12.06.18, Cohen, Opening the Gates of Interpretation

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Daniel J. Lasker

The Medieval Review 12.06.18

Cohen, Mordechai Z.. Opening the Gates of Interpretation: Maimonides' Biblical Hermeneutics in Light of His Geonic-Andalusian Heritage and Muslim Milieu. Études sur le Judaïsme Médiéval. Leiden:Koninklijke Brill NV, 2011. Pp. xxx, 566. ISBN: 978-9-004-18932-4.

Reviewed by:

Daniel J. Lasker
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Even in his own lifetime, the legacy of Maimonides (1138-1204), the greatest Jewish legalist and philosopher, was already a matter of contention. Throughout the generations people have wondered who the real Maimonides is: the exacting traditionalist rabbi who codified all of Jewish law in his Mishneh Torah; or the radical Aristotelian philosopher that some readers have found in his Guide of the Perplexed. In our own day, the competition for the correct interpretation of Maimonides is often between the yeshiva (the talmudic academy) and the university, with the former claiming that only those immersed in the painstaking study of the law can possibly understand the man who is often called "The Great Eagle;" traditional methods lead to the true understanding of Maimonides, not scholarly ones. This position is often criticized by academics as giving preference to religious beliefs over scientific objectivity.

One of the conclusions of this new book by Mordecai Z. Cohen, who teaches at an institution called Yeshiva University, is that for a true understanding of Maimondes there is absolutely no substitute for approaching his writings in a critical, scholarly manner, namely reading his texts in their original languages and situating them in their intellectual setting. Except for Mishneh Torah and a few minor works, Maimonides wrote in Judaeo-Arabic, a form of Middle Arabic written in Hebrew letters with a large percentage of Hebrew (and Aramaic) words and phrases. Furthermore, Maimonides did not write in a vacuum; his works all reflect the Islamic culture in which he flourished. Thus, Maimonides adapted Arabic terms and Islamic concepts to his presentation of Jewish law, a fact which is not evident from the Hebrew translations of his work. Over and over again, Cohen demonstrates (often in footnotes and in a gentle manner) that traditionalist readers who use only translations, and are unfamiliar with the wider intellectual background against which Maimonides wrote, are often misled by the Hebrew translators' terminology and, thus, falsely interpret him. The purpose of this book, therefore, is to examine Maimonides' exegetical terminology and methodology in its full context, or as the subtitle reads: Maimonides' biblical hermeneutics in light of his Geonic-Andalusian heritage and Muslim milieu. The author is eminently successful in this endeavor and mostly convincing.

The central issue of the book is how Maimonides understood the biblical text which was the putative source of both his legal and philosophical views but whose obvious, literal or plain meaning (usually called peshat in Hebrew) is at variance with both his rabbinic halakhah and his Aristotelian thought. In the legal context, Maimonides was challenged by Karaism, the sectarian form of Judaism which denied the validity of the central tenet of rabbinic Judaism, namely, on Mt. Sinai God gave Moses an Oral Torah (eventually embodied in the Talmud) which provided authoritative interpretations of the laws of the Written Torah (the Pentateuch), even when those interpretations seem forced and in contradiction to the text. Karaite law was based upon what the Karaites claimed was a truer contextual reading of the Torah as compared to talmudic interpretations. In the theological realm, the many anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms of the biblical God and the supernatural character of His actions seem to conflict with the incorporeal and immutable God of nature taught by the philosophers. Since Maimonides privileged both talmudic law and naturalistic theology, many of his readers were convinced that he "devalued" the text of the Hebrew Bible in contrast to his legal and intellectual commitments.

By a close study of Maimonides' terminology, Cohen demonstrates how, rather than devaluing the biblical text, Maimonides' exegetical prowess allowed him to integrate loyalty to it with his general outlook. First, he shows that unlike other authorities, Maimonides does not call the obvious, literal, plain or contextual meaning of the text peshat, but rather he denotes it by a standard Arabic term, ẓāhir al-naṣṣ. This initial meaning, however, does not have binding legal or theological authority; law is determined by what he called in Hebrew peshat or peshuto shel miqra, or in Aramaic peshateh di-qera. Cohen argues that for Maimonides these latter terms connote not a "literal" reading but Scripture itself (298), the meaning of which is often determined by rabbinical interpretation. Only the peshat, and not theẓāhir al-naṣṣ or rabbinic elaborations, determines which laws are to be considered of Biblical authority (de-orayta). Translations which render ẓāhir al-naṣṣ as peshat, a common usage among Maimonides' medieval translators, lead unsuspecting readers to misrepresent his innovation and to attempt to solve non-existent contradictions in his works. Thus, an explicit "goal of this study is to restore the radiance of Maimonides' hermeneutics by delineating his nuanced categories of interpretation on the basis of the distinction between these two key terms [ẓāhir al-naṣṣ and peshat] and others associated with them" (xviii). Cohen shows further that although Maimonides' understanding of the distinction between the two terms is a departure from his Geonic and Andalusian predecessors, it is still rooted in their struggles to form coherent rules of exegesis which are loyal both to rabbinic precedent (against the Karaites) and to rational exegesis. If in legal matters, the ẓāhir al-naṣṣ can be superseded by peshat as determined by talmudic law, in philosophical ones it can be explained by means of often expansive interpretation (ta'wīl) to give its true inner meaning (bāṭin). Maimonides is shown to be both a loyalist to the biblical text and a consistent innovator of exegetical theory.

To this reader, Cohen's revisionist view of Maimonides' "rule of peshat primacy" works better in the legal realm, where Maimonides' theory is described as "truly revolutionary, shattering sacred barriers that his predecessors typically feared to cross" (447), than in the philosophical realm (admittedly not the focus of the book), where it merely entails "exegetical innovations" (ibid). The sometimes tedious, but necessary, overwhelming adducing of evidence and the comprehensive listing of every relevant passage in Maimonides' works clearly demonstrate the Great Eagle's consistency in his use of the biblical text for legal purposes. Yet, the argument that Maimonides devalues the literal reading in his philosophy is not only that for him the ẓāhir al-naṣṣ does not convey the truth, which can be determined only by use of ta'wīl to produce the bāṭin, but also that the assertion that the interpreted text conveys a philosophical truth may be a pious fiction. Thus, when Maimonides says (Guide of the Perplexed, 3:23) that Eliphaz's position in the book of Job corresponds to the opinion of our Law (sharī'a), Cohen writes that Maimonides refers to a "literal, superficial reading of Scripture, but not the true biblical view of providence" (228). Indeed, Eliphaz's can hardly be the true view of providence but, for Maimonides, perhaps it can accurately be called the "biblical" one. In contrast to what Maimonides wished his average reader to understand, it is possible that he held the more correct doctrine to be taught by philosophy and not by the Bible at all. Nevertheless, Cohen's interpretive moves, which build upon other recent treatments of Maimonides as a philosophical interpreter of the biblical text, require further close examination; indeed, the true value of the Bible for philosophy may form one of those exegetical puzzles for which Maimonides avoided espousing an explicit position. (One might add an additional philosophical imprecision: the medieval "Active Intellect" is not God [213], but a lower intellect which governs the sublunar world and, for the Aristotelians, the highest level to which the human intellect can aspire.)

The upshot of this book, of which only the major conclusions are summarized above, is that when Maimonides adopted the talmudic statement, "a biblical verse does not leave the realm of its peshat," he meant it. Rather than devaluing peshat, he held it, as he understood it, in high esteem. By examining so closely Maimonides' exegetical strategies, and by comparing them with his predecessors and some successors in the Middle East, Andalusia and France, Cohen has amply contributed to the recent scholarly discussion of peshat as it manifested itself in both the Islamicate and Christian realms. It is a valuable contribution to the entire study of medieval biblical exegesis and will undoubtedly serve as the basis of all subsequent discussions of Maimonides' hermeneutics.

Perhaps the ultimate irony of this well written and carefully proofread book is that by using academic tools, Cohen argues that Maimonides' oeuvre are much more consistent and integrated than many of his university-trained readers have claimed. Applying modern scientific method to traditional texts does not have to undermine their authority for religionists; rather such methodology often adds a more profound dimension to their beliefs.

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Author Biography

Daniel J. Lasker

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev