(Body) Maimonides & Dance (Epistle to Yemen)

two dancers

In the 12th century, Shia forces in Yemen rebelling against Saladin conducted a persecution of the Jewish community. Originally written in Arabic, Maimonides Epistle to Yemen addressed the contemporary challenge of forced apostasy, heresy, and messianic claims. What caught my eye was how the combination of skepticism and aesthetic taste, especially dance, namely two dancing figures, informs the letter and perhaps the larger Maimonidean worldview.

The skepticism is recognizable enough. Maimonides rejects astrology along with any and all attempts to calculate the coming of the Messiah. These calculations lead to doubt and confusion. The appeal of Judaism and to Judaism is based purely in the past and present, namely the memory of Sinai as spectacle and the living truth of Judaism. But more to the point, it is based on an understanding of the body as a physical assemblage. A masterpiece of religious polemical writing, the letter doubles down on the inner living structure of Judaism, the immutable eternity of its truth, against what he rejects in contrast as the false religions of Christianity and Islam. Judaism is compared to a living body, whose organs and other inward parts, its networks of muscles, nerves, ligaments, joints and bones, are all “truly marvelously made.” In contrast, Christianity and Islam are at best stony, wooden, metallic simulacra. Maiminides compares them to statues, “copied from and patterned after [Judaism],” showing only a trace beauty of an outer organization (Isadore Twersky, A Maimonides Reader, p.443). We all know that Maimonides rejected the ascription of any corporeal attribution to God. But here what we have is Judaism as God’s revelation, perhaps even Torah as creature, in the image of a human body, a wondrous work.

Maimonides also doubles down on the Sinai event, and in doing so doubles down on imagination as the bedrock of popular Jewish religion. Maimonides wants the people to understand by way of the imagination that the Torah hangs on Sinai “and the memory of this occasion” as God’s final and consummate revelation. “It is imperative, my fellow Jews, that you make this great spectacle of the Revelation appeal to the imagination of your children. Proclaim at public gatherings its momentousness. For this event is the pivot of our religion, and the proof which demonstrates its veracity” (p.442). What Maimonides calls for then, what he recognizes as popular Jewish religion, is truth conveyed through the two forms of “great spectacle” and public performance.

Maimonides doubles down on spectacle and performance with this startling, even erotic image in praise of the people Israel:

Solomon, of blessed memory, has compared our people to a beautiful woman with a perfect figure, marred by no defect, in the verse, “Thou art all fair, my love; and there is no spot in thee.” (Song of Songs 4:7). On the other hand, he depicted the adherents of other religions and faiths, who strive to entice and win us over to their convictions, as courtesans who lure virtuous women for lewd purposes. Similarly they seek devices to trap us into embracing their religions, and subscribing to their doctrines. To these who endeavor to decoy her into avowing the superiority of their creed, our nation deftly replies, “Why do you take hold of me, can you confer upon me something like the felicity of the two companies?” She reasons thus, “If you can furnish us with something like the Revelation on Sinai, in which the camp of Israel faced the camp of the Divine Presence, then we shall espouse your doctirnes.” This is metaphorically expressed in the verse, “Return, return, O Shulammite; return, return, that we may look upon thee. What will you see in the Shulammite? As it were a dance of two companies.” (Song of Songs 7:1). Now “Shulammite” signifies the perfect one; “A dance of the two companies” alludes to the joy of the theophany in Mt. Sinai in which both the camp of Israel and the camp of God showed as is intimated in the two following verses: “Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God,” (Exodus 19:17), and “The chariots of God are myriads, even thousands upon thousands; the Lord is among them, as in Sinai, in holiness” (Psalms 68:18) (p.443).

One could easily say that these vivid appeals to the imagination were intended for common people and for the education of children. But this is not a merely incidental figure of thought, simply passed off as “just a metaphor.” What we have before us is a long and sustained attention to an image. There is a possible, maybe definite, philosophical conclusion to what in this section of the letter are remarkable couplings of the image of human bodies, joy and an open and erotic appeal to aesthetic imagination, to revelation viewed through the prism of poetry, to the Song of Songs and Psalms, to the spectacle and performance of dance. Much more than “law,” Maimonides turned his readers’ eye on two beautiful companies of dancers, the company of Israel and the camp of God, suggesting that he saw in aesthetics and the art of performance a more sure foundation against doubt and skepticism than simple and bald appeals to divine power and religious authority. The authority of revelation, its value as truth, would lie in the confidence of the dance itself, in image of the performance of the dancers, in this case, before a male philosophical gaze.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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