By Israel Drazin
The following second of my 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.
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 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-mindedness 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, 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 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 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 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 and 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.
Readers who want to know the brilliant teachings of Maimonides will find many articles that address this on this website. I will add many more in the future.