Wednesday, July 6, 2011
Sunday, June 6, 2010
Maimonides in His World:Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker
Princeton University Press, 2009
Faced with a sophisticated yet uncomplicated gadget, the New York Times’ review of the iPad™ offers two assessments side by side – one for techies and the other for everyone else. As a piece of intellectual technology, Sarah Stroumsa’s erudite and accessible Maimonidies in his World deserves no less. The book is an exceptional work of critical scholarship that remains readable and relevant beyond the ivory tower. Indeed, its true significance might be found among a more general readership. As a number of scholarly reviews have already (positively) appraised the book, here we limit ourselves to discussing its importance for non-specialists, and particularly those for whom the Rambam was, as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchick evocatively put it, “a permanent guest in the home.”
It has been more than half a decade since the eight-hundredth anniversary of Maimonides’ death, yet the publishing mill continues to spawn major Maimonidean biographies [Moshe Halbertal, Ha-Rambam (Jerusalem, 2009)], translations [Michael Schwarz, Sefer Moreh Nevukhim (Tel Aviv, 2008)], intellectual portraits [Joel Kraemer, Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization's Greatest Minds (New York, 2010)], and even a so-called “Rambam diet” [David Zulberg, The Life Transforming Diet: Health and Psychological Principles of Maimonides (New York, 2007)]. Ecclesiastes’ warning against the endless making of books has been observed only in the breach. But in Stroumsa’s case, we are all the more fortunate.
Maimonides in his World presents a fully integrated and contextualized figure. The attempt to separate Maimonides the philosopher from Maimonides the halakhist is smartly refuted. In addition, Maimonides is now located in what Stroumsa calls his Mediterranean Islamic context. Both the integration and contextualization of Maimonides are likely to be resisted by those who devote themselves to the traditional study of Rambam’s writings. But given Stroumsa’s mastery of the material and the way she consistently links the Rambam’s language to a rich lexicon of Arabic terms and Islamic ideas, the book’s conclusions are hard to avoid. Of course the unfortunate truth is that a book by a professor of Arabic philosophy published in English by a university press will never make it into the study halls where the Rambam is most venerated. But it should, and to its credit – it theoretically could. Despite the fact that Maimonides in his World derives from over twenty years of painstaking philological research on Hebrew and Arabic texts, like the iPad, the complex machinery is present, but elegantly tucked away.
Using advanced linguistic and scholarly tools, Stroumsa demonstrates how virtually every one of Maimonides’ projects can be properly understood only in relation to broader trends in the Islamic Mediterranean. These include Maimonides’ polemics against the widespread theological approach of his day (kalām), his heresiography in which deviant Jews of the past and present are essentially depicted as Muslim heretics (zandādiqa), the creation of the Mishneh Torah – a new primary source of Jewish law that eschews fundamentals (furū‘) and uncovers basic legal principles (uşūl). According to Stroumsa, the composition of Mishneh Torah is to be connected with currents that Maimonides was exposed to under the Almohads during the years 1148-1165, as is his almost militant anti-anthropomorphism, his image of Messianic kingship (similar to the Islamic Mahdī), and his impatience with Ptolemaic astronomy. Maimonides’ famous position regarding animal sacrifices in the Temple, which are seen as but one step in the evolution of Judaism from its pagan past, is of a piece with the renewed interest in religious phenomenology. His denigration of darshanim and the uncritical use of aggada parallels Muslim assessment of preachers (wu‘‘āz) and religious storytellers (qusşāş).
Maimonides’ vision of human perfection and an austere intellectual afterlife plainly reflects the dominant philosophical approach of his day. Famously, this approach engendered considerable problems for Maimonides both during his life and after his death, for if there is no need for the body after death, why would God have to resurrect the dead? One of the most original claims in the book is that Maimonides’ codification of this belief in his thirteen principles was neither an abandonment of his philosophical approach nor an attempt at synthesis. Rather, it was a shrewd strategy he hoped would allow him to avoid the discussion entirely. Unfortunately for his sake, he was mistaken.
In Stroumsa’s capable hands, the image of Maimonides that emerges is not a portrait of a brilliant Talmud-centric Lithuanian Rosh Yeshiva; rather a kind of pre-Renaissance Renaissance man who was completely fluent in the philosophical discourse of his day and who attempted an unapologetic reading of Judaism using the prevailing intellectual tools of his day. The secret to Maimonides’ success, which Stroumsa sees as the culmination of prior attempts by Jewish philosophers, was his distinct ability to observe with cool, scholarly detachment all of the philosophical and religious traditions that preceded him – including his own Judaism.
Pervasive self awareness is both the blessing and curse of modernity. However, when you are hundreds of years ahead of your time, it can only be experienced as a howling loneliness. Taking its cue from the popular saying “from Moshe (Rabbeinu) to Moshe (ben Maimon) there arose none like Moshe,” the final section of the book explores Maimonides’ idea of the “philosopher king” – a man who responds to the call for communal involvement, yet remains in philosophical contemplation. It is good to be king, but how lonely it is!
The second half of the twentieth century saw Modern Orthodox Judaism – particularly in its American strain – attempt to fashion itself as a Maimonidean movement. Some continue to call for “Maimonidean reform” [Marc D. Angel, Maimonides, Spinoza and Us: Toward an Intellectually Vibrant Judaism (Woodstock, VT, 2009)]. At the same time, there has been hesitation about a pure “imatatio Maimonides,” with some questioning the wisdom and feasibility of community-wide emulation of this elite, intellectually unparalleled, and singular Jewish leader. In the future conversations that are sure to ensue about Maimonides’ place in contemporary Jewish life, Stroumsa’s portrait will be a most welcome, indispensible guide.
Dr. Shai Secunda is a Fellow at the Scholion Center for Interdisciplinary Jewish Research – The Hebrew University of Jerusaelm.
Friday, March 19, 2010
Despite the accolades that Srugim has received for achieving a kind of objective correlative that affords access to dati and hillon audiences, it simultaneously point to aspects of the dati/hiloni divide - especially in terms of perceptions of the Other. A number of episodes ago, Hodaya, the rabbi's daughter who left the fold and is now officially a "datlash," and finds herself in a relatively unfulfilled relationship with a fellow datlash. One depressing evening she heads out to a bar, alone, and phones her old boyfriend - the Hebrew U archeologist Avri who was the focus of a number of episodes last season. Avri was truly secular. Not a drop of datlash in him. The chemistry is still there, but Avri has found someone new. And as he repeats over and over again, his new girlfriend, unlike Hodaya, is stable. The scene sheds light on an interesting assumption. Pretty much all of the characters are, in their own way, unstable - especially in their obsessive and unending search for identity and the interplay between identity and religion. Hodaya is of course the perfect example. but the same could be said of the other characters, like Amir - the married man who is less happy with having to fake as an Ashkenazi, Roi with the questions of his sexual identity, etc. One episode poked fun of a hilonit trying to leave her cozy Tel Aviv world and "play" the complex experience of being religious - clearly a nod to the experience of Srugim's actors.
It is worth noting that Srugim assumes that there is an inherent instability in the religious experience- an idea that R. J. B. Soloveitchik famously celebrated in "footnote 4" of his Halakhic Man. From the staid mid-century confines of Orthodox America, R. Soloveitchik tried to demonstrate that being religious was no trip alongside the tranquil waters, but a tortuous, existential experience. At least in certain corners of the Modern Orthodox world, it seems this battle of perception was won.
As for the Shivah Neqiyim themselves, it is interesting how Yifat, the woman, is less sure of the process of shivah nekiqiym than her husband, while at least according to the Bavli it was a female innovation.
In my dissertation I made a fairly radical claim that I have yet to receive a response to. I hope I will get some pushback when I publish it in article form. For further details, I would suggest looking there, but in short, I argue that by comparing the Bavli and the Yerushalmi we can see that the phrase "the daughters of Israel were stringent" is a Babylonian addition to a Palestinian kernel, which merely declares a woman a menstruant even upon seeing a small drop of blood. In tannaitic sources, shivah neqiyim need not refer to seven "clean" days without blood but a period of time that is divorced from relations. This is at least how it appears in Tannaitic Hebrew. R. Zera cited the tradition in the name of R. Huna, and it made it into Babylonia in slightly altered form. In Rava's circle it was not entirely clear what the decision was - a stringency of the women or one that was simply "folk" or rabbinic and connected to the tendency to blur the distinction between zavah and niddah - already apparent, in some respects in the Dead Sea Scrolls. There also was the factor of Zoroastrian practice which similarly preached a need to divide the period from purification and underwent a comparitive development. It is interesting how the sources are in fact much less clear regarding who was responsible for the innovation - pious women, rabbis, general "folk custom" etc. And the same dynamic can be found in the later history of hilkhot niddah which ossocilates between rabbinic concern, female stringencies occasionally looked down upon by the rabbis, "mikveh ladies" etc. As always, things are messier than they first appear. The texts testify to this - if you look closely enough.
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Just a few days before the bulls began to tear up Spanish streets and stadia, the seven hundred year old University of Salamanca held a conference entitled, "Poets, priests, scribes and (e-)librarians. The transmission of holy wisdom in Zoroastrians," in the sixteenth century abode of the faculty de philologia. Avestan scholars from three continents met to discuss the transmission and reception of the Avesta from antiquity, when it was transmitted orally, to the medieval codices, modern printing press, and now, electronically. There were also some discussions of Pahlavi (Middle Persian) adaptations, translations, and reformulations of Avestan texts.
The Zoroastrian High Priest of Bombay, Dastur Firoze M. Kotwal was there, and the enormous bird nests left undisturbed on the upper columns inside the Faculty de Philologia may of reminded him of the Tower of Silence, and of home. The Dastur seemed to enjoy the conference, shared a beer (Spanish, cold) with some of the younger generation in Salamanca's Plaza Mayor. Otherwise, he kept to himself.
Essentially, the conference was a showcase for Alberto Cantera's impressive Avestan Digital Archive. ADA is run out of University of Salamanca, directed by Cantera, and powered by his own five member team - doctoral students, of course. A while back I made mention of the ADA's sister site, www.videvdad.com, on MM's blog in order to show how far Zoroastrian studies had come. I admit now that my impressions were rather patronizing, as if Zoroastrian Studies had some "catching up" to do re: digitalization when compared with sites like JNUL's digital library and Shamma Friedman's Lieberman Project. At this point, the student has surpassed the master, perhaps revealing that she was never a student to begin with. The site is well on its way to providing a definitive place for Zoroastrian philological research.
But the conference was also a steady stream of papers read, mumbled, pantomimed, and sometimes enthusiastically performed. There is room for the scholarly study of the academic paper - perhaps by oral-performance theorists. Unfortunately, for many an academic, there is the sense is that the conference paper has ontological meaning - thus it takes up many more pages than the allotted twenty minutes allow, and it also contains footnotes, which of course conference participants don't read. The paper exists, yet no one has access to it in its entirety save for the performer. But more, anon.
There were two moments that jolted the conference from its general predictability. First was Dr. Yuhan Vevaina's (Harvard University) paper, which was ostensibly about "transmission and agency" in the Pahlavi translations/commentaries to the Avesta, but was really a post-modern critique of Avestan philology. Vevaina's point had to do with the way Avestan scholars look to the Pahlavi translations as, at best, poor renditions of the Avestan original instead of new creations that are trying to do something new. Interestingly, Vevaina has used some recent work on Midrash in his research for methodological framing. There was of course much more. The ironies of this critique taking place in the sixteenth century faculty de philologia building were lost on few. (I hope to devote further discussion to Vevaina's work when/if it is made available online in the near future at ADA's website).
The second moment was a toast at the galla dinner, that quickly turned into a related critique of the narrow philological study of ritual texts, courtesy of Prof. Michael Stausberg (Bergen). (Both Vevaina and Stausberg are editing Blackwell's companion to Zoroastrianism, and I will be submitting an article to that volume aith Yaakov Elman on Judaism's intersection with Zoroastrianism). Stausberg's toast was truly a roast aimed not just at the conference organizers, but at the conference participants as well. All in good fun, but the laughter ranged from healthy to nervous (shades of Dick Van Dyke, and more). It is telling that the two were seated at the same table during the gall dinner
Michael Stausberg, laughing
...as was I:
Yuhan Vevaina and Shai Secunda. A chuckle, a critique.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
DISPATCH FROM THE BABYLONIAN COLLECTION
For the past few days and the next several weeks, I have exchanged my chair in a typical, if minuscule, academic office for another less comfortable wooden thing in a major university antiquities collection. Instead of holding a volume of Talmud in my hands, more often then not I find myself gingerly examining artifacts (what else, magic bowls and Sasanian seals) and thinking of the ancients who owned them over a thousand years ago. Along the way, the process has opened up for me a new way of thinking about the tangible age of the world and how we, as academics, try to find our way in it. Beyond their original producers and consumers, like all artifacts the bowls also represent the people who discovered them a hundred(+) years ago, the dealers, collectors, shippers, curators, restorers - the host of characters that contributed to the process of placing a few of them into my hands during this unusually cool summer. Now, a jaunt over to the stacks has itself become a historical journey. Many of the books that I regularly use, for better or for worse, have not been checked out of the library for decades or more. And the stacks are dank, not just with the smell of aging books but the very weight of history: The history of scholarship, learning, and ultimately the way we think now. Like most Talmudists in the wake of Boyarin, I've read the works of that secular prophet, the "archaeologist of knowledge", and his descendants, and I know that scholarship of ancient things is not ancient at all, but an inquiry into things current. So my epiphany in the stacks and in the Babylonian collection is not a revelation of knowledge per se, but an experiential one. Truthfully, this feeling waxes and wanes with the change of seasons and semesters. And sometimes the apology of historical continuity and meaningfulness, especially in terms of the history of ideas, falls flat and limp. As some of you have argued, this is apparently the pervasive angst of many scholars, but especially Talmudists. On the other hand, Talmudists do hold the keys to the "ground zero" of meaning and experience in Judaism. What Jews do and think today is closely linked to particular textual movements in the Bavli (of course mediated by later ways of thinking and experiencing), and we can explain the phenomena fairly well.
With all due respect, I think that historians who need to write op-eds about current affairs like talking heads are not doing anyone a service - even, and especially, when they are great historians.
They are often not equipped to talk about current events directly, and in any case it is unnecessary. There are those who care about the ancient world and texts for reasons of curiosity and spirituality. This is particularly true in the Jewish community - especially amongst those who make Jewish learning a regular part of their schedule. For this (growing) demographic, the role of the Talmudist almost self evident.
There are still a number of real challenges: For the philologically-inclined Talmudist, there is the sense that the Bavli does not read like an open book (even after looking at commentaries and translations). There are manuscripts to be consulted, linguistic analyses to be performed, and textual layers to be peeled away from earlier sources before one can even approach the truth(s) of the text. This partially explains the paternalism endemic to the relationship between Talmudists and the Jewish community, and yes, that paternalism is a problem. Somehow we need to conceive of a way to break down the town and gown barrier, which will include genuine respect for the "community of learners" and the weight of tradition (rishonim, methods of learning) etc. But the dance is that we cannot avoid the fact that some of what we have to say is grounded in real "scientific" analysis and is not simply another "wort" (on the other hand, much of what we have to day is not scientific and we need to admit this). We cannot apologize for this or for the theological challenges inherent in the process. We can only ease the process.
As for those in the Jewish community who are not already engaged in some capacity in Jewish learning, I have little to say. The problem is particularly acute in the US, where the geographic distance from the rest of the world and the chronological gap between us and the ancients is enormous. It contributes to a lack of curiosity in the past (See this preface). Still with the "sexiness" of edgy Jewish learning, maybe the Talmud can also find its way.
Friday, June 26, 2009
After a few rice cakes and peanut butter (stay tuned for the "department of British entertaining), it was back to antiquity, and cedars at that. Michael Stone basically cataloged this tree in literature, ancient and late antique, and demonstrated the way in which its pairings with things like vines was literary and not botanical. The most entertaining moment was, of course, a Gafni one. There is a Yerushalmi passage that describes how Bar Kokhba tested incoming troops - by taking off their fingers. The rabbis disapproved and suggested that he have the soldiers try to uproot cedars from the backs of horses. Gafni has a colleague who argued that the story must be fictive, as cedars don't grow in the land of Israel! (talk about old school historical scholarship!). In retort, Gafni replied that there are no cedars left in Israel since they were uprooted - by Bar Kokhba's soldiers.
The very calendrical Sacha Stern gave a talk about calenders, which we will have to get to later. And I had to miss Sabah Alidihisi's talk about the Mandaeans in order to catch my flight - any conference goers reading this who might want to fill in the blank?