Maimonides is trending these days. The 12th century sage, once confined to musty tomes and talmudic study halls, is being brandished in the opinion pages of The New York Times, cited on the airwaves in “This American Life,” and featured in Dara Horn’s latest novel. By some measures, Maimonides is at the height of his popularity. This is no mean feat for a teacher whose most famous works were written around the time of the Norman Conquest and who mostly concerned himself with Jewish ritual law and Aristotelian theology. But a group of scholars who recently convened at the University of Chicago think they know why Maimonides has captured our attention of late — and more importantly, why this attention is deserved.
Twenty of the foremost Maimonides scholars gathered for a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking edition of Maimonides’ “Guide of the Perplexed,” translated by Shlomo Pines from the original Arabic into English. The professors give Pines the lion’s share of the credit for reviving Maimonides and making him relevant to our times. By taking Maimonides seriously as a writer, and translating the “Guide” in an exceptionally literal way, Pines transformed the book into a text that philosophers could grapple with, rather than dismiss as the archaic arguments of an obscure Jewish theologian.
“You can’t get [Maimonides’] subtlety without absolute attention to word choice,” Horn, who did not attend, told the Forward in a phone interview.
Once Maimonides’ arguments were newly presented, they became relevant once more to many different groups — though sometimes for contradictory reasons. For Orthodox rabbis like Joseph Soloveitchik, Maimonides (also known as the “Rambam,” an acronym for Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon) presented a vision of Judaism that was completely traditional yet encouraged philosophical rigor; for secularists like historian of philosophy Leo Strauss, who helped write the translation, the “Guide” challenged the logical coexistence of science and religion.
Ironically, by making Maimonides’ text more clear and accessible, Pines had left him more open than ever for an endless stream of conflicting interpretations.
“There’s an old joke [in the field],” said Josef Stern, professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. “There’s Strauss’ Maimonides… there’s Twersky’s Maimonides, there’s Pines’ Maimonides, and there’s my Monides.”