Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bibliogestions: Maimon's Autobiography

I just finished reading the autobiography of Solomon Maimon this past week and while it had some interesting bits, I wouldn't say it left me all that satisfied. This may be due to the fact that reading about a philosopher instead of reading his philosophy may already be a potentially flawed exercise, and that I am not particularly interested in philosophy per se. Despite those misgivings, I was eager to read about Maimon's life if only to get a better sense of what 18th century Jewish Europe was like. Unfortunately Maimon kept butting in, and not really for the better.

The most interesting elements in the book were Maimon describing his family and early life. Since Maimon had such a contrarian personality, reading about rural Jewish life through his very modern and rationalistic lens makes for an interesting historical travelogue-- with an informed but distant guide. (The section on Maimon dabbling with secret Kabbalistic societies, as well as him attempting to explain the Hasidim/Mitnagdim disputes for an outside audience, are pretty entertaining) While Maimon is clearly not neutral about his childhood or community (I've seen quotes from this book offered up on antisemitic websites as "proof" about how corrupt or illogical traditional Jewish life was), I do think it's a useful counterpoint to the nostalgic rose-colored glasses that still seem to get applied to traditional Jewish shtetl life in some circles. Reading Maimon reminded me of something Abbot Yid said years ago about reading Barbara Tuchman: "Until I read A Distant Mirror, I had always thought it would be cool to live in the Middle Ages. Once I found out what it was really like, I was glad I hadn't been there!" Reading about all the struggles, sacrifices, and hardship that Maimon and his friends went through just to say, learn German, or study the natural world, makes me incredibly appreciative that I was not born a few hundred years ago in a traditional Jewish community, where, I have no doubt, I either would have been pretty bored or run out of town. (Also fascinating were the snippets demonstrating just how powerless the people-- Jews, peasants, etc, were against the gentry and nobles of the period. These guys could literally act with impunity-- and did.)

The central dilemma of Maimon's life and the book is that he is a person with rather modern opinions and interests but who is not living in a modern time: he does not have either the intellectual or social freedom to do what he would like, and so his whole life is a series of struggles trying to find the best environment to try to live the way he wants to. Once Maimon decides he can't confine his mind to Talmud study and concludes it's against his principles to lie about his beliefs, he basically removes any possibility of him being able to life peacefully in any religious Jewish community.

One thing that came up for me reading about Maimon's childhood was, again, how the traditional Jewish emphasis on education created a sort of double-edged sword. On the one hand, it encouraged intellectual accomplishment and provided an avenue for precocious or intelligent young men to become socially successful and esteemed. On the other, it was basically crossing its fingers that, once having exposed its youngsters to the world of the mind, that they would be content to remain within the confines of what was acceptable to think, study, or explore. Over and over again, throughout Jewish history, we have cases where some of our best and brightest wind up not being contained by "mere" Judaism, and so they leave in search of something more. It was happening back in Talmudic times with Elisha ben Abuyah, it happened with the Yiddish modernists like Sholom Aleichem and H. Levick, and it happened with Maimon, too. For some people, the intellect can be a Pandora's box.

While at some times Maimon is reasonable and clear-headed, he has a tendency to come across as obnoxious, particularly when describing his interpersonal relationships. He can never let anything go, has a terrible time getting along with people, and seems very focused on issues of status and propriety. There are many sections of the book, particularly in the more cultured cities of Western Europe, where he continually gets entangled in various intrigues and feuds among the intellectuals and philosophes. Between his spats with the Jewish community, the intellectuals, and his continuous poverty, it's very easy to feel sorry for Maimon. At the same time, though, it's clear that he is an active agent in mucking up his life (the concept of learning a trade or earning a living never seems to occur to him), and any sympathy quickly dies in light of how he treats his wife and children, whom he essentially abandons in Poland once he decides to undertake the life of a philosopher. If Maimon was living in poverty in Berlin, we can only imagine how difficult things must have been for his wife (an agunah) and kids, whom he does nothing to help support. In the end Maimon comes across as a tragic but also deeply selfish figure.

One thing the book left me contemplating was how lonely Maimon seemed to be (at one point he even comes close to suicide). While people can-- and have, and will-- debate the pros and cons of various movements or sects all day long, it seems that one of their primary purposes, and benefits, is that they offer community to fellow travelers. Reading about Maimon's life in an age before there were heterodox movements in Judaism, before the "cafeteria" was open for business, really helps me appreciate that today the Jewish landscape is much more diverse and varied, and that whatever faults may lie in these modern movements, at least they give people the option to find like-minded friends and support-- something Maimon never really had.

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