T he philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote about a number of subjects, and became justifiably recognized as a man of wisdom not only in spiritual but in scientific matters. As a scholar of the scriptures, he added immeasurably to the literature of the Jewish faith. As a student of philosophy, he achieved a synthesis, or joining, of the ancient Greeks' wisdom with the faith of the Old Testament. As a physician and scientist, he may be considered one of the earliest fathers of psychology as a discipline.
The second Moses
He is known to much of the world as Maimonides (my-MAHN-i-deez), and some scholars of Jewish thought refer to him by the nickname Rambam, but during his lifetime he went by the name Moses ben Maimon (my-MOHN). In Hebrew, ben means "son of," and Maimonides's father Maimon was a well-known scholar of the Jewish scriptures. Those scriptures include the Old Testament, and particularly its first five books, known as the Torah. To these, extensive books of commentary were added over the years: the Mishnah and the Gemara, which together constitute the Talmud. Much of Maimonides's writing would be concerned with these books of spiritual wisdom.
As for the name Moses, there were few greater names in Jewish history that Maimon could have given to his boy. At the time when the first Moses led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, as described in the Old Testament Book of Exodus, the Israelites celebrated the first Passover, a highly important festival in the Jewish calendar. The "second Moses," as Maimonides came to be called, was born on the eve of Passover, March 30, 1135, which also happened to fall on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, or holy day. To Maimon, all these facts seemed significant, a sign that his son was destined for greatness.
Life in Córdoba
The Jews had long been scattered from their homeland in Palestine, and many, like Maimonides's family, had settled in Spain. The latter was controlled by Muslims, who established a number of flourishing cultural centers such as Córdoba, where Maimonides was born. There Maimonides had an opportunity to interact with people from a variety of cultures, and by interacting with others he supplemented the learning he gained at home and in his father's library.
As a child, Maimonides was a serious-minded boy with a strong sense that he had a mission in life. Therefore he spent little time playing, and devoted much of his attention to educating his younger brother David. When he was thirteen, the quiet life of his family was disrupted when the Almohads (AL-moh-hahdz), an extremist Muslim group, seized control of Córdoba. The Almohads were far less tolerant of other religions than the previous Muslim rulers had been, and the years that followed were tense ones. Finally, in 1160, when Maimonides was twenty-five years old, the family moved to the city of Fez in Morocco.
Years of wandering and tragedy
In Fez, Maimon and David built a successful jewelry business while Maimonides continued to devote himself to his studies, particularly of medicine. Once again, the family lived quietly for a time, and once again their peaceful life was shattered—this time by Maimonides himself. In about 1162, he published his first significant work, translated as Letter Concerning Apostasy. Apostasy means rejection of a religious faith, and in this case referred to the Jews' rejection of Islam in favor of holding on to their traditions.
Maimonides's work gave comfort to many, and made him an instant celebrity within the Jewish community, but in light of his sudden prominence, the family judged it wise to leave Morocco. In 1165, they moved to Palestine, but after five months they relocated to Alexandria, Egypt. There tragedy struck a double blow: first Maimon died, then David drowned. Maimonides was devastated, particularly by the death of his younger brother, and he later recalled that for a whole year his grief prevented him from moving on with his life.
But he had to move on, especially because now, at the age of thirty, Maimonides had the responsibility of supporting David's widow and children. Settling in Cairo, he began to make a living as a physician, and he continued his studies. At some point he had married, but his first wife died. Soon afterward, he remarried and had two children, a girl and a boy. The son, Abraham, would later follow in Maimonides's footsteps as a leader in Cairo's Jewish community—as would ten more generations of his family.
The writings of Maimonides
Despite the wide-ranging nature of his scholarly pursuits, Maimonides used a consistent approach to all subjects: first he would study an array of concepts and information, then he would work to bring together all this knowledge and spell it out in a clear, easily understandable form. Thus his work has continued to remain fresh to readers over the centuries.
His principal writings on religious thought were The Illumination (1168) and the Mishneh Torah, later translated into English as The Code of Maimonides. The first of these books was an attempt to render the complex legal writings of the Mishnah into a form that average readers could understand, and the Mishneh Torah classified the vast knowledge contained in the Talmud.
As Moses ben Maimon became more well known in Europe by the westernized name Maimonides, so the Islamic philosopher and scientist ibn Sina is better known in the West as Avicenna (av-i-SEN-uh; 980–1037). More than 150 years before Maimonides, Avicenna was the first to attempt a synthesis, or joining, of ancient Greek philosophy with the principles of religious faith—in this case, Islam.
Born in what is now Afghanistan, Avicenna displayed an early talent as a student, and at the age of ten had already read the entire Koran (kü-RAHN), the Muslim holy book. His family valued study as well, and engaged in lively discussions regarding a number of subjects. Avicenna gained other useful knowledge from an Indian teacher who exposed him to Indian principles of mathematics, including the numeral zero, first used by Hindu mathematicians.
Still more exposure to learning came from a well-known philosopher who stayed with the family for several years and convinced Avicenna's father to allow the boy to pursue a full-time education. The teenaged Avicenna rapidly mastered difficult texts in the sciences and religious scholarship, and was soon teaching physicians and engaging in discussions of Islamic law with highly trained scholars.
His study of logic, or the system of reasoning and testing conclusions, led him to read Aristotle. This reading initially upset him, because he did not know how to square the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher with those of the Koran. One day, however, his reading of another Islamic scholar helped him unlock the seeming contradiction, and Avicenna was so over-joyed that he gave alms, or money, to the poor in gratitude.
Over the years that followed, Avicenna held a number of positions, primarily in the courts of various sultans and emirs, the equivalent of kings and dukes in the Muslim world. He wrote more than a hundred books on a variety of subjects, and had a number of adventures as he went from place to place. Among his writings, the Canon of Medicine was particularly important, and became a principal source of medical knowledge both in the Middle East and in Europe for centuries. He also wrote poetry, inventing the rubáiyát form later used by Omar Khayyám (see box in Dante Alighieri entry).
Like many Muslims of his time, Avicenna owned slaves, and one of these turned against him when he was in his fifties. Hoping to steal his money, the slave put opium, a dangerous drug, into Avicenna's food; but with his knowledge of medicine, Avicenna was able to treat himself and recover. The drug overdose weakened him, however, and in 1037 he had a relapse and died.
Maimonides's most important philosophical work was the Guide of the Perplexed, in which he analyzed the ideas of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 b.c..), and reconciled these with Jewish beliefs. Although many Jewish scholars had recognized Aristotle's contributions to knowledge, many had found it hard to accept his ideas because he did not worship the God of the Israelites. Maimonides, however, was able to find much in Aristotle that was relevant to Jews' beliefs about morality and other questions.
In his discussions on the nature of man in the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides bridged the subjects of philosophy and medicine in an approach that formed the basics of psychology, the study of the human mind. He also wrote directly on the subject of medicine in a number of other works.
Through such writings, Maimonides exerted an influence on thought that continued long after his death in 1204. This influence was not limited to Jewish thinkers, but to the world of scholars in general. Along with Arab writers such as Avicenna (see box) and Averroës (see entry), he helped open Christian Europeans' minds to the possibilities of bringing together the principles of religious faith with those of scientific study.
For More Information
Bacon, Brenda, editor. Rambam: His Thought and His Times. Drawings by Ida Huberman and Nina Woldin, photography by Suzanne Kaufman. New York: Melton Research Center of the Jewish Theological Seminary, 1995.
Marcus, Rebecca B. Moses Maimonides: Rabbi, Philosopher, and Physician. New York: F. Watts, 1969.
Shulman, Yaacov Dovid. The Rambam: The Story of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon. New York: C.I.S. Publishers, 1994.
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