:: Article

The Utter Silence of the Andalusian Refugee

By Richard Marshall.

Maimonides, Moshe Halbertal, Princeton, 2014

The Andalusian refugee claims a natural world in clear sight of science and reason that is proof of a strange theology drawn from a civilisation’s social and spiritual crisis. Maimonides’ religious vision was forged out of a backdrop of exile and displacement. As this extraordinary individual lives and experiences further personal heartbreaks – a much-loved brother drowns and is never forgotten, for example – the theological vision deepens. Its oddness, like Blake’s physical, heavy-boned spirits, invents a passionate everydayness. Its practical consequence is exhortation to action. The refugee settles in Egypt, becomes a medic and helps the sick.

Like wearing a gun with a sequined dress, metaphysics is both incongruous and ridiculously practical. Contemporary debates about religion tend to have a skeptical hypothesis as its default position. The well-publicized ‘new atheism’ tends to argue a case whereby scientific advance, such as our cosmological knowledge and our knowledge of the microscopic processes underlying our macroscopic world, corrode any confidence we might have in the tenants of religious belief. The skeptical hypothesis can inflect to both crude and sophisticated versions of Positivism, and in the Enlightenment mode, pits science and reason against religion. If this Enlightenment skepticism is presupposed then for the modern individual the pressure to abandon religion in the face of the undoubted power of science and reason is overwhelming.

Most philosophers are atheists, according to David Chalmers’ recent survey. Most philosophers of religion are not atheists according to the same survey. One might suppose that it is already being religious that draws an individual to study religion and this explains why this sub-set of philosophy is anomalous. But one might also expect that as the skeptical hypothesis is studied these individuals would fall into line with their other philosophical colleagues and eschew religious belief. Why don’t they? They may be stubborn or inept.

But an alternative might be that they notice that religions themselves don’t suppose they are answering any skeptical hypothesis (the enlightenment version or any other). Instead of being involved with a skeptical hypothesis they make an alternative metaphysical hypothesis. With this, they are making claims about fundamental reality, the reality that grounds even physics, the nature of mind, the creation of the world and so on. This is where Laurence Krauss, the eminent physicist and cosmologist, went so disastrously wrong in his discussion of nothingness. He mistook Heidegger’s question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ to be a scientific question rather than a metaphysical one. And much skepticism about religion makes the same kind of error when discussing religion. Religions make metaphysical claims about fundamental reality and skeptical arguments that treat them as alternative scientific arguments in the skeptical tradition misunderstand this. One of the consequences of accepting the metaphysical hypothesis of a religion is that it may be totally compatible with science and naturalism, both of which are usually presented as counterfactuals to religion by atheists.

If you doubt this then studying the Andalusian refugee Maimonides will be revealing and this terrific book by the philosopher Moshe Halbertal is a great place to begin. Maimonides is presented as a great religious thinker who thought science and reason the only route to knowledge, a man of action and passion and great intellect, who scorned anthropomorphic representations of fundamental metaphysical principles and similarly sneered at supernaturalism, miracles and spooky prophecy. Atheism based on a skeptical hypothesis gets little traction here. (Of course the skeptical hypothesis is not the only way of rejecting religion, merely the one contemporary atheists mobilize more than others at the moment. Nietzschean anti-ascetic reasoning, for example, is an alternative that captures an antinomian spirit, but this spirit is rarely apparent in our sternly disapproving evangelical atheist ascetics such as Richard Dawkins, Laurence Krauss and Sam Harris et al.)

Back in the twelfth century the Andalusian refugee Moshe ben Maimon aka Maimonides tried two things. Firstly, he took Jewish law and tried to make it unambiguous and transparent. Secondly, he attempted to change Jewish religious consciousness. There were three components to this shift. Firstly there was anthropomorphism. Maimonides attacked it as a kind of idolatry in the heart, worse than merely having a picture or statue of God, because it was something carried around in the very consciousness and mentality of the believer. The poetry of religious believers was a species of this idolatory as it betrayed the silence that was the highest expression of the unity and loftiness of God. Anthropomorphic adjectives betrayed the awesomeness of the unspeakable ultimate principle. The greater the effusions of praise the further from the truth the words became. Such utterances he states ‘ constitute an absolute denial of faith…other utterances contain such rubbish and perverse imaginings as to make men laugh when they hear them… it constitutes unintended obloquy and vituperation on the part of the multitude who listen to these utterances and on the part of the ignoramus who pronounces them.’

Secondly he introduced ‘… natural and causal order at the centre of the divine revelation and presence.’ He replaced miracle with causality. He linked ‘miracle’ with ‘will’ and replaced it with ‘wisdom’ and linked that with causality too. Thirdly he attempted to break down the distinction between what was in the religious tradition and what was without. He was an Aristotelian, linked with Muslim interpreters al-Farabi, Ibn Bajja and Ibn Rushd better known in the West as Averroes . (This alone shows that anyone arguing that Jews and Muslims are necessarily in conflict are at best being mischievous.) The scientific, naturalized streams of knowledge were not to be left outside religious consciousness but religious truths were to be re-understood to conform to these new discoveries. Previously external to religious consciousness, philosophy and science were to be integrated as part of the religious tradition.

Moshe Halbertal writes that ‘[a]ny one of these three elements of Maimonidean religious transformation could shake the entire Jewish tradition; occurring all at once, they could be devastating.’ Maimonides was the only Jewish thinker who attempted to bring about such changes simultaneously and in Judaism he’s often compared with the Moses of the Old Testament. He didn’t have institutional backing for his revolutionary transformations. He was born in Cordoba Andalusia in 1138, became a refugee after the radical Muslim group, the Almohads, drove out the Judeo-Arabic culture. He reached Egypt in 1166 and became a leader in the Egyptian Jewish community until he died in 1204.

Esotericism before Maimonides insisted that only oral commentaries of the mysteries of the Torah were acceptable. At forty-two Maimonides started to write a commentary, ‘the Account of the Chariot’, on Ezekiel’s vision of the divine chariot and in so doing committed a literary transgression. The force of his own intellect and nothing else allowed him to apprehend the meaning, writing, ‘in that which occurred to me with regard to these matters, I followed conjecture and supposition; no divine revelation has come to me to teach me that the intention in the matter in question was such and such, nor did I receive what I believe in these matters from a teacher.’ Halbertal gives the context for this transgression: ‘ The historical desolation in which he lived, and his status as the only person holding the key to the deep significance to the tradition, were the factors that led him to commit to interpretation of the Account of the Chariot to writing.’ He justified himself thus: ‘ … if I had omitted setting down something of that which has appeared to me as clear, so that that knowledge would perish when I perish, as is inevitable, I should have considered that conduct as extremely cowardly with regard to you and everyone who is perplexed.’ An historical consciousness is at work here, one that grips ‘a starkly sorrowful picture’ of the state of the mind, the soul and culture where no sense of a unified understanding existed, and where the idea of intellectual coherence was in ruins within the Judao tradition. The destruction of the Babylonian power centre in the wake of the spread of Islam through North Africa and Spain was how he understood the roots of this decline. But its manifestation was a situation where, ‘ … [t]he wisdom of our wise men has disappeared; the understanding of our prudent men is hidden…’

Achievements had become too local, limited and obscure to explain. Spiritual decay had set in and there was intellectual impoverishment everywhere. As an example he wrote in a letter that ‘In Syria… there is only the community of Aleppo where some people are still engaged in the study of the Torah, although they are not prepared to sacrifice themselves for it.’ From Babylonia to Yemen to the Maghrib and Aleppo all Maimonides saw was a cultural and intellectual disaster and crisis for Judaism. So, notwithstanding that there was interesting scholarship taking place during this time, so perhaps things weren’t as bad as he thought them to be, Maimonides saw himself as a redemptive figure. And others saw him as such too.

The feeling that everything was broken and ruined, that desolation and exile were the true realities, was rooted in his own experiences in Andalusia, and his subsequent life as an exile and refugee. He referred to himself as ‘The Spaniard’ or ‘The Andalusian.’ He wrote to a Yemenite sage: ‘ I am one of the humblest scholars of Spain whose prestige is low in exile. I am always dedicated to my duties, but have not attained the learning of my forbearers, for evil days and hard times have overtaken us and we have not lived in tranquility; we have laboured without finding rest. How can the Law become lucid to a fugitive from city to city, from country to country? Have everywhere pursued the reapers and gathered ears of grain, both the solid and the full, as well as the shriveled and thin. Only recently have I found a home.’ Before Egypt he wrote in frenzied times and destruction lay all around him, his cultural roots torn out and the road of upheaval his traumas’ world. Ibn al-Qifti the historian claimed that only in Egypt could he be openly Jewish after years of pretending to be a Muslim but this is a dubious claim.

He made little reference to predecessors in Jewish medieval thought and attacks schools of Arabic thinking. He also attacks the Muslim theological stream the Kalam as being merely religious apologetics and not philosophy. In him ‘… the principle flaw in Jewish thought that preceded him is its overreliance on erroneous and misguided sources. He was a great admirer of Aristotle, writing ; ‘The works of Aristotle … reached the highest level of knowledge to which man can ascend , with the exception of one who experiences the emanation of the Divine Spirit, who can attain the degree of prophecy, above which there is no higher stage.’ He admired Averroes too, his Cordoban contemporary . They shared the same school of philosophical thought.

He internalized misogynist views and married late. He was true to the Aristotelian picture of the inferiority of women but it wasn’t based on an ontological standing but rather on social and educational factors. Maimonides believed women could attain the highest intellectual achievement , even prophetic perfection, as in the example of Miriam ‘… who achieved a “death by kiss”, the most exalted form of the prophetic mystical state.’ He also adopted Islamic patriarchal attitudes.

He regarded Islam as a monotheistic religion, writing, ‘ The Ishmaelites are in no way idolaters. It has already been excised from their mouths and hearts, and they properly regard God as unity, a unity without exception.’ But Muslims think the Old Testament a forgery and so he forbade the teaching of the Torah to Muslims for fear that they would abuse it. Christianity he regarded as a non-monotheistic religion, with the doctrine of the Trinity detracting from the unity of God. However, Christians believed the Old Testament was divinely inspired and so he allowed the Torah to be taught to Christians.

Conflict between Judaism and Islam shifted from the issue of monotheism to that of revelation. He rejects Islam’s claims of a later revelation. The revelation for the Torah was a public affair and being public is what gave it credence for Maimonides, rather than any claim of miracles, writing, ‘ … we of the Jewish faith are convinced of the truth of the prophecy of Moses, not simply because of his wonders, but because we, like him, witnessed the theophany on Mount Sinai.’ Here he was appealing to the continuity of historical narrative at a time of its fracture.

His ‘Guide of the Perplexed’ was a book – in effect a series of epistles – with a very small intended, targeted audience. Brian Leiter suggested that Nietzsche’s works were also not intended for a wider general audience and Maimonides is a precursor to this, a writer not yet wanting a lay readership. After his death the work did become circulated more widely and his fears came to pass. This was a book that threatened the integrity of the Jewish tradition and in 1232 in Provence the book was being used to foster hostility and crisis by enemies of Judaism. But even those to whom it was aimed, the ‘Guide’ was seen as having hidden meanings that undermined traditional Jewish positions. Unlike Nietzsche, however, Maimonides didn’t write solely for a small inner circle of fellow intellectuals. His ‘Mishneh Torah’ was to be circulated to as wide a readership as could be found and was a treatise that reached the whole of the Jewish diaspora, including India. Andalusian supporters and friends in exile in Sicily welcomed the work although there were controversies and not everyone welcomed it.

In Egypt he practiced as a medical doctor, living in Fustat and having duties for the Sultan in Cairo. He wrote four treatises on Galen and was influenced by him, Hippocrates and the Arab medicine that followed them. He aimed to set out an orderly theory of medicine, organizing what was known in a series of well-ordered chapters. Poor nutrition was what he considered a major cause of disease and in his dealings with his Muslim patients he devoted much time on giving guidance around this. He thought guesswork and speculation from doctors was a source of many problems and he recommended no action rather than interventions based on just guesswork. He also had theories about sex. He thought too much sex was harmful. He gave advice to men who were worried about impotency but had many women to satisfy and recommending diet and ointments, suggested types of partners to be avoided and greater mental preparation.

His work in medicine went far beyond the upper class Muslims he served. His last years were austere and busy with duties. He lost control of his time. He was a vulnerable delicate and sensitive genius who took tough stands on issues that he considered a roadblock to changing the Jewish traditions. In particular his determination to bring the Judao tradition into line with contemporary scientific knowledge meant that he had to be fierce and intolerant of those who would block such changes. Of the Jewish sages considered great sages who continued to believe in the corporeality of God he wrote in his ‘Essay on Resurrection’: ‘ These exceedingly deficient folk… who, although they consider themselves sages in Israel, are in fact the most ignorant, and more seriously astray than beasts, their minds filled with the senseless prattle of old women.’ The misogyny grates on our contemporary ears of course, but the sentiment is clear. On those who would turn to astrology he accused them as depending on something that grew out of idolatry and wrote; ‘ Thus you ought to know that fools have composed thousands of books of nothingness and emptiness. Any number of men, great in years but not in wisdom, wasted all their days in studying these books and imagined that these follies are science.’ He considered superstition something that impaired Judaism. Ascribing magic powers to magic names he considers nothing but ridiculous, writing in ‘Laws Concerning Tefillim, the Mezuzah and the Scroll of Law’, ‘… do not let occur to your mind the vain imaginings of the writers of charms or what names you may hear from them or may find in their stupid books… those who write the names of angels, holy names, verses, or special shapes on the mezuzah are included in the category of those who have no share in the world to come, since those fools not only cancel the commandment but make of a great commandment, the unification of the Holy One, blessed be he, His love, and His worship, a charm for their own benefit since they, in their stupidity, think that this is a matter which benefits them concerning worldly vanities.’

He thought that those who thought that the language of the Torah was confused and obscure – and in saying this he was attacking Jewish scholars considered until then some of the greatest minds in Judaism – were fools, and such claims were the ‘… words of someone who without understanding, and who is not meticulous about fundamentals and who blemishes the people through whom the commandments were received. All this approach is void. That which brought one to believe in this depraved conviction was a paucity of contemplation into the works of the Sages that are found in the Talmud.’ So he was an aggressive and forceful iconoclast capable of handing out harsh judgments. In his latter years he was less inclined to such aggressiveness.

But it is worth reflecting on this aspect of his tone and style. Some of those who dislike current arguments about religion regard it as being too bad-tempered and rude. Yet here is an example of a great religious writer and thinker who thought it his duty to produce great polemics to defend his views, polemics which he himself said ‘… delighted my admirers and brought my adverseries to tears with my words and my pen – with my words to those who were in my presence, and my pen to those who were distant.’ In attempting to achieve a new religious consciousness he was at odds with more or less everyone in the world he inhabited at a fundamental level. A reputation for arrogance, isolation and alienation from his surroundings is based on this.

Rather like Nietzsche whose perspective on the world was again one of a transformational genius attempting to reevaluate all values, Maimonides ends with some ‘hair-raising formulations’on humanity, as Halbertal puts it. For Maimonides, sounding a bit like Nietzsche, people are either like ‘domestic animals or like beasts of prey. If the perfect man, who lives in solitude thinks of them at all, he does so only with a view of saving himself from the harm that may be caused by those among them who are harmful if he happens to associate with them, or to obtaining an advantage that may be obtained from them if he is forced to it by some of his needs.’ Yet from this solitary sounding perspective he was open to Greek science and philosophy that had penetrated Arab culture and was able to challenge the traditions of Judaism by forging a space for intellectual discussion outside the traditional space. So intellectually he was an ‘open’ mind, though socially he was conservative and authoritarian, a pattern recognizable in many of our recent and contemporary progressive radicals. He was politically astute, capable of reading the dark motivations behind the public disagreements and was an acute reader of each social context in which he moved and also of the personalities with which he interacted. Throughout his life he had two strategies for inner freedom and independence from his surroundings; withdrawal into himself and moving out of his surroundings to stand before God – ‘one personal, one exalted’, as Halbertal summarises it.

In chapter two Halbertal writes about the ‘Commentary on the Mishnah’, the ‘Book of Commandments’, and the philosophy of the halakhah. His concern is to show us Miamonides’ direction as a halakhaist. The ‘Commentary’ is radical in and of itself: by deciding to interpret it as a stand alone text separated from the Talmud was already a radical break. Halbertal writes that it ‘… was indeed a novel and unprecedented work, through which Maimonides attempted to change the conventional modes of study.’ But the second innovation of this youthful work was even greater for in it he aimed to ‘compose a work that will make it possible to organize and refine the principles and fundamentals of the halakhic material from within the convoluted discussions of the Talmud.’ Furthermore, he aimed to issue decisions regarding each halakhic ruling. It serves as a foundation text for all his halakhic oeuvre.

His approach confronted a ‘restorative approach’ which claimed that everything was revealed without remainder on Sinai, that all knowledge was there and nothing could be added. Interpretation was not on this view a creative act bringing new knowledge but was instead to retrieve and reconstruct knowledge. It embedded a ‘correspondence’ theory of truth – ‘the philosophical approach that defines truth in terms of correspondence to reality… any claim about the world is evaluated as true or false based on its correspondence to the facts as they are.’ Maimonides disagreed: he approached interpretation as a means of bringing about new normative content. ‘Halakhic truth and error are determined, according to Maimonides, by the degree of consistency of the new norm with the norms given earlier, at Sinai. Maimondes replaced the earlier theory of truth with a different one, ‘the coherence theory’. According to this theory, truth claims are evaluated on whether they flow consistently and compatibly from previously derived truth claims. ‘Since interpretation is the deduction of new norms from older norms, it is evaluated, like any other deduction, on the degree of the conclusions’ coherence with the conclusions from which it derives.’ Given that there is nothing to add since Sinai, the strength of the deductions are not dependent on when they take place but rather by the intellectual skill.

His ‘Book of Commandments’ was not as innovative as a genre; books of commandments were common. He used it as having a role in organizing the ‘Misheh Torah‘. One of the questions it seeks to answer is just what is meant by saying that something ‘was given to Moses at Sinai.’ He sought to isolate the authority of Moses from that of the sages and so needed to cut away from revelation the traditional idea that all layers of the halakhah were part of the revelation, including the rabbinical decrees, prophecies and ‘… the Torah as it is from the rabbinical interpretation thereof. Maimonides stated that what is derived using the thirteen hermeneutic principles of the Oral Torah is not worthy of being enumerated.’ By shifting from an oral rabbinical tradition to a stabilized written coding Maimonides was literally writing a new Jewish religion, writing out the rabbinical sages and resting the enterprise on the testimonies of the rabbinical sages themselves to boot.

He challenged the traditional view that man stands before God when natural causality is broken. Belief in miracles and wonders were not signs of religious wisdom – magicians and sorcerers had similar beliefs – and Maimonides comments that ‘ all the wonders performed by Moses in the desert were performed by necessity, not to demonstrate prophecy.’ In his more youthful works he viewed miracles as implantations at specific times not a volitional intervention by God; later on he did seem to allow for volitional intervention. The prophecy of Moses as Sinai was based on its publicity rather than its miraculous nature. Prophets claiming to undermine this prophecy he viewed as suspicious because they lacked such public participation.

Antinomian prophecy is his target: he seeks to constrain antinomian prophecy that seeks to undermine the original prophecy at Sinai. By deriving every post-Sinai prophecy from the Sinai prophecy he protected the authority of the Torah. He establishes a core from which any further deductions were to be derived. This was his innovation. In further chapters Halbertal shows how Maimonides made the Jewish law into a transparent, accessible system. He viewed this as necessary because of his dark assessment of what had happened to the Torah up until his times: ‘In our days, severe vicissitudes prevail, and all feel the pressure of hard times. The wisdom of our wise men has disappeared; the understanding of our prudent men is hidden. Hence, the commentaries of the Geonim and their compilations of laws and responses, which they took care to make clear, have in our times become hard to understand so that only a few individuals properly comprehend them.’ In creating his core, he not only stabilized the scope and field of the law but also created a normative belief system that was far broader in scope than what had previously been understood. It wasn’t just the law that he clarified but also theological belief. Integrating the two was another innovation. In creating a new understanding he also destroyed an old one. He attempts to fix the text, removing the give and take and controversy about the law and the theology. In so doing a clarity is advertised that belies deep ambiguity. Halbertal writes of the ‘Mishneh Torah’: ‘Every line of the work is indeed a spectacular model of clarity, but the work overall is affected, from the outset, by a profound ambivalence that allows for strikingly varied understandings of its nature.’ Close reading of the text gives at least two radically different meanings.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, February 9th, 2014.