“Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds” by Joel L. Kraemer

[from Commentary]
Maimonides by Joel L. Kraemer
Reviewed by David C. Flatto
January 2009

The Great Eagle
The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds
by Joel L. Kraemer
Doubleday. 640 pp. $35.00

Writing in 1935, a year thought to mark the 800th anniversary of Moses
Maimonides’ birth—now generally dated to 1138—the intellectual
historian Solomon Zeitlin noted with surprise that no complete study
had ever been written of the “greatest scholar the Jews [had] produced
since the completion of the Talmud.” Zeitlin himself undertook to fill
the lacuna, and, in the same year, so did a youthful Abraham Joshua
Heschel. Since then, profiles of the legendary

leader have poured forth in various
languages. The last few years alone have seen, in English, Herbert
Davidson’s well-received survey of Maimonides’ life and works, Sherwin
Nuland’s popular account of Maimonides as doctor and thinker, and now
Joel L. Kraemer’s Maimonides: The Life and World of One of
Civilization’s Greatest Minds.

The nearly eight-century interval was certainly not due to any lack of
interest. Already during his own time, Maimonides attained a
larger-than-life stature among both adoring followers and vigorous
critics. Over the centuries, interest in the “Great Eagle”—of whom it
was famously said that “from [the biblical] Moses until Moses
[Maimonides] there arose no one like Moses”—grew to epic proportions,
generating countless tales about his many accomplishments and powers
of mind alongside hundreds of learned commentaries on his diverse

In the modern period, Maimonides’ intellectual legacy was claimed by
everyone from traditional scholars of Jewish religious law (halakhah),
to an 18th-century Enlightenment figure like Salomon Maimon who even
assumed his master’s surname, to 19th-century religious liberals who
saw Maimonides as a proto-reformer. As the Zionist writer Ahad Ha’am
summed up at the beginning of the 20th century, Maimonides was one
whom, “in spirit,” generations of Jews “regarded as still alive, and
to whom they turned every day for advice and guidance in all their
theoretical and practical difficulties.”

What hindered the production of a thorough treatment was the highly
various nature of Maimonides’ writings. The challenge was not only
expository but intellectual: it was difficult to comprehend how this
outstanding traditional authority, whose landmark restatement of
Jewish law, Mishneh Torah, towered over all subsequent halakhic
literature, could also be the author of the Guide of the Perplexed,
the most innovative work of speculative Jewish philosophy until the
early modern period and one of the few permanent masterpieces of
medieval philosophy, period.

Three different waves of controversy raged in the 12th through the
14th century over the Aristotelianism that infused Maimonides’
philosophical writings, and later generations continued to be divided
over whether they were devotees of Maimonides the rabbinic jurist, or
of Maimonides the rationalist philosopher. A leading 18th-century
rabbi, Jacob Emden, went so far as to deny that Maimonides was the
author of the Guide; in the 20th century, by contrast, Leo Strauss
dismissed the Mishneh Torah as a popular work, undue focus on which
obscured Maimonides’ predominantly philosophical concerns. Only
recently have scholars attempted a unified portrait of this
tantalizingly multifaceted figure.

Kraemer’s Maimonides, the product of two decades’ work by a
medievalist who is professor emeritus of Jewish studies at the
University of Chicago, is an ambitious undertaking in this new
vein—the more ambitious for being pitched to a general audience.


Moses ben Maimon (1138-1204) was born in Córdoba, the vibrant capital
of Andalusia in southern Spain. Jews had flourished there under
Ummayad Muslim rule since the mid-10th century, and Maimonides’ family
and teachers were pillars of the local community. In Andalusia’s
unique cultural atmosphere, Muslims and Jews combined traditional
studies with secular knowledge, including poetry, science,
mathematics, medicine, and philosophy. The last was heavily influenced
by the dominant Aristotelian orientation of 12th-century Islamic

In 1148, Córdoba was invaded by the Almohads, a fanatically repressive
Islamic sect from Morocco. Given the choice to convert to Islam or
face the sword, many Jews, including Maimonides’ family, managed
instead to flee. He spent his teens and early twenties seeking refuge
in various places throughout Spain and North Africa, amassing along
the way a remarkably thorough knowledge of traditional and secular
culture. In Fez, Morocco, the family stayed long enough for him to
receive his medical training. Then he and his father and brother
embarked on a dangerous and brief visit to Palestine, at the time
occupied by Christian Crusaders. This was followed by a move to Egypt,
where, around 1165, the family ultimately settled in Fustat, outside
Cairo. Here Maimonides would live out the rest of his life under the
hospitable rule of Saladin.

After the premature death at sea of his younger brother, whose
merchant activities had provided him with an income, Maimonides was
hired as a medical adviser to Saladin’s vizier. The work offered him a
livelihood and public prominence. In time, he became unofficial head
of the traditional Jewish community, which flourished under his
leadership, as well as the foremost rabbinic authority of a large
sector of medieval Jewry ranging from Provence to Yemen.

It was in Cairo, in the interstices of his demanding public duties,
that Maimonides produced his two masterpieces. The fourteen “books” of
the Mishneh Torah (literally, “Rehearsal of the Torah”) brilliantly
encapsulated the entire rabbinic legal tradition. In lucid language,
with compelling logic and meticulous organization, Maimonides
presented a new, authoritative statement of the whole corpus of
normative teachings—derived at once from Scripture and from centuries
of subsequent embellishment and interpretation—that regulated the
totality of Jewish life. Writing in Hebrew to reach as broad an
audience as possible, he expected this work to supplant the Talmud as
the definitive legal code for all Jewish communities.

Then, from approximately 1185 to 1191, he proceeded to compose, in
Arabic, his Guide of the Perplexed. The perplexed were those, like
himself, who were committed equally to faith and reason—to biblical
revelation and its norms and to the truths of rational philosophy—but
struggled to reconcile these two sources of authority. Both
stylistically and in terms of its intended audience, this work could
not have been more different from the Mishneh Torah. Utilizing
esoteric philosophical terminology, it constantly alludes to subtle
concepts of metaphysics, and its roadmap to an apprehension of the
divine is not for the many but only for highly trained initiates.


Kraemer follows the stages of Maimonides’ life and work through the
four geographic locations in which he resided, placing his prolific
output and multiple interests within the context of his time and
place. Skillfully, he weaves excerpts from the writings into the
biography. Thus, the story of Maimonides’ lone visit to Jerusalem
draws both on a public epistle to the Jews of Yemen and on the Mishneh
Torah’s “Laws of the Temple,” which include the directive that one
must continue to treat the site of the ruined sanctuary with
reverence. The portrait of Maimonides’ heroic efforts to ransom Jews
taken hostage by Crusaders and pirates similarly cuts to the Mishneh
Torah’s “Laws of Gifts to the Poor,” which enumerate no fewer than
seven biblical commandments that are violated if a captive is not
ransomed (“for not only is the captive included in the general
category of the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked, but also his very
life is in jeopardy”). And so on.

Kraemer also sheds useful light on aspects of Maimonides’ personal
life, exploring his early education and mentors, his close
relationship with his brother, the ugly confrontation with a rival in
Fustat nicknamed “Zuta the Wicked,” and his devotion to his student
Joseph (the epistolary addressee of the Guide), his son Abraham, and
his many followers. An early chapter revisits the controversial
thesis, dating back to the 18th century, that Maimonides outwardly
submitted to a forced conversion to Islam in his youth.

To illuminate Maimonides’ writings, Kraemer draws on a wide array of
primary sources, from documents stored in the Cairo Genizah (a rich
repository of manuscripts from the medieval period that was
re-discovered in the 19th century) to the works of Arabic historians,
geographers, poets, and philosophers. He is particularly helpful in
identifying the formative influence of leading Arab Aristotelians like
Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Averroes. For the major treatises, he offers
sturdy introductions to genre, layout, and structure, summarizes the
principal themes, and discusses intellectual roots.


There are drawbacks. Crammed with information, Kraemer’s book is at
times too dense, at others too thin. One learns more than one needs to
know about details like the number of biblical citations in the first
book of the Mishneh Torah; by contrast, complex philosophical and
rhetorical themes (e.g., the notion of God’s indwelling or the
stylistic use of semantic equivalence) are merely summarized. In an
instance where he offers a fuller presentation of a fundamental
issue—Maimonides’ formulation of thirteen “principles of
faith”—Kraemer fails to inquire into the reasons for his selecting or
omitting specific dogmas, the absence of any mention of the principles
in his more mature works, or the motivation behind this unprecedented
theological project.

The analysis of Maimonides’ legal code is especially inadequate.
Substantively, Kraemer focuses on the philosophical sections of the
Mishneh Torah and a few scattered legal themes, but neglects to
provide an overview of its major categories or to highlight its novel
rulings (e.g., categorizing negligence as a tort, introducing a
mechanism for resuming rabbinic ordination, and asserting the
inflexible nature of inheritance laws). Moreover, Kraemer does not
really get to the heart of Maimonides’ project, in systematically
reconfiguring the halakhic tradition, of legitimizing it against
challenges from Karaites,*from rational skeptics, and even from
adherents of the tradition who had lost sight of its essential


A broader limitation returns us to the dual themes of law and
philosophy. One might have expected Kraemer’s interest in the totality
of Maimonides’ achievement to inspire a deep assessment of his
particular synthesis of these disciplines. Yet even as he recognizes
the centrality of both, Kraemer separately evaluates Maimonides’
contribution to each, thereby perpetuating a dichotomy between them.

Surveying Maimonides’ complete works, the late Isadore Twersky
concluded that “one would think that he had had a master plan from the
very beginning to achieve his overarching objective: to bring law and
philosophy—two apparently incongruous attitudes of mind, two jealous
rivals—into fruitful harmony.” Whether Maimonides ultimately achieved
this harmony is questionable, but there is no doubt that the kinetic
interaction between the two “jealous rivals” produced the energy that
propelled his work. He never fully disengaged from either, or
segregated one from the other.

Already in his Book of the Commandments, a work that Kraemer barely
mentions, Maimonides had begun to discern, in the thicket of biblical
rules and rabbinic exposition, both the rational order and the
idealized principles of the commandments and the rational, orderly
life of holiness that they embody. His prologue to that work reaches
toward enunciating a distinct jurisprudence of Jewish law. In the
Mishneh Torah, where this vision is laid out, law and philosophy are
often mutually fructifying. A stellar example is the “Laws of
Repentance,” which meld legal, inspirational, and philosophical
meditations on themes like sin, guilt, rehabilitation, free will,
character reform, reward and punishment, and love of God. The result
is to show how man’s rational faculty is what enables a religious
imperative—in this case, repentance.

But the interaction between the two “rivals” is often more subtle and
complex. At times, philosophy reorients Maimonides’ approach toward
law. Thus, the opening book of the Mishneh Torah asserts that the
philosophical quest is mandated by the most fundamental of Jewish
commandments: belief in God, love and fear of God, prayer, and study
of Torah. At other times, correlatively, rabbinic values could reshape
his approach to ethics and metaphysics. Thus, his adoption of the
Aristotelian “Doctrine of the Mean” —which calls for moderation in
character traits—includes important caveats opposing even moderate
feelings of pride and anger. Far from the even-keeled Aristotelian man
of virtue, Maimonides’ ethical hero is extreme in humility and
devoutness. In his metaphysics, similarly, there is an ardent
religious dimension to the philosophical quest, which in its highest
state assumes a passionate, nearly ecstatic form, the seeker of
knowledge not only contemplating but yearning to cleave to the divine.


Nor can one leave things at that. Tensions, too, are unmistakably
visible in Maimonides’ dual commitment, and in reading him one
sometimes suspects he could never fully overcome his own perplexity.
In the Guide and elsewhere, he undertakes an audacious purge of
supernatural and miraculous elements from within Judaism by explaining
away certain biblical passages as allegorical. Sometimes, though more
rarely, he quashes rational conclusions in favor of tradition, as with
his endorsement of a talmudic list of animal disabilities that he
characterizes as scientifically dubious yet still disqualifying for
dietary consumption.

Then there are points at which Maimonides affirms the contradictory
teachings of both tradition and reason, which can strike a reader as a
form of double dealing. Most famously, in the Guide he describes the
ancient sacrificial rites as a primitive stage in religious
development that will be phased out over time, while in his Mishneh
Torah he presents a grand vision of a Third Temple where priests will
officiate over a sacrificial cult.

It is with such irreconcilables that things nearly combust (and would
literally burn up when Maimonides’ followers carried their rationalism
further and some traditionalists responded by burning his books.) In
one stunning passage of the Guide, he proclaims that he would be
willing to discard the core religious tradition of an ex-nihilo
creation if he felt that the Aristotelian argument for the eternity of
the world was incontrovertible. In the opening chapters of the Mishneh
Torah, he begins openly to disclose esoteric philosophical truths that
he acknowledges he is religiously obliged to conceal. This work, his
ultimate normative statement, here flirts dangerously with the
boundaries of the antinomian.

It may be that a more exacting study of the successive stages of
Maimonides’ thinking will bring some light to this whole issue. Most
scholars have assumed that he became an even more enlightened
rationalist as he grew older, a development reflected in the Guide.
But some now contend that his mature mindset was more conservative or
traditional in nature. In other words, the trajectory of his thought
is as much in dispute as its substance.


At a certain level, moreover, the tension between faith and reason
lies at the crux not only of Maimonides’ thought but of his personal
life. There was the “faith” side: managing the Jewish charitable trust
in Egypt, working to consolidate the communal liturgy and the hours
seeing patients at court. And there was the “reason” side: the
solitary, hermetic study of the most speculative matters and the
hugely strenuous and surely isolating labor of distilling their
essence in writing of peerless clarity and, sometimes, gnomic

And there was a third side, even more characteristically personal.
Consider his attitude toward mourning. In his philosophical work,
Maimonides serenely describes death as a transcendent release; in his
normative code, he calmly strikes the mean by sanctioning regulated
mourning up to a year—excessive mourning being foolish, and diminished
mourning being cruel. But in his own case, he remained permanently
inconsolable over the loss of his younger brother. “Eight years have
since passed,” he wrote around 1184, “and still I grieve.”

His writings about a trivial matter like nocturnal habits are
similarly differentiated. In his even, regimented voice he universally
prescribes up to eight hours of sleep for sound living. But for those
driven by intense spiritual ambition, he urges neglect of all else and
complete dedication of the night to study of Torah. Meanwhile, his
private correspondence describes how the demands of his patients
overwhelm him to the point where by nightfall he must “prescribe for
them while lying down from sheer fatigue” and somehow still find hours
for his communal and intellectual labors. Living under the twin
banners of law and philosophy, he also lived beyond them.

About the Author

David C. Flatto, a new contributor, is assistant professor of
constitutional law and Jewish studies at Penn State University.

*This was a fringe sect formed in the 9th century that adhered to
Scriptural law alone, denying talmudic-rabbinic authority—and that
happened to be particularly active in Fustat. In his Commentary on the
Mishnah, an earlier work, Maimonides had asserted that a stable chain
of tradition reliably transmitted core oral teachings from Moses
through the talmudic sages. Only in such a dynamic, living organism
was there room for development in hermeneutics and legislation—this,
as against the Karaites’ static fixation on Scripture.



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