Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker

By Sarah Stroumsa | Go to book overview

Chapter One
Maimonides and Mediterranean Culture

FROM THE MANY HONORIFIC TITLES appended to Maimonides' name, “The Great Eagle” has come to be identified as his particular, personal title. This biblical sobriquet (from Ezekiel 17: 3) was meant, no doubt, to underline his regal position in the Jewish community. At the same time, the imagery of the wide- spread wings does justice not only to the breadth of Maimonides' intellectual horizons, but also to the scope of his impact, which extended across the Mediterranean, and beyond it to Christian Europe.

To the extent that the quantity of scholarly studies about an author is a criterion for either importance or fame, Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) stands among the most prominent figures in Jewish history, and certainly the most famous medieval Jewish thinker.1 The continuous stream of publications dedicated to Maimonides is, however, often characterized by overspecification. Following what appears to be a division in Maimonides' own literary output, scholars usually focus on a particular section of his work—philosophy, medicine, religious law, or community leadership— complementing it by forays into other domains. Each such subject creates its own context: the intellectual or historical environment that we reconstruct in our attempts to understand Maimonides' treatment of a certain topic.

The prevalent tendency to overemphasize disciplinary partitions within Maimonides' own work reinforces, in turn, another already existing tendency: to overemphasize the distinction between Maimonides the Jewish leader and Maimonides the Islamic thinker.2 Although Maimonides, like many great thinkers, defies categorization, we are prone to search for familiar tags, con venient pigeon- holes in which we can neatly classify his

1To illustrate this point, one example may suffice: a search in RAMBI, The Index of Arti-
cles in Jewish Studies, published by the Jewish National and University Library at Jerusa-
lem (http://jnul.huji.ac.il/rambi/) lists, as articles with “Maimonides” as a key- word in the
title, 243 entries published between 2000 and 2007 (and this number does not include
Hebrew articles in the same category). On the inflation in Maimonidean scholarship, see
also P. Bouretz, “A la recherche des lumières médiévales: la leçon de Maïmonide,” Cri-
tique 64 (Jan- Feb. 2008), 29. Several comprehensive books on Maimonides came out
when the manuscript of the present book was already completed, and could not be cited
extensively

2For an example of such a distinction, see chap. 5, below, apud notes 18–20.

-1-

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