Meeting Maimonides and his Censor in Venice
Rabbi Kenneth Brander | March 29, 2019
“Here we are at a conference in Venice composing a new song in the same place where Jewish books were burned 451 years ago.”
I write this at the conclusion of an energizing three-day conference in Venice, Italy in which nearly 50 Israeli emissaries trained by Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus-Amiel and Beren-Amiel programs, and currently serving as rabbis and educators throughout Europe, came together to discuss ways to strengthen the communities they are leading in the Diaspora in general and Jewish life on campus, in particular.
At the conclusion of the conference, Venetian Rabbi Mino Bahbout took us around the city, showing us fascinating sights in the medieval-era ghetto, including its five historic synagogues. The highlight for me was a visit to the Jewish Museum of Venice, where Director Marcella Ansaldi showed us a manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, dating from 1402. This was a profoundly moving experience for me given my personal attachment to the rabbinic luminary to whom we refer with affection as “the Rambam.”
Due to the history of Christian censorship of Jewish texts and the strong presence of the Catholic church in Venice, we were curious to contrast the sacred Venice manuscript with the standard version of Mishneh Torah with which we are familiar. Would there be there any textual differences?
Indeed, the 1402 Venice manuscript did undergo some degree of censorship, particularly in “Hilchot Melachim,” the Laws of Kings, in which Maimonides writes about the concept of Mashiach (the Messiah), a uniquely tension-fraught topic with the Church throughout the millennia.
Without going into a comprehensive analysis, consider the following examples of censorship from Chapter 11, below. First, in 11:6, note how the name of Jesus is deleted from the 1402 Venice manuscript and replaced by an ambiguous pronoun:
Then, in the following paragraph, 11:7, both Jesus and Mohammed are deleted from the text:
Comparing the following 16th Century manuscripts of Maimonides’ Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah (“Foundations of the Torah”) to the standard texts in use in our times, we again note the frequent instances of censorship. We see how methodical the censors were, deleting any word or statement that would have been an affront to Christian clergy and theology.
For example, in Hilchot Yesodei Torah (9:1), Maimonides distinguishes between legitimate prophets and false prophets.
…אֵין נָבִיא רַשַּׁאי לְחַדֵּשׁ דָּבָר מֵעַתָּה. לְפִיכָךְ אִם יַעֲמֹד אִישׁ בֵּין מִן הָאֻמּוֹת בֵּין מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל וְיַעֲשֶׂה אוֹת וּמוֹפֵת וְיֹאמַר שֶׁה’ שְׁלָחוֹ לְהוֹסִיף מִצְוָה אוֹ לִגְרֹעַ מִצְוָה אוֹ לְפָרֵשׁ בְּמִצְוָה מִן הַמִּצְוֹת פֵּרוּשׁ שֶׁלֹּא שָׁמַעְנוּ מִמּשֶׁה. אוֹ שֶׁאָמַר שֶׁאוֹתָן הַמִּצְוֹת שֶׁנִּצְטַוּוּ בָּהֶן יִשְׂרָאֵל אֵינָן לְעוֹלָם וּלְדוֹרֵי דּוֹרוֹת אֶלָּא מִצְוֹת לְפִי זְמַן הָיוּ. הֲרֵי זֶה נְבִיא שֶׁקֶר שֶׁהֲרֵי בָּא לְהַכְחִישׁ נְבוּאָתוֹ שֶׁל משֶׁה. וּמִיתָתוֹ בְּחֶנֶק עַל שֶׁהֵזִיד לְדַבֵּר בְּשֵׁם ה’ אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּהוּ. שֶׁהוּא בָּרוּךְ שְׁמוֹ צִוָּה לְמשֶׁה שֶׁהַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם וְ “לֹא אִישׁ אֵל וִיכַזֵּב”:
…no prophet is thereafter permitted to make any innovation. Therefore, should a man rise up, whether he be from among the Gentiles or whether from among Israel, and deliver a token and perform a miracle saying, that God hath sent him to add a commandment, or to diminish a commandment, or to interpret a certain commandment of among the commandments with such interpretation as we have not heard by tradition from Moses; or he said, that these commandments with which Israel was charged are not forever and throughout all generations, but that they were commandments in keeping with those times only, behold him, he is a false prophet, seeing that he came to deny the prophecy of Moses; and his punishment is death by strangulation, because he willfully spoke in the name of God concerning that which He did not charge him; for He, blessed is He commanded Moses, saying, that this enactment was “unto us and unto our children forever” (Deut. 29.28); and, “God is not a man that He should lie” (Num. 23.19).
But in the censored version, the words bolded above have been redacted:
Additionally, the redactions are accompanied by hand-written comments, perhaps from a one-time owner of the text.
Similarly, in Hilchot De’ot (3:1), (“Laws of Character Traits and Human Behavior”) we note how the censor redacted the Venice manuscript to exclude Maimonides opposition to asceticism as was practiced by monks.
By contrast, the standard edition of Hilchot De’ot mentions pagan priests, which would have been an acceptable critique to the Christian theologians who could read Maimonides’ text.
שֶׁמָּא יֹאמַר אָדָם הוֹאִיל וְהַקִּנְאָה וְהַתַּאֲוָה וְהַכָּבוֹד וְכַיּוֹצֵא בָּהֶם דֶּרֶךְ רָעָה הֵן וּמוֹצִיאִין אֶת הָאָדָם מִן הָעוֹלָם. אֶפְרשׁ מֵהֶן בְּיוֹתֵר וְאֶתְרַחֵק לַצַּד הָאַחֲרוֹן. עַד שֶׁלֹּא יֹאכַל בָּשָׂר וְלֹא יִשְׁתֶּה יַיִן וְלֹא יִשָּׂא אִשָּׁה וְלֹא יֵשֵׁב בְּדִירָה נָאָה וְלֹא יִלְבַּשׁ מַלְבּוּשׁ נָאֶה אֶלָּא הַשַּׂק וְהַצֶּמֶר הַקָּשֶׁה וְכַיּוֹצֵא בָּהֶן כְּגוֹן כֹּהֲנֵי הָעוֹבְדֵי כּוֹכָבִים. גַּם זֶה דֶּרֶךְ רָעָה הִיא וְאָסוּר לֵילֵךְ בָּהּ…
Lest a person will say: ‘Seeing that envy, desire and vainglory and like tendencies are evil tendencies and remove man from life, I will separate myself from them exceedingly and reach their remotest extreme.’ Until he will eat no meat, drink no wine, marry no woman, dwell in no comfortable quarters, dress in no proper clothes but in a sack and coarse wool, and the like, as for instance the idolatrous priests do. Even such is an evil way, and it is forbidden to follow it.
And at the conclusion of the volume the censor makes a notation in Italian attesting to the fact that he has accurately completed his work.
My main takeaway from this textual tour of Jewish history is to appreciate how far we have come as a people since those days. Yes, we face very serious challenges, spiritually, politically, and more. But we do so from a position of strength, independence, and national pride.
Here we are, at a conference in Venice, composing a new song in the same place where Jewish books were burned 451 years ago. This song allows creative and talented young men and women from Zion to spread across Europe, preserving and enhancing the Jewish community. Thank God, Jewish life continues to thrives. That which the censors of times past wished to erase, instead continues to flourish and springs eternal.
Am Yisrael Chai!
*Standard texts and translations via Sefaria