Category Archives: History

Sarah Stroumsa, Maimonides in His World: Rambam as Cosmopolitan-Updated

There is a new book Sarah Stroumsa: Maimonides in His World Princeton University Press  2009. I await my copy to arrive and for the reviews to start appearing. In the meantime, in her first chapter she describes the Islamic Mediterranean culture in which Maimonides worked and which she will use as the framework for her book. She paints Maimonides as the end of an era of Arabic-Jewish integration.

In this approach, she is similar to the method of Steven Wasserstrom, Between Muslim and Jew: The Problem of Symbiosis under Early Islam. Between the 8th and 12th centuries, Jewish culture was tied up in Shiia and Ismaeli thought, in the formation of hadith collections, and Islamic legal schools, in the machinations of Caliphs, in Arabic poetics, and Islamic science.  Maimonides thoughts as he wrote them, were not the start of something new, rather the final summery, reflection, and synthesis of a different age. She credits this approach to S. D. Goitoin and others.

In this approach, the Maimonides of his time is different than the Maimonides of thirty years after his death and then the subsequent use in the Beit Midrash. The former Maimonides spoke and read Arabic and Berber, had Muslim colleagues, and needs to be situated in a world of Farabi, Ibn Sina, ibn Bajjah and the fiqh of Al Ghazzali and debates between Hanafi and Maliki schools of law, and the Ismaeli Qadi al- Nu man’s “Pillars of Islam.” In many aspects, Maimonides was quite conservative compared to the religious options his age. In contrast, the Maimonides of the Beit Midrash is a about a European reception of his works in Hebrew. In Provence, Maimonides was read with Hebrew translations of Farabi, and ibn Sina, but the original world has been lost.

First Chapter as pdf

The “Mediterranean culture” that shaped Maimonides had, of course,  produced other Jewish leaders and scholars. It is interesting to compare  Maimonides to another “Mediterranean thinker” of impressive stature, Saadia ben Yosef Fayyumi, alias Saadia Gaon (d. 942).80 Like Maimonides’, Saadia’s thought was shaped by his education, travels, readings, and personal encounters, and included the legacy of different schools
and religious communities. Like Maimonides’, Saadia’s originality lies in  his ability to integrate these diverse sources of influence into a coherent Jewish thought, speaking the universal cultural language of his time while  yet remaining entirely Jewish. The differences between the tenth-century  Saadia and the twelfth- century Maimonides are not only differences of  personality. The distinctive characters of their respective “cultural Mediterraneans” reflect the turning point in the twelfth century. Both Saadia and Maimonides can be seen as high- water marks of the Jewish Mediterranean society. Saadia, in the tenth century, marks the consolidation and coming of age of the Judaeo- Arabic Mediterranean culture. Maimonides, at the close of the twelfth century, marks the turning of the tide, the end of an era: the beginning of the waning of Islamic culture, the rise of Europe an intellectual power, and, as part of this process, the great shift occurring within the Jewish world.

In modern parlance, he could  perhaps be called “cosmopolitan,” that is, a person who belongs to more  than one of the subcultures that together form the world in which he  lives.

Even some of his famous statements in his commentary on the Mishnah reflect the world in which he lived and book that were known to his readers.

Ibn  Qutayba (d. 889), a traditional Muslim scholar, wrote an anthology of edifying material for the state secretaries, in the introduction to which we find him quoting the Prophet Muhammad’s learned cousin, Ibn Abbas, who had said: “Take wisdom from whomever you may hear it, for wisdom can come from the non- wise.”


I thank my reader Jeff for pointing me to a recent book review by David Burrell at NDPR- here. In general I recommend highly David Burrell’s Knowing The Unknowable God as an easy to read introduction to the trajectory of Farabi-Maimonides-Aquinas.

Burrell chose the same passage, which I chose, from the first chapter to illustrate her approach. According to Burrell’s summary of Stroumsa, in the chapters which I have not read yet—Maimonides was influenced by the Fundamentalist Almohad world of his youth, including his view of the unity of God, his definition of a leader, and his messainism. But unlike the Islamic world where jurist and philosophers were not the same social roles,  Maimonides in his rarely-found dual role could offer a more creative synthesis of fundamentalism and philosophy. Strousma finds a serious Ibn Sina influence on Maimonides’ vision of perfection as contemplative and erotic and ecstatic. She finds this is one of the places where Maimonides own religious belief is found.

She also attributes the Letter on resurrection to the Almohad heresy hunting against those falasifa who deny resurrection. (I thought for years that Bernard Septimus’ work on the resurrection controversy using only Jewish sources was barking up the wrong tree for similar reasons, any introductory work on medieval Islamic thought mentions the Islamic controversy on resurrection at the end of the 12th century.)

She suggests that Maimonides’ “identifying true monotheism with a noncorporeal perception of God” aligns him with Ibn Tumart’s school of thought (71). It is especially “Maimonides’ overall perception of the role of the ruler that is modeled according to Almohad thought” (77). In particular, his “depiction of the Messiah is characterized by an overwhelming insistence on his military role” (78). Yet it is here that we must recall that

the status of Maimonides within his own community was strikingly different from that of the Muslim philosophers of his generation within  their society[. Indeed], as the spiritual leader of a minority group, [he] could feel, perhaps more than a Muslim philosopher marginalized in the court, that he was able to shape the minds of his flock, [leaving] him, paradoxically, more freedom to adopt Almohad ideology than that left to his Muslim counterparts (79).

Chapter five, “A Critical Mind”, on Maimonides as scientist gives Stroumsa has :”a particular fascination for his obloquy towards pseudo-science, which he labels “ravings”

The chapter crowning the study, “‘From Moses to Moses’: Maimonides’ Vision of Perfection”, begins by comparing the Rambam’s concerns with those of Avicenna,… “the Guide gives us a glimpse of a positive description of Maimonides’ understanding of paradise.”

Commenting on this unusual use of evocative language by the Rambam, Stroumsa proposes (and I would concur) that “his description of the bliss of the perfect souls rings with the exultation and rapture of the believer” (164).

Maimonides’ own Treatise on Resurrection has elicited contentious commentary… Yet in the light of his clear predilection for immortality of soul, one wonders why Maimonides should insist, as he does in his ‘creed’, on obligatory belief in the resurrection of the dead. Stroumsa cuts the Gordian knot by suggesting that

in instituting a list of legally binding dogmas that define the boundaries of Judaism, [he] followed the example of the Almohads, [and especially of] their source of inspiration, Ghazali, who counted the denial of the resurrection as one of the marks of the philosophers’ heresy.

David Nirenberg on the Jewish-Muslim relations in Christian Spain

David Nirenberg, of the University of Chicago, does micro studies of Jewish life in Spain based on legal documents. He offers a nuanced approach to the topic of interfaith relations in Spain. He points out that there is no simple calculus to say if a society was tolerant. His big insight is that Jewish –Muslim relations were mediated by Christians and both minorities modeled themselves on patterns of the host. He shows that many of the incidents were local events of urban fear of the other.  Think of the movie “Do the Right Thing” or the Crown Heights incident between Jews and the Black community.  A bit of Zygmunt Bauman on Judeophobia and urban tensions could probably really sharpen an already fine article.

Here is the fine article of his online that gives many of his conclusions from his book.

David Nirenberg, What Can Medieval Spain Teach Us about Muslim-Jewish Relations? CCJR Journal Spring / Summer 2002. 17 -36

I give some of his general principles and there cases: Tax Collection, Butchers, and Holy Week

First, no history as long and complex as that of Muslim and Jewish interaction can be explained by exegesis of a single text, even when that text is as foundational as the Bible or the Qur’an. Such prooftexts can sustain any number of interpretations over time, some of them quite contradictory, as anyone familiar with the Talmud (for example) knows.

Second, societies cannot be classified as tolerant or intolerant merely through the accumulation of “negative” or “positive” examples. Our understanding of the history of Muslim (or Christian) relations with Jews has to be rich enough to explain both the periods of relatively stable coexistence and the periodic persecution that marked Jewish life in both civilizations. Any account of Muslim-Jewish relations that does not simultaneously make sense of, for example, the brilliant career of Samuel Ibn Naghrela and the terrible massacre that ended his son’s life is obviously inadequate, for both are very real products of the same society. And finally, historians are not accountants, toting up the assets and liabilities of this and that society in order to declare a particular tradition more solvent (or in this case, more tolerant) than another.

The positions Jews and Muslims took vis-à-vis each other in Christian Spain cannot be understood in any simple sense as the products of “Jewish” or“Islamic” cultural attitudes toward one another. They were that, of course, but they were also very much influenced by what Jews and Muslims understood to be Christian interests and ideologies.Sometimes the arguments were purely economic or pragmatic.

Jews also were the tax collectors, officials, scribes of the chancery, and those employed in land and sea services. A Jew acted as magistrate, and as such sentenced [Muslims] to punishment of whipping or lashes.

The competition sometimes made for strange bedfellows. When the Jewish butchers of Daroca succeeded in acquiring a royal monopoly on selling halal meat to Muslims, the Muslims joined with the Christians in lobbying to have the Jewish meat market shut down. Moreover, the winner was not predetermined. The episode is revealing in that it confirms an important point: Christians were the ultimate arbiters in this competition between Judaism and Islam. Hence any arguments in the contest needed to be made with an eye on the Christian audience.

Each year during Holy Week, in Spain and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, crowds of Christian clerics and children participated in ritualized stone throwing attacks on Jewish quarters called “killing the Jews.” In 1319, a group of Muslims tried to make the practice their own.

New Journal on the History of Ideas

New journal: “Republics of Letters” Intellectual History with a concentration on the Early Modern period First Issue

From the Editor Dan Edelstein

But intellectual history has considerably evolved since the days of Arthur Lovejoy. As the foremost practitioner of the genre in the United States, Anthony Grafton, describes in “The History of Ideas: Precept and Practice, 1950-2000 and Beyond,” a chapter of his most recent book, intellectual historians have long abandoned the Platonic world of ideas and stepped back down into the earthly cave, examining how printing techniques, political debates, legal traditions, university curricula, and philosophical controversies shape the ways in which ideas are received and disseminated. No longer do historians view ideas as astrologers viewed the stars, as exercising a powerful influence from afar; the new intellectual history studies what happens when ideas and individuals, groups, or nations collide in the linear accelerator of history. As William Sewell demonstrates repeatedly in his brilliant 2005 collection of essays, Logics of History, the study of culture as a web of meanings is not at all incompatible with the study of culture as a set of practices—they are in fact necessary complements.

As I read this, I am reminded that in mainstream Jewish studies Moshe Idel sticks to Lovejoy, a parthenogenesis of ideas.  Rabbinic history of modern denominations  still uses Manheim’s 1929 definition of ideology.

Orthodox heilsgechichte

This weekend, I read a work on modern Jewish thought that considered the only Orthodox heilsgechichte as that of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum. The author, writing in 2006, could not name any other Orthodox theory of history.

Actually, by definition most Orthodoxies must have a heilsgechichte to avoid secular causality and historicism. Therefore all of these authors will engage in the general outline of schoolbook history to produce a theology.Heilsgeschichte is German for “Salvation History.” The term is used for theological writing that is committed to two things: the affirmation of God’s suprahistorical activity in history and the need to critically reconstruct these events through the sources. In these approaches, the historical writings of Nahmanides, the Vilna Gaon, and Maharal are drafted into new contexts, to explain modern data.

About a decade ago a former colleague of mine asked about Orthodoxy and historicism and I gave a quick list of about eighteen  20th century orthodox theologies of history including:

Rabbi Isaac Breuer and Yeshaya Leibowitz who said that Judaism was ahistoric. This one is not popular anymore because it requires one to take refuge in philosophy. Now people need a theology of history. Especially since historical thinking was so important for modern thinking that it had to be subsumed, integrated and then overcome with a relgious theology against historicism.

As against secular history:Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman turned  Graetz on its head and making Torah study the causality for Graetz’s lachrymose history. Rav Shlomo Wolbe wrote a triumphalistic anti-Zionist vision of the end of modernity as shown by the baalei teshuvah. He includes quotes from several modern historians including Scholem.

As a messianic vision: Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook and the age of redemption and ingathering of the exiles. Rabbi Amital’s accounting for setbacks in the redemptive process. Rabbi Kasher (as probably author of Kol Hator), redemption through natural means.

On the Holocaust: Rabbi Teichtel’s blame of the Holocaust on the anti-Zionists. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Kol Dodi Dofek, with its references to Secretary of State Dulles and recent American history.

Chabad: Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak’s messianism, and his version of Dubnow’s history of the common folk. He also has a history of the hidden saints. Rabbi M M Schneerson’s account of the fall of the Soviet Union and the post-historic messianic age.

Centrism:Treating Jewish history as history of the mesorah. (This one needs its own discussion because it accepts facts but without historicism.)

Even a figure as progressive as Rabbi Cherlow gave a paper at an academic conference on halakhah and ideology on the need for a theology of history. Cherlow wanted the academics to produce the chronology and raw facts, while rabbis will provide the meaning in history and evaluate the value of the data. Needless to say, it provoked reaction.