The following is the first chapter of my book “Maimonides the Exceptional Mind.”
Who was Moses Maimonides?
Some people are identified as geniuses because they are able to raise daring, even unpopular, questions that catch the attention of the public and motivate people to think. Others are labeled great upon their discovery of answers to life’s crucial problems and the communication of those answers, spurring people to act. Both types of people work to resolve life’s most serious problems, yet it is rare to find a single individual with both attributes. Maimonides was such a man.
The popular adage, repeated by many sages since Maimonides’ death, is that “from Moses to Moses there has been no one like Moses.” The accolade recognizes that all of the rabbis, sages and philosophers who lived during the two millennia from the time that the first Moses led the Israelites from Egypt – including the writers of the Mishnah, Talmuds and Midrashim – failed to approach the pinnacle of wisdom and leadership of Moses Maimonides.
Rabbi Judah Alharizi, a near contemporary of Maimonides and a translator of his Guide of the Perplexed, extolled him as “an angel of God.” The great nineteenth-century rabbi Maharam of Rotenberg described Maimonides’ code of law, the Mishneh Torah, as the urim ve’tumim, the part of the high priest’s breastplate through which he received divine communications. Maimonides’ disciple Joseph ibn Caspi wrote to his son, “our teacher Moses, a father in Torah and a father in wisdom, is in our opinion greater than Moses.” He was certain that, “since God’s Torah, nothing has been written like it [the Guide].” The thirteenth-century rational Talmud commentator Menahem ha-Me’iri asserted enthusiastically that “before him, there was none such … and after him there will be none such.” He added the biblical requirement that applies to the Torah, “nothing should be added or taken away from him.”
Other rabbis were only slightly less effusive in their exultations of this master, a man whom many of them called “the great eagle.” They wrote that “from the time of Rav Ashi [352–427],” the principal editor of the Babylonian Talmud, there was no sage like Maimonides. These were the words voiced by such rabbis as Samuel ibn Tibbon, Asher ben Gershom, Yed’ayah ha-Penini, Solomon ben Simeon Duran, Samuel de Medinah, Isaac de Leon, Elijah Kapasli and a multitude of others.
So widely has Maimonides’ genius been recognized that a large number of mystics, who held obscurantic views that Maimonides strongly rejected, even tried to construct an intellectual bridge between kabbalah and philosophy in an attempt to show that the “great eagle” was in agreement with their mystical teachings.
Even Nachmanides (c. 1189–1270), whose view of life, as we will see in forthcoming chapters, was diametrically opposed to that of Maimonides, praised him, saying, “In the entire French and Spanish diaspora, none has arisen like him.” His opinion was seconded by his contemporaries, the anti-Maimonists Rashba, Ritva and Jonah of Gerona. Rashba wrote, “We say to him, ‘our master, please teach us.’ We constantly mention his name and his holy opinions in the study halls.”
Non-Jews also sought Maimonides’ writings for insights. Shortly after Maimonides’ death, Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), the great philosopher of Christianity, based his philosophy in large part upon Maimonides’ Guide. Later, Solomon ben Simeon Duran (1400–1467) wrote: “And all the authors who came after him and the commentators who followed in his steps, Muslim and Christian alike, though criticizing him on a few matters, recognize the splendid glory of his majesty and crave his teaching.” Many rabbis, including Menachem ha-Me’iri, Joseph ibn Caspi and the anti-Maimonist Ritva, praised him as “a banner to the nations” and “a witness to the entire world.”
- Who was Maimonides?
- How was the greatness of Maimonides expressed?
- What is the Guide of the Perplexed?
Who was Maimonides?
In the approximately fourteen hundred years in which Jews lived under Muslim rule (from the beginning of the Muslim Era in 622 until the end of the Ottoman Empire at the close of World War I), Jews in Muslim countries enjoyed greater peace than their brethren in Christian countries. Jews were granted protective status by Muslim law as long as they paid a special poll tax, complied with certain restrictions and did not infringe upon the lives of their Muslim neighbors. There are only three recorded incidents of government-supported anti-Jewish persecution. The first of these occurred during Maimonides’ youth and was instigated by the founder of the Almohads, or “Unitarians.” This founder was a short, ugly, misshapen son of a lamplighter. He sought compensation for his physical defects, poverty and humble origins in piety and power, and forced Jews and Christians to choose between conversion to Islam or death.
Maimonides’ life was greatly affected by the persecution of the Almohads. Born in Cordova, Spain to an influential family in 1138, Moses ben Maimon – also called Rambam and Maimonides – relocated numerous times, dying in Fostat, Egypt in 1204. He was a descendant of scholarly ancestors who served the Jewish community as teachers, judges and community officials. He grew to become an influential leader of world Jewry, a philosopher, commentator on rabbinic literature and physician. Three of his most famous works are his Commentary to the Mishnah, his fourteen-volume Mishneh Torah (Code of Jewish Laws), and his philosophical treatise, the Guide of the Perplexed.
Moses’ family fled Cordova to escape religious persecution at the hands of the Almohads when he was ten years old. The family wandered from city to city in Spain for twelve years, settling in Fez, Morocco around 1160. The family remained in Morocco until 1165. Many believe that Maimonides and his family had no choice but to profess to be Moslems in order to escape the persecutions, practicing Judaism in secret. The family left Morocco in 1165 and traveled to Israel, where they remained for only several months, finally settling in Egypt.
Despite the obvious difficulties in traveling on a regular basis, Moses used all available time to study Judaic literature, philosophy and medicine as well as many other subjects, such as astronomy, physics and mathematics. During that time he wrote several books.
When the family finally settled in Egypt, Moses depended on his younger brother David for money, for Moses was a silent partner in the family jewel trading business while he studied and wrote. David died tragically when his boat sank. Moses took over his brother’s financial responsibilities, practicing medicine in order to support his brother’s family as well as his own. He continued to write, becoming quite well known throughout the Jewish world. Jews from many countries wrote to him with questions. He married the sister of a court official and was soon raised to the position of court physician. He was also appointed as Nagid, leader of the Jewish community, a position retained by his descendants for several generations.
Spain produced other great Jewish rational thinkers, such as Abraham ibn Ezra (c. 1089–1167). Maimonides stated that whereas Jews living among other nations had different, indeed erroneous, ideas, Spanish Jews clung to the truths of the philosophers as long as they did not run counter to Jewish law. Spanish Jews, he continued, had “approximately the same doctrine that we set forth in this treatise [the Guide of the Perplexed].” This formulation, to cling to the truth of the philosophers as long as they do not run counter to Jewish law, is the identical path chosen by ibn Ezra, as he stated in the introductions that he wrote to his two Torah commentaries. Unfortunately, many non-rationalists, as we will see, followed what Maimonides called the non-Spanish approach, focusing only on Jewish law, halakhah, and rejecting philosophical thinking. They even instigated – with the help of Christian clerics – the burning of his Guide and the more philosophical parts of his Mishneh Torah less than thirty years after his death, calling them heresy.
The Guide of the Perplexed
Maimonides began his philosophic masterpiece Guide of the Perplexed in 1185, when he was 47 years old, and completed it in 1190, at age 52. The book’s goal was to lift his readers from superstitious – what he considered non-Jewish – beliefs to a rational understanding of both the world in general and the Bible in particular. The Guide urged people to perfect themselves by developing and employing their reasoning ability.
Maimonides recognized that the vast majority of his readers would be unable to understand his ideas and would be threatened by them. He therefore wrote his book so that only people who were well grounded in both philosophical and Judaic literature as well as open-minded to new ideas could understand his teachings. The book is filled with apparent contradictions, including statements inserted to reassure the less learned public and make people feel less threatened – statements that he did not believe. As a result, as we will see in forthcoming chapters, virtually all people can mine the Guide for statements that seem to support their beliefs.
Excelling All Other Jewish Sages
Scholars have recognized quite a few ways in which Maimonides differed from and surpassed other Jewish sages.
Maimonides was uniquely able to grasp the content and meaning of the entire Torah and rabbinical laws, both the Written and Oral Torah, as well as secular subjects, and was adept at communicating his understandings in an illuminating and interesting fashion.
His teachings, both in Torah and philosophy, were original. He understood the connection between Greek rational philosophy and divine Torah teachings and blended the two into a comprehensive whole in all of his works, including his Commentary to the Mishnah, his Mishneh Torah and his Guide of the Perplexed.
He was very concerned with the welfare of all people and stressed that people must broaden their minds and use their full intellectual capacity in order to live full and satisfying lives.
He insisted that people must learn all wisdom, and not just isolated subjects, in order to become fully human. These included the Written and Oral Torah, laws which were pertinent as well as those which were no longer relevant, and, additionally, the secular sciences and metaphysics. These also included the wise statements of non-Jews, for, as he wrote in his introduction to Shemoneh perakim (Eight Chapters), “Accept the truth from whoever expresses it.” Indeed, he was convinced that people are unable to understand the Bible and rabbinical teachings unless they are well grounded in the secular sciences. He prompted people to ask questions, challenge, criticize and have the audacity to disagree, even as he disagreed with many of the views held by his predecessors.
Both the discussions on the laws in his Mishneh Torah and the philosophy in his Guide were all encompassing and flawless, and included all that could be said on both subjects. Unlike the code writers who followed him, such as the Tur and Shulchan aruch, he included the laws of sacrifices in his code, although these laws were no longer applicable during his age. He did this despite the fact that he was convinced, as we will discuss, that God did not desire sacrifices, allowing them only as a concession to the primitive uneducated needs of the Israelites.
He forcefully rejected all manner of superstition, including the belief in astrology, which was an integral part of the thinking of virtually all scholars of his age. Even such scholars as Abraham ibn Ezra included astrology in their writings. Mystical and impractical notions such as which shoe to don first and which to tie first in the morning are absent from his code, although such mystical ideas play a prominent part in codes such as the Tur and Shulchan aruch.
The depth of his comments on various subjects spurred his readers to think, and his views became a point of departure for all future discussions on these matters. Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that all post-Maimonidean thought on Jewish subjects constitutes, in essence, footnotes to Maimonides.
Maimonides wrote in his Guide that he composed books with such clarity that every reader, no matter his or her age, learning or abilities, would be able to derive some benefit from his books.
Unlike rabbis such as Nachmanides, who believed that rabbinical parables, elaborations on biblical texts and frequently unnatural and even impossible midrashic tales were reports of actual events, Maimonides insisted on a rational approach, asserting that the parables and stories were invented by the rabbis as a method of imparting lessons of great significance. In the introduction to his Guide, he emphasizes that there is danger in accepting the simple and superficial meaning of such stories and criticizes those who do so as fools. He insists that the straightforward meaning of the parable is typically deceptive and that the acceptance of the parable’s literal meaning stifles the readers, keeping them from exerting the effort necessary to uncover and grasp the story’s deeper meaning and intended truth.
Maimonides was a great Jewish thinker and was recognized as such even by his detractors. Some scholars are convinced that Maimonides was the greatest Jew who ever lived; others believe that he surpassed all Jewish thinkers since Moses who gave the Israelites the Torah or Rav Ashi who edited the Talmud.
His views were similar in some respects to those of his near contemporaries in Spain, such as Abraham ibn Ezra. However, he surpassed the other great Spanish sages in many respects, including his grasp of Torah subjects, both oral and written, his understanding of the secular sciences and his ability to communicate his understandings in a clear, beautiful and organized fashion. In his legal and philosophical works, he successfully blended biblical and rabbinical truths with the best of rational philosophy. He defended the human responsibility to improve, which included grasping religious and secular knowledge. He demonstrated the need to understand the world as it exists, without superstitious notions. He addressed ideas formerly ignored by his predecessors and conceptualized existing teachings in new ways, spurring his successors to address the same subjects. Members of all groups within Judaism – including rationalists, mystics and secular humanists – claim Maimonides as their inspiration.