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Moses Maimonides (1135-1204)

Moses Maimonides was the major medieval philosopher of the 12th Century. He was also a rabbi and the physician to the Grand Vizier Alfadhil and Sultan Saladin of Egypt. He was born in Spain during the golden age of Jewish culture in Cordoba.

However, when the Almohades, a radical Islamic sect, conquered Cordoba and threatened Jews who did not convert to Islam with death or exile, Maimonides fled from Spain along with many other Jewish men, women and children. Maimonides found refuge in more moderate Muslim communities, first in Morocco and eventually in Egypt. The Muslims of Cairo provided hospitality, and he lived and worked there the rest of his life.

Maimonides was one of the greatest Jewish thinkers ever, producing foundational philosophical works on Judaism. He wrote a commentary on the entire Mishnah, the ancient collection of Jewish texts that contains much of the faith’s code for living. He wrote an enormously influential compilation of all of the more than 600 commandments for Jewish life contained in the Torah. He formulated 13 articles of faith, which still appear in most Jewish prayer books today.

Maimonides was also known for the breadth of his thinking and scholarship. He wrote medical works in Arabic, which have been translated into many languages and can still be found today. As a scholastic philosopher, he worked with the teachings of Aristotle as well as with Arab Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Rushd and Al-Ghazali.

Also, Maimonides worked diligently to reconcile scientific teachings with the teachings of his faith. In his mind, there could be no contradiction between what God revealed through the prophets and the findings of science and human reason. Maimonides’ scholastic philosophy greatly influenced both Christian philosophers, such as Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, as well as Arab Muslim philosophers who viewed him as one of their own.

Because Maimonides was open to diversity and was knowledgeable about many different streams of culture, his expertise enriched many traditions and faiths including his own. He wove together ancient Greco-Roman, medieval Arab, Jewish and Western cultures while retaining clear and cogent roots in his own Jewish faith.

Questions for Reflection 

  • What do we know about the traditions and thinking within other cultures and faiths? 
  • Can you think of something helpful that you have picked up from a friend, neighbor or co-worker who is part of another tradition?
  • Can we interact with those from different traditions in ways that enrich and refine our own religious thoughts and expressions?
  • Do we recognize the differences among those in a religion who might treat people unjustly – and those adhering to that same religion who are merciful, just and provide sanctuary to those who need refuge?
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