Maimonides’, whose full name is Moses ben Maimos, (also known as Rambam or Rabbi Moshe) major contribution to life, was his code of Jewish law called the Mishneh Torah (1). His goal was to provide a complete statement of the oral law so that a person who mastered the written Torah first, then only needed to study his Mishneh Torah to gain a full understanding so that there would be no need for any other book for them to study(1). His code of law has caused much controversy even until today and is sometimes considered an alternative view for Jewish people.
He was born in Cordova Spain in the year of 1138 and died in the year of 1204 (3). When Maimonides was born, his hometown of Cordova was under Muslim rule and stood as one of the great intellectual centers of the world (3). But ten years later in 1148 things in Cordova changed drastically. A group called the Almohads invaded and offered all non-Muslims the choice of either converting their religion to Muslim, exit the town or get killed (3). The vast majority of the Jews along with the Maimonides’ family decided to leave their possessions behind and head somewhere elsewhere.
They then became wandering Jews looking for a place to live. Eventually they made their way to Egypt, the Holy Land (2). Unlike most other Muslim countries, the Jews in Egypt were granted complete religious and civil freedom under the tolerant and enlightened rule of the Fatimide caliphs. They were allowed to develop their religious, cultural and communal life without any restrictions or interference. It was here where Maimonides was to create his masterpiece for which Jewish people are forever indebted to him (2).
A few months after their arrival in Fostad Egypt, Rabbi Maimon, (the father of Maimonides) passed away. Maimonides was greatly saddened by the loss of his father who to him not only was a father, but an inspirational leader and very important influence in his life. Rabbi Maimon wrote a commentary on the Talmud that Maimonides mentions and uses as a source in the preparation of his own work (2). Maimonides had a younger brother named David who was also gifted and had talents of his own. After the passing of their father David took upon the responsibility of providing financial support for the entire family.
This allowed Maimonides to devote all of his time to his religious studies while David took care of the family’s well being. David did a very good job in doing so by becoming a jewel merchant who imported gems and precious stones from India (2). David and all of the Maimonides family lived comfortably because of his well-doing. But, unfortunately more devastation hit the Maimonides family. On one of David’s business trips to India, the ship that he was on got caught in a storm that shipwrecked him and his entire family’s fortune.
He along with all of his jewels sank to the bottom of the Indian Ocean (2). This caused Maimonides to start a new chapter in his life. After all the tragedy that hit the Maimonides family, Maimonides was forced to start providing for the family that he had remaining. But as a result of his nonstop intensive study and the grief over his brother’s death, he became seriously ill. After being bedridden for several months his family’s fortune started to decline. Maimonides never thought it was proper to receive monetary benefits from his vast Torah knowledge.
He believed the Torah should be studied and taught only for the sake of Heaven and not for earning a living (2). When he finally recovered from his illness he decided he should begin to practice the study of medicine to provide for his family. Maimonides was a very bright and smart man who picked up and learned things very quickly. Once he began to study medicine he became so successful and gained such a good reputation that high authorities such as Grand Vizier Alfadhil, and eventually Sultan Saladin wanted him as their personal physicians.
At the height of Saladin’s power he ruled over Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Hejaz and Yemen (2). Maimonides took his job of being a physician very seriously and did everything he could to help people. At the comparatively young age of 42 he even served as the leader of the Cairo Jewish Community and became their Chief Rabbi, which was one of the most prestigious offices of the Jewish world at the time (2). His duties to the sultan (Cairo’s upper authority) were very commanding.
He was obligated to visit him on a daily basis and attend to any of his children or royal officers who fell ill (1). He would leave for Cairo very early everyday and even if nothing unusual happened he would not return to Fostad until the afternoon. He is almost dying with hunger by the time he arrives back home but still is kind enough to meet with all of the people who await his arrival in the antechamber. He converses and prescribes for people while lying down from sheer fatigue after such a long day and when nightfall comes he can hardly speak (1).
Maimonides became the best known physician of his time. Maimonides did many things throughout his life to become the great person everyone knew him to be during his time. But the reason we still know so much about him today is because of his Mishneh Torah. Despite sometimes intense opposition, the Mishneh Torah became a standard guide to Jewish Practice (2). Not only does this work systematize all of the commandments of the Torah, it tries to show that every part of Jewish law serves a rational purpose (3).
According to Maimonides, all of Jewish law aims at one of two things: the improvement of the body and the improvement of the soul. The soul is improved by acquiring correct opinions and eventually knowledge on everything humans are capable of knowing. The more knowledge the soul acquires, the more it is able to fulfill the commandment to love God. The biggest stumbling block to the love of God, is the belief that the only way to remain true to the Bible is to interpret it literally. This results in the belief that God is an image or object rather than a monotheistic god, according to Maimonides (3).
When the Bible says that God spoke to a prophet it doesn’t actually mean that God has a voice and spoke words to him, it means that the prophet finally came to the understanding of what God wants. There are also places where God is described as near or close, but the Bible is not talking about physical location, as if he is literally right around the corner but as in intellectual apprehension (4). Many people struggle to believe something if they can’t actually see it or prove it’s even there.
That’s why people who read too literally into the Bible believe in God in an idolatry way. But Maimonides offers several proofs for the existence of God in a non idolatry way. Rather than trying to define what God’s existence is, he begins with a description of the world as we know it and tries to show that it implies the existence of God. He says, “According to one such argument, we assume that the heavenly bodies are engaged in eternal motion. We then recognize that it is impossible for there to be an infinite body or an infinite number of finite bodies.
So every corporeal thing is finite. If it is finite, it can only contain a finite amount of power. If it can only contain a finite amount of power, it can only explain motion over a finite period of time. Because the heavenly bodies are always moving, the only thing that can explain that motion is an infinite power. Because an infinite power cannot be contained in a finite thing, it cannot be corporeal. If it is not corporeal, it is not subject to division or change. Seeing that its power is infinite, it cannot derive that power from something else.
Thus the only way to explain the motion of the heavenly bodies is to posit the existence of a being that is neither a body nor a force in a body (4). ” Maimonides concludes that it is false to say the God has more power than us, that his life is more permanent than ours, that his knowledge is broader than ours or that God’s will is more universal than ours (4). What I think he is trying to say is that God is nothing like us and that God is definitely not a thing. God is everything and everywhere and with no God there is no existence.
Nobody can fully understand who or what God is, but according to Maimonides the best route to the understanding of him is to conduct the mind toward the utmost reach that may attain in the apprehension of him (4). Maimonides was one of the few Jewish thinkers whose teachings also influenced the non-Jewish world. Much of his philosophical writings were about God and other theological issues of general, not exclusively Jewish interest. Abderrahmane Badawi, a Muslim professor from Kuwait University said that he regards to Maimonides first and foremost and he is an Arab thinker.
Maimonides was perhaps the only philosopher in the Middle Ages, possibly even now, who symbolizes a confluence of four cultures; GrecoRoman, Arab, Jewish, and Western (1). Maimonides believed that Judaism was based partially off of philosophy (3). He believed that before Plato and Aristotle introduced science and philosophy to the Greeks, that the patriarchs introduced it to Israel. When asked why there was no explicit record of their philosophy, Maimonides answered by saying that any record of such teaching was destroyed when Israel went into exile and suffered persecution (3).
Jewish tradition has always been philosophical, but the subjects are too hard for the average worshipper to grasps. So in order for the average person to understand, metaphors or parables were used to make it easier for them to grasps. This causes many problems because the educated few will interpret things at much a higher level than the average worshipper (3). Maimonides was an elitist which in simple terms means he pretty much thought some people were born with more talents than others. According to him closeness to God is measured by how much knowledge one acquires (4).
The result of this is that people whose situations prevent them from pursuing advanced studies cannot be close to God or love God. Whether his view was right or wrong, this is what he thought and it offends many people in today’s modern world which is much more democratic than it was back then (4). This is why he put so much time throughout his life into the studying of the Torah and coming up with the Mishneh Torah so that future people wouldn’t have to dig so deep into things because he has already done the hard work for them.
Maimonides was a brilliant and gifted person. He was successful as a writer, teacher, philosopher, and as a physician. He spent his entire life trying to become closer to God and helping others in doing so as well. After his learning’s he realized that a person is wisest when they recoil in awe and humility in the face of something infinitely greater than he or she can fathom. That is the point where piety and wisdom come together (3). His Mishneh Torah although quite controversial, is known as one of the best alternative guides to Jewish life.