Who was Maimonides?

Many Jews see Maimonides (1138-1204) as the greatest Jewish personality and sage since the biblical Moses, quoting the maxim “from (the biblical) Moses to Moses (Maimonides) there has been no one like Moses.” These people recognize that all of the rabbis, sages and philosophers who lived since the first Moses – including the writers of the Mishnah, Talmuds and Midrashim – failed to approach the pinnacle of wisdom and the ability to understand and teach the truth that Moses Maimonides reached.

Rabbi Judah Alharizi, a translator of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, extolled Maimonides figuratively as “an angel of God.” The great thirteenth-century rabbi Maharam of Rotenberg described Maimonides’ code of law, the Mishneh Torah, as the urim v’tumim, the part of the high priest’s breastplate through which he received divine communications.

Some scholars even felt that Maimonides exceeded the biblical Moses. Joseph ibn Caspi (1297–1340) wrote, “our teacher Moses, a father in Torah and a father in wisdom, is in our opinion greater than Moses.” Caspi was certain that, “since God’s Torah, nothing has been written like it [the Guide].” The thirteenth-century Talmud commentator Menahem Hame’iri asserted enthusiastically that “before him, there was none such…and after him there will be none such.”

Maimonides’ mother died in childbirth. His father was a dayan (probably meaning that he was a judge or that he served some other Jewish community function) called Maimon, hence ancient scholars called him by the Latin name Maimonides, son of Maimon. This is the Latin version of what he called himself, Moshe ben Maimon. He is also known as Rambam, the Hebrew acronym Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon. This popular name gives Maimonides the title Rabbi, a title he never held as Sephardic Jews – Jews from Spain and North Africa, where he lived – did not use the title.

No information exists as to how Maimonides learned all that he knew. There is no record, for example, about his medical education – or that he even had a formal medical education at all. From his own statements, we learn that he was an avid reader. He notes that when he studied a subject he read everything that he could acquire on the topic.

Flight from Spain

A Jewish presence existed in Spain from Roman times beginning in 711. Unlike their brethren in Germany and France who lived under terrible restrictive laws during the Christian Dark Ages, laws that kept them from contact with non-Jews and stifled their secular education, the Jews of Spain flourished, interacted with non-Jews, became learned in all manner of knowledge, and rose to prominent civil government positions.

The situation changed drastically in Maimonides’ youth, around 1149, when an extremely conservative Moslem religious leader conquered large areas of North Africa and Spain. His people, called Almohads, saw that the general Moslem population believed in a corporeal deity and were neglecting Islamic piety. They forced their coreligionists to accept the belief that God has no body and to return to piety. Jews and Christians were required to convert to the fundamentalist Almohads’ version of the Moslem faith. The Almohad persecution lasted until they were defeated in war in 1212.

Maimon fled Cordova with his family around 1149, when his son Moses was only about ten years old. The family wandered in southern Spain and perhaps also Provence and northern Africa for about ten years until they settled in Fez, Morocco, in 1159 or 1160.

The Conversion of Maimon and His Family

Fez also suffered from Almohadian persecutions and many scholars are certain that in order to save their lives Maimon and his family outwardly converted to the Moslem faith while in Morocco, though they lived as fully practicing Jews incognito. This was not overly difficult; the Moslem rulers insisted that all Moroccan inhabitants be Moslems, but they did not send spies to certify that the people were true converts.

This explains why both Maimon and Maimonides were so sympathetic to fellow Jews who were, like them, forcibly converted. It also accounts for the fact that the two, at different times, felt the need to write to their fellow Jews living incognito in order to encourage them to be patient and resist abandoning Judaism.

Maimon and his family were able to escape Morocco in 1165, and departed for Israel. They remained in Israel for only months, leaving due to the terrible conditions of the land and the meager education of its Jewish inhabitants. The family then traveled to Egypt and settled in a suburb of the capital city, Cairo.

Maimon died at that time, as did Maimonides’ merchant brother David, who was killed in a shipwreck. David had been the sole support of his wife and his daughter as well as his brother Moses.

Maimonides mourned his brother’s death and was ill for a year, perhaps due to depression. However, in 1166 he recovered and decided to support himself and his brother’s family by practicing medicine. He ultimately became a court physician and treated the sultan.

Since Moslems are forbidden to convert and since Maimonides resumed his Jewish faith openly when he lived in Egypt, he was accused of illegal conversion by an individual who came from Morocco to Egypt. The punishment for this crime was death. Fortunately, because of his connections to the Egyptian leaders, this accusation was dismissed.

His Writings

Maimonides was a prolific writer, and wrote books on logic, Mishnah commentary, law, medicine, philosophy, responsa, as well as over six hundred letters answering the many questions that were submitted to him by his admirers throughout the world. Three of his works are most noteworthy. These are his extensive Commentary on the Mishnah, completed in 1168; his fourteen-volume code of Jewish law, called Mishneh Torah, in which he collected all the laws of Judaism – both those relevant today and those that are only relevant during the existence of a Jewish Temple – completed in 1178; and his philosophical Guide of the Perplexed, completed in 1190. He also wrote ten volumes on medicine, a book listing and explaining the 613 biblical commandments, various lengthy epistles and treatises, and a commentary on the Talmud. Each of his writings contains a clear, logical, rational presentation of the subject. There is nothing extraneous in his writings.

His Teachings

Maimonides, as Saadiah Gaon, Abraham ibn Ezra and others before him, was convinced that there could be no conflict between truths that are discerned by means of reason and those that are inculcated by religion. He was a rationalist, a follower of the thinking and methods of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle and Maimonides insisted that a person has a duty to understand the world as it actually exists, in a scientific manner. They taught that humans have a duty to develop their intelligence as much as they can and to use it; people who do not use their intelligence are allowing themselves to turn into something that is not human.

Maimonides found the human obligation to acquire knowledge in the opening chapters of Genesis, in the Torah’s description of people. Intelligence, he explained, is the tzelem Elohim, “the image (or, form) of God,” that God placed in humans when they were created (Genesis 1:26-17). Aristotle’s teacher, the philosopher Plato, expressed this human duty when he said: “The unexamined life is not worth living for man” (Apology 38).

Maimonides taught that the Torah makes the study of science religiously obligatory, a mitzvah, for all people who are capable of studying it. The Bible commands people to love and fear God. Since no one, not even God, can command a person to feel an emotion, to love or fear, these basic commands must refer to the obligation to study and learn about God. Knowing about God is only achieved through understanding the laws of nature that God created. God explained this to Moses when God said, “You will see My back [the laws of nature that I created]; but My face [My true essence] will not be seen” (Exodus 33:23).

The Purpose of the Torah is Human-Oriented

Many individuals are convinced that the purpose of the Torah and its commandments is somehow divine-oriented, as if God needs people to observe the commands for some undisclosed reason. This view, of course, runs counter to the idea that God is all-powerful and has no needs.

Maimonides taught that the purpose of the Torah and its commandments is human-oriented: to teach some ideas (that is, teach some truths about the world), and improve individuals and society.

This realization that the purpose of the Torah’s commandments is to improve people, to aid them in attaining their potential, is also mentioned repeatedly in midrashic literature: Rav said, the Torah commandments were given only to refine humanity.

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