Hîstôry¯a yêhûdît = Jewish history

, Volume 5, Issue 2, pp 73–93 | Cite as

Reading rambam: Approaches to the interpretation of Maimonides

  • Menachem Kellner


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  1. 1.
    This is presented and defended by Maimonides in the second of the fourteen principles with which he prefaces hisBook of Commandments. Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Further relevant studies that will appear in the coming months include Kenneth R. Seeskin,A Guide to “The Guide” (New York, Behrman House), and Menachem Kellner,Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    For an up-to-date bibliography on the subject and a new and facinating perspective on one aspect of the debate, see Marc Saperstein, “The Conflict Over the Rashba's Herem on Philosophical Study: A Political Perspective,”Jewish History 1 (1986): 27–38. For further bibliographical references, see Bernard Septimus,Hispano-Jewish Culture in Transition: The Career and Controversies of Ramah (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 147. For an interesting discussion of the controversy surrounding Maimonides as opposed to the relative absence of controversy surrounding the contemporary rise of Kabbalah, see Moshe Idel,Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 251.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Guide of the Perplexed, pt. I, introduction. I quote from the translation of Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 18.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Ibid., p. 416.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    In our day he has been adopted by the Lubavitcher Hassidim as one of their own, while at the same time being hailed by most leaders of Liberal Jewry as a precursor of Reform. In the Middle Ages kabbalists called him one of their own, as did Karaites. For the former, see Michael E. Shmidman, “On Maimonides' ‘Conversion’ to Kabbalah,” in I. Twersky, ed.,Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature 2 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 375–86; for the latter, see Daniel J. Lasker, “Maimonides' Influence on Karaite Theories of Prophecy and Law,”Maimonidean Studies 1 (1990): 99–115, esp. 114.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    On this, see Zvi Diesendruck, “Samuel and Moses ibn Tibbon on Maimonides' Theory of Providence,”Hebrew Union College Annual 11 (1936): 341–66, and Aviezer Ravitzky, “Samuel ibn Tibbon and the Esoteric Character of theGuide of the Perplexed,” Association for Jewish Studies Review 6 (1981): 87–123.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    For details, see the first note to Saperstein's article (above, n. 4).Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    Almost all of whom, it should be noted, held themselves to be his disciples — such was the hold he had over the minds of Jewish intellectuals. On this “heroic” image of Maimonides, see Septimus,Hispano-Jewish Culture in Transition, 46.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    In“Ha-Rambam, Hanhagat Ish ha-Ru'ah,” Retzef u-Temurah (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1984): 301–15, Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson argues that in his debates with contemporary geonim Maimonides was self-consciously rebelling against institutionalized rabbinic authority. My point here is that Maimonides' life and writings add up to an argument against the notion of intellectual authority as such. In support of Ben-Sasson's thesis, by the way, note should be taken of a passage in Maimonides' letter concerning the opposition to his writings in the Baghdad Yeshiva. When religious figures reach positions of authority, he wrote, they often lose their fear of heaven. See David Z. Baneth, ed.,Iggerot ha-Rambam, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1985), 63.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    I quote from I. Twersky, who discusses this view but does not adopt it himself. See “The Mishneh Torah of Maimonides,”Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities 5 (1976): 265–96, reprinted in Twersky,Studies in Jewish Law and Philosophy (New York: Ktav, 1982): 76–107, 268 (original) or 79 (reprint).Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    Maimonides' demand that Jews unquestioningly accept his “thirteen principles of faith” on pain of exclusion from the Jewish people and the world to come is no refutation of this thesis. The “thirteen principles” had particular political/halakhic goals in mind, and, moreover, were addressed to those individuals, rabbis, and laity for whom the sort of intellectual independence Maimonides prized would be dangerous. See the discussion in myDogma in Medieval Jewish Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 34–49.Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    See Abraham J. Heschel,Maimonides (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1982), 36, 75, and 83.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    Maimonides' text reads: “Know that the things about which we shall speak in these chapters and in what will come in the commentary are not matters invented on my own nor explanations I have originated. Indeed, they are matters gathered from the Sages in the Midrash and the Talmud and other compositions of theirs, as well as from the discourse of both the ancient and modern philosophers, and from the compositions of many men. Hear the truth from whoever says it. Sometimes I have taken a complete passage from the text of a famous book. Now there is nothing wrong with that, for I do not attribute to myself what someone who preceded me has said. We hereby acknowledge this and shall not indicate that ‘so and so said’ and ‘so and so said,’ since that would be useless prolixity. Moreover, identifying the name of such an individual might make the passage offensive to someone without experience and make him think it has an evil inner meaning of which he is not aware. Consequently, I saw fit to omit the author's name, since my goal is to be useful to the reader.” I quote from the translation of R. L. Weiss and C. Butterworth inEthical Writings of Maimonides (New York: Dover, 1983), 60. Note Maimonides' explicit reference here to readers who might reject a truth brought in the name of an author objectionable to them.Google Scholar
  15. 16.
    For an explicit and extreme expression of this notion, see the texts cited by Norman Lamm,Torah Umadda (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1990), 52–53.Google Scholar
  16. 17.
    For other texts in which the same idea finds expression, seeGuide III.8 (p. 267), where Maimonides states that the Sages, unlike Aristotle, erred in claiming that the movement of the spheres made sounds. He explains that there is nothing wrong with attributing error to the Sages in these matters: “[The Sages themselves] in these astronomical matters preferred the opinion of the sages of the nations of the world to their own. For they explicitly say, ‘The Sages of the world have vanquished’ [Pesahim 94b]. And this is correct. For everyone who argues in speculative matters does this according to the conclusions to which he was led by his speculation. Hence the conclusion whose demonstration is correct is believed.” The truth is what counts, not the identity of the person who said it. We find a similar idea in theMishneh Torah, “Laws of the Sanctification of the New Moon,” XVII.24: “In that all these matters are established with clear proofs that are beyond reproach, such that one cannot possibly doubt them, we do not concern ourselves with their authors, whether they were composed by prophets or by gentile authors. For with respect to everything the reason of which has been discovered, and the truth of which has been made known through proofs that are beyond reproach, we rely upon he who said it.”Google Scholar
  17. 18.
    For a contemporary statement to this effect, see the letter of Sheshet ben Isaac Benveniste of Saragossa to R. Meir ha-Levi Abulafia, published by Alexander Marx in “Texts By and About Maimonides,”Jewish Quarterly Review 25 (1934–35): 371–428, esp. 427. For more on Sheshet and his letter, see Septimus,Hispano-Jewish Culture in Transition, 46–48. On the democratizing effect of theMishneh Torah, see I. Twersky,Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 334–36, and Septimus, 40 and 73. See also Twersky's important comments in “The Mishneh Torah of Maimonides,” 268–69 (original), 78–90 (reprint).Google Scholar
  18. 19.
    This passage appears in the introduction to theMishneh Torah, just before the list of commandments. I quote (with emendations) from the translation of Moses Hyamson,Mishneh Torah: The Book of Knowledge by Maimonides (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1974), 4b.Google Scholar
  19. 20.
    I defend this interpretation inMaimonides on Human Perfection, Brown Judaic Studies no. 202 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990), 13–39. See also Hannah Kasher, “Talmud Torah as a Means of Apprehending God in Maimonides' Teachings” [in Hebrew],Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 5 (1986): 71–81.Google Scholar
  20. 21.
    Note should also be made of the fact that in “Laws of the Study of Torah,” I.7 and III.10, Maimonides forbids scholars of Torah in the most uncompromising way from making their calling into a living. He flatly forbids Jews to charge a fee for teaching the Oral Torah, and further forbids them to live at the expense of others in order to study Torah. Maimonides was as good as his word; we have no record that he ever taught for a fee and he certainly supported himself. For a detailed discussion of Maimonides' attitude towards the subsidizing of rabbinic scholarship, see Bernard Septimus, “ ‘Kings, Angels, or Beggars’: Tax Law and Spirituality in a Hispano-Jewish Responsum,” inStudies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature 2, 15–18.Google Scholar
  21. 22.
    “Laws of Kings and their Wars,” XII.2. I cite the translation of A. M. Hershman,Book of Judges (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949).Google Scholar
  22. 23.
    I say “seems to disparage” because, as I understand the parable, Maimonides was not comparing rabbis to scientists, to the disadvantage of the rabbis, but, rather, was comparing rabbissimpliciter to rabbis who had gone on to master the sciences. See myMaimonides on Human Perfection, 14–30. But even as I read it, and especially since very few rabbis actually fulfilled this ideal, the parable turns out to be an attack on the authority of rabbis as such.Google Scholar
  23. 24.
    For other medievals who read the text as did Shem Tov, seeMaimonides on Human Perfection, 15–17. It should be noted that this attempt to cast doubt on the authenticity of offensive Maimonidean texts is not limited to the Middle Ages. R. Jacob ben Zvi Emden (1697–1776) entertained the possibility that theGuide of the Perplexed was not written by Maimonides, the author of theMishneh Torah. See Jacob J. Schachter, “Rabbi Jacob Emden'sIggeret Purim,” inStudies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature 2, 441–46. My thanks to Professor Sid Z. Leiman for this reference.Google Scholar
  24. 25.
    I quote from Maimonides' “Letter on Astrology,” translated by Ralph Lerner, in Ralph Lerner and Muhsin Mahdi, eds.,Medieval Political Philosophy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972), 235. On this text see Jacob I. Dienstag, “Maimonides' Letter on Astrology to the Rabbis of Southern France” [in Hebrew],Kiryat Sefer 61 (1987): 147–58.Google Scholar
  25. 27.
    See also Yizhak (Isadore) Twersky, “Halakhah and Science: Perspectives on the Epistemology of Maimonides” [in Hebrew],Hebrew Law Annual 14–15 (1988–89): 121–51, esp. 124–25. Twersky's examples deal with Maimonides' discomfort withsome contemporary rabbis, but they also support the thesis advanced here. I do not want to exhaust the reader by citing examples of this approach of Maimonides ad nauseum, and limit myself to just one more: the discussion of the nature of theaggadah near the beginning of Maimonides' introduction toHelek can be read as undermining the authority of Maimonides' rabbinic contemporaries, the overwhelming majority of whom, on Maimonides' own testimony there, understoodaggadot literally, not allegorically. For an English translation of the text, see I. Twersky, ed.,A Maimonides Reader (New York: Behrman House, 1972), 402–23.Google Scholar
  26. 28.
    I borrow this expression from W. Z. Harvey. See his interesting essay, “The Return of Maimonideanism,”Journal of Jewish Social Studies 42 (1980): 249–68.Google Scholar
  27. 29.
    On this matter see myMaimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People. Google Scholar
  28. 30.
    This criticism was, in effect, made by Isaac Abravanel. Commenting on the words with which Maimonides opens theMishneh Torah — “The foundation of all foundations and pillar of all the sciences is to know that there exists a First Existent” (“Laws of the Foundations of the Torah,” I.1) — Abravanel expostulates: “Of what concern is it of ours whether or not this foundation is the pillar of gentile sciences?” See Isaac Abravanel,Principles of Faith (Rosh Amanah), translated by M. M. Kellner (London: Associated University Presses, 1982), chap. 5, p. 76.Google Scholar
  29. 31.
    See Aviezer Ravitzky, “Mishnato shel R. Zerahiah ben Shealtiel Hen” (Ph.D. diss., The Hebrew University, 1978); idem, “Samuel ibn Tibbon and the Esoteric Character of theGuide of the Perplexed,” AJS Review 6 (1981): 87–123; and idem,Al Derekh Hakiratah shel ha-Philosophiah ha-Yehudit bimei ha-Benayim,” Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 1 (1981): 7–22.Google Scholar
  30. 32.
    For more about this distinction between rabbis and intellectuals see myDogma in Medieval Jewish Thought, 66–69.Google Scholar
  31. 33.
    See Ravitzky's dissertation, 58–59.Google Scholar
  32. 34.
    On this, see the discussion in my “Gersonides' Commentary to Song of Songs: Why He Wrote It and To Whom It Was Addressed,” in G. Dahan, ed.,Gersonide en son temps (Louvain: Peeters, in press).Google Scholar
  33. 35.
    Compare Samuel ibn Tibbon's lament in hisCommentary on Ecclesiastes that “many of our generation” reject Maimonides while only “one in a city, two in a family” properly appreciate the master. The text is cited by Ravitzky in “Samuel ibn Tibbon and the Esoteric Character of theGuide,” 89.Google Scholar
  34. 37.
    The most important of Strauss's writings in this connection are “The Literary Character of theGuide of the Perplexed,” inEssays on Maimonides, S. W. Baron, ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1941): 37–92 (reprinted in Strauss,Persecution and the Art of Writing [Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1976]: 3–94); and “How to Begin to Study theGuide of the Perplexed,” in Pines's translation of theGuide, xi–lvi.Google Scholar
  35. 38.
    To my mind, the best recent description and analysis of approaches to Maimonides may be found in Aviezer Ravitzky, “Sitrei Torato shel Moreh Nevukhim: Ha-Parshanut be-Dorotav u-ve-Doroteinu,”Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 5 (1986): 23–69. For further studies on this issue, see myMaimonides on Human Perfection, 68–69.Google Scholar
  36. 39.
    In Pines's translation, III.54, p. 638.Google Scholar
  37. 40.
    Modern scholars who so interpret Maimonides include Isaac Husik, Alexander Altmann, Harry Zvi Blumberg, and David R. Blumenthal. In the Middle Ages this was the interpretation of Samuel ibn Tibbon and Shem Tov ibn Falaquera. For details, seeMaimonides on Human Perfection, 67–68.Google Scholar
  38. 41.
    For details on all this, seeMaimonides on Human Perfection, 7–11.Google Scholar
  39. 42.
    Writes Leaman: “Moses Maimonides falls squarely within the tradition of philosophy as it developed in the Islamic world during the period labelled medieval in the West” (p. 1). The book is wholly innocent of any references to Maimonides' Hebrew writings.Google Scholar
  40. 43.
    Berman's understanding of Maimonides is aptly summed up in the title of one his best-known essays, “Maimonides, the Disciple of Alfarabi,”Israel Oriental Studies 4 (1974): 154–78.Google Scholar
  41. 46.
    The list of contemporary scholars whose work is ignored by Fox reads like a “Who's Who” of contemporary Maimonidean scholarship: Herbert A. Davidson, Jose Faur, Amos Funkenstein, Lenn Evan Goodman, David Hartman, Arthur Hyman, Alfred Ivry, Jacob Levinger, Avraham Nuriel, Aviezer Ravitzky, and Shalom Rosenberg. Scholars whose work is mentioned, but only in passing, include Lawrence Berman, Warren Zev Harvey, and Steven Schwarzschild. In effect, Fox has written a book on interpreting Maimonides that ignores most other interpreters of Maimonides. Fox also could have been more generous in acknowledging his intellectual debt to some of the researchers listed here. Given the quality and importance of the scholars whose work he did ignore, perhaps I should feel insulted that he did not overlook my work! It should be noted that Fox does not ignore all scholarship on Maimonides; but of the few scholars he does cite, many, if not most, lived between 50 and 90 years ago. This is as if, in writing a revisionist history of German Jewry, one made reference only to Graetz, Furst, Geiger, and Jost.Google Scholar
  42. 48.
    See the works of Klein-Braslavy cited by Fox on p. 257.Google Scholar
  43. 49.
    One of my students once suggested that the perplexed individual for whom Maimonides wrote theGuide of the Perplexed was Maimonides himself.Google Scholar
  44. 50.
    Warren Zev Harvey presents a valuable neo-Straussian reading of I.1 in “How to Begin to StudyThe Guide of the Perplexed, I,1” [in Hebrew],Da'at 21 (1988): 5–23, but it may have appeared too late for Fox to have been able to take it into account in his book. Lenn Evan Goodman's Rambam:Readings in the Philosophy of Moses Maimonides (New York: Viking, 1976) did not appear too late to be used. Fox laments the fact that no English commentary on theGuide has been written, but this is exactly what Goodman presents. Fox's discussion of ethics in Maimonides is an extended polemic against the interpretation of Maimonides presented by the late Steven Schwarzschild. There is nothing wrong with that; in fact, despite my close personal and philosophical ties to Schwarzschild, I rather think that with regard to many important details Fox is correct on the subject under dispute. But the uninformed reader of Fox's book (i.e., everyone in the world but a few score Maimonidean scholars) would have a hard time learning from Fox that his is not the only acceptable interpretation of Maimonides' views on ethics.Google Scholar
  45. 51.
    See pp. 122, 137, 141, 155, 172, 179, 190, 220, 317, and 334.Google Scholar
  46. 53.
    See Cohen, “Charakteristik der Ethik Maimunis,” in W. Bacher, et al., eds.,Moses ben Maimon 1 (Leipzig, 1908): 63–134; ibid. (in Hebrew translation), “Ofyah shel Torat ha-Middot le-ha-Rambam,” in Cohen,Iyyunim be-Yahadut u-ve-Ba'ayot ha-Dor (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1978); 17–59; and Schwarzschild, “Moral Radicalism and ‘Middlingness’ in the Ethics of Maimonides,”Studies in Medieval Culture 11 (1978): 65–94 (reprinted in M. Kellner, ed.,The Pursuit of the Ideal: Jewish Writings of Steven Schwarzschild [Albany: SUNY Press, 1990]: 137–60).Google Scholar
  47. 54.
    See pp. 172 n. and 190 n.Google Scholar
  48. 55.
    On this last, see Lawrence V. Berman, “The Political Interpretation of the Maxim: The Purpose of Philosophy is the Imitation of God,”Studia Islamica 15 (1961): 53–61.Google Scholar
  49. 57.
    Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1976.Google Scholar
  50. 59.
    One detects the same agenda in another recent publication of Fox's, a perfectly splendid article called “Nahmanides on the Status of Aggadot: Perspecti ves on the Disputation at Barcelona, 1263,”Journal of Jewish Studies 40 (1989): 95–109. For background on the contemporary argument and a spirited defense of a neo-Maimonidean position, see Lamm'sTorah Umadda (above, n. 16).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Haifa University Press 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • Menachem Kellner
    • 1
  1. 1.University of HaifaIsrael

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