Chapters On Jewish Literature
By Israel Abrahams
Public Domain Books
Chapter XIII. Moses Maimonides
Maimon, Rambam = R. Moses, the son of Maimon, Maimonides.–His Yad Hachazaka and Moreh Nebuchim.–Gersonides.–Crescas.–Albo.
The greatest Jew of the Middle Ages, Moses, the son of Maimon, was born in Cordova, in 1135, and died in Fostat in 1204. His father Maimon was himself an accomplished scientist and an enlightened thinker, and the son was trained in the many arts and sciences then included in a liberal education. When Moses was thirteen years old, Cordova fell into the hands of the Almohades, a sect of Mohammedans, whose creed was as pure as their conduct was fanatical. Jews and Christians were forced to choose conversion to Islam, exile, or death. Maimon fled with his family, and, after an interval of troubled wanderings and painful privations, they settled in Fez, where they found the Almohades equally powerful and equally vindictive. Maimon and his son were compelled to assume the outward garb of Mohammedanism for a period of five years. From Fez the family emigrated in 1165 to Palestine, and, after a long period of anxiety, Moses Maimonides settled in Egypt, in Fostat, or Old Cairo.
In Egypt, another son of Maimon, David, traded in precious stones, and supported his learned brother. When David was lost at sea, Maimonides earned a living as a physician. His whole day was occupied in his profession, yet he contrived to work at his books during the greater part of the night. His minor works would alone have brought their author fame. His first great work was completed in 1168. It was a Commentary on the Mishnah, and was written in Arabic. But Maimonides’ reputation rests mainly on two books, the one written for the many, the other for the few. The former is his “Strong Hand” (Yad Hachazaka), the latter his “Guide of the Perplexed” (Moreh Nebuchim).
The “Strong Hand” was a gigantic undertaking. In its fourteen books Maimonides presented a clearly-arranged and clearly-worded summary of the Rabbinical Halachah, or Law. In one sense it is an encyclopedia, but it is an encyclopedia written with style. For its power to grapple with vast materials, this code has few rivals and no superiors in other literatures. Maimonides completed its compilation in 1180, having spent ten years over it. During the whole of that time, he was not only a popular doctor, but also official Rabbi of Cairo. He received no salary from the community, for he said, “Better one penny earned by the work of one’s hands, than all the revenues of the Prince of the Captivity, if derived from fees for teaching or acting as Rabbi.” The “Strong Hand," called also “Deuteronomy” (Mishneh Torah), sealed the reputation of Maimonides for all time. Maimonides was indeed attacked, first, because he asserted that his work was intended to make a study of the Talmud less necessary, and secondly, because he gave no authorities for his statements, but decided for himself which Talmudical opinions to accept, which to reject. But the severest scrutiny found few real blemishes and fewer actual mistakes. “From Moses to Moses there arose none like Moses,” was a saying that expressed the general reverence for Maimonides. Copies of the book were made everywhere; the Jewish mind became absorbed in it; his fame and his name “rang from Spain to India, from the sources of the Tigris to South Arabia.” Eulogies were showered on him from all parts of the earth. And no praise can say more for this marvellous man than the fact that the incense burned at his shrine did not intoxicate him. His touch became firmer, his step more resolute. But he went on his way as before, living simply and laboring incessantly, unmoved by the thunders of applause, unaffected by the feebler echoes of calumny. He corresponded with his brethren far and near, answered questions as Rabbi, explained passages in his Commentary on the Mishnah or his other writings, entered heartily into the controversies of the day, discussed the claims of a new aspirant to the dignity of Messiah, encouraged the weaker brethren who fell under disfavor because they had been compelled to become pretended converts to Islam, showed common-sense and strong intellectual grasp in every line he wrote, and combined in his dealings with all questions the rarely associated qualities, toleration and devotion to the truth. Yet he felt that his life’s work was still incomplete. He loved truth, but truth for him had two aspects: there was truth as revealed by God, there was truth which God left man to discover for himself. In the mind of Maimonides, Moses and Aristotle occupied pedestals side by side. In the “Strong Hand,” he had codified and given orderly arrangement to Judaism as revealed in Bible and tradition; he would now examine its relations to reason, would compare its results with the data of philosophy. This he did in his “Guide of the Perplexed” (Moreh Nebuchim). Maimonides here differed fundamentally from his immediate predecessors. Jehuda Halevi, in his Cuzari, was poet more than philosopher. The Cuzari was a dialogue based on the three principles, that God is revealed in history, that Jerusalem is the centre of the world, and that Israel is to the nations as the heart to the limbs. Jehuda Halevi supported these ideas with arguments deduced from the philosophy of his day, he used reason as the handmaid of theology. Maimonides, however, like Saadiah, recognized a higher function for reason. He placed reason on the same level as revelation, and then demonstrated that his faith and his reason taught identical truths. His work, the “Guide of the Perplexed,” written in Arabic in about the year 1190, is based, on the one hand, on the Aristotelian system as expounded by Arabian thinkers, and, on the other hand, on a firm belief in Scripture and tradition. With a masterly hand, Maimonides summarized the teachings of Aristotle and the doctrines of Moses and the Rabbis. Between these two independent bodies of truths he found, not contradiction, but agreement, and he reconciled them in a way that satisfied so many minds that the “Guide” was translated into Hebrew twice during his life-time, and was studied by Mohammedans and by Christians such as Thomas Aquinas. With general readers, the third part was the most popular. In this part Maimonides offered rational explanations of the ceremonial and legislative details of the Bible.
For a long time after the death of Maimonides, which took place in 1204, Jewish thought found in the “Guide” a strong attraction or a violent repulsion. Commentaries on the Moreh, or “Guide,” multiplied apace. Among the most original of the philosophical successors of Maimonides there were few Jews but were greatly influenced by him. Even the famous author of “The Wars of the Lord,” Ralbag, Levi, the son of Gershon (Gersonides), who was born in 1288, and died in 1344, was more or less at the same stand-point as Maimonides. On the other hand, Chasdai Crescas, in his “Light of God,” written between 1405 and 1410, made a determined attack on Aristotle, and dealt a serious blow at Maimonides. Crescas’ work influenced the thought of Spinoza, who was also a close student of Maimonides. A pupil of Crescas, Joseph Albo (1380-1444) was likewise a critic of Maimonides. Albo’s treatise, “The Book of Principles” (Ikkarim), became a popular text-book. It was impossible that the reconciliation of Aristotle and Moses should continue to satisfy Jewish readers, when Aristotle had been dethroned from his position of dictator in European thought. But the “Guide” of Maimonides was a great achievement for its spirit more than for its contents. If it inevitably became obsolete as a system of theology, it permanently acted as an antidote to the mysticism which in the thirteenth century began to gain a hold on Judaism, and which, but for Maimonides, might have completely undermined the beliefs of the Synagogue. Maimonides remained the exemplar of reasoning faith long after his particular form of reasoning had become unacceptable to the faithful.
Karpeles.–Jewish Literature and other Essays, p. 145.
Steinschneider.–Jewish Literature, pp. 70, 82 seq., 94 seq. Schiller-Szinessy.–Encycl. Brit., Vol. XV, p. 295.
Eight Chapters.–B. Spiers in Threefold Cord (1893). English translation in Hebrew Review, Vols. I and II.
Strong Hand, selections translated by Soloweycik (London, 1863).
Letter to Jehuda Ibn Tibbon, translated by H. Adler (Miscellany of the Society of Hebrew Literature, Vol. I).
Guide of the Perplexed, translated by M. Friedlšnder (1885).
Critical Essays On Maimonides:
I.H. Weiss.–Study of the Talmud in the Thirteenth Century, J.Q.R., I, p. 290.
J. Owen.–J.Q.R., III, p. 203.
S. Schechter.–Studies in Judaism, p. 161 , etc.
On MAIMON (father of Maimonides), see L.M. Simmons, Letter of Consolation of Maimon ben Joseph, J.Q.R., II, p. 62.
Graetz.–IV, pp. 146 , 191 .
English translation of Ikkarim, Hebrew Review, Vols. I, II, III.