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.

In Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952) Leo Strauss suggested that in order to avoid persecution by the religious authorities, Maimonides cultivated a double register in his writing. An exoteric layer of meaning reinforces the religious myths – such as the resurrection of the body – necessary for the comfort and governance of the ignorant, while an esoteric one conveys arguments aimed at the initiated and the wise. Outward compromise conceals inner truth. Strauss’s argument has fallen out of favour, in part because of its association with the politics of subterfuge and deception that some of his readers in the Bush administration derived from it, and in part because it risks replacing one split with another: it is not the author who is divided, but the text.

Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker is, among other things, a critical engagement with Strauss’s view. Sarah Stroumsa insists that ‘the Straussian dichotomy of esoteric versus exoteric writing does not do justice to Maimonides’ context-sensitive rhetoric.’ Stroumsa, the rector of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, claims instead that he ‘plays a double game’, reconciling and integrating dualities through the constant, creative interplay between Arabic and Hebrew, Islamic and Jewish culture.

Stroumsa admits that her argument depends on a series of assumptions, first that Maimonides was ‘generally familiar with major books of his period’ published by Muslim theologians and philosophers. Moreover,

a philosopher who was so fully immersed in Islamic philosophy and used it to shape his own could not disengage himself from Islamic culture when he delved into other kinds of intellectual activity, be it exegesis, theology or polemics. My assumption is therefore that, in writing on Jewish law, for example, Maimonides was not only toeing the line of Rabbinic, Gaonic tradition, but also bringing to bear the influence of his non-Jewish cultural context.

He used, she argues, a ‘double linguistic and textual register’, and ‘even when he writes in Hebrew, his philosophical frame of reference is that of Arabic philosophy.’

This is an important point, though not exactly new: as early as 1213 Samuel ibn Tibbon, Maimonides’ translator in southern France, pointed out that readers of the Mishneh Torah in Christian lands had been led astray by their ignorance of the Arabic and Islamic context of its vocabulary. But few have learned the Arabic necessary to investigate this claim. Stroumsa is one of the handful of modern scholars who has done so, and every chapter of her book reveals the value of such knowledge. The RaMBaM’s Mishneh Torah, unlike many of its rabbinic predecessors, suppresses the disagreements and arguments through which the Talmud and its commentaries proceed, and provides instead succinct summaries that stress what Stroumsa calls ‘the fundamentals’: broad laws, foundational beliefs and readings of the primary sources. This innovative ‘fundamentalism’, according to Stroumsa, bears a strong resemblance to that put forward in the writings of Ibn Tumart, the founder of an Islamic movement that arose among the Berber tribes of the Atlas Mountains in the early 12th century. Ibn Tumart attacked what he saw as the anthropomorphising and polytheistic tendencies of Islam in his day; the treatises he wrote were designed to provide his followers with the prophetic foundations for the pure monotheistic beliefs and practices incumbent on every Muslim, uncluttered by the later disputes of the learned. The Almohad movement he inspired – from the Arabic al-Muwahhidun, meaning the ‘proclaimers of God’s one-ness’ – swept to power throughout North Africa and Muslim Spain. The Almohads, unlike nearly all their predecessors in the history of Islam, did not tolerate the presence of Jews and Christians on their territory. With their arrival in Cordoba in 1147, when Maimonides was a child, the famously plural society of Muslim Spain came to an end. Many Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians fled to the northern Christian kingdoms. Others, like Maimonides’ family, accepted forced conversion to Islam and began a long series of displacements or exiles. The family seems to have spent 12 years wandering from city to city in Muslim Spain before settling for five years in Fez, where, according to a Muslim biographer, Maimonides learned the Quran by heart and studied Islamic law. He then escaped the Almohads’ orbit, moving briefly to Palestine and then to Egypt, where he could live openly as a Jew. He remained there until he died, in 1204.

His journey through these multiple Islams, Stroumsa maintains, enabled Maimonides to create his singular approach to religious teaching. From the Greek philosophical tradition transmitted by his Muslim and Christian predecessors he learned that God teaches humanity by stages, accommodating his message to the capacities of those whom he addresses. Maimonides referred to this strategy – sometimes called the ‘doctrine of accommodation’ – by the Arabic word talat.t.uf, which means ‘shrewdness in the service of loving kindness’. (Christians might think here of 1 Corinthians 3.2: ‘I fed you with milk and not solid food, for you were not able to take it.’) From his Cordoban Muslim contemporary Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroes) he learned that scripture ‘speaks in different ways to the three levels of society: the multitudes, the theologians and the philosophers, and that the spiritual leader or philosopher should try to follow this model’. And from the Almohads he learned that some of what the multitudes can’t be taught by reason, they can be taught by credo: hence the ‘fundamentalist’ style of his commentaries on the Torah.

But although he learned from Islamic philosophy, Maimonides was not a Muslim. He was the religious leader of a small and stateless community, and didn’t have a highly elaborated world of rival authorities to answer to. This meant that he could go much further than a Muslim like Averroes, even to the point of treating the ancient texts of his religion as the product of human history: ‘What, do you call things written in the Talmud “legends”? Yes I do!’ The important thing was not to ask more of believers than their age was capable of – otherwise faith would be destroyed. Tolerating philosophically untrue beliefs was often less dangerous than proclaiming their rational impossibility. In the case of the afterlife, for example,

it will not be detrimental to your religion to believe that the inhabitants of the world to come are bodies, until you clearly understand their existence. Even if you think that they eat, drink and procreate in the upper heaven or in Gan Eden, as it was said – there is no harm in that. There are worse things regarding which people are ignorant, without their ignorance being detrimental to them.

For Stroumsa, this is not a symptom of a split personality or a split text, but rather the product of a coherent if highly idiosyncratic system of thought.

Stroumsa sees Maimonides as a ‘precursor’ to later thinkers as diverse as the late 14th-century Muslim philosopher of history Ibn Khaldun and the 17th-century European Christian Hebraists who established the modern study of ancient religions; she could have added Spinoza, Hegel, Weber and the other children of Enlightenment who invoked history against the timeless claims of scripture. She could also have pointed to the importance of his work for such 17th-century European political philosophers as Grotius, Selden and Hobbes, who sought to create a world of natural law robust enough to survive the withdrawal of God. In fact, depending on the interpretative weight and direction one gives to the word ‘precursor’, Maimonides could be imagined as the protagonist in histories ranging from ‘The Jewish Roots of Western Freedom’ (the title of a 2002 article by Fania Oz-Salzberger) to an account that finds the ‘origins’ of European modernity in the ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ of the Almohads.

The temptation to construct narratives of origin for such concepts as freedom, tolerance or reason arises partly from our historical methodologies, which grew out of and invariably reproduce the thirst for genealogies, treating history as if it were a family tree, in which ideas are traced back to some momentously mutant ancestor. But it is also partly produced by the demands of contemporary politics. The relations between Judaism, Christianity and Islam have become so freighted that accounts of their shared histories often lead towards dualism. One element of that dualism can be represented by Pope Benedict’s 2006 Regensburg Address, which invoked medieval history in order to insist on the essential intolerance of Islam: the pope sees Islam as a religion of pure faith, unable to achieve the synthesis of Judaism and Greek philosophy, faith and reason that is necessary for tolerance. Article 31 of the Hamas Charter (1988) can serve as the other extreme: ‘Under the wing of Islam it is possible for the followers of the three religions – Islam, Christianity and Judaism – to coexist in peace and quiet with each other. Peace and quiet are not possible except under the wing of Islam. Past and present history are the best witness to that.’

Intellectual histories tend to portray a similar dualism: on the one hand, there is the starkly divided world described by Sylvain Gouguenheim’s Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe chrétienne, in which Europe owes nothing of philosophical or cultural value to Islam; on the other, the lyrical unity of María Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, in which Islam discovers much of what Europe now holds most dear. Stroumsa wants to resist this temptation. She keeps her gaze focused on Maimonides’ ideas and their past, with only rare glances at the impact those ideas would later have in the Muslim world (minimal) and the Christian one (more considerable). In her opening pages she admits that she wants to steer clear of the usual debates about the relative tolerance or intolerance of Christian Europe or Islam: ‘In treating Maimonides as a Mediterranean thinker I seek to study the relative intellectual openness of his world, not to promote its tolerant image.’

This sentence alone makes clear both how determined Stroumsa is to avoid reducing medieval history to a set of exemplary stories useful for the political needs of the present and how difficult that is to achieve. The space between ‘intellectual openness’ and ‘tolerant image’ is not very well defined, and partiality is encoded in the argument. No reader will finish this book with any doubts about Maimonides’ ‘intellectual openness’, but that of ‘his world’ is much less clear, especially since for Stroumsa a key aspect of that world is the rise of the Almohad movement, which deliberately crushed, through conquest, forced conversion and mass exile, the pluralist traditions of the western Mediterranean Islamic world. To speak of Maimonides as the product of the ‘relative intellectual openness’ of the world he was forced to flee makes sense in more or less the same way that we might speak of the ‘relative intellectual openness’ of the liberal German world whose collapse drove Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem into exile.

‘Relative’ is a problematic term. Christian Europe seems to be Stroumsa’s (implicit) measure of comparison, and again the judgment makes some sense. Maimonides’ family’s decision to seek exile in North Africa and the Muslim world, rather than in the Christian kingdoms to which many others fled, might well have reflected a judgment about the greater intellectual resources available in Arabic. But when the older Maimonides imagined the afterlife of his Guide for the Perplexed, it was in Hebrew, not ‘in the language of Qedar, whose light has now dimmed’. Surveying the Islamic world in which he lived, it seemed to him that ‘most large communities are dead, the rest are moribund, and the remaining three or four places are ailing.’ The future, he thought, belonged to the Jews of Christian Europe: ‘You, brothers, are our only hope for help.’

Even a seemingly geographic concept like ‘Mediterranean thinker’ – which provides the book’s subtitle – struggles to maintain its political innocence in our times. Stroumsa acknowledges the objections of those, like the French historian of medieval philosophy Rémi Brague, who deny the unifying cultural power of the medieval Mediterranean. But she clearly doesn’t agree: ‘Maimonides is a Mediterranean thinker in the sense that he is more than a Jewish thinker, or more than an Islamic philosopher … In modern parlance, he could perhaps be called “cosmopolitan”, that is, a person who belongs to more than one of the subcultures that together form the world in which he lives.’

Every page of this fascinating book makes clear that Maimonides belonged to more than one of these subcultures. Yet it’s another thing to argue that ‘he should not be seen as sui generis, but rather as a superb example of a Mediterranean thinker.’ To make this case, Stroumsa would need to demonstrate that the Mediterranean was more densely populated by such ‘cosmopolitan’ figures than other regions, and that some of these figures fit more easily into the mainstream of that world than the thrice-exiled Maimonides. Why else call such a thinker ‘Mediterranean’, rather than diasporic, persecuted or Judeo-Arabic?

Since this otherwise closely argued book makes no attempt at such a demonstration, it’s hard not to feel that the impetus for its insistence on Mediterranean identity is external. The Mediterranean is everywhere nowadays, in countless anthropomorphic book titles (The Corrupting Sea, A Faithful Sea etc); in a mushroom field of acronymed institutions like IEMed (Institut Europeu de la Mediterrània, established by Catalonia in 2005 as ‘a centre of reflection and debate on Mediterranean societies’ and ‘a promoter of co-operation’); and in organisations such as the Union for the Mediterranean, conceived by Nicolas Sarkozy to bring together those countries whose shores meet the Mediterranean, whether European, North African or Levantine, and including both Israel and the Occupied Territories. That geographic definition was immediately challenged by the European powers it excluded (notably Germany), which believed the organisation was an attempt to circumvent the EU and create a vehicle for the expansion of French influence in major policy areas: immigration, regional economic co-operation and the Middle East peace process. The joint declaration of the Union for the Mediterranean was eventually signed by the ‘Euro-Mediterranean Heads of States and Government’ in Paris on 13 July 2008. It invoked the ‘history, geography and culture’ of the Mediterranean as its platform for the pursuit of peace and mutual prosperity. But the list of signatories makes clear that power had dictated its terms to ‘history, geography and culture’. Not only Germany but every EU member state was included, with the European Commission and the Arab League as additional participants. Apparently the Mediterranean stretches from Sanaa to Stockholm.

[*] 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).