Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition
By Dr. Henry Abramson
In a central Paris square in June 1232, a group of Jewish zealots gathered around a blazing pile of Hebrew manuscripts, congratulating themselves on their new partnership with the Dominican friars. As the precious hand-copied books blackened in the flames, letters freeing themselves from the curling vellum, the instigators of the conflagration reflected on their good fortune to have found such willing supporters in the Christian monasteries: who would imagine that the monks would endorse their bid to destroy the “heretical” writings of the Spanish-Egyptian scholar Moses Maimonides? Amazingly, the Dominicans enthusiastically echoed the ProvenÃ§al rabbis’ assertions that Maimonides’ writings were unforgivably tainted by any number of blasphemies, no doubt a result of his prior study of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers.
Little did the opponents of Maimonides understand that the object of their hatred would one day be known as the Great Eagle for his soaring, authoritative perspective on the vast corpus of Jewish texts. They also failed to realize that their denunciation of Maimonides would have dire consequences: exactly one decade later, in the same Paris square, the church would conduct a massive burning of 24 wagonloads of Talmudic manuscripts, dwarfing the Jewish-sponsored destruction of Maimonides’ works.
The Maimonidean controversy roiled Europe for more than a century, pitting ProvenÃ§al scholars against Andalusian and North African Jewry. Besides the charge of foreign influence, critics assaulted Maimonides’ explicit attempt to make the Mishneh Torah a single (albeit massive) Code of Jewish Law, and his rationalist explanations for many commandments in his highly philosophical Guide for the Perplexed. One of the more important works to emerge from those intellectually troubled times is The Wars of the Lâ€‘rd (Sefer Milchamot Hashem), written by none other than Avraham ben Moshe, Maimonides’ son and successor as leader of Egyptian Jewry.
Avraham ben Moshe, also known as Avraham ben HaRambam or Avraham Maimuni, was born in 1186 and groomed for leadership by his father from his earliest childhood. His mother was also an aunt by marriage, as Maimonides and his only sister married siblings from a prominent family of royal scribes. Avraham became leader of the Egyptian Jewish community at the tender age of 18 when his father passed away. A bitter succession controversy ensued, but it was ultimately decided in Avraham’s favor and he was confirmed as the nagid, or prince. This title would remain associated with Avraham’s direct descendants for almost two centuries thereafter.
Avraham was an exceptionally popular leader, and in his lifetime he was even more highly regarded than his illustrious father. He followed Maimonides’ career path in medicine, serving as the royal physician to Saladin’s brother and also treating the sick of all classes in the hospital of Cairo. Also like Maimonides, much of Avraham’s time was taken up writing thousands of halachic responsa, many of which have been preserved in autograph copies in the Cairo Geniza. His overwhelming workload did not prevent him from authoring multiple religious works, mainly written in Arabic.
Unfortunately, most of Avraham ben HaRambam’s writings have survived in only a fragmentary manner, including his magnum opus, titled The Only Book Necessary for the Servant of Gâ€‘d (in Hebrew translation, HaMaspik Le’Oved Hashem). Just as the father was attacked for his reading of Greek philosophy, the son was critiqued for his open attitude to the teachings of the Sufi mystics. In the 19th century, the German-Jewish Wissenschaft des Judentums movement saw Maimonides as a valid role model for Jews seeking to impress Germans with their suitability for political and social emancipation, whereas Abraham’s influence on Kabbalistic thinkers rendered his work distasteful and unfit for Jews wishing to emulate Teutonic values.
Nevertheless, the surviving works of Avraham Maimuni, from his great defense of Maimonides–a literary tour de force of filial piety–to his Arabic-language meditation on the path to holiness, constitute a remarkable contribution to the long heritage of Jewish spirituality.
Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish history and thought. He serves as dean at the Avenue J Campus of Touro’s Lander Colleges and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.