At the time of a global health pandemic, where better to turn than to the Great Eagle? Hilkhot Deot is a moral-medical compendium, famous for its elaboration upon the Aristotelean mean. But that’s not the half of it. The larger prospectus on moral and physical health includes a spiritual or religious orientation while remaining, on the whole and in the round, “secular,” meaning social, not “religious” as such. About this polemical distinction, a hot topic in academic Religious Studies, more below.
In broad outline:
Chapters 1-2 lay out the middle path, naming the virtues one should cultivate, being humility and silence, and against arrogance and anger. Be gracious, merciful, and holy, just like God (1:6). Some traits you are born with, others you have to acquire (1:2). Maimonides understands the force of habit and behavior on moral disposition. From one extreme, bend back to the middle (1:3). Included are behavioral modification tips meant to habituate the student vis-a-vis actions conducive to moral balance, as well as tips meant to cure those whose moral traits or habits are flawed (2:1-2). The middling affect is flat and evenly balanced (1:4, 2:7). Silence is a fence for wisdom (2:5).
Chapter 3 is “religious.” Don’t abstain from what the Torah permits (3:1). But don’t be a glutton and eat like a dog or donkey (3:2). The main thing is to be whole and strong in body in order to know God and to serve God constantly, every deed directed for the sake of Heaven (3:3). Chapter 3 is relatively short, which may not be entirely irrelevant if one assumes that this is not a “religious” body of law.
Chapter 4 is very long, a point that is not entirely irrelevant. The opening halakhah reminds the student that health and sound body are among the ways of God. But the moral and religious themes from the previous chapters drop off in this chapter as attention turns to all the rules of healthy living related to digestion, physical exercise, bathing, bloodletting, and sexual intercourse (4:2-22). Torah sages are forbidden to live in a town without a doctor, a bloodletter, a bathhouse, a latrine, a reliable water source, synagogue, a teacher of children, and a scribe, a charity supervisor, a rabbinical that can’t impose corporeal punishment (4:23).
Chapter 5 returns the student to the moral ideal represented by the wise man (chacham) and Torah sage (talmid chacham). Masculine archetypes, these are ideal types whose de’ot or traits must be especially perfect in relation to food and wine, sexual morality and the appearance of sexual morality, bodily comportments, dress, and personal finances and business dealings (5:1-12). The final halakhah of this chapter concludes with this decorative flourish. The sage is the servant through whom God is glorified (5:13).
Chapter 6 has its focus social associations and norms. Avoid bad people and places where the norms are wicked. Always keep the company of the righteous and wise. Cleave to them and through them to the Divine Presence (7:1-2), love your neighbor and love each and every Jew, and converts (7:3-5). This is a mitzvah-commandment. While you should never hesitate to rebuke your fellow person there are proper and improper ways to do this (7:6-7). Be especially careful for widows and orphans, special objects of God’s concern (7:10). The introduction of God in this context looks like a tactical stand-in for the absence of any court-of-law-punishments for those who violate this social norm.
Chapter 7 is dedicated especially against malicious gossip (lashon ha’ra), revenge, and grudge holding. Chapters 1-4 speak to individual student. These are the right moral characters. Here’s how you take care of the body. Chapters 5-7 turn to social authority and to the social good. The last word of the last chapter sets aside intellectual perfection or spiritual illumination. The “proper de’ah” is social, the primary good in this text and the telos of this body of law, including the religious piety it evokes. It makes it possible to maintain the stabilization of society (yishuv ha’aretz), trade, and commerce between human beings (bnei Adam) this with the other (7:8).
On the difference between what we today call the religious and the secular, I don’t think this is simply a modern construction. There are indigenous terms for it here in Maimonides and in his 12th C. milieu in the Islamicate world. In Hebrew, we have already seen the term “for the sake of Heaven (l’shem Shamayim) in chapter 3. In chapter 6 Maimonides makes a distinction about how and under what circumstances to rebuke other people. One should never embarrass a fellow person in public, he says, but then adds, only regarding “matters between one person and another” (devarim sh’bein adam lachaveiro). Religious would be those “matters of Heaven” (divrei Shamayim) about which one may not only shame a person in public but abuse, scorn, and curse people, as was the practice of the prophets (6:8). Between heaven and earth, “l’shem Shamayim” and “divrei Shamayim” refer to something distinct, if not entirely separable from yishuv ha’aretz.