A Man for the Ages

A polymath is an exceptionally educated person; someone who is an expert in many subjects.  Maimonides is the perfect example.  He was good at everything.

Maimonides was a scientist who studied mathematics, astronomy, and logic. He was a philosopher who wrote treatises on ethics and politics.  He was also a lawyer and a medical doctor, serving as the personal physician to the Muslim caliph in Cairo.  In addition to these secular topics, he was a rabbi who still influences Jewish law. 

Maimonides is Greek for Moses, son of Maimon. In Hebrew he called himself “Mosheh ben Maimon ha-Sefaradi” or Moses, son of Maimon the Sephardic [Jew].   His Arab name “al-Ra‘is Abu ‘Imran Musa ibn Maymun Ibn ‘Abdallah al-Qurtubi al Andalusi al-Isra’ili” is translated as [honorific title] Moses, son of Mayman, of the family of Obadiah, from Cordoba, in Andalusia, who is Jewish. 

Maimonides was born around 1138 in Cordoba, Spain, a key city in Andalusia, the region of Spain under Islamic rule.  His family fled to Fez, Morocco after a fundamentalist Islamic regime invaded Spain.  He later lived in Acre (modern Israel) before moving to Egypt where he remained until his death in 1204.

He lived in turbulent political times as Shia and Sunni caliphs fought for political control of the Islamic world.  Depending on the tolerance level of the caliph, Jews and Christians might be left alone or forced to convert to Islam.  As the leading rabbinic scholar of his day, Jews across the Islamic world looked to him for help. 

When the Jews of Yemen were facing forced conversions, they asked his advice.  His advice: conform outwardly but remain a Jew inside.  His advice is still followed. (In the movie, Schindler’s List, Goldberg, the clerk who worked for the Nazis was welcomed back by the Schindler Jews because they knew he collaborated in order to stay alive.)

Through all the crises, Maimonides managed to study every subject under the sun.  He lived during the Muslim equivalent of the European Age of Enlightenment.  Arab scholars translated Greek texts on philosophy, astronomy and medicine into Arabic.  The Arabic texts were later translated into Latin so that European scholars could study them.  

Like the later European humanists, Arab scholars sought to make sense of the universe and society by applying scientific principles of observation and logic.  In The Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides argued that people become fully human by perfecting their reason. Thanks to this book, he is included among the great western philosophers. 

Although he was an expert on secular topics, the main passion of Maimonides’ life was Jewish law.  Judaism combines religious and secular laws. These laws were compiled haphazardly over the centuries as they were amended.  The great accomplishment of Maimonides’ life was to organize the laws by topic into fourteen books. His massive compendium, the Mishnah Torah, is still the foundation for all Jewish jurisprudence. 

Imagine if John Adams, Alexander Hamilton or Chief Justice John Marshall had organized the rules of Christianity and English common law into one massive, multi-volume treatise. The closest analogy is Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on English Law, originally published in 1765 – 1769.   

To learn more about this extraordinary man and his accomplishments, see Maimonides, by Joel L. Kraemer (2008), which puts him in the context of the Islamic world in which he lived.

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