Abraham, Son of Maimonides
An apple falling far from the tree
Joseph ibn Caspi loved the rationalistic approach to Judaism taught by Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed and his Mishneh Torah, Sefer Madda and referred to him frequently in his writings. In the ethical will he addressed to his son, called Yoreh De’ah, Caspi tells his son that he spent five months of his life traveling to and from Egypt just to see Maimonides’ descendants, the fourth and fifth generation of the great sage, but returned disappointed. “All of them were righteous, but none of them was devoted to science [that is, rational thought].”
- Is it unusual for learned and famous Jewish fathers to have sons who deviate from their basic teachings?
- When did the decline from rationalism start in Maimonides’ family?
- What do we know about Abraham, Maimonides’ son?
- What was Abraham’s view of philosophy?
- What do Sufis believe?
Abraham, Son of Maimonides
Abraham, the only son of Maimonides, was born on June 17, 1186, when his father, who was born in 1138, was forty-eight years old. Maimonides died in 1204, when Abraham was seventeen years old. Abraham himself died on December 7, 1237, at the age of fifty-one.
We have no way of knowing why Maimonides called his son Abraham, but it could have been because the name reminded him of the patriarch Abraham, whom he saw as the originator of the most important teachings of Judaism – specifically the teaching that Maimonides repeated often, the oneness of God.
This conclusion of the origin of his son’s name is supported by two of his statements. In a letter that he wrote to his beloved disciple Joseph ibn Aknin, the man to whom he dedicated his Guide of the Perplexed, he wrote: “Concerning my personal welfare, I find comfort only in two things: In an ability to indulge in speculative investigation and, secondly, in blessed endowments vouchsafed unto my son, Abraham. Like his namesake, the patriarch, may he be sustained and granted long life.” In the Guide of the Perplexed 3:29 and Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 1:3, Maimonides discusses his view that “Abraham was the first that opposed these [ancient idolatrous and superstitious] theories by arguments and by soft and persuasive speech.” We should note that Maimonides uses the term “arguments,” meaning philosophical arguments, or “speculative investigation,” which Maimonides stated was one of the two things that gave “comfort” to his life.
Maimonides personally instructed Abraham. In his letter to ibn Aknin, Maimonides wrote of Abraham: “He is most humble and unpretentious, excelling in unusual fine qualities of character, and imbued with an exemplary good nature and a subtle mind scintillating with innovating ideas.”
There is no doubt that Maimonides was correct in assessing his son’s intellect, but Abraham lacked the unique superlative mind of his father, and Maimonides could not foresee that Abraham’s interests would deviate from his own.
When he was old, Maimonides became dangerously ill for about a year. Even after the danger passed, he had to be in bed for large parts of the day. During this time, Abraham assisted his father in his duties as Nagid, the leader of Egyptian Jewry.
When Maimonides died, Abraham succeeded his father as physician to the sultan’s court, and became the Nagid. He was responsible for the Jewish courts and was the leader of synagogue and communal affairs. Abraham’s son David followed him as the Nagid and the office remained in the family for four generations until the close of the fourteenth century.
Because of his youth, being only seventeen, many congregants opposed the insertion of Abraham’s name into certain public prayers as community leader; they left the synagogue in anger and held services in their homes. A compromise was reached almost immediately, in 1205, between Abraham and the remaining community leaders. Abraham’s name was removed from the prayers and the community leaders who stayed in their positions excommunicated all of the Jews who had seceded from the synagogue. Abraham himself did not favor excommunication, probably because he had seen how it was used against his father.
Abraham was highly respected both by Egyptian and non-Egyptian Jewry. As with Maimonides, he received inquiries on religious practice from countries outside of Egypt, including Israel, Yemen, Provence, Baghdad and Syria. Unfortunately, only about 130 of his many written responses have been preserved in manuscripts and in the writings of other authors. Some of his responsa deal with biblical exegesis, halakhah and ethical matters, but others were written to defend his father who was severely attacked for his philosophical views.
Abraham wrote a long essay in defense of his father, called Milchamot Hashem (The Wars of the Lord). The work seems to show that Abraham felt that it was a divine duty to defend his father from the slanderers who were responsible for the burning of Maimonides’ books. We will discuss Abraham’s defense of his father’s views in the next chapter.
As we saw earlier, Abraham wrote a commentary on the Bible, but only the commentaries on Genesis and Exodus have survived. Abraham focused on the plain meaning of the biblical text and disregarded homiletic interpretations. He mentions his father and his grandfather Maimon in the commentary, as well as many others.
An essay entitled Introduction to the Aggadah, focusing on how to understand Midrashim, is attributed to him and was placed as the introduction to the popular Ein Ya’akov, the compendium of midrashic stories and homilies from the Talmud. Some scholars insist that he did not write this work.
Abraham began a commentary on his father’s Mishneh Torah with the goal of citing the sources of each of his father’s decisions, as well as a commentary to his father’s Guide of the Perplexed, but died before he was able to complete them.
His greatest work was apparently The High Ways to Perfection. Only a few chapters remain. Unlike the clear and precise writings of his father, Abraham wrote repetitively and with unnecessary and somewhat confusing digressions. The extant chapters show that the work was designed to support Abraham’s ascetic approach to life. We can only speculate about the contents of the lost chapters.
We can only speculate as well on whether the loss of most of his writings was due to pure chance or the lack of interest by scholars and the general population in the writings of this sage, which led to too few copies being made. The only volumes that endured in total are his work on Midrashim, which may have survived only because they were placed as an introduction to a popular work, and his defense of his father, perhaps because of interest in Maimonides and not in his son.
Abraham’s Approach to Life
Abraham had profound respect for his father. When Maimonides’ writings were burned by Christians a couple of decades after his death in Montpellier, France – the Christians were incited by overzealous misguided Jews who feared that the philosophical works would contaminate Jewish youth – Abraham pictured the flame as a fiery chariot bearing his father’s works to immortality even as Elijah was thus borne to heaven.
Yet, Abraham was unlike his father. He regarded the Moslem Sufis as the spiritual descendants of the Jewish prophets. He considered the human body to be a source of evil and fervently advocated mysticism, austerity, asceticism and introspective solitude. He also differed when he stressed bitachon, reliance on God.
The introspective life promoted by Abraham is, on the whole, a somewhat fatalistic existence of passive acceptance of events without any real attempt to improve oneself and society. It reminds one of Karl Marx’s criticism of religion, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” This critique was expressed long before Marx. The Christian philosopher and theologian Augustine of Hippo (354–430) accused the Roman emperor Constantine of adopting Christianity as the official religion of Rome in order to keep the poor and downtrodden masses quiet by seducing them with a hope of an otherworldly future deliverance. Maimonides also taught that people should not live a life focused on heaven and behave, as Constantine wanted, in order to acquire an other-worldly reward. He wrote that religion should not be passive and introspective, but comprised of activities wherein people learn correct ideas, understanding how to work hard to improve themselves and society.
The Sufi Philosophy
Sufism, the school of thought that interested Abraham, was a name given to Moslem mystics around 800 C.E. It is derived from the Arabic word suf, meaning “coarse wool.” The Sufi mystics adopted ascetic practices as an aid to achieve union with Allah, including wearing cloths made of coarse wool. After a time, however, the term was applied to all Moslems who believed in a mystical union with Allah, even if they were not ascetics.
Sufism focuses on an inner life, a passive escape from the hardships of the outer world. Sufists attempt to realize themselves through mystical contemplation, a feeling of blissful ecstasy, a sense of one’s own nothingness, an awareness of union with the divine, and an idea of the oneness of everything.
Many early Sufists saw the union with the divine as an absorption or identification with Allah. This apparent blasphemy was amended by the Sufist al-Ghazali (1058–1111) who de-emphasized this pantheistic concept of Sufism and taught that the mystical goal was to approach God, not join with him: “Strive to know how to attain to the divine presence and the contemplation of the divine majesty and beauty.” Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938) also rejected the notion of “total union” with God as being inconsistent with monotheism and the truth about God.
Al-Ghazali insisted that it is impossible to reconcile religion and philosophy and wrote a book entitled The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Averroes (1126–1198), a contemporary of Maimonides who held similar views, attacked al-Ghazali’s mystical approach with a book satirically called The Incoherence of the Incoherence.
Maimonides’ View of Sufism
Maimonides criticized Saadiah Gaon for relying on the Islamic Mutakallimun theological school rather than pure philosophy and would in all likelihood have been dissatisfied with the leanings of his son as well, since Abraham accepted notions that Maimonides rejected out of hand.
Maimonides was a strong advocate of rationalism and an opponent of mysticism and asceticism. He considered knowledge of oneself and the sciences to be the goal of existence and rejected the notion that one should try to obtain an amorphous feeling of blissful ecstasy, a sense of one’s nothingness, a feeling of the oneness of everything, and union with the divine. He emphasized the need for an active life devoted to striving to be all that one can be. He repeatedly stressed the uniqueness and transcendence of the incorporeal God and the impossibility of seeing or having any direct contact or union with the deity.
Innovations Introduced by Abraham into Egyptian Jewish Life
As Nagid, Abraham modified the Jewish practices of his Egyptian community in many ways, a host of which were copies of Islamic behaviors and mystical practices, both of which his father abhorred.
- He tried to revive the practice of prostrating oneself on the ground during prayers, a method of worship discontinued in Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple as a sign that although the synagogue was a holy place of worship, it was not of the caliber of the ancient Temple. The Moslems whom Abraham admired practiced prostration. It is no accident that the Arabic word mosque means to prostrate oneself. Prostration before a dominant figure is a natural act that humans and animals use to demonstrate loyalty and subservience, and is seen in animals such as dogs and cats who lay down before humans and larger or more ferocious animals that dominate them. Judaism has outgrown this submissive behavior.
- Abraham wanted to introduce other Moslem practices such as washing one’s feet before prayer and sitting in the synagogue with one’s legs crossed.
- Some of Abraham’s innovations were not mystically or Islamic oriented. He stopped the custom of prominent congregants sitting in front of the congregation facing the people with their backs to the ark to inspire the congregation. He stressed humility in his writings and most probably felt that no one should show himself to be superior to others.
- He also attempted to reduce excommunications and required that they be instituted only with the agreement of three respected community members.
As with his father, those who opposed his innovations complained to non-Jewish authorities – in Abraham’s case, to the sultan. Maimonides, who died before the rabbis brought their claim before Christian clerics, had not been present to defend his views, and so many of his books were burned. In contrast, Abraham was able to defend himself. He stated that he did not compel anyone to do what he was suggesting.
None of Abraham’s above-mentioned innovations became a part of mainstream Judaism.
Children of Successful Fathers
Judaism has seen repeated examples of children who swerved from the teachings of their parents. This was prevalent among children of famous fathers. It even occurred to Moses, the great leader who spoke with God and was the recipient and transmitter of the Torah.
There is the tradition – probably only a legend – that the Levite who served as an idolatrous priest in Judges 18:30 was Moses’ grandson. In the story, the Bible tells the tale of a man who hired a Levite to serve as his priest for idol worship. This Levite was enticed away from the man by the tribe of Dan and then served them in the same capacity. The Levite’s name was “Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Manasheh, he and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land.” The name Manasheh is written with the letter nun suspended, indicting that it does not belong in the name and that the true reading is Moshe, Moses in English. True or not, this tale recognizes that even children of people like Moses can stray from the teachings of their father.
Similarly, Moses Mendelssohn’s children deviated from his teachings. Mendelssohn (1729–1786) was an observant Jew, philosopher and Bible commentator who attempted to introduce his fellow Jews to the advantages of combining Torah and the Enlightenment. Yet most, if not all, of his children converted to Christianity. His grandson was the famous non-Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn.
So, too, some scholars understand that this happened to Abraham ibn Ezra (1192 or 1193–1167). Little is known about ibn Ezra’s family. According to a legend, he married a daughter of the poet Yehudah Halevi and had five sons. We know only the name of one son, Isaac. The others may have died in their youth. Ibn Ezra left Spain in 1140 because of what he called a “troubled spirit.” Some scholars believe that he was referring to his only surviving son, Isaac, who converted to Islam, but there is no real support for this conclusion.
Abraham, Maimonides’ son, differed with his more illustrious father, but not as radically. While his father attempted to harmonize traditional Judaism with the teachings of the Greek philosopher Aristotle and strongly opposed mysticism, his son Abraham tried to reconcile Judaism with the mystical teachings of Moslem Sufism. The general population took to neither approach. They criticized Maimonides for abandoning Judaism for what they considered alien Greek teachings and criticized his son Abraham for forsaking Judaism for alien Islamic Sufism.
Judaism, as other religions, has many examples of sons and grandsons who do not follow the ways of their famous fathers. So, too, Moses Maimonides’ son turned to mysticism, which his father despised.
While Maimonides focused his attention on the mind, the acquisition of knowledge, an active rational life, and the thinking of the Greek Aristotle, his son Abraham turned to Sufism and some practices of the Moslem religion, such as prostrating oneself on the floor during prayer. Abraham was undoubtedly a pious Jew, but he was not a Maimonidean rational thinker.
Abraham accepted the notion that people are composed of a body and soul, and that the body is a source of evil. His father dismissed this belief; he did not think that a separate soul exists and, in any event, he was convinced, as the Bible clearly states, that all of God’s creations are good. This concept of the evil body, as simple as it may appear, affected many aspects of Abraham’s thinking and behavior. He advocated the life of the soul, the mystical life with mystical contemplation. He urged restraint and control of anything related to the body, insisting that people should live lives of austerity and asceticism. Abraham was highly respected and composed many books on Judaism, but his books lack the sharpness, organization, originality and rationality of his father’s works. They are filled with repetitions and are disjointed.
 Abrahams, Hebrew Ethical Wills, 1:127–161.
 The quote is from Stitskin, Letters of Maimonides, 83–84. Stitskin does not address the question of Abraham’s name.
 Friedlander, Guide for the Perplexed, 315–320. I have generally used the Friedlander translation of the Guide (which he calls “for” rather than “of” the Perplexed) because I feel that his translation contains more colloquial English than the Pines translation.
 Stitskin, Letters of Maimonides, 84.
 See Margaliot’s introduction to Milchamot Hashem, 17.
 Neuman, The Jews in Spain, II:311.
 Saadiah, a Bible translator and talmudist, is most famous for his philosophical work Emunot V’deot (Beliefs and Opinions). As we will see in a later chapter, he was the head of the Torah academy in Babylon and, like other heads, was called Gaon. He was the foremost spiritual leader of his generation and many scholars consider him to have been the greatest of the Babylonian Gaonim.
 The Islamic Mutakallimun school of thought attempted to reach theological truths through dialectic.
 Judges 18:30.
 Some scholars accept the conversion as a fact, but believe it was only a feigned conversion.