Book Reviews

By | Nov 15, 2011
2008 November-December

Anyone familiar with the basic methodology of Talmudic commentaries knows that neither the authors of the Tosafot nor any of the other medieval rabbinic exegetes would ever dare to dissent with a Talmudic ruling. The particular Tosafist commentary that Kraemer seems to have in mind merely calls attention to the singular opinion (not ruling) that permits idolatry under coercion, attributed to Rabbi Ishmael, one that was rejected by all other Talmudic authorities. More egregiously, Kraemer creates the impression that a “Talmudic ruling” was overturned in 12th century Franco-Germany in the wake of the Crusades, and analogizes from it to Maimonides’ ruling in his Mishneh Torah, which in fact strictly follows the Talmudic consensus.

The fundamental flaw of this book lies in its uneven conception and poor literary execution. Kraemer seems unable to decide what genre of book he wished to produce. Consequently he appears to cram everything he has ever learned and wanted to say about Maimonides over the course of the half-century that he has been studying him into this single volume. The result is a string of chapters that don’t feel as if they’re part of a single work. As the book proceeds, the reader is increasingly drowned in lengthy digressions about dozens of Muslim theologians and scientists, whose relevance to understanding Maimonides is at most marginal.

Kraemer’s penchant for verbose digressions is not limited to the scholarly sections of his book. In the chapters where he tries his hand at biographical prose, he tends to get lost. Take the following excerpt, from the entirely superfluous chapter, “Moses and David,” describing the doomed voyage of Maimonides’ brother to the southeastern Egyptian Red Sea port of Aydhal: “As the boat made its way, travelers gazed at the thicket along the Nile, the huts and the fellahin… Along the riverbanks crocodiles basked, opening their lazy eyes, patient and outwardly indifferent to the human spectacle gliding by. Glimpsing crocodiles in the water, with their bulky reptilian bodies submerged, their eyes protruding, the onlooker felt the gaze of ultimate peril.”

This all might be appropriate for a travelogue of medieval Egypt, but all the reader needs to know about David’s drowning in the Red Sea—the exact circumstances are unknown but he certainly was not eaten by a Nile crocodile!—is that his death sent Maimonides spiraling into a long period of depression and unproductiveness.

Kraemer is at his best when focusing on Maimonides’ major works, in individual chapters dedicated to the Commentary to the Mishnah, the Mishneh Torah, the Guide for the Perplexed and the major Maimonidean Epistles. But here, too, serious problems abound, most of them the consequence of his imbalanced and strangely selective treatments of these seminal writings.

In treating the important and highly original section of the Mishneh Torah on the Laws of Torah Study, Kraemer limits himself to a single issue—the status of women—which Maimonides barely discusses at all, and ignores the master’s revolutionary reclassification of the Jewish religious canon and the order of its study. His concluding paragraph offers unintentional insight into his motivations, both here and throughout the book, for omitting many of the core issues and focusing instead on what can fairly be called “trendy ones.” “As we have seen, Maimonides believed that women were capable of being instructed in Talmud and even that women can be prophetesses, as was Miriam, sister of Moses. In the modern period, the greatest Talmudist since the Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Saul (GeRaSH) Lieberman, an admirer of Maimonides, encouraged women to study Talmud and admitted them into his Talmud classes.”

Leaving aside the preposterous claim about Rabbi Lieberman’s stature as a Talmudist eclipsing that of the hundreds of rabbinic luminaries of the 19th and 20th centuries, Kraemer’s education at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary (where, as we learn in the book’s preface, he studied with Lieberman) and his affiliation with Conservative Judaism have evidently influenced his selection of themes from Maimonides’ work, themes that were of no relevance to Maimonides’ generation.

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