Maimonides in His World
Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker
By Sarah Stroumsa
Princeton University Press, 2009, 222 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - February 19, 2010
Sarah Stroumsa, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, agrees with S. Pines, the translator of Moses Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed, and writes that she "assumes medieval Jewish philosophy to have been shaped by the surrounding culture and impregnated by it." Stroumsa calls Maimonides "cosmopolitan," a person who belongs to more than one subculture, who interacted with each with "insatiable intellectual curiosity." She shows how the Maimonidean concepts fit the philosophies expounded in the areas that Maimonides inhabited, in Spain, Morocco and Egypt.
While this idea might bother some xenophobic and ultra-nationalistic Jews who insist that all Jewish ideas are original and inspired by God, it would not have bothered Maimonides (1138-1204) himself, for Maimonides wrote that the truth is the truth no matter what its source.
Maimonides mentioned frequently that he read everything he could find on a wide variety of subjects, including paganism, and that he based his ideas in large part upon the teachings of the ancient pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE). Aristotle also influenced the general Muslim Mediterranean culture where Maimonides lived; therefore Stroumsa's thesis is certainly correct. She presents her thesis clearly and interestingly and with a wealth of detail.
Stroumsa discusses Maimonides views on subjects such as paganism, life after death, resurrection, Jewish heresies, human perfection, history, astronomy, astrology, medicine, the philosopher as a political leader and other subjects.
For example, Stroumsa states that Maimonides agreed with his contemporary Muslim philosopher Averroes (1128-1198), as well as with Abraham ibn Ezra and other Jewish thinkers who lived before him, that the Torah speaks in different ways, saying different things, to the three levels of society: the uneducated multitude, the theologians and the philosophers. Theologians rely on Scripture and seek to rationalize the Bible with selective ideas from science, but only those discoveries that support their view of Scripture. Maimonides considered Saadiah Gaon a theologian. Philosophers, such as Averroes and Maimonides – as well as earlier Jewish thinkers such as Philo and Abraham ibn Ezra – rely on science and explain the Bible based on reason; if Scripture seems unreasonable – such as the story of a snake talking to Eve – they interpret the biblical episode as a parable. Stroumsa compares these ideas with those of Muslims who lived near Maimonides.
Another example is Stroumsa's discussion of Maimonides' view of medicine. Maimonides heaped abuse in strong language on people who relied on God to cure them rather than use medicines. He called such talk "ravings." Yet, he felt that doctors must know more than medicine. Thus he down-graded and insulted the philosophical qualities of two "philosophers" by saying that they are "only a physician." Stroumsa shows how other philosophers of the area had the same ideas.
Maimonides was an accomplished doctor. Ibn Abi Usaybi'a said Maimonides "could cure the heavenly bodies from their chronic ailments," meaning remove the spots off of the moon. Yet, Stroumsa writes that he was reasonably cautious and preferred "to work with other physicians (generally Muslims)" and "would not rely on his own opinion alone."
Stroumsa recognizes that because of his immense intellect, Maimonides was an elitist; however, he and many Muslim thinkers of his time were convinced that some fundamentals ought to be taught to people belonging to all levels of society. Thus, he wrote the famous thirteen principle of Judaism for the general population. His main idea is that people should know that God has no human body. This now generally accepted principle conflicted with the general Jewish view of the time, and Maimonides was severely criticized for teaching it.
Thus, Stroumsa offers her readers a clearer presentation of Maimonides' thoughts on a wide variety of subjects by showing how his teachings mesh with those of his contemporaries.