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Maimonides

A medieval Jewish philosopher and physician whose genius was ahead of his time is still respected today.

Not far from the multi-pillared splendor of Cordoba’s Great Mosque, in the Juderia’s quiet and ancient plaza, stands a statue of the medieval Jewish philosopher and physician, Maimonides.

Visitors happening upon this plaza seem puzzled to find a statue of a Jewish philosopher in Spain.

This scholar, who dedicated his life to clarifying Jewish laws, is one of Cordoba’s most famous sons. Moses Maimonides, son of Maimon, was born in 1135. His birth heralded the ninth generation of devoted talmudic scholars in his family, a family whose code was “Know the God of thy father and serve Him.” Young Moses was to prove himself worthy of this inheritance.

His early childhood was dedicated to the study of mathematics, literature, linguistics, medicine, logic, metaphysics along with the laws and beliefs of Judaism.

Religious persecution, never a stranger to Jewish history, appeared early in young Moses’ life. When he was 13, Cordoba fell to the Almohades, Moslem zealots from Morocco who persecuted Jews and Christians.

Almohadian laws decreed that Jews either convert to Islam or die. In some cases, those who refused conversion were allowed to leave the country.

Sorrowfully, but counting themselves lucky to be alive, the family of Maimon wandered in search of a home. Their sojourn led them to other cities in Spain, to Fez, Morocco and to Acre and Jerusalem in the Holy Land. In 1165, at the age of 30, Maimonides’ search ended as he and his family settled in Fostat, a suburb of Cairo.

Under the enlightened leadership of the good and just leader, Saladin, life was once again bearable for Jews. Maimonides completed his first epic work, the “Siraj” or “Illumination” three years after moving to Fostat.

His monumental intellect as well as his medical knowledge so pleased and impressed the Vizir that he eventually raised Maimonides to the prestigious position of court physician. He also bestowed upon him the title of Nagid, head or prince of all Jews in Egypt.

Little is written of the personality of this brilliant scholar. There are occasional glimpses of his quick wit and often prophetic insights in his own writings: “We hear too much of unions in Israel,” he once wrote. “Let us hear more of union.” We also learn of his humility, an example of which was his refusal to receive help in answering his massive correspondence. He was afraid he would be thought arrogant if he didn’t answer every question himself.

But if the private personality is hidden, the character of Maimonides, his intellect and genius remain for all to see. In his lifetime, he produced three major written works: the “Siraj,” the “Mishneh Torah” and the “Guide of the Perplexed” in addition to many smaller religious tracts, several medical books, including an important one on hygiene and preventive medicine. He is believed to have used psychological therapy to combat the widespread belief in superstitions.

One contemporary historian, Walderer Schweisheimer, believes Maimonides’ “medical writings are not antiquated at all, in fact they are in some respects astonishingly modern in tone and content.” They were written when he wasn’t serving as court and general physician and as rabbi and husband and father to his late-in-life son, Abraham.

His life’s dedication was Judaism. For him, the practical application of this devotion was to insure clear and easy access to the holy words for all the faithful.

Judaism was in danger of losing itself in detail by the middle of the 12th century. Rabbinical scholars had, by this time, debated and argued even the most minute detail of Talmud (the written body of Jewish civil and cannonical law) rendering it, in the words of the 19th century historian, Henrich Graetz, “like a Daedalian maze in which one could hardly find his way even with the thread of Ariadne.”

Maimonides recognized the dangers inherent in this confusion. In a 14-volume opus, the “Mishneh Torah” (Torah Reviewed) he codified all of Jewish law and doctrine. This monumental work was the second in a series. Preceding it was the “Siraj” or the “Illumination,” a commentary written in Arabic (the vernacular spoken by many Jews at the time), which clarified articles of Jewish laws and faith.

Graetz, the same historian who had once despaired, later exalted over these works. “They are,” he said, “like a well contrived groundplan, with wings, halls, apartments, chambers through which a stranger might pass without a guide.”

Scholars as well as strangers passed through Maimonides’ groundplan and his fame spread. No fame is absolute and Maimonides also collected his share of critics and detractors.

Obviously wounded by the criticism, yet ever philosophical, Maimonides wrote a letter to his beloved disciple, Joseph Aknin: “Honor bids me to avoid fools, not to vanquish them. Better is it for me to spend my efforts in teaching those fitted and willing to learn than to waste myself in winning a victory over the unfit.”

It was for this same Joseph Aknin, his “son in spirit” and brilliant scholar whose intelligence complemented his own, that Maimonides wrote his third major work, “Moreh Nevukhim” or “The Guide of the Perplexed.” Intended to “guide” advanced scholars who still found questions in the written laws, Maimonides realized his audience would be relatively small. “I composed this treatise for you and those who are like you, however few there may be,” he wrote Aknin in a personal dedication. But there were more than a few, it seems. History proves that Maimonides’ grasp of Aristotelian logic and philosophy, so masterfully exercised in the Guide, has influenced the world’s greatest thinkers, both Christians and Jews, through the ages.

As in all things of value, time alone is the true test of worth, a test Maimonides passes with high honors. His religious tracts are now incorporated into the central body of Jewish learning, used even today as textbooks by conservative and liberal alike.

This man, whose towering genius lives on but whose private life seems destined to remain forever shrouded in mystery, died December 13, 1204. His remains were enshrined in the Israeli town of Tiberius, his monument inscribed with the following tribute: “From Moses, the prophet, to Moses, son of Maimon, there hath arisen none like unto him.”

Brenda Fine is a travel writer based in New York.

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