Maimonides at the Margins

Reviewed by Orly Roth

Converts, Heretics, and Lepers: Maimonides and The Outsider
by James A. Diamond
University of Notre Dame Press, 2007, 368 pages.

In his great philosophical work, the Guide of the Perplexed, the twelfth-century rabbi Moses Maimonides attempted to systematically resolve the inherent tension between the conclusions of philosophy and biblical revelation. The source of this tension is the discrepancy between the Bible’s anthropomorphic descriptions of God and philosophy’s long tradition of rejecting any similarity between man and the divine. In order to reconcile these opposites, Maimonides used a familiar literary technique: the metaphor. In his Guide he states that “the Tora speaketh in the language of the sons of man,” meaning the language of the common people. At certain points, he asserts, the biblical narrative should not be read literally. It is instead a series of allegories which represent abstract philosophical concepts. By acknowledging that the Bible has a metaphorical aspect, one can understand it rationally and reconcile it with the demands of philosophy.
A close examination of Maimonides’ writings reveals that the Guide can itself be read in precisely the same manner. Maimonides testified that, like the Bible, his work contained an “esoteric” layer in addition to its apparent literal meaning. This layer was intended only for those with the intellectual capacity to comprehend it. Just as the biblical descriptions of God as a corporeal being are not to be understood literally, the text of the Guide has a theological or philosophical meaning that is not immediately evident.
This assumption forms the basis of Converts, Heretics, and Lepers: Maimonides and The Outsider by James A. Diamond, who holds the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Diamond’s examination of Maimonides’ writings is quite broad, encompassing several texts in which Maimonides discusses archetypal figures situated at the fringes of normative society, including the upper reaches of the social order. Diamond contends that Maimonides relates to these figures in a manner which is not solely moral or legal in nature. He also perceived them as metaphors for theological and philosophical ideas with deep and far-reaching implications. The figure of the convert, for example, serves as a metaphor for an ideal form of Judaism represented by the biblical Abraham. In the same manner, Maimonides treats Elisha ben Abuya, the mishnaic sage who eventually turned his back on the Tora and is thus referred to as Acher (“Other”) in rabbinic writings, not simply as a well-known heretic but also as an archetype of intellectual degeneration.
In order to back up this fascinating claim, Diamond examines all of Maimonides’ works through the lens of allegory and metaphor—not only the Guide of the Perplexed but also the Mishneh Tora, Sefer Hamitzvot, his commentary on the Mishna, and numerous letters. This interpretative approach gives serious intellectual weight to Diamond’s book but also requires certain clarifications and justifications, which he doesn’t always provide.
In the opening five chapters of his book, Diamond focuses on archetypal human figures characterized as “outsiders”: the convert, the leper, the heretic, the king, and the sage. Each of these figures is uniquely located outside of normative society. The convert joins the community from without; the leper is forcibly distanced from society as a result of his condition; the heretic removes himself from the community by his own volition; the king’s status and power make him different from others; and even the sage is an outsider, because he isolates himself by dedicating his life to lofty religious works and contemplation of God. Diamond states that these figures “become, in Maimonides’ hands, metaphors for something much larger than their own existential predicaments.”
In his chapter dealing with the convert, for instance, Diamond claims that Maimonides considers a man who renounces his religion and voluntarily accepts the yoke of Judaism to be an example of the “true” Jew—an exemplar for those born into Judaism. Diamond cites a letter written by Maimonides to a convert named Ovadya, in which he explains why a proselyte, who is not born into the Jewish people, is nonetheless permitted to recite the liturgical statement “our God, and God of our fathers.” Maimonides’ explanation is based on his view of the biblical Abraham. In the Mishneh Tora he explains that Abraham was a teacher-philosopher who relied on his intellect to contemplate the world around him, and thus arrived at the truth. The nation Abraham founded was composed of those who followed his way, in addition to his biological descendants. The convert, therefore, is a valued member of the community of Abraham’s progeny: He is a student of the biblical patriarch and, as such, essentially his “offspring.”
But Maimonides saw the convert as far more than just an integral part of the Jewish people. He raised him to the level of a religious ideal. Because Abraham founded Judaism after undergoing a deep spiritual transformation, Maimonides understood the convert’s personal journey to Judaism as a symbolic reenactment of the religion’s establishment. The truths Abraham bequeathed to his descendants—biological and intellectual—cross vast expanses of time, space, and culture to capture the heart of the convert. As a result, there is no one worthier than he of being considered one of Abraham’s progeny.
The convert enjoys another point in his favor: He adopts the ways of his “father” by his own choice. His motivations are interior and personal. In this, he has an advantage over someone who is born a Jew and follows the traditions of his fathers simply because he was raised in a certain environment. Such unthinking adherence to the familiar obstructs intellectual independence and original thought and can lead to the perpetuation of grave errors (the worst, in Maimonides’ opinion, are errors concerning the nature of God). The convert does not face this danger, because he is first and foremost guided by his intellect, in contrast to those who acquire their worldview from the unquestioned authority of parents and teachers.
The archetype of the leper is another philosophically significant metaphor. Unlike the convert, who joins the community, the leper is expelled from it. The convert undertakes a protracted intellectual struggle to discover the truth, whereas the leper, at the core of his being, threatens to undermine the foundations of these truths. As a result, the community is commanded to eject him. It is important to note that the book of Leviticus does not use the term “leprosy” to refer solely to the disease we know today. Rather, the word refers to a spectrum of afflictions which attack not only the human body but also inanimate possessions such as clothes and buildings. This presented the sages of the medieval period with an intellectual challenge, because the symptoms enumerated in the biblical texts did not correspond to any known disease. As a result, a number of interpreters—such as Nahmanides—saw the afflictions described in the Bible as signs of divine intervention. Maimonides also held that science was incapable of offering a satisfactory explanation for these phenomena. He saw them, however, not as miracles pure and simple, but rather as external manifestations of moral degeneration affecting both humans and the objects around them.
In this vein, Maimonides states in the Guide that leprosy is punishment for the sin of lashon hara (evil speech). In the Mishneh Tora, he claims that idle talk and “pointless” slander are the seeds of moral corruption, which reaches its climax—or nadir—in “evil speech against God.” In the Guide, Maimonides holds that internal corruption is accompanied by the gradual spread of “leprosy” from the walls of a sinner’s house to his furniture, his clothes, and finally his body itself:
Now this… was no normal happening, but was a portent and a wonder among the Israelites to warn them against slanderous speaking. For if a man uttered slander the walls of his house would suffer a change; if he repented the house would again become clean. But if he continued in his wickedness until the house was torn down, leather objects in his house on which he sat or lay would suffer a change: If he repented they would again become clean. But if he continued in his wickedness until they were burnt, his skin would suffer a change and he would become leprous.
The appearance of blemishes signals danger and bids the sinner to change his ways. In the absence of genuine repentance, the sinner is punished by infection and increasing isolation, until he is expelled from healthy society because of his impurity. As Maimonides writes, “[he is] set apart and exposed all alone until he should no more engage in the conversation of the wicked, which is raillery and slander.”

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