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Between the Messianic Era and the Text: Historicism and Exegetical Materialism in Maimonides



This paper engages in a re-articulation of Maimonides's sense of history. While for Leo Strauss Maimonides was a both a model and a resource for resisting historicism, recent scholarship has demonstrated that Maimonides had an understanding of history as the gradual evolution of humanity towards an ideal and perfected future. At the same time that we must acknowledge these echoes of historicism in Maimonides, a closer examination of Maimonides's methods of exegesis, and particular his inclusion of 'outside' or non-Jewish texts, makes it possible to rethink the ways Maimonides provides tools which the modern reader - and teacher - can use to disrupt and call into question historical progression. The exegesis that Maimonides's text requires of his readers itself challenges the onward motion of history, and stands in a constant tension with the pull towards the future.
© 2014. Idealistic Studies, Volume 44, Issues 2 & 3. ISSN 0046-8541. pp. 163–178
DOI: 10.5840/idstudies20154824
Jessica L. Radin
Abstract: This paper engages in a re-articulation of Maimonides’s sense
of history. While for Leo Strauss Maimonides was a both a model and a
resource for resisting historicism, recent scholarship has demonstrated
that Maimonides had an understanding of history as the gradual evolu-
tion of humanity towards an ideal and perfected future. At the same time
that we must acknowledge these echoes of historicism in Maimonides, a
closer examination of Maimonides’s methods of exegesis, and particular
his inclusion of ‘outside’ or non-Jewish texts, makes it possible to rethink
the ways Maimonides provides tools which the modern reader—and
teacher—can use to disrupt and call into question historical progression.
The exegesis that Maimonides’s text requires of his readers itself chal-
lenges the onward motion of history, and stands in a constant tension
with the pull towards the future.
It is no longer necessary to preface a discussion of Maimonides with jus-
tications; his importance as a judge, doctor, theologian, political thinker,
and philosopher has been rmly established. Eight hundred and ten years
after Maimonides’s death even his most explicit pronouncements still invite
elaboration.1 To read Maimonides is to slide into deep waters—rich and of
seemingly fathomless depth. He challenges the reader, not simply because
of the breadth of his writings and their topics but because anyone seeking
to interpret Maimonides must be prepared to deal with questions that frame
the content of his works; questions of interpretation, pedagogy, and history.2
Since the 1963 publication of Shlomo Pines’s translation of Maimonides’s
Guide of the Perplexed, accompanied by Leo Strauss’s famous “How to
Begin to Study the Guide of the Perplexed,” the quantity of Maimonidean
scholarship conducted outside of traditional religious circles has increased
dramatically. The increase in academic scholarship on Maimonides inspired
by Pines and Strauss’s text certainly encouraged work by scholars with no
sectarian afliation, but this move outside the yeshiva also opened the eld
of Maimonidean studies to women in a way that it never has been before. If
we believe that these are positive developments, then some credit must go
to Leo Strauss and his lifelong engagement with the works of Maimonides.
This essay will consider only one of the reasons Maimonides was so vital to
Strauss: that is, Maimonides’s work provides materials for formulating chal-
lenges to historicism. Strauss argues repeatedly that Maimonides’s orthodoxy
anchors to revelation the human capacity for rational thought. The commands
and prohibitions of revelation limit reason’s most outrageous potential.3 Put
simply, human reason is capable of rationalizing almost anything, and histori-
cism is uniquely appealing to reason; Strauss sees in Maimonides’s delity
to Divine law a guard on reason’s excesses.4
The intention of the present work is to consider whether Maimonides is
truly so immune to the lures of historicism. Important contemporary scholar-
ship on Maimonides draws this claim into question—and if there is indeed a
streak of historical determinism running through Maimonides’s philosophical
and halachic work, probity demands that we take his potential complicity with
a historicist project seriously. The question of Maimonides’s historicism is
more than an issue of whether Strauss was right or wrong. A nuanced return
to the texts, a consideration of the factors at work in Maimonides relationship
to history, reveals a new approach to coping with historicism. As strongly
as historicism is condemned, across disciplines and for reasons ranging
from the theoretical to the prudential to the moral, there has been no real
shift in historical paradigms.5 As what follows will demonstrate, a return to
Maimonides to ascertain his relationship to historicism may also reveal new
possibilities for rubbing historicism against the grain—possibilities more
radical than an outright (and perhaps impossible) rejection.
Although Maimonides’s opinion of those who tell stories about the past is
largely critical, he recognizes and studies the past as means of understanding
and grasping the future.6 This future, dened by the coming of the Messianic
era, is the twelfth of Maimonides “Thirteen Principles” laid out in his intro-
duction to Perek Heleq.7 Maimonides notes here that while it is undoubtedly
the case that the Messiah will come, the nature of the world afterwards is
somewhat less clear. It is probably the case, he suggests, that things will be
a bit easier for everyone. Nevertheless Maimonides declares:
The rabbis invoked God to frustrate and destroy those who seek to deter-
mine precisely the advent of the Messiah, because the masses might be
mystied and bewildered should the Messiah fail to appear as forecast. The
rabbis invoked God to frustrate and destroy those who seek to determine
precisely the advent of the Messianic era, because they are a stumbling
block to the people, and that is why they uttered the imprecation ‘May
the calculators of the nal redemption come to grief’ (Sanhedrin 97b).8
The rst danger, that people will be unable to maintain their faith in God
and the Law if a prediction is proved faulty, is one that every contemporary
politician is well aware of. A crowd that has been raised to a fever pitch of
optimism quickly becomes resentful when their hopes are not realized. In
addition to apathy and political entropy, predicting the coming of the Mes-
sianic era encourages a certain vulnerability to whatever ideology or program
seems to lead to that Messianic future.9 In other words, specic expectations
regarding the Messianic era (or indeed, the Messiah) result in either disil-
lusionment or tragedy.
Taking Maimonides’s assertion regarding the Messianic era at (limited)
face value, Sarah Stroumsa re-approaches Maimonides’s analysis of the
Sabians, and discovers a historico-phenomenological inclination on the part
of Maimonides.10 Stroumsa argues that Maimonides’s investigation of the
Sabians in the Guide illuminates for Maimonides the role of ‘divine accom-
modation’ in human history. Maimonides identies the distinguishing feature
of the Sabians to be their commitment to astrology and the worship of stars
and planets as gods, as evidenced by the corpus of Sabian literature available
to him; he then analyzes this commitment in light of the text of the Torah.11
His conclusion is that the astrological idolatry of the Sabians is a moment
in the transition from the veneration of physical idols to the veneration of a
transcendent, unied, inimitable One. Associating the pre-Islamic Arabs with
the Sabians has the effect of raising the monotheistic credentials of Islam to
the point where Maimonides declares that Jews and Muslims may even share
wine.12 Maimonides is not a theological relativist; he is adamant about the
perfection of the Jewish Law, but he recognizes that some people (both Jews
and non-Jews) may be incapable of understanding perfection. Because God
desires perfection for all, allowing people or groups to hold an inadequate
understanding is a Divine method of moving them towards perfection. The
phenomenological understanding of the Sabians and Muslims developed
by Maimonides is an outgrowth of his understanding of divine pedagogy
as a gradual and cumulative process, in which the command itself renders
important laws that might appear meaningless without it. On these terms,
even those commandments that the most learned sages cannot rationally
explain are revealed to be authoritative and necessary. Maimonides might
condemn the Sabians, but he appreciates the Sabian heresy as a baby step in
the direction of monotheism.
Belief in divine accommodation, Stroumsa suggests, may have been a
factor in the remarkable laxity that Maimonides occasionally demonstrates
in punishing infractions of the law. For example, while Maimonides clearly
and repeatedly condemns any estimation of the coming of the Messiah or
the devotion of any signicant amount of time to speculation about the Mes-
siah, he also excuses those who trespass, provided that they do not seem to
have caused any harm. Among those whom Maimonides excuses are some
soothsayers, and even some Messianic claimants, as long as they are quiet
and inconsequential enough not to disrupt or endanger their communities.
13 Maimonides excuses, or at least tolerates, behavior that he himself con-
demns, usually because it doesn’t hurt anyone and demonstrates genuine
ignorance and/or an inability to understand the reason for the prohibition.14
Maimonides’s appreciation of the effect of divine accommodation on human
beings encourages him to be accommodating himself.15 In his own judge-
ments and analysis, Maimonides is cognizant of the subtlety and patience
necessary in order to nudge human beings towards a more and more direct
encounter with monotheism.
Maimonides knows where people have been (the Sabians) and where
people should arrive (the Messianic era):16 the tie that binds these two dis-
parate moments is a continual and gradual movement towards monotheism.
Punishments and specic legal decrees should be oriented towards moving
people along that continuum in the most practical and efcient way possible.
This is not to suggest that Maimonides believes that Divine laws are change-
able: on the contrary, the laws do not change at all.17 That Maimonides can
relax his judgments for a specic person implies for Maimonides a fault in
the person, not the law. His willingness to temper judgment, stemming as it
does from the lessons learned from divine accommodation, demonstrates a
different, less obviously oppressive, form of historicism. In the interest of a
particular goal, certain behaviors are sometimes acceptable. Re-clothed in the
pragmatism that one would expect of a disciple of al-Farabi, this Maimonidean
approach is bound to a certain historical understanding of human evolution.
Its strength lies in the Messianic idea—and it is also curtailed by this bond.
Strauss embarked on the study of Maimonides and contemporaneous
medieval rationalists as part of an attempt to retrieve “the leading idea of the
medieval Enlightenment that has become lost to the Enlightenment and its
hearts,” namely the ability to commit to a law which would serve as a bul-
wark against the most extreme tendencies of human beings.18 He saw modern
humanism as an attempt to afrm the rational ground of law and ethics, and
argued that this afrmation, made without any appeal to an authority beyond
human reason, is constantly subject to the whims of opinion. Strauss, writing
in the years just before WWII and the Holocaust, saw the extent to which
“rational humanism” could be shifted and mutated by the tides of political
expediency. When a particular “historical moment’ (or Heideggerian Ereignis)
seems to require participation in a political program, complicity and support
for that program appear to be the only rational option. Writing to disrupt the
pull of historicism, Strauss found in the medieval rationalists a commitment
to absolutes that Strauss believed could resist historicism’s pressure. If, as
Stroumsa demonstrates, Maimonides is necessarily indebted to a historical
narrative dened by the coming of the Messianic era, how does Maimonides’s
project differ from any other except on the basis of particular faith? Insofar
as the ends (leading people towards monotheism and true belief) justify the
means to some degree (permitting a certain laxity in the application of law),
is it not the same old wolf in more kosher clothing?
I would suggest that there is in fact another way to think about history
in Maimonides, and that is of a history grasped via inter-textual readings
and exegesis whose goal seems to be a complication of the present rather
than service to the future. It is by way of his hermeneutics that Maimonides
demonstrates a historical consciousness whose end is only formally dened
by the coming of the Messianic era, but which is qualitatively bound to the
present and the past. In his investigation of the role of exegesis in Jewish
thought, Michael Fishbane argues that, “rabbinic exegesis is always ‘made,’
that every exegetical act is a conscious construction of meaning through the
verbal conditions of Scripture.19 The act of exegesis as Fishbane understands
it involves bringing into proximity disparate and authoritative texts such that
new meaning is built out of the similarities observed through and between
texts; thus, in a case where one Midrash seems to have a gap, another Midrash
which appears structurally or imagistically similar, is employed in order
to build in or around the gap. “This process of world-making,” Fishbane
writes, “is the ultimate poesis of the exegetical imagination.20 Fishbane
focuses his analysis on exegetical analyses of Scripture, Midrash, and the
Zohar, and in fact only mentions Maimonides briey, primarily as a foil that
demonstrates, according to Fishbane, at least one area where the Zohar is
richer than Maimonides.21
Whether Maimonides or the Zoharic authors would win in an exegetical
cage match is still open for betting, and it would no doubt be an instruc-
tive and engaging battle. More important for the topic at hand (namely, the
relationship between Maimonides sense of history and his exegesis) is to
recognize the type of exegesis that Maimonides conducts, both in his Guide
of the Perplexed and Introduction to the Commentary on the Mishneh. James
Diamond, in his masterful analysis of Maimonides’s hermeneutics describes
Maimonides exegesis as “a sinuous weave of text and prooftext that dees
disentanglement of the two. Rather than unravel the text, the reader is sum-
moned to enter the perimeter of discourse between the two.22 Diamond is
concerned with the effects of specically Jewish inter-textuality, and indeed
this is a primary theme of Maimonides works, accounting for the vast ma-
jority of texts that Maimonides bothers to actually quote. 23 Maimonides
draws on halacha and aggadah, and clearly if less explicitly on works of
Aristotelian and political philosophy.24 But Maimonides also reaches beyond
the Jewish tradition, drawing on the form if not the content of the Islamic
religious and theological context in which he was educated, lived, and rose
to prominence. A number of excellent studies in recent years have focused
on the ways that the Islamic world of Maimonides affected his thought;
the majority have dismissed the inuence of Muslim practices and Muslim
religious knowledge, much of which Maimonides’s would have learned at
one point or another.25 This textual inclusiveness on Maimonides’s part is
not a subsidiary characteristic of his exegesis (or the pedagogical methods
that it deploys).26 The juxtaposition and incorporation of different sources
is one way that Maimonides constructs a text that will ‘awaken’ the reader;
it is also an example of Maimonides’s probity and the probity he wishes to
instill in his students. It is a hermeneutic that breaks the waves of historicism.
In outlining Maimonides’s understanding and use of history, Kenneth
Seeskin quite rightly notes that, “for the most part, the sources on which Mai-
monides relies for his knowledge of history are the Bible and aggadic sections
of the Talmud.27 This is entirely correct in one sense, but the prevalence of
Jewish sources should not elide the signicance of non-Jewish religious inu-
ences. Such inuences indicate not only a remarkable openness on the part of
this most orthodox scholar to other traditions, but their seamless integration
into Maimonides’s biblical and rabbinic exegesis certainly suggests that his
pedagogical project is not limited by sectarian commitments.
A striking example of Maimonides’s mosaic of sources can be found in
his Introduction to the Commentary on the Mishneh.28 Maimonides opens
this work by afrming that both the Written and Oral Torah were given to
Moses on Mount Sinai, and that both sets of law were passed from Moses
to the Israelites by Moses himself and those closest to him. That Moses
transmitted the law to the people before his death is the traditional reading
of the text of Deuteronomy, elaborated in traditional Rabbinic literature.29
But Maimonides also adds to the framework provided by Deuteronomy and
commentary a whole slew of details which are to be found in neither source;
that Moses rst taught the law to Aaron, and then to Aaron’s sons, and then
to the seventy elders who accompanied him up the mountain, and then to the
people. Maimonides gives a genealogy and even a geography of the law’s
transmission—Aaron sits on Moses right, with Aaron’s sons on the right and
left of the brothers, at which point the elders and then general population
enters. Maimonides even calculates how many times each participant would
have heard the law, and from whom: Aaron would be the most reliable, given
that he heard each commandment from Moses himself four times, while
the majority of the people heard it from Moses once, Aaron once, Aaron’s
sons once, and from the elders once. This structure of transmission, and
the specicity and detail that Maimonides sees t to provide, are not to be
found within the texts of traditional Judaism. The illumination of a chain
of transmission is characteristic of the transmission of hadith in the Islamic
tradition. The benchmarks for authoritative transmission in Islam are fairly
clear and well-dened—at minimum it must be established that those who
learned the laws from the Messenger30 were physically present and capable
of understanding at the time of transmission, and that they were of sufcient
good character that their word is not in doubt.31 These conditions are more
than met from Maimonides’s standpoint by the evidence provided by the
Torah. The virtue and presence of Aaron and his family are established in
the text of the Torah, as is that of the Seventy Elders who accompanied him
up the mountain.32
After having established to his own satisfaction an unbroken chain of
transmission for both the Oral and Written law and therefore the incontest-
ability of that law, Maimonides addresses the proper way to deal with cases
for which there is no clear answer.33 Concerning questions to which there is
no clear answer in the text, Maimonides writes:
Some of what is extracted leaves no room for disagreement but are agreed
upon unanimously [al-‘ijma]. And some of them admit of a difference of
syllogism [qiyasain34], this syllogism being constructed to support itself,
and this syllogism being constructed to support itself. Dialectical syllo-
gisms [al-maqa’is al-jadaliyyah] display this feature. If this disagreement
occurs, rest with the majority [al-akthar], as God said, ‘decide according
to the majority.35
Maimonides has already deployed a classically Islamic structure of the es-
tablishment of factual validity, one that would have been familiar to anyone
in his world, and combined it with citations from traditional proof-texts.
With this statement, Maimonides places himself rmly within the Arabic/
Islamic tradition of textual interpretation, linking himself with al-Farabi and
Ibn Rushd in his skepticism regarding dialectic and concern with syllogisms
in their various mutations.36 The passage, and the rst chapter of the Intro-
duction to the Commentary, end with a citation from the Law itself, Exodus
23:2. This citation establishes in Maimonides’s text that in the absence of
unanimity the majority decision carries full legal weight: “if disagreement
occurs ... ‘decide according to the majority.’”37 That the majority rules is
an accepted principle in Judaism, and there is nothing particularly new in
Maimonides’s articulation of this point—his use of Biblical sources rather
than Talmud is certainly intentional.38
The student who desires a greater understanding of Maimonides’s text
might very well decide to follow up on the quote from Exodus, in which case
they will nd a verse that in its plainest sense seems utterly incompatible with
Maimonides’s usage. Exodus 23:2 reads, “You shall not follow the majority
for evil, and you shall not respond concerning a lawsuit to follow many to
pervert justice”39 Almost all of the sages in the Jewish tradition have read
this to mean that the majority should always be obeyed in matters of law,
though in some cases it has lead to a preference for a clear majority (rather
than a majority of one) in capital cases. In context, the passage suggests that
if the majority is wrong one has a duty to resist—however, if one is truly
unsure which path is the correct one, the majoirty opinion should be adhered
to.40 Maimonides points his reader to this phrase via his citation, encourag-
ing closer examination, without providing any of the (particularly complex
and problematic) background material that discuss how the authoritative
interpretation has been determined. Rather than simply state that the major-
ity opinion is always binding, this complicated phrase admonishes people
to hold out against the crowd if they know that they are in error, but to be
accommodating of general opinion when there is truly doubt about which
of two ways is right.41
This passage, when examined as closely as Maimonides wants all of his
writing to be examined, highlights the inuence on Maimonides not only of
the philosophy of the Islamic empires in which he lived and was educated,
but also by the structures and concerns of Islamic theology. It demonstrates
his grasp of traditional Jewish texts, while pushing the reader to delve deeper
into those texts and their previous interpretations. While Maimonides’s aim
in his halachic works is ostensibly the simplication and condensation of
the Jewish code of law, the preceding example demonstrates that even in
those works Maimonides is broadening the eld of texts, commentaries, and
relationships that serious students must take into account.
This is very much in line with Maimonides’s stated project in the Guide,
to discuss “briey the foundations of belief and general truths, while drop-
ping hints that approach a clear exposition.42 It certainly appears that this
project is carried forward into his Introductions and Commentaries on the
Mishneh Torah as well. There is nothing unintentional about the way that
Maimonides’s texts slow the reader down. A careful reading of Maimonides
necessarily requires circling back to the same texts over and over, often with
new questions, to encounter new insights and even newer confusions. His
pedagogical project is one of guided stimulation, of engaging students with
the texts as seriously and deeply as possible, never forgetting that the teacher
as trainer cannot avoid being responsible for the probity (or lack thereof) with
which the student approaches his or her subject. The teacher must not only
engage the student, but train them in a method of engagement that produces
close readers and committed scholars who mine the depths of a text as deeply
as possible, perfecting their souls at the same time.
Reading Maimonides regularly calls all ‘forward movement’ to a halt. To
read a chapter of the Guide means stopping at a citation, learning about it, its
history, and interpretation, only to begin the chapter (or even book) over again
with that new understanding. The Guide, as Maimonides intended, is easy to
begin, but almost impossible to nish. Each reference that Maimonides calls
up—a citation from the Torah, or from al-Farabi, or from the Mishneh—re-
quires a reconsideration of everything that has come before. Each citation
has the potential to act as a ash of light, illuminating inarticulable truths.43
The engagement that Maimonides demands of his readers is another reason
that Maimonides was so beloved by Strauss; Maimonides exemplies the
delity to the text that involves a never-ending return to the same lines and
the same places. That delity is unquestionable and unquestioning, though
the resulting relationship and conclusions can vary greatly, and it is a del-
ity which appears even in Strauss ‘non-Maimonides’ texts as the basis for
the sort of education that produces thoughtful, and careful, citizens.44 Mai-
monides’s exegesis is oriented towards being, and stimulating, the closest
possible approximation to a conversation between text and reader.45 And,
I would suggest, it is here that Maimonides exegetical strategy comes into
tension with his historicism.
The messianic era will be inaugurated by (among other things) a certain
level of perfection and obedience to the law; the judge who is sworn to up-
hold and encourage that perfection and obedience should rightly emphasize
clear rules, strictly and effectively enforced. But even God accommodates
the resistance of human beings, allowing them to be brought along to that
perfection in sometimes sideways fashions—how much more is it the re-
sponsibility of a human judge to recognize the need for accommodation?
Maimonides’s historico-phenomenological understanding of this covenant
between God and human beings contains within it the seeds of a pedagogical
strategy—to encourage engagement and commitment in all students at what-
ever level they are capable, and in doing so to raise their level of knowledge
and understanding. Nothing comes closer to this in the sublunar world than
engaging a student in textual study.
In order to be successful, teaching and learning will jar the student out of
their preconceived ideas.46 Maimonidean exegesis does this not by suggesting
a shocking conclusion, but by complicating the beginning; the present is to
be electried as the present and not as a way-station to a future, promised
time. For Maimonides the fact of revelation and belief in the Messianic era to
come is a “factum brutum,47 but the only responsible, reasonable, and in his
view halachically valid way of contributing to that future is by focusing away
from it as much as possible. The only contribution that a Jew can and should
make to this future is made through a commitment to the exegetical task that
constantly re-articulates and re-creates the present. The Messianic era, if seen
at all, ickers like a shadow at the very edge of the student’s eld of vision.
If we take Maimonides sense of history seriously, we must recognize that
there is a constant and recurring tension between a Messianic historicism
that looks to the future and an exegetical materialism that complicates and
recongures the present. There is, I think, no indication that one of these
approaches is in fact superior to the other—they operate only in tension
with each other. But it is precisely because of those ickers of historicism
that inevitably cluster around the Maimonidean exegetical project that the
present moment, the exegetical moment, is shot through with splinters of
Messianic time.48
University of Toronto
1. See the recent collection of Strauss’s writing on Maimonides in Kenneth Hart
Green’s Leo Strauss on Maimonides: The Complete Writings (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2013). Even outside of the articles that explicitly address Maimonides,
he is a constant presence for Strauss; see, in particular, Leo Strauss, The City and Man
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964); Liberalism Ancient and Modern (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1995).
2. For details concerning the life and times of Maimonides, see Joel Kraemer’s
excellent Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds (New
York: Doubleday Religion, 2008).
3. For Strauss’s discussion of the tension between reason and revelation, see Leo
Strauss, Philosophy and Law: Contributions to the Understanding of Maimonides and His
Predecessors (1935), trans. Eve Adler (New York: State University of New York Press,
1995); Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1988). See also the analysis in Kenneth Hart Green, Leo Strauss and the Rediscovery of
Maimonides (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); Jew and Philosopher: The
Return to Maimonides in the Jewish Thought of Leo Strauss (Albany: State University
of New York Press, 1993); David Janssens, Between Athens and Jerusalem: Philosophy,
Politics, and Prophecy in Leo Strauss’ Early Thought (Albany: State University of New
York Press, 2002).
4. Strauss, “Introduction,” in Philosophy and Law; On Tyranny (1948); Natural
Right and History (1953); “On Aristotle’s Politics” in The City and Man; “What Is Liberal
Education?,” in Liberalism Ancient and Modern.
5. In addition to the works of Strauss cited above, see Karl Popper, The Poverty of
Historicism (1957), The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945/2013); Thomas Kuhn, The
Structure of Scientic Revolution (1962); Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher,
Practicing New Historicism (2001).
6. For the negative evaluation of storytellers, see Moses Maimonides, The Guide
of the Perplexed, trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963),
1.2; Sarah Stroumsa, Maimonides in His World: A Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker
(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009), 107n110.
7. Moses Maimonides, “Haqadma L’Perek Chelek,” in Yitzhak Shailat, Hakadmot
Ha-Rambam L’Mishna (Jerusalem: Ma’aliyot, 1992): 375–399.
8. Moses Maimonides, Epistle to Yemen, trans. Boaz Cohen (New York: American
Academy for Jewish Research, 1952), chap. 9.
9. Ibid., chaps. 15, 19.
10. Maimonides, Guide 3.29; Stroumsa, Maimonides in His World, 90–105, esp.
92–95 on divine accommodation.
11. Stroumsa, Maimonides in His World, 100–101.
12. Ibid., 109–111. Wine has a special status as a foodstuff in Judaism, in large part
because it is a part of offerings made in many pagan religions—for this reason the rabbis
forbid Jews from drinking wine made by (most) non-Jews, and even a non-Jew touching
a bottle can make the wine unt for consumption unless special precautions are taken.
The gesture of respect that Maimonides is making here should not be underestimated.
(Neither should it be forgotten that this would in no way lead to Jews and Muslims sitting
and drinking together.)
13. Ibid., 114 and 114nn135–136. Maimonides, Epistle, chap. 12, note 16.
14. Stroumsa, Maimonides in His World, 113–114, 180–181.
15. The exceptions to this accommodating tendency are women and preachers; see
ibid., 114–119. Interestingly, Stroumsa juxtaposes Maimonides’s severity with some of
the more radical statements about gender made by his contemporary, Ibn Rushd.
16. Ibid., 108; Maimonides, Guide III.30–33.
17. Maimonides, Guide III.34.
18. Strauss, Philosophy and Law 39; for the effects of the loss of the Law, see Phi-
losophy and Law, 30–34.
19. Michael Fishbane, The Exegetical Imagination: On Jewish Thought and Theology
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press): 2.
20. Ibid., 4.
21. Ibid., 132. This may be an under-reading of Maimonides’s estimation of the role
and importance of sacrice; while Maimonides certainly believes sacrice to be imperfect,
the previous portion of this paper demonstrated the vital role that the imperfect plays in
leading towards perfection. Particularly in the context of his broader theories regarding
governance, the political, practical, and even spiritual importance of these sacrices ac-
cording to Maimonides should not be underestimated.
22. James Arthur Diamond, Maimonides and the Hermeneutics of Concealment: De-
ciphering Midrash and Scripture in the Guide of the Perplexed (Albany: State University
of New York Press), 162.
23. In his Judeo-Arabic works, quotations from Torah and Talmud are the only pas-
sages that Maimonides reserves in Hebrew. No similar semantic move has been identied
for the moments when Maimonides invokes the work of his Islamic predecessors and
24. Al-Farabi’s inuence is patent, although the full extent of Maimonides’s citation
has yet to be demonstrated. For some discussion of the relationship between al-Farabi
and Maimonides see Leo Strauss, “Quelques Remarques,” Revue des Études Juives 100
(1936): 1–37; Stroumsa, Maimonides in His World, 67–68, 73–81, 124, 171. Professor
Stroumsa makes an excellent case that Ibn Rushd’s inuence on his Jewish contemporary
should no longer be banished to the shadows. Much work remains in drawing out the
elective afnities that link Ibn Rushd and Maimonides, particularly the links between Ibn
Rushd’s Decisive Treatise and the Guide; additional work on al-Farabi is also necessary,
particularly the relationship between the structure and functioning of the soul in al-Farabi’s
Ideal City and Maimonides Introduction to Perek Avot/Eight Chapters. It may also be that
the sense of alienation that Stroumsa notes in Maimonides is comparable in the Arabic
context only to the alienation of Ibn Rushd.
25. Why this would be controversial, I do not know. However, an appropriate anal-
ogy might be to consider what sort of knowledge many Jewish children pick up about
Christmas or Easter in North America; without ever being taught what it is, they will be
able to understand and navigate the way the larger world works.
26. Diamond, Maimonides and the Hermeneutics of Concealment, 10–11; Stroumsa,
Maimonides in His World, 189–191.
27. Kenneth Seeskin, “Maimonides’ Sense of History,” Jewish History 18:2/3 (2004):
28. Translations are my own, from “Haqadma l’Mishneh” in Hakadmot Ha-Rambam
L’Mishneh, ed. I. Shailat (Jerusalem: Ma’aliyot, 1992), 309–327, 309–310.
29. Deuteronomy 1, 4:1–2; Sifrah Leviticus, 25:1.
30. Maimonides often uses the Arabic rasul as an honoric for Moses: see Haqadma
31. There is of course a great deal of controversy about hadith authorization that
continues to this day; but from a structural perspective there are certain qualications
that authoritative witnesses ought to have.
32. For authority of Aaron and his sons, see (among other passages) Exodus 6:13
and 28:1; for the Seventy Elders, Exodus 24:1 and Numbers 11:16; for the biblical inti-
mation of the transmission line recorded by Maimonides, Leviticus 17:2. The record of
personages given in the Torah lends itself to this type of linkage—the Qur’an, unlike the
Torah, only rarely speaks about the Messenger directly and even more rarely mentions
his companions.
33. A comparison of Maimonides and Ibn Rushd on qiyas would contribute to a
deeper understanding of the relationship between their thought.
34. This is the formal term in Islamic law for a deductive analogy or analogical
reasoning: its importance in Islamic legal and also philosophical and political works
can hardly be overestimated. For a non-legal ‘political’ discussion of the importance of
qiyas see Decisive Treatise, 2.24–26, 6–7, 23, 28–30, 23; for qiyas in a more formally
philosophical context, see Ibn Rushd’s Short Commentary on Aristotle’s Topics.
35. Haqadma 310. In other words, dialectical syllogism when used in argumentation
often have little result or value—and the practical solution is to side with the majority.
Translations from the Hebrew of this text been unconcerned with how the text demon-
strates Maimonides familiarity and comfort with, and use of, both Arabic and explicitly
Islamic philosophical, legal, and even theological resources.
36. Al-Farabi, Kitab al-Milla wa Nusus Ukhra, ed. Muhsin Mahdi (Beirut: Dar al-
Mashriq, 1968), chap. 5; see above for Ibn Rushd.
37. Haqadma 310. Both Maimonides’s invocation of the authority of unanimous
agreement, and his swift and pragmatic move to the status of majority agreements, are
interesting given the Islamic context in which unanimity (‘ijma) is a denitive—if con-
troversial and multivalent—legal principle.
38. Just three of the many sources for this ruling; Eduyot, Mishneh 1:4–5 and Tosefta
1:4. Sanhedrin 2a, 32a; Baba Metzia 59b; Hullin 11a. It is reasonable to think that Mai-
monides cites Exodus in order to make his pronouncement even more authoritative, but
(see below) there are also certain interpretive puzzles raised by that choice.
39. לְהַטֹת רַבִים חֲרֵי לִנְטֹת רִב עַל תַעֲנֶה וְלֹא לְרָעֹת רַבִים חֲרֵי תִהְיֶה לֹא While the Introduction
to the Commentary on the Mishna is written in Judeo-Arabic, the quotation is left in He-
brew, as is Maimonides’s custom in all of his Judeo-Arabic works when quoting Jewish
sources. Haqadma 310.
40. For example, Sanhedrin 2a, 32a. A notable exception to this is Rashi, who explic-
itly departs from the interpretations of his predecessors in holding that the plain meaning
of the verse must be upheld. According to Rashi, “If you see wicked people perverting
justice, do not say, “Since they are many, I will follow them.” (Commentary on Exodus
23:2—אחריהם נוטה הנני ,הםורבים הואיל תאמר לא משפט,מטין רשעים ראית אם)
41. To be fair to Maimonides, the verse does occur once more in the Introduction,
in chapter two’s afrmation that even the prophets are subject to the law. In a fascinating
moment of text, “follow the majority” reects the majority opinion, based upon the un-
derstanding of Deuteronomy 30:12 (“It is no longer in Heaven,”) that in a logical debate
between equal numbers of prophets and sages, the opinion of the sages should triumph. A
more literal paraphrase would be: even when there is an even split between two opinions,
one group will always have more weight. A comparison of these two citations of Exodus
23:2 is a fruitful entrée into a more extended conversation about Maimonides’s relation-
ship to human authority than is possible here.
42. Maimonides, Guide, 6a/10.
43. Ibid., Introduction, 4b/7.
44. Strauss, “What is Liberal Education?,” 3–8.
45. Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1952), 48.
46. Strauss, Philosophy and Law, 24.
47. Ibid., 64.
48. Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Gesammelten Schriften I:2,
trans. Dennis Redmond (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2001): Addendum A. I intend to
suggest here, by ‘exegetical materialism,’ an afnity between the thought of Leo Strauss
and that of Walter Benjamin—I consider Maimonides an important facilitator for that
conversation, which I intend to extend in upcoming research.
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Full-text available
The general subject of the book is the re-discovery of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed by the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement in Germany of the nineteenth and beginning twentieth Germany. Since this movement is inseparably connected with religious reforms that took place at about the same time, it shall be demonstrated how the Reform Movement in Judaism used the Guide for its own agenda of historizing, rationalizing and finally turning Judaism into a philosophical enterprise of ‘ethical monotheism’. The study follows the reception of Maimonidean thought, and the Guide specifically, through the nineteenth century, from the first beginnings of early reformers in 1810 and their reading of Maimonides to the development of a sophisticated reform-theology, based on Maimonides, in the writings of Hermann Cohen more then a hundred years later.
While the great medieval philosopher, theologian, and physician Maimonides is acknowledged as a leading Jewish thinker, his intellectual contacts with his surrounding world are often described as related primarily to Islamic philosophy. Maimonides in His World challenges this view by revealing him to have wholeheartedly lived, breathed, and espoused the rich Mediterranean culture of his time. Sarah Stroumsa argues that Maimonides is most accurately viewed as a Mediterranean thinker who consistently interpreted his own Jewish tradition in contemporary multicultural terms. Maimonides spent his entire life in the Mediterranean region, and the religious and philosophical traditions that fed his thought were those of the wider world in which he lived. Stroumsa demonstrates that he was deeply influenced not only by Islamic philosophy but by Islamic culture as a whole, evidence of which she finds in his philosophy as well as his correspondence and legal and scientific writings. She begins with a concise biography of Maimonides, then carefully examines key aspects of his thought, including his approach to religion and the complex world of theology and religious ideas he encountered among Jews, Christians, Muslims, and even heretics; his views about science; the immense and unacknowledged impact of the Almohads on his thought; and his vision of human perfection. This insightful cultural biography restores Maimonides to his rightful place among medieval philosophers and affirms his central relevance to the study of medieval Islam.
Maimonides’ principal halachic works, i.e. his Commentary on the Mishnah and the Mishneh Torah are mostly regarded as exoteric. Two main reasons may be adduced in favour of this opinion, which seems to me to be correct.
Although it is often said that Maimonides lacked a sense of history, the truth is that he lacked our sense of history, which means a sense of history according to which historical change produces conceptual change. This article explores his use of historical materials to explain the reasons for many of the commandments as well as his commitment to the stability of human nature and scientific knowledge. Though much of his view is no longer credible, his belief in the contingency of historical change has much to recommend it.
The essays collected in Persecution and the Art of Writing all deal with one problem—the relation between philosophy and politics. Here, Strauss sets forth the thesis that many philosophers, especially political philosophers, have reacted to the threat of persecution by disguising their most controversial and heterodox ideas.