By Israel Drazin
The following two-part introduction to Judaism’s greatest sage, a man whose works on philosophy, medicine, and law were read by people of all faiths, is adapted from my book Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind.
Sages extolled 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 because they discovery answers to life’s crucial problems and communicate those answers and spur people to act. Both types 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, Midrashim, and law codes – 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 (the biblical) 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 principle 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 other-worldly 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 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 of the Perplexed. 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.”
I will give details of his life in the second part.