Reading Kant by the refrigerator light

JEWISH HISTORY is the story of the engaged prophet, rabbi, philosopher and mystic.

A YOUNG immigrant from Ethiopia waits upon his arrival at Ben-Gurion in 2012 (photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
A YOUNG immigrant from Ethiopia waits upon his arrival at Ben-Gurion in 2012
(photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
Contrast historian Paul Johnson’s portraits of Socrates and Karl Marx. In his study of Socrates: A Man for Our Times (2011), Johnson describes the ancient Greek philosopher – an ugly man who later in life developed a paunch – as a proud Athenian, a war hero and a thinker who “went about Athens talking to people, mainly asking them questions, all his life.” An admirer of craftsmen, Socrates “was always interested in trades and occupations and how they were conducted, not least in trade secrets, as they were, and are, called. No doubt his questions always began with the man’s or woman’s duties and only gradually went on to more complex matters of beliefs and morals and opinions.” Socrates was not the stereotype of the thinker as an intellectual who was a recluse and a monastic. His thoughts were his own but his love for Athens and its citizens enriched his pursuit of the truth. He would never leave Athens even though that meant death. He was a man of the people.
Karl Marx was no Socrates. In Johnson’s Intellectuals (1988), he describes Marx as having had “more impact on actual events, as well as on the minds of men and women, than any other intellectual in modern times.” Yet, despite being a champion of the working class, the baptized son of a Jewish apostate, Marx spent most of his time in libraries, hostile to fellow revolutionaries – and he was not impressed with the common man who did not share his apocalyptic vision of class warfare. In the words of Johnson: “Marx, then, was unwilling either to investigate working conditions in industry himself or to learn from intelligent working men who had experienced them.” Marx lived in a Hegelian bubble – the ultimate atheist as a secular monk. He had little interest in the real common man. All that mattered was his pseudo-scientific ideology. The working class was a Marxian abstraction, not human beings of flesh, blood, toil and sweat.

JEWISH HISTORY is the story of the engaged prophet, rabbi, philosopher and mystic. This is much more the model of Socrates than Marx. Most traditional and many modern Jewish thinkers were deeply involved in the life of their people. From Jeremiah to Akiva to Samuel Hanagid to Martin Buber – Jewish thinkers and scholars did not live in isolation. There was no time for solitude. These thinkers were servants of their people. While there are many examples of the Jewish thinker involved in the life of the community and Jewry, the outstanding example is Moses Maimonides. I will focus on this greatest of Jewish thinkers as a model for the public Jewish intellectual.
The Guide for the Perplexed alone – begun by Maimonides in 1185 and completed in 1191 – would have established its author as one of Judaism’s outstanding minds. Maimonides composed this attempt to reconcile the Torah and the philosophy of Aristotle as interpreted by Muslim scholars for his pupil, Joseph ben Judah. Joseph left Cairo and his teacher for Aleppo. He was one of the Jewish elite in the Sephardi world to study Greek philosophy.
Like Jewish mysticism before the rise of Isaac Luria, philosophy was studied by small circles of Jewish students. As a philosopher, Maimonides could have easily remained within the realm of the elite. Instead, he chose to devote his life to all Jews. In his other writings and in his role as the leader of Sephardi Jewry from his base in Ayyubid Old Cairo, Maimonides’ impact on Jews from Yemen to Lunel established him as one of the greatest Jewish leaders of all time. He was certainly not a monastic, but a public champion of all Jews – and those Jews forced to convert to Islam who wanted to return to their Jewish faith. Unlike Maimonides, many rabbis rejected these forced converts to Islam as turncoats and lacked any sympathy for their plight. Moshe ben Maimon, having experienced Almohades persecution himself, was a leader of empathy for those shunned by various Jewish communities.
This great man’s life could have been one of isolation and bitterness. Moshe ben Maimon and his family were forced to flee Almohades persecution in Muslim Spain and likely were forced to convert to Islam in North Africa. He was only 10 years old when he was forced to flee Cordoba. The Islamic persecution continued in Fez and forced Maimonides to flee to Egypt, where the more tolerant Fatimid dynasty – and later the Ayyubid dynasties – offered him protection and an illustrious career as a court physician for the Muslim leadership.
The death of his merchant brother David in a shipwreck in the Indian Ocean paralyzed him. In his 2008 biography of Maimonides, Prof. Joel L. Kraemer quotes his subject: “The worst disaster that struck me of late, worse than anything I have ever experienced from the time I was born until this day, was the demise of that upright man (may the memory of the righteous be a blessing) who drowned in the Indian Ocean while in possession of much money belonging to me, to him and to others, leaving a young daughter and his widow in my care.” Maimonides, after hearing of David’s death, “remained prostrate in bed with a severe inflammation, fever and mental confusion, and well-nigh perished.” Despite this tragedy in his life, Moshe persevered and went on to achieve legendary accomplishments.

WHETHER CONSOLING and guiding the persecuted Jews of Yemen, defending a convert to Judaism’s right to recite the Avot of the Amidah (the central standing prayer of Jewish liturgy), or creating the most influential code of Jewish law in the Mishneh Torah – a nine-year project that democratized halacha in Hebrew – Maimonides’ concern for the Jewish masses never wavered. The reason he is one of the most admired and revered figures in Jewish history is precisely because he transcended his role as philosopher and empathized with Jews who were not of the elite. Maimonides was a prime representative of the Sephardi intellectual and cultural elite. Yet, he was also a populist and, like Socrates, a man of the people. The death of his brother and the brilliance of his philosophy did not force him into isolation. He was engaged, involved, and – proven by a letter that he wrote to his Hebrew translator describing his average day – out in the world and very busy.
Where does this leave us as we head into the second quarter of the 21st century? Thinkers have much work to do. In the Jewish world there are myriad challenges and crises that demand new ideas. Even Dostoevsky’s Underground Man emerged from the shadows to criticize the philosophy of his own day. Intellectuals, scholars, authors, rabbis and professors must not be confined to the four ells of the library. To read Kant by the dim light in isolation helps no one. The Jewish world demands thinking men and women to come out of isolation and engage with all Jews, not only those on campuses and at academic conferences. Jewish history is the history of great thinkers who assumed the roles of political and religious leaders, teachers, philosophers, mystics, polemicists, writers, poets, journalists and warriors. Let us hope the coming years produce thinkers who will enrich Jewish religion, culture, and identity. We need a Socrates, not a Marx. We need a Moses Maimonides. Thinkers – don’t remain underground.

The author is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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