Double Game

David Nirenberg

  • Maimonides in His World by Sarah Stroumsa
    Princeton, 222 pp, £27.95, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 691 13763 6

In 1979, shortly after the signing of the peace treaty between their two countries, President Navon of Israel presented President Sadat of Egypt with a copy of The Guide for the Perplexed, composed in Egypt in the 12th century by the Jewish scholar Maimonides. Navon remarked on the book’s language – it was written in Arabic, but in Hebrew script – and stressed the kinship between Hebrew and Arabic, while Sadat spoke of the long history of co-operation between Arabs and Jews, and noted that Maimonides had drawn inspiration from Muslim philosophers. Both men agreed that Maimonides was a bridge between their countries.[*]

Who was Maimonides, that he should play such an enduring role in our imagining of relations between Judaism, Christianity and Islam? He has several names, and the plurality is revealing. The name Maimonides – formed from Maimon, his father’s Latinised Hebrew name, and the Greek suffix ‘ides’ – was assigned to him by early modern European philosophers as they constructed a pantheon of their predecessors. In the Jewish tradition, for which his great work of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah (‘Reiteration of the Torah’), is fundamental, he is known as the RaMBaM, a Hebrew acronym for ‘our rabbi Moses son of Maimon’. The saying ‘from Moses [the Prophet] to Moses [son of Maimon] there was none like Moses’ began to circulate shortly after his death. And then there is his Arabic name: Musa ibn Maymun ibn’Abdallah al-Qurtubi al-Andalusi al-Isra’ili (Moses son of Maimon son of Abdallah the Cordoban the Andalusian the Israelite), a name that announced he was a Jew born in and exiled from Muslim Spain.

Each of these names can be made to stand for an essential attribute. Maimonides was a physician and philosopher, whose treatises (in Judeo-Arabic) on asthma, fevers, poisons and antidotes were consulted by Jewish, Christian and Muslim physicians for centuries. In other fields his work proved even more enduring. He was a precocious advocate for the historical study of scripture. In order to explain what struck him as contradictions and even philosophical absurdities in the Hebrew Bible – why, for example, were there so many sacrifices, with their pagan and idolatrous associations? – Maimonides set out to understand the conditions of the world in which it was revealed. He claimed that he had studied ‘the entire subject of idolatry. It seems to me that there does not remain in the world a composition on this topic in Arabic … that I have not read.’ He concluded that parts of the Hebrew Bible had been written to wean the Israelites from pagan practices.

Maimonides’ discovery of what would eventually be called ‘historicism’ would, in the very long run, help shake the study of scripture to its foundations. Yet his goal was not to demolish the divine word, but rather to bring our understanding of that word into harmony with the other things we know about the world. According to Maimonides, the basic error of theology is that it wants to ‘consider how being ought to be in order that it should furnish a proof for the correctness of a particular opinion, or at least should not refute it’. Seekers after truth should instead attempt to ‘conform in our premises to the appearance of that which exists’. He thought Aristotle was wrong to believe that the universe was eternal, a belief that, if true, ‘destroys the law’, and ‘gives the lie to every miracle’. But, he insisted, if Aristotle’s belief were some day proved, then he too would interpret scripture to conform with Aristotle.

The RaMBaM, meanwhile, appears to have had a very different project. He writes in a self-consciously archaic Hebrew reminiscent of the Mishnah, the ancient (second century ad) core of rabbinic Judaism from which the Talmud later developed. His codification of that Judaism is dogmatic, and he articulates, in his Commentary on the Mishnah, the closest thing rabbinic Judaism has to a credo: the 13 ‘articles of faith’ that bind all Jews, even ‘children, women, stupid ones, and those of defective natural disposition’. Some of these principles, such as belief in the resurrection, sit uneasily with what Maimonides elsewhere presents as rational philosophical truths.

Scholars have often succumbed to the temptation to split Maimonides in two, leaving the rationalist to the history of philosophy and of Islam, the rabbi to the history of Judaism. Yet even his given name should warn us against this. We might think of ‘Moses’ as a quintessentially Jewish name, but it wasn’t given to a sage in the Talmud, and was rare among rabbis before Maimonides’ day. If Maimonides could be described as the new Moses, it was in part because the prominence of the name in the Quran made it a useful and fashionable name in Muslim lands.

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[*] The story is told in Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilisation’s Greatest Minds by Joel Kraemer (Doubleday, 621 pp., £22.60, October 2008, 978 0 385 51199 5).