Posted in Obituaries

Herbert A. Davidson, 1932-2021

Herbert A. Davidson, 1932-2021 Posted on May 25, 2022

By Josef Stern, The University of Chicago

Herbert A. Davidson, Professor of Hebrew Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles and Fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research, passed away on April 27, 2021 in Los Angeles. He was one of the leading scholars of his generation of medieval Arabic and Hebrew philosophy, and played a central role in contemporary debates over Maimonides. *

Herbert Alan Davidson was born on May 25, 1932 in Boston to Louis Nathan and Ettabelle (Baker) Davidson. He was the third generation of his family to live in Boston. His grandfather was a sofer stam and opened what was then the only Hebrew and Judaica bookstore in Boston which his father then acquired and ran. As his beloved wife Kinneret (née Bernstein) would later quip, Herbert began as an autodidact, teaching himself to read, but from elementary school on he always attended two schools simultaneously. For the first six grades, he attended William Lloyd Garrison public school in Roxbury in the morning and the Menorah Institute Hebrew School in the afternoon; for junior high, Roosevelt Junior High in Dorchester Mattapan and Menorah; and for high school, Boston Latin and the Boston Hebrew High School. In 1949 he matriculated at Harvard College, majoring in political science, while continuing his Jewish studies at the Hebrew Teachers College. In 1953, he graduated from Harvard, earning honors for a B.A. thesis on “The Relation of Ethical to Political Theory in the Philosophies of Plato, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas.” Since he graduated first in his class at the Hebrew Teachers College, he was awarded with a year of study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he studied medieval Jewish philosophy with Shlomo Pines and Talmud with Efraim Elimelekh Urbach. He also completed two years of Greek in one, a feat that his instructor later told Kinneret was never again replicated successfully.

Following the year in Israel, Davidson returned to Harvard in 1954 for graduate studies in medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophy and received in Ph.D. in 1959. His teacher and doktorvater was Harry Austryn Wolfson whose influence on Davidson is evident throughout his scholarship. During this period, he continued his Talmudic studies with a hevruta at the Boston Yeshiva Academy. From 1957-1960, while writing his dissertation, he held a junior fellowship in the Society of Fellows at Harvard, the first junior fellow working in any area of Jewish Studies, and with the support of the Society, he spent six months in Europe in 1959 doing research in libraries. That same year he identified Alfarabi’s “Fusūl muntaza‘a” (also titled “Fusūl al-madanī ,” Aphorisms of the Statesman) as the unnamed source of Maimonides’ “Introduction to Avot (Shemonah Peraqim)” in his Commentary on the Mishnah. This research led to Davidson’s first major publication “Maimonides’ ‘Shemonah Peraqim’ and Alfarabi’s ‘Fusūl al-Madanī” in the Proceedings of the AAJR in 1963. The following year he published a revised version of his dissertation, The Philosophy of Abraham Shalom as an Exposition and Defense of Maimonides (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964). While acknowledging that Shalom (d. 1492), a representative of the last generation of Iberian Jewish philosophers before the expulsion, was not an especially original thinker, Davidson presents him as a nonetheless interesting Maimonidean who defended his master against, among others, Hasdai Crescas’ influential critique.

After teaching for one year (1960-1961) at Harvard, Davidson moved to Los Angeles to teach at UCLA in its Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures where he remained for the rest of his distinguished career. From 1981-1987, he served as Chairman of the Department and, together with other great scholars such as Arnold Band and Jonas Greenfield, created a strong program in Hebrew and Jewish studies. He held fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of California, and the AAJR. In 1994 he took early retirement but continued to work actively and productively almost until his untimely passing. He is buried on the Mount of Olives and survived by his wife, Kinneret, two daughters, Rachel and Jessica, and grandchildren.

Davidson’s influential scholarship falls into three broad areas. In the early years of his career, he contributed a critical edition of and introduction to Averroes’ Middle Commentaries on Porphyry’s Isagoge and Aristotle’s Categories to the Corpus Commentariorum Averrois in Aristotelem, edited by H.A. Wolfson, S. Pines, and Z. Stewart. This edition was based on the Arabic original of the Categories, Hebrew translations of both the Isagoge and Categories by Jacob Anatolio, and a later medieval Latin translation, demonstrating his full mastery of the languages. In later years he published critical editions of Averroes’ treatise on Animae Beatitudine and of the Hebrew translation of Averroes’ commentary on De Intellectu.

Davidson’s second area of research was the history of themes and problems in the history of medieval philosophy, always beginning with the Greeks and continuing through thinkers in all three religious traditions. Like his mentor H. A. Wolfson, his approach emphasized the philology of philosophical texts, drawing on his mastery of Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin. But Davidson focused not only on the history of philosophical terminology but also on transformations that philosophical arguments underwent from thinker to thinker. In important essays, he traced the historical development of the concept of particularization in Arabic philosophy and the principle that a finite body can contain only finite power, an argument that he showed was used by Aristotle, assuming the eternity of the universe, to demonstrate the incorporeality of the First Cause; by John Philoponus to demonstrate the creation of the world; and then again by Crescas to refute the original Aristotelian argument. Davidson’s major achievements in this second area of scholarship were two seminal books, Proofs for Eternity, Creation, and the Existence of God in Medieval Islamic and Jewish Philosophy (Oxford, 1987) and Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Averroes, on Intellect: Their Cosmologies, Theories of the Active Intellect, and Theories of Human Intellect (Oxford, 1992), both of which grew out of earlier articles on individual thinkers on these themes. Each book follows the development of the subject in its respective title from Greek and late ancient sources through the Arabic philosophical literature and then traces its “reverberations,” as Davidson terms it, first in Jewish and then in thirteenth c. scholastic philosophy—and, in the first volume, the story continues into early modern philosophy. The impressive breadth of Davidson’s erudition and the clarity of his exposition have made both books required reading for anyone working on the history of late ancient and medieval philosophy. As important, like his teachers Wolfson and Pines, Davidson’s scholarship underscores the virtues and indeed the necessity of situating Jewish philosophy, from Saadiah through Maimonides to Gersonides and Crescas, within the history of medieval philosophy in general and, in particular, in its Islamicate context. In the Introduction to Proofs, he writes: “Medieval Islamic and Jewish philosophy will be treated here as a single philosophical tradition… [This] is surely justified considering the extent to which they draw sustenance from the same, or similar, sources and are animated by the same spirit… Jewish philosophy is rooted in Islamic philosophy and cannot be properly understood in isolation from it.” And while the reverse is not true, nonetheless, “viewed historically, Jewish philosophy sheds light on medieval Islamic philosophy,” in the early period because Jewish thinkers like Saadia “complement the available Islamic material and help delineate the beginnings of Arabic philosophy” and in the later period because “Hebrew sources are an invaluable aid in the study of Averroes” (6). In the thirty-five years since Davidson wrote these lines, the value of the integrative method he sketches has been confirmed time and again.

Davidson’s third area of research was Maimonides, the subject of his first publication and, for the last twenty years of his life, his main focus. Apart from seventeen papers, he authored two influential books. Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works (Oxford , 2005) was the first of a number of biographies of Maimonides that have appeared in the last fifteen years and, of them all, it gives the most detailed exposition and analysis of Maimonides’ texts, from the rabbinic through the medical. His second book, Maimonides the Rationalist (Littman, 2011), contains revised versions of his classic papers on Maimonides’ ethics and metaphysics and two previously unpublished lengthy chapters in which he reviews and evaluates the evidence in his halakhic and philosophical works to determine Maimonides’ actual knowledge of philosophical literature—Aristotelian, Neoplatonic, Kalam, and the various Arabic schools.

There are three distinctive aspects to the characterization of Maimonides that emerges from Davidson’s studies. First, in sharp opposition to a widely-held view among many Maimonides scholars who divide the Maimonidean corpus into two, the halakhic works and the philosophical, and indeed bifurcate the person into the RaMBaM and Maimonides, seeing insurmountable conflict between them, Davidson insisted that “the life he led and the writings he produced in disparate areas were the expression of a single, complex person and not the expressions of several distinct personas who somehow had gotten bundled uncomfortably and awkwardly into a single human frame” (Moses Maimonides, vii). In the same vein, he writes: Maimonides “visualized philosophy and the Written and Oral Torahs as a single harmonious domain” (Maimonides the Rationalist, viii). This is not to say that Davidson thought that there were no tensions or even contradictions between Maimonides’ claims in different passages and works—to the contrary, he emphasizes his “complexity”—but they do not reflect a dichotomy between Torah and Philosophy. The problems emerge precisely from the Great Eagle’s attempt to construct one system encompassing both.

Second, Davidson saw it as his responsibility as a scholar to ‘demythologize’ the legendary figure of Maimonides and, in particular, to establish clearly on the basis of textual evidence who was the historical Maimonides and exactly which texts from among the many attributed to him are actually his. In the preface to his biography, he writes: “I was repeatedly surprised to find information about Maimonides that has for decades or centuries been treated as common knowledge and that I also hitherto accepted with question, to be supported by no credible evidence at all. Still more disconcerting, supposed facts… sometimes turn out… to be not only unsupported but to be patently incorrect” (Moses Maimonides, vii). One set of examples are what Davidson calls the “minor” works attributed to Maimonides. Some of these are works that scholars have long dismissed as inauthentic but Davidson also includes the “Epistle on Astrology,” “Epistle on Religious Persecution” (Iggeret ha-Shemad), and, most controversially, The Treatise on Logic (Millot ha-Higgayon). Neither the fact that Maimonides’ name is attached to manuscripts nor that the fact that by tradition he was taken to be the author are sufficient criteria for Davidson to establish that Maimonides was in fact its author, and he offers various kinds of counterevidence (especially contradictions with the content of “major” works) against their attribution. As Davidson himself anticipated, there has been much resistance to his claims but, notwithstanding disagreement with his conclusions, his counterevidence continues to generate productive discussion of the dating and purpose of these compositions.

A second example is Davidson’s attempt to document on the basis of hard textual evidence exactly what philosophical literature—which (Arabic-translated) ancient Greek texts and which of the Arabic falasifa—Maimonides knew first-hand. Among Maimonides scholars, it is often repeated that Maimonides had direct acquaintance with all of Aristotle’s writings available in Moslem Spain, with all the Plato and Alexander he cites, and with all of the writings of the Muslim falasifa, or at least all those he mentions. Yet, anyone who compares Maimonides’ discussions to those of the Arabic falasifa like Al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes cannot but notice the difference in their respective degrees of engagement with these sources. Reviewing one by one each reference by Maimonides to these philosophical authorities, Davidson argues that, if we demand (as serious scholars we should) strict textual confirmation, one cannot but conclude that Maimonides read much less than scholars have assumed: only a small part of the available Aristotelian corpus and even that only indirectly, eked out from his also limited reading of Arabic philosophical writings. Here again, Davidson’s conclusions have generated many reactions, and it may be possible to explain the facts in other ways, but by doing the hard work of documenting Maimonides’ knowledge of his sources, a task never before undertaken in such detail, he also rendered a true service to scholarship.

The third aspect of Davidson’s Maimonides emerges from his vigorous opposition to reading hidden messages or secrets or ‘esoteric’ as opposed to ‘exoteric’ interpretations into the Maimonidean corpus and especially the Guide. Davidson insisted instead that “we respect Maimonides’ words and refrain from interpreting him as perversely meaning the opposite of whatever he says” (“Maimonides on Metaphysical Knowledge” (Maimonidean Studies, 1992-93), 86). Although he was an opponent of Straussian readings of Maimonides from early on, the major target of Davidson’s criticisms over the last twenty years was Shlomo Pines’ controversial thesis that Maimonides, influenced by Al-Farabi, held a Kant-like “critical” view of the possibility of human knowledge of metaphysics including celestial physics, knowledge of and about the separate intellects, of and about God and His attributes, and topics like providence, immortality, and the origination of the world. Given this severe limitation on the human intellect, Pines concluded that Maimonides surrendered the ideal of intellectual perfection for humans and instead reverts, at the end of the Guide, to a kind of civic, practical perfection as the highest humanly attainable end. In his highly influential paper, “Maimonides on Metaphysical Knowledge” (selections of which are reprinted in Maimonides the Rationalist), Davidson challenged each step in Pines’ argument. Although he was not alone in objecting to Pines—others included Alexander Altmann, Arthur Hyman, and Alfred Ivry—Davidson’s critique probably had the strongest impact (and in turn elicited much counter-criticism). As an offshoot, Davidson was also at the center of a related controversy over a problematic passage in Guide II:24 that has generated a cottage-industry of its own, including eight opposing papers in a forum in Aleph 8 (2008). Whereever one stands in this live controversy, there is no question that Davidson’s contributions, with the others, have very significantly contributed to our understanding of the Guide.

As I hope I have conveyed, Herbert Davidson was a very independent thinker of great erudition, whose positions sometime generated much controversy. His intellectual character was by nature skeptical: he refused to accept any contention without examining it very critically and he was always on the lookout for inadequately supported generalizations or claims. He applied his high standards above all to himself, but his impatience with colleagues who did not meet the bar may also have isolated him at times. Nonetheless one senses that, as a true philosopher, he most enjoyed the very argument and critical engagement itself. In person, he sometimes struck others as reticent and restrained but, as conversation continued (and, even more so, in his writing), he revealed a sharp wit with a keen sense of the ironic. He was also a dedicated supporter of younger scholars, including me, and gave generously of his time and attention to read and comment on their work and to share his deep and broad knowledge. Speaking personally, Herbert and I stood at opposite extremes in our interpretations of Maimonides, and we criticized each other in print. But as I wrote in the acknowledgments in my book: “For over twenty-five years Herbert A. Davidson and I have been engaged in a mahloqet leshem shamayim over the interpretation of the Guide. Although he is often the object of my objections to the dogmatic reading of the Guide, those criticisms belie the degree to which I am indebted to his scholarship and to his written criticisms of my drafts on which he has faithfully commented over the years. Skeptic that I am, one thing I think I know is that, despite his many efforts to correct my errors, he will still find much to fault with this book—so I look forward to continuing our critical conversation.” Sadly, that conversation has now come to an end. Yehe zikhro barukh.

Josef Stern
William H. Colvin Professor of Philosophy (Emeritus)
The University of Chicago

* I thank Kinneret Bernstein Davidson for biographical help in composing this notice and Tzvi Langermann and Gad Freudenthal for comments on an earlier draft.