See biographies by S. Zeitlin (2d ed. 1955) and A. J. Heschel (1981); studies by J. Melber (1968), M. Fox (1990), and S. B. Nuland (2005).
Moses Maimonides (March 30 1135 – December 13 1204) also known as the Rambam, was a rabbi, physician, and philosopher in Spain, Morocco and Egypt during the Middle Ages. He was the preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher whose ideas also influenced the non-Jewish world.
One of the central tenets of Maimonides's philosophy is that it is impossible for the truths arrived at by human intellect to contradict those revealed by God. Maimonides held to a strictly apophatic theology in which only negative statements toward a description of God may be considered correct. Thus, one does not say "God is One", but rather, "God is not multiple". Although many of his ideas met with the opposition of his contemporaries, Maimonides was embraced by later Jewish and many non-Jewish thinkers. St. Thomas Aquinas held him in high esteem, and the fourteen-volume Mishneh Torah today retains canonical authority as a codification of Talmudic law.
Although his copious works on Jewish law and ethics were initially met with opposition during his lifetime, he was posthumously acknowledged to be one of the foremost rabbinical arbiters and philosophers in Jewish history. Today, his works and his views are considered a cornerstone of Jewish thought and study.
The Almohades from Africa conquered Córdoba in 1148, and threatened the Jewish community with the choice of conversion to Islam, death, or exile. Maimonides's family, along with most other Jews, chose exile. For the next ten years they moved about in southern Spain, avoiding the conquering Almohades, but eventually settled in Fez in Morocco, where Maimonides acquired most of his secular knowledge, studying at the University of Al Karaouine. During this time, he composed his acclaimed commentary on the Mishnah in the years 1166-1168.
Following this sojourn in Morocco, he lived briefly in the Holy Land, before settling in Fostat, Egypt, where he was physician of the Grand Vizier Alfadhil and Sultan Saladin of Egypt, and also treated Richard the Lionheart while on the Crusades. He was considered to be the greatest physician of his time, being influenced by renowned Islamic thinkers such as Ibn Rushd and Al-Ghazali. He composed most of his œuvre in this last locale, including the Mishneh Torah. He died in Fostat, and was buried in Tiberias (today in Israel). His son Avraham, recognized as a great scholar, succeeded Maimonides as Nagid (head of the Egyptian Jewish community); he also took up his father's role as court physician, at the age of eighteen. He greatly honored the memory of his father, and throughout his career defended his father's writings against all critics. The office of Nagid was held by the Maimonides family for four successive generations until the end of the 14th century.
Maimonides was a devoted physician. In a famous letter, he describes his daily routine: After visiting the Sultan’s palace, he would arrive home exhausted and hungry, where "I would find the antechambers filled with gentiles and Jews ... I would go to heal them, and write prescriptions for their illnesses ... until the evening ... and I would be extremely weak.
He is widely respected in Spain and a statue of him was erected in Córdoba by the only synagogue in that city which escaped destruction, and which is no longer functioning as a Jewish house of worship but is open to the public.
Maimonides composed works of Jewish scholarship, rabbinic law, philosophy, and medical texts. Most of Maimonides's works were written in Judeo-Arabic. However, the Mishneh Torah was written in Hebrew. His Judaism texts were:
Maimonides wrote a number of medical texts, some of which are still in existence. The best known is his collection of medical aphorisms, titled Fusul Musa in Arabic ("Chapters of Moses," Pirkei Moshe in Hebrew). We also have a Treatise on Poisons and their Antidotes, Treatise on Hemorrhoids, Treatise on Cohabitation, Treatise on the Regimen of Health, Treatise on the Causes of Symptoms, Laws of Human Temperaments, and Treatise on Asthma. Such works have been translated by Jewish medical ethicist Fred Rosner.
Maimonides was one of the most influential figures in medieval Jewish philosophy. A popular medieval saying that also served as his epitaph states, From Moshe (of the Torah) to Moshe (Maimonides) there was none like Moshe.
Radical Jewish scholars in the centuries that followed can be characterised as "Maimonideans" or "anti-Maimonideans." Moderate scholars were eclectics who largely accepted Maimonides's Aristotelian world-view, but rejected those elements of it which they considered to contradict the religious tradition. Such eclecticism reached its height in the 14th-15th centuries.
The most rigorous medieval critique of Maimonides is Hasdai Crescas' Or Hashem. Crescas bucked the eclectic trend, by demolishing the certainty of the Aristotelian world-view, not only in religious matters, but even in the most basic areas of medieval science (such as physics and geometry). Crescas's critique provoked a number of 15th century scholars to write defenses of Maimonides. A translation of Crescas was produced by Harry Austryn Wolfson of Harvard University, in 1929.
In his commentary on the Mishna (tractate Sanhedrin, chapter 10), Maimonides formulates his 13 principles of faith. They summarized what he viewed as the required beliefs of Judaism with regards to:
These principles were controversial when first proposed, evoking criticism by Rabbi Hasdai Crescas and Rabbi Joseph Albo, and were effectively ignored by much of the Jewish community for the next few centuries. ("Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought," Menachem Kellner). However, these principles became widely held; today, Orthodox Judaism holds these beliefs to be obligatory. Two poetic restatements of these principles (Ani Ma'amin and Yigdal) eventually became canonized in the "siddur" (Jewish prayer book).
With Mishneh Torah, Maimonides composed a code of Jewish law with the widest-possible scope and depth. The work gathers all the binding laws from the Talmud, and incorporates the positions of the Geonim (post-Talmudic early Medieval scholars, mainly from Mesopotamia).
While Mishneh Torah is now considered the fore-runner of the Arbaah Turim and the Shulchan Aruch (two later codes), it met initially with much opposition. There were two main reasons for this opposition. Firstly, Maimonides had refrained from adding references to his work for the sake of brevity; secondly, in the introduction, he gave the impression of wanting to "cut out" study of the Talmud, to arrive at a conclusion in Jewish law. His most forceful opponents were the rabbis of Provence (Southern France), and a running critique by Rabbi Abraham ben David (Raavad III) is printed in virtually all editions of Mishneh Torah. However, it was recognized as a monumental contribution to the systemized writing of Halakha. Throughout the centuries, it has been widely studied and its halakhic decisions have weighed heavily in later rulings.
An oft-cited legal maxim from his pen is: "It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death. Maimonides argued that executing a defendant on anything less than absolute certainty would lead to a slippery slope of decreasing burdens of proof, until we would be convicting merely "according to the judge's caprice.
Through the Guide for the Perplexed and the philosophical introductions to sections of his commentaries on the Mishna, Maimonides exerted an important influence on the Scholastic philosophers, especially on Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus. He was himself a Jewish Scholastic. Educated more by reading the works of Arab Muslim philosophers than by personal contact with Arabian teachers, he acquired an intimate acquaintance not only with Arab Muslim philosophy, but with the doctrines of Aristotle. Maimonides strove to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy and science with the teachings of the Torah.
Maimonides was led by his admiration for the neo-Platonic commentators to maintain many doctrines which the Scholastics could not accept. For instance, Maimonides was an adherent of "negative theology" (also known as "Apophatic theology".) In this theology, one attempts to describe God through negative attributes. For instance, one should not say that God exists in the usual sense of the term; all we can safely say is that God is not non-existent. We should not say that "God is wise"; but we can say that "God is not ignorant," i.e. in some way, God has some properties of knowledge. We should not say that "God is One," but we can state that "there is no multiplicity in God's being." In brief, the attempt is to gain and express knowledge of God by describing what God is not; rather than by describing what God "is."
The Scholastics agreed with him that no predicate is adequate to express the nature of God; but they did not go so far as to say that no term can be applied to God in the affirmative sense. They admitted that while "eternal," "omnipotent," etc., as we apply them to God, are inadequate, at the same time we may say "God is eternal" etc., and need not stop, as Moses did, with the negative "God is not not-eternal," etc. In essence what Maimonides wanted to express is that when people give God anthropomorphic qualities they do not do justice to His greatness.
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. This confers on the soul that perfection in which human happiness consists, and endows the soul with immortality. One who has attained a correct knowledge of God has reached a condition of existence which renders him immune from all the accidents of fortune, from all the allurements of sin, and even from death itself. Man, therefore is in a position not only to work out his own salvation and immortality.
The resemblance between this doctrine and Spinoza's doctrine of immortality is so striking as to warrant the hypothesis that there is a causal dependence of the latter on the earlier doctrine. The differences between the two Jewish thinkers are, however, as remarkable as the resemblance. While Spinoza teaches that the way to attain the knowledge which confers immortality is the progress from sense-knowledge through scientific knowledge to philosophical intuition of all things sub specie æternitatis, Maimonides holds that the road to perfection and immortality is the path of duty as described in the Torah and the rabbinic understanding of the oral law.
Religious Jews not only believed in immortality in some spiritual sense, but most believed that there would at some point in the future be a messianic era, and a resurrection of the dead. This is the subject of Jewish eschatology. Maimonides wrote much on this topic, but in most cases he wrote about the immortality of the soul for people of perfected intellect; his writings were usually not about the resurrection of dead bodies. This prompted hostile criticism from the rabbis of his day, and sparked a controversy over his true views.
Rabbinic works usually refer to this afterlife as "Olam Haba" (the World to Come). Some rabbinic works use this phrase to refer to a messianic era, an era of history right here on Earth; in other rabbinic works this phrase refers to a purely spiritual realm. It was during Maimonides's lifetime that this lack of agreement flared into a full blown controversy, with Maimonides charged as a heretic by some Jewish leaders.
Some Jews at this time taught that Judaism did not require a belief in the physical resurrection of the dead, as the afterlife would be a purely spiritual realm. They used Maimonides's works on this subject to back up their position. In return, their opponents claimed that this was outright heresy; for them the afterlife was right here on Earth, where God would raise dead bodies from the grave so that the resurrected could live eternally. Maimonides was brought into this dispute by both sides, as the first group stated that his writings agreed with them, and the second group portrayed him as a heretic for writing that the afterlife is for the immaterial spirit alone. Eventually, Maimonides felt pressured to write a treatise on the subject, the "Ma'amar Tehiyyat Hametim" "The Treatise on Resurrection."
Chapter two of the treatise on resurrection refers to those who believe that the world to come involves physically resurrected bodies. Maimonides refers to one with such beliefs as being an "utter fool" whose belief is "folly".
However, Maimonides also writes that those who claimed that he altogether believed the verses of the Hebrew Bible referring to the resurrection were only allegorical were spreading falsehoods and "revolting" statements. Maimonides asserts that belief in resurrection is a fundamental truth of Judaism about which there is no disagreement, and that it is not permissible for a Jew to support anyone who believes differently. He cites Daniel 12:2 and 12:13 as definitive proofs of physical resurrection of the dead when they state "many of them that sleep in the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence" and "But you, go your way till the end; for you shall rest, and will arise to your inheritance at the end of the days."
While these two positions may be seen as in contradiction (non-corporeal eternal life, versus a bodily resurrection), Maimonides resolves them with a then unique solution: Maimonides believed that the resurrection was not permanent or general. In his view, God never violates the laws of nature. Rather, divine interaction is by way of angels, which Maimonides holds to be metaphors for the laws of nature, the principles by which the physical universe operates, or Platonic eternal forms. Thus, if a unique event actually occurs, even if it is perceived as a miracle, it is not a violation of the world's order.
In this view, any dead who are resurrected must eventually die again. In his discussion of the 13 principles of faith, the first five deal with knowledge of God, the next four deal with prophecy and the Torah, while the last four deal with reward, punishment and the ultimate redemption. In this discussion Maimonides says nothing of a universal resurrection. All he says it is that whatever resurrection does take place, it will occur at an indeterminate time before the world to come, which he repeatedly states will be purely spiritual.
He writes "It appears to us on the basis of these verses (Daniel 12:2,13) that those people who will return to those bodies will eat, drink, copulate, beget, and die after a very long life, like the lives of those who will live in the Days of the Messiah." Maimonides thus disassociated the resurrection of the dead from both the World to Come and the Messianic era.
In his time, many Jews believed that the physical resurrection was identical to the world to come; thus denial of a permanent and universal resurrection was considered tantamount to denying the words of the Talmudic sages. However, instead of denying the resurrection, or maintaining the current dogma, Maimonides posited a third way: That resurrection had nothing to do with the messianic era (here in this world) nor to do with Olam Haba (עולם הבא) (the purely spiritual afterlife). Rather, he considered resurrection to be a miracle that the book of Daniel predicted; thus at some point in time we could expect some instances of resurrection to occur temporarily, which would have no place in the final eternal life of the righteous.
Thanks to his extraordinary reputation, Maimonides has been memorialized in numerous ways. For example, one of the Learning Communities at the Tufts University School of Medicine bears his name. There is also Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts, the Brauser Maimonides Academy in Hollywood, Florida, and Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York. In 2004, conferences were held at Yale, Florida International University, Penn State, and the Rambam hospital in Haifa. To commemorate the 800th anniversary of his death, Harvard University issued a memorial volume. In 2006, the Israel Postal Authority issued a postage stamp of Maimonides, pictured. In March 2008, during the Euromed Conference of Ministers of Tourism, The Tourism Ministries of Israel, Morocco and Spain agreed to work together on a joint project that will trace the footsteps of the Rambam and thus boost religious tourism in the cities of Córdoba, Fez and Tiberias
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Texts by Maimonides