Shlomo ben Yehoshua (1753 – 1800), better known as Maimon, was born into a well-heeled and bookish Lithuanian Orthodox family, and was quickly noticed as an illui or Talmudic prodigy. His sharp mind was honed by Talmudic dialect, which served him well in his pursuit for truth in a universe which was gradually expanding as the autonomy of fundamentalisms was slowly but surely collapsing under the weight of questions raised by David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Benedict/Baruch Spinoza.
Maimon would seem to have been a rather strange person. Married at the age of eleven and a father at the age of fourteen, he evidently had lived a rather dissolute life when he finally became part of Moses Mendelssohn’s Berlin circle. His first book, a commentary on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and lauded by Kant himself, was published in 1790. The next year Maimon published a commentary on the first part of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, the first work on modern philosophy published in Hebrew. His best known work and, indirectly, a seminal autobiography, is his idiosyncratic and sometimes ribald memoir.
Ultimately, Maimon wasn’t accepted as part of the Jewish community of his day because of his contention that Kabbalah is embedded in philosophy — not based on Jewish primary writing (such as the Hebrew Bible and its rabbinic interpretation). His work has been studied by Abraham Geiger, Gershom Scholem, and Moshe Idel, offering the reader much insight into the dynamics and maze of Jewish enlightenment. Socher is director of Jewish Studies at Oberlin College.