Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon


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Poetic Influence—when it involves two strong, authentic poets—always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main traditions of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist.

Jewish philosophical, jurisprudential, and theological influence—when it involves a strong, authentic thinker—often proceeds by a misreading of Maimonides, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. A good part of the history of fruitful Jewish philosophical and theological influence, since the Middle Ages, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism of Maimonidean thought, without which modern Jewish thought as such could not exist.

Weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves. Two chapters in the book deal specifically with the dialectic between philosophy and kabbalah using Meir ibn Gabbai of the sixteenth century and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook of the twentieth as instructive examples. His exegesis of biblical verses and midrashic traditions are intended as hermeneutical counterpoints to Maimonides, radically transforming the philosophically esoteric exegeses of those common references into a kabbalistic mode.

Throughout his prolific career, R. Kook, engaged the thought of Maimonides, whose own corpus, in its thoroughly systematic nature, whether halakhic or philosophic, could not be more antithetical to R. Kook rereads Maimonides through commentary- more of an eisegetical reinforcement of his own thought than an objective commentary. In a sense R. He believed that the patent sense of many Maimonidean texts offends their real, authorially intended, sense and therefore required conscious subversion so that the genuine sense would emerge seamlessly for his readers.

Kook the lines between Jewish mysticism and Jewish rationalism become somewhat blurred.

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Should we consider Abarbanel to be a continuation or rejection of Maimonides? In this case, an apparent endorsement of Maimonidean biblical exegesis rendered in the course of his own exegetical discourse may actually amount to a sustained subversive attack once his overall interpretation is considered.


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Thus biblical exegesis in fifteenth-century Iberia charts a different path, fueled by a worship that in the end entails absolute submission rather than Maimonidean reasoned obeisance to divine command. The subsequent struggle to carve out a space for Maimonidean theology is so intense that a major attempt to do so emerges within the Nahmanidean camp itself by Ritva who dedicates a systematic treatise to it. What I argue is that while Nahmanides attempted to replace a rationalist theology with a more kabbalistic one, a generation later Ritva, salvages Maimonidean rationalism and reserves a space for it alongside kabbalah within Jewish practice and belief.

How does the Netziv fit into your pattern? Why is Maimonides relevant today? Firstly, he remains relevant in the sense for example the Hebrew Bible does. For this, the correctness of his science is irrelevant. My book ends with Franz Kafka, a Jewish writer who is rarely mentioned in the same breath, and I claim that even his Kafkaesque thought can be better appreciated if read against the grain of Maimonides.

Secondly, and more importantly, is that Maimonides stands as the supreme model of a complete human being, who struggled to incorporate both his humanness and his Jewishness into a seamless whole. As such both the world of the yeshivah and that of the academy have much to learn from his legacy. Again, the science Maimonides operated with is irrelevant to an appreciation of the existential enterprise he devoted his life to. The science changes but the dilemma, conflict, and spiritual wrestling remains the same.

The reason he has and continues to wield so strong an attraction in both worlds is because of his wholeness, of his potent combination of rabbinic expertise and philosophical acumen. Without those Maimonides could easily have been ignored by devotees of either school and thus would not loom as large over the evolution of Jewish thought, nor indeed, even be the subject of my study. For me the problem he addresses that motivated him to compose the Guide really says it all about his continuing relevance to any modern Jew.

Those who seek to remain committed to their tradition and sacred texts as well as their intellects need not abandon either. Maimonides offered us the tools for avoiding a life of inauthenticity or simplicity. Blind faith attracts no praise from Maimonides, except as a childish starting point for a life of sustained thought and struggle as the only authentic mode of existence.

Where does Maimonides stand along the classical rabbinic canon that preceded him? Much of Jewish intellectual history can be viewed as a series of engagements with him, fueled by the kind of 'Jewish' rabbinic and esoteric writing Maimonides practiced. This book examines a wide range of theologians, philosophers, and exegetes who share a passionate engagement with Maimonides, assaulting, adopting, subverting, or adapting his philosophical and jurisprudential thought.

This ongoing enterprise is critical to any appreciation of the broader scope of Jewish law, philosophy, biblical interpretation, and Kabbalah. Maimonides's legal, philosophical, and exegetical corpus became canonical in the sense that many subsequent Jewish thinkers were compelled to struggle with it in order to advance their own thought. Moses Maimonides. This Is My God. Herman Wouk. Everyday Holiness.

Alan Morinis. Israel Abrahams. The God Who Hates Lies.


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