Maimonides: A Biography

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9780374198749: Maimonides: A Biography

This classic biography of the medieval Jewish philosopher, in its first English translation, recounts the events of Maimonides's life and provides an illuminating analysis of his thought, including his greatest work The Guide for the Perplexed..

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About the Author:

Abraham Joshua Heschel was internationally known as a scholar, author, activist, and theologian. He was Professor of Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Maimonides
PART ONE Development and Maturity 1 Life in Exile BETWEEN the Sahara and the much traveled Mediterranean Sea, between the monumental civilization of ancient Egypt and the emptiness of the Atlantic Ocean, lies a land the Arabs fancifully call Maghreb, the Occident, or Barbary, and which geographers simply refer to as North Africa, the northern appendage of a larger continent. Even in dark antiquity this spot attracted the wanderlust of the Phoenicians, who felt too confined in their homeland on the coast of Syria; and it was here in early times that bitter conflicts between the great powers took place. The natives, however, played no part in the eventful history unfolding on their soil. The Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, and Byzantines who took possession of the land never succeeded in getting the long-established inhabitants, the crude Berber people, to mature sufficiently to share in their culture. Only the militant missionaries of the Koran could accomplish this. But even though the Berbers adopted a faith in Allah and in his prophet Mohammed, along with Arab mores and manners, they were never fully integrated into Arab cultural circles, nor did they ever fully merge into the vast Arabic world. The Berbers remained nonconformist. It is because of this resistance that the concept of an Arab world empire, whichsince the eighth century also included the Occident, nowhere else suffered such a defeat. From time to time through the centuries, the latent resistance of the Hamitic Berbers to the Islamic culture forced upon them, and to the Arab rulers, exploded into furious rebellion. Since they could not throw off their subjugation to Mohammedanism, the reaction against official Islam was transformed into a mania for at least nationalizing the religion imposed upon them. This craze to make the Berber religion victorious was already visible in the tenth century, when we can trace the efforts of the natives to conquer the religion of the conquerors, to transform it according to Berber fashion. North Africa now became the storm center of the Islamic world. Political tempests arose repeatedly out of this land, and three Berber tribes--the Fatimites, the Almoravites, and the Almohades --kept the world in suspense for hundreds of years. In the southwest of today's Morocco, there lived at that time--the eleventh century--a young man by the name of Ibn Tumart, who even by Berber standards exhibited a most unusual piety.1a He was known as the "lover of light" because of the many candles he lit, according to the custom of the country, during his ceaseless worship at the tombs of the saints. He was very fond of learning, and soon the incomplete doctrines taught by African theologians no longer sufficed for him; he traveled to Cordova, then to Mecca, and finally to Baghdad, where the teachings of the renowned Ghazali prevailed. This great thinker, mystic, and indomitable reformer was one of the most inspiring minds of Islamic civilization. He condemned the corruption of the theologians, who, instead of healing the sick with the medicine of truth, poisoned them with rhetorical phrases. After absorbing the theological wisdom of the Levant, he returned to the mountains of his homeland,where he established a kind of oratorical pulpit and began to proclaim his teachings. He delivered his abstract theories on the interpretation of the Koran to the uneducated Berbers, but they could scarcely understand what he said. The man who interprets the Koran literally, he maintained, must inevitably come to anthropomorphism, to a sensuous notion of God; he must attribute material characteristics to God and believe that God has feet and a face like a human being. But, he went on, whoever believed this was a heretic and deserved expulsion from the religious community of Islam, especially since he was bringing division into the unity of the Divine Being. In those days, anthropomorphic notions of God were indeed widespread among the inhabitants of Spain and North Africa. Since, according to Ibn Tumart, the rulers are responsible for the defects of their nation, he declared a Holy War on the ruling dynasty. Earlier times had also known theologians who sought to remove anthropomorphism from the concept of God by means of reinterpretations. But the new and extraordinary thing about Ibn Tumart was that he constructed a rationale for his war out of the conflict between prevailing doctrines and his own way of interpreting the Koran. Seeing blasphemy in anthropomorphism, and noting that "religious error" was promoted by the highest government offices, he was left with no choice: for the sake of religion, the leaders of such a state had to be fought and deposed; indeed, a war against them, he felt, was as much a religious duty as the struggle against other infidels.2 Ibn Tumart went beyond a theoretical censure of anthropomorphism. He blamed the ruling dynasty for all the vices of public life, for secularization and moral corruption, for the sumptuousness at court and throughout society, for the public sale of wine in the markets (in outright defiance of Koranic prohibition), and for tolerating pigs in streets inhabited only by Mohammedans. Ibn Tumart became a nuisance to the devout citizens of North Africa, who had always viewed themselves as truly orthodox; they were embarrassed, surprised, and infuriated. They, the pillars of the faith, were suddenly declared to be heretics, even decried as "polytheists" who, like the Christians, claimed a plurality within the Divine Being. They suddenly saw themselves denounced as infidels to the ignorant fanatic mob. Ibn Tumart developed powerful propaganda. The authorities persecuted him, but the populace venerated him all the more. The Berbers were impressed by the ascetic purity of his life, his pious zeal in emptying every jug of wine and smashing every musical instrument that came before his eyes. Finally, he called his followers to arms, set himself up as a descendant of Mohammed, and told his adherents to pay homage to him as a mahdi, an envoy of the Lord, which meant, he said, that the end of time and the Last Judgment were drawing nigh, and the extermination of infidels and the restoration of the kingdom of God were imminent. He claimed he had come to fill the void with justice, just as it had previously been filled with injustice. The miracles he performed were, for the throng, a clear confirmation of his mission. The populace obeyed the principles of the mahdi; for example, "commitment to the cause of Allah was better than any consideration of human life and property." For the Berber tribes, it was an established fact that the "command of the mahdi is the commandment of Allah." The idolatrous worship of Ibn Tumart's person, the excellent organization of his supporters, and the unimpaired strength of the mountain tribes enabled his successor, Abd-el-Mumin, to win control of Morocco and Spain after twenty years of bloody rebellion. The theological revolution, permeated with expansionist cravings, had almost unprecedented success in establishing the tremendous empire of the Almohades, or the "Confessors of the Unityof Allah,"b from Syrtis Major to the Atlantic Ocean. The enemies of the conquerors were ruthlessly slaughtered. Many had to pay with their lives when they resisted the "true" Islamic religion. Throughout the empire of the Almohades, from the Atlas Mountains to the borders of Egypt, and then in Spain too, synagogues and churches were destroyed. Jews were forced to embrace Islam or migrate, if they would not accept martyrdom. Many succumbed to fear and pretended to be Moslems. At first, the rulers were satisfied if their new fellow believers merely pronounced the creed that Mohammed was a prophet. The pseudo-converts could then observe their old religious laws unhindered. Supervision and inspection of the lives of new converts, as practiced later by the Christian Inquisition, did not occur in Islam during that period. In these countries the privacy of the personal sphere and of domestic life was highly respected. Anyone who was and wished to remain a Jew could continue practicing Judaism at home unmolested. But praying in community meant risking death. Any assembly of the new converts even outside a house of worship could draw attention and exposure. The Jews who had recently turned to Islam were regarded as completely bona fide Mohammedans; but holding a Jewish divine service was synonymous with apostasy from the Mohammedan religion. And, according to Islamic law, the apostasy of a Mohammedan is punishable by death. It was in such circumstances that the Jews lived in this world. They suffered through an existence that could not be endured for long. They had to give up their community life in order to survive as individuals. Their houses of prayer and study lay in ruins. The communities shrank visibly because their members kept emigrating. The community life of these extremely oppressed Jews glimmeredin secret meetings for prayer, the discovery of which could result in utter annihilation. Yet, in unwavering devotion to God and His Torah, they exposed themselves over and over to death in order to maintain this final remnant of their religiousness. Their Jewish existence was now an ordeal of courage in a life of peril. The Jews lived under the shield of a white lie. The more their outer life was exposed to danger, the stronger their inner resistance had to be. The faith of each individual was put to harder and harder tests. Life became a permanent state of peril; Jews awaited each new day as a threat. This condition could seem bearable to them only so long as they realized the indisputable meaning of their situation. The awareness of suffering for their faith as Jews was worn like a nimbus, it was a refuge for the soul. But, meanwhile, their spiritual situation grew more and more dubious. The doctrine of the absolute oneness of God, which the Almohades propagated with fire and sword, struck the simple people as fully consistent w...

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Heschel, Abraham Joshua & J. Neugroschel
Verlag: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc, Usa (1983)
ISBN 10: 0374198748 ISBN 13: 9780374198749
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Buchbeschreibung Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc, Usa, 1983. Hardcover. Buchzustand: Very Good. Zustand des Schutzumschlags: Very Good. Good to very good in dust jacket-clean copy -no markings; 8.40 X 5.50 X 1 inches; 284 pages. Artikel-Nr. 51941

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