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  • Of Divine Cunning and Prolonged Madness: Amos Funkenstein on Maimonides’ Historical Reasoning
  • Abraham P. Socher (bio)

To say more than human things with human voice, That cannot be; to say human things with more Than human voice, that can also not be; To speak humanly from the height or from the depth Of human things, that is acutest speech.

—Wallace Stevens, “Chocorua to its Neighbor”

One of Amos Funkenstein’s central historical concerns was the development of the discipline and methods of history itself. He was interested in the realization that the recovery of hi torical

truth is not merely the collection and chronological ordering of simple, atomic facts but rather what he called a process of “contextual reasoning,” in which the historical datum is “alienated” from the present and understood through the painstaking reconstruction of its original context. In a rich series of studies he argued that such a realization was first developed through applications of the medieval doctrine of divine accommodation to human finitude, the exegetical form of which was that “Scripture speaks the language of man” (dibrah Torah ki-leshon bnei adam; Scriptura humane loquitur). [End Page 6]

In this connection, Maimonides’ theory that many of the biblical commandments, paradigmatically the sacrifices, were to be understood as polemical reactions against—and strategic compromises with—the prevalent idolatry of the ancient world held pride of place in Funkenstein’s account as a theoretically daring extension of the principle of accommodation and a surprising origin of the discovery of the historical. “Maimonides’ reconstruction of the taamei ha-mitsvot [reasons for the commandments] was,” Funkenstein claimed, “a genuine medieval precursor of the revolution of historical reasoning.” 1

In a long and striking footnote to his discussion of Maimonides’ theory of the reasons for the commandments in his Theology and the Scientific Imagination, Funkenstein wrote:

In her famous study, [Mary] Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Danger and Taboo, pp. 41–57, refers to Maimonides’ theory of taame ha-mitsvot as a paradigm of wrong methodology (looking for external causes for taboos). She already takes for granted Maimonides’ methodological breakthrough—if perhaps on the wrong object—in trying to reconstruct the original setup in which taboos were meaningful; she takes it for granted that Maimonides could make errors on the same level as Robertson-Smith. . . . As to Douglas’ powerful thesis itself, I am not competent to judge its merits. I have but one specific question, leading to a more general observation. Jewish law lacks any prohibition concerning the consumption of vegetables; surely in any conceivable primitive taxonomy, some plants will resist orderly classification. One may answer that dietary prohibitions stem from an older, nomadic, cattle-raising society, but mixed “weaving and sowing” (shaatnez ve-kilayim) were likewise prohibited, as was the sowing with two kinds of animals. Perhaps the thesis suffers from overprecision. Granted that taboos originate in the contraposition of order and disorder, culture and wilderness (chaos); the forbidden belongs to the latter, the undomesticated, but it need not defy attempts at classification. Its classification may not even always be attempted. It suffices that it is at odds with the familiar. 2

Those of us who were fortunate enough to be his students can imagine (or perhaps even remember) Funkenstein, with his sly half-smile, delivering himself of this little pilpul in seminar. Indeed, the digression exemplifies several characteristic features of Funkenstein’s scholarship and is a good entry into the discussion of his account of Maimonides’ taamei ha-mitsvot.

First, there is the terse language of the note in which difficult arguments are summarized briefly, then criticized and emended with scholastic or, if you prefer, Tosafistic peremptoriness (“one may answer”). Second, Funkenstein’s criticism of Douglas is analytically acute. His point is transcendental in a (loosely) Kantian sense: in criticizing [End Page 7] Maimonides, Douglas presupposes the modern epistemic viewpoint of contextual reasoning, the historical grounds of which Maimonides helped to lay in precisely those texts that Douglas criticizes. Third, there is Funkenstein’s very openness to considering the remarks of a cultural anthropologist (or anything else that might help) within the often narrow confines of serious Maimonidean scholarship. Finally, of course, there is his characteristic...

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