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Maimonides: The Revolutionary Mind Behind Jewish Philosophy

by | Mar 28, 2024 | Curriculum, Deep-ish Dive | 0 comments

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon was perhaps the greatest thinker, legal scholar, and philosopher of the Jewish People. Also known as Rambam (an acronym of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon) or Maimonides (with “ides” meaning “son of” in Greek), he is unique amongst all the rabbis.  His epitaph reflected this admiration and respect with a clever word play: ‘From Moshe to Moshe, there has not been someone like Moshe’. Unpacked, this aphorism says that ‘since the days of Moshe Rabbenu, our Teacher, (who led us out of Egypt circa 15th Century BCE) until the days of Moses ben Maimon who died ca. 1209 CE there was no one like Moses ben Maimon. This statement elevating the Rambam’s talents above all the Jewish minds over 16 centuries is quite audacious! But, probably true. His status is unapproached and unassailed over the recent 900 years.

Rambam was born in Cordoba, Spain on March 30th (or April 6th), 1135 (or possibly, March 28th (or April 4, 1138)).  In three days, Rambam will celebrate his 889th birthday!

He was the son of a learned family and was well-educated in the corpus of  Torah, Jewish Law and literature. With his family, he fled Spain ahead of the Muslim takeover in mid-12th Century moving through Spain and North Africa finally settling and establishing themselves in Egypt around 1165. He did spend some time in Israel.

He rose to prominence throughout the Jewish world for his mastery of Talmud, Jewish Law, and philosophy. He was famous in Egypt as a physician and was Court Physician to the Sultan Saladin.

During his career, he composed works which are consulted to this day. His philosophical Guide for the Perplexed is critiqued and studied in academic and Yeshiva circles alike. In this enigmatic and complex masterpiece, he discusses solutions to problems stemming from the Bible while squaring his understanding of Jewish philosophy with the ideas of Aristotle, one of the most important ancient Greek thinkers.

Thinking that he could provide the Jewish community with a more concise path to Jewish learning than the Babylonian Talmud, Rambam composed a massive, perfectly organized and brilliantly executed compendium of Jewish Law. It was the first such comprehensive compendium in 1000 years. He saw it as a work of such significance that he called it Mishne Torah or ‘the second giving of the Torah’. He states that with the 14 books of the Mishne Torah, one would not need to rely as much on the 63 tractate volumes of the Babylonian Talmud. No discussion of Jewish Law today occurs without referencing the Mishne Torah.

Being a philosopher as well as a fine legal mind spurred Maimonides to include a lengthy metaphysical treatise about the structure of the Universe within his legal work! He thought a man’s highest obligation is to ‘know God’ was a commandment and to do that he had to have a good understanding of how God’s universe functioned. It’s the first chapter of this great work.

Some say that his Mishne Torah was dedicated to the common folk who needed a simpler, more accessible guide to observance while the Guide was for the better educated, more advanced and sophisticated thinker considering deeper issues.

As a physician, Maimonides wrote medical treatises based on his experience in an active medical practice. We don’t know where he received his medical training. His writings often reference the ailments which his wealthy patients in Egypt suffered and are thus valuable historical medical resources.

As the Nagid (community leader) of the Egyptian Jewish Community, Maimonides was consulted about the threat of apostasy in the Muslim world as well as the belief in the Afterlife. His responses to these issues or specific questions about many things reverberate today in practical Jewish life.

Rambam was, of course, criticized for some of his opinions. (Who isn’t?) There was controversy about his books for centuries. Many of his writings remain somewhat controversial even today. His radical thoughts about knowledge of God and the depth of his theological and legal thinking influenced the development of Jewish (and even Christian) thought and culture since then.

It’s plain to see that Rambam’s encyclopedic knowledge of ‘Torah,’ the Law and the Lore, enabled him to open new vistas of understanding, learning and practice. All revolutionary! It was, in fact, that deep knowledge by which Maimonides was able to champion a new chapter in the story of the Jewish People’s encounter with Christian and Islamic cultures.

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