Doctor of Laws

Can you fit Judaism's most prodigious intellect in 200 pages? A new book on Maimonides is a primer for the perplexed.

BY: David Wolpe

 

RaMBaM (Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon), also known as Maimonides, is the most important figure in the history of Jewish thought. Remarkably, he is also the most important figure (in the post-biblical age) in the history of Jewish law, and he was the most eminent doctor of his age. Even during his lifetime (1135-1204) people said, invoking his biblical predecessor, "from Moses to Moses, there was none like Moses."

Maimonides was not just a towering intellect, a community leader, and a well-loved doctor. He was a passionate advocate of a certain approach to the Jewish tradition. Maimonides was a rationalist who believed in the power of our God-given minds to discover truth.

Such a multifaceted figure demands a strong point of view and a sense of the range of his life. Sherwin B. Nuland, a clinical professor of surgery at Yale University and the author of "How We Die," has written a brief life of this epochal figure that does not drown the reader in detail but reminds us of the importance of Maimonides for his time, and for our own.

In the brief span of 200 pages, Nuland recounts achievements that would be astounding if they were the product of a settled, easy life. Given the difficulties he faced, it is hard to--credit that Maimonides was only one person.

Nuland outlines the political dramas of the age. Maimonides was born in Spain, and lived a comfortable life until 1148, when the Almohads, a fanatic Muslim sect, captured the Iberian Peninsula. Fleeing persecution, he chose a more tolerant Muslim land as his destination, and to the end of his days Maimonides learned from Islamic thinkers. Arriving in Fostat (then the outskirts of Cairo, today part of the city) Maimonides became renowned throughout the region and eventually, throughout the world.

In a famous letter to Samuel Ibn Tibbon, the translator of his "Guide to the Perplexed," the great medieval work of Jewish philosophy, Maimonides describes his daily schedule: Most of the week is taken up with traveling to the Sultan in Cairo, then treating the Sultan and his court. When Maimonides returns home, he eats his only meal of the day, treats all the Jews and non-Jews gathered to see him, and falls asleep very late at night. On the Sabbath he consults about Jewish matters. With this grueling schedule, Maimonides completes the "Mishneh Torah," a summary compilation of all Jewish law; the "Guide to the Perplexed"; other significant works including his early commentary to the Mishna; several treatises on medicine; and many letters to communities seeking his aid.

Nuland approaches Maimonides' life through a combination of letters and speculation on the mindset of a man who must recreate his world and support his family while providing hope for the widely dispersed Jewish people. After the tragic death of his brother David at sea, Maimonides' predicament is stark: "He was a 36-year-old man without resources, responsible for a household consisting of David's wife, her sister and young daughter, his own sister, a freed slave, and several servants. Though the record is uncertain, he had probably married by then or would soon do so. How could he earn a living?"

Because Maimonides did not believe in earning a living by being a rabbi-on the principle that the Torah should not be turned into an instrument of profit-he took up medicine. "And so, when Maimonides turned his thoughts to the practice of medicine in 1175, he was entering a field held in high regard, at a time when Arabic healing was at the height of its influence. He was bringing to it the advantages of his long years of study; his virtually photographic memory, his wide knowledge of philosophy and science and the rational approach to evidence they had taught him; and the wisdom and compassion for God's creatures that were so much a part of his Jewish heritage and personal faith."

Jews and medicine, a love affair
Read more on page 2 >>


_Related Features
  • Listen to Sherwin Nuland read from 'Maimonides'
  • Jews in Muslim Spain
  • Maimonides on Serving God
  • Continued on page 2: »

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