Maimonides—The Man Who Redefined Judaism
“FROM Moses to Moses, there was no one like Moses.” Many Jews will recognize this cryptic saying as an expression of admiration for the 12th-century Jewish philosopher, codifier, and commentator on the Talmud and the Scriptures, Moses Ben Maimon—also known as Maimonides and as Rambam.a Today many are unfamiliar with Maimonides, yet his writings had a deep impact on Jewish, Muslim, and church thinking in his day. In a fundamental way, he redefined Judaism. Who was Maimonides, and why do many Jews see him as “the second Moses”?
Who Was Maimonides?
Maimonides was born in Córdoba, Spain, in 1135. His father, Maimon, who provided much of his early religious training, was a renowned scholar from a distinguished rabbinical family. When the Almohads conquered Córdoba in 1148, the Jews faced the choice of converting to Islam or fleeing. This began a long period of wandering for Maimonides’ family. In 1160 they settled in Fez, Morocco, where he received training as a physician. In 1165 his family had to flee to Palestine.
However, the situation in Israel was unstable. The small Jewish community faced danger from Christendom’s Crusaders and Muslim forces alike. After less than six months in the “Holy Land,” Maimonides and family found refuge in Fustat, the Old City of Cairo, Egypt. It was here that Maimonides’ talents were fully recognized. In 1177 he became the head of the Jewish community, and in 1185 he was appointed physician to the court of the famous Muslim leader Saladin. Maimonides retained both of these positions until his death in 1204. His medical expertise was so renowned that it is said that from as far away as England, King Richard the Lion-Hearted made attempts to obtain Maimonides as his personal physician.
What Did He Write?
Maimonides was a prolific writer. While fleeing Muslim persecution, in hiding and on the run, he compiled much of his first major work, Commentary on the Mishnah.b Written in Arabic, it elucidates many of the concepts and terms in the Mishnah, at times digressing into explanations of Maimonides’ philosophy on Judaism. In the section explaining the tractate Sanhedrin, Maimonides formulated 13 fundamental principles of the Jewish faith. Judaism had never defined a formal creed, or declaration of beliefs. Now, Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith became a prototype of a succession of formulations of the Jewish creed.—See box, page 23.
Maimonides sought to define the logical order of all things, whether physical or spiritual. He rejected blind faith, demanding explanations for everything on the basis of what he viewed as rational proofs and logic. This natural inclination led to the writing of his magnum opus—Mishneh Torah.c
In Maimonides’ day the Jews viewed “Torah,” or “Law,” as applying not only to the written words recorded by Moses but to all the rabbinical interpretation of this Law throughout the centuries. These ideas were recorded in the Talmud and in thousands of rabbinical decisions and writings about the Talmud. Maimonides recognized that the sheer size and disorganization of all this information left the average Jew at a loss in making decisions that affected his daily life. Most were not in a position to make a lifelong study of all rabbinic literature, much of it written in difficult Aramaic. Maimonides’ solution was to edit this information, highlighting the practical decisions, and to organize it into one orderly system of 14 books, divided according to subject matter. He wrote it in masterfully clear, flowing Hebrew.
Mishneh Torah was such a practical guide that some Jewish leaders feared that it would completely replace the Talmud. Yet, even those who objected acknowledged the overwhelming scholarship of that work. This highly organized code was a revolutionary achievement, giving new life to a system of Judaism that the average man could no longer relate to or assimilate.
Then, Maimonides set out to write another major work—The Guide for the Perplexed. With the translation of Greek classics into Arabic, more Jews were becoming familiar with Aristotle and other philosophers. Some were perplexed, finding it hard to reconcile the literal meaning of Biblical terms with philosophy. In The Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides, who greatly admired Aristotle, sought to explain the essence of the Bible and Judaism in a way that harmonized with philosophic thought and logic.—Compare 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, 11-16.
In addition to these major works and other religious writings, Maimonides wrote authoritatively in the fields of medicine and astronomy. Another aspect of his prolific pen is not to be overlooked. The Encyclopaedia Judaica comments: “The letters of Maimonides mark an epoch in letter writing. He is the first Jewish letter writer whose correspondence has been largely preserved. . . . His letters found their way to the mind and heart of his correspondents, and he varied his style to suit them.”
What Did He Teach?
In his 13 Principles of Faith, Maimonides provided a clear outline of belief, some of it rooted in Scripture. However, principles seven and nine contradict the essence of the Scripturally based faith in Jesus as the Messiah.d Taking into account the apostate teachings of Christendom, such as the Trinity, and the blatant hypocrisy exemplified by the bloodbath of the Crusades, it is not surprising that Maimonides did not delve further into the question of Jesus’ Messiahship.—Matthew 7:21-23; 2 Peter 2:1, 2.
Maimonides writes: “Can there be a greater stumbling block than [Christianity]? All the prophets spoke of the Messiah as the redeemer of Israel and its savior . . . [By contrast, Christianity] caused the Jews to be slain by the sword, their remnants to be scattered and humbled, the Torah to be altered, and the majority of the world to err and serve a god other than the Lord.”—Mishneh Torah, “The Laws of Kings and Their Wars,” chapter 11.
Yet, for all the respect shown him, many Jews prefer to ignore Maimonides on certain issues about which he spoke most forthrightly. With the growing influence of mystical Judaism (Kabbalah), astrology was becoming more popular among Jews. Maimonides wrote: “Whoever is involved in astrology and plans his work or a trip based on the time set by those who examine the heavens is liable to be whipped . . . All these matters are lies and deceit . . . Whoever believes in these matters . . . is but a fool and lacking in sense.”—Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Idolatry,” chapter 11; compare Leviticus 19:26; Deuteronomy 18:9-13.
Maimonides also sharply criticized another practice: “[Rabbis] fixed for themselves monetary demands from individuals and communities and caused people to think, in utter foolishness, that it is obligatory and proper . . . All this is wrong. There is not a single word, either in the Torah or in the sayings of the [Talmudic] sages, to lend credence to it.” (Commentary on the Mishnah, Avot 4:5) In contrast with these rabbis, Maimonides worked strenuously to support himself as a physician, never accepting payment for religious services.—Compare 2 Corinthians 2:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:9.
How Were Judaism and Other Beliefs Affected?
Professor Yeshaiahu Leibowitz of Hebrew University, Jerusalem, stated: “Maimonides is the most powerful image in the history of Judaism, from the age of the Patriarchs and the Prophets to the present age.” Encyclopaedia Judaica remarks: “The influence of Maimonides on the future development of Judaism is incalculable. . . . C. Tchernowitz . . . goes so far as to maintain that were it not for Maimonides Judaism would have broken up into different sects and beliefs . . . It was his great achievement to unite the various currents.”
By reorganizing Jewish thought to fit his own ideas of order and logic, Maimonides redefined Judaism. The scholars and the masses alike found this new definition practical and appealing. Even his opposers eventually accepted much of Maimonides’ approach. Although his writings were intended to free Jews of the need to turn to endless commentaries, lengthy commentaries were soon written about his works.
Encyclopaedia Judaica comments: “Maimonides was . . . the most significant Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages, and his Guide of the Perplexed is the most important philosophic work produced by a Jew.” Although written in Arabic, The Guide for the Perplexed was translated into Hebrew within Maimonides’ lifetime and shortly thereafter into Latin, making it available for study throughout Europe. As a result, Maimonides’ unique synthesis of Aristotle’s philosophy with Judaic thought quickly found its way into the mainstream of Christendom’s thinking. Christendom’s scholars of that period, such as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, often refer to Maimonides’ views. Islamic scholars were also influenced. Maimonides’ philosophical approach influenced later Jewish philosophers, such as Baruch Spinoza, to make a complete break with orthodox Judaism.
Maimonides might be considered a Renaissance man who lived before the Renaissance. His insistence that faith be consistent with reason is still a valid principle. This principle led him to speak out vehemently against religious superstition. Yet, Christendom’s bad example and Aristotle’s philosophic influence often prevented him from reaching conclusions fully in harmony with Bible truth. Though not all would agree with the comment inscribed on Maimonides’ grave—“From Moses to Moses, there was no one like Moses”—it must be admitted that he redefined the course and content of Judaism.
a “Rambam” is a Hebrew acronym, a name formed from the initial letters of the words “Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon.”
b The Mishnah is a collection of rabbinical commentaries, based on what the Jews consider the oral law. It was put into writing in the late second and early third centuries C.E., forming the beginning of the Talmud. For more information, see the brochure Will There Ever Be a World Without War? page 10, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
d For more information on the evidence of Jesus as the promised Messiah, see the brochure Will There Ever Be a World Without War? pages 24-30, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
[Box on page 23]
MAIMONIDES’ 13 PRINCIPLES OF FAITHe
1. God is the Creator and Ruler of all things. He alone has made, does make, and will make all things.
2. God is one. There is no unity that is in any way like His.
3. God does not have a body. Physical concepts do not apply to Him.
4. God is first and last.
5. It is proper to pray to God only. One may not pray to anyone or anything else.
6. All the words of the prophets are true.
7. The prophecy of Moses is absolutely true. He was the chief of all prophets, both before and after him.
8. The entire Torah that we now have is that which was given to Moses.
9. The Torah will not be changed, and there will never be another given by God.
10. God knows all of man’s deeds and thoughts.
11. God rewards those who keep His commandments, and punishes those who transgress against Him.
12. The Messiah will come.
13. The dead will be brought back to life.
e Maimonides defined these principles in his Commentary on the Mishnah, (Sanhedrin 10:1). Judaism later adopted them as an official creed. The above text is condensed from how they appear in the Jewish prayer book.
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Jewish Division / The New York Public Library / Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations