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
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Maimonides grew to become one of the most prominent doctors of the Middle Ages, his name linked with other great medieval physicians such as Avicenna and Averroes, who like Maimonides were also great philosophers. His medical endeavors meshed well with his rationalism: While acknowledging the place of prayer, Maimonides condemned astrology and magical incantations. In outlawing the practice of waving the Torah scroll over a sick person to heal them, Maimonides wrote: "They think of the words of the Torah as a healing for the body, but it is not. It is a healing for the soul."
Such a mind is not always matched by an understanding heart. But Maimonides' humanity may be seen in his beautiful letter to Ovadia, who converted to Judaism and wrote to ask if he was allowed to say "Our God and God of our fathers," since he was not genealogically Jewish. Maimonides responds in part:
"Yes, you may say these words in the prescribed order and not change them in the least...There is no difference between you and us...Do not consider your origin as inferior. While we are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you derive from Him through whose word the world was created. As it said by Isaiah, "One shall say 'I am the Lord's and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob. (Is. 44:5)'"
Such an extraordinary personality has drawn, as one might expect, oceans of ink and libraries of books exploring his life and works. There is no "best" book on Maimonides; but Sherwin Nuland's new biography is concise, thoughtful, informed, and altogether as fine an introduction to this monumental personality as the modern reader could wish. He writes engagingly, willing both to challenge Maimonides' judgment and to confess to his own limitations of understanding, which are natural when evaluating the life and work of a multifaceted medieval sage.
The medical side of Maimonides' career, which is quite interesting, is covered well. His career as a halachist, a major figure in Jewish law, is less thoroughly covered. The relative weaknesses of this section of the book stem not only from Nuland's greater affinity for medical topics, but because to properly explain Maimonides' legal contributions would require the reader to have a fairly extensive background in the workings of Jewish law. Those wishing more detail might look to the works of Isadore Twersky, David Hartman, or Marvin Fox, some of Maimonides' most distinguished modern interpreters. Nuland himself gives a very helpful bibliography at the end of the book.
Maimonides was a universal mind, encompassing as much of the world as anyone of his time. His life contains a powerful double lesson for the modern age. In his temperate rationalism, he shines as an opponent of blinkered religious narrowness and anti-rationalism. In imagining the messianic age, unlike so many before or since, he did not picture retribution, or chauvinistic imperialism, but rather a peaceful world. One wonders how many religious leaders today would express themselves in words like these, written almost 900 years ago, in which there breathes a spirit as exalted as it is powerful:
"The sages and prophets did not long for the days of the Messiah that Israel might exercise dominion in the world, or rule over the heathens, or be exalted by the nations, or that it might eat and drink and rejoice...There will be neither famine nor war, nor jealousy nor strife. In that time 'The earth shall be full of knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.' (Isaiah 11:9)."