Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Books (Solomon Maimon)

Disgusted by the apparent ignorance of his fellow 18th century Poles--Jews and gentiles alike--he eventually makes his way to Enlightenment-era Berlin, and the acquaintance of such luminaries as Moses Mendelssohn and Immanuel Kant.

Begins with a discussion of his grandfather, arrested for murder when a young boy's corpse was planted in his house. He was tortured but refused to confess, and was eventually vindicated after the real murderer was captured.

Maimon's father kept a library of Hebrew books, some on secular topics. One book in particular, David Ganz's "Zemah David", opened his eyes for the first time to modern science. Rabbi Ganz studied astronomy with Tycho Brahe in Copenhagen. Also on the father's bookshelf was a garbled Hebrew translation of Josephus. The astronomy was what most appealed to the 7-year old Solomon.

Despite his general dislike for the Talmud, Maimon reports having excelled at it. This made him (within the traditional Jewish community, at least) by the time he reached age 12, an exceedingly eligible bachelor. At one point he was betrothed to two women at the same time. Around this time he taught himself Latin and German alphabets by studying the printer's marks on the signitures of Hebrew books. He also discovered the Zohar, the principal work of Kabalah, and studied it intensely. He identified with a description of 1st century Rabi Meir (who studied with the heretic Elisha ben Abuya?): "He found a pomegranate, and he ate the fruit but cast the rind away." He found Jewish mysticism fascinating, but confessed some of the imagery hard to take. God's Beard, for example, "in which the hairs are divided into numerous classes with something peculiar to each, and every hair is a separate channel of divine grace. With all my efforts," he writes, "I could find no rational meaning in these representations." At one point, he experimented with "Kabalah maasit," or Practical Kabbalah, invoking the "roeh ve-eno nireh" (seeing but not being seen) technique, and attempted to box a friend on the ears, but, not really being invisible, the friend immediately turned around and hit him back.

Eventually Maimon made his way to Berlin, where he befriended (and later estranged) Moses Mendelssohn and other maskilim, and, after a period of extreme poverty, began a study of Kant's critical philosophy, won the philosopher's praise, and composed a philosophical work of his own entitled "Transcendental Philosophy".

In ch. 16, he describes an encounter with new "secret society", the "New Hasidim", who, unlike their traditional namesakes, eschewed self-mortification, and tried, to paraphrase Woody Allen, to confuse the evil inclination by giving in to it without a fight. He seemed to admire the group at first, since they moderated and celebrated human appetites, rather than trying to destroy them, but found them ultimately unsympathetic since they based their actions on expectation of reward in the afterlife, rather than practicing virtue for its own sake. Also, he notes, their behavior was guided "by obsure feelings rather than distinct knowledge" which led them into various extravagances, and "are vain enough to consider themselves organs fo the Godhead, which of course they are, but to an extent lmited by the degree of perfection they attain. The result is that at the charges of the Godheard they perpretrate the greatest excesses; every extraordiary suggestion is to htem a divine inspiration, and very lively impulse a divine call." (p. 51).

The Master, by Colm Toibin, a fictional biography of Henry James, reviewed in NYTBR June 20, 2004.

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