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The Return of Maimonides

1.

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 The United States had formally withdrawn from UNESCO the year before, after charging the organization with being a center of anti-Western propaganda, of support for “guided democracy,” and,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.

Indeed, one of the greatest Arabists of this century, Franz Rosenthal, insisted that aside from Maimonides’ comments in the opening section of the Mishneh Torah on relations with non-Jews, the rest of the introductory “Book of Knowledge” was a “summary in miniature” of the supreme philosophical-legal work of his older Muslim contemporary al-Ghazzali, the Ihya’. Rosenthal writes that “Maimonides possessed an original and extremely fertile mind” and that “he did not have to have recourse to any conscious imitation of any model. However, it is obvious that his ‘Book of Knowledge,’ occurring as it does at the beginning of the Law Code, owes its title, its being, and its place to the attitude of Muslim civilization toward ‘knowledge.”’1

Maimonides was also the supreme theologian of medieval Jewry. In his theological work he was much more openly influenced by philosopical work that was current in Islam. His magnum opus, The Guide of the Perplexed, which he completed in Egypt in 1200, was an attempt to reconcile reason and revelation. It was cast in the form of an address to Joseph ibn Aknin, his favorite student and disciple. Ibn Aknin was representative of many Jews who had difficulty, especially, with the anthropomorphisms in the Bible, for their conception of God had been fashioned in the Aristotelian philosophical tradition. Maimonides boldly explained away all the anthropomorphic passages extraneous to the central religious meaning of the Bible.

Maimonides’ fundamental observation about theology, both in the Mishneh Torah and The Guide of the Perplexed, is that, contrary to Aristotle, the world has not always existed; it was created by God. So he begins his code with the assertion that “the basic principle of all basic principles and the pillar of all sciences is to realize that there is a First Being who brought every existing thing into being.” Since God created the world, He is totally other from all His creations: “His real essence is unlike that of any of them.” Therefore, Maimonides asserts again and again in the many passages in both his major works devoted to anthropomorphism, all anthropomorphic expressions.

are adapted to the mental capacity of the majority of mankind who have a physical perception of bodies only. The Torah speaks in the langage of men. All these phrases are metaphorical, like the sentence “If I whet my glittering sword” (Deut. 32:41). Has God then a sword and does He slay with a sword? The term is used allegorically, and all these phrases are to be understood in a similar sense…. But God’s essence as it really is, the human mind does not understand and is incapable of grasping or investigating.” [This passage, too, is from his code; the Mishneh Torah, the “Book of Knowledge.”]

Maimonides repeated in The Guide of the Perplexed what he had ruled earlier in his legal works, that he who believed in the plain text of the Bible held false doctrine.

The Guide of the Perplexed was written in Arabic, but it was soon translated into Hebrew and widely disseminated throughout the Jewish world. It created an immediate and continuing storm in Europe, where philosophical speculation barely existed among Jews. Some European rabbis refused to believe that the great Talmudist, Maimonides, could have written so heretical a book; they insisted that The Guide of the Perplexed was a forgery. Others, especially after Maimonides’ death, simply excommunicated the book; they distinguished between Maimonides the Talmudist, whom the Orthodox revered, and Maimonides the philosopher, whom they abhorred.

There was reason for their fury, even though Maimonides was not the first Jew to attempt to harmonize revelation with reason. Maimonides hardly refers to any of his Jewish predecessors, not even to a very famous scholar, Saadya, who had written a book in Arabic entitled Faith and Reason two and a half centuries earlier. For Maimonides the important philosophers were a group of Arab interpreters of Aristotle, and especially al-Farabi, who died less than three decades before the birth of Maimonides. Al-Farabi had taught that reason was superior to revelation and that the true teachings of divine revelation could be reached, and thus confirmed, by philosophical speculation. At least on the surface of the texts in The Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides refused to go that far; he insisted that revelation was superior to reason and that revelation taught truths which God had left mysterious, their reasons unknowable, to be accepted on faith.

Whether Maimonides really meant this, or whether he wrote cryptograms beneath the surface of his text to suggest to the close reader that he was, like al-Farabi, more philosopher than believer, has been the subject of argument from his day to the present. That controversy has been the subject, in the past year, of a series of exchanges in The New York Review. In a review of the work of Leo Strauss, M.F. Burnyeat (May 30, 1985) reminded us that Strauss argued repeatedly that Maimonides is the lineal ancestor of Spinoza’s philosophical universalism, and that this was the “hidden teaching” of his work. Against this view a distinguished Conservative rabbi, Robert Gordis, has insisted that Maimonides was a rationalist rabbi, and that his life’s work was devoted to proving that there is no contradiction between faith and reason. The notion that there is only one Maimonides, who is preeminently a rabbi, has been argued in recent books by Isadore Twersky of Harvard, and by David Hartman of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, both of whom are Orthodox rabbis of the “enlightened” kind.

A passage in Gordis’s second letter to The New York Review (April 24, 1986) speaks for their viewpoint:

He was not a closet philosopher for whom self-expression was the ultimate goal. Maimonides was an active leader of the Jewish community, deeply involved in their problems and concerns. He was strongly committed to propagating the truth as he saw it, even among the broad sectors of the people.

Gordis argues that there is no hidden meaning to The Guide of the Perplexed. Maimonides’ statements in the introduction that the contradictions in his text were intended to lead the attentive reader to meanings that were not immediately apparent were, according to Gordis, mere pedagogical devices. To this Burnyeat has most recently replied that Maimonides, beyond any reasonable doubt, indicated, to those capable of understanding his intentions, that his text had an esoteric meaning; the only question that can be argued, in Burnyeat’s view, is what the nature of that meaning is.

Burnyeat is not a specialist on Maimonides (nor for that matter is Gordis, who is mainly a Bible scholar) but his view is similar to that of Shlomo Pines, professor emeritus at the Hebrew University, the author of the most important contemporary translation of The Guide of the Perplexed, to which, not incidentally, Leo Strauss wrote a brilliant introduction. Pines was the star at the conference in Paris. His presence gave the meeting an intellectual and political distinction that it would not otherwise have had.

In his lecture to the conference, Pines repeated his view that Maimonides’ philosophical theology worked on at least two levels of meaning. One striking example of his point was that Maimonides explicitly insisted that the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is a central religious dogma; nonetheless, in the text of The Guide of the Perplexed, he dissented from one of his Arab sources, the philosopher Avicenna, and agreed with ibn Bajja, the founder of Aristotelean philosophy in Spain, that “not even the soul remains after death” (Guide, Part I, chapter 74). Maimonides was not hesitant to say that the permanent existence of souls “is a thing of which it has been indubitably demonstrated that it is false.”

Why then did Maimonides follow the twelfth-century Muslim thinker Averroës—both of them drawing on Aristotle—in requiring all members of a community to hold some religious beliefs in common? Pines argued:

Maimonides had very strong convictions concerning the utility and even necessity of an official system of religious beliefs for the preservation of communal obedience to the law. What is more, he lived up to his convictions by formulating in his commentary on the Mishnah the thirteen principal dogmas of Judaism.

In the very next sentence, however, Pines wrote that “many of these dogmas ran counter to philosophical truth.”2 Pines made it clear that in saying this he was not putting forward his own analytical judgment but stating something he believed Maimonides knew very well. The drift of Pines’s argument is to make the link between Maimonides the philosopher and Maimonides the supreme codifier of the law, a matter not of faith but of politics: Maimonides, in Pines’s view, felt compelled to insist on beliefs and practices that kept the Jewish community alive as a discrete entity, even as he “knew” that men were divided only by their specific histories—and thus that Jewish religious practices were not the ultimate content of revelation.

I doubt that such assertions about Maimonides lend themselves to proof either way. They have a familiar ring to someone like myself who spent his earliest years in scholarship attempting to understand the development of modern Zionist thought. The supreme admirer of Maimonides among Zionist ideologues was Ahad ha-Am, a turn-of-the-century Russian Jewish intellectual who was the founder of “cultural Zionism.” Even as he followed Darwin and Spencer in becoming an agnostic—and thus asserted that there was no special religious revelation to the Jews—Ahad ha-Am insisted with great passion on the uniqueness of Jewish historical experience and on the need for it to continue in the form of cultural nationalism. For Ahad ha-Am, religious practices were not ultimately a problem of the belief in revelation; they were a tool of national survival. In the modern era, religious observances could and had to be replaced by the Zionist emphasis on land and language.

Shlomo Pines has depicted a Maimonides who saw Jewishness as an affirmation of community and who argued passionately that Judaism, as a faith for the masses, is superior to its competitors, Christianity and Islam, even though no particular religion is to be equated with philosophical truth; for such truth is available to men of intellect, of whatever origin. In entering a wider intellectual world, Maimonides and Ahad ha-Am, seven centuries apart, both surrendered much of their intellectual particularism, and yet remained Jews. I take this to be the “faith” of the Israeli universities today. They are secular and universalist in their scholarship and yet strongly nationalist. Shlomo Pines is a major figure in Israeli intellectual life not only for his superb scholarship but for the ways he has helped to formulate this position.

Rabbinic intellectuals, such as Twersky, Hartman, and Gordis, have a different problem. To be consistent, they need to maintain that university scholarship and the Talmud academy are not incompatible and that, indeed, these two cultures are one. They need an intellectual ancestor who united these two worlds in himself and even “proved” that, correctly understood, there is no tension between them—and so it is not at all surprising that their Maimonides is an uncontradictory figure, a majestic unifier of faith and reason.

Isadore Twersky, who is generally acknowledged to be the premier authority on Maimonides in the United States, is well aware of the history of Maimonides’ other life and work and of the contradictory interpretations of both that have emerged. A “second posthumous Maimonides,” Twersky writes, “has been continuously recreated and refashioned in successive generations.” Through the ages he has been admired, and sometimes attacked, by a variety of opinions. Fundamentalist Jews have hated him, and some mystics have tried to make this rationalist philosopher into one of their own. Twersky knows that the main problem is whether Maimonides is to be interpreted as “a multifaceted but essentially an harmonious personality” or whether he was “tense and complex, riddled, whether consciously or unconsciously, with paradox and inconsistency.” Some pages later in the essay from which I am quoting, Twersky does not hesitate to endorse the first view: Maimonides “wanted to unify mood and medium, to integrate the thought of eternity with the life of temporality, to combine religious tradition with philosophical doctrine.” The legalist and the philosopher are one, so Twersky insists, as he “warns against the widespread misleading tendency on the part of students to fragmentize Maimonides’ works.”3 These “students” include Leo Strauss and clearly also Shlomo Pines.

Twersky was invited to Paris but was unable to come. His absence was regrettable for, without him, there was no counterweight to the tendency to see Maimonides as a fragmented thinker. As I have said, such views came primarily from Arab scholars, but apart from Pines, who had given a paper about the esoteric meanings in The Guide of the Perplexed, the Arabs were joined by one of the Jewish scholars, M.H. Zafrani, who, as I noted above, is a Sephardi who was born in North Africa. Zafrani’s Maimonides came very close to being a supreme intellectual within the mode of Arab culture, having followed “the same intellectual itinerary” as the leading Arab philosophers. What divided him from that culture was the “attitude of independence which Judaism preserved, in its contact with Islam, on the fundamental question of religion.”

The discussion of Zafrani’s paper was the occasion for the most heated debate—it was very nearly an outburst—of the conference. Abderrahmane Badawi, a scholar from Kuwait, had earlier, in his own paper, gone much further than Zafrani. He had discussed a murky period in Maimonides’ early life. After the fanatical Almohads conquered his native Córdoba in 1148, Maimonides remained in the city for some years. Two medieval Arabic authors asserted that Maimonides, when trapped in Córdoba, had converted to Islam. Jewish scholars have generally denied that this was possible, since, they have argued, Maimonides was never attacked by his opponents, for conversion.

Badawi made a reasonable case for the contrary view. He argued that Maimonides could not have survived under the Almohads for even a day without conversion, and that he was not criticized for this by his enemies because such conversion to save your life until you could revert to Judaism was not unusual in those terrible times. During the discussion that followed, Badawi went farther still, arguing that Maimonides’ supposed forced conversion was not entirely insincere. Badawi had looked through the text of The Guide of the Perplexed, he said, and he had not found a single uncomplimentary reference to Mohammed. At this point Shlomo Pines intervened, with more than a bit of sarcasm, to remind Badawi that there were many dozens of references to “the prophet” and that in every one of them Maimonides had made clear his distaste for the teachings of the Koran.

The dispute became more tense after Zafrani gave his paper. Badawi wanted to claim Maimonides for the Mediterranean world and to take him away from the bellicose Ashkenazim, the Westernized politicians and intellectuals whom he saw as the leaders of contemporary Jewry. The Sephardim, the Jews who were in the tradition of Maimonides, he argued, had always lived comfortably in Islamic culture; the ferociously particularist Ashkenazim had no right to claim Maimonides for themselves.

Badawi’s insistence on the glories of Jewish–Muslim cooperation evoked from Roland Goetschel of Strasbourg University an angry reminder that Maimonides had been persecuted for his faith. I reminded Badawi that his fundamental thesis about the present was wrong. Every analysis of the Jewish world, and especially of Israel, has shown that Sephardim, the Arabic-speaking Jews of today, take a much harder line in their politics than the Ashkenazim. The very Jews whom Badawi liked the least, the Ashkenazi intelligentsia, were the ones who largely made up the moderate political forces in Israel or supported them.

This quarrel was the most vocal of the conference, but it was ultimately less important than the Arab-Jewish discussion provoked by the paper of Hassan Hanafi, a professor of philosophy at Cairo University, now on leave at the United Nations University in Tokyo. Hanafi has an excellent, and deserved, reputation as a leading exponent in contemporary Islam of the reconciliation between faith and reason. His doctoral dissertation for a French university was an attempt to reinterpret orthodox principles of Islamic jurisprudence in the terminology of modern Western philosophy. At the very beginning of his career, Hanafi has undertaken to show how a believing Muslim could live in some balance with twentieth-century intellectual developments. He could be seen as the contemporary equivalent in Islam of the enlightened traditionalism that Twersky, Hartman, and Gordis argue for in modern Judaism. Like them, he supported those who see no contradiction between Maimonides the believer and Maimonides the philosopher.

As it drew to a close, his learned paper reached a political conclusion. Hanafi had argued, convincingly, that as philosophers, medieval Muslims, Jews, and Christians shared the same philosophical premises, which ultimately derived from Aristotle. Without any further discussion of political and social issues in the twelfth century, Hanafi asserted:

Mankind can be unified through universalism not ethnocentrism, sectarianism, parochialism, and chauvinism. Universalism, longtime-defended by the prophets since Noah, Abraham, and Moses, reaffirmed by Christ in the name of the new covenant and realized in Islam, in the Andalusian model of Spain, is a permanent virtue in a Palestinian model in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims can live again and under its protection.

For the first time, I suspect, the “posthumous Maimonides” was enlisted as an ancestor of the Palestinian National Covenant.

Hanafi was, of course, challenged. A state of Palestine that would supersede Israel based on a Muslim majority, with the promise of fairness for Jews and Christians, is an impossible fantasy. It could come about only at the end of some horrible, probably nuclear, war, which would leave few Arabs, Jews, and Christians to create such a Palestine. Still, in spite of the politics of this paragraph, there was something fundamentally hopeful in Hanafi’s tone, and in his general approach. Hanafi told a number of us later that he was giving a seminar in contemporary Islam at the United Nations University in Tokyo, and that he would be eager to have one of the Jewish scholars join him in discussions on the relationship between Judaism and Islam.

Another hopeful moment was the report by Vitaly Naumkin on the study of Maimonides in the Soviet Union. It was somewhat startling to hear that Igor Medvedev, an associate in the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Academy of Sciences in Russia, was working on a translation into Russian of parts of Maimonides’ legal code, and that he was giving considerable attention to the rabbinic commentaries on this work, and even to the sources of Maimonides in the seldom-studied Talmud of Jerusalem. Still, this news had to be interpreted with some caution. Even during Stalin’s murderous persecution of Yiddish culture during the 1950s, several scholars of classic Jewish texts, and even of modern Hebrew, continued to work in major libraries, and especially in the library in Leningrad, which houses the great Guinzberg collection of Jewish books and manuscripts.

The most unexpected participant among those who spoke during the conference was Huseyin Atay, a Turk by nationality, who is a professor at the University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dahram, Saudi Arabia. Of all the Arab states, the Saudis have been among the most careful through the years to avoid all contact with Israel and with Judaism. Atay’s presence suggested that something had changed. Atay is the editor of a critical edition of the Arabic text of The Guide of the Perplexed. In his remarks he took issue with Pines’s translation of the Guide into English on a number of specific points. Pines answered in detail—and the result was a learned discussion about the meaning of medieval Arabic philosophical terms conducted by two scholars whose countries have remained at war since 1948.

The least likely of all the participants was Professor Pourjawadi, of the department of philosophy of the University of Teheran. Pourjawadi said not a word in the public discussion, and he read no paper, but he did not miss a single minute of the sessions. Pourjawadi is reputed to be a senior advisor of the Iranian government. Nonetheless, he had come, and he could not help but take back with him the dominant mood of the conference: elation that such a meeting had taken place and that the discussions had, on the whole, been so civil.

As I have reread the papers and thought back on the discussions, I have found myself, if anything, a bit further away from the historical Maimonides than closer to him. I left Paris with the feeling, which has only deepened afterward, that Maimonides would have been amused by the sight of an intellectual victory over the Islamic fanatics who had chased him out of his native land in Córdoba and over the Jewish fundamentalists who had so often excommunicated him. Indeed, I suspect that my own reactions to the conference have something to do with my own life as a Jew who grew up in the Hitler era and whose religious commitments are not those of the ultra-Orthodox. Distinguishing between what we learn from Maimonides as he would have wanted us to learn from him, and what we make of him because that is what we want to hear, remains an insoluble problem. So it is with the Bible, and with all other great texts. Polite but intense intellectual conflicts took place in Paris, but, even as some of us were inventing some new Maimonides for ourselves, we were united by a reverence for the texts and for the man who wrote them, mainly in Arabic, at a high point in the history of the relations between Islamic and Hebrew cultures.

  1. 1

    Franz Rosenthal, Knowledge Triumphant (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1970), p. 96.

  2. 2

    Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, translated with an introduction by Shlomo Pines (University of Chicago Press, 1963), p. cxviii.

  3. 3

    These quotations are from the preface and introductory essay by Twersky to his A Maimonides Reader; see especially page xiv and page 26. It was revealing that later, in 1980, in his magnum opus on Maimonides as a legalist, entitled Introduction to the Code of Maimonides, Twersky twice denies that Maimonides was very much influenced by Arabic models. But he also admits (pages 77 and 259) that even Maimonides “was generally aware of the surrounding tendencies” in the Islamic world to write codes of law, and that this could have provided a stimulus for him. It is intriguing that in a long and definitive volume on the Mishneh Torah, the subject of Islamic models is dismissed in a few lines, with the assertion, in the second passage, that the subject cannot really be investigated.

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