Sunday, April 26, 2009

Greek philosophy spread throughout the world and Jews became very well-versed in scholarship. They felt a need to reply. The greatest of these presenters of Jewish philosophy, and maybe the greatest thinker in all of Jewish history, was Moses Maimonides. Maimonides was born in Cordoba, Spain, in 1135. At the age of 13, his family was forced to leave Spain, and they traveled through North Africa. Ultimately, they arrived in he old city of Cairo, known as Fustat. It is in that city that Maimonides would live until his death.

When he arrives in Cairo, he becomes one of the leaders of the community. He had studied medicine and was appointed the official physician of the local Grand Vizier of Saladin. As a result, he became a very prominent man, not just in the Jewish community, but in the general community as well.

He wasn’t only a great philosopher. Maimonides was also one of the outstanding Rabbinic legal scholars in all of Jewish history. His masterwork in the field of law was a codification of Jewish law in fourteen books, known as the Mishneh Torah. His genius here was in going through all previous Rabbinic literature and thematically organize them.

It is clear, however, that it was his vast knowledge of philosophy and science that contributed enormously to his work. He deals in his legal texts with the basis of belief and the understanding of God’s role in this world. When he discusses God, you can see that he is setting up a system based on the principles of metaphysics. His legal code was written in beautiful Hebrew. It is clear and anyone can understand it. This probably contributed to its wide distribution.

As a philosopher, Maimonides is best known for his work “The Guide for the Perplexed”, Moreh Nevuchim. His philosophical training came to him through Arabic authors who were trained in Aristotelian philosophy. This became a basis for his work.

Who are the perplexed? These are his Jewish readers who, while they were well versed in their religious tradition, were also exposed to rational thought, and consequently, had many difficulties with major portions of the Bible, in particular, the various anthropomorphic allusions to God. God having a body, and having all sorts of visual attributes. This was very perplexing to people.

This led to Maimonides ascribing a spiritualized meaning to many of the biblical descriptions of God. From here, he was not far from attempting to find what we can and can’t know about God. How can God be one and yet have so many different attributes in the Bible? The essence of God’s unity and his existence was a major problem in Maimonides’ thinking.

Another topic that he addressed was the issue of prophecy. For him, prophecy is a result of a highly developed human intellect that receives a sort of emanation from God.

Maimonides, as great as he was, was not accepted by all Jews. Certainly, not by all rabbis. Some considered him to be on the very edge of heresy, because of his rationalistic approach and interpretation of major aspects of Jewish religion.