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The Moses of Cairo

Friday, January 23, 2009

Joel L. Kraemer. Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds. Doubleday. 622 pages. $35.00

Henry james said, “The artist is present in every page of every book from which he sought so assiduously to eliminate himself.” Moses Maimonides crafted in his major works on Jewish law and theology a literary tone that is all anonymity and authority. And yet, as a masterful new biography shows, to the discerning reader he could not help but reveal a deeply personal vision almost with every turn of phrase.

Joel Kraemer’s definitive biography of Maimonides is an act of patient and impeccable scholarship. Kraemer, a professor at the University of Chicago, draws on documents from the Cairo geniza, a treasure of 300,000 manuscripts discovered in Fustat, or old Cairo, and on Arab historians like Jamal al-Din Ibn al-Qifti. The result is the broadest recreation so far of the Islamic milieu in which Maimonides lived and thought.

Maimonides, scion of seven generations of rabbis, was born in the 1130s in Cordoba, a cosmopolitan city known as the bride of Andalusia. His genius came into early flower; he mastered mathematics, geometry, and logic while still in his teens. He composed a primer on the calendar that demonstrates a command of astronomy. Aided by a phenomenal memory, the young man studied medicine, and then turned to metaphysics, ethics, and theology. He acquired a thorough knowledge of Aristotle (whom he deemed “the ultimate of human opinion”).

Maimonides meanwhile set his mind to the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature. Before he turned 23 he had written a commentary on two-thirds of the Talmud. (Only fragments of it remain.)

But none of this omnivorous study enjoyed the advantages of serenity. As the virtuoso scholar was amassing his extraordinary erudition, Berber fundamentalists called the Almohads — literally, the Confessors of the Unity of Allah — were waging jihad. After wreaking havoc in North Africa — they slaughtered some 100,000 people in Fez alone — the tribe brought their religious war into Spain. In many places, they forced Christians and Jews to choose between conversion to Islam and the sword.

In the course of their conquest, the Almohads persecuted Jews in particular. The Almohad leader Ibn Tumart declared, “Come let us cut them off from being a nation, so that the name of Israel may be no more a remembrance.” Many were forced to live as crypto-Jews, foreshadowing the Marranos of Christian Spain three centuries later. They worshipped in mosques, and recited Jewish prayers only in secret.

At age 21, when the Almohads invaded Cordoba, Maimonides emigrated with his father and younger brother from his native Spain to Fez. Five years later, he fled again, this time eastward to Acre, an ancient port then within the Crusader Kingdom. After visits to Hebron and Jerusalem, Maimonides arrived in Egypt, settling at age 28 in Fustat. Here he married the daughter of a government official and physician, and here he would live out the 38 years remaining to him.

Maimonides soon became Ra’is al-Yahud, the head of Egypt’s Jews. He appointed judges, wrote responsa (more than 500 of which survive), and raised funds for redeeming Jews taken captive by the Crusader King Almaric. Drawing on his own experience with the perils of exile, he also penned open letters of great empathy, like the Epistle to Yemen and the Epistle on Conversion, offering counsel and consolation to far-flung Jewish communities.

Maimonides’s true calling, however, was far broader. He envisioned — and ardently wished for — a unification of revelation and reason, law and philosophy, Torah and wisdom. He sought to show that the Torah is a rational law, its commands instructing virtue and moral perfection. This meant laying out a scientific treatment of the law, in both its practical and theoretical aspects.

By age 30, Maimonides had completed the Commentary on the Mishnah, his gloss to the first compendium of Jewish law, redacted 9 centuries earlier, which in its terseness supplied a model for his own literary style. Here he set forth his famous 13 principles of faith, concerning the unity of God, the divine origin of the Torah, and reward and punishment.

But Maimonides’s “quantum jump,” as the late Harvard scholar Isadore Twersky called it, was signaled by his move from mere explication of text to the composition of the Mishneh Torah, the greatest Jewish work since the Talmud. Maimonides himself did not shy from recognizing the unprecedented comprehensiveness and audacity of his astonishing 14-volume legal code. “I have entitled this compilation Mishneh Torah [repetition of the Torah] because a man who first reads the written law and after that reads this will know from it the entire oral law, and will have no need to read any other books beside them.” In dispensing with the citations of sources, the Talmudic give-and-take, and the justifications for its decisions, the Mishneh Torah in some sense made the Talmud redundant. “In the time to come,” its author predicted, “all Israel will use only my composition, and every other will undoubtedly be disregarded.”

Loosing his passion for system, order, classification, and synthesis, Maimonides in his code lucidly distilled all of rabbinic literature into a single tour de force of legal writing unsurpassed to this day. At its heart lie some 15,000 rulings concerning what is permitted and what is prohibited — civil and criminal law, ritual law, dietary regulations, the laws of purity and impurity, laws concerning the Temple, etc. All this is expressed in a supple Mishnaic Hebrew, enriched by biblical allusions and idioms, and embroidered with lyrical flourishes. The style is miraculously free of superfluity; Maimonides considered brevity a mark of godliness.

More than a legal code, the Mishneh Torah expresses a worldview that takes Jewish law as timeless truth; it is a work of art that achieves taut balance of originality with fidelity, of content with form.

In fact, the code’s radical content glares forth from its very first lines. The Mishneh Torah opens not with a traditional account of the revelation at Sinai, but with the identification of the God of Abraham with Aristotle’s First Mover. The first commandment it lists: to know the existence and unity of the Necessary Being we call God.

The widely quoted code attracted praise and plaudits and veneration to its author. One letter to him begins, “To his honor, greatness and holiness, his eminent dignity, diadem of glory, our teacher and master, our lord and holiness, pride of our sanctuary, splendor of our sun.” As a popular saying had it, “From (the biblical) Moses to Moses (Maimonides) there arose none like Moses.”

The Moses of Cairo gained in self-assurance. Describing his earlier years, he recalled that he would “make my adversaries weep with my tongue and pen — wielding my tongue against those close by and my pen against those at a distance.” But now he became even less able to suffer fools gladly. He called a book by another Jewish thinker “wholly inanities, wind, and vanity.”

Despite his renown, however, not everything went smoothly for Maimonides. He reported that he “suffered many well-known calamities in Egypt, including sicknesses, financial loss, and the attempt by informers to have me killed.” Worst of all, about the time he was finishing the Mishneh Torah, his beloved brother David drowned in the Indian Ocean, leaving a widow and young daughter in Maimonides’s care, and sending the sage into dark depression: “For about a year from the day the evil tidings reached me,” Maimonides said, “I remained prostrate in bed with a severe inflammation, fever, and mental confusion, and well nigh perished.”

Nor was everyone pleased with the revolutionary legal code. Detractors like Samuel ben Eli, head of the academy in Baghdad, accused Maimonides of harboring only a half-hearted belief in resurrection. Abraham ben David of Posquières challenged the code’s rulings line by line.

But in the long run, the Mishneh Torah assumed an unassailable place of prominence in the canon. Over the centuries, it gathered around itself over 300 commentaries. Isaac Newton consulted it in Latin translation. It reshaped the vocabulary of Jewish law, and influenced European jurists down to John Selden and Hugo Grotius. It is debated with undiminished vigor in Jewish academies to this day.

If the Mishneh Torah directs itself mainly to correct actions, Maimonides’s other masterwork, the Guide for the Perplexed (written in Arabic), seeks to instill correct opinions. Maimonides distinguishes “science of the law” from “science of the law in its true sense,” i.e., the branches of the law from its roots. The Guide addresses not normative action, but philosophical reflection; not rabbinics, but metaphysics. The Guide is to the Mishneh Torah as aggada is to halacha.

What begins as an essay in scriptural exegesis, explaining away anthropomorphic passages, soon takes up more fundamental questions: divine attributes, the existence and unity of God, the nature of prophecy and providence, and the belief in creation. The Guide also insists that there is nothing arbitrary about divine commandments; just as every created thing has a purpose, Maimonides says, so each commandment is purposeful, “although most of the reasons are beyond the comprehension of the minds of the ordinary person.”

Maimonides’s real stress in the Guide, however, is the centrality of intellect to religious life. Perfecting the intellect, he claims, is quite simply the goal of life, the good toward which all human actions should aim. Intellect, after all, is that which distinguishes man — this is the meaning of the report in Genesis that man was created in the image of God. It binds man to God. It is the sine qua non of prayer and prophecy and providence. Scooping Spinoza’s notion of the intellectual love of God (amor dei intellectualis), Maimonides suggests that love of God is proportional to knowledge of Him.

For Maimonides, intellect also offers the key to eudaemonia, or human well-being. The intellect is that part of us that persists beyond death to the degree we develop it in life; it lies at the heart of the doctrine of immortality of the soul. At the same time, Maimonides writes in the Guide that God exists beyond the grasp of human knowledge and language. This elicits from him a “negative theology,” which dictates that we cannot say what God is, only what He is not.

Maimonides called the Guide “a pearl that has no price”; subsequent generations concurred. The treatise marks the highest achievement of Jewish thought. It has been translated more than any other medieval Jewish work. Readers like Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Meister Eckhart made admiring references to “Rabbi Moses Aegyptius.” Aquinas borrowed from the Guide his arguments for the existence of God. (Closer to the present day, after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Israel’s President Yitzhak Navon presented him with a copy of the Guide in the original Arabic.)

But Maimonides feared that his pearl would fall into the hands of “blockheaded, dull-witted pietists.” This judgment, too, proved prescient. Critics charged him with rationalizing away the Jewish faith. They regarded his attempt to marry the Bible with Aristotle an illegitimate mixed marriage. They feared that rationalization of the divine law would entail laxity in its observance.

Soon after the death of Maimonides, some French rabbis banned the Guide, and persuaded church authorities to burn the book in public. Jacob Emden, the distinguished eighteenth-century rabbi, went so far as to propose that the Guide — which in his view had caused Jews to leave the faith and Jewish communities to be destroyed — must be the handiwork of someone other than Maimonides.

Maimonides finished the Guide for the Perplexed when he was 53; it was to be his last major work. In his twilight years, he devoted most of his fading energies to medicine. He befriended Saladin’s counselor al-Qadi al-Fadil, a powerful patron who brought him into the royal entourage. The great sage attended not only Saladin, his exact contemporary, but also the chief Muslim religious judges and aristocrats. Drawing on Galen’s theories, he wrote at least ten medical works.

In a letter to his translator Samuel Ibn Tibbon, Maimonides explained why his daily routine precluded a visit:

I have a very difficult assignment with the king. I must see him daily at the beginning of the day. When he is weak, or when one of his sons or concubines is ill, I do not leave Cairo, and most of my day I spend in the king’s palace. And I must attend to the king’s officers every day. One or two officials is invariably ill, and I must administer their medical treatment.  In sum, every day I go up to Cairo early in the morning, and if there is no mishap or incident, I return to Fustat after midday in any case. As soon as I arrive, in a state of hunger, I find all the vestibules [of my home] filled with gentiles, noble and common, judges and magistrates, a mixed multitude, who know the time of my return. I dismount from my riding animal, wash my hands, and go out to them to persuade them to wait for me while I have a light repast, which I do from time to time. I then go out to heal them and write [prescriptions] for them. They come in and out sometimes until night, and at times, by faith in the Torah, until the end of two hours into the night. I speak with them while lying down because of great fatigue. When night falls I am so utterly exhausted that I cannot speak.

Before he died in 1204, Maimonides asked that he be buried in Tiberias, in the Holy Land.

With impressive fluency in medieval Arabic Aristotelian philosophy, Kraemer brilliantly illuminates the ways Maimonides’s mind bore the impressions of the dialogue between Islamic and Jewish thinkers. Maimonides derived from al-Farabi his list of qualities a prophet must have. He adapted ideas on God’s necessary existence from Ibn Sina (Avicenna); borrowed some of his theological vocabulary from Isma’ili doctrine (a Shiite teaching); and employed concepts from Islamic jurisprudence. At a time when most Jews lived under Muslim rule, Joel Kraemer writes, Maimonides stood as “the highest expression of the intertwined worlds of Judaism and Islam.”

Though Kraemer sometimes mars his portrait with a choppiness of style, he also shades it with psychological insight. He argues, for instance, that Maimonides deeply identified with Moses, another stranger in Egypt. And he ably depicts Maimonides’s undisguised spiritual elitism. This was a man, after all, who once declared that he was willing to teach “by giving satisfaction to a single virtuous man while displeasing ten thousand ignoramuses.”

Kraemer’s intellectual biography lends itself to comparison with the only other of its kind, Herbert Davidson’s Moses Maimonides (2005). In his most daring gesture, Kraemer concludes that under the threat of death during his years in Fez, Maimonides practiced Islam. Davidson, by contrast, citing evidence that some people lived openly as Jews under the Almohads, remains skeptical of the claim that Maimonides underwent any kind of pro forma conversion to Islam.

But in another respect, Kraemer plays it safe. He passes by in silence the question of Maimonides’s esotericism, or whether the sage veiled his deepest truths beneath rhetorical concealments and deliberate contradictions — or what the political philosopher Leo Strauss, the chief modern champion of that interpretation, called “the art of revealing by not revealing and of not revealing by revealing.” Davidson, by contrast, reaches his highest polemic pitch when he denounces Strauss’s esoteric reading of the Guide.

In the end, the Maimonides Kraemer gives us is a resplendent figure: rationalist, jurist, religious authority of extraordinary erudition, illustrious physician to the royal court, the very symbol of austere medieval Jewish rationalism — a man who with nobility of mind and intellectual force exercised decisive influence on the course of Jewish law, which is to say, on the course of Jewish history.

The legal artist so vividly present in every page of Maimonides’s writing is also a paradox: a man who disparaged sensuality — once declaring that “it is a disgrace for us to speak about anything regarding sexual intercourse” — who composed a work on aphrodisiacs for Saladin’s overexerted nephew called On Sexual Intercourse; a man who praised humility but moved in aristocratic circles; a disciple of solitary contemplation who led a relentlessly communal life; a great Jewish sage who lived his formative years like a Muslim; a man whose work breathes both brevity of style and expansiveness of vision, conservative traditionalism and radical innovation; a man of intellect who all too keenly felt the limits of intellect.