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Philosopher, Physician, Sage

October 2, 2008 By:
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Is there anything left to be said about Maimonides? He must be one of the most-frequently discussed figures in all of Jewish history, a thinker and an interpretive genius -- to say nothing of his accomplishments as a physician, astronomer and translator -- whose many works in a number of disciplines have been analyzed and decoded in each generation since they first began appearing in the 12th century.

The existence of this extensive and ever-expanding commentary on the Maimonides corpus does not appear to have phased author Edward Hoffman one iota. An adjunct associate psychology professor at New York's Yeshiva University, he is the author of numerous books on Jewish thought, including The Hebrew Alphabet: A Mystical Journey and The Way of Splendor: Jewish Mysticism and Modern Psychology. Now he has turned to the great philosopher, whose name was actually Moses ben Maimon, in the new book The Wisdom of Maimonides: The Life and Writings of the Jewish Sage, recently published by Trumpeter Books, a division of Shambala publishing in Boston.

Hoffman's approach is simple. He offers a necessarily brief but thorough biography of this great figure, followed by selected samples from the writings. There is nothing particularly new presented here (and the author makes it clear that he has made no attempts to be inclusive). But that method -- or lack thereof -- turns out to be downright refreshing. What we get is Maimonides unvarnished, without tricks or academic heavy breathing. And there seems no more propitious time than the High Holidays to become reacquainted with his genius, especially when there are no intellectual hurdles to overcome before you can partake of his insights and the astonishing elasticity of his mind, as reflected in his life and work.

Maimonides lived from 1138 to 1204 and, according to Hoffman, "became renowned throughout the world as a scholar, rabbinic thinker and communal leader. At the same time, he achieved international acclaim as a physician to the royal family in Cairo and as the author of key medical texts."

As the author points out, though many legends surround Maimonides' life, its main outline is sufficiently clear for comprehending his legacy. He was born in Córdoba, the capital of Andalusia (or Muslim Spain), which Hoffman says "was Europe's largest and most affluent city. As both a cultural and a political center, Córdoba boasted a multitude of libraries and observatories, mosques, madrasas (colleges) and hospitals, which enticed scholars throughout the eastern Islamic world. Home to diverse ethnic groups and cultures, it also provided an exciting cosmopolitan ambience. Later known historically as Spain's Golden Age, this was an era in which Jews enjoyed safety and freedom to a degree unprecedented in their existence outside the Holy Land. They also contributed actively to Andalusian politics, culture, science, medicine and commerce."

Moses and his family lived in the Jewish quarter, and the young child was educated at home. Because of the astounding erudition of his father, Rabbi Maimon, Moses studied a curriculum whose "girth," Hoffman says, "would amaze modern educators. Its Jewish component included the Hebrew Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, and related codes and commentaries, and its secular subjects incorporated astronomy, logic, mathematics, optics, law and rhetoric."

Maimonides, whose education was supplemented by rabbinic tutors, delved into his father's medical texts, which dealt with herbs, poisons and surgical methods. The only topic Hoffman says the young scholar appears to have disliked was poetry, both Hebraic and Arabic. "Indeed," notes Hoffman, "throughout Maimonides' prolific writing, he preferred to express himself in terse prose rather than utilize flowery imagery. Aside from book learning, it's likely that Moses as oldest son also gained knowledge by observing his father's Judeo-judicial, literary, medical and communal activities."

Unfortunately, this placid way of life came to an end when Maimonides was just 9 years old, and a group of less-tolerant Muslims invaded Andalusia -- their battle cry was "No church and no synagogue!" -- and seized control of Córdoba. For this group of jihadists, known as Alomohads (the name comes from the Arabic phrase "those who affirm the Oneness of God"), Christians and Jews were infidels and thought to be diabolical. The Maimon family, faced with apostasy or death, were forced into exile, wandering across Spain for nearly 12 years.

His Education Continued

Even during this volatile and unstable period, Maimonides continued his education and his own scholarly pursuits. By the time he was in his 20s, he had already written two books, which Hoffman says showed "his immense talent for methodical thinking." According to the author, the first of these books, known as Ma'amar ha-Ibbur in Hebrew, "provided a practical guide to the complexities of the Hebrew calendar, which is lunar based. The second, Treatise on the Art of Logic, was addressed to a Muslim -- either real or fictional -- and presented a concise overview of logical terminology. Containing no references to Judaism, the treatise relied heavily on the work of Alfarabi (ca. 870-950), an influential Arabic philosopher steeped in Aristotle."

In 1159, Rabbi Maimon took his family to Fez. Why he chose this besieged city is by no means clear, writes Hoffman. The author does note, however, that the city had many libraries and respected academies, and the ties between the Jews of Córdoba and Fez had been strong for centuries.

The majority of Fez's Jews, not wishing to be martyrs or exiles, had decided to convert, at least outwardly, to Islam, and often practiced their ancestral religion in hiding. This seemed to them, it would appear, the best strategy for making sure Judaism survived. And this is the view expressed by Maimonides in his famous treatise called Letter of Consolation, which is believed to have been composed around 1160. Because of this document, there has been much speculation about whether the Maimon family ever publically converted to Islam in Fez in order to avoid execution. If so, the act would not have been all that unusual.

During his five years in the Moroccan city, Maimonides continued his rabbinic studies and went through formal medical training from both Jewish and Arab doctors. He also worked on his commentary on the Mishnah, which Hoffman calls "a monumental task," since it meant "reproducing the entire sacred text of ethics and law and appending his interpretation. Consuming 10 years of scholarship, it would help establish its author as a preeminent Jewish thinker."

Politics, however, struck in Fez as it had in Córdoba, and the persecution of the Jews intensified. The family fled at night, hid during the day and then took a boat from the northern Moroccan town of Ceuta. They hoped to make it to the port of Acre in the Holy Land in about a month.

The first leg of the trip proved to be peaceful, and Maimonides continued work on his Mishnah commentary. Then, a severe storm broke out, and all aboard faced the possibility of drowning, as their boat was tossed about the raging sea. "As Maimonides reminisced in a letter years later," writes Hoffman, "he calmed his fear, prayed for deliverance, and vowed that should they survive, he would institute -- in commemoration of God's compassion -- two annual fast days 'for my family and all my household, and to order my descendants to keep these facts also in future generations and give charity in accordance with their means. I further vowed to observe a day in seclusion and devote it to prayer and study. For on that day, God alone was with me on the sea. So, upon the yearly return of that day, I do not wish to be in human society -- unless I am compelled.' "

Yet Another Move

The family did survive, of course, made it to Acre, but stayed there only a year, since they found Jewish communal life there "disappointing and dismal." In 1166, Maimonides and his family arrived in Alexandria, a cosmopolitan center, where the family's prospects "quickly seemed to brighten." Maimonides' younger brother, David, married and set himself up as a traveling jewel merchant, with his brother as a silent partner. Why Maimonides, then nearly 30 years old, was still unmarried has, according to Hoffman, long puzzled scholars. It was certainly "atypical."

Rabbi Maimon died of illness not long after arriving in Alexandria, and both his sons grieved terribly. The family soon moved once again, this time for economic reasons, to Fustat, which was about two miles from Cairo. Fustat was perfectly situated for trade, which served Moses and David well. And, in this peaceful locale, Maimonides' life seemed to stabilize again. He lectured on secular subjects and continued his work on the Mishnah. Notes Hoffman, "Contrary to many Jewish contemporaries, he firmly opposed receiving payment for any Torah-guided activity, whether teaching, writing or communal work. It's therefore likely he assisted David in business affairs to bolster the family income."

He finally completed the Commentary on the Mishnah in 1168 and, surprisingly, after his decade-long struggle to bring it to fruition, it, at first, received little attention. But with the passage of a few years, his reputation as a meticulous scholar began to grow. In 1171, he was appointed nagid (grand rabbi) of Egypt's entire Jewish community, "an influential position," writes Hoffman, "for which he refused salary and which he subsequently held at various times throughout later life. As nagid, Maimonides served as Jewish judicial leader, issuing binding legal opinions on cases involving marriage, divorce, inheritance, synagogue activity and related matters. He also appointed rabbinic judges for localities and supervised Jewish communal officials throughout the region."

The next major project Maimonides initiated was the one that made him world-famous -- the Mishneh Torah (literally, Second Torah, or Repetition of the Torah), which took him another decade to write -- "a codification of all major Jewish law into a single readable work." Following its appearance, people wrote him from every corner of the globe for advice and inspiration.

An Entirely New Career

Then tragedy struck in 1174. His brother died in the Indian Ocean while traveling on business -- and with him was lost the entire family fortune in the form of jewels, which David had been carrying for trade. A grief-stricken Maimonides fell into a deep depression that affected him physically, as well as mentally. Perhaps he realized that he would have to shoulder the financial responsibility for the entire family and that David's jewelry business held little appeal for him.

So he entered a new career entirely: He would become a practicing physician. He approached the task with the same passion and attention to detail that he had lavished on his scholarly projects. And the minute he began to work, his reputation as a healer blossomed. He also married in 1175 and, soon after, became a father, and Hoffman assumes that these experiences "bolstered his emotional security."

Eventually, and again not surprisingly, Maimonides' skills as a physician soon drew notice from the royal family in Cairo. "In 1187, about a dozen years after opening his practice, he became court physician to Saladin's vizier and confidant, al-Kadi al-Fadil, the most influential person in Egypt."

As his reputation as a doctor grew, Maimonides' scholarly works were gaining him another reputation, till he was considered, in Hoffman's estimation, "the foremost rabbinic authority of his time." Bolstered by the praise and inspired by the birth of his son when he was 48 years old, Maimonides began to write the third of his most-important works, Guide for the Perplexed. "As Maimonides later explained in the introduction to the Guide, his aim was explicit: 'And when these gates [of my book] are opened and these places are entered into, souls will find rest therein: their eyes will be delighted, and their bodies will be eased of their toil and labor.' "

His Last Major Opus

Because of Maimonides' declining health over the next decade, the Guide became his last major opus. He continued to write, but the works were less ambitious or they were responsa -- specific religious rulings. Approaching his 60th year, he felt his energy decline. "Nevertheless," writes Hoffman, "he still managed to compose several more medical treatises and supervise translations of his diverse writings into Hebrew. After the year 1200, Maimonides produced no more books but continued to write responsa and maintain an active correspondence. Until his death in December 1204, tutoring his teenage son, Abraham, an enthusiastic learner, provided a special source of parental joy."

Two brief selections from the work of Maimonides will have to suffice, though it's difficult to choose from this abundance of intellectual wealth. Here he discusses experiencing the divine; both passages are taken from the Guide:

 

"I have shown you that the radiance that emanates from God onto us is the link that joins us to God. It is within your power to strengthen that bond if you so choose -- or to weaken it gradually until it breaks, if you prefer that. It will only become strong when you employ it in love of God and seek that love. It will be weakened when you direct your thoughts to other things.

 

"You must know that even if you were the wisest person with respect to the true knowledge of God, you break the bond between yourself and God whenever you turn your thoughts entirely to necessary food or necessary business. For then you are not with God, and He is not with you -- your relationship is actually interrupted in those moments.

"The pious were therefore particular in restricting the times in which they could not meditate upon the name of God and cautioned others about it, saying, 'Let not your minds be vacant from reflections upon God.' "

 

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