Spanish-born philosopher, Moses Maimonides lived from 1135 (or 1138) to 1204 and earned a reputation as a highly skilled physician later in life. At the beginning of his career, however, he felt torn between choosing to follow Greek philosophy or applying himself to the teaching of the Jewish religion. Rabbi Maimonides refused to accept some literal interpretations of the Bible, causing more orthodox Jews to criticise and to ban him.
In the article “Moses Maimonides (Rambam),” Joseph Telushkin says:
“Philosophically, Maimonides was a religious rationalist. His damning attacks on people who held ideas he regarded as primitive — those, for example, who understood literally such biblical expressions as ‘the finger of God’ so infuriated his opponents that they proscribed parts of his code and all of ‘The Guide to the Perplexed.’”
The Duty of Every Jew
Maimonides is, however, firm in what he regards as essential elements of true belief. Kenneth Seeskin’s article “Maimonides” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, says:
“Maimonides lists 13 principles that he considers binding on every Jew: the existence of God, the absolute unity of God, the incorporeality of God, the eternity of God, that God alone is to be worshipped, that God communicates to prophets, that Moses is the greatest prophet, that the Torah was given by God, that the Torah is immutable, that there is divine providence, that there is divine punishment and reward, that there will be a Messiah, that the dead will be resurrected.”
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How can a philosopher who makes such a strong and prescriptive statement endorse a negative theology?
A Negative Theology – “Via Negative”
According to Maimonides, it is only possible to explain God by using negative attributes, i/e what He is not.
Jeremy Harwood explains:
“It would be incorrect, for instance, to say that He exists; all that can be safely said is that He is not non-existent. Maimonides concluded that what he termed God’s ‘essence’ was indefinable and unknowable.”
It is easy to understand that such ambiguous statements did not make the great Jewish intellectual popular with his more conservative peers.
Kenneth Seeskin explains that Maimonides’ theology “…departs from Aristotelian thought by emphasizing the limits of human knowledge and the questionable foundations of significant parts of astronomy and metaphysics.”
Maimonides: A Turbulent Life
Maimonides was born in Cordoba in Spain, according to the BBC in the article “Moses Maimonides philosopher.” He lived in Spain at a time when Jews and Christians co-habited together in peace under Muslim rule. But in 1148, the puritanical Almahados invaded the country, forcing Maimonides and his family to flee due to religious persecution.
The Almahados were fanatical members of a Muslim dynasty in Spain and North Africa in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. There was widespread rioting and the Almahados destroyed many synagogues.
The family escaped to Fez in Morocco. Since there is ambiguity about Maimonides’ date of birth, he was either ten years old, or thirteen years old, when he left his country of birth.
Five years later, he settled in Egypt where he remained for the rest of his life. For some time, his brother, David, helped to support him. Tragically, as David Zakikowski explains in his article “Maimonides, His Life and Works,” over a span of two years from 1166 on, Maimonides’ father, wife and two sons all died. Then, in 1171, his brother David, the family’s main means of support, died of drowning en route to India.
If all these terrible events were not enough, Maimonides now had no means of supporting himself, because rabbis were not paid. Therefore, Maimonides decided to train as a physician.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, he became the official physician of Saladin’s vizier, although most other sources, including the BBC, Jeremy Harwood and the Jewish Virtual Library, claim he was physician to Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria.
Possibly, Maimonides started out as physician to the vizier and was then promoted — but it is not possible to be certain from the material available.
Maimonides’ Major Works
Maimonides first important work was The Treatise on the Art of Logic. Then, in 1168, he produced a compendium of Jewish law based on the Torah. These 14 volumes were entitled The Mishnah Torah, and from its publication, this work established him as one of the world’s great thinkers.
His major philosophic work, The Guide to the Perplexed, addresses the philosopher’s struggle between philosophy and religion and seeks to resolve the conflict between religious and secular knowledge:
“It took the form of a letter of advice written to one of his students who was unable to decide whether to follow the precepts of Greek philosophy or to abide strictly by the teachings of the Jewish religion… despite the teachings of Aristotle whom he deeply admired, there were fundamental limits to the extent of human knowledge.”
He concludes truths established through human reason could not contradict God’s revelations.
At sixteen years old, Maimonides wrote a guide to the proper use of linguistic terms in religion. Later, in his role as physician in Saladin’s court, he also wrote about the causes of diseases and how to cure them.
According to Jeremy Harwood, Moses Maimonides was responsible for re-introducing Aristotelian ideas into Western philosophy and for his attempts to reconcile conflict and contradictions between philosophical ideas and the contents of the Bible:
“His work proved to be remarkably influential on later thinkers, including St. Thomas Aquinas, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Liebniz and Sir Isaac Newton.”
The Jewish Virtual Library link in the article resources accesses an excellent biography containing a personal account of Maimonides’ daily life in court as a physician. It is too lengthy to introduce here without infringing copyright, but is a fascinating glimpse into the life of his great Jewish philosopher and well worth a visit.
This tolerant and wise religious leader was open to Arab and Greek thought and did not believe that true prophecy was confined only to the Jews. He was also ready to find similarities and to refute contradictions between the ancient Greeks and the Jewish traditions.
Despite the rejection and criticism Maimonides suffered during his lifetime, Maimonides had an enormous influence on future philosophical thought.