Marvin Fox (1923-1996)

After he died, the New York Times published an obituary of my teacher and dissertation advisor, Marvin Fox. You can read that HERE. When I “googled” Fox just now, there was barely anything on the internet, which is not really surprising. He died before there really was much of an internet. He was well known only to a small circle of scholars. He was also part of the orthodox world of Greater Boston. To this day I could kick myself I didn’t go to an event in his honor that he had invited me to. It would have given me a window into a largely invisible world, a different subculture from the one I myself hail from, one that was also invisible to me until I joined it myself, a world made of religious beliefs and customs unknown to most.

Fox was one of the most uninhibited and radical thinkers I’ve known. He was that, and he was a rabbi and a philosopher. When I met him at Brandeis, he had a few remarkable students. Among them Aryeh Cohen, Shaul Magid,  David Aaron, Phil Cohen, Marc Gopin. I probably forgot half of this remarkable group I was privileged to study with. I learned so much from them. But most of all I learned from Marvin Fox. He really saved me from drowning in the completely alien world of the American Jewish academy that I stumbled into when I came to Brandeis. To this day I have no idea why he took me on. The first time I met him at his small office at the Lown School for Jewish Studies that he pretty much filled with his considerable girth I asked to join his class in, I think, Jewish ethics. He gestured for me to be silent, folded his hands over his great orb, and gave me his verdict: considering thatI was not going to specialize in Jewish philosophy I was welcome to join his class. It was uphill from there.

Fox seemed to us a male chauvinist. His students were all male and the one young woman who made it through one of his classes while I was there was told not to bother coming back. He was a gatekeeper in other ways as well. There had been others who wanted to work on Hermann Cohen under his guidance, but the only one he allowed to go forward on such a project was me, though not before throwing some obstacles in my path. Fox had a fine sense of humor and appreciated the wit of the sources he laid out before us, whether it was the Bible with its morally offensive stories, Maimonides with his contempt for the lawyers, or Rav Hayyim Volozhin who defied the boundaries between Hasidism and the Misnagdim. Fox was not just physically capacious but he spiritually embodied the world of Aristotle, the Rabbis, Maimonides, and Musar, all with a good dose of humor tempered by the joy of philosophical clarity. I consider myself fortunate to have had such a generous and gifted teacher.

It was Fox who urged me to meet and seek the guidance of Krister Stendahl, William A. Johnson, and Nahum Sarna.

I remember my last visit with Prof. Fox in Newton. I brought my son, Benny, who was only two years old but wise enough to realize that he was in the presence of a great man. Fox was weak and ill but gracious. His wife, June, was kind enough to allow us to visit. We came away blessed.

Fox didn’t read Arabic. And yet he loved the Rambam as a philosopher, not just as a codifier of the Mosaic Law. In those days, at Brandeis, you had to choose sides. You were either with Alfred Ivry, the other superb teacher of Jewish philosophy who owned Maimuni, or you were with Marvin Fox, who owned the Rambam. In the end, it was Isadore Twersky, who owned the Rambam as well, who eulogized Marvin Fox at Levine Chapel, not Professor Ivry.

Fox also put me on the path of my second project, the translation and annotation of the early Jewish writings of Leo Strauss. Ken Green, who invited me to undertake this project and who invested an unbelievable amount of time and care in it, was likewise a student of Marvin Fox.

When Fox retired from Brandeis, I asked him if he was going to miss his students. He dismissed the assumption. What he missed, and what he had missed all along while at Brandeis, were his Ohio State University philosophy students. After retiring from Brandeis he was recruited by John Silber to teach at Boston University and build its fledgling Jewish studies program. Silber generally acted with the advice of Elie Wiesel, but I am not sure Wiesel knew Fox. When Fox got ill I moved into his office, and I essentially owe my job at BU to the fact that Silber saw me as a protege of Marvin Fox. I guess I was lucky.