I just finished reading Joel Kraemer’s biography, Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds. The celebratory subtitle, which is actually kind of listless, conceals an important point having to do with the subject’s geographical place in the “world.” That world is the Arab world of the 11th century, in Spain, across North Africa to the Land of Israel and down to Egypt. Maimonides has been removed from his Jewish milieu, but only insofar as that Jewish milieu has been situated into a much larger cultural universe in ways more specific than the casual nods to the cultural contexts and more specific analysis of the philosophical influences defining the life and work of Maimonides. Here the broader contexts are identified, be they the political transition from Fatimid to Ayyubid rule in Egypt to particulars relating to Almohad and Isma’ili theology. As for Jewish learning, we learn that by the end of his life Maimonides had time and energy only for a little bit of Scripture on Shabbat, and not much more.
Kraemer’s book is pitched at the middle brow reader, which means that the book is fluid and well written. Critics will note but I was charmed by the spirit of orientalist writing that marks the way Kraemer seeks to give the reader a sense of Maimonides’ cultural place in the world, in Cordoba and Egypt primarily, and also at sea along the Indian ocean, where Maimonides’ brother drowned while on an overseas journey. Over and over you’ll see Kraemer imagining scenes drawn from “the” medieval orient. They are always sun drenched, motley, and fragrant.
The serious work performed by the orientalist writing is to set up the aesthetic contours that marked the adab, high court culture in which Maimonides was immersed. Over and over again, the sense of a world, an imaginary world, complements the naturalism of Maimonides’ philosophical conceptions as regards things like prophecy and providence, and flexibility in matters relating to communal authority and to the application of personal law to actual cases, a philosophical naturalism stamped by the science and practice of medicine.
The orientalism and the naturalism form part of a larger aestheticism that very few scholars have bothered to note about Maimonides –one prominent exception being the discussion of Maimonides by Kalman Bland in The Artless Jew. Kraemer’s biography contributes to and extends that line of analysis proffered by Bland. We are invited by the author into the world of Hebrew renaissance, Andalusian gardens, Scriptural personae, the Nile River, music and makama, geometric order, and florid style. The letters to his student Joseph ben Joseph are practically purple, marked by sexual repartee that strikes us as remark-able today, but which would have probably gone unremarked at the time. Of note too is Maimonides’ expertise about aphrodisiacs, various concoctions of hot spices, black pepper, honey water and wine, and a mix of oils and saffron-colored ants used to massage the penis for two or three hours prior to intercourse in order to extend erection. With an innocence either genuine or feigned, Kraemer writes “The reader may be surprised…but as a physician serving royalty, emirs, judges, and other eminent men, he had to keep files with this kind of information” (p.448).
This is what Maimonideanism has to recommend for itself to the contemporary reader. Indebted to Pierre Hadot, Kramer presents Jewish philosophy as a therapy of body and soul. Stoic composure is presented in the face of deep grief at losing loved ones, the physical burdens of office, and the effects of old age on the body. Maimonidean philosophy attends to affect and disposition, to the truth of things and to composure and harmonization. Is there then no mind-body dualism in Maimonides? If so, then maybe it is of a very different kind than the way that dualism is usually understood in western philosophy after Descartes. Here the emphasis is place on mind-body holism, to the cultivation of equanimity and imperturbability vis-à-vis the play between order and chance. In matters both medicinal and philosophical, it would seem that Maimonides relied on nature to take its course, and this was meant to liberate the soul from the terrors of the imagination in its confrontation with all the unhappy happenstance of mortal life.