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 Since this issue is no longer current, I post it here.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.