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Maimonides: Rationalist or Mystic?

Rabbi Marc Eichenbaum
Straus Center Researcher


On Tuesday evening, Nov. 23, 2021, the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought hosted Dr. Elisha Russ-Fishbane, associate professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University (NYU), for a lecture on Maimonides and mysticism. The presentation was given in Straus Center Assistant Clinical Professor Rabbi Dr. Dov Lerner’s Maimonides and His Enemies course, which is being offered at Yeshiva College in collaboration with the Straus Center.

The lecture commenced with a fascinating discussion on how Maimonides, despite being known as a staunch rationalist, was hailed in certain Pietist movements as a mystic. One group, led by Rabbi Abraham Abulafia, saw Maimonidean writings— primarily his Guide to the Perplexed—as foreshadowing his Kabbalistic doctrine of prophecy as the culmination of the mystical path. The second group, the Egyptian Pietists led by Maimonides’ son Rabbi Abraham, also saw their Kabbalistic doctrine as an extension of Maimonides teachings. This phenomenon of adopting Maimonides as a mystic would resurface later on in the writings of Shem Tov ben Abraham ibn Gaon, the author of Migdal Oz, and other Jewish commentators.

As the lecture progressed, Dr. Russ-Fishbane explained how most Kabbalists saw Maimonides’ philosophy as in opposition to Kabbalah. Jewish scholars, including Heinrich Graetz, Gershom Scholem, and Moshe Idel, were of the opinion that Kabbalah was fundamentally a response to the rationalism of the Maimonides. Nevertheless, Maimonides was still revered and spoken about reverentially by most Kabbalistic circles. The lecture concluded with an example of Kabbalists who harshly criticized Maimonides, with one going so far as blaming the large swaths of Jews who converted to Christianity during the Massacre of 1391 on Maimonidean rationalism.

Rabbi Lerner thanked Dr. Fishbane for his stirring presentation and steered the students’ attention to their next focus, another of Maimonides' intellectual enemies—the revolutionary philosopher and rabbi, hand-picked by King Joan of Aragon to rebuild the Jewish communities of Spain in the wake of the 1391 massacres—Rabbi Hasdai Crescas.

Dr. Russ-Fishbane’s lecture and Rabbi Dr. Lerner’s course follow previous Straus Center programming about Maimonides, including the presentation “Al-Farabi and Maimonides on Self-Sacrifice and Patriotism” by Dr. Alexander Orwin, assistant professor of political theory at Louisiana State University, in spring 2021.

The Straus Center trains Yeshiva University students to be Modern Orthodox intellectual leaders who are well versed in both Torah and the Western canon. Through a combination of unique, interdisciplinary courses taught in collaboration with faculty from across YU, communal events, and publications, the Straus Center seeks to cultivate the intellectual, religious, and civic leaders of tomorrow.

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