November 27, 2008
Outside of philosophers and students of religion, the only ones who might be expected to know the name Maimonides are those youngsters who attended Hebrew school. The great 12th-century thinker composed a “ladder of tzedaka” that ranks his preference from best (helping the individual find a job so he may take care of himself) to worst (giving begrudgingly). Since Jews are taught at an early age about the importance of tzedaka, it’s a perfect fit.
And that’s pretty much it, which is a shame for someone who would have been called a Renaissance man had he been born a couple of centuries later.
Scholar, philosopher, doctor, astronomer, poet: Maimonides apparently mastered many disciplines during his lifetime. I say “apparently” because as well researched as Joel L. Kraemer’s new biography obviously is, something seems to be lacking. He spends much more time on “the world” aspect and less on “the life.” Despite the depth of the book, Kraemer acknowledges, “where there are gaps in Maimonides’ life, they are often filled with legend and surmise so that his life is surrounded by myth.”
Indeed, no sooner does the author mention his birth than he expounds on Cordoba and the surrounding regions, Andalusian Jewish culture, and the educational methods of the day. There are gaps in the biographical data that he seeks to fill, with mixed results. Much of Maimonides’ world is fascinating, as Kraemer explains the day-to-day routines, the political and royal machinations, and the exultations and hazards of long-distance travel.
It was in Egypt that Maimonides produced the texts for which he became famous. His Book of Commandments, a prelude to his Mishneh Torah (the code of Jewish religious law), lists the 613 commandments, posting guiding principles for identifying and enumerating them, and dividing them into positive (do this) and negative (don’t do this). His Commentary on the Mishneh “was unsurpassed and transformed the whole realm of rabbinic literature,” writes Kraemer. “The great composition became the benchmark for all subsequent writing on Jewish jurisprudence.”
Maimonides’ master opus was The Guide for the Perplexed, created “to instruct a religious person who believes in the law and has studied philosophy and is perplexed by the contradictions between the two.” Such a work has been known to serve as an epiphany to its readers.