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As the conference made abundantly clear, these conflicts over how to read Maimonides are not new. Within nine years of the first Hebrew translation of the “Guide” in the 1100s, another interpreter weighed in with his own translation, which inspired vicious intellectual battles across the Jewish world, pitting the literalists who flocked to Samuel ibn Tibbon’s translation against those who favored the creative reading of Yehuda Al-Harizi.
As the professors at the conference explained, the next centuries saw an onslaught of variant translations and interpretations. The “Guide” was burned as heresy in Southern France and revered as a theological masterpiece in Yemen.
And it wasn’t just the Jewish community that was split over what to make of the book. Richard Taylor of Marquette University argued that the work of Thomas Aquinas, the most important Christian theologian of the Middle Ages, is suffused with Maimonidean arguments, while Luis Negrón of Harvard showed that when the “Guide” appeared in Christian Spain in the 15th century, the translation was sharply critical of its theology — and even that manuscript is covered with anonymous annotations lambasting the translator.
The conference brought the tradition of acrimony and passionate reading to the present when Tzvi Langermann of Bar Ilan, a student of the famed Maimonides translator Rabbi Yosef Kafah, defended his teacher’s translation and attacked Pines’s style and lack of familiarity with the subtleties of Arabic. No matter the era or thinker, Maimonides can be read in a startling variety of ways.
By drawing out this history of conflict and confusion over the “Guide,” the conference pinpointed one of the central tenets of Maimonides’s thought that we’ve begun to understand only in the past 50 years: Maimonides’ purpose was to reach students at all levels — to the majority of students, he endeavored to instill an acceptance of a particular set of dogmas, and to the strongest among them, a method of skeptical inquiry. As Leo Strauss famously argued, Maimonides made a brilliant educational move by writing the “Guide” in such a way that it offered a valuable surface reading as well as a subtle esoteric reading — “apples of gold in settings of silver,” as Maimonides wrote, quoting Proverbs.
Maimonides, according to Stern, aimed at uncovering the deepest secrets but believed that human knowledge is ultimately limited. As Maimonides put it in his introduction to the “Guide,” “I do not say that this Treatise will remove all difficulties [even] for those who understand it…. You should not think that these great secrets are fully and completely known to anyone among us.”