Joel Kraemer, scholar of Islamic and Jewish philosophy, 1933-2018

In addition to being one of the premier scholars of Islamic and Jewish philosophy, Prof. Emeritus Joel Kraemer was as a master pedagogue who colleagues said “subscribed to the adage that ‘God lives in detail.’”

Known for his work on the cultural transmission of the intellectual heritage of Greek antiquity to the worlds of Islamicate civilization, Kraemer was best known for his authoritative biography on the 12th-century philosopher Maimonides—a topic he first began studying at age 14.

The John Henry Barrows Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School, Kraemer died Oct. 11 in Chicago after a protracted illness.

“His teaching and scholarship were marked by a nigh-devotional reverence for the written and spoken word. His religious sensibilities were in particular evidenced in his love of Arabic,” said Paul Mendes-Flohr, the Dorothy Grant Maclear Professor of Modern Jewish History and Thought in the Divinity School. “In our casual perambulations about the Quad, he would often stop and recite for me Arabic poetry, fully cognizant that my knowledge of the language is rudimentary at best. He urged me to listen and appreciate the ‘supernal music’ of Arabic.”

Kraemer was deeply learned in many fields, from Talmudic to Arabic philosophy, and his book Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds was a National Book Critics Circle finalist (in Criticism) for 2008. A festschrift in his honor, Adaptations and Innovations: Studies on the Interaction between Jewish and Islamic Thought and Literature from the Early Middle Ages to the Late Twentieth Century, appeared in 2007.

In addition to being a professor of Jewish studies, Kraemer served on the Committee on Jewish Studies, the Committee on Social Thought and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

Kraemer was born in New Jersey and was educated at Rutgers University, the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yale University. Well known among his published books are Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam and Philosophy in the Renaissance of Islam. His more recent interests concerned the interplay of cultural and religious themes within Islam and Judaica. He was engaged in research on Judeo-Arabic manuscripts in the Cairo genizah and explored women’s letters from the genizah as part of a comprehensive study of Jewish women in the world of Islam. He also investigated Maimonides’ life and works in their Islamic context, such as in a book he edited, Perspectives on Maimonides: Philosophical and Historical Studies.

“Some of my fondest memories of the Divinity School involve conversations with Joel Kraemer,” said Ellen Haskell, PhD’05, the Herman & Zelda Bernard Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “He was an amazingly caring teacher who always made extra time to speak with students. His embrace of new academic technologies served as both a guide and an inspiration, while remaining grounded in an intimate knowledge of historical detail that brought his subjects to life.”

Kraemer also held appointments at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Yale University and Tel Aviv University in Israel. Among other honors, he was a fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research.

—Article first appeared on the Divinity School website.