Mediterranean Maimonides

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Civilizations come and go. Their greatest surviving creations remain. Such is the case with the work of Maimonides (1135–1204), a towering thinker, known to Jewish tradition as "the Great Eagle," who continues to defy easy characterization. Two new biographies depart from past treatments to situate the thought of this master philosopher within the Arabic civilization of his time, and more generally in the prism of the Mediterranean world.

To the late scholar Shlomo Dov Goitein, the Mediterranean was a gracious, cross-cultural society that reached its apotheosis in the person of Maimonides' son Abraham, a Jewish devotee of Sufism. To Maimonides' more recent biographers, it was a place less easily defined and more contentious: an open world, yes, but far from an always tolerant one, and the extraordinary creativity it brought forth was the product of struggle as well as synthesis.

Toward the end of his life, Maimonides, born in Muslim Spain but long resident in Egypt, sensed that the center of Jewish cultural gravity was shifting to northern Europe. He encouraged the translation of his Arabic-language works, preeminently the Guide of the Perplexed, into Hebrew so as to give them purchase beyond his Mediterranean horizons; even more widely and permanently influential than the Guide has been his code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, composed by him in a beautiful rabbinic Hebrew. These and others of his indelible works continue to engage and provoke Jews today in their own contentions with questions of faith and reason, of ethics and law, that never go away.

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