Getting A Read On The Rambam

Special to the Jewish Week
Friday, October 16, 2009

Maimonides scholarship is thriving. But there has always been a healthy interest in, and veneration of, the life and works of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon — in his Hebrew acronymic, “the Rambam.” Jewish philosopher, jurist and halachist nonpareil, physician, communal leader — Moses Maimonides looms larger than any other figure in Jewish intellectual, social, and religious history. 

The 800th anniversary of the Rambam’s death in 2007 triggered, in addition to a number of commemorative conferences, several estimable books. One, a superb volume, “Maimonides After 800 Years: Essays on Maimonides and his Influence” (Harvard’s Jay Harris, editor), offered up the “state of the art” of Maimonides scholarship. On the more accessible level, there is Sherwin Nuland’s Maimonides, in the popular “Nextbook” series. Nuland’s work
emphasizes Maimonides-as-doctor, not surprising from Nuland, a physician. But the book is disappointing; Nuland, who has written intelligently and sensitively on both medical matters and on Jewish issues, simply does not know the literature. There is Isidore Twersky’s venerable “A Maimonides Reader,” which has illumined the Rambam for a generation and more of students.  Twersky’s opening essay — all of 29 pages — is perhaps the classic introduction to the Rambam. And, most recently, there is Herbert Davidson’s magisterial “Maimonides: The Man and his Works.”

Now comes Joel L. Kraemer, one of the leading figures in Maimonides scholarship, with “Maimonides: The Life and Work of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds,” his massive entry into the field. Grand hoopla — much of it deserved — has accompanied Kraemer’s long-awaited book. Kraemer’s Maimonides is readable and thoughtful at the same time (no mean feat for an academic!); it is comprehensive, sometimes overwhelmingly so; it is a fascinating rehearsing of a truly fascinating life.

Kraemer’s book is a lot of fun to read. The author has plenty of room to spread out, and this is a strength — and a weakness as well; the book is all over the place, with great narratives, but the reader is left doing some head-scratching:  “Do I need to know this?” Maimonides falls under the rubric of “serious, yet accessible,” and the student and general reader — scholars in the field as well — will learn much from the book. Kraemer is best, not so much in his writing about Maimonides, but in setting a context for Maimonides’ life and thought. He unravels and neatly dissects the intellectual and religious history of 12th-century Spain, Morocco and Egypt, and sorts out the theologies of the varied Islamic sects in these lands. These pages are absolutely superb.

There are problems, however, with “Maimonides.” First, as a matter of style and format, the book could have benefitted from a touch of the editor’s blue pencil: “Maimonides” reads like a series of discrete essays — every conceivable piece of Maimonideana is covered — rather than a unified work. Someone — author, editor, or publisher — got carried away.

A different kind of problem arises out of one of the strengths of the book, that of the heavy use of sources from the Islamic world. One dramatic example: The Rambam a convert to Islam? Yes, declares Kraemer, his assertion based primarily on an accusation of a Moroccan Muslim, who visited Egypt, and who said in effect, “Hmm, I seem to recall that Maimonides was a practicing Muslim when he lived in Fez.”  This is evidence? It is evidence only of the practice, during periods of persecution in Sephardic lands, of behaving publicly in a Muslim manner, whilst remaining traditionally observant. (The early Ashkenazi residents of Jerusalem’s Meah Shearim quarter adopted the same practice of “blending in” for security reasons, a practice copied from the older Sephardic community, dressing like Arabs in striped robes. The “zebrot” of the Batei Ungarn neighborhood today are the remnants of this history.)

In like manner, Kraemer sometimes trips over paper clips of judgment.  For example, his characterization of Maimonides’ practice of medicine as “archaic and crude” misses the point. This is judgmental from a modern perspective. The Rambam was up-to-date, and his sensitivities were progressive. As Kraemer does point out, Maimonides was aligned with the Roman Galen: If you want to do medicine, yes, learn the practice, but you’ve got to know the theory. This view was hardly “archaic.” And why is a recent work of Maimonidean scholarship, the aforementioned Herbert Davidson’s “Maimonides: The Man and his Works” (or Davidson at all, for that matter) not worthy of mention by Kraemer? Finally, one does wonder about Kramer’s characterization of Jewish Theological Seminary professor Rabbi Saul Lieberman as “the greatest Talmudist since the Gaon of Vilna.” Where does that come from?

But the issue, one with implications for Maimonidean scholarship in general, is not what is said in Joel Kraemer’s book, but what is not said.

There are a number of debates in Maimonidean scholarship. The classic controversy surrounds the opening of the Rambam’s “Moreh Nevuchim” — “The Guide for the Perplexed” — one of the great classics of the intellectual world of the High Middle Ages, or of any other period, for that matter — and by extension implicates the rest of the Rambam’s oeuvre. The debate is over whether “The Guide” ought be read in an “esoteric” or an “exoteric” manner. The conservative philosopher Leo Strauss was of the view that the Rambam was “esoteric,” that there were layers of meaning, some hidden, in his writing. He does not, argued Strauss, communicate openly everything he thinks. In his introduction to “The Guide,” Maimonides said, in effect, “I will use contradictory statements to hide my true intentions.” This “esotericism,” a multi-level approach to writing, avers that not all readers can appreciate what Maimonides has to say.

The opposing view was articulated by the late Professor Isidore (Yitzhak) Twersky of Harvard and others, who asserted that Maimonides was “exoteric” — the text is straightforward; you get what you see! To Twersky, Maimonides was the halachist nonpareil, and the exoteric reading of Maimonides was entirely consistent with the idea that the Rambam was all about halacha, the normative tradition. Period.
One does not get the sense from Joel Kraemer, however, that this discussion is much of an issue, yet this debate has underlain much of Maimonidean discussion for decades. This gap points up the central weakness of the book: Kraemer, who is unusually strong and creative in setting an intellectual-historical context for Maimonides, is unusually weak and pareve, and sometimes confusing, in discussing what Maimonides is actually saying, and why he is saying it, in his philosophical and halachic works. It is not clear that the reader will have a more coherent sense of the Rambam’s thought and approach to halacha and philosophy after he or she puts the book down than he had when he picked it up. Of course, a book cannot be all things to all people. But the myriad details in “Maimonides” — fascinating all — prevents the author from getting to the meat.

And that’s disappointing. Joel Kraemer is one of the giants of the field, and “Maimonides: The Life of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds” is a serious book of scholarship, and an enjoyable read to boot. But the reader — and the Rambam — deserve better.

Jerome A. Chanes,  faculty scholar at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center, is the author of “A Dark Side of History:  Antisemitism through the Ages.”



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