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Notes from the Maimonides Foundation/NNLS day seminar on Maimonides

The Life and Writings of the Rambam in their Historical Context

Esther Seidel

[Quality of the notes here aren't the best; sorry.]

[Abu Imrān Musa bin Maimun ibn Abdullah al-Kurtubi al-Israili, known to Jews as Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, or the Rambam for short, and to Westerners as Moses Maimonides] was born between September 1136-8 in Cordoba, and moved to Fez when Spain was taken over by the Almohads. [The Al-Muwaḥidūn ["Monotheists"], or Almohads, were a Berber army invited to al-Andalus to fight Christian influence from the north. As such they were what we would today call Islamic fundamentalists, and Maimonides' family is normally portrayed as fleeing from religious persecution under the Almohads; however] Fez, where they ended up, was the Almohad heartland!

The Almohads were very strict about their interpretation of Islamic religion. Even Muslims who were not regarded as strict enough were persecuted. But in the Maghrib because the country was not under threat the culture would [paragraph breaks off, sc. be more tolerant?].

Jews and Christians seem to have led an open life under the Almohads, though not without harrassment. There is no evidence that Maimonides was ever persecuted or felt compelled to convert. There are no documents showing persecution [Davidson] though he may have gone anonymous as to his religion.

After the first three decades of his life his family went to Egypt, to Fostat. The Fatimid regime was then in decline, but then Saladin came to power [and revitalised Egypt]. Maimonides did not accept a salary for his services to the Jewish community as rabbi and judge, so set himself up as a physician.

He died in 1202, after a prolonged illness.

His writings are rabbinic, philosophical and medical.

It has been suggested that Maimonides's syn.ism of the Oral Law was very much in line with Islamic tradition. As to his medical work he composed ten to eleven pieces in the last decade of his life. He follows Galen; he also refers to Ibn Sina [Avicenna] and other Arabic sources. He also wrote textbooks. In turn Arabic compilators mention him in their compendia.

Recent scholarship says his work can make no claim to originality.

Medical writings

Maimonides had an obsession with undesirable humours, for the treatment of which he recommended vomiting and blood-letting. There is other evidence which has aged better, e.g. the importance of regular exercise and inhaling unpolluted air. His advice to avoid fresh fruit must be evaluated in the light of the lack of refrigeration in Cairo.

His attitude to medicine does not consider the body alone but also the soul. Some have viewed this as original. His attitude was not a sound mind in a sound body but a sound mind, preceded by ?other was ?making ?A ?to be off to ?create a sound ?off body for the mind. [Sorry, can't make out my shorthand.]

In [his compendium of Jewish law] the Mishne Torah he says that study of medicine constitutes study of the law at the highest level. He regarded the Talmudic rabbis as holding science, medicine and halacha all together. Consequently, he did not regard himself as harmonising these but reflecting what [he believed] was originally the case.

Philosophical writings

The Moslem philosophers did not conclude that philosophy was superior to religion, but that they existed together and that one should study whichever his ability was best at.

Islamic philosophy remained part of the Islamic world. For example, knowing G-d would categorically involve knowing a being from which all anthropomorphic description was removed—yet even the term falsafa referred to its Greek origins.

The thought of the philosopher was particuarly compelling because of their ability to blend Islamic, Hebrew and Greek thought together. While the mediaeval Jewish philosophers did not impress Maimonides much, the Islamic ones did.

Islamic philosophy took terms from the Greek framwork but changed the semantics in the process. Jewish philosophy developed in a similar way, and often worked with the framwork of Islamic philosophy. The ?frmr monotheism of both meant that the approach of both was always likely to be similar.

Maimonides' knowledge of Aristotelian thoughts is likely to have derived from the Islamic school, whereas his Aristotelian metaphysics derives from Ibn Sina (indirectly, via Razzali's summary)׃ He thought, however, he was dealing with pure Aristotelian thought.

Influence of Ibn Bajja. Four different types of intellect.

It is certain that Maimonides believed in spiritual immortality, whether personal or [paragraph breaks off]

It is also certain that he can't have believed in bodily resurrection, though publically he always avowed the traditional Jewish view, which he wrote in a treatise he later said was just prolixity for the masses.

Cf. his addressing the Guide to the Perplexed to one person in a thousand. Cf. also Ibn Sina's attitude, that only philosophers would enjoy the perfect intellectual survival of the immortal mind.

Maimonides was not being disingenous; from the mediaeval point of view he had to maintain his community's beliefs and not be accused of heresy.

(But what then about the thirteenth Principle of Faith, that of resurrection of the dead? Could not resurrection of the dead refer to revival of life, not necessarily bodily resurrection? Someone has written that Maimonides had the view that there would be a resurrection of the body but only en passant. (Note also that the thirteen Principles were not in Maimonides' philosophical work but his religious work, which was much earlier.)

As for the coming of the Messiah, he talks about the messianic age as being a time when the Jews can study in peace. "Though he may tarry" is a quotation from the Mishna.))

It is thought Maimonides was not aware of Ibn Sina's influence on ?him. Though there was a ḥadīth that by knowing yourself you can come to know G-d, Islamic philosophers shied away from the ramifications of this.

Maimonides held that the highest form of worship was through thought and every other type of ritual and prayer was a concession to the masses.

His works were translated into both Hebrew and Latin during his lifetime. The influence of his philosophy on European philosophy extended from Thomas Aquinas to Leibniz.


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