My Maimonidean Dilemma

Written by Paul J. Blank on . Posted in Travel

As a member of the Jewish Text Department at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, I teach courses in both halacha (Jewish law) and theology. The goals of these courses are, of course, different. What they have in common, however, is the influence of Maimonides (1135-1205). In courses that deal with halacha, we read the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides’ codification of Jewish law. In courses that deal with theology, we read “Guide for the Perplexed,” Maimonides’ attempt to explain Judaism in a rational way. Reflected in these writings is Maimonides’ ability to accommodate different interests, despite inherent tensions and even contradictions.

 

Many years ago, I was visiting Tiberias, Israel, the burial place of Maimonides. I decided to go for an early morning run without any particular destination. A sign pointed in the direction of Maimonides’ grave and, to my surprise, the gate to the cemetery was open. I bounded up the steps and found myself directly in front of Maimonides’ grave. I stood there in awe until I realized that I was not dressed appropriately; I felt particularly conscious of the fact I was not wearing a kippah and quickly, almost instinctively, put my hand on top of my head. This action was consistent with Maimonides’ halachic ruling in the Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Tefillah 5:5) that one should have his head covered when engaged in prayer. It seemed appropriate to extend this to the act of visiting a gravesite.

After a few moments, however, I began to feel uncomfortable. Putting my hand on top of my head seemed wholly inconsistent with Maimonides’ rationalist approach found in “Guide for the Perplexed.” To be sure, even in this philosophical work, Maimonides does mention the practice of the sages covering their heads to show reverence to G-d (Guide 3:52). However, this is merely a historical note and, in any event, I did not consider putting my hand on top of my head while wearing sagging gym shorts and a sweaty t-shirt to be particularly reverent. Indeed, to continue to put my hand on top of my head seemed superstitious and unworthy of Maimonides. I removed my hand from my head… but this also did not feel right. Finally, unable to resolve my dilemma and no longer feeling the awesomeness of that moment, I left the gravesite.

A few years later, I traveled to Cordoba, Spain, the birthplace of Maimonides, and faced a similar dilemma. Cordoba is one of Europe’s most ancient cities, with an uninterrupted Jewish presence from the second century until the Spanish expulsion in 1492. The most significant period for the Jews was between the eighth and 11th centuries, when, under Islamic rule, Jewish intellectual, spiritual, and cultural life flourished. This period is called the “Golden Age” of Spanish Jewry.

Today, there is no recognizable Jewish community in Cordoba, but tourists can still visit Cordoba’s old Jewish quarter, known as the Juderia. There is a synagogue built in 1315, as well as a small Jewish museum, the Casa de Sefarad, which contains items from pre-expulsion Jewish homes and an exhibition on the Sephardic tradition. There is also an area dedicated to Ladino music.

The centerpiece of the Jewish quarter is a statue of Maimonides, erected in 1965. It is located in the Plaza de Tiberiades, a name that creates an interesting link across space and time between Maimonides’ birthplace and his place of burial. It is ironic that the statue is in Cordoba; born after the “Golden Age” of Spanish Jewry, Maimonides eventually fled the city during a time of persecution of Jews and settled in Egypt.

The statue depicts Maimonides sitting with an unidentified book in his lap (one could speculate that it is either the Mishnah Torah or “Guide for the Perplexed”). He has a beard and is wearing a long gown and turban. It is a tradition for those visiting the statue to rub Maimonides’ foot; over the years, it has become very shiny.

This time, unlike my earlier experience in Tiberias, I approached the statue of Maimonides with a plan. I decided that I would take two photographs. For the first, I did not do anything special. For the second, I reached into my pocket, pulled out a kippah, and put it on my head! Thus, in one photograph I am standing next to the statue of Maimonides without a kippah and in the other with a kippah. I believe that this solution was something that Maimonides, himself, would have approved of. Maimonides was the author of both the Mishneh Torah and “Guide for the Perplexed” he was a rabbi, a philosopher, and a renowned physician). In both of his writings, and in his personal life, he was able to accommodate different interests, despite inherent tensions and even contradictions. Standing in front of his statue and taking inspiration from his example, I was finally able to resolve my Maimonidean dilemma.

By Paul J. Blank

 Paul J. Blank is a teacher at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland.