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Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works.

Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works, by Herbert A. Davidson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 567 pp. $45.00.

The publication of a comprehensive biography of Maimonides by a scholar of Herbert Davidson's caliber is surely a significant literary event. Given the tremendous range of disciplines in which Maimonides wrote--Halakhist, philosopher, and physician--the writing of his biography is a task that requires multi-disciplinary skills. In view of its extensive scope, this brief review cannot possibly do justice to the book and deal exhaustively with its many aspects. We must therefore be content with a survey of the chapters of the book and its main innovations, with a few further brief comments.

The first chapter is a detailed account of Maimonides' life. Davidson has examined the sources for his life story and contends with the positions of various scholars in regard to disputed points. Thus, for example, he concludes that there is no real basis for the theory that Maimonides converted to Islam, as believed today by some important authorities; similarly, there is no evidence that his family suffered Almohad persecution (p. 29). Davidson also touches on another scholarly bone of contention when he asserts that "nothing whatsoever known of Maimonides' activities supports the hypothesis that he served as head of the Jews in Egypt" (p. 62). Chapter 2 is concerned with Maimonides' education. Davidson discusses the different disciplines in which he was instructed and offers the intriguing and challenging argument that, contrary to Maimonides' own recommendations as to the most desirable course of studies, he himself devoted most of his efforts and time to the study of rabbinics and medicine rather than philosophy.

Subsequent chapters present detailed analyses of Maimonides' works, subject by subject, in the approximate chronological order of their composition. Three chapters are devoted to the rabbinic works: Maimonides' commentaries on the Mishnah and the Talmud, Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Mishneh Torah, the reception of Mishneh Torah, and the other Halakhic writings, including his responsa. Two further chapters deal with Maimonides' philosophical works. In that context Davidson argues that the Treatise on Logic (Millot ha-Higgayon) was probably not written by Maimonides; this conjecture will undoubtedly spark scholarly debate. He goes on to present a sharp critique of the well-known views of Leo Strauss, who saw the need to decipher the supposed esoteric dimension of The Guide for the Perplexed, and of Shlomo Pines' view of Maimonides as an agnostic: "Strauss further gives us to understand that [Maimonides] ... not only saw himself as non-Jewish. He did not believe that God exists.... Both theses--that Maimonides was an atheist and that he was an agnostic--transform the Guide for the Perplexed into one of the most grotesque books ever written" (pp. 401-402).

The next chapter is devoted to Maimonides' medical works. Among other things, Davidson is dubious as to the authenticity of the Epistle on the Length of Life. In Chapter 9,"Miscellaneous Writings," Davidson expresses similar doubts as to the Epistle on Religious Persecution and the Epistle in Opposition to Astrology. In the last, concluding chapter, he sums up this account of Maimonides, highlighting his complex character: philosopher and rabbi, a man inclined to severity who nevertheless softened his attitudes in time, conscious of his stature but accessible to the public. Whatever his "official" position, he was "head of the Jews not only in Egypt but throughout the medieval Jewish world."

Speaking in terms of analogy, one might say that even while Davidson's book does not provide an explicit characterization of Maimonides, he is nevertheless defined in terms of attributes of action and privative attributes--attributes of action that describe Maimonides' literary achievements, privative attributes that deny the Maimonidean authorship of certain writings hitherto attributed to the great sage of Fustat, and others that reject attempts to define him as a radical personality.

In this context, some of Davidson's contentions merit attention. I shall treat them as they appear in the book.

1. Analyzing Maimonides' familiarity with the thought of the Kalam school, he writes: "The words 'I have heard' ... sound as if Maimonides was relying on something he happened to have heard rather than on a text" (p. 88). The original Judeo-Arabic (in the Introduction to Tractate Avot, 6) is sami'tuhum (literally: "I have heard them"). But in another context (Guide III, 49) Maimonides uses the same verb as follows: mimma sami'tuhu min al-kutub, that is, "which I have heard from books"--this seems to contradict Davidson's conclusion.

2. Later on, Davidson meticulously examines the various philosophers referred to in Maimonides' works. Among others, he mentions Epicurus, who is mentioned several times in the Guide (p. 111). In fact, the term "Epicurus" appears in Maimonides' Halakhic works as well, but these were written before the Guide. Moreover, in his commentary on the Mishnah, in the introduction to Pereq Heleq, Maimonides proposes an Aramaic etymology for the term "Epicurus," and accordingly Alexander Kohut, in his addenda to Aruch ha-Shalem (p. 233), suggests, "perhaps the youthful Maimonides, when he wrote the commentary on the Mishnah, did not know that 'Epicurus' is a proper name." It may be worth comparing the shifts in Maimonides attitudes to philosophical issues with the chronological progress of his philosophical education. Perhaps an analysis of this sort would explain what are clearly changes in his position (the second reason for contradictions in the introduction to the Guide), such as the contradiction between the statement in his commentary on the Mishnah (Introduction to Pereq Heleq) that the spheres and the intelligences do not possess will or choice, as against his assertion in the Guide (II, 7) that they do. In view of such shifts of opinion and obvious contradictions, attempts to deny the Maimonidean authorship of certain works because they are inconsistent with the Guide for the Perplexed are surely rather questionable.

3. Davidson's formulation of the tenth of Maimonides' thirteen principles of the faith (p. 156), "God's knowledge of the events of the world," is not accurate. Maimonides declares that "God knows the actions of human beings," and that knowledge is relevant to the next principle, which is concerned with divine providence and is applicable specifically to human beings. Incidentally, Davidson's list of the thirteen principles omits the belief in the advent of the messiah.

4. Davidson at times relies on the textual readings of problematic editions. Thus, he refers to the term Gemara as appearing in Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:11, noting that "Where Maimonides writes Gemara, the passage has Talmud in the printed editions of the Babylonian Talmud" (p. 244, n. 233). But the corrected edition of Mishneh Torah reads precisely "Talmud"! In addition, Davidson habitually refers to "H. Abodat Kokabim," as in the censored printed editions; the original "H. 'Abodah Zarah" is surely preferable.

5. Arguing (pp. 319-320) that the Treatise on Logic was not written by Maimonides, Davidson relies largely on the illustration of "temporal priority" through the persons of Moses and Jesus. As he argues, the implication is that the priority of Moses was purely temporal--an idea diametrically opposed to Maimonides' perception of the relationship between the two figures. Besides other possible arguments that would preserve the work's authenticity, one might propose the following: The presentation of Moses as temporally prior to Jesus does not necessarily imply that Moses' priority was only temporal; in the illustration provided for priority in order, "two men, one of whom sits near the ruler and the other farther away," the priority in question does not exclude other possible priorities (of importance, for example), not necessarily implied by such technical questions as the order of seating. I would say that the positive statement in this context does not necessarily negate any other kind of priority: Moses' temporal priority to Jesus does not mean that the author considered them as equals in any other respect.

There are two traditional terms that seem to be an apt description of the way to write a monograph of such broad scope as Davidson's book. One is "Sinai"--that is, an encyclopedic summary of everything known to present-day research on the subject. Such a monograph would offer a wider use of available studies of Maimonides, with more detailed and conveniently used indexes than in the present volume. Davidson in his monograph acts in essence like an 'oqer harim, a "mover of mountains," launching an attack on conventional wisdom. A more thorough-going analysis of this assault on accepted views than this very brief review would do more justice to this challenging volume.

Hannah Kasher

Department of Philosophy

Bar Ilan University
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Author:Kasher, Hannah
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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