What Maimonides Means to Me

Beyond just his great volume of work, inspiration from the life of the

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By David Golinkin

This piece was written in commemoration of the 800th anniversary of Maimonides death, Jan. 1, 2005. Reprinted with permission from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

When Moses Maimonides died on the 20th of Tevet 4965 (December 13, 1204), public mourning was ordained in all parts of the Jewish world. For three days, Jews and Muslims held lamentations in Fostat.

In Jerusalem, a public fast was proclaimed. They read the Tokhekhah (rebuke) from Leviticus 26 followed by I Samuel 4:22: "The glory is departed from Israel, for the Ark of God is taken." An unknown hand wrote on his tomb in Tiberias: "Here lies a man and yet not a man; if you were a man, then heavenly creatures created you."

This reaction is not surprising. Moses ben Maimon was one of the great Jewish intellects of all time. His major writings include his: Commentary to the Mishnah, the Book of Commandments, the Mishneh Torah--his majestic 14-book compendium of all of Jewish law--and the Guide to the Perplexed. His "minor" works include his Eight Chapters--an introduction to Pirkei Avot (Ethic of the Fathers)--his introduction to Perek Helek, which includes his 13 principles of Jewish faith, his Epistles which brought comfort to the persecuted Jews of Yemen and Morocco, approximately 500 responsa (rabbinic legal decisions), and a slew of medical works. It is no wonder that people said: "from Moses to Moses there is none like Moses."

On my shelves in Jerusalem, I have many editions of the Rambam's works in various languages. They are my constant companions. ButI would like to step back from the specifics of his works and ask a more general question: What does Maimonides mean to me as a Jew and as a rabbi? What general lessons can we derive from his life and works? I believe there are at least seven.

 Synthesis of Torah and secular knowledge: In his Eight Chapters, Maimonides says "accept the truth from he who says it." These were not mere words. In his epistle to the Sages of Montpellier (ed. Shilat, p. 481), Maimonides explains that he had thoroughly studied every book about idol worship available in Arabic. In his Laws of Sanctifying the New Moon (17:24) he utilized the books of the Greek sages: "Since anything whose reason is known and whose truth is known with proofs … we rely on the person who said it or taught it…whether they be prophets or non-Jews." Indeed, that is why his Guide and his medical works are a synthesis of Greek, Arabic, and Jewish science and philosophy.

Torah scholars must work for a living: Maimonides was rabidly opposed to communal support for Torah scholars. "Anyone who makes up his mind to study Torah and not work but live on charity, profanes the name of God, brings the Torah into contempt… and deprives himself of the World to Come, for it is forbidden to benefit from Torah study in this world…" (Laws of Torah Study 3:11). After the death of his brother David, who had supported him, Maimonides began to work full-time as a physician, later becoming court physician to the Vizier. His famous letter of 1199 to Samuel ibn Tibon describes his daily routine. He treated the Sultan and his court until the afternoon, followed by regular patients at home until after nightfall. This means that he wrote his two major works, the Mishneh Torah and the Guide, after working more than 12 hours a day!

A person can rise above the vicissitudes of his life: Maimonides did not have an easy life. From 1148-1165, he and his family were constantly in flight from Almohad persecutions. They left Cordoba, wandered around Spain, settled in Fez, fled to Israel, and finally settled in Fostat, the old city of Cairo. His first wife died at a young age. As already noted, after his brother's death, Maimonides worked as a full-time physician for the rest of his life. In other words, Maimonides did all that he did despite a turbulent youth and a very demanding profession.

Public servant: In addition to writing and working as a physician, Maimonides was the head of the Jewish community of Egypt, and some say he was the Nagid. It is clear that the Rambam did not live in an ivory tower. For example, he was actively engaged in Pidyon Shevuyim, the redemption of captives, and the Cairo Genizah contains a receipt for such a contribution in his own hand.

Tolerance: Maimonides suffered greatly at the hands of Muslim fanatics. He and his family spent years on the run and, according to some accounts, were forcibly converted to Islam. Nonetheless, in his Mishneh Torah (Forbidden Foods 11:7) and in his responsa (ed. Blau, no. 448) he classifies the Muslims as strict monotheists. Furthermore, in the Laws of Kings (11:4) in the uncensored editions, he says that Christianity and Islam help pave the way for the Messiah. 

Halakhic (Jewish law) flexibility: Maimonides was one of the greatest halakhists of all time. Like most great halakhists, he knew that Jewish lawmust be flexible in order to deal with new problems and new situations. For example, he was very disturbed by the fact that during the loud repetition of the Amidah people would talk and spit as if they were in the marketplace. He explained in his responsa (ed. Blau, nos. 256, 258) that those who do not know the Amidah cannot hear it in any case and he viewed it as a terrible hillul hashem (desecration of God's name) in the eyes of the Muslims who pray with absolute decorum. He therefore abolished the silent Amidah and enacted that the entire congregation should recite the Amidah together. This remained the practice in Egypt until the days of the Radbaz (16th century).

 Inconsistency: Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Given the volume of the Rambam's writings, it is not surprising that he sometimes contradicts himself. Prof. Saul Lieberman and others have pointed out some of the contradictions between his different works. This is as it should be. A great scholar is allowed to change his mind over the course of time.

These are only some of the lessons we can learn from the life and writings of hanesher hagadol, "the great eagle." His life and works will continue to inspire and challenge us for at least 800 more years.

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Rabbi David Golinkin

Rabbi David Golinkin, Ph.D., is president and rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches Talmud and Jewish law, and he heads the Va'ad Halakhah (committee on Jewish law) of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement's Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.