The greatest of medieval Jews was born in Cordova, son of the distinguished scholar, physician, and judge Maimon ben Joseph. The boy received the name of Moses, and it became an adage among Jews that “from Moses to Moses there arose none like Moses.” His people knew him as Moses ben Maimon, or, more briefly, Maimuni; when he became a famous rabbi the initials of his title and his name were combined into the fond appellation Rambam; and the Christian world expressed his parentage by terming him Maimonides. A probably legendary story tells how the boy showed a distaste for study, and how the disappointed father, calling him “the butcher’s son,” packed him off to live with the father’s former teacher, Rabbi Joseph ibn Migas.34 From this poor beginning the second Moses became adept in Biblical and rabbinical literature, in medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy; he was one of the two most learned men of his time. His only rival was Averroës. Strange to say, these outstanding thinkers, born in the same city only nine years apart, seem never to have met; and apparently Maimonides read Averroës only in old age, after his own books had been written.35
In 1148 Berber fanatics captured Cordova, destroyed churches and synagogues, and gave Christians and Jews a choice between Islam and exile. In 1159 Maimonides, with his wife and children, left Spain; for nine years they lived in Fez, pretending to be Moslems;36 for there, too, no Jews or Christians were allowed. Maimonides justified superficial adherence to Islam among endangered Jews in Morocco by arguing that “we are not asked to render active homage to heathenism, but only to recite an empty formula; the Moslems themselves know that we utter it insincerely in order to circumvent bigots.”37 The head rabbi of Fez did not agree with him, and suffered martyrdom in 1165. Fearing the same fate, Maimonides left for Palestine; thence he moved to Alexandria (1165) and old Cairo, where he lived till his death. Soon recognized as one of the ablest practitioners of his time, he became personal physician to Saladin’s eldest son, Nur-ud-Din Ali, and to Sal-adin’s vizier al-Qadi al-Fadil al-Baisani. He used his favor at court to secure protection for the Jews of Egypt; and when Saladin conquered Palestine Maimonides persuaded him to let the Jews settle there again.38 In 1177 Maimonides was made Nagid or head of the Jewish community in Cairo. A Moslem jurist indicted him (1187) as an apostate from Islam, and demanded the usual death penalty; Maimonides was saved by the vizier, who ruled that a man converted to Mohammedanism by force could not rightly be considered a Moslem.39
During these busy years in Cairo he composed most of his books. Ten medical works in Arabic transmitted the ideas of Hippocrates, Galen, Dioscorides, al-Razi, and Avicenna. Medical Aphorisms reduced Galen to 1500 short statements covering every branch of medicine; it was translated into Hebrew and Latin, and was frequently quoted in Europe under the formula Dixit Rabbi Moyses. For Saladin’s son he wrote a treatise on diet; and for Saladin’s nephew al-Muzaffar I, Sultan of Hamah, he composed an Essay on Intercourse (Maqala fi-l-jima)— on sexual hygiene, impotence, priapism, aphrodisiacs… The introduction to this work struck an unhackneyed note:
Our Lord His Majesty [al-Muzaffar]—may God prolong his power!—ordered me to compose a treatise that would help him increase his sexual powers, as he … had some hardship in this way…. He does not wish to depart from his customs concerning sexual intercourse, is alarmed by the abatement of his flesh, and desires an augmentation [of his virility] on account of the increasing number of his female slaves.40
To these writings Maimonides added several monographs—on poisons, asthma, hemorrhoids, and hypochondria—and a learned Glossary of Drugs. Like all books, these medical works contain several items not in accord with the passing infallibilities of our time—e.g., if the right testis is larger than the left, the first child will be male;41 but they are marked by an earnest desire to help the sick, by a courteous consideration of contrary opinions, and by wisdom and moderation of prescription and advice. Maimonides never prescribed drugs where diet could serve.42 He warned against overeating: “The stomach must not be made to swell like a tumor.”43 He thought that wine was healthful in moderation.44 He recommended philosophy as a training in the mental and moral balance and calm conducive to health and longevity.45
At the age of twenty-three Maimonides began a commentary on the Mishna, and labored on it for a decade amid commerce, medicine, and perilous journeys by land and sea. Published at Cairo (1158) as Kitab al-siraj, or Book of the Lamp, its clarity, erudition, and good judgment at once placed Maimonides, still a youth of thirty-three, next to Rashi as a commentator on the Talmud. Twelve years later he issued his greatest work, written in Neo-Hebraic, and provocatively called Mishna Torah. Here, in logical order and lucid brevity, were arranged all the laws of the Pentateuch, and nearly all those of the Mishna and the Gemaras. “I have entitled this work Mishna Torah [Repetition of the Law],” said the introduction, “for the reason that a person who first reads the written Law [the Pentateuch] and then this compilation, will know the whole oral Law, without needing to consult any other book.”46 He omitted some Talmudic regulations concerning omens, amulets, and astrology; he was among the few medieval thinkers who rejected astrology.47He classified the 613 precepts of the Law under fourteen heads, devoted a “book” to each head, and undertook not only to explain each law, but to show its logical or historical necessity. Only one of the fourteen books has been translated into English; it forms a substantial volume; we may judge the immensity of the original.
It is clear from this work, and from the later Guide to the Perplexed, that Maimonides was not openly a freethinker. He endeavored as far as he could to reduce Scriptural miracles to natural causes, but he taught the divine inspiration of every word in the Pentateuch, and the orthodox rabbinical doctrine that the whole oral Law had been transmitted by Moses to the elders of Israel.48 Perhaps he felt that the Jews could not claim less for their Scriptures than the Christians and Moslems claimed for them; perhaps he, too, considered social order impossible without belief in the divine origin of the moral code. He was a stern and dictatorial patriot: “All Israelites are bound to follow everything in the Babylonian Talmud, and we should force the Jews of every land to adhere to the customs established by the Talmudic sages.”49 A bit more liberal than most Moslems and Christians of the time, he thought that a virtuous and monotheistic non-Jew would go to heaven, but he was as severe as Deuteronomy or Torquemada on heretics within the Hebrew pale; any Jew who repudiated the Jewish Law should be put to death; and “according to my opinion, all members of an Israelite community which has insolently and presumptuously transgressed any of the divine precepts must be put to death.”50 He anticipated Aquinas in defending death for heresy on the ground that “cruelty against those who mislead the people to seek vanity is real clemency to the world”;51 and he accepted without trouble the Scriptural penalty of death for witchcraft, murder, incest, idolatry, violent robbery, kidnaping, filial disobedience, and breaking the Sabbath.52 The condition of the Jews migrating from ancient Egypt and trying to form a state out of a destitute and homeless horde may have warranted these laws; the precarious status of the Jews in Christian Europe or Moslem Africa, always subject to attack, conversion, or demoralization, required a hard code to forge order and unity; but in these matters (and before the Inquisition) Christian theory, and probably Jewish practice, were more humane than Jewish law. A better side of this stern spirit shows in Maimonides’ advice to the Jews of his age: “If heathens should say to Israelites, ‘Surrender one of your number to us that we may put him to death,’ they should all suffer death rather than surrender a single Israelite to them.”53
Pleasanter is his picture of the scholar growing into a sage. He approved the rabbinical saying that “a bastard who is a scholar [of the Law] takes precedence of an ignorant high priest.”54 He advised the scholar to give three hours daily to earning a living, nine hours to studying the Torah. Believing environment more influential than heredity, he counseled the student to seek association with good and wise men. The scholar should not marry until he has reached the maturity of his learning, has acquired a trade, and has bought a home.55 He may marry four wives, but should cohabit with each of them only once a month.
Although connubial intercourse with one’s wife is always permitted, this relation too should be invested by the scholar with sanctity. He should not be always with his spouse, like a rooster, but should fulfill his marital obligation on Friday nights.… When cohabiting, neither husband nor wife should be in a state of intoxication, lethargy, or melancholy. The wife should not be asleep at the time.56
And so at last is produced the sage. He
cultivates extreme modesty. He will not bare his head or his body… When speaking he will not raise his voice unduly. His speech with all men will be gentle… He will avoid exaggeration or affected speech. He will judge everyone favorably; he will dwell on the merits of others, and never speak disparagingly of anybody.57
He will avoid restaurants except in extreme emergency; “the wise man will eat nowhere except at home and at his own table.”58 He will study the Torah every day until his death. He will beware of false Messiahs, but will never lose his faith that some day the real Messiah will come, and restore Israel to Zion, and bring all the world to the true faith, and to abundance, brotherhood, and peace. “The other nations vanish, but the Jews last forever.”59
The Mishna Torah irritated the rabbis; few could forgive the presumption of aiming to displace the Talmud; and many Jews were scandalized by the reported assertion of Maimonides60 that he who studies the Law is higher than he who obeys it. Nevertheless the book made its author the leading Jew of the time. All Eastern Israel accepted him as its counselor, and sent him questions and problems; it seemed for a generation that the Gaonate had been revived. But Maimonides, not pausing to enjoy his renown, began work at once on his next book. Having codified and clarified the Law for orthodox Jews, he turned to the task of restoring to the Jewish fold those who had been seduced by philosophy or lured into the Qaraite communities of heretical Jews in Egypt, Palestine, or North Africa. After another decade of labor he issued to the Jewish world his most famous work, the Guide to the Perplexed (1190). Written in Arabic with Hebrew characters, it was soon translated into Hebrew as Moreh Nebuchim, and into Latin, and aroused one of the bitterest intellectual tempests of the thirteenth century.
“My primary object,” says the introduction, “is to explain certain words occurring in the Prophetic books”—i.e., the Old Testament. Many Biblical terms and passages have several meanings; literal, metaphorical, or symbolical. Taken literally, some of them are a stumbling block to persons sincerely religious but also respectful of reason as man’s highest faculty. Such persons must not be forced to choose between religion without reason or reason without religion. Since reason was implanted in man by God, it cannot be contrary to God’s revelation. Where such contradictions occur, Maimonides suggests, it is because we take literally expressions adapted to the imaginative and pictorial mentality of the simple, unlettered people to whom the Bible was addressed.
Our sages have said, It is impossible to give a full account of the creation to man…. It has been treated in metaphors in order that the uneducated may comprehend it according to the measure of their faculties and the feebleness of their apprehension, while educated persons may take it in a different sense.61
From this starting point Maimonides advances to a discussion of deity. That some supreme intelligence rules the universe he deduces from the evidences of design in nature; but he ridicules the notion that all things have been made for the sake of man.62 Things exist only because God, their source and life, exists; “if it could be supposed that He does not exist, it would follow that nothing else could possibly exist.” Since in this way it is essential that God exist, His existence is identical with His essence. Now “a thing which has in itself the necessity of existence, cannot have for its existence any cause whatever.” *63 Since God is intelligent, He must be incorporeal; therefore all Biblical passages implying physical organs or attributes in God must be interpreted figuratively. In truth, says Maimonides (probably following the Mutazilites), we cannot know anything of God except that He exists. Even the nonphysical terms that we use of Him—intelligence, omnipotence, mercy, affection, unity, will—are homonyms; i.e., they have different meanings when applied to God than as used of man. Just what their meaning is in God’s case we shall never know; we can never define Him; we must not ascribe to Him any positive attributes, qualities, or predicates whatever. When the Bible tells how God or an angel “spoke” to the Prophets, we must not imagine a voice or sound. “Prophecy consists in the most perfect development of the imaginative faculty”; it is “an emanation from the Divine Being” through dream or ecstatic vision; what the Prophets relate took place not in actuality, but only in such vision or dream, and must in many cases be interpreted allegorically.64 “Some of our sages clearly stated that Job never existed, and that he is a poetic fiction … revealing the most important truths.”65 Any man, if he develops his faculties to their height, is capable of such prophetic revelations; for human reason is a continuing revelation, not basically different from the vivid insight of the prophet.
Did God create the world in time, or is the universe of matter and motion, as Aristotle thought, eternal? Here, says Maimonides, reason is baffled; we can prove neither the eternity nor the creation of the world; let us therefore hold to our fathers’ faith in its creation.66 He proceeds to interpret the creation story of Genesis allegorically: Adam is active form or spirit; Eve is passive matter, which is the root of all evil; the serpent is imagination.67 But evil is no positive entity; it is merely the negation of good. Most of our misfortunes are due to our own fault; other evils are evil only from a human or limited standpoint; a cosmic view might discover in every evil the good or need of the whole.68 God permits to man the free will that lets him be a man; man sometimes chooses evil; God has foreseen the choice, but does not determine it.
Is man immortal? Here Maimonides applies to the full his capacity for mystifying his readers. In the Guide he avoids the question, except to say that “the soul that remains after death is not the soul that lives in a man when he is born”;69 the latter—the “potential intellect”—is a function of the body and dies with it; what survives is the “acquired” or “active intellect,” which existed before the body and is never a function of it.70 This Aristotelian-Averroist view apparently denied individual immortality. In the Mishna TorahMaimonides rejected the resurrection of the body, ridiculed the Moslem notion of a physically epicurean paradise, and represented this, in Islam and Judaism alike, as a concession to the imagination and the moral needs of the populace.71 In the Guide he added that “incorporeal entities can only be numbered when they are forces situated in a body”;72 * which seemed to imply that the incorporeal spirit which survived the body had no individual consciousness. As physical resurrection had become a central doctrine of both Judaism and Mohammedanism, many protests were aroused by these skeptical intimations. Transliterated into Arabic, the Guide made a stir in the Moslem world; a Mohammedan scholar, Abd al-Latif, denounced it as “undermining the principles of all faiths by the very means with which it appears to buttress them.”73 Saladin was at this time engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the Crusaders; always orthodox, he now more than ever resented heresy as threatening Moslem morale in the heat of a holy war; in 1191 he ordered the execution of Surawardi, a mystic heretic. In the same month Maimonides issued a Maqala, or discourse, “On the Resurrection of the Dead”; he again expressed his doubts about corporeal immortality, but announced that he accepted it as an article of faith.
The storm subsided for a time, and he busied himself in his work as a physician, and in writing responsa to doctrinal and ethical inquiries from the Jewish world. When (1199) Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon, who was translating the Guide into Hebrew, proposed to visit him, he warned him not to expect
to confer with me on any scientific subject for even one hour, either by day or by night; for the following is my daily occupation. I dwell in Fustat, and the Sultan resides at Cairo two Sabbath days’ journey [a mile and a half] distant. My duties to the regent [Saladin’s son] are very heavy. I am obligated to visit him every day, early in themorning; and when he or any of his children, or any inmate of his harem, is indisposed, I dare not quit Cairo, but must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace…. I do not return to Fustat until the afternoon.… Then I am almost dying with hunger. I find the antechambers filled with people, theologians, bailiffs, friends, and foes. … I dismount from my animal, wash my hands, and beg my patients to bear with me while I partake of some refreshments—the only meal I take in twenty-four hours. Then I attend my patients … until nightfall, sometimes until two hours in the night, or even later. I prescribe while lying on my back from fatigue; and when night falls I am so exhausted I can scarcely speak. In consequence of this, no Israelite can have any private interview with me except on the Sabbath. On that day the whole congregation, or at least a majority, come to me after the morning service, when I instruct them…. We study together till noon, when they depart.74
He was prematurely worn out. Richard I of England sought him as personal physician, but Maimonides could not accept the invitation. Saladin’s vizier, seeing his exhaustion, pensioned him. He died in 1204, aged sixty-nine. His remains were conveyed to Palestine, where his tomb may still be seen in Tiberias.