Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Maimonides - Then and Now

In contemporary culture today, the name Maimonides stands for the mainstream Jewish Orthodoxy. Chabad (Lubavich Hasidic) sends in regular messages on line with special references to Maimonides’s books for daily study. A prominent Orthodox private school, called Maimonides, continues to have a great academic reputation in Boston, MA.

That was not always the case in the medieval period when the great philosopher lived, first in Cordoba, Spain and then in Fustat, Egypt. Moses Maimonides (1135-1204; called for short, Rambam) was deeply influenced by the teachings of Aristotle, and attempted to show that Judaism, too, with some restrictions, could be understood in light of Greek philosophy. Through his books, such as The Guide to the Perplexed, and the Commentary to the Mishnah, the rabbi-philosopher spoke of God as pure intellect, and insisted that God’s attributes were metaphors, which were understood and expressed only by our limited human minds.

Though Maimonides had many supporters, some of his contemporaries strongly disagreed with his rationalistic interpretation of Judaism. Soon, an anti-Maimonidean movement developed in southern France and Cataluña, which shook the foundations of the Jewish communities in the Mediterranean basin. Spearheaded by the Ravad of Posquieres (12th cent) and supported even by some of the great rabbinic luminaries, such as Solomon b. Abraham of Montpellier and Jonah b. Abraham of Girondi, the anti-Maimonidean movement declared the Rambam a heretic, and was instrumental in having his books publicly burned in Montpellier, southern France in 1233. As time went on, however, this negative attitude against Maimonides abated, and, in our time, few remember the fierce intellectual battles that medieval rabbis fought about this great Jewish-Spanish philosopher.

In our time, a new intellectual battle is raging between the Jewish rationalists and anti-rationalists -- each claiming that it best represents the Jewish tradition. Regrettably, the anti-rationalists appear to be denigrating the other possible approaches in Judaism. This would be a big mistake, because there is room within our tradition for both approaches, and no one should claim that it has the ultimate truth. As a rationalist myself, I would be very sad if this reality is ignored in the modern Jewish world.

Rifat Sonsino

This post originally appeared on Rabbi Sonsino's blog, “From Istanbul to Boston

1 comment:

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