Critical Reactions to Mishneh Torah
Maimonides' two main critics, Rabad and Asheri, argued that multiplicity of opinions is a positive and vital force in Jewish law.
Reprinted with the author's permission from Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles (Jewish Publication Society).
As might have been expected, the boldly innovative form of Maimonides' code aroused fierce debate and sharp critical reaction, some of which was directed at Maimonides during his lifetime. His replies bespeak his deep conviction of the correctness of his approach and of the vital need of the Jewish legal system for his work. However, most of the criticism arose after Maimonides' death and generated profound and penetrating debates about the nature and methodology of Jewish legal codification.
Rabad: Maimonides' Most Severe Critic
Maimonides' severest critic arose in his own lifetime: Abraham b. David (Rabad) of Provence. Rabad, known as one of the greatest halakhic authorities, was the head of a yeshivah in Posquieres. He appreciated some of the extraordinary merits of the Mishneh Torah and expressed agreement with many of the laws in it.
His severe strictures on the Mishneh Torah were certainly not intended ad hominem or as an expression of personal pique or anger. Nor was he jealous of the fame of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, which was never achieved by the comprehensive book of halakhot written (according to some scholars) by Rabad but no longer extant.
Rabad's strong disagreement was with Maimonides' method of declaring the law without citing the sources and without setting out the range of opinions on each legal issue--information which is vital to the very essence of Jewish law and to the methodology of halakhic decision making.
Rabad took aim at this feature of Maimonides' code from the very start, in the first of his critical glosses (hassagot) to Maimonides' Introduction to the Mishneh Torah.
Against that very "revolutionary" passage of Maimonides--"Hence, I have entitled this work Mishneh Torah, for the reason that a person who first reads the Torah and then this work will know from it all of the Oral Law, and there will be no need to read any other book [written] between them"--Rabad leveled the following charge:
"Abraham [Rabad] says: He sought to improve, but he did not improve, for he has forsaken the method of all authors who preceded him; they adduced proof and cited the authority for their statements. This [traditional method] was of great value, for often a judge is inclined to declare something prohibited or permitted on the basis of a particular source, but if he knew that an authority greater than himself took a different view, he would change his mind.
Now, I do not know why I should retract my tradition and my proof on account of the work of this author [Maimonides]. If the one who takes issue with me is greater than I, well and good; but if I am greater than he, why should I yield my opinion in favor of his? Furthermore, on some matters the geonim were divided, and this author chose one opinion [over the others] and put it in his book.