The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Solomon Mai­mon: The Com­plete Translation

Yitzhak Y. Melamed (eds.), Abra­ham Socher (eds.), Paul Reit­ter (trans.)

January 1, 2013

Solomon Maimon’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy has delight­ed read­ers for more than two hun­dred years, from Goethe, Schiller, and George Eliot to Wal­ter Ben­jamin and Han­nah Arendt. The Amer­i­can poet and crit­ic Adam Kirsch has named it one of the most cru­cial Jew­ish books of mod­ern times. Here is the first com­plete and anno­tat­ed Eng­lish edi­tion of this endur­ing and live­ly work.

Born into a down-on-its-luck provin­cial Jew­ish fam­i­ly in 1753, Mai­mon quick­ly dis­tin­guished him­self as a prodi­gy in learn­ing. Even as a young child, he chafed at the con­straints of his Tal­mu­dic edu­ca­tion and rab­bini­cal train­ing. He recounts how he sought stim­u­la­tion in the Hasidic com­mu­ni­ty and among stu­dents of the Kab­bal­ah — and offers rare and often wicked­ly fun­ny accounts of both. After a series of picaresque mis­ad­ven­tures, Mai­mon reached Berlin, where he became part of the city’s famed Jew­ish Enlight­en­ment and achieved the philo­soph­i­cal edu­ca­tion he so des­per­ate­ly want­ed, win­ning acclaim for being the sharpest” of Kant’s crit­ics, as Kant him­self described him.

This new edi­tion restores text cut from the abridged 1888 trans­la­tion by J. Clark Mur­ray, which has long been the only avail­able Eng­lish edi­tion. Paul Reitter’s trans­la­tion is bril­liant­ly sen­si­tive to the sub­tleties of Maimon’s prose while pro­vid­ing a flu­id ren­der­ing that con­tem­po­rary read­ers will enjoy, and is accom­pa­nied by an intro­duc­tion and notes by Yitzhak Melamed and Abra­ham Socher that give invalu­able insights into Mai­mon and his extra­or­di­nary life. The book also fea­tures an after­word by Gideon Freuden­thal that pro­vides an author­i­ta­tive overview of Maimon’s con­tri­bu­tion to mod­ern philosophy.

Discussion Questions

The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Solomon Mai­mon has mes­mer­ized read­ers for more than two cen­turies with its blend of astute per­spec­tive and dra­mat­ic sto­ry­telling. This new trans­la­tion, by Paul Reit­ter and edit­ed by Yitzhak Y. Melamed and Abra­ham P. Socher, is the first since 1888 and the only com­plete trans­la­tion from its orig­i­nal Ger­man into Eng­lish (it includes ten chap­ters on Mai­monides and a final alle­gor­i­cal sec­tion, both removed from the ear­li­er ver­sion). Mai­mon, writes the trans­la­tor in his Note, was a lin­guis­tic shape-shifter whose lev­el of Ger­man pro­fi­cien­cy changed accord­ing to the occa­sion,” and whose native syn­tax includ­ed (in Maimon’s own words) a gram­mat­i­cal­ly defi­cient mix of Hebrew, Yid­dish-Ger­man, Pol­ish, and Russ­ian.” This mas­ter­ful trans­la­tion suc­cess­ful­ly cap­tures his lan­guage nuances and ele­vates an already grip­ping sto­ry. In it, Mai­mon describes a har­row­ing child­hood in what is now Belarus, fol­lowed by an arranged child­hood mar­riage he flees to pur­sue philo­soph­i­cal stud­ies. A con­tem­po­rary of Hegel, Goethe, and Moses Mendelssohn (the lat­er a thought­ful and keen patron), Mai­mon held noth­ing back in describ­ing what he saw as the state of Jew­ry with­in and out­side the tribe, which res­onat­ed with many Jews at the time, shocked oth­ers, and serves as a valu­able per­spec­tive today.