Sunday, June 28, 2009

Joel Kraemer's Maimonides

As most of you know, I usually wait until June to offer suggestions for summer reading and I am planning to do that again this year. In fact, I already have most of my list assembled and am only waiting to see if there might not be a few other books I want to add before actually writing the column.

Today, however, I would like to jump the gun a bit by writing to you about a book I’ve just finished and which I found truly remarkable, one of those books that the much overused word "transformational" really does describe. The book’s author is Joel L. Kraemer, a Yale Ph.D. and a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and the book is his new biography of Rambam called Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds. Published last year by Doubleday, it is a book that I don’t want to wait even just a few months to bring to your attention.

I believe that I have read every full-length biography of Maimonides written in the last century. Some, like Sherwin Nuland’s elegant book Maimonides, published in the Schocken Jewish Encounter series in 2005, are focused on one specific aspect of Rambam’s life or work. (In Nuland’s case, the focus is on Maimonides work as a physician.) Others, like Ilil Arbel’s excellent short book (also called Maimonides) published by Crossroad Publishing in 2001, are more general in nature and are pitched at the interested novice with no prior knowledge. There is even a classic biography of Rambam totally in its own class by Abraham Joshua Heschel that was originally published in Germany in the 1930s and which retains its great interest both because it has a lot of merit to say about Rambam’s life, but also because it reflects interestingly on the intellectual life of Heschel himself as a younger man. (An English translation by Joachim Neugroschel was published by Farrar Strauss & Giroux in 1982 and is still available.)

For me, Maimonides is always Rambam. He has been present somewhere in the background of my life ever since I began my studies at JTS and, one way or the other, he hasn’t ever left my side. His magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, is always in my pocket. (What a world we live in! I have one edition at home that takes up twenty-one volumes, but the whole work is just a single file on my Palm Pilot.) I have full copies at easy reach in my study at home and in my study in the shul. I own two different English translations, more commentaries than I’ll ever have time to study, and electronic versions on all my computers. The Mishneh Torah, probably the single greatest work of creative halakhic thinking ever, is the one of his books I know the best. (I’ve studied a chapter of Rambam during or after my morning prayers more or less every morning for thirty years.) But I’m also a great fan of the Guide for the Perplexed, Rambam’s great work of philosophy, and of his commentary on the Mishnah, which I consult constantly. When I flip open my cell phone, the man’s portrait is there to greet me. (And to remind me to there are usually more important things to do than chatting on the phone.) His portrait watches over me when I sit at my desk to work or to study. He’s a constant presence. As I wrote in The Boy on the Door on the Ox, I should be as accessible (and as visible) to my children as Rambam is to me!

So you could say that I was a likely candidate to find Kraemer’s book interesting. I thought so too, but I was totally unprepared for what I found once I actually started reading. This is not just a very good biography of a fascinating figure. It is that too, of course, but it is also something else entirely: a portrait of an entire world, really of an entire civilization, that I thought I knew a lot about, but about which I now realize I knew almost nothing at all. Unlike most of Rambam’s prior biographers, Kraemer is completely at home both with Arabic, the language of Rambam’s Muslim contemporaries in Spain, Morocco, and Egypt, but also with Judeo-Arabic, the language in which Rambam wrote most of his books (other than the Mishneh Torah, which he wrote in Hebrew so florid and so fluent that even today his book remains a model of Hebrew stylistics). Moreover, Kraemer is perfectly at home in the works of Rambam’s contemporaries. And he is a master of the Genizah, the treasure trove of scores of thousands of mostly fragmentary documents located towards the end of the nineteenth century in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo. And on top of all that is the fact that Kraemer, for all his endless erudition, is neither dry nor pedantic when he writes. Just the opposite, actually: I found his prose to be easy to follow and endlessly interesting. It’s a great book, an exceptional one. It’s hard to imagine anyone who takes the time to read it being disappointed or feeling his or her time was not well spent.

Among other things, Kraemer takes on, then totally deconstructs, the myth of the so-called Golden Age of Spain. I was taught about that in Hebrew School as a child—we all were, I think—and led to recall wistfully as the great era in pre-Christian Spain when Muslims and Jews co-existed in peace and in the context of deep and mutual respect. Kraemer does not write down to his readers, but neither does he expect them to know much about medieval Spanish history. So, instead, he takes his readers by the hand and slowly but firmly walks them through the documents. We read, yes, of Jews and Muslims living together and creating what history correctly recalls as a unique synthesis of culture. But Kraemer also writes of the suffering, of the bigotry and persecution, of the almost unendurable legislation aimed at making the lives of Jewish citizens miserable or, at the very least, less good in every way than the lot of Muslim citizens. And he also write about the matter of forced conversion to Islam, and the way countless Jews attempted to live inner Jewish lives while outwardly feeling compelled to live as though they had embraced Islam instead. The portrait that emerges of Jewish life in the Mediterranean basin during Rambam’s day is as fascinating in some ways as it is appalling in others. And the life itself—the way life was lived, the trappings of civilization as it existed in Spain and, especially in Egypt (where Rambam lived for the last thirty-eight years of his life)—is described in rich, authoritative detail. I came away from Kraemer’s book feeling almost that I could imagine what it must have been like to live in Old Cairo in Rambam’s time. And his description of Rambam’s brief, but emotionally very important, thirteen month sojourn in Israel is also very rich and very, very interesting.

Some of the story is almost well known. The greatest catastrophe of Rambam’s life, the death at sea of his brother David, is told about in detail. The question of whether Rambam himself was forced to live publicly as a Muslim during his family’s five-year stay in Morocco is discussed at length and in light of contemporary Muslim documents I personally hadn’t even known existed. Why the name of Rambam’s wife is nowhere recorded is discussed, and what his family life was probably like is set forth for readers to consider. And there are parts of the story, even after all my reading, that were almost totally new to me too, details I had somehow either passed over previously or which the authors of the other books I’ve read chose for some reason not to discuss. Most of all, Kraemer’s incredible accomplishment derives from his ability to synthesize material from hundreds upon hundreds of obscure sources written in half a dozen languages and to make of them a cogent, compelling narrative. His book is a major accomplishment, and it would be a real tragedy if a volume possessing this much merit were to end up being read solely by the author’s colleagues in academia or by undergraduates. Just the opposite should happen, I think: this is a book for all Jewish people who love to read, who love history, who love learning about what a long-vanished world was really like and, at that, a world that produced one of our greatest culture heroes. Rambam wasn’t just a smart rabbi who wrote some famous books; he was one of a handful of truly pivotal figure in the development of Judaism. As such, reading a book like Joel Kraemer’s Maimonides should be the great pleasure of Jewish readers the world over. I can’t recommend it highly enough! (March 5, 2009)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.