In 1135 a young Jew was born in Cordoba, Spain. His parents named him Moses, the son of Maimon. He spent much of his early years in transit, moving with his family from place to place, like many of his co-religionists, in search of security and safety from persecution. Whilst on the road, Moses began writing books and gained some small renown for erudition and scholarship. Eventually he settled in Egypt where, as well as being an illustrious court physician, he penned remarkable and influential works of Jewish law and thought.
Moses became a leading authority and Jews from far and wide sought his counsel. Though his life was racked by personal and communal strife he is known today as Maimonides; the greatest of the Jewish philosophers.
When I studied in Israel, Maimonides’ works, both legal and philosophical, were our bread and butter. I have spent many hours studying his seminal texts. I have sat at the feet of experts in his thought. I have attended public lectures from influential academics dealing with his personal and intellectual history. I have travelled to Cambridge where I have seen with my own eyes manuscripts written in his handwriting. I have on my shelves twelve books by him and about him. I take my Maimonides very seriously.
I am currently holding in my hand my Grandfather’s copy of Maimonides’ magnum opus, The Guide For The Perplexed. My Grandfather was a man of great learning and culture and he passed away just a few months ago. He received this copy for his Bar Mitzvah some eighty years ago from people whose descendants I ended up, by fluke, going to school with.
The Guide is a technical book steeped in Aristotelian science. It was written originally in Judaeo-Arabic, a text that I can decode but cannot comprehend. This English copy is known as the Friedländer translation and the prose is difficult, but not insurmountable. There is much in there, both implicit and explicit, that is worthy of study, but one of my favourite passages runs as follows:
…the creative act of the Almighty in giving existence to pure Intelligences endows the first of them with the power of giving existence to another, and so on, down to the Active Intellect, the lowest of the purely spiritual beings. Besides producing other Intelligences, each Intelligence gives existence to one of the spheres, from the highest down to the lowest, which is the sphere of the moon. (Guide, 2:11)
No doubt, there will be little in the above that makes a huge amount of sense. But the ideas he is referencing here are crucial in understanding not only Aristotelianism, Neo-Platonism and Jewish Medieval Philosophy, but they are also crucial in understanding some of the great faith debates that occurred almost a millennium later in 20th Century Judaism. To me, they are deep, fascinating and rich with meaning.
The point of the above is not to show off how much I know about Maimonides. It happens to be an interest of mine; a subject which I have spent a lot of time on. But I know that it is a niche. I know that almost everyone reading this blog will know next to nothing about Maimonides. I also know that almost everyone reading this blog will have their own niche; a domain of knowledge in which they know significantly more than the average person. An area which suffuses their life. It could be anything at all. Some people know lots about trains, birds or stamps. A friend of mine is obsessed with tax law. My dad loves old maps. I met a teacher recently whose niche interest is the metal that church organs are made from. People’s interests are eclectic and endlessly fascinating.
But the important bit here is that we know that our niches are niches. We know that if we are to communicate them to others we need to move slowly. We need to start from the bottom and build up gradually. If we are to communicate not just our passion, but what it is that we are passionate about, then we must think very slowly, and very carefully. We do not take the knowledge of our listeners for granted.
The problem is that niches are subjective. In my community, enjoying the study of Maimonides is not particularly niche though not hugely widespread. It would be easy for me to lose sight of this when interacting with members of that community and I might take their knowledge for granted; I might assume they know or care more than they really do.
Unfortunately for teachers, we tend to be passionate and knowledgeable about our subjects. But what we do not realise is that, relative to our students, that passion and knowledge is niche. They do not know as much as us. They do not care as much as us. My knowledge of Maimonides is rich and varied and pervades many areas of my intellectual, spiritual, communal and familial life. But my knowledge of science is exactly the same. My interest in it, relative to my students, is just as niche.
Sometimes I am tricked into thinking that my students know as much science and care about it as much as I do. I do not realise that, in reality they are novices to my subject; people with a sparse and often incorrect knowledge that barely pervades their lives in any meaningful sense. I have no justification in approaching my subject as though it were not niche – I am cursed by my inability to pause and recognise that my intellectual, social and cultural position vis-à-vis science is worlds apart from my students’ standing.