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Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker, by Sarah Stroumsa. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. 222 pp. $39.50.
Writing on Maimonides is difficult for several reasons: first there is the depth and breadth of his thought, second the vast literature that already exists, third the esoteric nature of his philosophic writing, and fourth the need to say something new. In the past five years, three leading scholars have come out with intellectual biographies that merit attention: Herbert Davidson, Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Work (2005), Joel L. Kraemer, Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds (2008), and Stroumsa’s Maimonides in His World. It is a pity that Kraemer and Stroumsa did not have access to each other’s books prior to publication.
Stroumsa is an intellectual historian whose mastery of her material is impressive on many levels. She discusses all aspects of Maimonides’ thought including legal, philosophic, and scientific. What is new in her approach is the idea that we need to do a better job of presenting Maimonides as a product of the culture that produced him: a Judeo-Arabic culture that had reached a high degree of philosophic and scientific sophistication. Jewish audiences are often surprised to hear that Maimonides does not mention other Jewish thinkers in the Guide of the Perplexed and thought of himself as a disciple of Alfarabi. The problem is that many of those who focus on his Talmudic writings overlook the Islamic influences on his thought, while many of those who work on medieval Islam give short schrift to Maimonides on the grounds that he was a Jew.
One has to hope that Stroumsa’s book will change this. How much depends on
what one thinks about Maimonides’ relation to the Almohads. According to the standard view, the Almohads were a fundamentalist sect of Islam whose intolerance to anything that did not follow a strict interpretation of the Koran was legendary both for its dogmatism and asceticism. It was the Almohad invasion of Andalusia that forced Maimonides’ family to flee. According to some accounts, the Almohads destroyed synagogues and may have massacred Jews. Against this background, Stroumsa argues that Maimonides spent nearly twenty years of his life (1148–1165) under Almohad rule, wrote what is in effect a Jewish creed, was deeply immersed in Islamic law, produced a systematic study of Jewish law, was often as “puritanical” in his views about music and women as the Almohads, insisted that a strict denial of anything that smacked of anthropomorphism be taught to all Jews, and followed many Islamic thinkers in Almohad lands in preferring Aristotelian astronomy to Ptolemaic.
All this is true. But does it follow that (p. 83) “Maimonides closely followed the Almohad paradigm” so that his ability to cast the Almohad revolution in Jewish terms allowed him to incorporate this paradigm seamlessly into his work”? According to the dates Stroumsa gives, Maimonides lived under Almohad rule from the ages 10 to 27. The Mishneh Torah was written when he was in his thirties and not completed until he was 39. Having spent 17 years under Almohad rule in a formative period of his life, it is hard to imagine that he did not absorb significant parts of its culture. But it is equally hard to imagine that he was unaware of its harsh treatment of Jews.
Aside from historical data, there is the fact that all great thinkers not only borrow from their surroundings but at some point go beyond them. That is a large part of what makes them great. This is certainly true of the Guide, which was completed in 1190, when Maimonides was 52. No one doubts that there are many Islamic influences at work. In addition to the thought of Alfarabi, one does not have to read very far see that Maimonides is thinking about the problems raised by Averroes’ “Decisive Treatise.” If my reading of his account of creation is accurate, then despite a firm rejection of the mutakallimun in Book One, he is indebted to Alghazali in Book Two. Still, the Guide breaks new ground in a host of areas including metaphysics, Bible commentary, philosophy of religion, and, last but not least, Judaism’s understanding of itself. This is not the place to resolve the issue of Maimonides’ relation to the Almohads, only to point out that Stroumsa has raised it in a perspicuous way.
Overall, Maimonides in His World is not a book for amateurs. It is, however, a book that will be considered required reading for anyone who works on Maimonides’ life and thought. Stroumsa’s scholarship is much too good for anyone in the field to ignore. The lesson one learns from reading books on Maimonides is that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work for a thinker this profound—whether that approach is philosophic, rabbinic, historical, or philological. All are needed if we are to make an honest effort to come to grips with the full scope of Maimonides’ thought. Stroumsa has made an important contribution in helping this effort to succeed.
Department of Philosophy