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Maimonides and the Jews of Yemen

Jan. 23 2018

Moses Maimonides’ epistle to Yemen is now considered one of his most important works, one that shows the great philosopher and jurist playing a pastoral role as he addresses the needs and fears of a community in crisis. Shortly before the time of its writing, a charismatic Muslim leader had seized Yemen from the Fatimid caliphate; upon his death, his son and successor began persecuting Yemenite Jews. Dor Saar-Man explains how these circumstances led to Maimonides’ famous letter, and its legacy:

[I]n the year of 1172, a Yemenite Jew . . . presented himself as the messiah, . . . and many Jewish communities started to believe the messiah was actually coming soon and even started to change some of their practices and prayers accordingly. . . . Rabbi Yaakov ben Nathaniel of Yemen wrote to Maimonides with fear about the hard times the community was going through and wondered whether that new person might be the true messiah. Maimonides . . . replied at length, with empathy and attention.

In his detailed response, Maimonides tried to console Rabbi Yaakov and asked him to pray diligently and to keep in mind that troubles come and go and will eventually pass. He urged him not to surrender to persecutions and forced-conversion decrees, as these had happened in the past and yet the Jews prevailed. Maimonides referred to both Islam and Christianity as false religions and urged the Yemenite Jews not to conduct calculations of the end of times. . . . As for the messianic pretender, Maimonides clearly stated that he was a false messiah, a madman not to be trusted. . . .

The messianic enthusiasm in Yemen died out a few years later. . . . Saladin occupied Yemen and founded the Ayyubid dynasty, and everything returned to normal. The Yemen epistle, however, retained its significance and influence for centuries. . . . More than any other Jewish community, the Yemenites studied Maimonides’ work and accepted his theories. In time, two sub-groups were formed among them: the Shami, who partly assimilated into the Sephardi culture and adopted the Sephardi liturgy, and the Baladi, who followed Maimonides, especially the halakhic rulings set forth in his code, the Mishneh Torah.

Read more at Beit Hatfutsot

More about: History & Ideas, Moses Maimonides, Yemen, Yemenite Jewry

Hannah Arendt, Adolf Eichmann, and the Jews

Feb. 23 2018

In 1963—a year after Adolf Eichmann’s sentencing by an Israeli court—reports on the trial by the German-born Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt appeared in the New Yorker and were soon published as a book. This “report on the banality of evil,” as the book was subtitled, outraged many Jews, including many of her erstwhile friends and admirers, on account of her manifest contempt for the entire preceding, her disgust for the state of Israel, her accusation that a wide array of European Jewish leaders (if not the majority of the victims) were complicit in their own murder, and her bizarre insistence that Eichmann was “not a monster,” or even an anti-Semite, but a mindless, faceless bureaucrat. While extensive evidence has been brought to light that Arendt was wrong both in her claims of Jewish passivity and her evaluation of Eichmann as the head of the SS’s Jewish section, her book remains widely read and admired. Ruth Wisse comments on its enduring legacy:

When Arendt volunteered to report on the Eichmann trial, it was presumed that she was doing so in her role as a Jew. . . . But Arendt actually traveled to Jerusalem for a deeper purpose—to reclaim Eichmann for German philosophy. She did not exonerate Nazism and in fact excoriated the postwar Adenauer government for not doing enough to punish known Nazi killers, but she rehabilitated the German mind and demonstrated how that could be done by going—not beyond, but around, good and evil. She came to erase Judaism philosophically, to complicate its search for moral clarity, and to unseat a conviction [that, in Saul Bellow’s words], “everybody . . . knows what murder is.”

Arendt was to remain the heroine of postmodernists, deconstructionists, feminists, relativists, and internationalist ideologues who deny the stability of Truth. Not coincidentally, many of them have also disputed the rights of the sovereign Jewish people to its national homeland. Indeed, as anti-Zionism cemented the coalition of leftists, Arabs, and dissident minorities, Arendt herself was conscripted, sometimes unfairly and in ways she might have protested, as an ally in their destabilizing cause. They were enchanted by her “perversity” and were undeterred in their enthusiasm by subsequent revelations, like those of the historian Bernard Wasserstein, who documented Arendt’s scholarly reliance on anti-Semitic sources in her study of totalitarianism, or of revelations about her resumed friendship with Martin Heidegger despite his Nazi associations.

At the same time, however, the Arendt report on the Eichmann trial became one of the catalysts for something no one could have predicted—an intellectual movement that came to be known as neoconservatism. A cohort of writers and thinkers, many of them Jews from immigrant families who had turned to leftism as naturally as calves to their mother’s teats, but who had slowly moved away from the Marxism of their youth during the Stalin years and World War II, now spotted corruption and dishonesty and something antithetical to them in some of their very models of the intellectual life.

They and their Gentile colleagues had constituted the only European-style intelligentsia to flourish in America. Most of them were only one generation removed from Europe, after all, so what could be more natural than for them to serve as the conduit of European intelligence to America? Arendt’s ingenious twist of the Eichmann trial showed them how Jewish and American they actually were—and how morally clear they aspired to be.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Neoconservatism, New York Intellectuals