Maimonides in Manuscript

Feb. 12 2019

A new exhibit at the Israel Museum on the life and work of Moses Maimonides, the leading halakhist and Jewish theologian of the Middle Ages, displays fourteen rare manuscripts of his work. Describing the exhibit, Rhona Lewis begins with a copy of the sage’s great code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, with a note in his own hand vouching for its authenticity:

Owned by the University of Oxford, [this edition of the Mishneh Torah] is handwritten in ink on paper (1170-1180). Next come two volumes of [an earlier work, his] commentary on the Mishnah. . . . I linger over the sketches of the Temple and notice some handwritten notes in the margins. “By comparing the handwriting with documents that we have from the Cairo Genizah, we can be pretty sure . . . that these are Maimonides’ own notes,” [the curator Anna Nitza Caplan] tells me. “These two . . .volumes were brought to Syria in 1375 and remained in Maimonides’ family until the 15th century. Between 1630 and 1635, one volume was taken to Oxford. The [other] volume . . . became the property of the Israel National Library. Now, 400 years later, the two volumes are temporarily together,” says Caplan.

We move on to the first two volumes of the Mishneh Torah from northern Italy (ca. 1457). The manuscripts are richly illuminated, with six large painted panels decorated in precious pigments and gold leaf, as well as 41 smaller illustrations with gold lettering adorning the opening words of each chapter. The volumes were separated some 200 years ago. Volume 1 is now owned by the Vatican Library; Volume 2 is jointly owned by the Israel Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While illuminated siddurim, haggadot, and Hebrew Bibles aren’t that hard to come by, Maimonides’ works are unique in that they are scholarly texts meant for study. . . .

Caplan [also] points out a copy of the Mishneh Torah from Portugal at the end of the 15th century, about 20 years before the [forced conversion of the country’s Jews].

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More about: Halakhah, Moses Maimonides, Rare books, Religion & Holidays

At the UN, Nikki Haley Told the Truth about Israel—and the World Didn’t Burn Down

April 22 2019

Although Nikki Haley had never been to Israel when she took the position of American ambassador to the UN, and had no prior foreign-policy experience, she distinguished herself as one of the most capable and vigorous defenders of the Jewish state ever to hold the position. Jon Lerner, who served as Haley’s deputy during her ambassadorship, sees the key to her success—regarding both Israel and many other matters—in her refusal to abide by the polite fictions that the institution holds sacred:

Myths are sometimes assets in international relations. The fiction that Taiwan is not an independent country, for example, allows [the U.S.] to sustain [its] relationship with China. In other cases, however, myths can create serious problems. On Israel–Palestinian issues, the Trump administration was determined to test some mythical propositions that many had come to take for granted, and, in some cases, to refute them. Haley’s prominence at the UN arose in large part from a conscious choice to reject myths that had pervaded diplomacy on Israel–Palestinian issues for decades. . . .

[For instance], U.S. presidents were intimidated by the argument that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would trigger violent explosions throughout the Muslim world. President Trump and key colleagues doubted this, and they turned out to be right. Violent reaction in the Palestinian territories was limited, and there was virtually none elsewhere in Arab and Islamic countries. . . .

It turns out that the United States can support Israel strongly and still work closely with Arab states to promote common interests like opposing Iranian threats. The Arab street is not narrowly Israel-minded and is not as volatile as long believed. The sky won’t fall if the U.S. stops funding UN sacred cows like the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA). Even if future U.S. administrations revert to the policies of the past, these old assumptions will remain disproved. That is a valuable accomplishment that will last long after Nikki Haley’s UN tenure.

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More about: Donald Trump, Nikki Haley, United Nations, US-Israel relations