Maimonides' Grand Epistle to the Scholars of Lunel

Ideology and Rhetoric

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Charles H. Sheer
  • Brighton, MA: 
    Academic Studies Press
    , April
     2019.
     100 pages.
     $32.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781618119605.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In the spirit of S.D. Goitein’s colossal study of the Cairo Genizah documents, in Maimonides’ Grand Epistle to the Scholars of Lunel:Ideology and Rhetoric, Charles H. Sheer draws our attention to a little known nuance of Maimonides’s writings with the discovery and analysis of this correspondence between the Rambam and a group of scholars in France. The letter in question, before now only partially available in English, is presented in full in translation for the first time. It consists of two major parts, a rhymed prose first half and a normal prose second half. Previous translations of this Grand Epistle, such as that in Isadore Twersky’s Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Yale, 1980), only included the prose second half, which is interesting for biographical reasons, but the rhymed prose half of this letter was previously unavailable and warrants the most attention.

By the time of writing this letter, Maimonides’ great works, such as the Mishne Torah and Guide of the Perplexed, were behind him. He was overworked and distracted from his love of study due to serving as a physician to the court in Cairo and to the residents of Fustat. And yet, letters from all over the Mediterranean world continued to reach him with requests for halakhic rulings, translations of his work, and so on. And then there was the letter from the rabbis in Lunel, France, an inquiry composed of twenty-four objections to the Mishne Torah, a challenge to Maimonides’ Talmudic scholarship and textual analysis.

Rather than take offense, we learn that Maimonides received these objections with joy. Nevertheless, he did not find time to respond to them, and thus another letter came requesting that the Grand Rabbi answer their objections. Finally, Maimonides replied with this Lunel correspondence. It was not an answer to their objections, but rather expresses his admiration for their scholarship and an apology for his delay.

What is significant about this letter, one that merits Sheer’s detailed study, is its uniqueness in the Maimonidean corpus, showing a side of the Rambam hitherto unnoticed by many but not all. For instance, in his excellent biography, Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization's Greatest Minds (Doubleday, 2010), Joel L. Kraemer made a very astute passing comment on this Lunel correspondence regarding both its content and its style that complements the much fuller treatment it gets here. What Kraemer marked in passing, Sheer explicates in detail.

In the preface, Sheer argues that the two-part structure of the letter reveals that Maimonides could write like a Sephardic scribe in rhymed prose but then switched to his normal style. But this was not a simple exhibition of writing talent, it was purposeful. With the rhymed prose Maimonides complimented the Lunel scholars in an idiom familiar to them, and with the unadorned prose he gave them a charge to uphold his legacy.

Chapter 1 is Sheer’s unit-by-unit translation of the whole letter. Since it is the first complete English translation to appear in print, the value of the book is already set. Chapter 2 is a detailed study of the rhymed prose half of the letter. Sheer points out three key elements: rhyme, rich language and embellished terminology, and unique utilization of biblical verse where, in the panegyric fashion then common in Muslim and Jewish letter writing, he and his readers apply the verses to themselves. This is remarkable because it demonstrates a sense of parity between the Great Rabbi and the Lunel scholars, though they never met. In other words, his use of this rhymed prose was a sign of mutual respect based solely upon his reception of their twenty-four objections to the Mishne Torah.

Chapter 3 briefly touches on the issues raised by the appearance of rhymed prose penned by Maimonides as it is seen as a problematic style reversal. But as already mentioned, the first half of the letter expressed appreciation for the Lunel community in a common literary style among equals. Also, it was not similar in content or style to the forms of poetic writing that Maimonides disparaged.

Chapter 4 studies a letter written by Maimonides to Judge Anatoli that exhibits many parallels to the Lunel letter, while chapter 5 examines the letters from Rabbi Jonathan to Maimonides, also exhibiting the rhymed prose and biblical paraphrasing used by the Rambam in his famous reply. The scrutiny of the letters from Rabbi Jonathan to Maimonides, and Maimonides’ reply demonstrates the mutual regard each had for the other.

Chapter 6 studies the second half of the letter, the unadorned prose section. Whereas Sheer’s study demonstrates how in the first half Maimonides lauded the Lunel scholars as defenders of Torah, in the second half he admonishes them to be champions of his legacy. In it he also reveals his reasons for not replying to their earlier correspondence, and why he wasn’t answering their objections with this letter either. The reasons, as stated above, involve his age, his responsibilities as a doctor and community leader, and surprisingly, his pursuit of wisdom—translation, subjects other than Torah such as philosophy, and so on. This pursuit of wisdom he refers to as a distraction and compares it to Solomon’s wives who turned his attention away from the God of Israel.  Even here one suspects a sense of hyperbole, but it is still a striking confession. Finally, Sheer has included an appendix with a discussion of two ancillary topics: Maimonides’ attitude towards poetry as demonstrated in his other writings, and a similar letter written by Yehuda Halevi a half-century earlier.

This short volume is most certainly for a niche of scholars who specialize in the study of Maimonides. And though it is written in scholarly fashion with copious endnotes, I believe it is accessible to any careful reader desiring a better understanding of the man. And this is very appropriate since Maimonides, at the time of the writing of this letter, was heavily involved in the day-to-day care of masses of people.
 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tom Edmondson is senior pastor at First Christian Church of Atlanta.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Charles Sheer was campus rabbi at Columbia University and Barnard College. He currently serves at a medical center as chaplain and member of the bioethics faculty.

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