How to Situate Maimonides: An Exchange

To where and what language does the great Jewish philosopher and his name belong?

A monument to Maimonides in his birthplace of Cordoba, Spain. Wikimedia.

A monument to Maimonides in his birthplace of Cordoba, Spain. Wikimedia.

June 10 2020
About the authors

Lawrence J. Kaplan is professor of rabbinics and Jewish philosophy at McGill University, and, among other publications, is the co-editor of The Thought of Moses Maimonides.

Arnold E. Franklin is associate professor of history and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Queens College in New York. He is the author of This Noble House: Jewish Descendants of King David in the Medieval Islamic East (2012) and co-editor of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Medieval and Early Modern Times (2015).

Last month we published a column by Arnold E. Franklin puzzling over the mystery of Maimonides’ name. Franklin, a professor of medieval religion, attracted such interesting comment from Lawrence Kaplan, himself an eminent scholar of Maimonides, that we decided to publish Kaplan’s comment, along with a final word from Franklin.—The Editors

Arnold Franklin’s intriguing essay “The Mystery of Maimonides’ Puzzling Name” calls our attention to the strange fact that the great medieval sage’s father, Rabbi “Maimon” or “Maymun,” seems to have lacked a Hebrew name. The essay reconstructs the evidence and proposes a name. And in speculating on why the mystery has lingered over these last many years, Franklin notes a reluctance to “situate Maimonides fully within the Arabic-Islamic milieu in which his entire life was lived.” But reading Franklin’s essay, I have come to think that it is he who does not adequately situate Maimonides, who was born in Cordoba and died in Egypt, in his proper milieu.

Let’s review Franklin’s central arguments. He begins by calling our attention to the colophon—that is, the concluding inscription—of a late 15th-century Judeo-Arabic manuscript of Maimonides’ philosophical masterpiece the Guide of the Perplexed. The manuscript is housed in Oxford’s Bodleian library, and it is referred to by its catalogue classification as MS Pococke 68. Franklin explains that the colophon “had been hiding in plain sight” for over a century, ever since the German scholar Adolf Neubauer reproduced and commented on the manuscript in 1886. MS Pococke 68 itself is dated to the year 1488, and the scribe who wrote it identifies Maimonides as “our Master Moses, the great master, the light of the world and its wonder, . . . the son of our master, Isaac, known as Maymun.” So, if we accept the reliability of this attribution, the mystery is solved: The Hebrew name of Maimonides’ father was Yitzḥak (Isaac).

But should we accept the attribution’s reliability? Franklin admits that “there are reasons for skepticism,” but then he offers countervailing considerations, including the “time and place when our manuscript was produced,” the “naming practices prevalent among Jews living in Arabic-speaking lands during the period of Maimonides’ and his father’s lifetime,” and, above all, the recurring names in Maimonides’ family tree—tending to support, though not absolutely prove, the Pococke colophon. I find these considerations to be well-argued, even if not, to use legal terminology, dispositive. Certainly, at the very least, his arguments succeed in mitigating initial skepticism.

What I find problematic, however, is Franklin’s answer to the “further question” as to why, “if Maymun also bore the Hebrew name Yitzḥak, . . . he should have been known to future generations exclusively by his Arabic name?” Indeed, why, as Franklin notes, did Maimonides and his brother David, when signing their own names, always “unambiguously identify their father as Maymun?” As an answer, Franklin suggests, if only tentatively, a reason drawn from Maimonides’ legal ruling in the Mishneh Torah’s section on rebels. In that section, Maimonides writes that included in the commandment to honor one’s father is the prohibition against referring to one’s father by name. Instead, honor is to be conveyed to him by the designation of Abba Mari, my father and master. So, Franklin concludes, “Maimonides and his brother may have avoided the Hebrew name as a show of respect” (Hilkhot Mamrim 6:3).

But it seems to me that this ruling forbids only directly referring to one’s father by his name. And, indeed, whenever Maimonides directly refers to his father, for example at the end of his introduction to his first major work, the Commentary on the Mishnah, it is as Adoni Avi, my father, my master. But never to refer to the name of one’s father cannot be Maimonides’ meaning. To take only the most obvious example, it would stretch Franklin’s interpretation beyond credibility to say that in using one’s own name, one cannot refer to oneself as so-and-so the son of so-and so.

Let me illustrate this difference with an example drawn from the work of my teacher, the American Orthodox rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. The title that he gave to his lectures, dedicated to the memory of his father Moses, is Shiurim l’Zekher Abba Mari, z”l, that is, in perfect accordance with Maimonides’ ruling, Lectures in Memory of my Father and Master, of Blessed Memory. But when Joseph B. Soloveitchik signed his own name, he signed it as “Yosef Dov ben ha-Gaon he-Ḥasid, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, zts”l,” or “Joseph Dov, the son of the pious luminary, Rabbi Moses Soloveitchik, may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.” In my view, this too, is in perfect accordance with Maimonides’ ruling.

Moreover, given that Maymun was as much their father’s given name as was Yitzḥak, I cannot see how his sons referring to him as Maymun would be “more a show of respect” than their referring to him as Yitzḥak. The question returns: why did Maimonides and his brother David when signing their own names always “unambiguously identify their father as Maymun” and not Yitzḥak?

I am therefore inclined to accept Franklin’s “first thought,” which, indeed, was mine as well, “that the name Maymun became attached to or added to Maimonides’ father’s given name,” during the period the family was living Fez, Morocco, “where, some scholars believe,” as a result of the Almohad persecutions starting in 1148, “they lived outwardly as Muslims for some years.”

“On further reflection,” though, Franklin rejects this view. “I think this line of thought is a dead end. Why would a name adopted either to mark, or feign, a conversion, continue to be used long after its bearer had reverted to his true identity and been living openly as a Jew?” Moreover, Franklin continues, “there’s simply no need to introduce the Almohad persecutions in order to account for the existence of an Arabic name: . . . all Jewish men in the Islamic world had one.”

It appears to me that these two objections cancel each other out. True, the name Maymun “was not embraced to mark, or feign, a conversion,” but was his given Arabic name from birth. And it is understandable how Maimonides’ father, outwardly living as a Muslim in Fez for some years, or at least keeping a very low Jewish profile, would only use his given Arabic name and drop his Hebrew one. Since Maymun died a very short while after fleeing Fez, probably around 1165, it is not surprising that he never reverted back—never had time to revert back—to his Hebrew name, as a consequence of which his Arabic name, given to him at birth, remained his only name and the patronymic his sons used when signing their letters. So, my first thought regarding this question is, at least for now, my last thought, though just a thought and far from a certainty.

And that gets to a larger point, the real story in Franklin’s writing, which is “about the persistent reluctance of many Jewish scholars to situate Maimonides fully within the Arabic-Islamic milieu in which his entire life was lived.” It follows, Franklin continues, “the colophon in Pococke 68 may seem surprising simply because many have resisted or failed to appreciate that ‘Maymun’ is not a Hebrew (or Aramaic) name and therefore would almost certainly have been paired with one that was.”

This seems ungenerous to Jewish scholarship about Maimonides. Ever since Salomon Munk’s creation in the middle of the 19th century of a critical edition of the Judeo-Arabic original text of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, together with a commentary and French translation, scholars have sought to locate Maimonides’ philosophy within the milieu of Islamic Aristotelianism. Munk cited such Islamic Aristotelians as Avicenna (Ibn Sinna), al-Farabi, and Ibn Bajja as the source of much Maimonidean philosophical doctrine, and subsequent scholars, including Alexander Altmann, Shlomo Pines, Hebert Davidson, Joel Kraemer, Tamar Rudavsky, Warren Zev and Steven Harvey, and Moshe Schwartz, among others, have in light of ongoing research and newly discovered texts greatly enriched and deepened our understanding of Maimonides within his Arabic philosophical milieu. Even more striking, perhaps, recent Maimonidean scholarship—the work of Sarah Stroumsa, Mark Cohen, and Marc Herman comes to mind—has sought to illuminate Maimonides’ legal scholarship, as found in his Commentary on the Mishnah, Book of Commandments, and Mishneh Torah, despite what might seem to be its more internal “Jewish” nature, in light of Arabic legal practice and jurisprudence.

Ironically, Franklin’s explanation as to why Maimonides and his brother, when signing their names, failed to refer to their father by his Hebrew name does not sufficiently “situate Maimonides . . . within the Arabic-Islamic milieu in which his entire life was lived.” For the only way he can account for their failure is by invoking a “religious principle.” But according to Franklin’s first thought, which is both my first and last thought, we need no such religious principle. If, for whatever reason, Maimonides’ father’s Hebrew name, Yitzḥak, ceased being used, and he was known by his Arabic name, Maymun, that in itself was sufficient reason for Maimonides and his brother to refer to themselves when signing their letters as Moshe or David the son of Maymun.

And now we arrive at the truly larger point raised by Franklin’s intriguing tale, one which bears directly on situating Maimonides fully within his Arabic-Islamic milieu. I refer to Maimonides’ theory of language, more specifically Maimonides’ evaluation of the relative statuses of Hebrew and Arabic. Maimonides is the great master of Hebrew style, and his great code of law, the Mishneh Torah, one of the imperishable masterpieces of Hebrew literature. But, as is well-known, Hebrew for Maimonides does not possess any intrinsic holiness. As he writes in several places, what is important is not the language in which a text is written but its content. Thus, as he states, love or wine poetry does not become acceptable on account of its being written in Hebrew—so much for all the magnificent secular Hebrew poetry written in the golden age of Spain!—and, conversely, moral, religious, or philosophical poetry does not forfeit any of its value on account of its being written in Arabic. The name of Maimonides’ father, while by itself perhaps a small point, very nicely fills in this picture. The name of someone is the name by which he is called, generally Hebrew, but if not, his Arabic name will do just fine.

And so I thank Arnold Franklin for his important discovery and the issues he rightfully raises. In fact, I hope we will adhere to Franklin’s quite appropriate insistence that we orient Maimonides in his intellectual context by continuing to refer to the author of the immortal Mishneh Torah and Guide of the Perplexed as Rabbi Moshe ben Maymun, and not Rabbi Moshe ben Yitzḥak, as Maimonides and not Isaacides. For, if we yearn for an Isaacides, why we have one ready at hand: the eminent commentator on the Bible and Talmud known by the acronym Rashi, which stands for nothing other than Rabbi Shlomo Yitzḥaki—that is, Rabbi Solomon the son of Isaac!


Arnold Franklin Responds


I’m delighted that Lawrence Kaplan finds merit in my suggestion that a late-15th-century colophon may provide a clue to the hitherto unknown Hebrew name borne by Maymun, the father of Moses Maimonides: a figure on whose work Kaplan is himself a distinguished expert. I also welcome Kaplan’s musings on my effort to think about why that Hebrew name—assuming it existed—dropped out of the record. But in his response, I question the relevance of some of these musings to my argument or its conclusions. Here I’ll focus on two major areas.

In my essay, I considered, in passing, the possibility that the name Maymun had become attached to Maimonides’ father’s given Hebrew name during the period after 1148 when, because of the Almohad persecutions in Iberia, the family had found shelter in Fez, Morocco, and while there may even have lived outwardly as Muslims.

Although I went on to reject this explanation for Maymun’s seeming lack of a Hebrew name, Kaplan likes it very much, calling it both his “first thought” and his “last thought” and defending it by invoking the example of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who in his own writings referred to his father in one way, as “my father and master,” but in signatures identified himself otherwise, as the son of “Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik.” To which I can only reply by questioning the degree to which the circumstances of 12th-century North Africa can be clarified by reference to the self-naming practices of a (justly revered) 20th-century scholar born in Eastern Europe.

In any event, Kaplan has a truly larger point to make in this same connection. Citing Maimonides’ own theory of language, according to which the Hebrew tongue itself, “does not bear any intrinsic holiness,” he explains that what matters is “not the language in which a text is written, but its content.” Hence, Kaplan concludes, the name by which a person is called tells us nothing essential about that person’s identity; if a Hebrew name is not used, an “Arabic name will do just fine.”

I couldn’t agree more. But that is exactly why I rejected my own “first thought.” There is simply no need at all to invoke Almohad persecution in order to explain why a medieval Iberian Jew should have been known by an Arabic name. While Jewish men at the time typically had Hebrew and Arabic names, there’s no obvious reason behind the choice of one or the other, and countless examples could be adduced of individuals who were known by both. Rather than solving the puzzle, Kaplan’s advice would seem only to raise new questions. Did, for instance, Maymun’s two sons, Moses and David, also go by Arabic names in Fez? If so, why were they later known by their Hebrew names, while Maymun wasn’t?

I offered one possible reason for this anomaly, a reason based in a religious principle mandating filial respect. That principle, codified by Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah, might have motivated both the great master and his brother David to preserve their father’s adoption of his Arabic name. Of course, this is only speculation on my part, albeit speculation related to the only thing at issue in my essay: not how Maymun may have gotten his Arabic name but, to repeat, why his Hebrew name hasn’t come down to us—until, I believe, now.

This brings me to the other, more extended speculation of mine for which Kaplan again takes me to task: namely, the reasons behind the longstanding silence on the part of Jewish scholars and their lack of speculation concerning the peculiarity of Maimonides’ father’s name. I linked that silence to a “persistent reluctance of many Jewish scholars to situate Maimonides fully within the Arabic-Islamic milieu in which his entire life was lived.”

In response, Kaplan lists scholars from the middle of the 19th century until the present day whose work has “enriched and deepened our understanding of Maimonides” not only within the “Arabic philosophical milieu” but also, to boot, “in light of Arabic legal practice and jurisprudential theory.”

Since I myself am engaged in the study of Judeo-Arabic history, texts, and ideas, I offer my Mosaic essay as a small contribution to the common enterprise shared with those he names, to which one could add Menahem Ben-Sasson, Paul Fenton, Mordechai Akiva Friedman, and Eve Krakowsky. I am indebted to many of these fine scholars. But it doesn’t change the fact that none of them have dwelled upon the anomaly of Maimonides’ father’s name.

Still, in the end, I’m glad to join with Lawrence Kaplan in our mutual devotedness to the work of, in his words, “the author of the immortal Mishneh Torah and the Guide of the Perplexed.” In the wise words of the ancient rabbinic compendium Midrash Tanḥuma: “A man is known by three names: the name by which his father and mother call him, the name by which other men call him, and the one he earns for himself. The most important name is the one he earns for himself.” May the name of “our master Moses, light of the world” continue to shine brightly, and may he forever be known by the name he made for himself and with which he chose to sign his illuminating writings.

More about: History & Ideas, Maimonides, Religion & Holidays