printings of Maimonides’ code.

In Margaliyot Menachem, a 325-page volume in Hebrew whose title translates as “Menachem’s pearls,” Cohen reviews the two scholar’s disagreements and proves that a common thread of thought exists throughout their variant approaches to Jewish law.

“Over a decade ago, I was studying a scholarly talk of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, on a particular law as codified by Maimondes,” says Cohen, referring to an edited talk appearing in the 39-volume magnum opus of many of the Rebbe’s public talks known as Lekutei Sichot. “The Rebbe concludes that Maimonides and the Raavad differ on their general approach to Jewish life.”

In a footnote to this conclusion, the Rebbe offers several additional examples where the same idea could apply to other places in Maimonides’ work.

“At the end of the footnote,” notes Cohen, “the Rebbe adds ‘and in other instances.’ ”

Cohen, who takes part in the daily study of Maimonides’ legal code, completing three chapters each day in a near-annual cycle instituted by the Rebbe more than two decades ago, takes the Rebbe’s conclusion and footnote as the foundation of his book.

Rabbi Mendy Cohen (Photo: Ernie Amos)
Rabbi Mendy Cohen (Photo: Ernie Amos)

Faith and Understanding

The Rebbe explains that the Raavad approached Torah with a strong belief that faith held preeminent importance over rational thought.

“According to the Raavad,” he writes, “belief and rationality should not be mixed together.”

But Maimonides stressed the importance of reason, holding that even the fact that the Almighty could not be understood rationally needed to be approached from a rational frame of mind.

“So while an intrinsic belief is necessary according to Maimonides,” the Rebbe explains, “one needs to make an effort to understand that belief rationally” in order to make that belief a central part of the person’s character.

For the Raavad, the ultimate goal is for faith – intrinsically ingrained in every individual and ultimately impossible to be understood – to be expressed in the dogmatic, even super-rational, performance of Torah commands.

Cohen offers an example to this approach in the laws governing repentance. According to Maimonides, if a person wrongs another individual publicly, he is obligated to publicly acknowledge his wrongdoing. His sin was public, and therefore his regret must be publically demonstrated. Maimonides extends this principle to note that the same law does not apply to a person who committed a private transgression against G‑d.

The Raavad, however, disagrees, and rules that even private transgressions need to be publically renounced.

Commentaries to both works explain that publically discussing a transgression typically indicates a lack of remorse, so Maimonides holds that such public discussion is only necessary when there is another reason for it, such as the existence of a person who was publically harmed. But when it comes to G‑d, the most important thing is that a wrongdoer feel embarrassed and regret his actions, and resolve rationally to never sin again. The Raavad, on the other hand, holds that the most important thing is to fulfill all a law’s details dogmatically; just as a transgression was a physical act, so the act of repentance needs to be expressed physically.

“Keeping this thread in mind,” says Cohen, “we can appreciate why at times Maimonides and the Raavad will sometimes quibble about seemingly trivial verbiage that appears to have no practical ramification. For all this is about an underlying debate and expresses itself in every facet of Jewish law and practice.”

Cohen’s volume is “definitely an important contribution,” writes Rabbi Nechemya Goldberg, a leading authority on Jewish monetary law and a member of the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Israel. “It is a worthwhile endeavor for Jewish scholars to study the text.”