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BOOK REVIEW

Separating brilliant man from medieval myth

The biography is an engaging, impressive work of scholarship about the sage.

November 16, 2008|Jonathan Kirsch | Kirsch is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, "The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God."

Maimonides

The Life and World of One of Civilization's Greatest Minds

Joel L. Kraemer

Doubleday: 622 pp., $35

The medieval rabbi called Moses ben Maimon -- better known by the Greek honorific form of his name, Maimonides -- is a transformative and even revolutionary figure. According to his latest biographer, Joel L. Kraemer, Maimonides is not only "the foremost Jewish scholar of all time" but also "one of the greatest minds in the Western world," a polymath whose life and work show how religion, law, medicine, philosophy and science can flourish in a single human mind. Above all, Maimonides is offered as something of a role model for those of us who live, as he did, amid a clash of civilizations.

Kraemer, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, tells us that he has been studying Maimonides since 1947, when he was only 14, and his new book is a towering work of scholarship that sets a benchmark for the serious study of the man. At the same time, however, it is also a lively, lucid and engaging effort at making Maimonides accessible to the lay reader. Kraemer sets out not merely to praise Maimonides but also to tease out fact from fiction and to chip away the accretion of myth and legend that has hidden the real man from history.

"[T]he historian should gather and interpret evidence by methods like those employed by the detective. . . .," explains Kraemer, citing the late Yale historian Robin Winks as his inspiration. "We harvest the evidence and force it to yield its secrets."

Thus, for example, Kraemer points out that something as basic as the year of his birth in Cordoba, Spain, commonly given as 1135, is wrong, and he points out that the error was introduced in a work written by Maimonides' own grandson. "To be more accurate," writes Kraemer in a characteristic display of scholarly discipline, based on a chronology derived from Maimonides' own hand, "he was born sometime in the last third of 1137 or the first two-thirds of 1138." Nor do we have any evidence that his mother died in childbirth, a much-cited but wholly invented biographical detail. And Kraemer pauses to explain why the mother of Maimonides is absent from the historical record: "Women were expected to be modest, pious, and withdrawn from public view," he explains. "Unless they entered the public sphere by gaining economic power or owned important property, there was no reason for mentioning them."

Kraemer has a ready command of the last several centuries of scholarship on Maimonides, but he always prefers to go back to the primary sources. His endnotes, which take up the last 100 or so pages of his book, include references to documents in the hand of Maimonides himself and texts that were retrieved from the famous repository of manuscripts (known as a genizah) at a medieval synagogue in Old Cairo. Whenever Kraemer calls into question some item of conventional wisdom in previous biographies, including several recent ones, he is relying on a firsthand familiarity with the sources.

The family of Maimonides fled Cordoba after the invasion of the Almohads, a North African Berber dynasty that was "committed to a fundamentalist version of Islam, much like Saudi Wahhabism in our own day." Exactly here is the life-changing moment that thrust Maimonides, then only 10 years old, into history. "Moses ben Maimon might well have grown into a typical rabbinic scholar like his ancestors," Kraemer writes. "However, he would not have taken that mighty step into a wider world that eventually brought him to the center of the Islamic empire -- Cairo -- and made him one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived."

Maimonides moved to Morocco, possibly because he and his family had feigned conversion to Islam and "it was easier to live there as crypto-Jews," and then to the Holy Land, which was under occupation by the Christian armies of the Crusades. "He shared the Muslim attitude to the Crusaders," writes Kraemer, "which was a mixture of amusement and contempt." At last, he ended up in Cairo just in time to witness the replacement of the Shi'i rulers of Egypt by their Sunni successors, yet another era "marred by chaos and upheaval." Indeed, the same jam-up of historical events and personalities would have seemed incredible if it had been concocted by a novelist.

Yet, despite all the peril and tumult through which he lived, Maimonides succeeded in making himself into a respected physician -- Sultan Saladin himself was among his patients -- and rising to a lofty position of leadership in the Jewish community. At the same time, starting at age 23, he produced a vast body of written work that eventually included the Mishneh Torah, an authoritative compendium of Jewish law, and "The Guide of the Perplexed," a book of instruction in "the true meaning of the law and the true nature of philosophy," both of which are still revered and studied today.

Kraemer's book allows us to glimpse the profound irony that characterizes Maimonides and his writings. Nowadays, his work is still consulted by pious Jews who seek to practice what they regard as an older and purer form of Judaism. And yet Maimonides himself "aspired to revolutionize Judaism by transforming it into a religion of reason," Kraemer writes. "Maimonides wanted to change Judaism from a religion rooted in history, in great events such as the Exodus and revelation, to a religion rooted in nature and knowledge of the natural beings, God's works rather than God's words."

Thus does Kraemer succeed in reviving the man who wrote himself into history nearly a thousand years ago and reclaiming him for the modern world.

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