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Rare book exhibit draws crowds in Jerusalem

The "Maimonides: A Legacy in Script” exhibit, a collection of rare manuscripts by a renowned Jewish scholar, is drawing unusually large crowds of Orthodox Jews to Jerusalem’s Israel Museum.

An exhibit showcasing rare illuminated manuscripts by one of the world's most renowned Jewish scholars is drawing uncharacteristic crowds of Orthodox Jews to Jerusalem’s Israel Museum.

Since opening Dec. 11, the “Maimonides: A Legacy in Script” exhibit has boosted visitation to the museum’s Jewish Art and Life wing by 60%, Miki Joelson, associate curator of the exhibition and assistant to the chief curator of the wing, told Al-Monitor. A large portion of those visiting the exhibit are Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews who don’t ordinarily patronize the museum, she said.

Moses Ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, was a Jewish rabbi and philosopher who was born in 1138 in Cordoba, then a major city in Islamic Spain. As a young man, his family fled Spain for Morocco before wandering across the Mediterranean Sea to Crusader Acre, and eventually settling in Fustat, Egypt's capital under the Ummayad and Abbasid caliphates. There he became not only the leader of the Jewish community but also royal physician to the court of Saladin, the first sultan of Egypt and Syria.

“He’s a commentator, a rabbinic authority, a doctor, a philosopher, a leader, and he’s all these things together,” said Joelson.

But for many Israelis, Rambam — Maimonides’ Hebrew moniker — is just a name, she added. Maimonides has streets named after him in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and almost every other city in Israel. Haifa has a medical center with his name.

The most famous of Maimonides’ works is the Mishneh Torah, a compendium of Jewish religious law, but he also wrote extensively about philosophy and medicine, drawing from Arabic translations of classical literature. His prominence as an interpreter of Jewish law made him the only Jewish thinker to be honored in the US Capitol building. His rationalist worldview reflects a deep immersion in Islamic and Platonist philosophy, which he passed on to later Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers alike.

“Maimonides was the only thinker who proposed a complete systematic method for the Jewish world,” Meir Buzaglo, professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told Al-Monitor. “It doesn’t matter what side of the Jewish world you’re on — Reform, Conservative, ultra-Orthodox — he is the foundation which everyone addresses.”

The exhibit features 14 manuscripts from collections across the world, including the British Library, the Vatican Apostolic Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Library of France. Most date to the centuries following Maimonides’ death in 1204 and feature rich illuminations, indicators of the great value placed on Maimonides’ texts by their medieval owners.

But by far the most fascinating books in the exhibit are the three bearing Maimonides’ own hand that date to his lifetime.

“These three are manuscripts that the Rambam himself held, that are attributed to his own handwriting,” Joelson said. The books remained in Maimonides’ family for centuries before being sold in the 17th century. One book, a volume of Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishna, wound up in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, while another volume remained in private hands until it was purchased by Israel’s National Library in the 1970s.

“Here we have a meeting for the first time in 400 years of two volumes of the same book,” she said. 

Limited by a relatively small space, the Israel Museum exhibit only scrapes the surface of Maimonides’ character. It only grazes his rationalist philosophy and aversion of Jewish mystical practices such as worshipping at the graves of prominent rabbis or amulets against the evil eye. Nor does the exhibit fully embrace what Buzaglo describes as “the deep connection between Maimonides and the Muslim world."

“All of his interlocutors, all the people he conducted dialogue with, were Muslims. These were the people he spoke with, whom he learned from, and he was also very respected in the Muslim world in the past,” Buzaglo said. Scholars point to Maimonides' influence from the writings of Islamic philosophers al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd, among others.

Moreover, Buzaglo said, “As a Jewish-Arab thinker from the Muslim world, Maimonides has great potential to unite Jews and Muslims.”

Joelson likened Maimonides to Galileo Galilei and Leonardo Da Vinci in his breadth of knowledge and scope of achievement. She said she hopes visitors come away with a “taste of the multifaceted character.”

Although Maimonides has long been regarded as one of Judaism’s greatest scholars, he has enjoyed a slight resurgence of interest in modern Israel in recent years. Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, aired a three-part documentary exploring Maimonides’ life and philosophy in 2017. Israel’s National Library held a conference in December about Maimonides’ writings and legacy and is hosting a sister exhibit, also featuring examples of Maimonides’ writing after the advent of printing.

Buzaglo said popular interest in Maimonides outside the rabbinic world “is just crystallizing, but the breakthrough into the Israeli experience still hasn’t happened, and I’m waiting for it.”

“Maimonides: A Legacy in Script” runs through April 27, 2019, at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

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