In all of post-biblical Jewish history, there are few figures that rival the rabbi, philosopher, and physician Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) in stature. The Golden Path: Maimonides across Eight Centuries, on display at the Yeshiva University Museum, begins with manuscripts and annotations in the great rabbi’s own hand, and continues with numerous editions of his works as well as such related items as a handwritten text by Isaac Newton that relies heavily on Maimonides’ treatise on astronomy. Edward Rothstein writes in his review:
From more recent centuries we see a 1784 Hebrew prayer composed in New York after the American Revolution incorporating Maimonides’ doctrines of faith, mentioning George Washington, and offering thanks for granting “these thirteen states of America everlasting freedom.” More visceral evocations of Maimonides appear in 20th-century artifacts and images, including Arthur Szyk’s haunting portrait of Maimonides as a medievalesque melancholic, leaning on Hebraic scrolls and surrounded by allegorical trappings of wealth. And finally, contemporary Maimonides memorabilia include toddler outfits, postage stamps, and school notebooks.
Unfortunately, from the books alone we can’t really get a sense of the philosopher’s taut binding of the faculty of reason and religious faith, or of how he combined severe scrutiny with interpretive flexibility. These volumes are mainly written in Hebrew or Judeo-Arabic. Detailed translations as part of the displays would have helped, but perhaps only cursorily. Maimonides’ two most important works—codifying Jewish law in the encyclopedic Mishneh Torah and conducting a philosophical inquiry into the nature of God and Jewish belief in Guide of the Perplexed—are meant to be studied, not perused.
Each display can also lead to a widening network of historical facts and ideas. In one case, Maimonides’ works—born out of a milieu of cross-cultural learning and inquiry—are bound up in a fate that echoed his own life struggles. We see copies of Mishneh Torah published in Venice in 1550–51 by two different Christian-run Hebrew presses. A lawsuit between them over some commentary led to an appeal to the pope, who then called for an investigation by the Inquisition. The result? . . . In Rome and then in Venice, public bonfires destroyed every copy of the Talmud that could be discovered, attempting to eradicate that multi-volume compendium of Jewish law and debate that helped shape Maimonides’ religious world.