Maimonides: Conversation about a medieval hero whose wisdom we need today

n this era of turbulent change, we need to savor the spiritual wisdom of people who thrived in such eras before us.
In January, during Interfaith Heroes Month, Daniel Buttry wrote a short tribute to the 12th-century Maimonides among 31 short profiles in his book, “Interfaith Heroes.” Buttry’s summary remains a pretty good snapshot of this towering figure: “Maimonides was one of the greatest Jewish thinkers ever, producing foundational philosophical works on Judaism. … He also was known for the breadth of his thinking and scholarship. He wrote medical works in Arabic … and he worked diligently to reconcile scientific teachings with the teachings of his faith. … Because Maimonides was open to diversity and was knowledgeable about many different streams … he was able to weave together ancient Greco-Roman, medieval Arab, Jewish and Western cultures while retaining clear and cogent roots in his own Jewish faith.
In short: This is a guy we need to consult today in our own period of cultural upheaval! (And remember: You can click on any of the book covers, below, today to order copies via Amazon.)
Dr. Joel Kraemer has spent 60 years of his own life studying Maimonides—including many years he devoted to learning the languages that Maimonides mastered. Fortunately, Joel’s lifelong pursuit of the great sage has ended in the gift of this eye-opening exploration of Maimonides’ life, work and wisdom.
This book could not have come at a better moment.
If you like to dive into challenging, in-depth biographies, like David McCullough’s “John Adams” or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” then you’re going to enjoy Joel’s approach to Maimonides. The book is written for a general readership, but Joel’s original research is backed up in more than 100 pages of notes and supplemental materials at the back of the volume—in case you want to dig further into particular details.


Maimonides’ life flows through lands and cultures that seem exotic to us today, nearly a millennium later. His movement from what is now Spain to Morocco to Egypt involves groups and major figures who aren’t household names today. We may even have trouble pronouncing some of them. Nevertheless, I find Joel’s welcoming prose, his use of frequent sub-heads in the book and his organization of Maimonides’ life into thematic units results in a clear and compelling story. Plus, his overall approach balances Maimonides’ chronological path through life with detours to let us explore vignettes from his work as a scientist, doctor and jurist. These moments, when we get to explore how Maimonides resolved a particular legal dispute or to peek inside a medieval physician’s practice come along in the text like gems to pause and ponder.
In the end, the great sage’s confident and humane approach to global conflict and the alleviation of suffering—while he also was deepening the world’s appreciation of Judaism and expanding the world’s range of philosophy—give us a refreshing model for how we might strive to live in the rough-and-tumble changes of this new millennium.


DAVID: Wow! This book took 60 years to produce. Now, that’s a life’s work!
JOEL: (chuckles) Not quite the way you’ve said it. Some people have mistaken that phrase about the book to mean that I was working on the book for 60 years. I was a bit precocious at age 14, but I didn’t start writing then. That’s when I first got interested in Maimonides. By 14, I had read Spinoza and did start reading about Maimonides at 14, but I didn’t really start applying myself to research until 1979. And I didn’t start writing this book until I retired in 2003. So there were many stations along the way to producing this book.
DAVID: Actually, I understood that was the process, but I wanted to make it clear to readers that really this is a figure of such magnitude that he really has been your companion in various ways for well over half a century now. And I do understand this part of your fascination with him. I’m the son of a clergyman, who now is retired. But I can recall as a boy of about 13 or 14, wandering into my father’s office and finding myself fascinated by a huge volume he had of Maimonides’ famous book, “Guide of the Perplexed.” I spent a whole afternoon flipping through that big book. I can envision you doing something similar.
There’s no question that Maimonides led a remarkable life. But, tell us more about why we should care about him in this modern era.

JOEL: This actually is one reason I finally decided to write a book about him. In 1979, there was a peace conference between Egypt and Israel and President Sadat of Egypt and President Navon of Israel met and spoke, surrounding the signing of a peace treaty that year. President Sadat spoke of a spirit of friendship between Arabs and Jews and he noted that Maimonides wrote his great works in Arabic and that some scholars link his writings with the works of a great Muslim scholar, Abu Nasr al-Farabi.
President Sadat was very well informed. And, at the ceremony, President Navon presented to President Sadat a copy of “The Guide of the Perplexed” in its original language, which was Arabic. We call it “Judeo-Arabic,” because it was a dialect that Jews used at the time, but anyone who reads Arabic can read this dialect. Both men agreed that Maimonides was the main cultural bridge between the two countries.
Well, here was a man I was very interested in already and he is raised up at such an important moment as the symbol of this peace agreement, because Maimonides did live in both worlds. That is what attracted me toward writing a book about him at that point in 1979. I was trained in Jewish studies and I am an ordained rabbi—and my doctorate is in Arabic and Islam. I’ve taught both at Yale and in Israel at Tel Aviv University. Both religions, cultures and civilizations were a part of my own intensive study.
Maimonides was Jewish, but he also was acculturated in this milieu of Islam and loved its culture and read Arab philosophers and was inspired by them.
DAVID: But there were some painful moments in his life, right? It wasn’t all a blissful experience.
JOEL: There were painful moments, yes. He was born in Spain, but his family had to move to Morocco. There was a period of time while he was in Morocco that Jews were compelled to convert to Islam and he was one of them. This is one of the important arguments I make in my book. Some Orthodox Jews can’t really face this prospect that the great hero lived as a Muslim for five years of his life—but he did.
He explained that he and his fellow Jews did this under compulsion and therefore they were forgiven for having to do this. They merely, you might say, feigned Islam. But this was not a comfortable situation to be in.
Spokesmen for Islam today talk about it as the ultimate solution for human problems and that if only entire governments became Islamic then we all would live better lives. But I think it’s instructive to see what really worked out in this period in which Islam was dominating in that area. How did it work out? Well, yes, there was a very high level of cultural and intellectual achievement, but on the other hand there were these uncomfortable truths about life in that society for minorities. Maimonides and others were forced to convert. He did not want to live that way for the rest of his life and eventually he was able to move somewhere else where he could resume living as a Jew. But this is the truth of what happened. It was difficult and he had to make this difficult choice.

DAVID: I was fascinated by this part of his story. He did adapt. He comes across, as you describe him in the book, as a modernist. He was cosmopolitan, a rationalist, a scientist—and a pragmatist about life.
JOEL: Yes, and he really revolutionized Judaism. If you look at Judaism in the sacred scriptures in the Hebrew bible and in the Talmud, the writings of the rabbinic sages that is the basis of Jewish law, you’ll find that theology there is quite mytho-poetic. God is described in quite human terms. He comes down to Sinai, he ascends to his throne, and Ezekiel sees him as a man and so forth. Maimonides set forth a theology that says we cannot know anything about God and we cannot say anything, ascribe to him any attributes, because we simply do not know—God is beyond our knowledge and beyond our ability to express.
This was a tremendous break with everything that came before and in addition to that, he opened up Judaism to science. He believed very deeply that the Torah, the teaching of Judaism, must conform with science. He didn’t mean we should distort things. He meant that we should have what might be called a cosmic awareness. He understood what the universe was, even though he didn’t have all the scientific knowledge we have today. He did know that the universe is vast and that we are tiny, tiny creatures in the cosmos. He understood that humans share a home with the animals. All of this goes to presenting reality as something that a scientist would be able to listen to, because Maimonides stresses that when we think—we must begin with the nature of existence and that is the starting point. He doesn’t say we must start with God’s descending on Sinai and giving the Jews the 10 commandments and so on. Maimonides says we must begin with the nature of existence and upon this we must build our theology.
This was revolutionary and he was criticized for this, of course, and after he died there were two camps—one was pro-Maimonides mainly made up of intellectuals and doctors and so on and also an anti-Maimonides group among the more orthodox and less exposed to science. Overall, he made a tremendous contribution and his work leads us to the modern world with Moses Mendelssohn and what we sometimes call the Jewish Enlightenment and so many others who followed from this.
All of these great figures including Martin Buber, who were able to present Judaism in rational terms, were able to do this only because Maimonides had shown the way.

DAVID: I was pleased to find that the strength of your book lies in these areas. You explore Maimonides’ way of thinking. You give us case studies and you describe some of the cases he faced.
You also sweep away a lot of accumulated legends. For example, you pretty much demolish the idea that he might have served as a physician to the Crusader Richard the Lionhearted. And you explain that he was a physician to the great Muslim leader Saladin, but you put into perspective that he wasn’t Saladin’s only physician—and he probably wasn’t the most famous physician, either.
JOEL: There are quite a number of myths and legends that were attached to Maimonides’ life and they appeared in early modern biographies and unfortunately biographies written about Maimonides tend to repeat the myths without any critical judgment.
In the case of Saladin, we know a lot from contemporary sources. Maimonides did serve in Saladin’s entourage, but I write that he probably wasn’t the most outstanding among the physicians. There were many great physicians around at that time.
Saladin probably was the greatest man of his age and we have solid information about his life and about Maimonides and Saladin. But I explain in the book that it is totally impossible that Maimonides ever met Richard the Lionhearted.


DAVID: I was struck by what a pragmatist he was about life. He had a deep faith, a faith so deep, in fact, that he explored these larger new realms of spiritual reflection. Yet, you point out that he was against martyrdom and was against the idea that it is noble to sacrifice one’s life.
Now, that’s a lesson, it seems to me, that we should spread far and wide today.
JOEL: In this he was quite innovative. He began by arguing against a deeply rooted Jewish tradition that came from the great iconic symbol of Masada. He knew all about what happened at Masada—where Jews fought long and hard against the Romans and, in the end, the remaining people committed suicide rather than be captured. That example is held up even today in Israel as a great symbol of national heroism.
But this had turned into something tragic. There was a culture of martyrdom in Europe and, when Crusaders were sweeping toward Palestine and the Middle East they went through areas of Europe where they began by slaughtering Jews along the way to their eventual destination. The Crusaders in some cases tried to force the Jews to convert to Christianity and some Jews chose to become martyrs. Maimonides was opposed to sacrificing your life, if you could preserve your life.
DAVID: In your book, you write: “To those who would send men, women and children to the executioner to fulfill the commandments, he replied: ‘that you may live by them and not die by them.’”

JOEL: There was a kind of life force in him, an understanding that human beings should want to continue their lives. He took an almost biological approach to this—that it’s unnatural for any being to give up life. Again, this was new and I can’t say that even to this day he has uprooted the attraction to martyrdom.
DAVID: I would describe it as a prophetic course he charted toward survival with integrity.
JOEL: I like the way you put that: survival with integrity, because he understood that deep down these people remained Jews, as I claim in my book that he did even in the years he lived as a Muslim. Maimonides did not think these situations were good. He argued that you should leave as soon as you can. That’s what he did. He didn’t want to live the rest of his life in a society where he was forced to behave as a Muslim. That wasn’t who he was. But he felt that we must follow our life force. We must survive.
DAVID: I was drawn to that theme in your book and I think it’s very timely to stress that right now in the world. What are your hopes for this book?
JOEL: Aside from educating people and giving them some enjoyment in the reading, I hope that it gives people new perspectives.
DAVID: I like that—new perspectives from a man who lived nearly a millennium ago.
JOEL: There is too much talk of a clash of civilizations and people still talk about this bitter conflict between science and religion. And Maimonides’ approach to these questions is extremely helpful. On religion and science, he came away believing that science is impossible without religion—and religion is impossible without science. Each one needs the other, he argued. When we focus on a clash, we miss the point that we are living in a world where there are great mysteries—things we don’t know and cannot know.
DAVID: And that’s valuable to realize in this supposed clash of civilizations, as well. There is so much we do not know, that we cannot see. Maimonides treasured a great deal from the Islamic civilization in which he lived. He did not martyr himself. He lived and learned. It’s humbling to realize that we should begin by learning rather than physically fighting.
JOEL: Maimonides had a cosmic awareness of the greatness of the universe in which we live and an awareness, in the end, of how small we are within the universe. We can learn so much from him.

PLEASE, Tell Us What You Think.

Not only do we welcome your notes, ideas, suggestions and personal
reflections—but our readers enjoy them as well. You can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.
PLUS, we invite you to sign up for our free Planner newsletter,
which we send out every Monday. The Planner gives you a quick overview
of what’s on the horizon, each week. To check out the Planner, take a look at this sample issue!
(Published in the ReadTheSpirit online magazine.)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email