Maimonides and the Habitus Concept.

Author:Naaman, Erez
Position::Critical essay

In an earlier article I studied the appropriation and naturalization in the Islamic world of the Aristotelian habitus concept--the idea of a well-established disposition acquired through habituation--and attempted to outline its long trajectory from the ninth to the nineteenth century. (1) One of the two remarkable naturalization trends I emphasized engaged habitus within a religious Islamic framework or contextualized it Islamically, i.e., in a religious way. The present communication has a different, yet strongly related focus. The naturalization of habitus in the Islamic religious tradition by Muslim thinkers was followed by its naturalization in the Jewish religious tradition. This development was driven by the great interest shown by Jewish thinkers, notably Maimonides (1138-1204), in philosophy in its Greco-Arabic garb, and in applying it to their religious thought. The introduction of the concept into the Jewish system required the translation of malaka (habitus) and other Arabic terms into Hebrew. Thus, non-arabophone Jewish communities living outside the Islamic world became familiar with the concept, too.

When al-Ghazali's (d. 505/1111) Sufi-inspired ethical work Mizan al-[??]amal was translated into Hebrew in the thirteenth century by Abraham Ibn Hasday of Barcelona and titled Mozne sedeq, the Arabic malaka was rendered in the Hebrew translation as qinyan (and middah qinyanit), (2) "acquisition." Malaka was translated as qinyan also in the Hebrew translations of Averroes's middle commentaries on Aristotle's Categories (ca. 1232) and on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (1321). (3) Note that the Hebrew qinyan shares the same root (q-n-y) and meaning with the Arabic qunya, "acquired disposition," which occasionally appears as a synonym of malaka. (4) Despite the common tendency of medieval translators from Arabic to Hebrew to use the identical Semitic root in the target language when possible, (5) in this case the Hebrew melakhah must have been rejected because its lexical meaning is "craft," "profession," "work." Melakhah was the translation of the Arabic sina[??]a, "craft," (6) and since the crafts were often described as habitus, establishing it as a technical term for habitus could have led to confusion with the craft itself. (7) Qinyan is a caique, based on the shared meaning of the Arabic root m-l-k and the Hebrew q-n-y, "to possess." This apt translation was probably inspired by the use of the Arabic qunya as a synonym of malaka and by the use of the Hebrew root in the sense of "possession," as in Genesis 14:19. (8)

In fact, qinyan for malaka was coined by the translator, philosopher, and commentator Samuel Ibn Tibbon (ca. 1165-1232). He included qinyan in the "glossary of foreign words" (perush ha-millot ha-zarot) attached to his Hebrew translation of Maimonides's Dalalat al-ha[??]irin (The Guide of the Perplexed), commenting briefly that in this coinage he followed the Arabic. (9) The first edition of Ibn Tibbon's Hebrew translation of Dalalat al-ha[??]irin (1204; rev. ed. with the glossary was finished in 1213) was quickly followed by a rival translation made by the poet and litterateur Yehudah al-Harizi (d. 1225). (10) The latter's translation was more elegant but less precise, and displayed a lack of consistency in rendering the philosophical terms. According to his own "glossary of foreign words," al-Harizi's term for malaka is qeniyah, "acquisition" (pl. qeniyot), which shares the same root with qinyan. Still, inconsistent translator that he was, he frequently used qinyan for malaka, too. (11) Understandably, Ibn Tibbon's translation became the standard Hebrew version and as such a great source of influence on generations of Jewish philosophers. Hence, qinyan, not al-Harizi's qeniyah, became the standard Hebrew translation of malaka.

Slightly before finishing the first edition of Dalalat al-ha[??]irin, Samuel Ibn Tibbon translated into Hebrew Maimonides's introduction to the Mishnah's Tractate Avot (completed 1202). This introduction, known as Shemonah peraqim la-Rambam (Eight Chapters of Maimonides), is part of his first major work, a commentary on the Mishnah, the earliest systematic compendium of Jewish law. His commentary in Judeo-Arabic was started in Fez around 1161 and finished in Egypt in 1168, when Maimonides was thirty. His introduction revolved around ethics, the main topic of the tractate, whose adages are reminiscent of Hellenistic thought. This provided Maimonides with the opportunity to introduce Greek ethical precepts (in their Arabic-Islamic garb) into his Commentary that otherwise mainly concerned legal topics. (12) In chapter four (On Healing the Soul's Illnesses), Maimonides applied the Aristotelian ethical precept that excellence is an intermediate between the two bad extremes of excess and deficiency. (13) He wrote: "Good deeds are an intermediate between two bad extremes, one of which is excess, the other is deficiency. Excellent qualities are habitus in the middle way (Judeo-Arabic, hay[??]at nafsaniyya wa-malakat mutawassita, Heb. trans., tek-hunot nafshiyyot ve-qinyanim memusa[??]im) between two bad others (hay[??]atayn/tekhunot), one of which is too much, the other is too little." (14) To acquire the right habitus (hay[??]a/tekhunah), Maimonides, like al-Ghazali, recommended the practical remedy of inducing a person to stick to its opposite for a while. Both thinkers illustrated it first by the example of inducing the stingy person to become a squanderer until he has generosity established in him. (15) This type of remedy had been prescribed by Aristotle. (16)

The way Maimonides gave the Greco-Arabic concept a Jewish color to...

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