Maimonides (1135-1204) was a Hebrew philosopher, also known as Moses ben Maimon or Rambam. Being a very astute religious philosopher and physician, his genius revealed itself in fields of law, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, and logic.
His scholarly works earned him acclaim as head of the Jewish community in Egypt, and leader of all Jews. His authority extended to the distant land of Yemen and to this day Yemenite Jews pay homage to his memory.
He was born in Cordova, Spain, where his father, Rabbi Maimon, was the religious leader, or dayan, of the community. When Maimonides was thirteen, Cordova was conquered by the Almohades, a fanatical Muslim sect. During a period of wondering throughout Northern Africa, after which the family finally settled in Pez, Morocco, Maimonides continued his intellectual activities, and wrote treatises on the Jewish calendar, logic, and halakhah. This was followed, in 1168, by his completion of the Mishnah, and between 1170 and 1180 he worked on his great code, the Mishneh Torah (The Repetition of the Law, sometimes known as “The Strong Hand”).
The purpose of this work was “so the entire Oral law might become systematically known to all without citing difficulties and solutions of differences of view…but consisting of statements clear and convincing that have appeared since the time of Moses to the present, so that all rules shall be accessible to young and old.”
Even though his work, The Guide of the Perplexed (Hebrew, Moreh Nevakhim) had critics (see Maimonidean controversy), it was influenced by Aristotle, and the Hellenistic writers such as Alexander of Aphrodisias, Themistius, and Averroes, and also by the Muslim philosopher al-Farabi. The Guide shows “the perplexed” how scripture can be interpreted spiritually as well as literally, and Maimonides aimed to reveal to his readers “the science of the Law in its true sense.” The work contained his discussions concerning God, creation, the nature of evil, divine providence, and morality; it also provides his thirteen principles of the Jewish faith, which he believed every Jew was bound to accept. Many commentaries have been written on the Guide. It greatly influenced the Jewish community as well as prominent Christian writers.
Central to Maimonides’ position is his belief that a God-directed spirituality can be fully integrated with reason, an expression of the widespread medieval ideal of love of God through reason: “The foundation and support of all wisdom is the recognition that there is original Being, and that all else exists through the reality of his Being.” He recognized the problem of predicating attributes to God so described. He argued that God is identical to his attributes, thus being the knower, the knowledge, and the known; but this precipitates him into analogical language, and he preferred to speak of the effects of God rather than his being: “All attributes ascribed to God are attributes of his acts and do not imply that God has any qualities.” It thus becomes possible only to follow the via negativa, way of negation, when speaking of God. Maimonides applied the same rationalizing process to all aspects and became the uncompromising opponent to all that could not stand up to reason.
Thus on miracles he observed: “A miracle cannot prove what is impossible; it is useful only to confirm the possible.” He believed strongly in the tradition of good and evil inclinations, which entails that every individual has the responsibility to become righteous like Moses or evil like Jeroboam.
Maimonides viewed his work as being a meditation of all that Judaism, as religion and philosophy, has to offer to help people to make a living conversion of behavior in the direction of God. Similar to Lonergan, he envisaged levels of human knowledge leading to God: “When you understand physics, you have entered the hall; and when after completing the study of natural philosophy, you master metaphysics, you have entered the innermost court and are with the king in the same palace.”
His works caused Maimonides to be enshrined in folk legend, and the people of Tiberias erected a tomb in his memory on which is inscribed, “Here lies our master Moses ben Maimon, Mankind’s Chosen One.” A.G.H.
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 605-606
Schreiber, Mordecai, The Shengold Jewish Encyclopedia, Rockville, Maryland, Schreiber Publishing, 2nd. ed., 2001, p. 173