December 24th, 2012
Review of Herbert A. Davidson, Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005. 584 pp. $65.00.
By David Zvi Kalman
Of making many books about Maimonides there is no end, and this seems to be particularly true for biographies of the twelfth-century philosopher, Talmudist, rabbinic authority and doctor. Ten volumes — each written in English, each published in the last century — currently sit on my desk, and there are a considerable number of others, each advocating for a particular audience a particular way of reconciling the unusually large and often contradictory testimony preserved concerning the man’s life and legacy.
Within this already-crowded space, Davidson’s biography excels. The exhaustive scope of the book is clear from the very start, as the author moves systematically and chronologically through Maimonides’ life, beginning with all available data concerning the contours of his life story (Chapter 1) and whatever is known about his training (Chapter 2). The rest of the book views Maimonides through the lenses of his major scholarly works, beginning with his now-fragmentary Talmudic commentaries, his monumental commentary on the Mishna, and finally his Book of Commandments (Chapter 3). He then proceeds to the Mishneh Torah (Chapter 4) and the early reception of the Mishneh Torah, along with a great deal of helpful information regarding Maimonides’ responsa and other works which Davidson argues have been improperly attributed to Maimonides (Chapter 5). The structure of these chapters is somewhat arbitrary, but this is largely irrelevant since most readers will find that Davidson’s treatments of individual works serve as excellent and accessible introductions to particular areas of Maimonidean thought. Davidson’s footnotes frequently and helpfully send the reader directly to primary sources, and his index is quite broad and navigable, as well.
Chapters 6 and 7 are devoted to Maimonides’ philosophical writings, by which Davidson means the Guide to the Perplexed, since he begins by arguing that the Treatise on Logic has been misattributed. As for the Guide, Davidson’s main contention is that the death of Maimonides’ businessman brother David around 1177 forced Maimonides, who was already in his forties, to devote a large portion of his time and mental energy to procuring a livelihood; as a result, apparent contradictions in his philosophical works are often nothing more than that (p. 322 and elsewhere). In any event, Davidson understands the Guide to be primarily a work of Biblical exegesis and not a profound philosophical treatise. As a result, these chapters will be somewhat of a disappointment for those who wish to delve deeply into the philosophical Maimonides and most certainly for anyone in the school of Strauss, whose hermeneutics of persecution Davidson specifically and emphatically undercuts (the two other biographies of Maimonides published in the last decade do not seem particularly enamoured of Strauss, either).
Chapter 8, on Maimonides’ medical writings, is a thorough and well-footnoted study of an often overlooked portion of the Maimonidean corpus. Finally, Chapter 9 treats four short treatises, two of which (the Epistle in Opposition to Astrology and the Epistle on Religious Persecution) Davidson claims have been misattributed.
All told, the work is perhaps the single most helpful reference volume I have come across in becoming acquainted with Maimonides. For two reasons, however, it is best read alongside either of two other recent biographies: Sarah Stroumsa’s Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker (Princeton University Press, 2009) or Joel L. Kraemer’s Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds (Doubleday, 2008). This is both a result of several idiosyncrasies within Davidson’s portrait as well as the recent and impressive scholarship that has appeared in the past two decades which Davidson seems to have largely ignored.
Besides the anticlimactic reading of the Guide, Davidson has a tendency to resolve tensions between different aspects of Maimonides’ writings by claiming that certain works have been misattributed. The reader is left with an impression of Maimonides as a brilliant but bland “Talmudic student” whose interests were first and foremost in understanding the central texts of the Jewish tradition. As Stroumsa has put it in her book: “There can be no doubt, of course, that the study of the Talmud was Maimonides’ bread and butter (or, as Maimonides would put it, bread and meat). But Davidson’s narrow definition of Maimonides as ‘A Talmudic student’ predetermines his image of what Maimonides could or could not have written” (p. 128).
Second, the secondary literature Davidson employs is conspicuously dated — few works published past the early 1990s appear by name. This is unfortunate, given the vast advances that have been made in our understanding of Maimonides and his cultural milieu, not to mention newer Genizah research, which has opened our eyes to the significance of Maimonides’ writings beyond their use in traditional yeshivot. It is this research which is almost totally lacking in Davidson’s study.
Of course, it is unreasonable to expect Davidson’s work to cite Stroumsa or Kraemer, both of whose biographies appeared after his. Furthermore, neither Stroumsa nor Kraemer can lay claim to the level of detail evident in Davidson’s work; even today his work is unsurpassed and is therefore of immense value. Nonetheless, it — much like Maimonides’ own works — must be read alongside others.