Day in the life: reading Rambam on a Sunday morning
November 02, 2008
Sunday morning: homemade biscuits, a pot of tea, the Sunday Times. And then, while Ethan mows the lawn for the last time this winter (our first snow having fortunately melted away) I sit down at the kitchen table to work on my homework for Codes.
We're beginning with a classic: Rambam's Mishneh Torah (משנה תורה [Heb]; here's its Wikipedia entry in English.) Mishneh Torah was a medieval attempt to compile and clarify the vast thicket of secondary texts and commentaries which had already sprouted around the Torah itself into one single, readable work.
The traditional understanding holds that the secondary texts are Oral Torah, part and parcel of the Written Torah which was revealed to Moshe atop Mount Sinai. It's actually a deliciously radical notion: that the unflowering of our interpretations isn't ancillary to the divine text, but is actually part of the Torah. Rambam makes clear from the start that interpretation necessarily evolves over time, and that in each age sages arise who are able to use the tools of the tradition to respond to the timely matters of the day.
Our big assignment for this week is to translate the dozen last paragraphs in the introduction to Mishneh Torah, plus a couple of small commentaries printed in the margins of our edition. For days I've been glancing at the page, getting overwhelmed by the dense weave of letters, and setting it aside. Today I removed myself from my office with its usual distractions and strapped myself to the mast, determined to ride the waves of Rambam until I had reached the far shore.
I had to look up a couple dozen words, but I made it through the assignment. A lot of what he's saying is material I've heard before, read elsewhere, or absorbed through basic Jewish osmosis...but it's fun to read it in the original, and to recognize that this is where a lot of these familiar ideas actually originated. (Like seeing Casablanca for the first time, my senior year of college, and realizing in a flash how many familiar scenes, lines, and references from pop culture and cinema were quoting this very original.)
In the section we're reading this week, Rambam talks about the unfolding of the Oral Torah over time. He decries the shameful state of Jewish literacy these days (which is to say, the twelfth century of the Common Era. Plus ça change, I guess.) And then he explains the project he's personally undertaken: to summarize everything that's in the Oral Torah, to organize it in a clear and comprehensive way and to make it plain to anyone who wants to learn. His intent is that anyone who wants to become knowledgeable can read the Torah, and then read Rambam's compilation of Oral Torah, and that person wouldn't need to read anything else at all, ever.
The chutzpah of it is mind-boggling. And yet there's a reason his text is still studied today. Witness me at my kitchen table poring over his mercifully clear Hebrew as a first step toward diving in to the world of Jewish legal interpretation.
There's a lot that's remarkable about the Mishneh Torah. Rambam reorganizes a vast body of material, which is not an easy undertaking. This text covers the full range of Jewish law, including material that was only applicable when the Temple stood. And as Eli Siegel notes, "[i]t opens with a section on systematic philosophical theology, derived largely from Aristotelian science and metaphysics, which it regards as the most important component of Jewish law." (Rambam was a philosopher as well as a legal scholar, and it shows.)
On the downside, there's a way in which this is a very top-down text. Rambam doesn't cite his sources, and one could argue that his approach ("let me read and assimilate this library of material, and I'll tell you the bits you need to know") is paternalistic. Then again, one could also argue that this is the ultimate in democratization, because it makes the vast body of tradition accessible to those who don't have the time or inclination to immerse in this material the way Rambam did. One way or another, I'm psyched to be diving in.
And now it's time to focus on some football.