Maimonides, Jewish Philosopher and Theologian

Maimonides’ ability to harmonize philosophies of the Greco-Roman, medieval Western, Jewish and Islamic civilizations in the context of his own religious beliefs has established the Jewish philosopher, theologian and physician as one of history’s preeminent thinkers. While spending much of his early life escaping persecution, Maimonides’ genius broke religious discriminatory barriers in his own time and beyond.

Maimonides’ Early Days

Maimonides, also known as Moses ben Maimon or Rambam, was born on March 30, 1138, into a well-educated Jewish family in Cordoba, Spain, the capital of the Islamic Umayyad dynasty.

During that era, Cordoba was considered one of the world’s great centers of learning and interreligious tolerance. But the latter began to change in 1148 when the Almohad dynasty invaded and forced all non-Muslims to convert, leave or be killed. Maimonides’ family ultimately decided to flee Cordoba, eventually arriving in the Moroccan city of Fez in 1160.

Hoping to veil themselves from persecution, Maimonides’ family posed as Muslims in public while practicing Judaism at home. In the meantime, the young Moses was receiving rabbinical instruction from his father, an accomplished theologian in his own right. His background in religious education, on top of his secular lessons from Arab professors, gave him the backing to become one of Fez’s rising academic stars.

With the onset of fame came scrutiny from authorities as to the young scholar’s true religious background, however. An informant had Moses-Maimonides charged with apostasy from Islam. He was exonerated after showing he never truly practiced Islam and with the help of a Muslim friend, poet Abu al-Arab al-Muishah. Despite being let off the hook, Maimonides and his family had to leave Fez.

Sources in this Story

Notable Accomplishments

Maimonides arrived in Fustat, a section of Cairo, Egypt in 1166. In the years soon to follow, he would complete several philosophical and theological works that would cement his status as preeminent thinker. His first major religious work, The Commentary on the Mishnah, finished in 1168, is a linguistic analysis of oral and written versions of the Torah that lays out basic tenets of Jewish theology, known collectively as the 13 principles of faith.

Some years later, between roughly the years of 1170 and 1180, Maimonides compiled what has come to be known as one of his great masterpieces: the Mishnah Torah.

The Mishnah Torah has since come to be known as one of the definitive works of Jewish theology. Among its conclusions: a section on judges that “ends by arguing that a Messiah will come, restore sovereignty to Israel, establish peace with the other nations, and lead the world in the study of science and philosophy,” writes the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Also included in the work is an assessment of the “levels of charity.” Among the most virtuous forms of charity: giving to the poor anonymously. “For this is performing a mitzvah solely for the sake of Heaven,” Maimonides wrote.

But one of Maimonides’ ideas written in the Mishnah Torah has to do with jurisprudence: “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.”

During the same period as Maimonides was penning the Mishnah Torah, his brother David, a jewel trader and family benefactor, died at sea. The tragedy left his brother’s widow and child in his care, as well as the philosopher falling into a deep depression. Needing a source of income, Maimonides took up medicine as a profession. In his philosophical works, he explored the correlation of mind, body and spirit.

His musings resulted in the Guide of the Perplexed, completed in 1190. The lengthy theoretical work, which incorporates anatomy and astronomy in its analysis, has Maimonides reaching the conclusion that to ascribe a literal interpretation of Torah is to see God in a corporeal form, which is tantamount to idolatry. Another key idea of the Guide is that God should only be described in terms of “negative theology;” for example, “God is not multiple,” rather than “God is one.”

Indicative of Maimonides’ ecumenical relevance, the book “represents a philosophic reconstruction that owes more to Aristotle and Alfarabi than it does to Moses,” writes the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

His prowess for medicine also gained acclaim that extended beyond the boundaries of religion, becoming the chief physician to the Egyptian ruler Saladin.

The Man and His Work

The Rest of the Story

Maimonides’ Achilles heel may have been his work ethic: on the back of growing demands on his time, the philosopher contracted several physical ailments, eventually exhausting himself. Maimonides died in December 1204 in his neighborhood in Fustat. Both Jews and Muslims in his neighborhood fasted for three days following his death and his tomb became a pilgrimage destination.

Debate ensued in the Jewish theological community over the validity of Maimonides’ philosophies in the years immediately following his death. Nonetheless, thinkers of numerous philosophical stripes have consulted his works for guidance in their own worldly and spiritual observations.

Physicist Isaac Newton read the Mishnah Torah’s Latin translation. Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas bestowed on him the title “Rabbi Moses.” And as the Hoover Institution points out, philosopher Spinoza’s idea of the “intellectual love of God” bears parallels to Maimonides’ concept of the love of God being proportional to understanding of Him. More recently, during the 1979 peace talks between Israel and Egypt, Israeli President Yitzhak Navon gifted Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat with a copy of the Guide of the Perplexed in its original Arabic.

This article was originally written by Anne Szustek; it was updated February 27, 2017.