Maimonides' Empire of Light: Popular Enlightenment in an Age of Belief

Article excerpt

by Ralph Lerner. University of Chicago Press, 2000. 221 pp. $35.00.

Ralph Lerner's new book, Maimonides' Empire of Light, is a welcome antidote to those who think that Maimonides was an unregenerate, old-fashioned elitist -- or worse. Lerner shows in a striking and convincing manner that Maimonides was concerned with enlightening the so-called common people, with giving all the guidance that he could to his fellow Jews, members of a "despised" nation. In Lerner's words: "Maimonides is a rare case, perhaps unique among individuals of his rank, in attempting to bring some notions of philosophy within the ken of ordinary men and women".

To illustrate his thesis Lerner has selected five texts, newly translated or reissued, including Joel Kraemer's sorely needed new translation of the Epistle to Yemen. The presentation of expertly translated texts is one of the attractive features of Lerner's book. Included along with the Epistle are Lerner's own translation of selections from the Mishneh Torah, namely, the Introduction to the Code and the first four chapters of H. Yesodei ha-Torah; and a reissue of his rendering of the Letter on Astrology. There is also a new translation by Hillel Fradkin of Treatise on Resurrection. To illustrate the continued influence of Maimonidean "popular enlightenment," though from a different perspective, Lerner has included Falaquera's Epistle of the Debate (translated by Steven Harvey).

Each text is discussed separately by Lerner, who has added an essay on Albo's Book of Roots ("Survival Training") along with one on Maimonides' Guide ("Teaching by Example"), and all of the essays are learned, thoughtful, and elegantly written. Lerner interprets the Guide as offering an unusual kind of practical education (with philosophy somehow in the background): Adam, Abraham, and Moses are models for emulation. Lerner's erudite discussion of Abraham in particular is quite a tour de force.

The introductory paragraph to his essay on the Guide shows more clearly than anything else that Lerner has an eye upon perennial problems, including contemporary ones. "Try as we may, we cannot escape the questions life poses to us: Who are we, and to what do we aspire? Our actions bespeak our prior judgments, and like it or not, those judgments in turn testify to the standards that guided them." The models of conduct in the Guide can "disclose both our sense of present imperfection and our future hope". This opens up large questions, and Lerner, here and elsewhere, provides suggestive pointers, leading us repeatedly to the texts themselves. But still we might wonder how we should examine our "prior judgments" and aspirations; on the basis of what premises? Does not the examination of the premises themselves come first? Why should we choose the models depicted in the Guide -- or even the model of Maimonides himself (whom Lerner discusses in this context with much insight)? Of course, Lerner does not foreclose the questioning needed for understanding a given work and its relation to ongoing problems.

A good example of what he has in mind when speaking of the enlightenment of the people at large can be seen from the letter to Yemen. Lerner accentuates what has to be learned by those desperate Jews. Their belief must be fortified with the assistance of the imagination: hence Maimonides urges them to re-imagine what took place at Mt. Sinai. Their confusion about astrology -- an account of human events that appears to be scientific -- must moreover be dispelled. And their mistaken views about the signs of the advent of the messiah must be corrected. …