Maimonides: A Biography

Maimonides: A Biography

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by Abraham Joshua Heschel

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Heschel's classic work on Maimonides, originally published in Berlin during the thirties, in one of the few scholarly biographies available of the great medieval philosopher.

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Heschel's classic work on Maimonides, originally published in Berlin during the thirties, in one of the few scholarly biographies available of the great medieval philosopher.

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A Biography
By Abraham Joshua Heschel

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1983 Abraham Joshua Heschel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780374517595

PART ONEDevelopment and Maturity1Life in ExileBETWEEN the Sahara and the much traveled Mediterranean Sea, between the monumental civilization of ancient Egypt and the emptiness of the Atlantic Ocean, lies a land the Arabs fancifully call Maghreb, the Occident, or Barbary, and which geographers simply refer to as North Africa, the northern appendage of a larger continent. Even in dark antiquity this spot attracted the wanderlust of the Phoenicians, who felt too confined in their homeland on the coast of Syria; and it was here in early times that bitter conflicts between the great powers took place. The natives, however, played no part in the eventful history unfolding on their soil. The Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, and Byzantines who took possession of the land never succeeded in getting the long-established inhabitants, the crude Berber people, to mature sufficiently to share in their culture. Only the militant missionaries of the Koran could accomplish this. But even though the Berbers adopted a faith in Allah and in his prophet Mohammed, along with Arab mores and manners, they were never fully integrated into Arab cultural circles, nor did they ever fully merge into the vast Arabic world.The Berbers remained nonconformist. It is because of this resistance that the concept of an Arab world empire, whichsince the eighth century also included the Occident, nowhere else suffered such a defeat. From time to time through the centuries, the latent resistance of the Hamitic Berbers to the Islamic culture forced upon them, and to the Arab rulers, exploded into furious rebellion. Since they could not throw off their subjugation to Mohammedanism, the reaction against official Islam was transformed into a mania for at least nationalizing the religion imposed upon them. This craze to make the Berber religion victorious was already visible in the tenth century, when we can trace the efforts of the natives to conquer the religion of the conquerors, to transform it according to Berber fashion. North Africa now became the storm center of the Islamic world. Political tempests arose repeatedly out of this land, and three Berber tribes--the Fatimites, the Almoravites, and the Almohades --kept the world in suspense for hundreds of years.In the southwest of today's Morocco, there lived at that time--the eleventh century--a young man by the name of Ibn Tumart, who even by Berber standards exhibited a most unusual piety.1a He was known as the "lover of light" because of the many candles he lit, according to the custom of the country, during his ceaseless worship at the tombs of the saints. He was very fond of learning, and soon the incomplete doctrines taught by African theologians no longer sufficed for him; he traveled to Cordova, then to Mecca, and finally to Baghdad, where the teachings of the renowned Ghazali prevailed. This great thinker, mystic, and indomitable reformer was one of the most inspiring minds of Islamic civilization. He condemned the corruption of the theologians, who, instead of healing the sick with the medicine of truth, poisoned them with rhetorical phrases. After absorbing the theological wisdom of the Levant, he returned to the mountains of his homeland,where he established a kind of oratorical pulpit and began to proclaim his teachings. He delivered his abstract theories on the interpretation of the Koran to the uneducated Berbers, but they could scarcely understand what he said. The man who interprets the Koran literally, he maintained, must inevitably come to anthropomorphism, to a sensuous notion of God; he must attribute material characteristics to God and believe that God has feet and a face like a human being. But, he went on, whoever believed this was a heretic and deserved expulsion from the religious community of Islam, especially since he was bringing division into the unity of the Divine Being. In those days, anthropomorphic notions of God were indeed widespread among the inhabitants of Spain and North Africa. Since, according to Ibn Tumart, the rulers are responsible for the defects of their nation, he declared a Holy War on the ruling dynasty.Earlier times had also known theologians who sought to remove anthropomorphism from the concept of God by means of reinterpretations. But the new and extraordinary thing about Ibn Tumart was that he constructed a rationale for his war out of the conflict between prevailing doctrines and his own way of interpreting the Koran. Seeing blasphemy in anthropomorphism, and noting that "religious error" was promoted by the highest government offices, he was left with no choice: for the sake of religion, the leaders of such a state had to be fought and deposed; indeed, a war against them, he felt, was as much a religious duty as the struggle against other infidels.2Ibn Tumart went beyond a theoretical censure of anthropomorphism. He blamed the ruling dynasty for all the vices of public life, for secularization and moral corruption, for the sumptuousness at court and throughout society, for the public sale of wine in the markets (in outright defiance of Koranic prohibition), and for tolerating pigs in streets inhabited only by Mohammedans.Ibn Tumart became a nuisance to the devout citizens of North Africa, who had always viewed themselves as truly orthodox; they were embarrassed, surprised, and infuriated. They, the pillars of the faith, were suddenly declared to be heretics, even decried as "polytheists" who, like the Christians, claimed a plurality within the Divine Being. They suddenly saw themselves denounced as infidels to the ignorant fanatic mob.Ibn Tumart developed powerful propaganda. The authorities persecuted him, but the populace venerated him all the more. The Berbers were impressed by the ascetic purity of his life, his pious zeal in emptying every jug of wine and smashing every musical instrument that came before his eyes. Finally, he called his followers to arms, set himself up as a descendant of Mohammed, and told his adherents to pay homage to him as a mahdi, an envoy of the Lord, which meant, he said, that the end of time and the Last Judgment were drawing nigh, and the extermination of infidels and the restoration of the kingdom of God were imminent. He claimed he had come to fill the void with justice, just as it had previously been filled with injustice.The miracles he performed were, for the throng, a clear confirmation of his mission. The populace obeyed the principles of the mahdi; for example, "commitment to the cause of Allah was better than any consideration of human life and property." For the Berber tribes, it was an established fact that the "command of the mahdi is the commandment of Allah." The idolatrous worship of Ibn Tumart's person, the excellent organization of his supporters, and the unimpaired strength of the mountain tribes enabled his successor, Abd-el-Mumin, to win control of Morocco and Spain after twenty years of bloody rebellion. The theological revolution, permeated with expansionist cravings, had almost unprecedented success in establishing the tremendous empire of the Almohades, or the "Confessors of the Unityof Allah,"b from Syrtis Major to the Atlantic Ocean. The enemies of the conquerors were ruthlessly slaughtered. Many had to pay with their lives when they resisted the "true" Islamic religion. Throughout the empire of the Almohades, from the Atlas Mountains to the borders of Egypt, and then in Spain too, synagogues and churches were destroyed. Jews were forced to embrace Islam or migrate, if they would not accept martyrdom. Many succumbed to fear and pretended to be Moslems.At first, the rulers were satisfied if their new fellow believers merely pronounced the creed that Mohammed was a prophet. The pseudo-converts could then observe their old religious laws unhindered. Supervision and inspection of the lives of new converts, as practiced later by the Christian Inquisition, did not occur in Islam during that period. In these countries the privacy of the personal sphere and of domestic life was highly respected. Anyone who was and wished to remain a Jew could continue practicing Judaism at home unmolested. But praying in community meant risking death. Any assembly of the new converts even outside a house of worship could draw attention and exposure. The Jews who had recently turned to Islam were regarded as completely bona fide Mohammedans; but holding a Jewish divine service was synonymous with apostasy from the Mohammedan religion. And, according to Islamic law, the apostasy of a Mohammedan is punishable by death.It was in such circumstances that the Jews lived in this world. They suffered through an existence that could not be endured for long. They had to give up their community life in order to survive as individuals. Their houses of prayer and study lay in ruins. The communities shrank visibly because their members kept emigrating. The community life of these extremely oppressed Jews glimmeredin secret meetings for prayer, the discovery of which could result in utter annihilation. Yet, in unwavering devotion to God and His Torah, they exposed themselves over and over to death in order to maintain this final remnant of their religiousness. Their Jewish existence was now an ordeal of courage in a life of peril.The Jews lived under the shield of a white lie. The more their outer life was exposed to danger, the stronger their inner resistance had to be. The faith of each individual was put to harder and harder tests. Life became a permanent state of peril; Jews awaited each new day as a threat. This condition could seem bearable to them only so long as they realized the indisputable meaning of their situation. The awareness of suffering for their faith as Jews was worn like a nimbus, it was a refuge for the soul. But, meanwhile, their spiritual situation grew more and more dubious.The doctrine of the absolute oneness of God, which the Almohades propagated with fire and sword, struck the simple people as fully consistent with Jewish doctrine. Were the Berbers now the bearers of the wisdom that Israel had been striving to defend since the days of Abraham? The unprecedented victories won by the Almohadian army might be a confirmation of the favor of Providence. The simple Jews feared that this spelled the end of their having been chosen by God. They asked themselves, has the Lord exchanged the Jews for the Berbers, and has the prophet Mohammed really surpassed our teacher Moses?A shadow lay across the lives of the Jews. From the gloom of frightened minds rose a distrust of Providence and an intimation of disaster. The fury of the Almohades was aimed not only against Jews but also against Christians and dissident Moslems. The Jew suffered not as a Jew specifically but as a member of a different faith, and was thus not distinguished by anything essential. How else could he interpret this persecution than as a condition in which the Jewswere doomed in the same way as the other nations? Their unworthy and disgraceful existence as pseudo-Mohammedans, an existence that was bearable only so long as one was certain of God's loyalty and could expect His help every day, became an unending and increasing torment in a more and more untenable spiritual situation.Despair lured minds into the most daring and insidious subtleties. The force of circumstances overpowered the suppressed and afflicted pseudo-converts, shattering their last bit of courage. The first symptom of their discouragement was manifested by the sudden feeling that their dangerous worship3 was questionable. Should they continue risking their lives in order to perform prayers whose sense and purpose were becoming doubtful? 
At that time--it was the year 1159--the Jewish community of North Africa received a letter written in the Arabic tongue, aiming to admonish and comfort them. The author, a certain Rabbi Maimon, sought to free the people of their calamitous delusions that the persecutions afflicting them were a sign that God had turned away from Israel and had chosen the Arabs to carry the teaching of God through their prophet Mohammed:"A king who dismisses one of his officials will instantly appoint another to take over the office and duties of the first official. A man who repudiates his wife will usually bring home another, giving her the jewelry and bed of the first wife. A sign of the exchange is revealed when the successor is granted the rights and honors of the expelled predecessor. But where is there another nation to whom the Eternal One has appeared, given the Torah, and shown signs of favor such as He has granted us? So long as no other nation in the world has experienced such deeds of benevolence and grace, any word of Israel's being exchanged for another people is idle talk. Though we may liveuninterruptedly in fear, though we may say in the morning, 'Would God it were even,'4 and in the evening, 'Would God it were morning!' we must also be aware, in this state, of the definitive proclamation that 'God will not forget the covenant of thy fathers which He sware unto them.'5"Even in suffering, Israel is different from all other nations. 'For I will make a full end of all heathens whither I have scattered thee; but I will not make a full end of thee; but I will correct thee in measure.' Those are the words of the Lord. His chastisement is mixed with mercy, as in a father rebuking his children. God does not hate us, and He will not cause to pass away from us the name of children, whether we please Him, whether we believe in Him, or whether we turn away from Him. He wishes to purify Israel, not destroy it. We must also regard our present ordeal as a trial and a discipline. How could anyone believe in a hatred by the Eternal One, in an expulsion of Israel? The mission of our teacher Moses, who is distinguished by, and unsurpassed for, his sublimity and his boundless self-sacrifice for our nation, bears witness to the chosenness of Israel. Now for what nation could the Lord have exchanged Israel? The external fortune of a people proves nothing about their value. The merits of Moses and Israel, attested to by divine benevolence, also guarantee the fulfillment of divine promises, whose time is incalculable, yet can be brought on by atonement and prayer."What was the force that preserved the courage and vitality of the Jews amidst continuous persecution? It was loyalty to the Torah. "We should lay hold of the cord of the Law and not loosen our hand from it, for we who are living in captivity are like one who is drowning. We are almost totally immersed, overwhelmed with humiliation and contempt, the seas of captivity surround us, and we are submerged in their depths, and the waters reach our faces ... The waters overwhelm us but the cord of the ordinancesof God and His Law is suspended from heaven to earth, and whoever lays hold of it has hope, for in the laying hold of this cord, the heart is strengthened, and is relieved from the fear of sinking into the pit. And he who loosens his hand from the cord has no union with God, and God allows the abundant waters to prevail over him. So none is saved from the toils of captivity except by occupying himself with the Torah, by obeying its precepts, cleaving to it and meditating on it continually, as the Psalmist said: 'Unless thy Law had been my delight, I should have perished in mine affliction.'"Finally, the author of the epistle to the North African Jews bound together all three lines of thought: the unshakable existence of the Covenant between God and Israel; the incomparable sublimity of Moses; and the immeasurable significance of prayer. He united them skillfully by calling for a daily utterance of the prayer which Moses, on the day of his death, foreseeing the disaster that threatened his people, engraved upon the memory of the nation--the unswerving hope for a return to Israel.The years passed. The savage proselytizing and the rage of the "Confessors of Unity" did not ebb. There were more and more executions of unconvertible people, who defied the compulsory faith. The sufferings of the forced converts began to turn inward. The second act of the tragedy commenced.Rabbi Maimon's comforting and admonishing words had provided answers to many an objective doubt; but objectivity was no longer the issue. Skepticism had penetrated their personal depths. Doubt became despair; despondency over God became despondency over oneself. Instead of brooding about the ways of the divine guidance of the world, the Jew tormented himself by scrutinizing his own worth. He pondered on himself, and the spiritual horizon of Jews became utterly dark. They were consumed withself-examination; bitter self-accusations plagued their minds. Was not the very fact that a Jew publicly acknowledged the prophetic mission of Mohammed a sign of apostasy from the faith of the fathers? And what about those who, rather than dying, betrayed God and yielded to force? What else were they but renegades!There were, evidently, a few Jews who boldly defied peril and force. Convinced that any avowal of Islam and the accompanying public behavior as Mohammedans was an outright desecration of the Holy Name, a betrayal of God, they did everything they could to avoid conversion, and they viewed the converts as apostates, with whom they did not care to pray. The zealots even tried to persuade the forced converts to give up their secret worship because the praying of apostates was a sin. Dark inward despair, outward danger, and pressure from the religious fanatics combined to create the most dismal hardship imaginable. And yet the Jews continued their secret meetings. In dark hiding places, they recited the eternal prayers.The pressure exerted by the Jewish zealots grew stronger and stronger. They openly declared that the pretense of the pseudo-converts was a far greater peril than total apostasy. They were willing to go to any lengths to expel the "double believers," like lepers, from the sphere of Jewry. To legitimize such a procedure, they sought the approval of renowned teachers of the Law. After all, in doubtful cases, it was customary to turn to well-known Talmudic scholars, usually the geonim, who functioned as the heads of rabbinical assemblies. Their decisions, promulgated in their answering letters (Responsa), were binding on the Jewish communities. Not long after, the following proclamation by an authoritative rabbinical personality was read aloud in all the Jewish communities of Morocco:"Any Jew who publicly acknowledges Mohammed's calling as a prophet is a heretic and traitor to the faith! AnyJew who has pronounced the creed of the Almohades, albeit secretly observing all Jewish duties and commandments, is excluded from the Jewish community and put on the level of non-Jews! Any Jew who visits the mosque as a pseudo-Mohammedan, albeit not participating in the prayer, is commiting blasphemy when he says Jewish prayers in his home! His prayer is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord, increasing the burden of his sins. Any Jew who confesses, albeit under coercion, that Mohammed is a prophet is unfit for giving testimony!"The writer, whose name has not come down to us, entrusted this text to a messenger, who then traveled from town to town. "He has sent out darkness and put a gloom on everything," a contemporary lamented. This verdict was morally tantamount to executing whole communities. Their assaulted courage vanished on the spot. Some, shaken and wounded in their self-assurance, panicked in their bitterness, and plunged from their lost Judaism into the mosques. They abandoned their hideaways, sought refuge in Islam, and earnestly professed belief in Mohammed. Suddenly "proofs" of the genuineness of this prophet appeared, proofs supported by Biblical verses. All at once it was found that his coming was foretold to the patriarch Abraham, and that the salvation of Islam is predicted several times in the Holy Scriptures. Some Jews allowed themselves to violate the Sabbath, hoping that their wretched situation would soon pass and "the Messiah would come to Maghreb and lead them to Jerusalem."There were others who were of a tenacious faith and did not doubt. But most of the Jewish populace remained indecisive and suffered in silence.Popular Jewish tradition saw in the Berber tribes descendants of the Philistines, who had to flee to North Africa because of the annihilating defeats inflicted on them by King David and his commander-in-chief Joab. After all,one Moroccan village had an ancient monument known as the "stone of Solomon," bearing the inscription: "Commander-in-chief Joab pursued the Philistines to this point." How else could one explain the "Almohadean Mission" to teach monotheism to the Jews than as the outburst of the ancient resentment of the Philistines, who now wanted to make up for their quondam defeat?Jews, too, had been dwelling in this land since time immemorial. A legend tells us that they had settled in Morocco as far back as the days of Solomon, that they had come with the Phoenicians. In the town of Boreion a synagogue, which Justian had transformed into a church, supposedly dated from the period of Solomon. When Sargon destroyed the Kingdom of Israel, a portion of the Ten Tribes allegedly migrated to Morocco, achieving new power. They founded a kingdom allegedly first ruled by a king named Abraham of the tribe of Ephraim. Supposedly, they did not follow Ezra's call to return to Israel. Because of this hesitation, their power diminished. In fact, there were Jewish communities in Morocco under the Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, and Arabs. There were houses of study with individual renowned scholars, and these Moroccan Jews gave financial support to the Jewish academies in Babylonia and Palestine.In 1145 the "Confessors of Unity" conquered the city of Fez. Aside from the Berbers, who formed the majority of the city's population, there was a Jewish community which enjoyed high intellectual prestige in the Jewish world for centuries. The geonim, the heads of the Jewish academies in Babylonia, to whom all Jews turned for religious decisions, received more questions from Fez6 than from any other city. When the Almohades conquered Fez, the Jews there, like their brethren in the other communities, were given the choice of embracing Islam, emigrating, or being executed. Most of them pretended to accept the Mohammedancreed and waited for better times. Some, refusing to utter the formula, were executed. A few left the country.Fez was predestined for a life in hiding. The countless narrow and twisting streets intertwined into a labyrinth; the gloomy, sullen, steeply towering walls; the silence of the people, houses, and things; the Berber custom of thick veils on faces, even for men (since "it ill befits noble people to show themselves"); the Moorish architecture of sumptuous interiors but plain, barred and locked exteriors--all these circumstances favored, indeed created a fertile soil for the development of "marrano" life, so that world history virtually had a dress rehearsal in Fez for the Spanish tragedy of the marranos to come.The terrorism of the new rulers apparently made even the cultivated Moslem uneasy. Skeptically, the normally self-willed Koranic soldiers and Old Believers accepted the new creed. They had to bow to the puritanism of the Almohades, who were hostile to art and lavishness. One of the largest mosques in Fez was adorned with gold and precious ornaments. When the Almohades marched into the city, the inhabitants feared that the conquerors would destroy all this splendor. So they covered the gold and decorations with paper, coated them with plaster, and then whitewashed the entire surface. This concealed the works of art, shielding them from the savagery of the Berber iconoclasts.7 
Around 1158, Rabbi Maimon, a dayan (judge) and former member of the rabbinical court of Cordova, came to Fez with his family. Rabbi Maimon had been forced to leave his beautiful home city, the "Bride of Andalusia," when it was taken by the Almohades in 1148. The Jewish community of Cordova, which had existed for centuries, was totally destroyed by the Berbers. The synagogues and houses of study were burned, the inhabitants scattered tothe four winds. The Maimon family escaped to Almera. In 1 157, the Almohades conquered Almera. The Maimon family fled to Fez. North Africa had always been a refuge for Jews fleeing from religious persecutions in Spain.Rabbi Maimon was probably not unknown in Fez. Between North African and Spanish Jews there had been constant economic, scholarly, and even personal relations. The Jews in Fez knew who Rabbi Maimon was, that he came from a family of scholars and judges, and that the family tree traced their descent from the famous Rabbi Jehuda ha-Nasi, the editor of the Mishnah, and, according to tradition, from King David himself.Rabbi Maimon had learned the methods of Talmudic scholarship from Ibn Migash, the celebrated teacher at the famous house of study in Lucena, the "city of poetry," and Ibn Migash had been a pupil of the great Alfasi. The venerable Rabbi Maimon, noble and learned, self-assured and deeply pious, the foremost magistrate of Cordova, bearer of an ancient and uninterrupted tradition, in which his teacher, Ibn Migash, was the forty-eighth generation since Simeon the Just, the last survivor of the Great Assembly--Rabbi Maimon continued and cultivated this tradition. He had personally instructed his son Moses, the young Maimonides, transmitting to him both the precious tradition he had received and his own acquired experience.8The revered Rabbi Maimon, offspring of the House of David, had--so the legend went--been told in a dream to marry the daughter of a butcher living near Cordova. He, the heir to the judge's office in proud Cordova, was to wed the daughter of a butcher unversed in the Law. Did not our sages teach that one must sacrifice anything to take a scholar's daughter to wife? Would an ignoramus's daughter, who did not know a life according to the Torah in her father's home, be able to raise her children for study and good works? Rabbi Maimon yielded to the higher directive,led the butcher's daughter to the canopy, and worried about what kind of a son he would be granted. The butcher's daughter became pregnant, and Rabbi Maimon prayed to God. She had a difficult labor. She gave birth to Moses,9 but her soul departed; she died like noble Rachel at the birth of tender Benjamin. The widower then took another wife.Rabbi Maimon tried to raise his son in wisdom and erudition. But Moses showed little joy in, or love of, scholarship. The father was deeply pained. Was the blood of the butcher's daughter more powerful than the spiritual strength of all the learned forebears? Tormented by rebukes and censure, by reprimands and punishments, little Moses would run to the synagogue, pouring his heart out to God in the women's section, which was normally deserted on weekdays.The noble father grew more and more embittered from year to year. In his despair, he hurled some harsh words at the sensitive boy: "You were born for the lowest levels of life." Moses, who had inherited his mother's delicate humility and his father's pride, could not bear to hear these words; he left his father's house and disappeared.To find solace and to forget, Rabbi Maimon immersed himself in the study of the Torah. He began a commentary of the Pentateuch, he wrote scholia on the Talmud, he conversed with the educated men of his city, he attended the lectures of visiting scholars. And one day the Jews in the great synagogue were listening to an unusual discourse while the audience, the best in Cordova, admired the rare erudition of the unknown lecturer; when the speaker finally removed his prayer shawl from his face after the lecture, they saw that it was a youth: the prodigal son of Rabbi Maimon.Copyright 1935 by Erich Reiss Verlag, G.m.b.H.


Excerpted from Maimonides by Abraham Joshua Heschel Copyright © 1983 by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Excerpted by permission.
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