Mai­monides: Faith in Reason

  • Review
By – March 13, 2023

Some may won­der whether the world needs anoth­er biog­ra­phy of Moses Mai­monides (11381204). The life of Rab­bi Moses, son of Mai­mon (also known by the acronym Ram­bam) — an enor­mous­ly influ­en­tial philoso­pher, physi­cian, com­mu­nal leader, and expert on Jew­ish law — has been retold count­less times. But mem­bers of every gen­er­a­tion find new inspi­ra­tion in Maimonides’s tumul­tuous life and impres­sive cor­pus. Even though the Great Eagle” took his last breath cen­turies ago, schol­ars have con­tin­ued to study his life, draw­ing on recent­ly uncov­ered doc­u­ments and apply­ing schol­ar­ly meth­ods that have opened new pos­si­bil­i­ties for mak­ing sense of this famed medieval figure.

Alber­to Manguel might be a sur­pris­ing can­di­date to pen a biog­ra­phy of Mai­monides. An accom­plished nov­el­ist, essay­ist, and the for­mer direc­tor of the Nation­al Library of Argenti­na, Manguel does not hold advanced degrees in either Jew­ish thought or phi­los­o­phy. By his own admis­sion, only in the past decade has he under­tak­en seri­ous study of Mai­monides — but that’s pre­cise­ly what gives the book its charm. In this lat­est addi­tion to the award-win­ning Jew­ish Lives series pub­lished by Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, the read­er expe­ri­ences the joy of dis­cov­ery along­side Manguel, who places Maimonides’s life and thought in con­ver­sa­tion with oth­er great thinkers (such as Samuel Tay­lor Coleridge and Franz Kaf­ka). Manguel’s under­stand­ing of the psy­chol­o­gy of his sub­ject adds tex­ture to writ­ings like The Guide of the Per­plexed and the Mish­neh Torah, which are often read as sep­a­ra­ble from the per­son who pro­duced them.

Manguel’s Mai­monides, like Manguel him­self, is a wan­der­er. Born in Cór­do­ba in the rel­a­tive­ly plu­ral­is­tic reli­gious envi­ron­ment of al-Andalus, Mai­monides and his fam­i­ly were forced to flee reli­gious per­se­cu­tion when he was a teenag­er. After escap­ing to Pales­tine and Moroc­co, the fam­i­ly went to Egypt, where they set­tled in Fus­tat (known as Old Cairo”). Then, fol­low­ing the trag­ic deaths of his father and broth­er, Mai­monides became the court physi­cian of the Mus­lim sul­tan in Cairo. Draw­ing on insights gained from his own peri­patet­ic life, Manguel’s nar­ra­tive is full of empa­thy and perspective.

In Egypt, while Mai­monides spent exhaust­ing days treat­ing patients at the court and in his home, he nev­er­the­less carved out pre­cious time to com­pose a vast and sophis­ti­cat­ed cor­pus. Manguel devotes whole chap­ters to Maimonides’s works on Jew­ish law, med­i­cine (from asth­ma to hem­or­rhoids), phi­los­o­phy, and the mes­si­ah. The lengthy final chap­ter explores the pub­lic recep­tion of Maimonides’s thought — the con­tro­ver­sies it has gen­er­at­ed, and the influ­ence it has had on oth­er thinkers.

Mai­monides: Faith in Rea­son mines the rich body of schol­ar­ship on Mai­monides to cre­ate an engag­ing biog­ra­phy. It invites us to learn about, and enter into con­ver­sa­tion with, one of the world’s great­est, most com­plex minds.

Bri­an Hill­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Phi­los­o­phy and Reli­gious Stud­ies at Tow­son University.

Discussion Questions