On December 13, 1204 (20 Tevet 4965), the great halachist, philosopher, and physician, Moses Maimonides died. Whether his life spanned 66 years, as many suggest, or 69 years as the late Professor Shlomo Pines suggested, it is hard to imagine how any mortal could not only produce the depth and breadth of scholarship as did Maimonides, but also have such an enduring impact upon Jewish and non-Jewish scholarship.
But Maimonides did, and Maimonides continues to fascinate, illuminate, and challenge scholars from all walks of life.
Recently, three new studies have been produced to delve further into the beliefs and the works of Maimonides. Two are scholarly works, produced in conjunction with the 800th anniversary of the “Great Eagle’s” death, and one is a more popular work.
The more significant of the scholarly works is the latest volume of Maimonidean Studies. Based primarily upon a three-day symposium (March 21 – 23, 2004) sponsored by Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University and Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies of New York University, this volume contains 19 papers written by some of the foremost scholars of Maimonidean output. (Two of the papers, which appear in Hebrew, were submitted independently of the symposium, and the paper presented by Dr. Haym Soloveitchik was published elsewhere.)
As was the symposium, this volume is organized around four major themes, “Maimonides and Halacha,” “Maimonides and Philosophy,” “Maimonides on Science and Medicine,” and “Maimonides’ Influence.” While the authors exhibit a broad range of interests in Maimonides’ scholarship, there is, as is often the case in such volumes, little integration between the four primary themes. Of course, this is a testament to the greatness of Maimonides himself, that so many scholars are needed, each to develop a sub-specialty about this great man. Yet, for the non-scholar these papers are difficult to place within the broader perspective of Maimonides’ contributions.
Nevertheless, for the scholar, Maimonidean Studies: Volume 5 is a most important contribution to the literature and offers new insights that will most assuredly be the basis of even further study.
The second of the scholarly tomes produced in conjunction with the 800th anniversary of Maimonides’ passing is Maimonides and His Heritage. Sharing many of the same scholars with the previous work, this volume is also an important contribution to the understanding and appreciation of Maimonides.
Consisting of ten essays, the first five focus on Maimonides as an exemplary medieval philosopher in his milieu, and the last five on the impact he had upon later thinkers. This volume is also an eclectic mix of themes and scholarship.
While this brief review does not allow for an overview of all of the contributions, the first, written by Professor Hyman (editor of Maimonidean Studies) offers a fascinating insight into Maimonides the philosopher. According to Hyman, Maimonides was not a philosopher, but an biblical exegete, whose commentaries to the Bible created a uniquely Jewish philosophy.
The second half of this book contains a number of interesting articles, projecting Maimonides’ influence forward to the 20th and 21st centuries, ending with an article by David Novak, “Can We Be Maimonideans Today?”
The final entry into this latest group of books about Maimonides is very different in purpose, tone, and content. Written by the prolific author Israel Drazin, Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind is a layman’s guide to Maimonides’ ideas and beliefs.
Divided into four sections and 41 chapters, the author has chosen to organize this book around a series of questions, many provocative, and to focus each chapter on one such question.
The book is easy to read, especially in comparison to the two scholarly works. And unlike the other two, which are collections of papers, this book has a single theme — “to alert people to the pernicious nature of superstitions that still pervade the lives of many people…”.
For one seeking an introduction to some of the beliefs of Maimonides, written in a direct, and understandable style, this latest volume by Drazin is a welcome addition.