The Moses Between Egypt and Mendelssohn


By Ilan Stavans

Published March 24, 2006, issue of March 24, 2006.
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Sherwin B. Nuland.

Schocken, 256 pages, $19.95.

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Three Moseses have decisively shaped Jewish history. On one end is Moses the Egyptian, a lawgiver and political leader whose vision established the path for a monotheistic revolution, thus defining the spiritual boundaries of a people. On the opposite end is Moses Mendelssohn, whose philosophical queries in the 18th century set the foundation for yet another liberation movement: the exit from the medieval ghetto and the entrance into European civil society. Neither of these Moseses grasped the reach of his own legacy. Moses the Egyptian was only allowed to see the Promised Land on the verge of death. And as successful as Moses Mendelssohn was in bringing equality to Jews, his effort also opened the door to the loss of identity: All six of his children married Christians.

In between these two extremes — one fostering nationalism, the other giving place to assimilation — is Maimonides (1135-1204), best known through the Hebrew acronym Rambam, a “Renaissance man” whose oeuvre could be approached from myriad perspectives. Having traveled from his native Spain (he was born in Cordoba) to Morocco, Palestine and Egypt, where he was the doctor of the Grand Vizier Alfadhil, he enjoyed an illustrious career combining medicine with jurisprudence and with intellectual and midrashic debate. His “Mishnah Torah (aka Yad ha-Chazakah), a codification of everything about Jewish observance, alone justifies him as a lighting rod for generations. Also, his “Commentary on the Mishnah,” condensing talmudic debates and establishing his views on a number of open issues — as well as his 13 principles on faith; his reflections on exile, martyrdom and life after death — establishes a bridge between Moses of Egypt and Moses Mendelssohn. He articulated an impeccable rationale for diasporic existence, making the Jews able to function in exile as a nation within other nations — a quality others have attempted to imitate.

This duality, in fact, keeps Maimonides irresistibly au courant. His prime concern was with religious solvency, yet he was also a shrewd Aristotelian eager to make belief and reason somewhat compatible. He was passionate about dreams, metaphor, prophecy and redemption. His 13 principles are a centerpiece in Judaism, as are his letters on the choice between death and exile in extreme circumstances. A number of contemporary scholars have addressed his legacy: Yeshayahu Leibowitz reflected on his faith, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a biography, David Hartman disserted on the marriage between Torah and philosophy, Moshe Idel embalmed his thought with Kabbalah, and — most significantly to me — Leo Strauss wrote about the secret, alternative readings to the “Guide for the Perplexed.” Without Maimonides, there would be no Baruch Spinoza. And without Spinoza, the rationalism and tolerance that define enlightened societies would be far weaker.

Sherwin B. Nuland, a clinical professor of surgery at Yale and the author of “How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter,” adds himself to the list of interpreters. He offers a chronological investigation, placing Maimonides’s career and contribution in context. His odysseys (exile, persecution, the death of his brother David, depression, etc.) are analyzed against the backdrop of 12th-century religious upheavals. Nuland studies Maimonides’s views on the coming of the messiah, his role as spiritual leader, and the structure and message of his commentaries. His discussion of the “Commentary on the Mishnah and the “Mishneh Torah are more satisfying than his labored reflections on the “Guide of the Perplexed,” a daunting treatise that is dense and obfuscating to some, magical to others. It is designed as a letter to one of Maimonides’s pupils, and it is noticeably filled with deliberately labyrinthine arguments — for he wanted it to be read only by a small cadre of perspicacious readers able to handle metaphysical truth. To explain its content publicly, to “democratize” it, is to betray its original intention. The interpreter’s challenge, however, lies in being fully acquainted with canonical intellectual debates in the Middle Ages. Nuland’s road map is serviceable.

His prime interest, of course, is in medicine. Thus, the most lucid sections of his book are about Maimonides as physician. Ironically, the Rambam isn’t acknowledged for any major scientific discovery. Nor was he a fecund researcher. He displayed an intimate knowledge of the works of Galen and Hippocrates, as well as Arabic texts by Avicenna, Albucasis and Averroës. “Pirke Moshe” (known in English under a cumbersome title, “The Medical Aphorisms of Moses”) is an amalgamation of his previous readings. For him, the medical practice wasn’t “knitting and weaving and the labor of the hand,” but a soul-searching and soul-healing profession — indeed, while Maimonides sought a balance between body and soul. “Only one in a thousand persons dies a natural death,” he once said. “The rest die early because of ignorant or aberrant behavior.”

Arthur Hertzberg stated: “Distinguishing between what we learn from Maimonides as he would have wanted us to learn from him, and what we make of him because that is what we want to hear, remains an insoluble problem.” Informative, concise and humane, Nuland’s volume is an engaging profile of a remarkable polymath. It should serve as an introduction to this champion of moderation, one of our three Moseses — the one building the bridge between freedom and assimilation.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture and Five College 40th Anniversary professor at Amherst College. His newest book, “The Disappearance: A Novella and Stories,” will be published in August by Northwestern University Press. He is the host of the syndicated PBS show “Conversations With Ilan Stavans.” Recently he received the National Jewish Book Award for his “Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature.”

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