Review of James A. Diamond, “Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon” (2014)
by Menachem Kellner
Menachem Kellner is Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Jewish Thought at Shalem College, Jerusalem, and the Wolfson Professor Emeritus of Jewish Thought at the University of Haifa, where, among many other posts, he served as Dean of Students and Chair of the Department of Maritime Civilizations, and founding director of Be-Zavta, a program in Jewish enrichment. His most recent book is Menachem Kellner: Jewish Universalism, edited by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Aaron Hughes in Brill's Library of Contemporary Jewish Philosophers, and is available here. Bar-Ilan University Press is about to publish his next book, Gam Hem Keruyim Adam: Ha-Nokhri be-Einei ha-Rambam.
This is Professor Kellner’s second contribution to the Seforim blog. His previous essay, “Who is the Person Whom Rambam Says Can be ‘Consecrated as the Holy of Holies’?” was published in 2007 and is available here.
In People of the Book: Canon, Meaning, and Authority (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997) Moshe Halbertal distinguishes between normative and formative canons. Texts which are canonical in the normative sense are obeyed and followed; they provide the group loyal to the text with guides to behavior and belief. Formative canonical texts, on the other hand, are "taught, read, transmitted, and interpreted … they provide a society or a profession with a shared vocabulary" (p. 3).
In his brave new book, Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), James A. Diamond, the Lebovic Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo (link), sets out to prove that "at virtually every critical turn in Jewish thought, one confronts Maimonidean formulations in one way or another" (p. 263). Diamond's claim is actually much stronger than that. He sets out to prove that the collected works of Rambam, alongside the Bible, Talmud, and Zohar "comprise the core spiritual and intellectual canon of Judaism" (p. 266).
Diamond makes his argument through a series of case studies, each one focusing on a different thinker: Ramban, Ritva, Abravanel, ibn Gabbai, Spinoza, Hermann Cohen, Neziv, and finally Rav Kook. These chapters constitute "a discussion of the long and continuing history of exegetical entanglements with Maimonidean thought…" (p. 26).
Diamond sets the stage with two chapters on Rambam himself, in which he makes a subtle and sophisticated argument to the effect that Rambam set the agenda for the future of Jewish thought by providing an "inextricable link between philosophy, law, and narrative" (p. 11).
In these two chapters Diamond continues the methodological breakthroughs of his two previous books on Rambam, Maimonides and the Hermeneutics of Concealment (Albany: SUNY Press, 2002) and Converts, Heretics, and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider (Noted Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2007). The first book has literally changed the face of academic Maimonidean studies and deserves to be much better known outside of the academy. The book exemplifies a sophisticated methodology for reading the Guide of the Perplexed. This approach may be characterized as follows: Diamond takes Rambam at his word – to wit, that he was writing a book of biblical and rabbinic exegesis – and cleverly and closely follows Rambam's exegesis of his sources. It takes a person of rare abilities to do this as well as Diamond does; he is blessed with an impressive mixture of native literary abilities combined with extensive reading of rabbinic sources and rigid training in law and philosophy (he was originally a lawyer before realizing that life could be much more interesting with a PhD in philosophy). Prof. Diamond's reading of Rambam's exegesis of his sources is extremely convincing. Diamond also follows my wife's safe advice. She constantly reminds me: remember to tell your students, Rambam was also a rabbi (and not just a philosopher).
Diamond's second book consists of a series of extraordinarily close readings of core texts of Rambam's, readings which illuminate the delicate and multilayered interplay between philosophical and religious ideas in his thought. As in his previous work, Diamond convincingly illustrated the way in which Ramabam carefully chooses, subtly interprets, and circumspectly weaves together rabbinic materials to address philosophers and talmudists alike, each in their own idiom.
In his first two books, Diamond takes a linguistic pebble and throws it into the sea of Rambam's thought, following the ripples where they lead: verses connect to verses and to rabbinic glosses upon them, which in turn lead to further exegetical and philosophical ripples. In this, his third book, he uses the same subtle and learned method to analyze the ways in which eight prominent post-Maimonideans from the Thirteenth Century through the Twentieth engage Rambam's thought, in order to break away from it, or break it away from its medieval context to adapt it to the ages in which they lived (p. 5).
Diamond's claim is stronger than the oft-noted influence of Rambam on radically different thinkers. Indeed, there is hardly a Jewish thinker who does not claim to represent Rambam in his or her world – as I often say, the two greatest misrepresenters of Rambam in the 20th century were the Rebbe of Lubavitch and the Rebbe of (Yeshayahu) Leibowitz. We have recently been treated to a new-agish Rambam by Micah Goodman (Maimonides and the Book That Changed Judaism: Secrets of the Guide for the Perplexed) and (once again!) to a Kabbalistic Rambam in Mevikh Maskilim (!) by Rabbi Shlomo Toledano. In the chapters of this book James Diamond does more than show how various thinkers have appropriated Rambam to their needs – he demonstrates how Rambam was a formative influence on the Jewish self-perceptions of a wide variety of central Jewish thinkers.
In the first of these chapters, on Ramban ("Launching the Kabbalistic Assault"), Diamond shows how Ramban's theology "can only be fully appreciated in its counterexegesis, reaction to, and reworking of Maimonides' own theology and philosophical exegesis" (p. 69). Fully aware of what Rambam was doing, Ramban sought to present an alternative vision of Judaism (just as I have argued elsewhere, Rambam himself sought to present an alternative vision of Judaism to that which found expression in Halevi's Kuzari). Thus, for example, for Ramban "Jewish history inheres in Abraham's biography both physically and metaphysically, to be played out by his biological descendants, [while] for Maimonides Abraham's life provides a manual on how to qualify as his ideological offspring" (p. 74). In this typically beautifully written and densely packed sentence, Diamond presents one of the core differences between the Judaisms of Rambam and of Ramban. Students of the two rabbis will see here hints at Ramban's view of Torah stories as prefiguring Jewish history (itself a cunning subversion of a classic Christian trope) and at Rambam's opposed essential lack of interest in history per se (even Jewish history) and his construal of Judaism as a community of true believers, defined by ideology, not by descent.
This is just one of the many ways in which James Diamond teases out the essential differences between Rambam and Ramban. I would like to stress that as much as Ramban was clearly aware of these differences (as brilliantly elucidated by Diamond), and as much as he rejected Rambam's picture of Judaism, Voltare- like he still defended Rambam's right to be wrong. It would be wonderful if today's rabbinic leadership would take a "musar haskel" from Ramban's behavior in this matter.
Rabbi Yom Tov Ishbili (Ritva) belonged to Ramban's school, and I would like to think that one of the lessons he learned from Ramban was to defend Rambam without agreeing with him, as he does in Sefer ha-Zikkaron, closely analyzed by Diamond in chapter four, "Pushing Back the Assault." Diamond detects in Ritva an "ideological retreat from Nahmanideanism toward Maimonideanism" (p. 88). This "retreat" is not a rejection of the world of Ramban, but, rather, an attempt to salvage "rationalism and reserve a space for it alongside Kabbalah within Jewish practice and belief" (p. 113).
In chapter five we are presented with a Don Isaac Abravanel "who struggled with Maimonides' thought throughout his prolific career" (p. 116); a specific locus of that struggle was Rambam's account of the Akedah. Abravanel, it has famously been reported, used to end lectures on Rambam in Lisbon with the statement: "these are the views of Rabbenu Moshe, but not those of Moshe Rabbenu." Here again, we see an attempt to keep Rambam within the fold, without denying the challenges he presents to more conservative interpretations of Judaism. It is one of the most important contributions of Diamond's book that time and again he shows us how medieval thinkers rejected much of what Rambam taught, without denying that he taught it. Comparing the approaches of Ramban, Ritva, and Abravanel to the furor surrounding the so-called Slifkin affair and the writings of many contemporary rabbis, makes one almost believe in the decline of the generations.
The chapter which I personally found most interesting was about Meir ibn Gabbai, the Sixteenth Century kabbalist, largely because he is the figure treated by Diamond about whom I knew the least. Chapter Six, "The Aimlessness of Philosophy" examines ibn Gabbai's Avodat ha-Kodesh, one of the most popular works of pre-Lurianic Kabbalah. This kabbalistic digest is "inextricably intertwined with a withering critique of Maimonidean rationalism" (p. 138), further evidence for Moshe Idel's claim that Rambam was a "negative catalyzer" for kabbalistic conceptions. Ibn Gabbai's world was thus one "where Maimonides' thought inspired fierce rejection, while ironically at the same time providing a fertile repository of ideas, exegesis, and terminology for the advancement of kabbalistic thought and interpretation" (p. 137).
Rambam was so important for a figure like ibn Gabbai that the latter felt forced to accept the widespread legend concerning Rambam's alleged "conversion" to Kabbalah at the end of his life. That this legend was so widespread, and that ibn Gabbai and many others contributed to spreading it, is powerful support for the thesis of Diamond's book about the centrality of Rambam in forming the Jewish canon. Rambam is so important and central a figure, that a Kabbalist cannot allow him to remain outside the fold.
I will leave discussions of the last four chapters of Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon (on Spinoza, Hermann Cohen, Neziv, and Rav Kook) to specialists in modern Jewish thought. To this reader, at least, they appeared every bit as insightful and illuminating as the six chapters outlined here. One comment, however begs to be made. Diamond’s concluding chapter deals with a twentieth century writer one rarely sees, if ever, mentioned alongside Maimonides -- Franz Kafka. Intriguingly, Diamond's argument is that even a contemporary, secular, Jewish diarist, thinker, and novelist is both made possible and understood better when read against the grain of Maimonides. In this case Diamond argues that Kafka, the pessimistic prophet of gloom and alienation in the modern age, takes Maimonides’ negative theology to its logical extreme and leaves us with a sobering thought especially in a post-Shoah age. If Maimonides’ “theology of negation ends in the breakdown of both intellect and language,” then perhaps it also “can all too easily lead to a theology of brokenness and alienation, and to the parables of Kafka.”
Did Maimonides indeed shape the Jewish canon alongside Bible, Talmud, Midrash, and Zohar? Each reader of this remarkable book will have to make up her or his mind on this issue. What cannot be denied is that each such reader will finish the book enriched, enlightened, and challenged.