The Wisdom of Maimonides
The Life and Writings of the Jewish Sage
By Edward Hoffman
Trumpeter, 2008, 172 pages
Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York. He offers a short two dozen-page biography in his book, close to a hundred pages of selections from Maimonides' writings, and about two dozen pages that narrate various imaginary legends that grew up about "the Jewish sage." The volume's strength lies in Hoffman's psychological analysis of Maimonides.
Hoffman's biography is well written, but readers need to beware; he sometimes includes fictitious popular notions rather than scholarly facts. He calls Maimonides' father Maimon a physician who probably taught his son medicine, but no information exists to support this claim. He states that Maimonides had a daughter, but this is uncertain. Maimonides did mention a young girl who died in one of his letters, but this may have been his brother's daughter.
Like some other writers, Hoffman writes that Maimonides believed that the messiah was about to appear, and that he wrote his Mishneh Torah, his Code of Jewish Law, as a constitution for the state that the messiah would form. He writes that in 1177 Maimonides "receives the official title of rabbi," which did not happen. He includes statements that Maimonides allegedly wrote in a letter to his son Abraham, but most scholars are certain that Maimonides never composed this forged document.
Although many Jews prefer to think that prophecy is a miraculous gift from God, Hoffman recognizes that Maimonides declared, "If a person, perfect in his intellectual and moral faculties, and also perfect – as far as possible – in his imaginative faculty, prepares himself [properly]…he must become a prophet, for prophecy is a natural state of humanity." This quote is from The Guide of the Perplexed 2:32, where the sage is discussing the view of the philosophers, not the "view that is taught in Scripture" that he mentions later. However, it is true that Maimonides states that he agrees with the philosophical view with a small difference: God can stop a person from prophesying; meaning, as Joseph ibn Caspi realized, that a person's emotions, not God, can stop him from prophesying.
Hoffman, a psychologist, states correctly that Maimonides recognized that heredity plays a significant part in a person's life, but knew that environment – especially training and the development of proper habits – can alter a person's personality. Thus people should improve themselves by working daily to develop habits according to the "Golden Mean."
Maimonides was also able to see how people's mind and body can affect each other – and even kill people - and taught that it is important to have a calm attitude.
But Maimonides knew that it is not easy to change. A person becomes accustomed to opinions they learnt "from youth; he likes them, defends them, and shuns the opposite views. This is likewise one of the causes that prevents people from discovering truth and make them cling to habitual patterns" (Guide 1:31).
Hoffman writes something that others miss. The fact that Maimonides, a Jew living in a Muslim world, "successfully gained the confidence and eventual friendship of those wielding great power in the Muslim world…bespeaks a true mastery of social relationships that can hardly be attributed merely to scholarly talent."
Hoffman also recognizes that Maimonides wrote for many different audiences – Muslims and Jews, educated and uneducated people. "We cannot possibly expect that a wise leader would offer the same religious message to all. To do so (to think that everything that Maimonides said is his true view, applicable to the educated and uneducated alike) is to fall into a trap that seems to have ensnared scholars for centuries through the present day." Thus people who cannot understand that some Maimonidean statement were composed to make the masses feel better and to give them a standard that will help them live well, even though it is not true, cannot understand Maimonides.
Maimonides' perspective of Judaism
Hoffman writes that there are three fundamental truths that people need to know about Maimonides. First, he "maintained an intense devotion to Judaism throughout his life."
Second, "Maimonides' particular attraction for Jewish tradition was primarily intellectual." His understanding of Judaism was different than that of his coreligionists; it had to be because he was a genius, and it is impossible for a genius to think like an average person. Yet, he always showed great compassion to all people.
Third, Maimonides focused on finding out the truth and "the truth is the truth no matter what its source." Thus contrary to the view of many people of his time and today, people need to seek truth from all sources, even from idol worshippers, even from people who are generally wrong, even from despicable madmen who want to see the end of Jews.
The eleven legends that Hoffman includes in his book are amusing, as they were obviously meant to be. Hoffman certainly did not believe that they were true tales about the "great eagle." In fact, readers may recognize that some of the stories were also told about other famous non-Jewish figures. But they show how people respected Maimonides; they even ascribed miracles to him.
In summary, readers will find this book interesting and helpful. Hoffman's accounting of Maimonides' psychology is important, relevant, and correct. However, many biographical "facts" are not, and readers may be misled by some quotes that Hoffman includes because they are not Maimonides' true views, but statements he wrote to help the masses during times of persecution and stress. For example, Hoffman's quote about "angels" may lead readers to believe that Maimonides was convinced that such beings exist and they are present to help weak oppressed people, while the truth is that he defined "angels" as anything that carries out the divine will; thus an "angel" can be a human or the wind or snow or a sunny day.