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Maimonides: A Biography

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Maimonides
A Biography

By Solomon Zeitlin
Bloch Publishing Co., 1935, 234 pages

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - September 8, 2009

Solomon Zeitlin (born in 1886 or 1892 and died in 1976) was one of the great Jewish historians of the twentieth century. He was the professor of rabbinic studies at Dropsie College in Philadelphia, PA. He was a very ingenious innovative thinker, although he was not always correct. He felt, for example, that the Dead Sea Scrolls were documents composed in the Middle Ages, but virtually all other scholars recognized that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written or collected by the reclusive somewhat mystically-minded Essenes who ceased to exist around 70 CE.

People would, therefore, turn to his book on the greatest Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1138-1204) to seek an innovative approach, a new insight. However, if this is what people expect to find, they will be disappointed. Fairness requires one to point out that Zeitlin wrote his biography in 1935 when there were very few Maimonidean studies.

What did Zeitlin say about Maimonides?

Maimonides' Life

"Maimonides," Zeitlin wrote, "was a thorough aristocrat not by reason of wealth or birth but by virtue of learning and intellect. He regarded scholarship as the acme of human attainment," and by "human" he included non-Jews. He "was essentially a rationalist. He placed reason above all faculties. He regarded superstition as a species of idolatry."

Thus, for example, the current practice when reading the Torah in the synagogue, is to call up a kohen, a descendant of Aaron, for the first honor, even if the individual is a fool. Maimonides objected to this practice. He insisted that a scholar should be given the privilege even if he is not a kohen. Yet, Maimonides felt that scholars and rabbis should not be paid for their work. Study and rabbinical work are human duties and people should not be paid for doing what is right. Scholars and rabbis should engage in other gainful employment no matter how humble. Needless to say, the rabbis rejected both of these ideas.

Most scholars have no idea why Maimonides' family went from Spain, where Maimonides was born, to Morocco. They left Spain when Maimonides was a youngster because of the persecutions initiated against Jews in Spain. But, the trip to Morocco is puzzling because the Moslems in Morocco persecuted the Jews just as they were persecuted in Spain. Zeitlin explains that the family traveled to Morocco because that country had scholars and academies in medicine and mathematics that could help quench Maimonides thirst for knowledge.

Zeitlin takes a middle path in the controversy whether Maimonides and his family declared themselves to be Moslems in Morocco to escape being killed while observing Jewish commands in secret. Some scholars say they made a declaration; others deny it. There is no clear proof either way. Zeitlin contends that Maimonides only disguised himself as a Moslem whenever he went out of his house, but never made any declaration. All he had to do was wear a turban and speak Arabic. This, says Zeitlin, solves the problem why the rabbis, who so viciously attacked Maimonides in his later life for his rational ideas and sought ways to defame him, never mentioned that he had once converted to the Moslem faith.

Yet, Zeitlin recognized that Maimonides set forth a new philosophy of Judaism that is applicable in times of forced apostasy: Jews may utter words accepting another religion to save their lives, as long as they do not transgress Jewish law.

Zeitlin notes that there was a dispute between Maimonides and Samuel ben Ali, the head of the academy in Babylonia who felt that he was the religious leader of world-wide Jewry. Most historians are convinced that the basis of the dispute was that Samuel disagreed with some of Maimonides rational teachings. However, Zeitlin contends that "the underlying reason for the dispute was that Maimonides stressed his national point of view, namely that the supreme leadership over the Jews should be vested in the Exilarch (the secular leader of Babylonian Jewry) and not in the Religious Head of the Academy." Zeitlin compliments Maimonides: "In this Maimonides proved himself a pioneer of Jewish nationalism." It seems clear that if Zeitlin were alive today, he would reject the view of many right-wing people in Israel that the government should be run, as in Iran, by religious leaders. He would probably also insist that there should be no religious party in the Israeli cabinet.

Maimonides' philosophy

It must be recognized that Zeitlin did not seem to know that Maimonides wrote his books and letters for two audiences. Zeitlin may have known that many scholars, but not all, advocate this understanding of Maimonides' writings, but he wrote this biography as if he did not know of it.

Maimonides knew that virtually all the people of his generation would be unable to understand and accept his rational understanding of God and the universe. He also understood that he must not force his views upon people who cannot accept them. Thus, for example, when he wrote a letter to the Jews in Yemen to console them about the hardships they were suffering under an intolerant government, he told them that there was a tradition in his family that prophecy would be resumed shortly, and since the resumption of prophecy would come just before the advent of the messiah, and the messiah will bring peace to Yemen, the Yemenite Jews should bear their trials because they will be over soon. He said all of this even though he did not believe it.

Zeitlin did not know this. And as a result, he was convinced that Maimonides believed that the messiah was coming soon and, therefore, Zeitlin takes the position that Maimonides felt that he should create a constitution for the soon to be reestablished Jewish state. Thus, Zeitlin contends that: "In this book I have endeavored to show that Maimonides was a nationalist…. In expectation of the Jews (returning) to Palestine, he drafted the Mishneh Torah, as a Constitution."

People criticized Maimonides for not including sources and differing opinions in his Mishneh Torah. Zeitlin writes: "Since a constitution does not give the names of authorities, he did not mention the names of individual scholars." Needless to say, if Zeitlin is wrong and Mishneh Torah is not a constitution, but a collection of the Torah commandments as the rabbis understood them, a code book is also not a legislative history containing discussions of various opinions.

Zeitlin curiously felt that "Maimonides met opposition (from some rabbis) not because of his philosophical views, for similar opinions had been expressed before him by other thinkers. The issue against him rested upon his reason for the (Torah) precepts (that he explained in the third volume of his Guide of the Perplexed)." This seems unlikely. First, the explanations of the biblical commands were based on his philosophical beliefs and did not stand alone. Thus any attack against them was an attack on his philosophy. Second, while other philosopher, such as Abraham ibn Ezra articulated a worldview in his Bible commentaries that resembled the philosophy of Maimonides, ibn Ezra did not write a book on philosophy and did not make a significant impression upon the general population as Maimonides did; therefore there was no need to attack him.

Some specific points

Summary

There is no writer on Maimonides whom everyone agrees is correct; there are simply too many different views as to what the master meant. Zeitlin offered no radical interpretations of Maimonides, although he may have been the first to suggest that Maimonides wrote his Mishneh Torah as a constitution for a resurrected state in Israel within a short period of time. His idea that Maimonides never converted to Islam, but only wore Moslem clothing and spoke Arabic and only appeared to be a Moslem, may also have originated with him.

Zeitlin's failure to recognize that Maimonides wrote some items as "necessary truths" for the general population who needed to believe in such things – such as the imminent arrival of a messiah and that the body and soul will be resurrected – led him to many conclusions that other scholars dismiss. These include his principal notion that Maimonides wrote his Mishneh Torah for the immanent new state, his view on prophecy and what Maimonides actually believed in his thirteen principles.


Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on www.ou.org/torah and on www.yutorah@yutorah.org. His website is http://booksnthoughts.com.

The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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