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Maimonides

by Brenda Fine

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Not far from the multi-pillared splendor of Cordoba’s Great Mosque, in the Juderia’s quiet and ancient plaza, stands a statue of the medieval Jewish philosopher and physician, Maimonides.

Visitors happening upon this plaza seem puzzled to find a statue of a Jewish philosopher in Spain.

This scholar, who dedicated his life to clarifying Jewish laws, is one of Cordoba’s most famous sons. Moses Maimonides, son of Maimon, was born in 1135. His birth heralded the ninth generation of devoted talmudic scholars in his family, a family whose code was “Know the God of thy father and serve Him.” Young Moses was to prove himself worthy of this inheritance.

His early childhood was dedicated to the study of mathematics, literature, linguistics, medicine, logic, metaphysics along with the laws and beliefs of Judaism.

Religious persecution, never a stranger to Jewish history, appeared early in young Moses’ life. When he was 13, Cordoba fell to the Almohades, Moslem zealots from Morocco who persecuted Jews and Christians.

Almohadian laws decreed that Jews either convert to Islam or die. In some cases, those who refused conversion were allowed to leave the country.

Sorrowfully, but counting themselves lucky to be alive, the family of Maimon wandered in search of a home. Their sojourn led them to other cities in Spain, to Fez, Morocco and to Acre and Jerusalem in the Holy Land. In 1165, at the age of 30, Maimonides’ search ended as he and his family settled in Fostat, a suburb of Cairo.

Under the enlightened leadership of the good and just leader, Saladin, life was once again bearable for Jews. Maimonides completed his first epic work, the “Siraj” or “Illumination” three years after moving to Fostat.

His monumental intellect as well as his medical knowledge so pleased and impressed the Vizir that he eventually raised Maimonides to the prestigious position of court physician. He also bestowed upon him the title of Nagid, head or prince of all Jews in Egypt.

Little is written of the personality of this brilliant scholar. There are occasional glimpses of his quick wit and often prophetic insights in his own writings: “We hear too much of unions in Israel,” he once wrote. “Let us hear more of union.” We also learn of his humility, an example of which was his refusal to receive help in answering his massive correspondence. He was afraid he would be thought arrogant if he didn’t answer every question himself.

But if the private personality is hidden, the character of Maimonides, his intellect and genius remain for all to see. In his lifetime, he produced three major written works: the “Siraj,” the “Mishneh Torah” and the “Guide of the Perplexed” in addition to many smaller religious tracts, several medical books, including an important one on hygiene and preventive medicine. He is believed to have used psychological therapy to combat the widespread belief in superstitions.

One contemporary historian, Walderer Schweisheimer, believes Maimonides’ “medical writings are not antiquated at all, in fact they are in some respects astonishingly modern in tone and content.” They were written when he wasn’t serving as court and general physician and as rabbi and husband and father to his late-in-life son, Abraham.

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Tags: Personality profile Jewish