Reading Maimonides Through Islamic Glasses

Haim Watzman

statue of Maimonides in Cordoba
statue of Maimonides in Cordoba
In his introduction to the Mishna, Maimonides (known as “the Rambam” in Jewish tradition) tells a story about the revelation and transmission of the Torah. Reading this story in light of Islamic doctrines about sacred revelation and transmission reveals that Maimonides, who lived in an Islamic society, sought to ground the written and oral law of the Jews in a way commensurable with the standards set by Islam.

This view of Maimonides, the foremost medieval Jewish philosopher in the Islamic world, is offered by Yoav Phillips, who is offering a series of classes in the new beit midrash (study hall) sponsored jointly by Kehilat Yedidya and a group of graduates of the recently-closed Religious Kibbutz Movement yeshiva at Kibbutz Ein Tzurim.

The third chapter of Maimonides’ introduction relates, Phillips showed, how the Torah given to Moshe (Moses) on Mt. Sinai was transmitted to the Israelites in the desert and to Joshua, who then transmitted it to the elders and prophets, who then transmitted it to the rabbis.

As Westerners, Phillips pointed out, we accept our culture’s unstated assumption that the transmission of written texts is more reliable than that of oral texts. Jewish rabbinic tradition also differentiates between the written and the oral law; both were given to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, but the written law nevertheless has a higher status.

So it is surprising to see that in Maimonides’ account of the revelation, Moshe does not write the Torah down. Rather, he transmits it orally to Aharon (Aaron), to Aharon’s sons, and to the elders. The act of writing occurs when the elders transmit the Torah to the people—the latter write down the law as an aid to learning. But Moshe himself does not write down the Torah until just before his death, as the Israelites prepare to enter the Land of Israel.

The transmission of the Torah, as related by Maimonides, reaches a fulcrum in the person of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi (Judah the Prince), the compiler of the Mishna. Maimonides describes Rabbi Yehuda in superlatives, and then repeats the entire chain of transmission backwards from him to Moses.

Phillips explained that Maimonides’ narrative accords with Islamic tradition, in which oral transmission is considered more reliable and more appropriate for a sacred text than is written transmission. The hadith, traditions about the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, were transmitted orally. Each tradition comes accompanied by a chain of transmission reaching back to the Prophet himself. Furthermore, key transmitters are extolled (or censured), to either validate or invalidate the tradition.

Maimonides, then, seeks in this work, Phillips maintains, to validate the revelation and transmission of Jewish law in terms acceptable to the Muslims—and, in particular, to assimilated Jews immersed in Islamic culture. It becomes primarily an oral tradition, and one that adopts Islam’s terms of validation.

This fundamentally difference between Western and Islamic views of tradition shows how unstated assumptions can affect fundamental outlooks about truth and authority. Phillips’ analysis also shows how vital it is to understand thinkers—even canonized ones, like Maimonides—in terms of the cultural context in which they lived and worked.

Corrected on Dec. 7: an embarrassing mistake in identifying the source referred to above (the Introduction to the Mishna, not the “Eight Chapters.” Thanks to Yoav Phillips for noticing.

3 thoughts on “Reading Maimonides Through Islamic Glasses”

  1. It’s rather ironic that the Western assumption of greater reliability of written texts is itself an unwritten law. And there’s a most fundamental area in which this is not even true, and that’s culture itself. There are certain parts of it that require writing, such as literature, most classical music and art, science, and law, but to others, like folk traditions, written fixation is almost anathema, and a culture as a whole can’t be fixated in a snapshot, much less grasped, either. It’s a little like Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty: the moment you see it it has already wandered off, evolved.

    I play traditional Irish (and a little Scottish and Scandinavian) music, and while I do frequently use written music as a crutch for learning (and I’m also happy to provide my own transcriptions to others), I’m always mindful that they’re not the real thing – every musician plays a tune differently, depending on their musical “upbringing” and preferences, to a much, much greater amount than is true in classical music. Conversely, a tune is almost never played as written by anyone, anywhere, at any time.

    Actually, a similar point can be made about written text, works of art etc. If we look at them “as they are”, they’re no more than a meaningless jumble of letters, paint, clay and other matter. When we interpret them (as we must), we can almost never do so entirely according to “original intent”, should we even fully know it. The space between a work and the beholder is always, in more or less subtle ways, filled with meanings that fully belong to neither, but are impossible to shove aside.

    In this sense, that Western assumption is, at least partially, an illusion. I wonder if the Gospel of John, 1:1 (In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.) is to blame. But the difference between the Christian West and Islamic cultures isn’t quite so fundamental as you claim.

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