Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds
By Joel L. Kraemer
Doubleday, $35.00 cloth
MaimonidesBy Sherwin B. Nuland
Schocken Books, $12.95 paper
If we are searching for common ground among Jews, Muslims, Christians, ancient Greek philosophers like Plato, and religion, philosophy, and science, we should look no further than Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides. He is known as Moses ben Maimon, and in some circles by the acronym “the Rambam” (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon). He is the author of such essential texts in Judaism as the Mishneh Torah and The Guide of the Perplexed. He wrote philosophical treatises, works on medicine, and a thorough discussion of logic and law. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, he influenced thinkers as diverse as Thomas Aquinas, Spinoza, Leibniz and Newton.
Born in Cordoba, Spain in 1135, Maimonides spent his early years moving from place to place to avoid persecution, either at the hands of Muslims or Christians. He eventually settled in Fez, Morocco in 1160. By that date, he was already writing several works for which he would become famous. When life in Morocco became too dangerous for Jews posing as converted Muslims, Maimonides moved again with his family to Jerusalem, and finally, to Cairo, Egypt. There, life took an even darker turn for the family. Maimonides’ brother, a jeweler by trade, died in a voyage at sea. Lost in the accident was the family’s fortune in precious stones. Maimonides sunk into a bout of deep depression and sickness. To bolster the family’s sagging fortunes, Maimonides turned to medicine, becoming a well-known and much sought-after physician to commoners as well as the royal court.
Maimonides continued to practice medicine and write essential works of philosophy and Jewish theology for the remainder of his life, often working from early morning to the middle of the night. In the evening, he met disciples and students while lying down, unable to summon the strength to sit up. He eventually worked himself into exhaustion, dying in Egypt in 1204.
In his new biography of Maimonides, Joel L. Kraemer presents a thorough and involving study of the life and times of this celebrated Jewish thinker. Kraemer is the John Henry Barrows Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago and the author of several works on humanism and philosophy.
Like other important cultural figures such as Shakespeare and Chaucer, we have gaping holes in our documentation regarding Maimonides. Still, Kraemer does an excellent job of filling in these gaps with the culture and history of the times. It is interesting to note that the documentation for the life of Maimonides runs the gamut from fragments of writing in his own hand to legendary stories passed from disciple to disciple. Kraemer sorts them all out and examines each with a scholar’s eye. He tells us that “The biography is based primarily upon documents from the Cairo Genizah, the great repository of manuscripts found in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo and now in European, Russian, and American libraries.” These documents tell us the whole story of the region, but most are written in Arabic by Muslims. “This is because Jews wrote very few historical works,” Kraemer explains, “whereas Muslims wrote enough biographical and historical tomes to fill a good-sized library.”
Kraemer tells us that Maimonides arrived at a crucial point in history. This is where the religions, philosophies, and dogmas begin to overlap. Many Jews were forced into conversion; Maimonides wrote instructions to Jews how to appear to convert without actually doing so. Still, Jews found themselves under attack. Christians believed that Jews killed Christ, and therefore, their continued existence must be marked with pain and suffering to validate their role in New Testament theology. They were the crucial link to the past for Christians, sharing the Old Testament root.
Muslims thought that their military superiority proved that Allah favored them. They were the dominant religion and culture, and they demanded that Jews immediately convert to the true religion. A particularly difficult blow for Jews was the conversion of Samaw’al (Samuel) al-Maghribi, mathematician and physician. His father was a prominent writer and scholar. Samuel converted from Judaism to Islam and began to write a treatise with the ominous title of Silencing The Jews.
According to Kraemer, “Samuel believed that human reason is the ultimate criterion of the truth and that it requires us to examine ancestral traditions.” But this turns out to be a good thing. Samuel discovers that “Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have equally valid claims,” says Kraemer.
Maimonides found himself in the middle of these discussions and arguments. He treads the thin line between angering Muslims and alienating Jews. He took the pragmatic approach to the Talmud, wanting to “revolutionize Judaism by transforming it into a religion of reason,” Kraemer writes. His “main concern was science and the study of nature, the foundation of a religion of reason and enlightenment.” In his most philosophical work, The Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides “urges human beings to become fully human by perfecting their reason and living in accordance with nature.” Kraemer presents the Rambam as a lover of order, restraint, and moderation. “If people live by reason and in harmony with nature,” he writes, “following ethical and religious precepts and adhering to a regimen of health, they can escape the ‘sea of chance’ as far as humanly possible.” Kraemer believes that is one major lesson of Maimonides: we must pursue good health in order to study and learn more about our faith and our world. That was his focus, and why he continued to place emphasis on medicine as well as theology and philosophy.
All in all, Kraemer’s methodology as a biographer is to leave no stone unturned. It is possible to hear the voice of the lecturer in the college classroom in his prose, however this is also the problem with the book: it is exhaustive and relentless in its scholarship, which leaves the casual reader a bit overwhelmed by the mountain of information. Every detail and nuance of Maimonides is teased out by Kraemer. He does a thorough job, but it is a scholarly biography best suited for other scholars.
Far more accessible is Sherwin B. Nuland’s take on Maimonides. Nuland is best known for his book length essay, How We Die. He is a doctor and writer, that unique breed of author who can explain intricate ideas and facts with a clarity and focus that others cannot muster. He admits in his Prologue that he is in over his head when discussing the life and times of Maimonides. He writes, “how does a Jewish doctor of the twenty-first century relate his sense of calling to the legendary Jewish doctor of the twelfth?” The answer is clear—Nuland does a decent job, producing a biography for a more general audience. His book is detailed without bogging down, and his language, although less scholarly than Kraemer’s, is easily understood and appreciated.
Nuland begins with the primary directive of Jewish law: preserving and maintaining life is the “obligation of every Jew.” Maimonides is no exception. He also quickly makes clear that, in Maimonides’ own words, humans have free will. “Our Torah agrees with Greek philosophy,” he quotes the Rambam, “which substantiates with convincing proofs that a man’s actions are in his own hands; no compulsion is exerted and he is constrained by nothing that is external to himself.”
Nuland’s book takes a more narrative approach palatable to the common reader over the scholar. However, he does not shirk from examining the history, philosophy, and teachings of Maimonides. He does it, however, in clear, concise language. He also hits on several points made in the Kraemer book. “The philosophical problem of the era in which [Maimonides] lived was to find a conciliation between faith and reason, engaging thinkers as disparate in background as Abelard in Paris and Averroes in Cordoba.”
He goes on to say that “What the Rambam did throughout all of his writings—long before he composed the Guide—was to attempt an incorporation of philosophy and science into religious thought, not only because he was convinced that it belonged but also because he was bringing a progressive worldview to his theology.”
I enjoyed the cultural history of Maimonides’ times in the Kraemer book, but for sheer accessibility, Nuland is clearer and more concise. In our day, the conflicts among these constituencies: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism; and the problems present in the reconciliation of science, religion, and philosophy, all weigh heavily on civilizations in this world. Finding common ground, accepting one another in an age of strife and conflict, may be our only chance for survival. Maimonides was a man in search of such common ground. He worked until exhausted to heal the sick and council those who seek the truth. Who would have ever thought that we could use a thinker from the Middle Ages here in our own twenty-first century world?