Maimonides is one of the most famous Jewish philosophers from the Middle Ages. He is well known for writing the Commentary on the Mishnah (Mishnah Torah), which is a fourteen-volume work on Jewish law, as well as for his book Guide of the Perplexed. In this book, Maimonides attempts to reconcile religious knowledge with secular knowledge. His writings had a lot of influence and are still being studied today.
Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) was born around 1138 (some sources state 1135) in Cordova, Spain. He came from a good family and generations of his family had been distinguished scholars throughout the years. Life was good for Maimonides and his family until the city was conquered in 1148 by a group of Muslim invaders known as the Almohads. The Almohads demanded that all non-Muslims convert, be exiled, or be put to death. Not wanting to choose death or conversion, Maimonides’s family decided to leave Cordova.
The family spent the next ten years moving around They travelled throughout southern Spain until 1160 when they finally settled in Morocco. In 1166, Maimonides moved from Morocco to Palestine where they only stayed for a short while before continuing on to Cairo, Egypt.
Once they arrived in Cairo, tragedy struck the family. Maimonides’s father died and David, his younger brother, was killed in a shipwreck. David was a merchant and when he died, he took the family’s entire fortune with him.
Maimonides was now the sole supporter of the family. Maimonides had trained to be a doctor in both Cordoba and in Morocco so he decided to put this knowledge to use and open a medical practice. He quickly became famous and was soon given the position of court physician where he treated both Saladin and his son. Maimonides also became prominent in the Jewish community for his teaching and for helping people with difficulties they were experiencing. Around the year 1171, Maimonides was given the position of Nagid within the Jewish community. A Nagid is a spiritual leader for the community.
Maimonides’s days were extremely busy. Maimonides once described his day in a letter stating that after visiting the Saladin’s palace, he would finally make it home only to be confronted with various gentiles and Jews seeking his services. He would treat them until the evening and would end up being exhausted and hungry by the end of the day.
Even with his busy schedule, Maimonides was still able to find the time to write a number of books on philosophy, medicine, and Jewish law.
Maimonides died at the end of 1204 at the age of sixty-nine.
Maimonides skill as a physician was well known and he wrote on many health problems including diabetes, asthma, and pneumonia. His writings on various aliments were used by physicians for generations. Maimonides felt that it was important to respect is patients and to be aware of intercultural issues.
Maimonides approach to treating patients was to begin simply and attempt to treat a person through diet before resorting to drugs. Maimonides recommended moderation as the way to good health.
Maimonides wrote a number of works throughout his life on philosophical, religious, and legal issues. One of the works that Maimonides is best known for is the Commentary on the Mishnah. He started it in 1160 and completed it eight years later.
In the Commentary, Maimonides lists thirteen tenets that he believes all Jews are required to accept and follow. These thirteen tenets are
1) the existence of God,
2) the absolute unity of God,
3) the incorporeality of God,
4) the eternity of God,
5) that God alone is to be worshipped,
6) that God communicates to prophets,
7) that Moses is the greatest prophet,
8) that the Torah was given by God,
9) that the Torah is immutable,
10) that there is divine providence,
11) that there is divine punishment and reward,
12) that there will be a Messiah,
13) that the dead will be resurrected. (list taken from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
This list caused a lot of controversy within the Jewish community since it was the first time anyone had delineated tenets of faith. The Commentary on the Mishnah also attempted to prove that there was a rational purpose behind all Jewish law and that none of the laws were in place simply for people to obey.
Another well-known book by Maimonides is the Guide of the Perplexed. Maimonides completed the book in 1190. The book is set up as a letter to a student who is trying to decide whether to follow philosophy or his religious teachings. In this book, Maimonides states that Jewish law is focused on helping Jews improve both the body and the soul. The way to do this is to gain knowledge of everything possible. The more knowledge one obtains, the closer the person is to living God’s will. Maimonides states that one of the things which stops people from learning as much as possible is the literal interpretation of the bible.
The Guide of the Perplexed caused a lot of controversy with its rejection of the literal meaning of the Bible and was even banned for a time. Some scholars criticized Maimonides for this belief and wondered if Maimonides understanding of Jewish law was influenced by his interest in non-Jewish philosophers, such as Aristotle, instead of understanding what the prophets actually said.
Two other works that had a lot of impact are the Treatise on Resurrection and the Letter on Astrology. Maimonides wrote the first work, the Treatise on Resurrection, to address concerns that he didn’t really believe in the resurrection. Maimonides wrote that it is more important to recognize whether resurrection is possible instead of whether it actually occurs or how it occurs. People claimed that Maimonides did not believe in the resurrection because of his suspicion of miracles and his view of the afterlife.
The second work, the Letter on Astrology, was written to address people’s belief in astrology. Maimonides argued that there was no scientific proof that the stars and planets had an influence on humans and that is should be abandoned. Maimonides argued that belief in astrology should be abandoned even if sacred literature states that astrology is true.
Maimonides’s works are still studied today by philosophers and students of religion. His Commentary on the Mishnah as well as his other works are still studied today. Maimonides is viewed as one of the most influential Jewish philosophers within the Jewish community.