Maimonides at the Museum

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David Fried

Review of The Golden Path: Maimonides Across Eight Centuries, ed. David Sclar (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2023)

Since May 9, 2023, and until the end of the year, the Yeshiva University Museum in New York has been running an exhibit on Maimonides. It features many fascinating artifacts, including a Mishneh Torah signed by Maimonides’s own hand, his well-known straight-branched sketch of the Temple Menorah, and the 11th-century Torah Ark door from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. The volume under review here is the companion volume to that exhibit. The book itself is divided into two parts: the first contains color glossy photos of the artifacts in the museum’s collection along with the story of each of them; the second contains a series of short essays on Maimonides by top scholars in the field.

The exhibit is focused primarily on manuscripts and early printed editions of Maimonides’s works, though it is not limited to that. It also contains related works, such as commentaries on Maimonides, and works by authors who were deeply influenced by Maimonides. The first half of the book, in fact, goes far beyond telling the stories of specific manuscripts to give a deep dive into the history of Jewish printing and manuscript-writing, including the acrimonious dispute between the Bragadini and Giustiniani editions of the Mishneh Torah in 16th-century Italy that led to a ruling from Rema that laid the foundations for Jewish copyright law and papal involvement, ultimately leading to massive book burnings (51-52). For anyone interested in learning more about that incident and others, the book is worth picking up, irrespective of one’s specific interest in Maimonides.

The second half of the book has a series of relatively short articles on a variety of topics relating to Maimonides by an impressive list of top scholars in the field. The first one, by Tzvi Langermann (125-128), looks at Maimonides’s views on the use of anecdotal evidence in medicine and science. The article, clearly written at the height of COVID, was no doubt intended to make Maimonides feel fresh and relevant to discussions that were going on in the medical community at the time. Ironically, now that COVID treatments are no longer at the forefront of most people’s minds, starting off with this piece may actually make the book feel a bit dated.

Many of the other articles seek to shatter common myths about Maimonides. Yosef Yuval Tobi, in his piece on Maimonides and Jews of Yemen (129-132), dispels the myth that Maimonides was always revered and seen as an undisputed authority by the Yemenite Jewish community. Maimonides, in fact, was controversial among some of the Yemenite population from the very beginning. It was a Yemenite Jew who denounced Maimonides to Rabbi Samuel ben Eli Gaon, head of the yeshiva in Baghdad, for allegedly not believing in literal bodily resurrection, prompting Maimonides to ultimately write his Epistle on Resurrection. While his legacy was largely embraced from the 13th to 15th centuries, it began to wane following the introduction of kabbalistic thought to the community in the 16th century. There were fierce debates that split the community into the Baladi, who maintained Maimonides’s liturgical traditions, and the Shami, who adopted more kabbalistically influenced liturgical rites from the land of Israel, with ultimately only a small minority holding onto the former. Indeed, Maimonides played relatively little importance in Yemenite halakhic practice until the late 19th and 20th centuries when R. Yihye Kafih and his grandson and successor R. Joseph Kafih (or Kapah) succeeded in bringing about a renaissance of interest in Maimonides in the Yemenite community.

On the flip side, Ephraim Kanarfogel seeks to dispel myths about Maimonides’s cool reception in medieval Ashkenaz (133-139). Conventional wisdom maintains that it was based on opposition to Maimonides’s philosophical doctrines. On the contrary, Kanarfogel shows, the few times we find medieval Ashkenazi figures engaging with Maimonides’s philosophical doctrines, they do so with great respect. Far more significant than any philosophical issues, he argues, was their general perception that halakhic codes were too different a project from Talmudic commentary to be worth citing. The Tosafists were interested primarily in explaining the meaning of the Talmudic texts, while Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah gives only the bottom line Halakhah, never explaining how he interpreted the Talmud to get there. (The numerous commentaries now available that seek to explain Maimonides’s Talmudic sources had of course not been written yet.) Kanarfogel cites prior work by Israel Ta-Shma advancing this hypothesis to explain why Tosafot cite Rabbeinu Hananel far more frequently than Rif, even though they were clearly familiar with and had great respect for both. Rabbeinu Hananel engages in line-by-line explanation of the meaning of the text, and thus Tosafot saw him as engaged in essentially the same project that they were. Rif, by contrast, merely quotes what he thinks the Halakhah is, only rarely digressing into explanation or interpretation. Likewise, Kanarfogel argues, lack of engagement with Mishneh Torah in Ashkenazi Talmudic commentary should not be taken as any kind of indication of lack of respect for Maimonides as a person or halakhic authority. In fact, when Ashkenazim start writing halakhic codes―beginning with Or Zarua, and later Tur―we do in fact begin to see significant engagement with Maimonides.

A number of articles deal with Maimonides’s surprising popularity in places we wouldn’t expect. Daniel Lasker treats us to a piece (152-155) looking at the generally positive reception Maimonides received among the Karaites despite his often harsh polemics against them. Joanna Weinberg looks at Maimonides’s reception among medieval and early modern Christians (156-159). Though there were parts of the Christian world (just as there were parts of the Jewish world) who viewed Maimonides as too radical, there were many others who held him in great esteem, and his work was known to nearly all great Christian scholars, like Albertus Magnus and Meister Eckhart. Roni Weinstein looks at the relationship between Maimonides and the Kabbalists (160-163). Though we are far more used to talking about strife and controversy occurring between the Kabbalists and the Maimonidean rationalists, Weinstein shows an equally prominent trend among Kabbalists to try to remake Maimonides in their own image, reinterpreting various elements of Maimonides’s philosophy through a kabbalistic lens. And while this attempt is clearly not rooted in fact—Maimonides was certainly no Kabbalist—Weinstein goes through recent scholarship showing that Maimonides, like his son Rabbi Avraham, was no stranger to mystical thought either.[1] He—and many of his Islamic philosophical contemporaries—routinely employed language borrowed from Islamic Sufi mystics, and the mystical experience of God figured prominently in their philosophies.[2] Thus, it is no accident that many Kabbalists wanted to see Maimonides as one of their own, sensing in his writings the themes that were common across all schools of mysticism.

The longest article in the volume, by far, is the very last one: Maya Balakirsky Katz’s dive into “Maimonides in Popular Culture” (173-198). She takes us through the history of Maimonides’s depictions in art, from the famous to the obscure. We get to see how certain pictures of him, now ubiquitous, rose to prominence, and how others, once more popular, fell to the waste bins of history. The reader gains an understanding of how different depictions of Maimonides represent the disparate sensibilities of the various artists who produced them. We even get to see Maimonides’s image on postage stamps from countries we would not even have expected to have heard of him. If for nothing else, the article is worth reading just to see the bizarreness of a Yiddish-speaking Maimonides adorning an advertisement in the October 3, 1938 issue of the Yiddish Forward endorsing Post Bran Flakes.

Where does this leave us looking at the volume as a whole? For those who are interested in the manuscript and printing history of Maimonides’s works, the volume cannot compete with the actual exhibit it is meant to accompany, but it is a worthy investment for those who either can’t make it to the exhibit or want to be able to look back on its treasures once the exhibit is no longer open. The second part of the volume is largely disconnected from the first part, and one need not be a manuscript aficionado to appreciate it. Yet, it will not take the place of a biography for someone who knows nothing about Maimonides. On the flipside, despite the contributions from top scholars, the book is not going to make any dents in the field of Maimonidean studies, as the essays are not works of original scholarship but summaries of the current state of the field. Despite this, the topics covered are so numerous and diverse that even the top scholar may benefit from reading it to become acquainted with areas of scholarship different from his or her normal focus. In the end, its intended audience may be interested laypeople who have some familiarity with Maimonides but want to gain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of his work and influence. In this, the volume certainly succeeds.

[1] For more on the relationship between Maimonides’s philosophy and that of his son, see Diana Lobel, Moses and Abraham Maimonides: Encountering the Divine (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2021) and my review of it at the Lehrhaus:

[2] See my article at the Lehrhaus for a more in-depth discussion of the scholarship on Maimonides and mysticism:

David Fried is an editor at The Lehrhaus and teaches Judaics at Ramaz Upper School. He has semikha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and has learned at Yeshivat Har Etzion. He lives in New Jersey with his wife Molly and their two sons Elchanan and Saadia.