Interview with Prof. James Diamond

The historian of Jewish philosophy Isaac Husik once mentioned that Jewish thought is a series of footnotes to Maimonides. In this he was modifying the famous statement of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who claimed that philosophy was a series of footnotes to Plato. In his recent book Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon, James A. Diamond the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo accepts the veracity of Husik’s claim by looking at many Jewish thinkers and their dialectic relationship with Maimonides.

James A. Diamond has earned an LLB as well as an LLM in International Legal Studies at New York University School of Law and has practicing civil litigation, in addition he has an MA and PhD in Medieval Jewish Thought from University of Toronto. He was the international director of the Friedberg Genizah Project. His prior two books were Maimonides and the Hermeneutics of Concealment, and Converts, Heretics, and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider, both smart and insightful.

Professor Isidore Twersky considered Jewish intellectual life as revolving around the usage, rejection, or struggling with Maimonides issues. His approach asked how each later thinkers answered the broad cultural issues by which Maimonides had struggled, including the role of aggadah, the role of meta-halakhic knowledge, the role of elitism, and the role of spiritualization of Judaism. James Diamond in his Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon is concerned more with the actual dialectics of subsequent thinkers with the philosophy of the Guide than the cultural world. He looks at points in the thought of Nahmanides, Ritva, Ran, Abarbanel, Spinoza, Netziv, Buber, Rav Kook, and Hermann Cohen among others to see the canon of Jewish thought as shaped by Maimonides.

Moshe Halbertal who has written on the role of canon in the formation of Judaism praises the work for its “analysis of the complex and deep ways in which Maimonides’ own works became, in turn canonical.” James Kugel loved the book and wrote that: “This book is an intellectual tour de force, but more than that, it is an essential guide to understanding the ‘thinking’ part of Judaism in our own day.” Finally, Leon Wieseltier wrote: “James Diamond has captured.. the excitement of tradition generally. His account… establishes the primacy, and the originality, and the beauty of interpretation as a mode of thought.”

Readers may profit from comparing this interview to our interview with Kenneth Hart Green about Maimonides.

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1. How is Maimonides a “fulcrum” of all subsequent Jewish thought?

Maimonides set the agenda in one way or another for virtually all of Jewish thought since the Middle Ages; a study of the explicit and implicit Maimonidean threads that course their way through various historical periods and thinkers serves to illuminate certain aspects of the different strands of that thought which might otherwise go undetected. Much of Jewish intellectual history can be viewed as a series of engagements, disengagements, and re-engagements with him, fueled by the kind of writing Maimonides himself practiced, thereby establishing the very lines of discourse that target or conjure up his thought, regardless of the social, cultural, and intellectual transformations inevitably wrought by time.

A few years ago, during the book’s gestation, Leon Wieseltier suggested looking at Gershom Scholem as a contrast. For Scholem there were only three books–the Hebrew Bible, the Zohar, and the collected works of Kafka–which he “read and reread with true attentiveness, with an open heart, and with spiritual tension.” He considered these three “books” to be “collections on which over the course of three thousand years were impressed that spirit customarily referred to as the spirit of Judaism.” Scholem’s concise list of quintessentially Jewish works betrays a certain bias against the classical rabbinic tradition, Maimonides, and rationalism.

I would express the same sentiment with respect to the collected works of Maimonides. Alongside the Bible, the Talmud, and the Zohar, they comprise the core spiritual and intellectual canon of Judaism. It would be difficult to characterize anything postdating the Middle Ages as authentically Jewish absent some engagement with all or some of the components of this canon. Indeed, Scholem’s own canon of Jewish thought, and lifelong interest in kabbalah, can be thought to have been constructed in one sense as a reaction to Maimonides. When reminiscing about what motivated his study of kabbalah, he admitted an antipathy to the Maimonidean (along with Saadya Gaon and Hermann Cohen) project, whose “primary function” he claims was “setting up antitheses to myth and pantheism and disproving them. It would have been more beneficial had they attempted to raise them to a higher level within which they would be negated.” Scholem’s entire kabbalistic project can be viewed as a redemption of what Maimonides had denigrated.

The numerous examples of Maimonidean engagements in the book collectively amount to an argument against Scholem in favor of elevating the Maimonidean oeuvre to canonical status alongside the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, and subsequently the Zohar.

Moshe Halbertal’s distinction between central texts that are influential in shaping thought and formative texts “in which progress in the field is made through interpretation of the text itself,” is instructive in terms of how precisely to classify the Maimonidean textual legacy in terms of Judaism’s curricular canon. In light of the extent to which this book places post Maimonidean thought in dialogue with that legacy, Maimonides’ Guide and Code can safely be subsumed within the formative category.

This study gives voice to that dialogue in a panoply of intellectual languages and across historically delineated periods. The dialogue may stretch between a rabbinic rationalist such as Maimonides, living in Islamic-dominated Egypt; an adversarial rabbinic mystical exegete such as Nahmanides (13th century) in Christian-dominated Spain; the fiercely antagonistic fifteenth-century kabbalistic encyclopedist Meir ibn Gabbai; or an admiring twentieth-century Eastern European mystic, Zionist, and political activist such as Abraham Isaac Kook, who reinvented Maimonides; but all are firmly entrenched within a well-established rabbinic tradition. Even Spinoza, Judaism’s arch-heretic and free-thinking iconoclast, who broke with the Jewish tradition altogether in seventeenth-century Holland, could not sever his ties to his inherited religion without refuting the Maimonidean biblical hermeneutic. In his very rejection of Maimonides, he actually resorts to this hermeneutic if only to overcome his primary Jewish intellectual predecessor and foil.

In a sense Maimonides emerges as a fulcrum for Jewish law and civilization in all its genres–legal, rabbinic, philosophical, and mystical. Often, even when Maimonides is not explicitly mentioned, it becomes evident from a cited verse or a rabbinic adage that a later thinker has contemplated Maimonides’ interpretation, whether as endorsement and incorporation of its Maimonidean sense, or to carve out new space for an opposing idea.

2. Do you agree with Isaac Husik, the historian of Jewish thought,who considered Jewish thought as a series of footnotes to Maimonides?

I have been studying Maimonides in various contexts during the course of my life from the yeshivah, through a legal career, and then in the academy. My interests, however, range the entire spectrum of Jewish thought across strictly delineated historical borders the academy has drawn, at times artificially, between medieval, early modern, and modern. At the same time, I have wandered, some might consider trespassed, onto “fields” that also seem to me often artificially constructed when it comes to Jewish thought such as theology, philosophy, law, rabbinics, and biblical exegesis. Maimonides seemed to be a connective thread traversing historical periods and genres of writing.

Every path in Jewish thought and law from the twelfth century onward bears some of Maimonides’ imprint, even the particular crystallization of kabbalah, so inimical to the general thrust of his rationalism, would have been unimaginable without the work of Maimonides.

The Husik quote which launches the book transposes what Whitehead is reported to have said regarding all of western philosophy as a series of footnotes on Plato, to the relationship between Jewish philosophy and Maimonides. This always resonated with me and is an apt, yet partial, characterization. Husik’s observation was actually too narrow in its scope, and emerges from the traditional strict bifurcation between philosophy and theology. I would expand Husik’s observation beyond philosophy to include theology, law, and kabbalah.

As scholars such as Isadore Twersky have argued, the Mishneh Torah offers a grand jurisprudential/philosophical/ political/ social conception of Judaism and humanity in general. It begins with a universal ideal accessible intellectually to all human beings and ends with a messianic vision where that universal ideal is actually realized socially, politically, and philosophically. An entire “parochial” legal code is bracketed by a universal vision.

The Guide is also far more than a philosophical treatise. I begin my book with another observation, this time by Leo Strauss, that it “is not a philosophic book–a book written by a philosopher for philosophers–but a Jewish book: a book written by a Jew for Jews.” When I first began my studies on Maimonides, I thought it a trite observation. However, over the years, I came to increasingly appreciate its full import. Overlaying the Guide’s undercurrent of Aristotelian philosophy, medieval cosmology, and logic, is a very Jewish work. Its relentless citation of biblical and rabbinic sources renders it much more a book of exegesis than strictly a philosophical treatise. The Guide I believe , in its entirety, fits in to the age old tradition of rereading Judaism’s sacred texts both on a micro-level of individual words and a macro-level of passages or units called “parables”. Maimonides’ intended audience is Jewish; his core subject matter consists exclusively of philosophical issues filtered through Jewish texts; the very writing of the Guide is grounded in a halakhic dispensation of openly transmitting forbidden esoteric subjects ; and the existential angst he aims at relieving of the conflict between the Torah and philosophy is a Jewish one.

3. How does Harold Bloom help developing your approach of tracing the use of Maimonides?

There is a form of anxiety that both links and propels the various strands of Jewish thought presented in the book and helps to account for a critical dimension of creativity in advancing Jewish thought. Harold Bloom’s seminal insights into the vitality of poetry and prose are relevant to the way the book approaches the history of Jewish thought vis-à-vis Maimonides.
Here is how Bloom understands the creative force of much of Western poetry composed over the last few centuries:

Poetic Influence–when it involves two strong, authentic poets–always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main traditions of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist.

As one proceeds along this study of various Jewish thinkers–rationalist or kabbalist, medieval or modern–this “central principle” of Bloom’s sweeping consolidation of all good poetry under one primary rubric of “misreading,” “correction,” “misinterpretation,” and “revisionism” begins to crystallize as a formative principle of post-Maimonidean Jewish thought as well. By transposing some of the terms in Bloom’s assertion, the following can be stated with equal force:

Jewish philosophical, jurisprudential, and theological influence–when it involves a strong, authentic thinker—often proceeds by a misreading of Maimonides, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. A good part of the history of fruitful Jewish philosophical and theological influence, since the Middle Ages, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism of Maimonidean thought, without which modern Jewish thought as such could not exist.

To borrow another formulation from Harold Bloom’s theory of poetry, one of the indicators of the greatness of the thinkers dealt with in the book lies not necessarily in their “originality” but rather in their “persistence to wrestle with their strong precursors, even to death. Weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves.” That “precursor” with whom the subjects of the book wrestled and from whom they appropriated is Moses Maimonides.

4. In your view, what is the dialectic between philosophy and kabbalah?

I don’t believe there can be a neat bifurcation between kabbalah and philosophy and the Maimonidean impetus for the development of kabbalistic theology is a critical focal point to demonstrate this. Scholars of Jewish mysticism have already argued for the Maimonidean influence on kabbalah- and not simply as an antagonist but as a positive catalyst for kabbalah’s formation. Maimonides’ influence on the Zohar is still a scholarly desideratum but I deal with one particular example where the Zohar’s mystical/sefirotic exegesis of a key verse in Maimonidean hermeneutics is fueled by Maimonides’ own pragmatic, rationalist reading of it.

Two chapters in the book deal specifically with the dialectic between philosophy and kabbalah using Meir ibn Gabbai of the sixteenth century and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook of the twentieth as instructive examples.

Ibn Gabbai’s magnum opus, Avodat HaQodesh, consists of a counter-lexicon which methodically displaces the philosophical layer of many of the key terms such as “sitting,” “standing,” “foot,” or “spirit,” dealt with in Maimonides’ lexicography of biblical terms in the first part of the Guide, replacing them with his own parallel, but inverse, lexicon. While Maimonides’ overarching concern was to drain these terms of their anthropomorphic connotations when referring to God, ibn Gabbai’s was to reverse Maimonides’ anti-anthropomorphism crusade, and re-anthropomorphize biblical language in aid of what he was convinced was its kabbalistic message. Along the way ibn Gabbai dismantles Maimonides’ theological rationalism. His exegesis of biblical verses and midrashic traditions are intended as hermeneutical counterpoints to Maimonides, radically transforming the philosophically esoteric exegeses of those common references into a kabbalistic mode.

Throughout his prolific career, R. Kook, engaged the thought of Maimonides, whose own corpus, in its thoroughly systematic nature, whether halakhic or philosophic, could not be more antithetical to R. Kook’s. Rather than Gabbai’s counterpoint, R. Kook rereads Maimonides through commentary- more of an eisegetical reinforcement of his own thought than an objective commentary.

In a sense R. Kook applied the methodology he ascribed to Maimonides’ appropriation of Aristotelian philosophy to his very own appropriation of Maimonidean philosophy. He believed that the patent sense of many Maimonidean texts offends their real, authorially intended, sense and therefore required conscious subversion so that the genuine sense would emerge seamlessly for his readers.

R. Kook reads Maimonides “omnisignificantly”, a term James Kugel applies to rabbinic midrashic readings of scripture. In R. Kook the lines between Jewish mysticism and Jewish rationalism become somewhat blurred. R. Kook, in this short commentary on the most philosophically oriented section of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, combines the two domains seamlessly in constructing an intellectualist mysticism for which Maimonides’ rationalist corpus is indispensable.

5. Should we consider Abarbanel to be a continuation or rejection of Maimonides?

I focused in particular on Maimonides’ thought which was imported by those who succeeded him, adapted to new currents of thought, subverted, or negated by them, as the case may be, and transported further, elongating the chain of Jewish philosophy, theology, and law.

A number of thinkers I deal, such as Isaac Abarbanel, Moses Nahmanides, Ritva, and, I even include Spinoza, suffer from a not uncommon love/hate attitude toward Maimonides. They all share a dynamic emotional/intellectual/spiritual relationship that reflects both a reverence for Maimonides’ towering intellect and rabbinic proficiency as well as fear and anxiety as to the consequences of his rationalism.
The chapter dedicated to Isaac Abarbanel, for example, arguably the most prominent of 15th century exegetes, who also experienced the exile and trauma of the Jewish expulsion from Spain, wrote after centuries of raging controversies incited by Maimonides’ works, over whether the rationalist approach to religious belief in its deference to the Graeco-Arabic philosophical tradition reinforced or undermined Jewish faith and practice. Abarbanel’s thought resonates negatively with both the aftershocks of these religiously bitter and socially divisive debates

I chose his treatment of the akedah as a particularly poignant example of Abarbanel’s passionately conflicted engagement with Maimonides which treads a precarious tight-walk between what Abarbanel perceives as both a continuum and a rupture with rabbinic Judaism and loyalty to halakha. In this case, an apparent endorsement of Maimonidean biblical exegesis rendered in the course of his own exegetical discourse may actually amount to a sustained subversive attack once his overall interpretation is considered. Abarbanel’s cultural/historical milieu, which demanded concrete existential sacrifice for the preservation of one’s faith along with the disappointing failure to withstand a challenge to faith in his own family background and beyond in the general community, may have informed his exegetical divergence in this instance and throughout.

Thus biblical exegesis in fifteenth-century Iberia charts a different path, fueled by a worship that in the end entails absolute submission rather than Maimonidean reasoned obeisance to divine command. Abarbanel’s exegesis has its precedent in the withering assaults on Maimonidean rationalism by Moses Nahmanides, a seminal critic of Maimonides, especially when it comes to offering rationale for mitzvoth. The subsequent struggle to carve out a space for Maimonidean theology is so intense that a major attempt to do so emerges within the Nahmanidean camp itself by Ritva who dedicates a systematic treatise to it. What I argue is that while Nahmanides attempted to replace a rationalist theology with a more kabbalistic one, a generation later Ritva, salvages Maimonidean rationalism and reserves a space for it alongside kabbalah within Jewish practice and belief.

6. How does the Netziv fit into your pattern?
On this score, Maimonides’ anchoring of halakha in reason, as evidenced in his ta’amei mitzvoth, looms so large that the Netziv, one of greatest of nineteenth century rabbinic authorities could find himself expending much energy to combat it. Netziv’s view of Jewish law that transcends reason militates against Maimonidean jurisprudence which appreciates every single commandment teleologically, regardless of their ritualistic or civil character, aimed toward inculcating any one of “opinions, moral qualities, and political civic actions.” Netziv subverts Maimonides’ collapse of any distinction between non-rational (hukim) and rational (mishpatim) commandments into one overarching rational classification, replacing it with his own collapse of them into a uniform scheme of non-rationality. Thus he infuses even that dimension of the law reason would dictate necessary for the normal functioning of any civil society with meta-legal mystery, for “even those commandments which apparently even human reason would engender, were not decreed by the Torah from the aspect of human reason, but rather from the aspect of the non-rational (hukei) dimension of the Torah.”

7. Why is Maimonides relevant today?
Firstly, he remains relevant in the sense for example the Hebrew Bible does. I constantly remind my students that regardless of one’s beliefs, one cannot possibly understand the history of Western thought, culture, and art without knowledge of the Bible. In the same way, from practical, historical, and scholarly perspectives my book demonstrates that the development of Jewish thought since the middle ages, in all its dimensions, cannot possibly be appreciated without considering the traces of Maimonides’ thought explicitly and implicitly. For this, the correctness of his science is irrelevant. My book ends with Franz Kafka, a Jewish writer who is rarely mentioned in the same breath, and I claim that even his Kafkaesque thought can be better appreciated if read against the grain of Maimonides.

Secondly, and more importantly, is that Maimonides stands as the supreme model of a complete human being, who struggled to incorporate both his humanness and his Jewishness into a seamless whole. As such both the world of the yeshivah and that of the academy have much to learn from his legacy.

Again, the science Maimonides operated with is irrelevant to an appreciation of the existential enterprise he devoted his life to. The science changes but the dilemma, conflict, and spiritual wrestling remains the same. The reason he has and continues to wield so strong an attraction in both worlds is because of his wholeness, of his potent combination of rabbinic expertise and philosophical acumen. Without those Maimonides could easily have been ignored by devotees of either school and thus would not loom as large over the evolution of Jewish thought, nor indeed, even be the subject of my study.

For me the problem he addresses that motivated him to compose the Guide really says it all about his continuing relevance to any modern Jew. Those who seek to remain committed to their tradition and sacred texts as well as their intellects need not abandon either. Jewishness cannot be fulfilled at the expense of turning one’s back on one’s intellect and living a lie, condemned to perpetually suffer from “loss to oneself and harm to one’s religion”. Maimonides offered us the tools for avoiding a life of inauthenticity or simplicity.

Religion for Maimonides does not provide comfort but demands extraordinary effort in understanding both the world around you and the why of God’s dictates. Blind faith attracts no praise from Maimonides, except as a childish starting point for a life of sustained thought and struggle as the only authentic mode of existence.

8. Where does Maimonides stand along the classical rabbinic canon that preceded him?

There is a striking observation attributed to R. Hanina bar Papa, a fourth-century rabbinic sage, which demarcates the four primary texts of the classical Jewish canon according to their hermeneutical effects. Midrashically stimulated by the direct form of mass revelation to the Israelites at Mount Horeb described as “face to face” (Deut. 5:4), the divine word is said to manifest itself in four different ways, associated with each of the four constituents of the rabbinic canon: “The Bible possesses the face of dread (אימה), the Mishnah a neutral face (בינוניות), the Talmud a playful face (שוחקות) , and the Aggadah an explicatory face (מסבירות).”

In whatever sense the term “ dread” or “awesome” is understood, the notion is that the Bible undergoes an interpretive process through the various stages and approaches represented by these different rabbinic genres that slowly moderates that initial terror, transforming it into understanding and clarity. I would venture to attribute the dread emanating from the Bible to its inability to communicate sensibly with a later audience that might no longer share its theological tenets and is uncomfortable with its moral and juristic sensibility. Inconsistency and anachronism, as well as large parts of it being rendered irrelevant by the historical demise of the sacrificial cult, obscures its communicative “face” even further. What initially overwhelms, startles, or shocks is illuminated by the conciliating, liberal, and explanatory strategies of rabbinic exegesis.

My book seeks to add a fifth face, that of Maimonides to that exegetical process which filters out further biblical unintelligibility for an even later audience who can no longer tolerate its philosophical, theological, and juridic incoherence. Just as the biblical Moses intervenes to mediate the divine face-to-face communication that people cannot tolerate further, so the medieval Moses intervenes in Jewish intellectual history with a new midrashic face that philosophizes and theologizes. In doing so, Jewish thought continues to advance while at the same time firmly anchored in its foundational texts.

One response to “Interview with Prof. James Diamond

  1. Quoting Kugel on Jewish philosophy? He used to draw a blank on the subject.

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