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Maimonides
Maimonides
(Artist's conception, 19th Century)
Introduction

Moses Maimonides (AKA Moshe ben Maimon or Abu 'Imran Musa ben Maimun ibn 'Abd Allah or, from a Hebrew acronym, the Rambam) (1135 - 1204) was a Spanish-Jewish philosopher, physician and rabbi who lived in Andalusia, Morocco and Egypt during the Medieval period.

He was the pre-eminent medieval Jewish philosopher, and marked the end of the golden age of Jewish culture in Moorish Spain. His copious works on Jewish law and Ethics were initially met with much opposition during his lifetime, but today his works and his views are considered a cornerstone of Jewish thought and study, and he remains the most widely debated Jewish thinker among modern scholars (see the section on Jewish Philosphers).

Maimonides foreshadowed Scholasticism and undoubtedly influenced later medieval Scholastics such as St. Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus and John Duns Scotus, although he also maintained many doctrines which the Scholastics could not accept. He strove to reconcile Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic philosophy and science with the teachings of the Jewish Torah.

Life

Maimonides (pronounced my-MON-i-dees, and meaning "Son of Maimon") was born on 30 March 1135 in Córdoba (Cordova) in Andalusia, the capital of Muslim Spain (as was his near contemporary Averroës). At an early age, he developed an interest in the sciences and philosophy, and read the works of Muslim scholars and also Arabic translations of the Greek philosophers. He studied the Jewish Torah under his father, Maimon, who had in turn studied under the great scholar, Rabbi Joseph ibn Migash (1077 - 1141).

In 1148, the Almohads, a Berber Muslim dynasty from North Africa, conquered Córdoba, and threatened the Jewish community with the choice of conversion to Islam, death or exile. Maimonides' family, along with most other Jews, chose exile, and for the next twelve years they moved about southern Spain in hiding, eventually settling in Fez, Morocco in 1160. There, Maimonides acquired most of his secular knowledge, studying at the University of Al Karaouine.

As his reputation grew steadily, the Islamic authorities began to inquire into the religious disposition of this highly gifted young man, and Maimonides narrowly avoided execution due to the intercession of a Muslim friend. In 1165, Maimonides' family were again forced to move and, after a brief time in Israel, they settled in Fostat (the first capital of Egypt under Arab rule, now part of Cairo).

After the death of their father, Moses' brother David supported the family by trading in precious stones, but when David too died (and lost his fortune in the process), Maimonides turned to the medical profession for a living. In time, he obtained a position as physician to the Grand Vizier Alfadhil and, later, Sultan Saladin of Egypt (he also reputedly treated Richard the Lionheart while on the Crusades). His fame spread and he was soon considered one of the greatest physicians of his time, much of his knowledge taken from renowned Islamic thinkers such as Averroës (Ibn Rushd) and Al-Ghazali (1058 - 1111), and he devoted long hours to his calling.

He began to take a leading part in the administration of the affairs of the community of Fostat and Cairo, and by 1177 he had become recognized as its official head. In between his onerous medical and administrative duties, he found time to compose his major works, including his acclaimed commentary on the "Mishnah" (a major work of Rabbinic Judaism), the "Mishneh Torah" (a code of Jewish religious law), and the "Guide for the Perplexed" (a philosophical work harmonizing and differentiating Aristotle's philosophy and Jewish theology).

The last years of Maimonides' life were marked by increasing physical ailments, and he died on 13 December 1204. In Fostat, both Jews and Muslims observed public mourning for three days, and his body was taken to Tiberias, Israel, where his tomb became a place of pilgrimage. His son, Avraham, also recognized as a great scholar, succeeded Maimonides as head of the Egyptian Jewish community and as court physician.

Work Back to Top

Maimonides composed works of Jewish scholarship, rabbinic law, philosophy and medical texts, mainly in Arabic.

In philosophy, Maimonides was a Jewish Scholastic and he exerted an important influence on the later medieval Scholastics such as St. Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus and John Duns Scotus. His aim was to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy and science with the teachings of the Jewish Torah.

One of the his central tenets was that it is impossible for the truths arrived at by human intellect to contradict those revealed by God. In his attempt to prove this, he primarily relied upon the science of Aristotle and the teachings of the Talmud, finding basis for the latter in the former, although in some important points he departed from the teachings of Aristotle (e.g. the Aristotelian doctrine that God's provident care extends only to humanity, and not to the individual). He also wrote on theodicy (the attempt to reconcile the existence of a God with the existence of evil in the world), adopting the Aristotelian view that defines evil as the lack of, or the reduced presence of, a God.

However, Maimonides was also led by his admiration for the Neo-Platonic commentators to maintain many doctrines which the Scholastics could not accept, such as "apophatic theology" (or "negative theology"), in which one describes God only through negative attributes (e.g. "God is not ignorant", rather than "God is wise", etc).

In his "Guide for the Perplexed", he explicitly distinguished between "true beliefs" (beliefs about God which produced intellectual perfection) and "necessary beliefs" (beliefs which were conducive to improving social order). For instance, God does not actually become "angry" with people, having no human passions, but that may be a "necessary belief" if it encourages people to desist from sinning.

He distinguished two kinds of intelligence in man, a material one (dependent on, and influenced by, the body) and an immaterial one (independent of the bodily organism). He held that the knowledge of God is a form of knowledge which develops in us the immaterial intelligence, and thus confers on man an immaterial, spiritual nature and endows the soul with immortality (similar in some ways to Baruch Spinoza's doctrine of immortality several centuries later). This focus on the immortality of the soul for people of perfected intellect (rather than the traditional resurrection of physical dead bodies) developed into a full-blown controversy and prompted some hostile criticism from the rabbis of his day, and he was even charged as a heretic by some Jewish leaders. In an attempt to placate his opponents, he arrived at the compromise position that physical resurrection may occur at some time in the future, but was not permanent or general.

In response to an inquiry concerning astrology, Maimonides answered that man should believe only what can be supported either by rational proof, by the evidence of the senses, or by trustworthy authority. Astrology, therefore, does not deserve to be described as a science, and anyway it robs life of purpose and makes man a slave of destiny.

In his commentary on the "Mishnah", Maimonides formulated his 13 principles of Jewish faith, which evoked much criticism at the time, but which eventually became widely held and are considered as obligatory by Orthodox Jews today: God exists; God is one; God is spiritual and incorporeal; God is eternal; God alone should be the object of worship; revelation occurs through God's prophets; Moses is pre-eminent among the prophets; God's law was given on Mount Sinai; the Torah is God's immutable law; God has foreknowledge of human actions; good is rewarded and evil is punished; the Jewish Messiah will come; the dead will be resurrected.

His "Mishneh Torah" was a code of Jewish law of the widest possible scope and depth, gathering together all the binding laws from the Talmud. It too attracted much opposition initially, but it has been recognized as a monumental contribution to the systemized writing of Halakha (the collective body of Jewish religious law), and has been widely studied throughout the centuries.

Maimonides also wrote a number of influential medical texts, some of which are still in existence, including a collection of medical aphorisms, and treatises on poisons and their antidotes, hemorrhoids, cohabitation, regimen of health, the causes of symptoms, the human temperaments and asthma.

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