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By Sherwin B. Nuland
(Part of the Jewish Encounters series)
Schocken Books and Nextbook, New York, 2008, 236 pages.
ISBN: 978-0-8052-1150-4

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - February 12, 2009

The Jewish Encounter series of Schocken and Nextbook opted for an unusual, yet entirely satisfying approach in its books that present the ideas of prominent historical Jewish figures. As Dr. Nuland put it, the general editor of the series, of which ten books have been published to date, "did not want a scholar steeped in the complexities of his subject's philosophy; he wanted a writer, who might seek out the essence of the man and tell the story of his lifelong journey toward understanding." This approach of using interesting writers to delve into subjects that might be unfamiliar to them and to give their impressions of the "encounter between the contemporary observer and the towering figure of the Jewish past," of writing a book accessible for the average reader, not the scholar, produced good and bad results, but is an excellent idea.

Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland, a physician, admits at the outset of his volume that he knew little about Maimonides before he started researching the great sage and writing his book. In fact, he tells us that he tried to abandon the project. But he studied many books and finished his Maimonides, which was published in 2005, and the paperback version in 2008.

Dr. Nuland introduces his volume with a 26 page perceptive discussion on why so many Jews decided to become physicians and why they are generally considered so competent that many non-Jews prefer a Jewish doctor over one of their own faith.

Scholars have recognized that we have virtually no knowledge of Maimonides early life. Faced with the problem of how to describe Maimonides upbringing, Nuland fills the next 26 pages with his own ideas of what may have occurred and with legends that were narrated to glorify Maimonides.

He imagines, for example, that Maimonides' father Maimon was a physician, describes how the young Maimonides went to school in Fez and details what he learnt, presents an account of a dialogue between Maimonides and his brother David, describes his first marriage and the birth of a daughter who died shortly after birth, and states that Maimonides wrote his code of Jewish law, his Mishneh Torah, as a state constitution because he was certain that the messiah would appear shortly and that the nation of Israel that he would reestablish would need a constitution. There is no proof that any of this is true.

He relates a rather ironic legend that Maimonides, the man who would become the most knowledgeable or one of the most knowledgeable Jews, as a youngster was not interested in study, and fought against his father when he attempted to teach him. He would often hide from his father in the synagogue's women's section. But one day, when young Moses was ten years old, he entered the synagogue and astounded the congregation with a scholarly lecture showing the depth of his knowledge. Dr. Nuland does not state that this tale is remarkably similar to the one in the New Testament about Jesus, and was obviously borrowed from that source.

Scholars may disagree with some of Dr. Nuland's understandings about Maimonides. He uses the term "soul" in discussing the worldview of the philosopher, understanding the word as most people today, as an inner personality totally separate from the body, even though Maimonides stated that the "soul" is the life force of a living being, and contains five elements, including the digestive system, respiratory system, senses, imagination, and thinking.

Most significant, Dr. Nuland speaks about Maimonides' thirteen fundamentals of Judaism, but rather than using Maimonides' own words, he quotes ani ma'amin, "I believe," an adulterated paraphrase of Maimonides' words, which was placed in many prayer books.

But, as the series intended, Dr. Nuland does capture the essence or impression of the man. He describes, for example, the difficulty that Maimonides faced when he tried to teach both enlightened and uneducated Jews about their religion. He solved the problem by writing in a way that the uneducated individual would accept his statements literally, while "the deeper meaning (which is frequently the very opposite of what is stated) would only be understood by those with the proper training and intellect." Dr. Nuland cites as an example that Maimonides mentions that just people will be rewarded and evil people punished; however, this was an untruth "taught to ordinary people, although a leaned man knows that the real reason to do good is for its own sake, virtue being its own reward."

He recognizes that Maimonides' code of Jewish law, his Mishneh Torah, was a masterpiece, an organized production of a brilliant mind, but points out the tragedy that despite its brilliance, or perhaps because of it, Maimonides' code unfortunately froze Jewish law to the thinking of the twelfth century.

Dr. Nuland concludes that the "real reason that Maimonides has been an ageless icon to Jews everywhere" is that he created an "iconic memory of a man whose life was devoted to the continuity of the Jewish people," and is remembered for his "progressive world view," and as an example for many people. Thus, while some scholars may disagree with a few of his interpretations of Maimonides' teachings, they must acknowledge that Dr. Nuland has given us a very readable and interesting account of the impression that Maimonides made on most people.

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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