Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker

By Sarah Stroumsa | Go to book overview

Conclusion

The preceding pages were dedicated to one major medieval thinker, Moses Maimonides, and to the examination of his thought in its context. The outcome of this examination bears first of all upon our understanding of Maimonides himself. The description presented here, of Maimonides as a Mediterranean thinker, is not meant to say that he was not also, and essentially, a Jewish thinker. Rather, it highlights and elucidates Maimonides' consistent interpretation of his own, Jewish tradition in contemporary terms, as they were shaped by his Mediterranean legacy.

Such an interpretation, which translates tradition into contemporary, more familiar terms, is in itself not an uncommon phenomenon: Rembrandt's Abraham, we know, looks distinctly Dutch. Maimonides' success in his interpretative effort is also not surprising: Maimonides' linguistic diglossia means not only that he switches easily from Hebrew to Arabic and back, but also that he thinks about the same issues in both Arabic and Hebrew. In each of these languages, words and phrases carry with them their own, mostly Muslim or mostly Jewish, conceptual and associative baggage. Maimonides' complex and nuanced thought is the product of his openness to his multiple cultural heritages, and of his talent to absorb and rework their riches. The reader who wishes to fathom the nuances of Maimonides' thought is thus challenged to be as open as he was, to constantly bear these legacies in mind, and to remain alert to their presence in Maimonides' work.

Beyond Maimonides, however, the results of the present study bear upon the methodology of medieval Jewish and Islamic thought. In studying Jewish philosophy in general, scholarly methods vary, and scholars disagree in their evaluation of the relevance of the non- Jewish context to the topic. Thus, while Shlomo Pines emphasizes the broader cultural circles that nurture Jewish philosophy, Eliezer Schweid views the development of Jewish philosophy as mainly an internal process, where Jewish thinkers carry on a dialogue with previous generations of Jewish scholars. Regarding the early medieval period, Schweid, like Pines, accepts the existence of direct influences of the immediate Muslim environment on Jewish thought, but he tends to play down their significance. The argument between scholars thus focuses on the scope and nature of Islamic influence. For Schweid, the Islamic world provides only the background to Jewish philosophy, within which we can distinguish “a continuous Jewish speculative literature, with a fair amount of internal

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