Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Hebrew: רבי משה בן מיימון; Arabic: Mussa bin Maimun ibn Abdallah al-Kurtubi al-Israili; March 30, 1135—December 13, 1204), commonly known by his Greek name Maimonides, was a Jewish rabbi, physician, and philosopher. Many Jewish works refer to him by the acronym of his title and name, RaMBaM (הרמב"ם in Hebrew). As such, he is frequently referred to as "the Rambam". His Greek appellation means "Son of Maimon," and is a literal rendition of "ben Maimon," which means the same thing.
Maimonides was born in Córdoba, Spain (then under Moslem rule), and studied Torah under his father Maimon and Rabbi Joseph ibn Migash. The family fled to Morocco after the fall of Córdoba to the Almohads. In Morocco he acquired most of his secular knowledge, studying at the university of Fes. During this time, he composed his acclaimed commentary on the Mishna.
Following his sojourns in Morocco, he briefly lived in the Land of Israel, spending time in Jerusalem where he prayed in a synagogue on the Temple Mount, and finally settled in Fostat, Egypt, where he was the doctor for the Grand Vizier Alfadhil and/or the Sultan Saladin of Egypt. In Egypt he composed most of his life's work, including the Mishneh Torah. He died in Fostat, and was buried in Tiberias, Israel.
Works and bibliography
Maimonides composed both works of Jewish scholarship and medical texts. Most of Maimonides' works were written in Arabic. However Mishneh Torah was written in Hebrew. His Jewish texts were:
- The Commentary on the Mishna;
- Sefer ha-Mitzvot ("The Book of Commandments", see 613 mitzvot for details);
- The Mishneh Torah (also known as "Yad ha-Chazaka") a comprehensive code of Jewish law;
- The Guide for the Perplexed, a philosophical work harmonising and differentiating Aristotelian philosophy and Jewish theology;
- Teshuvot, collected correspondence and responsa, including a number of public letters (on resurrection and the afterlife, on conversion to other faiths, and Iggereth Teiman - addressed to the oppressed Jewry of Yemen)
Maimonides also wrote a number of medical texts, some of which are extant. The best known is his collection of medical aphorisms, titled Pirkei Moshe in Hebrew (although it was composed in Arabic).
Maimonides was one of the few medieval Jewish philosophers who also influenced the non-Jewish world. Even today he is among the most respected of all Jewish philosophers. A popular saying in the Middle Ages stated that From Moses [of the Torah] to Moses [Maimonides] there has not been such a Moses.
Maimonides was by far the most influential figure in medieval Jewish philosophy. Radical Jewish scholars in the centuries that followed can be characterised as Maimonideans or anti-Maimonideans. Moderate scholars were eclectics who largely accepted Maimonides' 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' critique provoked a number of 15th century scholars to write defenses of Maimonides. A translation of Crescas was written by Harry Austryn Wolfson of Harvard University in 1929.
The 13 principles of faith
See also the main article Jewish principles of faith
Formulation and criticism
In his commentary on the Mishna (tractate Sanhedrin, chapter 10), Maimonides formulates his 13 principles of faith. They described his views on:
- The existence of God
- God's unity
- God's spirituality and incorporeality
- God's eternity
- God alone should be the object of worship
- Revelation through God's prophets
- The preeminence of Moses among the Prophets
- God's law given on Mount Sinai
- The immutability of the Torah as God's Law
- God's foreknowledge of men's actions
- Retribution of evil
- The coming of the Jewish Messiah
- The resurrection of the dead.
These principles were controversial when first proposed, evoking criticism by Hasdai Crescas and Joseph Albo, and they were ignored by much of the Jewish community for the next few centuries. ("Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought", Menachem Kellner). However, two poetic restatements of these principles (Ani Ma'amim and Yigdal) eventually became canonized in the siddur (Jewish prayer book), and these principles became widely held. Today most of Orthodox Judaism holds these beliefs to be obligatory.
True beliefs versus necessary belief
In a number of places Maimonidean scholars have pointed out what they see as major discrepancies between Maimonides' preached to the general public, and what his works implied when read according to his specific instructions. This issue was first discussed by his own student, Samuel ibn Tibbon, and a number of later classical rabbinic scholars; this issue has again become a matter of discussion among modern-day Maimonidean scholars.
These scholars note that Maimonides explicitly drew a distinction between "true beliefs", which were beliefs about God which produced intellectual perfection, and "necessary beliefs", which were conducive to improving social order. This distinction is not made by any recent Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) commentators, suggesting that in their view all principles are equally vital.
See also Mishneh Torah on his influence in halakha
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). It is a highly systematised work and employs a very clear Hebrew reminiscent of the style of the Mishna.
While Mishneh Torah is now considered the forerunner of the Arbaah Turim and the Shulkhan Arukh, two later codes, it met initially with a lot of opposition. There were two main reasons for this opposition. Firstly, Maimonides had refrained from adding references to his work for 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 the Provence (Southern France), and a running critique by Rabbi Abraham ibn Daud (Raavad III) is printed in virtually all editions of Misheh Torah.
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 the philosophy and science with the teachings of the Bible.
The principle which inspired his philosophical activity was identical with the fundamental tenet of Scholasticism: there can be no contradiction between the truths which God has revealed and the findings of the human mind in science and philosophy. By science and philosophy, he understood the science and philosophy of Aristotle. In some important points, however, he departed from the teaching of Aristotle; for instance, he rejected the Aristotelian doctrine that God's provident care extends only to humanity, and not to the individual.
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 nonexistent. 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.
He agrees with "the philosophers" in teaching that, man's intelligence being one in the series of intelligences emanating from God, the prophet must, by study and meditation, lift himself up to the degree of perfection required in the prophetic state. But here he invokes the authority of "the Law", which teaches that, after that perfection is reached, there is required the free act of God before the man actually becomes the prophet.
The problem of evil
Maimonides wrote on theodicy, the attempt to reconcile the existence of evil with the premise that an omnipotent and good God exists. He follows the neo-Platonists in laying stress on matter as the source of all evil and imperfection.
Resurrection, acquired immortality, and the afterlife
Maimonides distinguishes two kinds of intelligence in man, the one material in the sense of being dependent on, and influenced by, the body, and the other immaterial, that is, independent of the bodily organism. The latter is a direct emanation from the universal active intellect. This is his interpretation of the noūs poietikós of Aristotelian philosophy. It is acquired as the result of the efforts of the soul to attain a correct knowledge of the absolute, pure intelligence of God.
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 later on the earlier doctrine. The difference between the two Jewish thinkers is, 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 ęternitatis, 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' 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."
In this work Maimonides writes that those who claimed that he believed the verses of the Hebrew Bible referring to the resurrection were allegorical were spreading falsehoods and "revolting" statements. On the contrary, 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."
In contrast to most Jewish belief of the time, Maimonides believed that the resurrection was not permanent. Thus, any dead who are resurrected must eventually die again. In his 13 Principles of Faith 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 a move that infuriated his critics, chapter two of the letter on resurrection refers to those who believe that the world to come involves physically resurrected bodies; he refers to one with such beliefs as being an "utter fool" whose belief is "folly": "If one of the multitude refuses to believe [that angels are incorporeal] and prefers to believe that angels have bodies and even that they eat, since it is written (Genesis 18:8) 'they ate', or that those who exist in the World to Come will also have bodies—we won't hold it against him or consider him a heretic, and we will not distance ourselves from him. May there not be many who profess this folly, and let us hope that he will go farther than this in his folly and believe that the Creator is corporeal."
Quotes by Maimonides
Teach your tongue to say "I do not know" and you will progress.
The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.
You must accept the truth from whatever source it comes.
Anticipate charity by preventing poverty; assist the reduced fellow man, either by a considerable gift or a sum of money or by teaching him a trade or by putting him in the way of business so that he may earn an honest livelihood and not be forced to the dreadful alternative of holding out his hand for charity. This is the highest step and summit of charity's golden ladder.
We are obligated to be more scrupulous in fulfilling the commandment of charity than any other positive commandment because charity is the sign of a righteous man.
- Marvin Fox Interpreting Maimonides, Univ. of Chicago Press 1990.
- Julius Guttman, Philosophies of Judaism Translated by David Silverman, JPS, 1964
- Maimonides' Principles: The Fundamentals of Jewish Faith, in "The Aryeh Kaplan Anthology, Volume I", Mesorah Publications 1994
- Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought, Menachem Kellner, Oxford University press, 1986
- Maimonides Thirteen Principles: The Last Word in Jewish Theology? Marc. B. Shapiro, The Torah U-Maddah Journal, Vol. 4, 1993, Yeshiva University
- A History of Jewish Philosophy, Isaac Husik, Dover Publications, Inc., 2002. Originally published in 1941 by the Jewish Publication of America, Philadelphia, pp. 236-311
Treasures of the JNUL: Writings of Maimonides (Manuscripts and Early Print Editions) (http://www.jnul.huji.ac.il/dl/mss/html/rambam_l.htm)