Book Reviews

By | Nov 15, 2011
2008 November-December

I wondered what more could possibly be added to the vast literature on Maimonides? Happily, as it happens, a great deal, thanks to Kraemer’s deep erudition in the Mediterranean/Islamic world that Maimonides inhabited. In his introduction, Kraemer emphasizes that the preponderance of sources he consulted to reconstruct Maimonides’ life are of Islamic origin, setting him apart from the majority of Jewish scholars who have tended to limit themselves to Hebrew sources: “It turns out that our main historical sources are written in Arabic by Muslims. That is because Jews wrote very few historical works, whereas Muslims wrote enough biographical and historical tomes to fill a good-sized library.”

Fortunately for Kraemer and Maimonides’ other biographers, and despite the Talmudic rabbis’ dismissal of historical and biographical writings as “things of no significance” (devarim shel ma be-khach), we also possess a rich trove of material from Maimonides’ time and place: the vast Cairo Genizah, taken from the storage house of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat (old Cairo) where Maimonides spent the last four decades of his life. There is simply no other pre-modern Jewish figure whose life is illuminated by a comparable treasure-house of primary sources, many of which are Maimonides’ works and letters in his own hand.

Kraemer’s book closely follows the chronology of Maimonides’ life, its chapters alternating between breezy biographical narrative and scholarly treatment of his major works. The obvious advantages of such a linear arrangement notwithstanding, it tends to produce an uneven book, both in terms of style and intellectual focus. The chapters depicting Maimonides’ environs, beginning with mid-12th century Cordoba, concluding with late 12th century Cairo, and including the Moroccan city of Fez where his family sought temporary refuge from religious persecution in Andalusia, are the most original sections of the book. Kraemer’s intricate explications of the theological differences between the various Islamic sects that rose and fell in Spain, North Africa and Egypt during Maimonides’ life are without parallel in Jewish historiography.

Unfortunately, however, so enthusiastic is Kraemer on demonstrating the influence of Islam on Maimonides’ life that he often slips into exaggerations and distortions. The most blatant example is the chapter that will almost certainly be the object of wide criticsm by both rabbis and historians, provacatively entitled “Did Maimonides convert to Islam—?” a question that Kraemer unambiguously answers in the affirmative.

There is a problem with the way Kraemer arrives at his sensational conclusion. His main source for this calumny is the vindictive accusation of a Muslim visitor to Cairo from Fez, who seemed to have remembered Maimonides as a Muslim when he lived in Morocco. Surprised more than 30 years later to discover that Maimonides had become Egypt’s most distinguished rabbi, he denounced him to the authorities as an apostate.

But this account, along with a handful of similar testimonies cited by Kraemer to bolster his claim, proves nothing more than that Maimonides practiced the time-honored medieval Islamic tradition of Taqiyya, or prudent dissimulation, by dressing and behaving like a Muslim publicly, perhaps occasionally presenting himself at a mosque, while remaining an observant Jew during the darkest period of Almohad persecution, which forced Jews to dress in hideous costumes and resulted in thousands of forced apostasies and deaths. There is simply no credible evidence that Maimonides converted, let alone that he was a “practicing Muslim.”

Kraemer’s related discussion of Maimonides’ lenient views regarding the status of coerced Jewish apostates, focusing on his Epistle on Forced Conversion (whose attribution to Maimonides is a matter of scholarly dissension, unmentioned by Kraemer), reflects his uncertain grasp of fundamental methodological issues in Talmudic literature and rabbinic jurisprudence. For example, in treating the Talmudic deliberations on this question he writes: “A Talmudic ruling held that if the act of coercion was not in public…a Jew is permitted, even obligated, to transgress, even to worship idols, and should not give up his life. The Tosafists [a school of medieval French commentators to the Talmud] did not accept this. They held that in the case of idolatry one should be slain and not transgress, even in the presence of one person.”

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