Converts, Heretics, and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider by James A. Diamond (University of Notre Dame Press) In this remarkable book, James A. Diamond continues his project of close and sensitive readings of the Maimonidean corpus. Taking the Rambam at his word in the introduction to the Guide of the Perplexed, Diamond leads us into the inner recesses of that and other works to revel in the master’s religious and poetic artistry, thereby revealing something of the hidden desires and fractures in Maimonides’ positioning of philosophy vis-à-vis religion. Focusing on metaphors and related tropes, Diamond sets his gaze on a cast of outsiders--those “who do not quite fit any broad societal norm”--to show how Maimonides transformed them into a set of philosophical archetypes, symbolizing “notions that are marginal and that, in turn, marginalize” (p. 6). In so doing, Diamond convincingly articulates a series of characters/symbols that have the paradoxical power to uncover the secrets of the “Garden” just as they defer its realization by generating further perplexity.
The philosopher is an outsider to Judaism, someone who must take its prime matter and recast it in new forms. In like manner, the outsider is necessarily a philosopher who attempts to account for the shards of his or her différance. These positionings assume boundaries, the crossing of which is fraught with anxiety and that herald the articulation of taboos of inclusion and exclusion. Yet that which is outside is that which is potentially inside and the porosity between inside/outside, as indeed between all opposites, drives the engine of identity.
Entering the text, Diamond presents us, seriatim, with his cast of Maimonidean misfits: converts, lepers, kings, and philosophers. But on Diamond’s reading, even that which dwells most within has the uncanny power to appear without. God, the shekhinah, and the Sabbath, all traditional concepts associated with Israel, are in need of recasting, destruction, and subsequent rehabilitation. For Diamond, what all these share is their ability to transgress and thus their capacity to crystallize the borders of the new righteous nation. It is this ability that Diamond correctly believes makes them worthy of analysis.
Whereas converts (chapter 1) move from without to within, lepers (chapter 2) and heretics (chapter 3) move in the opposite direction. The voluntary choices involved in the convert’s crossing mark him as the true philosopher, one who encounters the truths of Judaism through reason as opposed to mediation by the corporeality of tradition. Lepers and heretics, however, are forced out on account of their misrepresentation of the unhealthy/false for the healthy/true.
In chapter 4, the focus switches to “the king.” This individual is so dangerous because he functions as a model for his subjects and, as such, he possesses a propensity for hubris. On Diamond’s reading, the king is a metonym for the human condition: the struggle between humility and power, between autonomy and dependence, and between intellect and imagination.
Chapter 5 discusses the philosopher, the individual who, by choice, stays on the outside, preferring--in the telling phrase of ibn Bajja, someone who Diamond does not mention--“the governance of the solitude” (tadbîr al-mutawahhid). In chapters 6 and 7, Diamond turns his attention to God, defined as “the supreme outsider.” Beyond all place, God makes the location of believers possible. The entire Maimonidean project is directed to the epistemological movement of an “insider” God to an “outsider” one. Diamond focuses much of his intention on the shekhinah, or “dwelling,” which in Maimonides’ allegorical hands becomes a deconstruction of traditional notions of temple cult and ritual place. Diamond puts Maimonides’ reconstructive reading in counterpoint with the “parochialism” of immanence in the likes of Judah Halevi (p. 156). Diamond concludes his work not with a person but a concept--the Sabbath, “the temporal outsider.”
The above description certainly does not do justice to the close and sensitive readings of words and phrases that characterize each chapter. Diamond’s readings suggestively show how even the most quotidian of terms teem with metaphysical insight. As such, Maimonides’ means are as important as the end and Diamond devotes much time to showing us the hermeneutical twists and turns that enable Maimonides to move from there to here and back again. It is a wonderful and refreshing approach, but one that leaves certain questions unanswered. Admittedly, these may well be questions that do not interest Diamond and, as such, do not emerge from his deep engagement and timeless conversation with the Rambam. However, Maimonides, qua philosopher, is both an insider and an outsider; and these positions necessarily connect him--sociologically, intellectually, and psychologically--to communities on both sides of the boundary. Who are these communities and how does he relate to them?
Not unrelated, how might Diamond’s reading contribute to the centuries-old debate concerning the Janus-faced Maimonides? On one level, Diamond’s close reading seems to favor an esoteric Maimonides, one who patrols the philosophical depths using a series of well-crafted and potentially ambiguous signifiers. Yet, on another level, Diamond rearranges the features of these two faces and gives them other names. Maimonides at the most esoteric/inside accordingly transforms into a Maimonides at his most exoteric/outside. But again, though, we encounter a historical question: How did Maimonides formulate this? Whence, for example, did his theory of metaphor and of narrativity come? Rather than envisage Maimonides solely as forging a new path, we also need to see him occupying a position at the end of the broad swath left behind by Muslims (especially Isma`ilis) and other philosophers of late antiquity.
In an age of superficial readings and instant communication, Diamond’s important analysis is a keen reminder that we must read closely and that we must do so carefully. Just like the work of the Rambam, Diamond’s argument both demands and rewards close attention.
Aaron Hughes. Review of Diamond, James A., _Converts, Heretics, and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider_. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. May, 2010. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=29296
Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works by Herbert A. Davidson (Oxford University Press) offers a thorough survey of the life and writings of this most influential Jewish thinker. The work gives a refreshing account of his life and influence with a close survey of all existent writings. In the process some surprising facts about his life and times come to the fore as well as some common myths are dispelled. Important for beginner and scholars alike.
Moses Maimonides, rabbinist, philosopher, and physician, had a greater impact on Jewish history than any other medieval figure. Born in Cordova, Spain, in 1137 or 1138, he spent a few years in Morocco, visited Palestine, and settled in Egypt by 1167. He died there in 1204. Maimonides was a man of superlatives. He wrote the first commentary to cover the entire Mishna corpus; composed what quickly became the dominant work on the 613 commandments believed to have been given by God to Moses; produced the most comprehensive and most intensely studied code of rabbinic law to emerge from the Middle Ages; and his Guide for the Perplexed has had a greater influence on Jewish thought than any other Jewish philosophic work. During the last decades of his life, he conducted an active medical practice, which extended into the royal court--the Sultan Saladin is reported to have been his patient--and composed some ten or eleven works on medicine. This book offers a fresh look at every aspect of Maimonides' life and works: the course of his life, his education, his personality, and his rabbinic, philosophical, and medical writings. At a number of junctures, Davidson points out that information about Maimonides which has been accepted for decades or centuries as common knowledge is in actuality supported by no credible evidence and often, more disconcertingly, is patently incorrect. Maimonides' diverse writings are frequently viewed as expressions of several distinct personas, uncomfortably and awkwardly bundled into a single human frame; the present book treats his writings as expressions of a single, integrated, albeit complex, mind.
Traditions of Maimonideanism by Carlos Fraenkel (IJS Studies in Judaica: Brill Academic) The goal of the present volume is to shed light on a number of traditions of Maimonideanism that have hitherto little been explored. Maimonides (1138-1204) was the most important medieval Jewish philosopher and also made lasting contributions to many other fields. The essays in the first part examine aspects of his work in medicine, Jewish law, and liturgy. The essays in the second part look at how Maimonides was read, misread, and creatively reinvented in a wide range of contexts in the East and in the West—from medieval Cairo to Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Written by a group of leading scholars, the essays illustrate the breadth of Maimonides' work, and the fascinating history of its reception from the thirteenth century to the present.
The Institute of Jewish Studies, founded in 1954 by the late Alexander Altmann, is dedicated to the promotion of all aspects of scholarship in Jewish Studies and related fields. Its programmes include public lectures, seminars, and annual conferences. All lectures and conferences are open to the general public.
Excerpt: More than 10 years ago, Colette Sirat suggested in a provocative paper that it might be better to stop teaching and writing on Maimonides. What she deplored was, above all, the disproportionate attention paid to Maimonides in comparison to all other Jewish philosophers, but also the lack of interest in putting the study of Maimonides on a firm philological foundation. No critical edition of Samuel ibn Tibbon's Hebrew translation of the Guide of the Perplexed had been prepared, although it is the textus receptus of Maimonides' chief philosophical-theological work, and the edition of the Arabic original still awaited substantive revision in light of the extensive new manuscript evidence that had become available since its publication in the nineteenth century.'
While neither the Arabic nor the Hebrew text of the Guide have come out in a new edition, the octocentenary of Maimonides' death in 2004 gave rise to a wide range of symposia, journals, and edited volumes showing that Colette Sirat's advice has not been heeded. Before I briefly introduce the present Maimonides volume, it may thus be worth to ponder for a moment, whether we have good reasons to continue teaching and writing on Maimonides.
Dr. Thomas Meyer recently brought a Waschzettel to my attention concerning Leo Strauss's Philosophie und Gesetz (1935). A Waschzettel is a paper slip that briefly describes a book's content and purpose and is added to other books for advertisement. The author, Meyer discovered, was Moritz Spitzer, Strauss's editor at Schocken Verlag where Philosophic und Gesetz was published. How did Spitzer try to pique the curiosity of potential readers? Let me quote what I think is the most interesting passage:
This work [i.e. Philosophic und Gesetz] is meant less as a historical contribution than as one of philosophical and contemporary importance [philosophisch-aktuell]: it intends to draw attention to Maimonides as a guide out of the current perplexity. [...] Returning to the older conception of Judaism as Maimonides developed it in its classical form is recognized as a way out of the current confusion [Verlegenheit].
There is, of course, much disagreement on the value of Strauss's scholarship on Maimonides. I for one agree with the view that Strauss's interpretation was as stimulating as it was paralyzing.' But independently of one's stance on Strauss, the Waschzettel vividly expresses the sense that Maimonides' work remains more than a piece in the museum of the intellectual past that one can learn from it something "of philosophical and contemporary importance" as Spitzer describes Strauss's motivation for writing Philosophie and Gesetz. Strauss is certainly not the only contemporary Maimonidean. Scholars as diverse as Leon Roth, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and David Hartmann have been described as such. Although their interpretations of Maimonides vary as much as their own philosophical projects, all of them bear witness to the fact that Maimonides belongs to the small group of philosophers from the past who are capable to speak to intellectual concerns of the present.`'
A second reason for continuing teaching and writing on Maimonides that in some ways is related to the first, bears more directly on the present volume: Jewish philosophy after Maimonides unfolds to a large extent within a Maimonidean framework: Whether praising, criticizing or condemning him—the interpretations, appropriations, and transformations of Maimonides are a substantial part of Jewish philosophy from the thirteenth century onwards. Because of this foundational role, studying Maimonides remains indispensable for understanding later developments. This at least has been my experience: portraying Samuel ibn Tibbon as a critic of Maimonides, for example, required making a number of substantive interpretative commitments concerning Maimonides' philosophical-religious project. The same holds for my interpretation of Spinoza and Solomon Maimon. In each case I argued against scholars who understood Ibn Tibbon, Spinoza, or Solomon Maimon differently, because they understood Maimonides differently.'
The main goal of the present volume is to shed light on a number of traditions of Maimonideanism that have hitherto been little explored. The essays in the first part examine aspects of Maimonides' work that certainly deserve greater scholarly attention. The method and historical influence of Maimonides' medical treatises in general, and of his work on gynaecology in particular, are discussed by Samuel Kottek, Lola Ferre, and Carmen Caballero-Navas. The contributions of Joseph Tabory and Stefan Reif focus on Maimonides' halakhic and liturgical work.
The volume's second part looks at how Maimonides was read, misread, and creatively reinvented in a wide range of contexts in the East and in the West—from medieval Cairo to Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Paul Fenton, Mordechai Friedman, and Tzvi Langermann explore different aspects of Maimonides' legacy in the Arabic-speaking Jewish communities of the Islamic world, i.e., in the geographic and intellectual context in which this legacy took shape. My own paper and the contributions of Esti Eisenmann and Angel Saenz-Badillos examine the reception of Maimonides' work in the Jewish communities of Christian Europe, focusing on various contexts in Southern France and Catalonia from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. Menachem Kellner describes the strategy of "creative misreading" used by the rabbinic establishment to deal with a distinctive challenge: Maimonides' views, the rabbis felt, were too important to be ignored, yet at the same time too unconventional to be accepted tel quel. Naftali Loewenthal's intriguing paper elucidates what at first might seem like a case of strange bedfellows: the portrait of Maimonides as embodying the ideals of Habad Hasidism! Finally, Yair Lorberbaum finds reason to doubt the scientific rigor of the Wissenschaft des Judentums and its Israeli heir, the Mada`e ha-Yahadut. Scholars, he argues, appropriated the tools used by Maimonides to purge the Bible and rabbinical texts from anthropomorphisms to prove a highly counterintuitive claim: that the rabbis did not represent God in anthropomorphic terms.
In several respects, The Guide of the Perplexed stood at the center of Samuel ibn Tibbon's philosophical work. Although he is best known as the Guide's translator, the translation was only one aspect of his comprehensive effort to disseminate Maimonides' thought. Ibn Tibbon's role in this process is best described as that of a mediator between cultures who paved the way for the reception of Maimonides' writings in the Jewish communities of Christian Europe, that is, in a cultural setting very different from the Judeo-Arabic context in which they had been composed.' We can perhaps better appreciate the scope of Ibn Tibbon's contribution if we imagine a contemporary Israeli thinker who sets out to introduce the work of Emanuel Levinas to yeshiva students in Jerusalem's ultra-orthodox neighborhood, Me'ah She'arim. Were he merely to translate Levinas into Hebrew or Yiddish, he would most certainly fail to achieve his objective. In addition to the translation, he would have to clarify Levinas' philosophical terminology, explain what phenomenology means in the work of Husserl and Heidegger which served as the point of departure for Levinas' thought, and interpret his ideas in light of the intellectual debates in France in which he took part. In other words, the mediator must create the conditions allowing for Levinas' work to be understood in a cultural context that has few things in common with the one in which it took shape. In a similar way one can describe Ibn Tibbon's task at the beginning of the thirteenth century. The challenge he faced was to render intelligible a book, deeply rooted in the tradition of Greco-Arabic philosophy, to the sages of southern France, who represented an audience by and large unfamiliar with the notions and sources of this tradition.' Ibn Tibbon alludes to this situation in the preface to his translation of the Guide, describing it as a work that "encompasses many sublime sciences, hidden from the eyes of most, if not all, of our people in this part of the world, for they do not devote themselves [to their study], and [these sciences] are not found amongst them" (118). Similar comments appear in the preface to Perush ha-Millim ha-Zarot [Explanation of Unusual Terms], where Ibn Tibbon explains that he composed the philosophical-scientific glossary for the Guide because of "the shortcomings of our language and the absence of works on the demonstrative sciences among our people," a situation in which he fears "most readers [...] will not understand" his translation.' It is not surprising, therefore, that Ibn Tibbon, in addition to translating the Guide, also explained its technical terminology, interpreted it, and became its first teacher. In doing so, he laid the basis for the reception of the Guide as the foundational work of Jewish philosophy from the beginning of the thirteenth century to Spinoza, who in important ways was indebted to the medieval Maimonidean tradition, but also criticized some of its fundamental presuppositions.'
In Ibn Tibbon's translation, the Guide became one of the most widely read Jewish texts as is clear from the number of extant manuscripts of the translation, as well as the number of commentaries written on it.' In a sense, Ibn Tibbon himself was the first in a long series of commentators, for in the course of his ongoing work on the Guide he added numerous glosses to the text.' Through the examination of 145 manuscripts of the translation which have been collected at the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in Jerusalem, I found about one hundred glosses attributed to him. These glosses not only illustrate the different aspects of Ibn Tibbon's encounter with the Guide; they also bear witness to the complex process of transmitting Maimonides' work from one cultural context to another. In sum, if the Dalalat al-Ha'irin was the gate through which science and philosophy were able to enter and become an important component of Jewish culture, its transformation into the Moreh ha-Nevukhim provided the hinge without which this gate would have remained shut.' The role Ibn Tibbon played is well summarized in a letter to Maimonides from Jonathan ha-Kohen, the leader of the Jewish community in Lunel, where Ibn Tibbon was born and carried out the Guide's translation: "The book [i.e., the Guide] was given to those who would not have known a book if our Creator had not brought before us the son of a wise man, knowledgeable in every science, who was taught by the master, his father, Arabic literature and Arabic language."'°
But it was not only in the history of Jewish thought that Ibn Tibbon played a central role; he also opened the Hebrew chapter in the history of Western philosophy. After flourishing in Greek Antiquity, and then in the Muslim world in the early medieval period, philosophical inquiry was renewed in parallel in Hebrew and Latin in the later Middle Ages." Ibn Tibbon was not the first to introduce works, which, broadly speaking, may be characterized as philosophical, into the Jewish communities of Christian Europe, but the translation and dissemination of Maimonides' philosophical writings represent a turning point in the process." For one thing, these writings, and especially the Guide, provided a systematic justification for the study of philosophy within a religious culture. Moreover, they directed the reader in particular to the falsafa tradition, that is, to the current in Arabic thought that, in the wake of al-Farah,' and his disciples, overcame competing philosophical systems and became the worldview of most intellectuals in the Muslim world." These two factors transformed the process, which had begun as a cultural renewal in Southern France more than a generation before
Ibn Tibbon, into an intellectual revolution by Who end a substantial part of Greco-Arabic philosophy and science had been translated into Hebrew and had become an important frame of reference for many educated Jews.'
The Cultures of Maimonideanism by James T. Robinson(Supplements to the Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy: Brill Academic) In the history of Jewish thought, no individual scholar has exercised more influence than Maimonides (1138-1204)—philosopher and physician, legal scholar and communal leader. This collection of papers, originating at the 2007 EAJS colloquium, places primary emphasis on this influence—not on Maimonides himself, but on the many movements he inspired. Using Maimonideanism as an interpretive lens, the authors of this volume—representing a variety of fields and disciplines—develop new approaches to and fresh perspectives on the peculiar dynamic of Judaism and philosophy. Focusing on social and cultural processes as well as philosophical ideas and arguments, they point toward an original reconceptualization of Jewish thought.
... I would like to provide a few preliminary reflections on some of the main themes, concerns, problems, and also opportunities, that emerged during the colloquium and which are developed in the papers that follow. I will try to identify and highlight common features I find in many of the chapters, certain patterns emerging in the history of Maimonideanism. Although the chapters are organized more or less chronologically, these brief remarks will be presented synthetically, organized around four main areas: reception; accommodation; cultural mentalities—that is, the way Maimonides emerged in various contexts as cultural hero or emblematic figure; and application: the way the Guide was read, adapted, revived, and recreated throughout history in light of contemporary debates and ideologies, providing a "cure" for the illnesses of the time, a treatment for symptoms of intellectual malaise, a bulwark against superstition and the irrational, and—to focus on its most common use—a remedy for the perplexities of faith and reason.
It is one of many paradoxes or ironies in Jewish history that Maimonides, the elitist and pedagogical pessimist (if we accept Frank Griffel's characterization of him in Chapter 1), became the Teacher par excellence, ha-Rav ha-Moreh and Moreh Tsedeq, the inspiration of countless popular movements extending from the thirteenth century to the twentieth, from Western Europe to the Yemen, from Spain to the New World.
As described by Howard Kreisel (in Chapter 2), in some ways the emergence of a Maimonidean tradition was quite simple and straightforward, and followed naturally from the work of Maimonides himself. This, at least, was the case in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries when Maimonidean enthusiasts in Spain, Provence, and Italy devoted themselves to the translating, explaining, imitating, defending, expanding, and extending of the work of the Master, creating the material foundation for an intellectual tradition. Often this meant completing a project begun by Maimonides, such as the philosophical explication of the "work of the beginning" and "work of the chariot." It moved in more general directions as well: writing a detailed Maimonidean commentary on the Bible, a full Maimonidean explication of Rabbinic midrash and aggadah, and completing the theological system only partially constructed by the Master. It is for the latter reason that even Gersonides might be considered a true Maimonidean following some of the suggestions by Roberto Gatti (in Chapter 5) even though Gersonides developed a new method, worked within a different philosophical framework, and arrived at very different conclusions than his predecessor.
There were other ways to follow Maimonides, less straightforward, but no less significant; for example the rewriting of his ideas within a more traditional context, the use of his methods to achieve seemingly non-Maimonidean goals, or the defending of his positions by appealing to authorities with disparate intellectual affinities—from Saadia Gaon to Abraham Ibn Ezra to Immanuel Kant. Nor was the simple straightforward translating and publishing of Maimonides' writings distinct from contemporary philosophical and ideological debates. This is certainly the case with the seventeenth-century Latin translations of Maimonides' writings mentioned by Yaacov Dweck (in Chapter 9), or the eighteenth-century editions of the Guide discussed by Abraham Socher (in Chapter 10). To what extent the republication of the Guide, together with commentaries by Moses Narboni and Solomon Maimon, determined the course of Guide scholarship in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is a fascinating subject; it highlights, among other things, the cultural power exerted by a publisher.
The examples discussed thus far I would consider first-order Maimonideanism, that is, the conscious and intentional creation of a tradition of philosophy and exegesis by countless and often anonymous translators, philosophers, theologians, exegetes, preachers, popular educators, propagators of wisdom and defenders of the faith. As discussed in many of the papers in this volume, there was also a second-order Maimonideanism. I refer to the way that Maimonides, through both his Mishneh Torah and Guide, forced or encouraged a completely new understanding of the canon. After Maimonides, Bible and rabbinic literature could no longer be read the same way. Earlier medieval authors, moreover, were brought into conversation with the Master, transformed into his allies and initiates.
This is certainly the case with Ibn Ezra who, as explained by Tamás Visi (in Chapter 4), was transformed into a Maimonidean commentator on the Bible. It was also the case with Judah Halevi—a more unlikely Maimonidean. As discussed by Maud Kozodoy (in Chapter 6), in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the Kuzari experienced something of a revival in Provence and Spain, but seems not to have offered a real living alternative to Maimonides. Unlike the nationalistic Halevi of religious Zionism (as discussed briefly by Dov Schwartz in Chapter 16) or the romantic Halevi of Rosenzweig (as mentioned by Hanoch Ben-Pazi in Chapter 14), Halevi's medieval commentators tended to transform his anti-philosophical work into a Maimonidean text: they explained it in light of the Guide and the works of Samuel Ibn Tibbon, Jacob Anatoli, Levi b. Abraham and others. Even Halevi's polemic against Aristotle in Book 5 was transformed into an introductory textbook on Aristotelian philosophy!
Still more complex are examples of syncretism the mixing of Maimonides with intellectual traditions seemingly opposed, often contrary, to the spirit of the Master. Well-known is the example of Maimonides' own descendents who, by focusing on the mystical terminology of Guide 3:51, created a Sufi Maimonideanism, which would become the preferred tradition of Bet ha-Rambam into the fourteenth century. The example of Kabbalah is even more interesting. Mor Altshuler's identification (in Chapter 8) of Maimonidean patterns and ideals playing out in practice with Joseph Karo is quite remarkable, and should be followed up more generally in the history of later Kabbalah and Messianism. If Jonathan Dauber is correct (see Chapter 3), we have something more than syncretism: the organic development of Kabbalah out of Mamonides, at least concerning ideas about the unity of God and divine attributes. The same might be suggested of Meister Eckhert's negative theology and other mystical developments, Jewish and Christian alike.
Yet to be a Maimonidean does not require that one write a commentary on the Guide, a philosophical explication of Bible and Midrash, or even a supercommentary on Ibn Ezra. In fact, as shown by the papers in this volume, one can join the ranks of the Maimonideans without really understanding Maimonides or even reading him. This was already true early in the thirteenth century when Aaron b. Meshullam defended the Master as if he were no different than Saadia Gaon. It continued into the later medieval, early modern and modern periods as well, as exemplified by the popular liturgical dogmatics of Yigdal and Ani ma'amin (as discussed by Abraham Melamed in Chapter 7), the purely symbolic Maimonides of the eighteenth century, and the thoroughly "yeshivish" Maimonides of the twentieth.
I think the importance of the "cultural" or "rhetorical" Maimonides is clearly supported indirectly by the work of George Kohler and Gorge Hasselhoff (Chapters 12-13). That the Guide was studied seriously and philosophically beginning only in the nineteenth century I think is cogently argued. But one could add that Maimonides' work could be read philosophically in the nineteenth century only because of the cultural work done in the eighteenth and the debate and discussion surrounding the Guide in the nineteenth (as discussed by Michah Gottlieb in Chapter 11). The philosophical reading of the Guide in the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth (with the work of Strauss and Levinas, as discussed by Benjamin Wurgaft in Chapter 15) emerges after more than one hundred years of debate and discus sion over the contested space that was Maimonides. In other words, one might hypothesize that cultural image as much as philosophical content—played a key role in the development of reading practices and philosophical doctrines.
Medicine for the Soul
This brings us to the fourth category: the Guide as cure, as a remedy of sorts, a form of therapy, which Maimonides prescribed for the illnesses of his age, the deep anxieties as Gad Freudenthal described it in his opening remarks at the colloquium caused by the inconsistency between religion and philosophy.
In light of the papers in this volume, I think we can say that the Guide is not a single cure but many different cures, a pharmacy of sorts, a pharmacopeia; it is many medicines which, when mixed properly by the skilled physician, can cure a large assortment of diseases. Maimonides himself addresses the many different ailments in his own time, including unreflective conventional practice; biblical and rabbinic literalism; the "sickness" that is Kalam; idolatry and superstition (as represented by Sabianism); anthropocentricism and materialism. In later generation the list grew longer. The Christians considered the Guide a cure of Jewish literalism, Leone Modena thought it a remedy for Kabbalah, while Reformers in the nineteenth century focused their attention on a pilpulistic orthodoxy that seemed a mere shell of the Bible's authentic ethical monotheism, as already pointed to—so they claimed by Maimonides in the Guide and elsewhere.
In light of the chapters in this volume one might also identify a history of reading the Guide that corresponds closely with various and diverse movements of renewal and reform—with small case "r." To say it differently: everyone had their favorite chapter in the Guide which supported their own ideas and aspirations. To give a few examples: The Sufi descendents of Maimonides preferred Guide 3:51, as did Ibn Tibbon, who termed it the "noblest chapter in the noble treatise." Ibn Tibbon's son-in-law Jacob Anatoli was attracted mainly to Guide 1:31-34 and its complex discussion of education and the limitations of knowledge. The Kabbalists, as well as the modern reformers, were drawn to the chapters on divine attributes, while in the seventeenth century, among Jews and Christians alike, it was Maimonides' historicizing account of biblical law that was considered most important. A history of reading the Guide, I think, would go a long way toward mapping or rather, indexing a historical topography of Jewish thought.
These are just a few general categories and concerns. There are many others that will emerge in the following chapters, such as the problems of elite vs. popular culture, the close relation between tradition and censorship (on many levels), the various processes of canonization, and the complex relation between master and disciple, charismatic figure and social-religious movement. But what I hope these remarks can do, simple and schematic as they are, is provide some orienting framework for the discussion that follows—in this book, and hopefully in many future studies of and conferences devoted to this very fruitful subject of Maimonideanism.
Ethics of Maimonides by Hermann Cohen, edited by Almut Sh Bruckstein (Modern
Jewish Philosophy and Religion: Translations and Critical Studies: University of
Wisconsin Press) (Hardcover)
Hermann Cohen's essay on Maimonides' ethics is one of the most fundamental texts
of twentieth-century Jewish philosophy, correlating Platonic, prophetic,
Maimonidean, and Kantian traditions. Almut Sh. Bruckstein provides the first
English translation and her own extensive commentary on this landmark 1908 work,
which inspired readings of medieval and rabbinic sources by Leo Strauss, Franz
Rosenzweig, and Emmanuel Levinas.
Cohen rejects the notion that we should try to understand texts of the past solely in the context of their own historical era. Subverting the historical order, he interprets the ethical meanings of texts in the light of a future yet to be realized. He commits the entire Jewish tradition to a universal socialism prophetically inspired by ideals of humanity, peace, and universal justice.
Through her own probing commentary on Cohen's text, like the margin notes of a medieval treatise, Bruckstein performs the hermeneutical act that lies at the core of Cohen's argument: she reads Jewish sources from a perspective that recognizes the interpretive act of commentary itself.
Excerpt from Foreword: Without students, there are no teachers. For about ten years, interest in Franz Rosenzweig has been growing, not only in Jewish studies, but in-deed, in other contexts, including philosophy, theology, and German studies. Part of that interest arose in relation to Emmanuel Levinas, who, though never Rosenzweig's student, clearly expressed a deep debt to Rosenzweig, and especially to The Star of Redemption. Levinas, whose moment of fame in France is now being echoed in North America, represents a specifically Jewish inflection of postmodernism. Rosenzweig, on the other hand, lived in that fecund and difficult moment of Weimar Germany—the years before the Shoah—and died in 1929. Rosenzweig, however, is not the topic of the book that lies in your hands; this work is written by Rosenzweig's own teacher, Hermann Cohen. The book before you is a decisive refutation of Rosenzweig's view of his own teacher—and at the same time a vindication of the teacher, and even of the student.
Thus we are drawn from student to teacher, to learn from the teacher and become students. There are many lines back to Cohen, and were we ourselves not interested in becoming students, interested not in the teaching but only in the history of teachers, we would still need to study Cohen. Rosenzweig hails him as a Columbus (and I would, as a Copernicus), and claims that Cohen was the first truly Jewish philosopher who discovered a new route, a new thinking. Like a Columbus, it is Cohen who discovered the new possibility and exigency of thought, discovering a land for the voyages not only of Levinas and Rosenzweig, but also of Buber and Benjamin and, in different ways, of Scholem, Strauss, Pines, and many others.
Cohen is not merely the first, he is also the teacher of those who follow. His teaching, moreover, is one that reflects a decisive need in philosophy itself, a need to engage with Judaism. Judaism for Cohen is defined through its literary sources and so retains a certain kind of particularity even as it enters into conversation with, or better a correlation with, or still more clearly, even as it is translated into, philosophy. This disruption of the Greek/German philosophical tradition happens so seamlessly and so adroitly in Cohen, that even students like Rosenzweig could overlook Judaism's role in Cohen's systematic philosophical works. But what seems obvious to postmoderns, that an engagement with otherness should disrupt philosophy's authority, is developed in a complex and in its own way disturbing fashion in Cohen's work. For Cohen will not compromise on universality and on reason (and in this remains a modern, even a modernist), but at the same time he negotiates with the specificity of Jewish sources, and not merely as warehouses for properly philosophical ideas, but as texts and, indeed, as originary sources for a reasoning that knows ideas that are foreign to the Greek tradition. What happens when such ideas become translated into philosophy, when, for example, the messianic age becomes the idea of humanity, or when atonement becomes the way of individuating the self, is a reorientation for philosophy itself.
The 1908 essay "Charakteristik der Ethik Maimunis" (Ethics of Maimonides) is one of Cohen's central teachings of this new thinking. It is here translated into English for the first time, and the translator, Almut Sh. Bruckstein, has provided not only a translation and a commentary, but also an extremely valuable introduction, in which she explains why Cohen undertook to write this essay in 1908. She situates it not only in the Maimonides project of the German Jewish intellectuals, but also in Cohen's own career. Cohen's task is to listen again to Maimonides, but to listen in order to let him address Cohen's contemporary philosophical and religious scene. Cohen does make historical claims per se, that Maimonides innovated in relation to his philosophical context, or as biblical interpreter, but such claims are vastly overshadowed by Cohen's discovery of a full range of ethical insights, insights that almost leap across the generations to address Cohen and his contemporaries. The essay is a reframing of the histories of ethics, of philosophy, and of religion—starting with Socrates, and demanding a revisiting of the tension between Aristotle and Plato.
The essay makes its case with the Protestant philosophical and theological establishment of Cohen's time—arguing for the philosophical superiority of a rationalist theology—or, as Cohen would prefer, of a critical idealism. The possibility for a better philosophical position starting from the origin of the Good beyond Being, from an ethics arising in reason, is made to conform with a radical but legitimate reading of the Jewish tradition—Maimonides'. For Cohen understands the task in his time to be just this reorientation of philosophy.
Almut Bruckstein has produced a book that will allow us to become students of Cohen—a book that lets Cohen teach us. By finding ways to bring Cohen's argument into our intellectual world (a mere hundred year jump), Bruckstein is brilliantly imitating what Cohen does for Maimonides in his essay.
Such a text is not a simple one, nor is it an easy one to present today. Bruckstein had an immediate task of producing a translation of the essay. The problems of translation are explored in her introduction, but given the interplay between Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and then German, the target language of English has been pushed in decisive and important ways. To hear Cohen in English, to think with him in our philosophical vocabulary, and to hear the resonances in English of what he tried to do in his own German rendering of ideas and phrases, words, and technical jargon, requires an ear or an eye that is used to reading and thinking in disparate languages at the same time, and even more to going across the languages. What Bakhtin, a follower of Cohen, called polyglossia is all the more performed in the feat of translation here.
This book, moreover, is not only a translation: it is also a commentary. Cohen becomes our teacher due to the work of the commentary. Cohen struggled to find a way for Maimonides to teach Cohen, to teach his world. And Bruckstein has struggled to find a way for Cohen to become our teacher. What is this struggle? It happens on several levels all at once.
First, Cohen wants to teach us the history of philosophy, but for many readers the key philosophers are not familiar. Bruckstein has to provide not only citations but also explanations and her own readings of Cohen's readings to let us get close to the teaching about the history of philosophy. Second, Cohen also presumes a familiarity with medieval thought in the three religions—and such thought is technical. For many readers any technical thinking is off-putting, but even for those who are inclined to such rigorous thinking, the medieval version is still simply foreign. If we become bogged down or remain simply allergic to such technical discussions, we will not be able to learn from Cohen. Bruckstein manifests the sort of mastery of those texts that allows her to explain complex and technical materials clearly. But third, and most important, Cohen is a critical idealist. His philosophical convictions seem outdated to most readers. Cohen cannot teach us unless he is allowed to address us, and to escape from the pigeon-hole that reduces him to an antiquarian curiosity.
We are not, in general, prone to consider ourselves idealists, and yet Bruckstein offers in her reading of the Platonism of Cohen, as a critical idealism, a reach forward to some of the thinking that often characterizes postmodern thought. She draws deeply from the various texts of Cohen's system, pausing to explain the reasoning and the innovation of Cohen's logic. At the same time she does not compromise Cohen's claims: rationality, the centrality of the Good beyond Being, the ideas, and more, are all developed and explored in the commentary. The task is not to make Cohen say just what we want, but to make what he does say first intelligible and then even plausible.
Thus what we see in Cohen's own work is echoed in Bruckstein's cornmentary: an effort to let the historical background of the prior work (Maimonides in Cohen's case, and Cohen in Bruckstein's) fuel an interpretation that brings the prior work into our contemporary conversation. The teacher is looking for a student: and the commentator takes up this task. Bruckstein's book works by juxtaposing a translation of Cohen's effort and her commentary: a doubling of the reading and interpreting of Cohen. There are repetitions here, and more, there is recitation here. The problems of translation lead well beyond what I could describe, but the problems of commentary point in one deeper direction as well. The paradigmatic nature of Jewish textual tradition must be explored, and while Cohen depends on it in his essay, it is Bruckstein who best develops an analysis of it in her introduction and commentary.
For the task of citation is precisely in tension with reason, in a dialectic that speeds reason on its way, and which undergirds the claims that originate in a citation by building the reason up through it. The citation of Jewish texts in a philosophical essay, even the citation of philosophical texts, seems to hide the writer from the demanding call of reason in a thicket of authority. But for the text to exercise any role it must first be cited. And what happens then? Bruckstein, in the introduction to this volume, writes: "We render account of ourselves in facing an ancient text. But the ancient text, which has been trusted in such a way, is not really the issue when it is being cited. No ancient past, but rather the commentary in the very context of which the citation has been invoked, is defended by the citation. Nothing concerning the original narrative is signified by the citation other than that which the interpretation itself has constructed."
The text is introduced not to defend the past, but to take responsibility for giving an account, for providing a reason, to the reader—of the commentary. Jewish tradition discovered in its commentaries that the future readings and meanings are invoked and stand judgment over all traditional texts. What Cohen calls idealizing interpretation is framed precisely by the need to place the past under our judgment for the sake of the future. While the Jewish texts (and Cohen's genius is to extend the practice to philosophical texts as well) are cited as sources for reason, it is reason that will reconstrue the meanings, will cultivate the highest possible reading of these texts—the readings that find the tasks of ethics.
Cohen extended this process of citation and cultivation of the tradition, not as mythic, but as demythicizing, to the philosophical tradition, and so he began his essay with Socrates, and with the tension of Plato and Aristotle. He explored how the traditions of Greek and Arabic philosophy were tributaries to Maimonides' thought. His own rereading of the philosophical traditions refuses a reduction of their history to the victory of the dominant or surviving interpretations. Because the past is not a security for a commentary, Cohen's commentary discerns discontinuities and unrealized rationality in previous texts. To explore the tributary is to find rich backwaters, and even little streams that run more purely than the main river.
But Bruckstein has offered us insight into the main tributary that Cohen muted: the Jewish textual tradition. While Cohen cites the medieval Jewish philosophers, it is Bruckstein who provides extensive commentary on the talmudic and biblical materials that inform the medieval discussions. She explores that other tributary, offering careful and challenging readings of the Jewish pretexts to readers who often might be unaware of those texts. This is not merely a question of historical research, although it involves extensive research, but it is still more a reconstruction of the conflictual interpretative tradition, in direct parallel to what Cohen did for the other two tributaries of philosophy. She provides what is only hinted at in Cohen's essay, allowing this book to offer a full curriculum for Jewish philosophy.
Because the process of citation opens the text to the future, and makes the commentary give reasons, Bruckstein's exploration of the river leads beyond Cohen, too. It leads, indeed, and this is the final element of Bruckstein's commentary, to a discussion of the one hundred years of Jewish thought and Jewish existence that separates Cohen from her readers, his would-be students. The commentary leads on to Rosenzweig and to Levinas, even to Derrida. It finds its non-foundational ethics, its ethics of responsibility for the other, its new thinking of Judaism and philosophy, as a renewed source (spring or tributary) for the ongoing river of Jewish thought. Bruckstein examines the way that contemporary Maimonides scholarship takes a stand with or against Cohen's Platonizing reading of Maimonides. In discrete references, she links Cohen's messianism to contemporary debates in Israeli society about democracy and religion. She traces the river, thus, not only back, but also forward to our time, and lets Cohen's voice register in our contemporary scene.
The critical nature of these connections and river explorations is made clear in the very first citation by Bruckstein. For she cites Cohen's student, Rosenzweig, in fulsome praise of Cohen, and yet the fact of this book, with translation and commentary of an earlier essay by Cohen, is a refutation of Rosenzweig. It seems that no single factor has prevented us from reading Cohen, from studying him in order to learn his teaching, as much as Rosenzweig's reading of Cohen. Rosenzweig read Cohen as having exceeded his own philosophy in his last works on Judaism, particularly Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism. Rosenzweig, therefore, refused to see, even in the volumes of Cohen's Jewish writings that include the essay "Charakteristik der Ethik Maimunis" (Ethics of Maimonides), volumes for which he (Rosenzweig) was writing the introduction, that Cohen had framed a philosophical Judaism and a Jewish philosophy as the center of his own system, and not as a belated effort at the end of his life.
Almut Bruckstein cites Franz Rosenzweig, then, in an ironic gesture at the very start of her book. And to reread the context of her citation from Rosenzweig will allow us to learn not only about citation and about the development of Jewish philosophy in the twentieth century, but also, or perhaps especially, about the task of commentary and letting a teacher teach.
I cite Rosenzweig's essay "Hermann Cohen's Nachlaßwerk" (1937, 294):
In order to write about Cohen's work and its meaning, one would perhaps have to actually write a new work from the same starting point. And someone will do that. Jewish books have not only their fate as do all books, rather they also have a special Jewish-book fate. I envision Cohen's book printed in Hebrew folio-editions of the seventh millennia, printed in Siberian and Fuegian, in New Guinean and Cameroon editions, editions in which Cohen's word is drowning in a flood of three, four commentaries that surround it from all sides.
First, the plain sense of this text: Rosenzweig claims that the ultimate meaning of Cohen's Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism lies in the future, in a new book. One can hardly overlook that this piece was written and published in 1921, the very year of Rosenzweig's own new work: The Star of Redemption. But one might just as well consider Buber's I and Thou, or Levinas's Totality and Infinity—books that are new works but have the same starting point. But Jewish books have more than this relation to their successors, they have a special Jewish-book fate: to be commented upon. Thus Rosenzweig imagines an edition of Cohen in the next Jewish millennium (three hundred or so years out) surrounded by commentaries. Not rivers, now, but a sea, a flood—like a Talmud of its time. Rosenzweig, moreover, imagines translations into the most diverse and "un-Jewish" of places, in languages around the globe. Cohen's thought will be at home both among the Jews and amongst all the world—it will have achieved the true cosmopolitan readers, will further the development of knowledge and so of humanity that Cohen so esteemed.
What happens, then, in Bruckstein's citation? Bruckstein obviously chose this passage because it is a prophecy of her own work—a translation and a commentary on Cohen. Her work here is a fulfillment of Rosenzweig's prophecy. She is reluctant, however, to include the phrase that might link her own English translation (of a different Jewish writing by Cohen, but the point is all too similar) with the outlandish translations for non-European humanity—because this English translation is not in the realm of the exotic, but precisely directed to communities of readers who have already been fed by the various tributaries of thought flowing in the book.
This citation, moreover, also vindicates Cohen—for despite Rosenzweig's praise, Bruckstein, along with many others, has had to defend and reread the teacher's writings from Rosenzweig's too-dominant reading. She shows us that even a student's reading of a teacher's work cannot merely be cited. The commentary must reengage both the text and its interpretation. The study of the river of Jewish philosophy extends beyond the tributaries, through Cohen and then on to the course of the river in our day. But such study is not simply a historical study: reason calls us to interrogate the interpretations and the currents. Commentary serves not merely to name the linkages, but also to disrupt the course, and to heighten our responsibility for following the teachings that the previous students did not learn. Such a recourse to the text, and to the recovery of unlearned teachings, is the characteristic of the Jewish textual tradition—a characteristic that Cohen developed in the philosophical tradition, and that Bruckstein here develops in relation to modern Jewish philosophy. To let the teaching teach; to produce the students who will be able to learn. This foreword itself can only allude to this subtle and rich task that is Bruckstein's task in offering us Cohen's vital essay and was Cohen's task in teaching us the ethics of Maimonides. -Robert Gibbs
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