Posted on April 13, 2014


We tend to think of ourselves as pretty modern, savvy and experienced in the ways of the world, perhaps even a storehouse of past knowledge and wisdom. But sometimes when we argue in public over such common activities and abstract concepts as work, wealth, status, evil, goodness, truth, justice, equality, ethics, morality and even the great spiritual issues of immortality–life after death, and salvation, for example–we tend to forget how much has come before us, and, equally, how much we seem to have forgotten.

Recently, I once again ran across one of the greatest of Jewish philosophers and teachers who ever lived. Scholars of the Jewish experience in the history of the world will instantly recognize the Spanish-born Maimonides (1135-1204). The rest of us may just wonder how to pronounce his name, Rabbeinu Mosheh ben Maimon, “Our Rabbi/Teacher Moses Son [of] Maimon” in English.
Spain, called Iberia in ancient times, had been a part of the Roman Empire. Visigoths invaded Spain in the fifth century and ended Roman authority, and in 711 a Muslim army crossed the Straits of Gibraltar from Africa and conquered most of Iberia for Islam.
Maimonides was born in Córdoba and died in Egypt. He was a rabbi, philosopher, and physician, including physician to Sultan Saladin of Egypt. He was forced to leave Spain in the mid-twelfth century during a period of intense anti-Jewish and anti-Christian persecution by a sect of Moors. He traveled as an exile through the Mediterranean world, much of it controlled by Muslims. His lifetime also encompassed the beginnings of the Crusades.

In this tumultuous period, Maimonides produced a body of works across the worlds of theology, philosophy, and medicine that no one man has matched since, or before. One Jewish scholar said that if you didn’t know Maimonides was a man, you would think the name was to a university.
In his lifetime he produced the Mishneh Torah, still one of the leading books on Jewish law and life. He studied and wrote both in Hebrew and Arabic and studied and commented on Aristotle as deeply as he did on the Talmud, or Jewish law. He reconciled the rational and scientific thought of Aristotle with the teachings of the Torah, and influenced some of the leading Christian scholastics of the times such as St. Thomas Aquinas. His inquiries into the nature of evil are remarkable for their erudition and simplicity.
His book Guide for the Perplexed took on the eternal question of the co-existence of a good and omnipotent God with the existence of evil. How can this be?

Anyone who has read the Book of Job in the Old Testament, or the modern The Problem of Evil by C. S. Lewis, realizes the importance of somehow reconciling these two. In a nutshell, Maimonides wrote that evil is basically the absence of good. God did not create evil. God created good, and evil exists where good is absent. It may not be the most satisfying or persuasive answer for anyone who has thought about it much, but it is a starting point.
His studies and suggestions for charity (Tzedakah) and the principles of faith are applicable across time. Among his eight rules for Tzedakah, are not only to give often, to give anonymously, and to give before being asked, but also to give willingly. God indeed loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7).
As a physician he wrote numerous books on diseases and conditions like asthma, diabetes, hepatitis, and pneumonia. He stressed what any good modern doctor would preach: moderation and a healthy lifestyle. His widespread fame as a physician got him the appointment to the royal family in Egypt where he worked ten to twelve hours a day tending to his patients and displaying what, alas, modern doctors seem to have discarded, a very close and caring relationship to each and every patient.
What is somewhat remarkable about Maimonides is not only his fame in so many areas but also that he was a Jew within a sea of Christians and Muslims, often fighting, but just as often living in peace and relative harmony. Until the middle of the twelfth century, Christians, Moors, and Jews lived together as teachers, philosophers, agriculturalists, translators, and scientists, sharing a kind of golden age in which the people of the Book—all three faiths having come out of the Bible—lived together in peace.
Today when most of the Muslim nations preach the destruction of Israel, one forgets how once, long ago, Islamic, Christian, and Jewish scholars and teachers not only tolerated, but also respected each other. And among those, Maimonides stands like a giant of erudition and compassion, the descendant of Abraham of the Old Testament, as were the later Christians and Muslims.

Published in my column The Port Rail in The Tuscaloosa News on Sunday April 13, 2014, as Maimonides’s Body of Work Unmatched.