Maimonides: Turn Him Over and Over Again for Everything Is in Him


Arthur Hyman, Alfred Ivry, ed.  Maimonidean Studies.  Volume 5. Jersey City: KTAV Publishing House, 2008.  442 pp. $49.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-88125-941-4.

The fifth volume of Maimonidean Studies is an eclectic amalgam of studies, the majority of which are based on papers delivered at a conference in New York City commemorating the 800th anniversary of Maimonides’ death.  As a tribute to the Great Eagle’s seminal place in the history and development of Jewish thought, where no dimension escapes his imprint, these studies cut across a wide swath of what today are considered separate “disciplines” in the field of Jewish studies.  Rabbinics widely conceived (Halakha, Talmud, Midrash), biblical exegesis, philosophy (medieval and modern), mysticism, medicine, and politics all converge in this formidable personality without whom there would be paltry grist for our scholarly mills.  Maimonides, therefore, presents an existential paradigm for the future direction of Jewish studies demanding far more permeable internal divisions.  To date, the borders of these “disciplines” have been constructed much like the topographic straight lines of the present-day Middle East, where “countries,” rather than coalescing naturally, were artificially carved out by geographers in a map room.

Elliot Wolfson‘s study then leads the way by eschewing a historical reductionism that others in this collection are guilty of, arguing for, in his case on the issue of the via negativa, a “genuine intellectual and spiritual kinship” between philosophy and kabbalah rather than mere influences of one on the other (p. 393).  Wolfson deftly shows that kabbalah’s penchant for oral articulation of prayer rather than silent contemplation of a philosophically idealized deity, in addition to its polemical impetus against Maimonidean abstraction, shares a common ground with philosophical devequt (conjunction).  Though the Hebrew alphabet for the kabbalist consists of the building blocks of all being and therefore demands aural pronouncement as a necessary means of spiritual ascent, the ultimate goal intersects with philosophical apophasis, since “even the holy tongue, gives way to what is beyond language, as thought leads to what is beyond thought” (p. 423).  This shared metaphysics is subject to the caveat that the end point for Maimonides is supreme epistemological ignorance of the source of all being while for the kabbalists that same unknowing is a form of gnosis.

This seems to me a richer comparative exercise than, for example, Sara Stroumsa‘s proficient but wanting thesis claiming Maimonides to be more Almohadic than Averroes.  While it might be true that both Maimonides and the Almohads rejected casuistry and promoted a return to primary sources, was the Almohadic revolution really his “inspiration” for the Mishneh Torah, or could Maimonides have been motivated by what all philosophically inclined thinkers are — logical and systematic rigor that disdains the organizational chaos of centuries of oral discourse that is the Talmud (p. 239)?  His Mishneh Torah is more likely the product of an exquisitely jurisprudential mind rather than an Almohadic one, and conceiving it as the latter would simply confuse the search for its precise jurisprudence.

Steven Harvey‘s study of Maimonidean introductions, after canvassing the similarities between them and their Islamic counterparts, avoids a reductionist lapse and admits that Maimonides’ introduction to the Guide is “in a class by itself” (p. 104).  However, the conclusions seem less than profound — introductions are catered to the particular work they introduce, provide the rules for understanding the book, and persuade the readership to read on.  I disagree with Harvey’s failure to see how his introduction to the Guide would sift out unintended readers for who would consider themselves members of “ignorant masses” (p. 102).  Maimonides’ principal criterion qualifying his audience is perplexity.  The Guide intends on resolving, not fomenting, existential and religious angst, and those who are not gripped by the apparent conflict between reason and Torah will in all likelihood lack the motivation to proceed.

As far as Maimonides’ halakhic corpus, David Hensheke is currently offering some of the most insightful scholarship in the field.  Unfortunately, it has been largely restricted to a Hebrew-speaking audience and the volume is no exception.  Here, he focuses on Maimonides’ unique halakhic formulations of levirate marriage and a particularly convoluted reading of Deuteronomy 25:6.  Suffice it to say that his mastery of the rabbinic corpus and ingenuity convincingly solves a hermeneutical puzzle that has perturbed halakhic commentators on the Mishneh Torah for centuries by attributing it to a sophisticated polemic with Karaite exegesis.  In his work, comparisons and influences actually lead to meaning and chart a novel direction for Maimonides’ biblical exegesis.  This may also benefit an understanding of the Guide, which is replete with biblical exegesis.

Though included in a different section dealing with philosophy, it is instructive to contrast Hensheke’s study with Sara Klein Braslavy‘s on “interpretative riddles” in the Guide since biblical terms and verses are their mainstay.  I agree wholeheartedly with the thesis that riddles are esoteric rather than aesthetic devices, but after a complex and near tortuous analysis of two exempla, the true identities of Adam and Eve, and the serpent in the Garden of Eden narrative, the solution that the former two are form and matter of human substance while the latter is human desire hardly seem worth the trouble of labyrinthine literary subterfuge.  I also found little benefit to applying modern structural theories of riddles to solving Maimonides’ riddles.  That riddles are metaphorical; have a “topic” that is an “apparent referent,” a “comment”; and contain characteristics that “direct the riddlee to the identification of the referent” are trite observations and do not contribute in the least to solving the particularly enigmatic riddles of the Guide (p. 143).  In addition to Hensheke, the Hebrew section provides a very detailed study of the term “prophesying in the name of idolatry” in Maimonides’ corpus tracing the development of two very different senses with discrepant halakhic ramifications.  Barring interpretive disagreements, Hannah Kasher‘s study is a methodological model in its comprehensiveness for determining the precise meaning of technical Maimonidean phrases.

Gerald Blidstein addresses the fascinating question of what constitutes for Maimonides halakhic authority and sanction following the demise of Judaism’s institutional organs of legislation — the Supreme Court of the second Temple period (Sanhedrin) and its successor in the voice of the Talmud.  The close of the Talmud signaled the replacement of legislative coercion by “deinstitutionalized personal prerogative,” perhaps an unsatisfying rubric from a normative perspective (p. 50).  Since we are talking about religion, this newer voluntaristic model is far more attractive to my own liberal democratic sensibilities, which relegate matters of faith to the private sphere and ideally maintain a clear separation between state and religion.

Warren Harvey‘s study demonstrates that while Alfarabi is the greater philosopher, when it comes to matters relating to knowledge of God and relationship with God such as prayer and intellectual worship, Avicenna wielded far more influence on Maimonides.  Alfred Ivry, in contrast, calls for a more nuanced view of Maimonides as a product of his Islamic context and refuses to straitjacket him with an “ian” label.  When it comes to naturalism he is neither an Avicennian nor an Averroist but rather a blend.  However, Maimonides finds common cause with Averroes on the central issue of what reward the religious man can expect for his lifelong sacrifice.  Maimonides’ likely subscription to monopsychism (rejection of a posthumous individuated existence) would be disillusioning to most but attests to Maimonides’ unflinching commitment to the truth for its own sake, consistent with his own halakhic definitions of true love of God.

A number of studies deal with Maimonides’ medical writing but most interesting for me is the suggestion by Tzvi Langermann that Maimonides’ collection of medical aphorisms, Fusl Musa (Chapters of Moses), might pose a literary model for how the Guide was compiled and edited.  Fusl are independent essays written over a period of time, which Langermann proposes were “sutured together so as to develop a coherent theme” that resulted in the Guide (p. 343).  Such a thesis raises exciting questions that challenge scholarship whose conclusions are based on a diachronic study of Maimonides’ various works.  In particular, how would this affect Herbert Davidson‘s controversial claim that the Guide’s introduction preceded the actual writing of it and therefore never followed through with the esotericism of contradictions originally contemplated.  The Fusl theory of continuous thinking, editing, and revising throughout Maimonides’ life seriously contests such an easy dismissal of the Guide’s introduction.

Another study in this volume that stands out is a fine treatment by Howard Kreisel of Maimonides’ reasons for the commandments, addressing the question of why he included them in a work whose declared purpose is the “secrets of the Torah” and which apparently do not promote any esoteric doctrines.  Although rich and stimulating in its presentation, I question the question.  Maimonides’ concern in the Guide is to resolve the existential perplexity of the philosophically inclined devout Jew.  Surely that perplexity seeps into normative conduct, which is the primary expression of his Jewishness.  The Guide would remain incomplete without instructing his intended Jewish readers on how the entire biblical command edifice is informed by the metaphysics of its prophetic parables.  In this sense, it complements his legal compendium (Mishneh Torah) rather than conflicts with it.

Also exceptional is Aviezer Ravitzky‘s essay on Samuel ibn Tibbon’s profound disagreement on the philosopher’s return to the “cave” of political involvement, which Maimonides advocated but which ibn Tibbon considered a diminishment in intellectual and spiritual stature.  Kenneth Seeskin contributes the single modern study — an illuminating contrast between Hermann Cohen and Maimonides on the Messiah.  Seeskin has that rare ability to pare down philosophically complex subjects to a digestible essence.  Space allows me only to whet one’s appetite with his distinction between Maimonides’ achievable “deflationary conception of the Messiah” and Cohen’s “endless deferral” of a Messiah who “is always in the process of coming” (p. 381).  Charles Manekin nicely traces the evolution of Maimonides’ thought from unqualified Aristotelian naturalism in the pre-Guide corpus to a more nuanced one in the Guide.

May Arthur Hyman, the editor of the five volumes of Maimonidean Studies, continue to probe the depths of Maimonides’ extraordinary life and thought for many volumes to come.  In addition to whether Maimonides might have been an Avicennian, Alfarabian, Averroist, Aristotelian, neo-Platonist, crypto-kabbalist, Almohadian, or proto-Kantian, may Hyman also be guided in this endeavor by the overarching questions of what precisely Maimonides meant and why should we care.

James Diamond, Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies, University of Waterloo.  This review was published by H-Judaic (July 2009) under a Creative Commons 3.0 US License.