2008 Criticism Finalist Maimonides, by Joel L. Kraemer

by James Marcus | Feb-21-2009

Each day leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2008 NBCC awards, we highlight one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member James Marcus discusses Joel L. Kraemer’s Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds (Doubleday)

Philosopher, physician, courtier, linguist, and (last but not least) one of the shining lights of Western intellectual history, Moses Maimonides would seem like excellent grist for the biographical mill. There are, however, a few obstacles. Any aspiring Boswell must be conversant with his subject’s multicultural milieu: Maimonides, a twelfth-century Jew, spent most of his life in Muslim Spain and Cairo, where he was employed by Sultan Saladin himself. There is the small matter of reading Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, Aramaic, and such hyphenated dialects as Hispano-Romance. And finally, there is the paucity of biographical data. By the time he died, Maimonides was a famous figure throughout the entire Mediterranean world. Yet the date of his birth, and the date of his death—and a good many things in between—are still matters of conjecture.

Luckily for the reader, these obstacles have failed to deter Joel L. Kraemer. In a sense, the author has spent an entire career preparing to write this book: a distinguished scholar at the University of Chicago, he began his immersion in Maimonides in 1947 and has since acquired a staggering, encyclopedic command of the material. This doesn’t mean he can plug the multiple holes in the narrative. Instead, he tells us what is missing, and benignly brushes away the mythological cobwebs. He writes: “We hear nothing in primary sources about Maimonides’ mother, for instance. Readers like to know about mothers. There must be an explanation for this silence. So a sixteenth-century historian, writing four hundred years after the event, decided that Maimonides’ mother died in childbirth.” Here is one Jewish mother, suggests the author, who will simply be lost to history.

To compensate, Kraemer shares his lavish knowledge of the Judeo-Arab world that nourished his subject (and which he nourished, quite spectacularly, in return). “We are painting the portrait of a Mediterranean man,” he writes. The so-called clash of civilizations was already underway in 1138, when Maimonides was born in Córdoba, and would become only more violent as the years went by. Yet as readers will discover, it was seldom as simple as East versus West. The cultural deck was repeatedly cut and reshuffled, which meant that in some cases, for example, Jews were much better off living with secular, urban Muslims than with their faith-based and fanatical Christian peers. This is a kaleidoscopic brand of history, whose configurations are consistently startling.

Explaining the masterworks of Maimonides—especially the Mishneh Torah and the Guide of the Perplexed—can make for some tough sledding. The first, a grand codification of Jewish law extracted from the Talmud and from the post-Talmudic mosh pit of commentary, is easier to sketch out. But the Guide of the Perplexed is a sometimes puzzling piece of wisdom literature. “The poem is about paving a straight road,” Kraemer tells us, “following landmarks, and passing over the Sacred Way.” It looks back to Plato and Aristotle, and forward to the Scholastics, to the Kabbalah and Kafka and any number of unlikely acolytes. Not even the author’s erudition can pave this bumpy road in a straightforward manner. But again, he puts it in such marvelous context that we emerge refreshed, enlarged, and at least a little less perplexed than we were to begin with.

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