Diderot: L’Encyclopédie


Source: L’Encyclopédie, Tome neuvième. Reprod. de l’édition. de, Neufchastel : chez Samuel Faulche, [1765];
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2007.

This entry – excerpted form the longer entry on Judaism – on the greatest of Jewish religious thinkers, one who strove mightily to apply reason to revealed texts, is interesting in several ways. As a biography it is wildly inaccurate, with nearly every event it recounts entirely fictional, and so much omitted that it gives an insufficient idea of the sweep of Maimonides’ life – after fleeing Spain due to Muslim fundamentalist persecution he lived in Morocco and Palestine before settling in Egypt – or his importance in the Jewish life of his time in general, and Mediterranean Jewish life in particular. But also important is the (entirely invented) account of his personal relationship with the Muslim philosopher Averroes, himself often considered a precursor of the Enlightenment, an intellectual kinship explored in the film by the American director Jacob Bender “The Wise Men of Cordoba.” Maimonides did not, as is stated here, read Greek: his knowledge of Greek philosophy was entirely derived from the translations and commentaries of Arab philosophers, Averroes – the great commentator on Aristotle – among them. They never met, and there was certainly never a question of hiding places, but this article’s awareness of the intellectual ties between the two men is noteworthy. Also noteworthy is the fair tone of this piece: Maimonides and his ideas are treated with great seriousness and fairness. Even the men of the Enlightenment were not always free of the ambient anti-Semitism (Voltaire was a particularly egregious example of this), so the tone here, as well as in the entry on Jews and Jewish philosophy and theology, are epochal in their way.

Maimonides (His name was Moses and was the son of Maimon, but he is best known by his father’s name: he is called Maimonides; some say he was born in 1133). .. Scaliger maintained that he was the first of the doctors who did more than jest among the Jews, like Diogenes among the Greeks. In fact, he found there was much emptiness in the study of the gemara [1] and regretted the time he had wasted doing this and , applying himself to more solid studies, he meditated much on the Scriptures. He knew Greek; he read the philosophers and especially Aristotle, who he often quoted. He caused such violent emotions in the synagogues that those of France and Spain excommunicated themselves because of him. He was born in Cordoba in 1133. He bragged of descending from the House of David, as do most Spanish Jews. His father Maimon, judge of his nation in Spain, counted among his ancestors a long series of individuals who had successively possessed that charge. It is said that in a dream he was told to break the resolution he had taken to be celibate and to marry the daughter of a butcher who was his neighbor. Perhaps Maimon faked a dream in order to hide a flirtation that caused him shame and had a miracle intervene in order to color his weakness. The mother died giving birth to Moses and Maimon remarried. I don’t know if the second wife, who had several children, hated Moses, or if he had a gloomy and heavy spirit during his youth, as is said. But his father reproached him his birth, beat him on several occasions, and finally drove him from the house. It is said that finding no other shelter than the roof of a synagogue he spent the night there and upon awakening found himself a man of a spirit completely different from what he’d had before. He placed himself under the discipline of Joseph the Levite, son of Megas, under whom he made great progress in a short span of time. The desire to see again his birthplace took hold of him, but upon returning to Cordoba instead of entering his father’s house he taught publicly at the synagogue, to the great surprise of the participants. His father, who recognized him, went there, embraced him and received him at his house. Some historians deny the truth of this story, because Joseph son of Megas was only ten years older than Moses. This reasoning is puerile, for a teacher can instruct a disciple who is only twenty. But it is more likely that Maimon himself taught his son and later sent him to study under Averroes, who had a high reputation at the time among the Arabs. This disciple had an exemplary attachment and fidelity to his teacher. Averroes had fallen out of favor because of a new revolution among the Moors in Spain. Abdi Amoumen, captain of a bandit troupe, who said that he was a direct descendant of Hussain, son of Ali, had dethroned the marabous in Africa and then had entered Spain in 1144, making himself in a short time the master of this kingdom. This doctor sought refuge among the Jews and confided the secret of his hiding place to Maimonides, who preferred to suffer all rather than reveal the place in which his teacher was hiding. Abulfaraj even says that Maimonides changed his religion and became a Muslim until, putting his affairs in order, he went to Egypt to live in freedom. His friends denied this, but Averroes, who wanted his soul to be with that of the philosophers, because Mohammedanism was the religion of piglets, Judaism that of children, and Christianity impossible to observe, hadn’t inspired a great attachment to the law on the part of his disciple. In any case, a Spaniard who went to persecute this doctor in Egypt until the end of his life reproached him for this weakness with such disdain that the affair was brought before the Sultan, who judged that anything that is done involuntarily and by violence in the matter of religion counts for nothing, from which he concluded that Maimonides had never been a Muslim. Nevertheless, this meant condemning him and deciding against him at the same time as it seemed to absolve him, for he declared that the abjuration was true but exempt from crime since will had played no part. But there is reason to suspect that Maimonides did abandon his religion based on his loose morality on this subject, for not only did he permit the Noahides to fall into idolatry if necessity demanded, because they had received no order to sanctify the name of God, but he maintained that there is no sin in sacrificing with idolaters and in renouncing religion, as long as it isn’t done in the presence of ten people, for in that case one must rather die than renounce the law. But Maimonides believed that believed that this sin ceases when it is committed in secret (Maimon. Fundum. Leg. Cap. V). The maxim is interesting, for it is no longer the religion that must be loved and defended at the risk of life; it’s the presence of ten Israelites that must be feared and which alone make it a crime. There is reason to believe that interest dictated so bizarre a maxim to Maimonides, and that having secretly abjured Judaism he thought to ease his conscience and defend himself through this distinction. Whatever the case, Maimonides remained in Egypt the rest of his days, which led to his being called Moses the Egyptian. He was a long time without employment there, so that he was reduced to the trade of jeweler. Nevertheless, he never tired of studying, and he finished his commentary on the mishnah that he had begun in Spain at the age of twenty-three. Alfadel, son of Saladin, having returned to Egypt after having been driven out by his brother, knew of Maimonides’ merit and chose him as his doctor and provided him with a pension. Maimonides says that this employment occupied him absolutely, for he was obliged to go to the Court every day and to remain there for a long period if someone was sick. Returning home he found a large number of people who had come to consult with him. Nevertheless, he continued to work for his benefactor, for he translated Avicenna, and in Bologna we can yet see this work done by order of Alfadel in 1194.

The Egyptians were jealous upon seeing Maimonides so powerful at court. In order to wrest this from him the doctors demanded a sample of his art. To this effect they presented him with a glass of poison that he swallowed, without fearing the effect, since he had the counter-poison. But having obligated ten doctors to swallow the poison they all died, for they didn’t have the specific antidote. It is also said that other doctors placed a glass of poison next to the Sultan’s bed to persuade him that Maimonides wanted to take his life and he was forced to slit his veins. But he had learned that in the human body there is a vein that the doctors didn’t know and, this not being cut, the complete effusion of blood could not occur. He saved himself through this unknown vein. This circumstance is not in accordance with the story of his life.

In fact, not only did he protect his nation at the Court from the new Sultans who established themselves on the ruin of the Aliites, but he founded an academy in Alexandria where a great many disciples came from the depths of Egypt, Syria and Judea in order to study under him. There would have been many more if a new persecution in the east hadn’t prevented foreigners from getting there. It was so violent that a portion of the Jews were forced to become Mohammedans in order to protect themselves from poverty, and Maimonides – who wasn’t able to inspire firmness in them – found himself reduced, like many others, to play the role of the false prophet and to promise his fellow-believers a deliverance that never came. He died at the beginning of the XIII Century and ordered that he be buried in Tiberias, where his ancestors had their tomb.

The doctor composed a great number of works; he commented on the mishnah [2]; thanks to his strong hand he was the judge of doubtful questions. It is claimed that he wrote on medicine as well as theology, and in Greek as well as Arabic, but that these books are very rare or lost. He is accused of having held the kaballah in contempt until his old age, but that upon then finding a man in Jerusalem who was able in that science he applied himself to the study of it. Rabbi Chaim assures that he saw a letter from Maimonides that testifies to his sorrow at not having penetrated the mysteries of the Law, but it is believed that the kaballists supposed that letter in order not to have been despised by the man who is called the Light of the East and the West.

His works were received with much applause. Nevertheless, it must be confessed that he often had quite arbitrary ideas and, having studied metaphysics, he made too great use of it. He maintained that all the faculties were a dream; he imagined that in this way he much more clearly explained the Divinity’s operations and the expressions of the Scriptures. Is it not strange, he said, that we admit what some doctors said, that an angel enters a woman’s womb in order to from an embryo, while these same doctors assure us that an angel is a consuming fire instead of recognizing that the generative faculty is an angel? It’s for this reason that God often speaks in the Scriptures and says: let us make a man in our image, for a few rabbis had concluded from this passage that God had a body, though more perfect than ours; he maintained that the image signifies the essential form that constitutes a thing in its being. All of this is quite subtle, doesn’t remove the difficulty and doesn’t reveal the true meaning of God’s words. He believed that the stars are animated and the celestial spheres alive. He said that God only repented of one thing, of having confounded the good and the evil in the ruin of the First Temple. He was persuaded that the promises of the Law, which still remained good, regard only a temporal felicity and that they will be fulfilled under the reign of the messiah. He maintained that the Kingdom of Judah had been given to Jechonias’ posterity in the person of Saltiel, though Saint Luke positively assures us he was not the son of Jechonias, but of Neri.

1. Analysis of and commentary upon rabbinic discussions in the Talmud

2. The core text of the Talmud which gemara is a commentary on.