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David Shasha

David Shasha

Posted: March 9, 2010 11:08 AM

In informal discussions with people, I often shock them when I relate the simple fact that Jewish rabbis spoke Arabic and lived in the Arab-Muslim world.

So conditioned have we become to Jews being Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe with their lox and bagels, chopped liver and matzoh ball soup, that it is startling for many to find that Jews once lived in the Arab world and acculturated to the norms of those places. In the immigration to America, many of our grandparents were native speakers of Arabic - even that American Jewish icon Jerry Seinfeld, on his mother's side, comes from Syrian Jews who spoke Arabic and ate Arab food like kibbeh and samboosak!

The reason that Arabic-speaking Jews are a strange thing to many is that Arabic is considered in some Jewish circles to be the language of the "enemy." The very definition of the word "Sephardic" has taken on a European gloss when in reality it was first and foremost part of the Arabic civilization of al-Andalus.

The figure of Moses Maimonides (ca. 1138-1204), perhaps the greatest post-Talmudic rabbi, exemplifies the complications and pitfalls involved in the Arabic articulation of Judaism. It can be said without exaggeration that to know Maimonides is to know Judaism. Never has such a figure become as central to Judaism as he has. And yet Maimonides, like many other religious giants, has been transformed and co-opted by reactionaries in order to suit their own agendas.

Maimonides' great genius was in the creation of a synthesis that my teacher Jose Faur has called "Religious Humanism." Taking the parochial traditions of Judaism, its laws, its rituals and its particular understanding of God and the Covenant, and merging them with philosophy, science and history, Maimonides' Religious Humanism was of a piece with the civilization of the Arabic Mediterranean world he lived in.

But if you were to look for books that presented the teachings of Maimonides from this standpoint, you would be frustrated. The two most accessible studies of Maimonides over the past few decades completely ignored the Arabic context of Maimonides' teaching by situating him in the context of Ashkenazi Orthodoxy: Isadore Twersky published his Introduction to the Code of Maimonides in 1982 and David Hartman issued his Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest in 1977; both books have been perennial best-sellers and are routinely assigned to undergraduate students.

It is therefore a very good thing that we now have two books which bring the work of Maimonides to a general audience without eliding the Arabic cultural context so critical to his teachings. In the work of Maimonides, the Muslim Ibn Rushd - better known to Westerners as Averroes - and the Catholic Thomas Aquinas, was generated a creative synthesis that was predicated upon the many advances being made in places like Cordoba, Baghdad and Cairo. And it is in Cordoba and later Cairo that Maimonides lived his life.

The polyglot nature of this Arabo-Mediterranean world is crisply formulated by Joel Kraemer in his definitive biography Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization's Greatest Minds (Doubleday, 2009):

From the ninth to the twelfth century, Islamic culture burgeoned, as scholars translated philosophy and science from Greek into Arabic, appropriating the ancient heritage creatively and critically. Scholarship, literature, art, and architecture thrived. The Islamic world surpassed Europe in culture and learning. In Spain, especially Toledo, and in Sicily, scholars translated Arabic philosophy and science into Latin, as Islamic culture became the bridge between the intellectual heritage of antiquity and the West. The transmission of learning from Greek into Arabic and then from Arabic into Hebrew and Latin and other European languages was a momentous achievement of human civilization, and it was vital for the formation of European thought in the medieval period.

Kraemer has presented the general reader with a vigorous portrait of a Jewish sage whose relevance for our time is critical. His Maimonides is a figure who rejects superstition and religious fundamentalism in favor of a deeper and more penetrating understanding of the tradition. For all his brilliance, Maimonides has been repaid with a combination of scorn, mischaracterization and apathy. A number of his philosophical and scientific works were placed under ban by rabbis in the orbit of Franco-German Judaism. Bowdlerization of his work continues to this day.

A welcome addition to Kraemer's definitive biography is Sarah Stroumsa's Maimonides in his World: A Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker (Princeton University Press, 2009). Srroumsa's book is the perfect complement to Kraemer's portrait. The book delves into even more detail to discover many of Maimonides' innovations and the way in which they were enabled. Critical to Stroumsa's reading of Maimonides is her insistence that it is impossible to understand any of his texts without taking into account the scholarship of the Arabo-Islamic thinkers of his day:

Maimonides' theory of religion was profoundly affected by his uncensored reading in what he believed to be the authentic ancient pagan writings. His interpretation of biblical precepts was the result of discoveries he believed himself to have made in the course of these readings. Furthermore, his legal methodology was conditioned by his immersion in Almohad society, and by his encounter with Muslim law in general and with Almohad law in particular. To fully understand Maimonides' legal writings and to duly appreciate his tremendous contribution to the development of Jewish law, all these elements, seemingly external to the Jewish legacy, must be taken into account.

Maimonides is thus just the sort of religious visionary that our times call for. Beyond this, Maimonides provides those who remain stymied by the binary division of Jew and Arab with another possibility: A fusion of Jewish and Arab-Muslim culture that is grounded in the realities of history. In these two books we can better come to terms with a forgotten history that brings together Jews, Christians and Muslims under the rubric of Arabic civilization.

As Kraemer so expertly states:

Although many states, ethnic groups, and religions emerged in the Mediterranean region, political boundaries did not stifle free movement and did not interfere with the unity and autonomy of religious and ethnic groups.

Rather than remain chained to a model of culture and civilization that separates the protagonists in the Middle East conflict, perhaps it is high time that we traveled back in time to rediscover the legacy of Maimonides that is so richly detailed in these wonderful books.