Commentary Magazine


Maimonides by Sherwin B. Nuland; The Life of David by Robert Pinsky

Maimonides
by Sherwin B. Nuland
Nextbook/Schocken. 240 pp. $19.95

The Life of David

by Robert Pinsky
Nextbook/Schocken. 224 pp. $19.95

“There is no end to the making of books,” wrote the biblical sage, an observation to which the subsequent history of the Jews bears eloquent witness. In the classical religious context, books were, and still are, studied in order to absorb their wisdom and to put it into practice. Authors were masters, readers disciples, and both writing and reading were acts of deference to tradition even when they challenged aspects of the reigning consensus.

Modernity has witnessed no diminishment of the seemingly endless stream of books on Jewish figures and ideas, but it has raised a critical question—what is the goal of the whole endeavor?—that continues to elicit a range of answers. One answer is given, at least implicitly, by these two brief biographical studies, the first offerings of a new series called Jewish Encounters.

The series, under the general editorship of Jonathan Rosen, seems to have been modeled on the “Brief Lives” template that has lately become something of a publishing vogue. By design, according to its promotional literature, the series is “idiosyncratic and ambitious,” aiming “to create books that are at once edifying, entertaining, and wonderfully illuminating.” Its authors are not professional scholars, or at least not professional scholars of the subjects on which they write, and the reader is thus spared the onslaught of footnotes and tedious surveys of previous scholarship under which many a worthy topic lies buried.

This is, without a doubt, a highly laudable and creative initiative in contemporary Jewish bookmaking. The only question is whether the brief and informal format allows justice to be done to the subjects, and gives a sense of their importance within the Jewish tradition.

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Sherwin B. Nuland is a prizewinning author and a physician who teaches surgery, bioethics, and the history of medicine at Yale. Maimonides (1138-1204), the subject of his exceptionally well-written, engaging, and concise biography, was also a physician and a scholar of medicine, as well as an authority on Jewish law, a philosopher and theologian, and a communal leader of immeasurable influence and enduring repute. Protesting his own lack of expertise in the area of medieval Judaism, Nuland tells us he was assured by his editor that “he did not want a scholar steeped in the complexities of his subject's philosophy; he wanted a writer, who might seek out the essence of the man and tell the story of his lifelong journey toward understanding.”

As one should expect, Nuland gives more attention proportionately to Maimonides' medical vocation and writings than most scholars have done, but he is careful to avoid what he calls “presentism—seeing the events of the past through the prism of today's values and knowledge.” In particular, he takes pains to note the vast difference between medieval and modern medicine. In the Middle Ages, medicine was not founded on experimentation and did not prize innovation highly. Rather, it sought fidelity to ancient authorities, especially Galen. This was generally true of Maimonides as well. If he nevertheless stood out, according to Nuland, it was because he studied the ancients directly (though in Arabic translation) and was not afraid to challenge Galen if he thought a rival authority had a better idea.

But what is most impressive about Maimonides the physician, writes Nuland, is not the content of his medical theory but the ethical passion and psychological and spiritual insight with which he practiced his profession. Commenting on a famous letter in which Maimonides discusses the exhausting demands of his medical practice, the biographer lyrically fuses his own values with those of his subject:

Medicine is not a profession for the summer soldier or the sunshine patriot. It is a calling and, as such, transcends the mere requirements of a career. It does not put itself to sleep for the night nor does it wander off into the realms of pleasure, so long as there is someone sick who has a need that can be fulfilled in no other way than by this particular doctor or a designated colleague. This is the essence not only of the social contract that the profession—the calling—has with humankind in general, but the moral contract that every physician worthy of the name has with himself or herself.

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To his credit, Nuland illuminates not only Maimonides the physician but also Maimonides the legal authority, philosopher, and communal leader. These latter roles do not, to be sure, elicit the same degree of ardor in him, and not only because he lacks expertise in Jewish law or in the conceptual problems raised, for example, by the interaction of Scripture and philosophy (a deep concern of Maimonides). The real reason is that whereas the humane physician is a familiar ideal in modern secular society, the roles for which Maimonides is most remembered in Jewish tradition—and in which he left his enduring mark—are thoroughly alien to modern society and thus commensurately difficult to convey in a brief biography.

Given the magnitude of the challenge, one must judge Nuland's interaction with Judaism to be highly productive and helpful. His sense of the theological issues at stake is also good, even if his brief discussion of them will inevitably invite disagreement from scholars of Maimonides' complex and endlessly debated thought. Finally, Nuland gives us (with due allowance for the constraints of space and for occasional errors of fact) a good evocation of Jewish life under medieval Islam, both in its moments of glorious cultural efflorescence and in its moments of degradation at the hands of the Muslim majority; in this connection, he writes both about the humanity and generosity of Saladin (under whose rule Maimonides served in Egypt) and about the savage persecution of Maimonides and other Spanish and North African Jews by Muslim fanatics. In sum, one gains here a good sense not only of the man but of the civilization in which he lived and wrote.

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If Sherwin Nuland is a physician writing about a physician, Robert Pinsky is a poet writing about a poet. The author of a number of well-received books of poetry and criticism, including a highly regarded translation of The Divine Comedy, Pinsky is also a former poet laureate of the United States. It thus seems fitting enough that he should have been commissioned to write about the man to whom is ascribed approximately half of the biblical book of Psalms. But Pinsky sees King David as more than simply the “sweet singer of Israel,” or as the exemplar of piety that is suggested by the Psalms attributed to his authorship. We should understand David's life, Pinsky tells us, as “a story of flawed fathers, of unexpectedly powerful women, and of defiant sons.” It is also, he makes clear, a story of political and sexual intrigue, of betrayal and war, of love and brutality, of tragedy and exaltation.

Given the paucity of data about King David, with almost all of the information coming from the biblical books of Samuel and Kings, Pinsky has wisely resisted the temptation to cast his own “Jewish encounter” as a biography. Instead, he offers observations on key biblical narratives, considered in sequence. These observations are sometimes arresting and insightful, always accessible, and never bogged down in either traditional commentary or modern historical criticism. Unfortunately, however, Pinsky's failure adequately to engage the history either of the biblical text or of post-biblical tradition exacts a cost.

The discussion of David's celebrated confrontation with the Philistine hero Goliath is a case in point. The two men, Pinsky informs us, were already “familiar to one another and even, it has been proposed, relatives.” But the Bible gives no indication of any previous acquaintance or familial relationship. Pinsky seems, rather, to be relying here on a remark of a talmudic rabbi, living well over a millennium after David, who disparaged Goliath's birth by associating him with Orpah, the sister-in-law of David's great-grandmother, Ruth the Moabite. In truth, even the claim that David was descended from Ruth is less than altogether secure, appearing only in the book of Ruth and nowhere in Samuel or Kings. None of this, however, prevents Pinsky from taking the rabbi's remark as illuminating the plain sense of David's life, from asserting that “even here with his legendary enemy, the story of David involves the mysteries of how a person belongs or does not belong with another, or with a family or a tribe or a people,” or from entitling the whole chapter “Cousin Goliath.”

This points to a larger issue, namely, the cultural framework in which King David is properly to be set. On the one hand, as we have just seen, Pinsky does draw on occasion from the ongoing Jewish tradition. On the other hand, he weaves his observations around biblical passages selected exclusively and uncritically from the King James Version (1611), because he regards this “as the greatest translation into English ever, of anything” and one that “echoes through memorable writing in our tongue, with endless variety.” But whatever the glories of the King James Version, it is surely neither the most accurate English translation of the Hebrew Bible available today nor the one that best captures the Hebraic character of the text.

Regrettably, Pinsky's finely honed literary sensibilities, the source of more than a few valuable remarks in this book, seem also to be the source of his distaste for much of the role David plays in Jewish tradition. David the passionate lover, David the savvy if brutal politician, David the flawed father—these fascinate Pinsky and elicit his best comments. But David the paradigm of religious devotion, David the recipient of the irrevocable promise of kingship on which the Jewish messianic hope rests—to these Pinsky devotes inadequate and at time deprecatory attention.

Consider his treatment of the deathbed charge the king delivers to his son and successor Solomon. Here Pinsky becomes a historian of the text, writing that David's “deeply secular, power-conscious, nearly thuggish last instructions are given comical emphasis by an interpolation by the much later, pious author-editor called ‘the Deuteronomist’—an anachronistic command to study and obey Deuteronomy.”

In general, Pinsky's account of the compositional history of the David narratives is woefully simplistic. Here, though, most critical scholars would agree with him that the “interpolation” in question is the contribution of a relatively late source heavily influenced by Deuteronomy.1 Many would also agree that the “Torah of Moses” to which the verse refers was originally a version of the work that became the fifth and final book of the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses. But in the context of the Hebrew Bible now in our hands, and all the more so in the context of post-biblical Jewish tradition, the term cannot but refer to the whole Torah.

This is a fact with consequences. To Pinsky, David's deathbed devotion serves a function that is merely “comical,” highlighting a set of “nearly thuggish” instructions that clearly strike him as more interesting and even more serious than a pious appeal to the Torah. Missing here is any apprehension of the high import, for centuries of Jewish readers, of the statement that King David, who for most of his life gave scant impression of being devoted to the practice and study of the Torah of Moses, should at the very end have urged these central Jewish activities on his son. And yet this is the David who reverberates throughout Jewish tradition.

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For all their differences in subject and tone, these little books draw attention, each in its own way, to the larger issue that I raised at the beginning—how best to convey Jewish ideas or the lives of central Jewish figures to a contemporary readership. Should biographies present their subjects as figures worthy of emulation, and ought the study of Jewish ideas encourage acceptance of those ideas and counteract the modern abandonment of religious observance and belief? Should the goal instead be to present a neutral, objective history, in which figures, even figures very beloved to the tradition, are rendered warts and all and made to face the bar of hard-headed secular thinking? What is the minimal standard of competence to be demanded of authors? Even more fundamentally, how does one address a readership that is no doubt highly literate in many areas of inquiry but lacks a firsthand knowledge of traditional sources, practices, and institutions?

As it happens, biography is not a classical Jewish genre—a fact that is itself indicative of an important feature of the Jewish tradition. This is primarily the tradition of a people, a natural family extended over the generations, and not of disconnected individuals whose story demands to be told because of the intrinsic interest of their particular personal experience. And that is related in turn to a crucial feature of Jewish literature, at least in its pre-modern modes—namely, its intensely intertextual character, its deference to precedent, and its tendency to grow by accretion and interpretation, by the expansion of previous texts and the commentary on them, whether those texts be narratives about King David or the works of a great medieval legal authority and philosopher like Maimonides.

Biographies, even very good ones, are not well positioned to capture these peculiar features of Jewish tradition, although I would argue that the attempt should nevertheless be made and that the rewards, as Sherwin Nuland's book suggests, can be substantial. Which is reason enough to applaud both of these first efforts in a promising enterprise, and to look forward to future volumes as they appear.

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Footnotes

1 The verse in question reads: “Keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in His ways, observing His decrees, His commandments, His laws, and His covenant stipulations, as they are written in the Torah of Moses.”

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