Man of the millennium: Maimonides tops poll

Someone with good name recognition — but someone many Jews don't know much about — has been selected as the "Jew of the millennium" in an informal survey of Bay Area professors and scholars.

Maimonides, who lived in the 12th century, wasn't a landslide winner, but he was named by more than half of the people who participated in the Jewish Bulletin telephone survey.

The writer of two of the most important books in Jewish history and someone who helped keep Jews around the world unified, Maimonides was lauded for his contributions to history as a philosopher, rabbi, scholar and physician.

"He deserves it, no question about it. He is the most important Jewish figure of the last 1,000 years," said Dr. Howard Maccabee, a Walnut Creek oncologist and self-proclaimed Maimonides expert who didn't participate in the survey.

"A lot of people have heard the name and know that he's important but don't know any of the details of his life," said the president emeritus of the East Bay chapter of the Maimonides Society, a fund-raising group composed of doctors and dentists. "To me, the richness of his life is in the details."

Those details were apparent to most of the survey respondents, although not everybody chose Maimonides. Two other popular picks were the fathers of two major movements: the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism in the 18th century, and Theodor Herzl, credited by many as the founder of modern Zionism.

Even though he lived all but four of his 44 years in the 1800s, Herzl was also named by several survey participants as the "Jew of the 20th century," a category that produced no clear-cut favorite.

Scientist and liberal thinker Albert Einstein was cited most often in that category, but he only received 23 percent of the vote. Israel founding father David Ben-Gurion and visionary Bohemian writer Franz Kafka also were tabbed by multiple participants.

Some professors refused to participate in the survey, citing the millennium as a Christian or artificial measurement of time.

"As far as I'm concerned, the millennium is over in 240 years," said U.C. Berkeley Jewish studies professor Daniel Boyarin, alluding to the current year of 5760 on the Hebrew calendar.

Of the 15 who did participate, many said the questions were interesting to ponder. "I even went into class and asked my students who I should pick," said Fred Astren, a Jewish studies professor at San Francisco State.

"For the century, there are so many ways to go: Is it the most interesting or most influential? Does one think about Israel, or do you want someone who had a great intellectual life?" Astren said.

"Or is it another kind of Jew — the unnamed individual who got on a boat and came to America? Or the unnamed person who was murdered in World War II?"

The choice for the millennium seemed to be a little bit easier: Moses ben Maimon, which was his name when he was born in 1135.

"Maimonides took the best of Western rationalist tradition and combined it with Judaism in a way that continues to speak to Jews nearly a millennium later," said Andy Heinze, director of the Swig Judaic studies program at the University of San Francisco.

"I would choose Maimonides even if I were using the criteria of individual greatness — he must have been a supreme genius."

In writing Moreh Nevochim ("The Guide of the Perplexed") in 1190, Maimonides offered for the benefit of the intellectually elite an effective synthesis of medieval Judaism with the philosophy of Aristotle.

"We do not consider it a principle of our faith that the universe will again be reduced to nothing," he wrote. "It is not contrary to the tenets of our religion to assume that the universe will continue to exist forever."

Twenty years before that, he wrote Mishnah Torah, a legal commentary on the code of oral laws in the Talmud. In it, he presented a modernized codification of all previous Jewish law, which until that time was unorganized and frayed.

Moreover, he wrote both texts in Hebrew at a time when there was an emerging schism and language barrier between the Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews that threatened to tear Judaism asunder, according to Maccabee.

"In a sense, Maimonides saved the Jewish people as a unified whole," said Maccabee, who has traveled to Maimonides' birthplace in Cordova, Spain, his residences in Morocco and Egypt, and his grave in Tiberius, Israel.

It was in Egypt in 1185 that Maimonides became a physician to the sultan of Egypt (known in the West as Saladin), one of the most powerful men in the world at the time.

His main claim to fame was through his philosophical contributions, however.

The man also known as Rambam "introduced Aristotle and Greek philosophy into modern Judaism," said Jonathan Roth, an associate professor in the Jewish studies program at San Jose State who admitted many of his history students have never even heard of Maimonides.

"It's not surprising," Roth said. "He's probably one of the best known people of the Middle Ages that nobody has heard of."

The Ba'al Shem Tov received the nod from Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, and Zachary Baker, curator of the Judaica and Hebraica collections at the Stanford University Library.

Born as Israel ben Eliezer in approximately 1700, the charismatic leader was said to have witnessed many miracles on his path toward establishing "a mass movement — Chassidism — that revitalized Judaism and transformed the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe," Baker said.

"He reclaimed the spiritual excitement of Judaism for a Jewish world that had lost its spiritual moorings and its prophetic insights and had become spiritually dead and obtuse," noted Lerner, spiritual leader of Beyt Tikkun, a Jewish Renewal congregation in San Francisco.

A secular leader, Herzl, drew votes for helping turn Zionism into a worldwide movement in the late 19th century; his support was split, however, with two votes in the "millennium" category and two in the "20th century" category.

"He had a dream about [Israel] that predated the Holocaust," said writer and historian Bernice Scharlach of San Jose. "So many people thought we only got Israel on account of what happened in the Holocaust."

Said Astren: "I don't know who else had such a major impact for world Jewry. It's enormous. Einstein supported Zionism openly and publicly, but his impact was on the world and not on the Jews. I framed the question as 'Who's the Jew's Jew?'"

The "20th century" category was a mixed bag, with single votes going to theologian and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, Lubavitch leader Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, German-American philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt, and underground Holocaust-era historian Emanuel Ringelblum.

Einstein was the most popular choice in that category.

"On one hand, he was a great scientist and thinker in many areas, but he was also very involved in his Jewish identity," said William "Ze'ev" Brinner, professor emeritus and former chairman of the Near Eastern studies department at U.C. Berkeley. "To me, that's very important because many scientists dismiss their Jewishness."

Seymour Fromer, co-founder and director emeritus of Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum, also gave a Jewish reason for selecting Einstein.

"He reflects the entrance of Jews into the mainstream of science and cultural life," he said. "He reflects the suffering of Jews under Nazism. He fled Germany and helped the United States win the Second World War. He became a symbol of achievement and intellect in science and knowledge."

Historian Fred Rosenbaum, founder of Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley, made Ben-Gurion his choice, saying the creation of Israel profoundly changed the consciousness of Jews. "Without him, the Jewish state might not have come into existence," he said. "He is the Moses of this millennium."

Professor Naomi Seidman, Jewish studies director at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, offered a couple of somewhat offbeat picks in choosing Kafka for the 20th century and Sabbtai Sevi for the millennium.

Seidman, who holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from U.C. Berkeley, chose the Czech author of "The Trial" and "The Castle," two 1920s books that expressed the anxieties and alienation of life in the 20th century, "because he spoke from the most personal, specific place, which includes a kind of Jewish place. At the same time he spoke for the 20th century more clearly than any other writer." Moreover, later in his life, Kafka showed an interest in and sympathy for Zionism.

Sabbtai Sevi was a false messiah who had convinced much of the Jewish world to go to Palestine in the 17th century, but shortly thereafter converted to Islam. "He put himself and his cause and the Jewish people to shame," Seidman said. "His story is among the most interesting Jewish stories we have."

U.C. Berkeley Jewish studies Professor Bluma Goldstein said she wanted desperately to choose a woman to represent the 20th century but couldn't come up with one. She instead split her vote among Kafka, Einstein and linguist-philosopher Noam Chomsky.

But Hamutal Tsamir, an Israeli Ph.D. candidate in Hebrew literature at U.C. Berkeley, did choose a woman. "Even if there is no one woman who can actually fill the position, I think it has to happen," she said, "because one of the most important questions of this century is the women's question."

With that, she selected Arendt, a theorist and philosopher who spent much of her life attempting to understand the political and moral causes of the Nazi rise in Germany and other totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.

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Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.