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Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilizations Greatest Minds

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Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilizations Greatest Minds

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Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilizations Greatest Minds
By Joel L. Kraemer
Doubleday, New York: 2008, 621 pages
ISBN: 978-0-3855-1199-5

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - February 12, 2009

Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), philosopher, codifier, scientist, physician, and head of Egypt's Jewish community, was and is considered by many to have been the greatest genius that Judaism produced, greater than even the first Moses who brought the Bible to mankind, or at least second to him. He authored significant Jewish writings, including a Code of Jewish Law and the Guide of the Perplexed, the most important book on Jewish thought. The non-Jewish contemporary of Maimonides, ibn Sana al Mulk, extolled him in verse:
Where he to treat the [present] time with his knowledge,
He would cure it from the disease of ignorance.
Where the full moon to ask him for treatment,
It would obtain the perfection it claims.
Maimonides was born in Cordoba, Spain, but he and his family fled his birthplace because of the persecution by a fanatical Muslim invader that insisted that Jews convert to his faith. Maimonides settled in Fez, Morocco for five years under the same dire conditions, then escaped to Israel where his family remained for a year, and then left for Egypt where he lived for close to forty years (1166-1204) until his death.

Joel L. Kraemer, a retired professor who lectured at many prestigious universities, gives his readers an excellent and readable biography of this exceptional man. He explains Maimonides' ideas by placing his life story within the history of his time - the era of the crusades, the battles of Saladin, the clash of cultures, the persecution of Jews by Christians and Muslims - and by enlivening his presentation with interesting portrayals of dozens of persons who impacted the scholar's life, including accounts by people who knew him. He offers his readers detailed information about subjects important to understanding the great sage, which virtually all Maimonides biographies ignore, such as revealing what specifically Maimonides did at the Egyptian court as a physician, what were his duties as head of the Jewish community, and what conflicts did he face from fellow Jews.

An example of Dr. Kraemer's thorough treatment is his handling of the controversial subject: did Maimonides, the prototype of the outstanding and dedicated Jew, ever converted to Islam to save his life, living the life of a Muslim in Fez, Morocco for five years while practicing Judaism when secluded at home? Most Maimonides biographies spend no more than a page or two on the subject. Dr. Kraemer devotes nine pages and outlines why it is likely that he did outwardly convert. The evidence is based on the testimony of a historian who was with Maimonides in Fez and writers who knew and discussed the matter with Maimonides' son Abraham and with Maimonides' student Joseph ben Judah whom Maimonides loved and treated as a son. While some scholars and biographers claim that persecution also forced him to act as a Moslem in Spain before arriving in Fez, Dr. Kraemer, a careful biographer, finds no evidence to support or deny it.

Another example is Dr. Kraemer's handling of another disquieting question: why did Maimonides and his family leave the Land of Israel, to which he arrived after fleeing from Fez, and only stayed in the holy land for a year? Isn't the land of Israel dear to all Jews? Didn't Nachmanides (1194-1270) criticize his predecessor Maimonides and contend that there is a biblical obligation to dwell in Israel?

Dr. Kraemer shows how it was impossible for the enlightened Maimonides to remain in the land occupied by Christian crusaders who lived in the Dark Ages, under filthy conditions, in a conquered country devoid of education. These near primitive conditions affected the Jews in Israel; they spent much of their time in prayer and mystical contemplation, anathema to a rationalist and progressive thinker like Maimonides. Egypt, where he and his family settled was different. It was a land where study and reason was encouraged, a land where Jews, although not treated as equals - they were forced to pay higher taxes and forbidden to perform certain acts - were not otherwise mistreated, and could rise high in Egyptian government, like Maimonides, who became the friend and chief physician of the vizier of Egypt, Saladin's general administrator of Egyptian affairs. It is possible, although the fact is disputed by scholars, that Maimonides was also a physician to Saladin himself, and this is the view of Dr. Kraemer.

Readers who are introduced to Maimonides for the first time, as well as most people who know little about him, will be surprised, perhaps even shocked to learn that this great sage had views about life that are totally different than those held by most people, Jews and non-Jews alike. God, he wrote, does not need or want sacrifices. Prophecy is not a divine communication, but an intelligent person offering his understanding of a situation. God does not come to the aid of people, the world functions according to the laws of nature. Thus, for example, when the land is flooded, people should not remain in the dangerous area and pray for salvation, but use their intelligence and seek higher ground. People, he also wrote, are not resurrected after death, but their intelligence continues to exist.

Maimonides taught that when the Bible states that God becomes angry at people, the words should not be understood literally because God does not have emotions; the words mean that the act described as provoking divine anger is wrong. It is entirely possible and reasonable to understand that God never created this world from nothing, but "formed" it from preexisting matter; after all the Bible itself states in Genesis 1:1 and 2 that when God began to create/form the heaven and earth "the earth was formless," God gave form to the "formless" matter. He said that many biblical stories should be understood as parables, morality stories and homilies that never occurred, such as the tale of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden - or as dreams, such as the tale of the patriarch Jacob wrestling with an angel. The Bible has two levels of teachings: the surface meaning designed for the average reader, and a deeper meaning for the educated few.

Maimonides gives a different answer to the age old problem: "why does God harm innocent people?" God is not involved. The world, as previously stated, functions according to the laws of nature. These laws are good. People make a mistake thinking that the world was created for them and that God should ignore the overall good of the universe and aid an individual. People are harmed by one of three ways. The laws of nature that benefits the world in general may harm them; for example, a hurricane or storm that cleanses the earth may kill them. Second, people bring harm to themselves, as when they overeat or fail to exercise or make wrong decisions. Third, another person may hurt them; as when a robber robs them or a warrior nation attacks their home. What is significant is that God is not involved in protecting individuals. Maimonides wrote in his Guide of the Perplexed: "With regard to this world, which has a wondrously ordered structure, and which is very good, as the wisdom of the Creator has determined, we must assume that everything that is created in it is for the good, even death. Therefore, a man should [focus on] the existence of the species, not the good of individuals."

This is the genius of Cordoba and these are his thoughts. This is the exceptional mind who could metaphorically cure the ills of mankind and whitewash the spots on the moon. This is he who influenced Spinoza and other thinkers, he who was the true father of the enlightenment. Whether a reader agrees with his ideas or not, they should be known, for they stimulate thought and lead to understanding, and Dr. Kraemer's biography helps people do that.

Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on and on His website is

The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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