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The Return of Maimonides


The headquarters of UNESCO in Paris was an improbable place at which to celebrate, in mid-December of 1985, the eight-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Maimonides. The United States had formally withdrawn from UNESCO the year before, after charging the organization with being a center of anti-Western propaganda, of support for “guided democracy,” and, especially, of a “third world”-style controlled press. Just a few days before the Maimonides conference was to convene, Great Britain had announced its decision to withdraw from UNESCO, for reasons almost identical to those given by the Americans. Both governments had attacked Amadou Mahtar M’Bow, the director general of UNESCO, for his third world proclivities and extravagant budgets. Several people in Paris suggested to me that he might be helped by the appearance of fairness and reasonableness that this conference would give him.

It did not turn out that way. The staff of UNESCO was on strike against the director general that week. It sat down-stairs in the lobby, in protest against personnel cuts that M’Bow had announced to compensate for the revenue, one fourth of the total, that was lost with the departure of the United States. It seemed clear that M’Bow’s politics were seen to be the enemy of much of the UNESCO bureaucracy, of their jobs and of their programs. No late nod to the Jews could now make a difference to his survival, especially since it was being whispered in the corridors that the Russians had abandoned him.

The idea for the conference on Maimonides had come from the World Jewish Congress in 1983. This international Jewish group did not back away, even after the Americans and British departed from UNESCO, largely because the Israelis had chosen to support the conference despite their own grievances against the organization for repeatedly condemning Israel’s archeological efforts in Jerusalem as attacks on Islam. The Maimonides anniversary would serve to reduce Israel’s isolation, and turn attention at UNESCO to a Jewish topic for the first time in at least a decade. A strange assortment of countries, none of which had normal relations with Israel, were cosponsors of the conference: Pakistan, India, Cuba, Spain, and the Soviet Union. (Spain and Israel later announced, in January 1986, their intention to exchange ambassadors.) The scholars who came to the meeting were an even more surprising assortment. They came from Algeria, Morocco, Senegal, and Nigeria—as well as from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iran.

When, European-style, the assembled scholars elected a presidium to conduct the sessions, three of the four vice-presidents were chosen from countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel: Souleymane Bachir Diagne, from Senegal; Mohammed Arkoun, a Moroccan who lives in Paris; and Vitaly Naumkin, of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. The fourth was M.H. Zafrani, a North African Jew who teaches in Paris. The officers were elected quickly by consensus, and no one seemed to have any problem with designating me, an American and a Jew, as president of the body. M’Bow not only gave a reception for the visiting scholars on the first evening of the conference, but he opened the meeting that morning, with a speech summarizing Maimonides’ biography which seemed to come straight out of an encyclopedia. This flat performance by a nonscholar nevertheless raised a series of basic issues: Why is Maimonides the only religious figure since the biblical prophets about whom such an international conference could have been convened? Why are there, and have there been, so many diverse, and often clashing, schools of thought claiming sole possession of Maimonides as their true ancestor?

The answer to the first question was given in M’Bow’s opening remarks, and was soon echoed by the scholar Vitaly Naumkin of the USSR. Maimonides stood at the confluence of four cultures: Arab, Christian, Greek, and Jewish. More than anyone else, this single mind carried the main intellectual currents of his time.

Moses, the son of Maimon, was born in 1135 in Córdoba, which had been the intellectual center of Muslim Spain for more than two centuries. There were Christians as well as Jews in the city, and they were not sealed off from one another. In this milieu Jews were even writing war poems and drinking songs in Hebrew that were based on Arab models. The young Maimonides preferred philosophy to poetry. He composed his first work, a treatise on logic, when he was perhaps no older than sixteen. The manner of its writing suggested that Maimonides regarded himself as capable of thinking about philosophy as a rationalist among rationalists. It is striking that the young author made not a single reference to a Jewish source.

Maimonides and his family did not live long in Córdoba; they were forced to leave by a fanatical sect of Muslims, the Almohads, who conquered the city in 1148. The next dozen years in Maimonides’ life are obscure. We do not know exactly how long the family remained in Córdoba after the arrival of the Almohads, or where they went after they left the city. By 1160, however, when Maimondes was twenty-five, he had arrived in Fez, where he spent the next five years. The family then took to wandering again. After a brief stay in the Holy Land, Maimonides established his permanent residence in Fustat, a suburb of Cairo. For the first eight years he was supported by his brother, David, who traded with India.

When David drowned on one of his voyages, Maimonides had to earn a living. He became a physician in the court of al-Fadhil, the vizier of Egypt under Saladin. Maimonides also served as head of the Jewish community, receiving people at the end of the day when he returned from his medical duties. He also conducted a large correspondence. Questions of law and policy were sent to him from throughout the Jewish world, but most especially from Arabic-speaking Jews; he almost invariably replied, sometimes at length, and with an overt passion that was absent from his more formal writing. We know the details of his daily schedule from a letter that he wrote to Samuel ibn-Tibbon, the translator of the Guide of the Perplexed from Arabic to Hebrew. Ibn-Tibbon wanted to visit him in Egypt; Maimonides was discouraging because he was afraid that his excessively crowded days would allow no time for any intellectual encounter.

Most of Maimonides’ literary work was devoted to Jewish law. He had been bred to the subject because his father was a dayyan, a Jewish religious judge, who saw to it that his son learned the whole of rabbinic literature. Maimonides turned his genius in this subject first to an interpretation of the Mishnah, which is the core text of the Talmud. The six volumes of the Mishnah are a code of Jewish law based on thousands of rabbinic interpretations of the Bible, and other rabbinic traditions. It was composed in the second century in Palestine by Rabbi Judah, “the Prince,” who was then the acknowledged head of Jewry. During the next nine centuries, in Babylonia and Palestine, the Mishnah was studied and interpreted by scholars who often disagreed among themselves. The discussions that took place in the major Jewish centers during the earlier three centuries were recorded in two collections, the Babylonian Talmud and the Palestinian Talmud. For the next six centuries scholars and religious judges studied these enormous commentaries, especially the Babylonian Talmud, and added to them.

By the time of Maimonides, this legal corpus had grown so large that only scholars could find their way through its labyrinths. The original meaning of the core text, the Mishnah, had thus been obscured by generations of interpretation. Maimonides wrote his commentary on the Mishnah in Arabic, and he consciously tried to recover the meaning as it was intended by Rabbi Judah.

Maimonides’ interpretations for the most part tended to follow the explanations of the Mishnah that were recorded in the Babylonian Talmud. Occasionally he infuriated the traditionalists by interpreting passages of the Mishnah by his own lights, independent of earlier authorities. Thus, one of his first comments on the Tractate Sanhedrin, which deals with the judiciary, boldly contradicted what was written in the Babylonian Talmud. It was held there that an “expert,” who was authorized to sit as the sole judge in civil cases, was to be defined as someone whom the public had accepted or who had been authorized to act as judge by the exilarch, the lay head of Babylonian Jewry. Maimonides is emphatic in insisting that such an “expert” could exist only if he were ordained in the Holy Land by a Jewish religious court.

This dissent from the Babylonian Talmud’s interpretation of the Mishnah was part of a continuing quarrel that Maimonides had with the lay and rabbinic leaders of Babylonian Jewry. He refused to accept their authority. Even though Maimonides had remained only briefly in the land of Israel, the ordained religious leaders in the Holy Land were the only people who, in his view, had any claim to ultimate authority in Judaism. Maimonides did not doubt for a moment that his own reason, and his own learning, were superior to what could be gleaned from the religious rulings of the Babylonians, the rabbis (they were called geonim) of his day and of the recent past.

The commentary on the Mishnah foreshadowed Maimonides’ majestic summation and reworking of all rabbinic literature in the book which he boldly called Mishneh Torah. (I think that this title is best translated as “The Teachings of the Tradition”), thus inviting comparison to the second-century Mishnah itself. In this long work, Maimonides codified all of Jewish law in fourteen major sections, each with many subsections. He announced his purpose in the introduction: he intended a book that laymen could consult; it would no longer be necessary for anyone, except the occasional scholar, to study rabbinic literature, or to have recourse to the scholarly keepers of its mysteries. Maimonides opened his code not with ritual or civil rules but with a statement of what theological doctrines Jews must believe. He was particularly insistent that God was incorporeal and that all biblical references to Him as a person were concessions to human speech. This assertion enraged his literalist critics. Many of them were even angrier that one man, even though one of acknowledged genius, was setting himself up as the supreme arbiter of Jewish law.

The Mishneh Torah was the only major book that Maimonides wrote in Hebrew. It was, and remains, in addition to its legal importance, a classic composition in the sacred language. Nonetheless, this most Jewish and rabbinic of Maimonides’ works was not so self-contained as it appeared. It owed a deep debt to Islamic models. Islam, like Judaism, is a religion of commandment and of law. In the earliest centuries after the Koran was composed precepts and decisions in every aspect of human life, from religious ritual to political conduct, were derived from its text, or from authoritative accounts of the life of the Prophet. During the ninth century two major collections of such traditions—called hadith—were published by the Islamic scholars al-Bukhari and al-Hajjaj (called “Muslim”). Such codes continued to be composed for the next three centuries and some were produced during Maimonides’ lifetime. These works contained not only rules about ritual, and civil and political conduct; they also set down, firmly, what a Muslim had to believe. Maimonides’ approach to codifying Jewish law was thus in keeping with the “spirit of the age.” Even though he nowhere mentions any of the Muslim codifiers, the structure and organization of the Mishneh Torah showed that Maimonides was more than aware of Islamic models.

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