Maimonides, Medieval Jewish Thinker, Enjoys a Postmodern Revival

Rambam Is Trending Again — Conference Examines Why

Who Was the Sagest of Them All: Maimonides presented a vision of Judaism that was traditional, yet encouraged philosophical rigor.
Getty Images
Who Was the Sagest of Them All: Maimonides presented a vision of Judaism that was traditional, yet encouraged philosophical rigor.

By Doni Bloomfield

Published February 08, 2014, issue of February 07, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.”

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.”

He illustrates this by an analogy to a storm in the dead of night: Everyone is cloaked in darkness, and even those that glimpse their world in occasional flashes of lightening never see the whole world. This analogy applies equally to our knowledge of the natural world and, because Maimonides conceived of God as totally beyond human comprehension, even to revelations of divine truth.

There may be many interpretations of Maimonides, but “what’s unambiguously there is an awareness of the limitations of knowledge,” noted Horn. To claim otherwise — to assert mankind’s special knowledge or power — is, according to Maimonides, a form of idolatry.

Despite the seeming futility of attempting to fully access the great secrets, Maimonides never gave up on the pursuit of wisdom, or of education: More than almost any great philosopher, Maimonides devoted every spare minute to teaching.

“My duties to the sultan are very heavy,” he wrote to ibn Tibbon. “I leave for Cairo very early in the day, and… I do not return [home] until the afternoon… I find the antechamber filled with people, both Jews and gentiles… a mixed multitude who await the time of my return.” In spite of this exhausting schedule, Maimonides spent his Sabbaths teaching. “The whole congregation, or at least the majority… come to me after the morning service, when I instruct them as to their proceedings during the whole week; we study together a little until noon… Some of them return, and read with me after the afternoon service until evening prayers.”

As a full-time physician and teacher, Maimonides understood the importance of persevering in contemplation despite the abundance of distractions, and the provisional nature of all human answers. Whether those distractions come from Twitter or from tending to the Sultan, whether our uncertainties are ethical or scientific, whether we’re unlearned or a towering scholar, he insists that we forge ahead in our pursuit of the truth, and of a virtuous life. It’s the kind of brash optimism in the face of uncertainty that keeps the ideas of this 12th-century philosopher pulsing on the airwaves and through the university halls, that drives home his central idea — that we must be, not just a start-up nation, but a nation of philosophers.

A former Forward fellow, Doni Bloomfield is completing his Bachelor of Arts in economic history at the University of Chicago.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.