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Q&A Wednesday: A novel approach to Maimonides’ Guide, with Phil Lieberman

Illustration of Corduba
Kristian Purcell's draft rendition of a scene in Corduba.
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Phil Lieberman
Wed 24 Nov 2021

Phil, what are you working on at the moment?

For the past decade I’ve been working with my Vanderbilt colleague Lenn Goodman – a philosopher and accomplished Judaeo-Arabist – on a new translation of the Guide for the Perplexed for Stanford University Press. We come from very different disciplinary approaches – he’s a philosopher and I’m a social historian – so we look at Maimonides in different ways. We’ve actually written different introductions to the book (I’m writing a historian’s introduction and he’s writing a philosopher’s introduction). In my introduction I’m writing about the life of the Guide itself – not just the life of the author: the sources, how did Maimonides’ training fit into the material that ends up in the Guide, and how did his life experiences shape what’s in there? As the Guide takes shape, how is it received and how is it translated and commented upon? Its impact in the Muslim and medieval Christian communities, and so on. In Lenn’s introduction he’s connecting the major philosophical problems that are posed in the Guide with Maimonides’ life story. That leads me to the other major project I’m working on: a graphic novel on the life of Maimonides.

That’s something different! How did the idea for that come about?

I was inspired by Lenn’s approach – connecting Maimonides’ life story with the Guide’s philosophical problems – and by the wonderful graphic novel Debating Truth: the Barcelona Disputation of 1263, a Graphic History, by Nina Caputo and illustrated by Liz Clarke (Oxford, 2016). Kristian Purcell is an artist who has worked on other titles in the Oxford graphic novel series, and I asked if he’d be interested in working on a graphic novel about the life of Maimonides. There are other Jewish graphic novels, but this one will be an attempt to bring together scholarship in a graphic novel form. Debating Truth had a section on the sources for the story, and I realised that Maimonides’ life would lend itself well to this kind of historical and historiographical analysis.

Presumably that’s where the Genizah comes in?

Yes! There are so many documents about him, as well as those from his hand – his own compositions. Maimonides is a figure about whom there are so many biographies, and we probably don’t need another one, but a graphic novel? Why not. Kristian and I decided we didn’t want it to be a David Copperfield start-to-finish retelling, but to focus on certain vignettes and how some of the philosophical problems from the Guide play out in his life: living as a crypto-Muslim in North Africa, the time his boat is almost shipwrecked off the coast of Eretz Israel, when he comes to Egypt and the society he encounters there – all of these episodes highlight ideas that appear in the Guide. What is the meaning of religion? Is Islam idolatry? How should we think about the suffering of innocents alongside divine providence and God’s actions in our daily lives? When Maimonides arrives in Egypt he encounters an elite that are very knowledgeable about commerce and while they are pious in some ways, I think Maimonides continues to identify as a Sephardi, a foreigner, an immigrant, in some ways always looking in from the outside. There are people he encounters who go to the synagogue daily and are out and about in the marketplace, but are they deep philosophical thinkers? Probably not. I think he’s writing the Guide for that population. There are controversies in the Guide – the possibility of Maimonides having written in a way that contains meaning on different levels, and the question of whether Maimonides is hiding what he really thinks – and his life experiences are a canvas to play out these philosophical debates and tell the story of his life in a creative way.

A draft scene from Maimonides' time in Morocco

A draft scene illustrating Maimonides' time in Morocco.

When will this graphic novel be hitting the shops?

Well, we have only just started, so it will be a few years’ before you can put it on your Hanukka list. There’s quite a bit of research that we still need to undertake, as we want the scenery to be as accurate as possible. It’s easy to rely on 19th-century stereotypes of clothing and synagogue architecture, but we don’t want to do that. The novel’s artist, Kristian, has a background in museums and in art, and he wants to use items in museum collections to illuminate the story of Maimonides, and there is also some Almoravid architecture in Spain we can look to for inspiration for Maimonides’ time in Fez, for example. There are Coptic textiles in museum collections, that he is investigating, and there are descriptions from the Genizah too. We are currently at the point of doing the first forays into what the great mosque of Cordoba looked like during Maimonides’ time there. And we will have to decide how Maimonides himself looked – there’s the famous statue in Cordoba, but is that what he looked like? No! That’s someone’s imagination, and we will have to apply our own.

Do you have an outline for the book and its contents?

There will be around 90 pages of graphic novel, followed by a second part that has sections on the Jews of the medieval Islamic world, how we tell that story, and how we tell the story of Maimonides, but these sections will have some illustrations too. There will be drawings of some Genizah documents, and of researchers studying them. I hope that adding illustrations to this section will help to draw in people who might otherwise only be interested in the graphic novel part of the book, so they’ll page through to the back to read more. I see this as a way to engage new audiences with this material. I’m hoping scholars – historians and philosophers – will be engaged too.

Thanks for your time, Phil.

Phillip Lieberman is an associate professor at Vanderbilt University.

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