Maimonides was a medieval Jewish philosopher, rabbi, and physician born in 1138 in Cordova, Spain. He is considered the most important Jewish philosopher, and famously combined Aristotelian philosophy with an understanding of Jewish Scripture. He believed that God is unknowable, and in The Guide for the Perplexed he will criticize those who believe in anthropomorphic (human-like) conceptions of the divine. Maimonides also believed that the Torah can be read in different ways, and that with proper understanding one can recognize the truths contained within. He would famously write an extensive commentary on the Oral Torah (Mishneh Torah), and be the first to put forth a formulation of Jewish theology known as the Thirteen Principles of Faith.
Born in Cordova, Spain, a thriving intellectual center in the medieval world, Maimonides and his family were forced to flee when the city was captured by a group known as the Almohads. The Almohads required everyone in the city to either convert to Islam, go into exile, or be killed. Maimonides would make his way through Southern Spain and Morocco, before ultimately settling in Cairo, Egypt. There, he became famous for successfully writing letters to the Jewish communities in Southern Egypt, which resulted in money being raised to pay the ransom needed to free Jews captured in the city of Bilbays. He would become the leader (Nadir) of the Egyptian Jewish community.
Unfortunately, at this time his brother drowned while on a voyage to India with the family’s wealth. As a consequence, Maimonides needed to make money and so he became a physician. He would be appointed as the official court physician to the Sultan and the Royal family, and remain a physician the rest of his life. In his famous philosophical work The Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides explains that God is like a wise ruler who is a “physician of the soul,” and that the laws of the Torah are designed to create a society where one is able to cultivate a healthy body and spirit.
Maimonides believes that all truth comes from God. In the Garden of Eden, while Adam did not know to cover himself (moral knowledge), he did have true knowledge of the nature of God and the world. He knew that God was not a material being, but rather an eternal, unchanging, spiritual being. Unfortunately, over time this truth was lost. For this reason, Maimonides explains that when Moses had his revelation, he needed to do more than just tell the Israelites the truths of monotheism (that there is one God). In addition, Moses needed to give them an entire system of laws, the 613 commandments, which would allow them to live together in health, and develop the moral and intellectual virtues needed to be able to truly understand God’s nature.
In this way, Maimonides understands Adam, the Biblical Patriarchs, and Moses to have known the true nature of the world and God. For this reason, he explains that the philosophical and scientific truths of ancient Greece are also contained in the Torah. In this way, Maimonides is similar to other philosophers in the medieval period (known as Scholastics), who understood philosophy (reason) and faith (revelation) to be compliments of each other.
In order to show that the truths of ancient Greece are contained in the Jewish Scriptures, Maimonides explains that the Torah can be read and interpreted in different ways. In addition to it’s literal meaning, the text also contains a deeper, allegorical meaning. For example, when a prophet is said to have “seen” God, this doesn’t mean that he has seen God in the way that one sees a physical object. Rather, the prophet “sees” God in the same way that a mathematician is able to “see” a geometric proof. When the Torah says that God is “close,” this doesn’t mean that God is physically close, but rather that one is in a position to receive wisdom. Likewise, when the Torah says that Moses saw God’s back but not his face, Maimonides explains this means Moses was able to see the effects of God’s nature, but not his essence.
For Maimonides, God is an eternal, unchanging, and non-material being. Influenced by Aristotelianism, Neoplatonism, and Islamic philosophy, Maimonides embraces an understanding of God as both unknowable and indescribable. Because God’s nature transcends all, the best we can do is say what he isn’t. This is known as negative theology. Even to say that God is the greatest or most powerful is misguided if we don’t recognize that God’s nature transcends all human description. For this reason, Maimonides says that the best form of prayer is silence. He also supports traditional prayer because of its function in religious life, and it’s ability to help direct one’s mind towards the divine.
Maimonides puts forth what is known as the Cosmological Argument for God’s existence. Believing that the heavenly bodies are eternally in motion, he explains that since as bodies they are finite, there must therefore be something with is infinite which allows them to be in motion eternally. This infinite being is God. Maimonides, although recognizing that there is a limit to human understanding and that Creation cannot be proven logically, will also put forth arguments for the possibility of creation.
First, Maimonides addresses those who believe that Creation from nothing (ex nihilo) is impossible. The argument is that since everything comes from something else, for example the way an oak tree comes from an acorn, it is impossible that the world could have come from nothing. Maimonides responds by explaining that even though this is currently the way the world works, before the world existed, reality could have been otherwise.
Second, Maimonides addresses those who believe Creation is impossible because of God’s nature. Since God is perfect, he wouldn’t change his mind. For this reason, he wouldn’t all of a sudden decide to create the world. Maimonides responds by explaining that it’s possible that God had a plan to have the world be created, and therefore Creation would not represent him changing his mind. In this way, Maimonides shows the possibility of Creation.
As created beings, Maimonides believes our purpose is to cultivate ourselves, morally as well as intellectually, in order to be as close to God as possible. He encourages us to be charitable, to honor our parents, to avoid anger and hate, and to follow the laws of the Torah which he believes are designed to help us be both healthy and wise. In this way, God is a wise ruler who acts as a “physician of the soul.” By attaining physical health and being able to live peacefully in society, we are in a position to cultivate our higher virtues as well.
Maimonides will embrace Aristotle‘s belief that we benefit from being in a balanced state, known as the doctrine of the mean. Just as the body benefits from being in equilibrium, likewise the soul is healthy when it is in between extremes. Maimonides explains the importance of being able to avoid anger and other emotions in order to maintain proper understanding. While wisdom is the result of the healthy soul, Maimonides also explains that there are times when one should go beyond the mean. He tells us that the pious (hasid) knows when to do this, as for example when Moses went without water for forty days and nights in preparing himself to receive the revelation at Mount Sinai.
Maimonides believes that as human beings, we are but one part of Creation. By recognizing our lowly position in the universe and having humility, we act virtuously. But when we lose sight of the good, and act according to our lower nature, there is evil in the world. Maimonides will explain how it is possible that there can be evil in a world created by God. This is known as the problem of evil or theodicy. He says that while God created all that is good in the world, since humans have free will, they can act in a way that is without good. Evil is therefore the absence of good, and while not created by God, is possible within God’s Creation.
In addition to his philosophical writings, Maimonides wrote an extensive commentary on the Oral Torah (Mishneh Torah) in which he puts forth his Thirteen Principles of Faith. Maimonides was a rabbi, also known as the Rambam. His Thirteen Principles serve as the first formulation of Jewish theology in history and include the belief that God exists, that he is one, that he is not a material being, that he is eternal, and that there is no other God. Additionally, Maimonides says all Jews must believe that revelation was received by the prophets, that Moses is the greatest of the prophets, that the laws received at Mount Sinai are from God and that they cannot be changed. Finally, Maimonides says that God knows all human actions and will reward good and punish evil, and that the Messiah is coming and the dead will be resurrected. While Maimonides was contentious in his time, and his last principle of resurrection created a controversy, he has been embraced by Orthodox Jews, who refer to him as haNesher haGadol (“The Great Eagle”).
Maimonides is considered the greatest Jewish philosopher of all time for both combining the philosophy of Aristotle with his understanding of Jewish Scripture, his commentary on the Oral Torah, and for putting forth his Thirteen Principles. In the medieval world, a popular saying emerged, “From Moses to Moses (Maimonides), there was none like Moses.” He would influence developments in Christian and Islamic, as well as Jewish philosophy, notably Aquinas‘ view of reason and faith as being compatible. He would influence modern thinkers such as Spinoza, Leibniz, and Newton, and in modern times has been used as an example by Leo Strauss of what can be found when one reads between the lines. Maimonides has been, and will continue to be, upheld by all movements within Judaism as one of it’s greatest figures.