'Maimonides: The Life and World
of One of Civilization's Greatest Minds' By Joel L. Kraemer
Reviewed by Robert J. Dobie
In 1896, more than 200,000 religious books, manuscripts, and personal letters were found in the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, Egypt. Among the most important were writings of a man considered to be the greatest Jewish philosopher, theologian, legal expert and physician of the Middle Ages (some would say of all time), Moses ben Maimon, known to the West as Moses Maimonides (1138-1204).
Why would this medieval Jewish philosopher and theologian interest us today? This is the question Joel L. Kraemer's new biography aims to answer. In fact, Maimonides' thought speaks to our own day, which cries out for thoughtful approaches to the complex and delicate relations between secular science/philosophy and revealed religion. Maimonides' work should serve scholars today, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, even secular, as both a model and an inspiration.
Born around 1138 in what was then Moorish Spain, Maimonides grew up in a thoroughly Islamic and Arabized milieu. He had a deep knowledge of Arabic poetry, even penning his major works in the language, rather than in Hebrew. An even stronger influence was that of the great Muslim philosophers, scientists and theologians. He set out to master logic, mathematics, astronomy, and Aristotelian philosophy.
As Kraemer carefully notes, while Maimonides took much from Islamic society, he was even more concerned with preserving and enriching a unique Jewish identity and philosophical/theological perspective. His family was forced by political changes to emigrate to Egypt, where they could live openly as Jews, despite continued pressure to convert to Islam. Maimonides made it his lifelong project to demonstrate the inherent rationality of Judaism, both as a system containing the highest truths about reality and as a guide to human fulfillment and perfection.