Sunday, June 6, 2010

Review: Maimonides in his World

I have begun writing for a wonderful new magazine of Jewish history, Segula. In the last issue, I published a review of Sara Stroumsa's book, Maimonides in his World. Since this issue is no longer current, I post it here. In the second, forthcoming issue, I have a more extensive article on Jewish Magic. Enjoy!

Maimonides in His World:Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker
Sarah Stroumsa

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

Notes towards Srugim and Talmudic Culture


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.


Speaking of identity, the questions of datlashim and borders came up as well. Hodaya's new boyfriend has no problem whatsoever with ordering shrimp. He is not dati, so what difference does it make if he transgresses the rules of Shabbat or eats creepy crawly things. But Hodaya is uninterested in the treif. Indeed, Hodaya is interested only in pursuing a traditional existential quest. So when she gets a tattoo on her back after wandering the streets of Tel Aviv, her datlash boyfriend is less than happy. It's an interesting way to think of the halakhic categories of mumar lehahis and mumar leteavon. The datlash boyfriend is essentially portrayed as a "mumar leteyavon." He is in it for the non-kosher food and premarital sex, while identity seems less a part of it. On the other hand, identity is Hodaya's obsession, and in order to concretize her new identity as secular she inscribes it as a sign on her body. I don't necessarily want to characterize Hodaya as lehahis - except in the sense that what she's doing is "for real" and not a temporary phase, in the passion of the moment. As much as possible, she wants her new secularism etched on her body, and soul.

Trust and Believablity

Amir and Yefat have been having some marital problems. Not only in conceiving a child, but also in trust - from the banal to the serious. Amir crashes the car and tries not to tell Yefat, etc. etc. At the beginning of the episode entitled Shivah Neqiyim, the glasses waiting to be immersed in the mikveh are still on the kitchen counter - Amir simply has not gotten around to do it. And Yifat has been taking hormonal supplements to play with her cycle since she's been having fertility problems - a matter of some controversy in Israel over the last few years (Menahem Mendel posted about it a while back). At Hodaya's insistence, Yifat considers rethinking when to begin counting the "shivah neqiyim". This is rather interesting since she is married to a Sefardi, who begin counting from the fourth (and not fifth) day of the onset of the period. But Amir loses trust in Yifat. He asks a Rav how one can trust one's wife that she has immersed in the mikveh and receives a lesson about notions of believability in Jewish law (the idea that a person is believed regarding "forbidden things" is actually derived from the menstruant's believability). It doesn't work for Amir and, he does everything to avoid the mikveh night since according to his (mistaken) calculation, Yifat has immersed too early. The irony is profound. The glasses that Amir finally ends up immersing are partially broken, while his wife, who has immersed properly is broken as well. Judging by the facebook comments on Amir's profile, he is not exactly the most beloved character right now, to say the least.

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


The much anticipated new season of the Israeli award-winning t.v. series, Srugim, is about to begin (January 10st), though virtually, it has already aired, following a few screenings and discussions in and around Jerusalem. The first season picked up prizes not just because of the generally good acting and artsy, sophisticated cinematography, but unquestionably, for the very novelty of screening a series about religious singles in Jerusalem. Srugim was reviewed and simultaneously praised and pilfered in the Israeli religious press, and as always, quality is in the eye of the beholder. Much of the wider audience saw in Srugim either a kind of ethnographic study of Israeli religious society whose success is to be measured by the lack of "mistakes" in accurately depicting a certain ethnographic reality (what we may call the Stranger Among Us" phenomenon" - good clip-on sidelocks, but did anyone notice how they did not check the eggs for bloodspots while baking, etc. etc.). In a similiar vein others, particularly the religious public, looked to Srugim and its religious director, Lazy Shapiro to represent halakha in its intracies, and to show the unbroken piety of the religious public. Of course Shapiro is interested in nothing but the creation of art and telling narratives of identity and community - of which the latter is quite problematic in the identity construction of older singles in the dati world. Shapiro's art reflects and refracts contemporary Israeli society in a myriad of ways.

The YES network on which Srugim airs has told us in no fewer words that מה שהיה היה, what was, was. Still, the series picked up from where it left off. Dati-hiloni issues continue to figure prominently and Srugim continues to have some new and interesting, if disturbing things to say. In this episode, Hodaya - the recently secular (or datl"ash, formerly religious) character - is still finding her place as a hiloni in Jeruslaem, and meets what turns out to be a fellow datlash at work, which by the end turns into something romantic - only confirming the truism that datlashim cannot mainstream into hiloni society. But what really does it mean to be hiloni, or formerly religious in Jerusalem? A difficult question indeed. Srugim seems to conceive of the issue as being largely about sex, with sexual initiation acting as the true initiation into secular society. Until Hodaya experiences sex she remains "dati" despite her previous Sabbath desecration. As Hodaya tells Yifat on her wedding day, she has still not done "anything". And so it goes. While the Datiim share their separate beds, and at that, only after marriage, hilonim experience something that datiim will never have - a different kind of sex. And yet, one cannot help but detect a look of dissapointment in Hodaya's contenance as she looked out that night on a suddenly cosmically changed Jerusalem.

There is much to say, too little time, and work beckons, but I cannot ignore the talmudic angle in this first episode. Indeed, one might say that Srugim is another form of the talmudic "language" that has had an uneasy but rich relationship with the modern State of Israel and the Modern Hebrew language. Like a talmudic sugya, it's structure is that of a postmodern cinematic quilt (hence the secondary meaning of the title - not just woven yarmulkes, but woven-together narratives, like the Aramaic word for tractate, "mesekhta" (think Babel). Aside from Hodaya's sorry tale, we also have simultaneously the much anticipated wedding between Amir and Yifat. At the end of last season Yifat finally gave up on Amir's roomate Nati and realized that her true love could be found with the divorcee, Amir. Of course it is then that Nati wants Yifat, but actually, Nati has no clue what he really wants. Nati's story is that while he is trying to be a good halakhic "best-man" and "watch" Amir as a shomer, his mother is dying in a hospital room with the rest of the family. The stories are gradually woven together. Yifat finds that she has had her period - a halakhic and sexual nightmare of immense proportions which requires all kinds of hoops and loops - the ring can no longer be handed directly to the bride, nor can the groom give her to drink of the wine. Worse, they need to spend their first week apart, generally with young relatives. Yifat is mortified and decides that though she and Amir will not actually sleep together, they will go through with the public aspects of the weddings as if nothing is wrong. What the rabbi doesn't know can't hurt him...Then, Nati's mother finally passes away and he bolts before he can sign his best friend's ketuba. We find Nati pulling back the cloth from his dead mother's face as Amir pulls the vale from on top of Yifat's head.

Is this episode's woven quilt merely about the cycle of life - weddings and funerals? Is it Nati's missed chances - Nati was uninterested in marrying Yifat so instead his roomate ends up marrying her - while Nati comes face to face with death and the mortality of being single (framed as dying a virgin in last season)?

This blogger cannot ignore a talmudic passage in Bavli Ketubot 4a-5a - a sugya known affectionately by my brother-in-law as "pop's in the freezer"; That is, if the bride or groom's father (or mother) dies, the wedding goes on while the deceased close-relative is "in the freezer". After the wedding, they bury the body and then...then the bride and groom must take great care not to touch each other or be secluded with one another. So beyond the case of a bride menstruating, the other archetypal religious wedding nightmare is a death in the immediate family. In both cases, bride and groom need to be kept separate from one another for (at least) seven days. The sugyot in the talmud are, as is common, textually woven together.

Some scholars, traditional and academic alike, have suggested that menstrual impurity in Judaism and other religions represents a kind of death of potential life, causing the need to separate though normally only physically. That is, while a husband and wife are normally "trusted" to keep to themselves during the wife's impurity, the threat of newlywed passion is too great to allow a new couple to stay together after either form of death - real or ritual - when sex or anything close to it is banned. Part of what the Bavli Ketubot sugya has to say is about the mingling of death and desire.

Nati, who has in the end not married Yifat, is the would-have-been-groom who now experiences death, plain and simple. Amir on the other hand, experiences with Yifat a temporary death which keeps them from consumating the marriage at this point, though anyone invested in the show wishes them (that is, the fictional construct of Yifat and Amir) only the best.

Srugim's weaving, as always, occupies the gap between halakhic reality and actual religious practice. Still, it somehow never loses the full symbolic gravity of the halakhic system.