James A. Diamond. Converts, Heretics, and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. xiii + 343 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-268-02592-2.
Reviewed by Aaron Hughes (University of Buffalo)
Published on H-Judaic (May, 2010)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
Reading the Rambam
In this remarkable book, James A. Diamond continues his project of close and sensitive readings of the Maimonidean corpus. Taking the Rambam at his word in the introduction to the Guide of the Perplexed, Diamond leads us into the inner recesses of that and other works to revel in the master’s religious and poetic artistry, thereby revealing something of the hidden desires and fractures in Maimonides’ positioning of philosophy vis-à-vis religion. Focusing on metaphors and related tropes, Diamond sets his gaze on a cast of outsiders--those “who do not quite fit any broad societal norm”--to show how Maimonides transformed them into a set of philosophical archetypes, symbolizing “notions that are marginal and that, in turn, marginalize” (p. 6). In so doing, Diamond convincingly articulates a series of characters/symbols that have the paradoxical power to uncover the secrets of the “Garden” just as they defer its realization by generating further perplexity.
The philosopher is an outsider to Judaism, someone who must take its prime matter and recast it in new forms. In like manner, the outsider is necessarily a philosopher who attempts to account for the shards of his or her différance. These positionings assume boundaries, the crossing of which is fraught with anxiety and that herald the articulation of taboos of inclusion and exclusion. Yet that which is outside is that which is potentially inside and the porosity between inside/outside, as indeed between all opposites, drives the engine of identity.
Entering the text, Diamond presents us, seriatim, with his cast of Maimonidean misfits: converts, lepers, kings, and philosophers. But on Diamond’s reading, even that which dwells most within has the uncanny power to appear without. God, the shekhinah, and the Sabbath, all traditional concepts associated with Israel, are in need of recasting, destruction, and subsequent rehabilitation. For Diamond, what all these share is their ability to transgress and thus their capacity to crystallize the borders of the new righteous nation. It is this ability that Diamond correctly believes makes them worthy of analysis.
Whereas converts (chapter 1) move from without to within, lepers (chapter 2) and heretics (chapter 3) move in the opposite direction. The voluntary choices involved in the convert’s crossing mark him as the true philosopher, one who encounters the truths of Judaism through reason as opposed to mediation by the corporeality of tradition. Lepers and heretics, however, are forced out on account of their misrepresentation of the unhealthy/false for the healthy/true.
In chapter 4, the focus switches to “the king.” This individual is so dangerous because he functions as a model for his subjects and, as such, he possesses a propensity for hubris. On Diamond’s reading, the king is a metonym for the human condition: the struggle between humility and power, between autonomy and dependence, and between intellect and imagination.
Chapter 5 discusses the philosopher, the individual who, by choice, stays on the outside, preferring--in the telling phrase of ibn Bajja, someone who Diamond does not mention--“the governance of the solitude” (tadbîr al-mutawahhid). In chapters 6 and 7, Diamond turns his attention to God, defined as “the supreme outsider.” Beyond all place, God makes the location of believers possible. The entire Maimonidean project is directed to the epistemological movement of an “insider” God to an “outsider” one. Diamond focuses much of his intention on the shekhinah, or “dwelling,” which in Maimonides’ allegorical hands becomes a deconstruction of traditional notions of temple cult and ritual place. Diamond puts Maimonides’ reconstructive reading in counterpoint with the “parochialism” of immanence in the likes of Judah Halevi (p. 156). Diamond concludes his work not with a person but a concept--the Sabbath, “the temporal outsider.”
The above description certainly does not do justice to the close and sensitive readings of words and phrases that characterize each chapter. Diamond’s readings suggestively show how even the most quotidian of terms teem with metaphysical insight. As such, Maimonides’ means are as important as the end and Diamond devotes much time to showing us the hermeneutical twists and turns that enable Maimonides to move from there to here and back again. It is a wonderful and refreshing approach, but one that leaves certain questions unanswered. Admittedly, these may well be questions that do not interest Diamond and, as such, do not emerge from his deep engagement and timeless conversation with the Rambam. However, Maimonides, qua philosopher, is both an insider and an outsider; and these positions necessarily connect him--sociologically, intellectually, and psychologically--to communities on both sides of the boundary. Who are these communities and how does he relate to them?
Not unrelated, how might Diamond’s reading contribute to the centuries-old debate concerning the Janus-faced Maimonides? On one level, Diamond’s close reading seems to favor an esoteric Maimonides, one who patrols the philosophical depths using a series of well-crafted and potentially ambiguous signifiers. Yet, on another level, Diamond rearranges the features of these two faces and gives them other names. Maimonides at the most esoteric/inside accordingly transforms into a Maimonides at his most exoteric/outside. But again, though, we encounter a historical question: How did Maimonides formulate this? Whence, for example, did his theory of metaphor and of narrativity come? Rather than envisage Maimonides solely as forging a new path, we also need to see him occupying a position at the end of the broad swath left behind by Muslims (especially Isma`ilis) and other philosophers of late antiquity.
In an age of superficial readings and instant communication, Diamond’s important analysis is a keen reminder that we must read closely and that we must do so carefully. Just like the work of the Rambam, Diamond’s argument both demands and rewards close attention.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Aaron Hughes. Review of Diamond, James A., Converts, Heretics, and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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