What Maimonides Means to Me

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

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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.