A review of Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds, by Joel L. Kraemer

Joel Kraemer’s Maimonides is a splendid achievement, a truly critical biography of one of the greatest minds ever to grace the planet. Kraemer’s aptly chosen subtitle leads the reader inevitably to ask, why was the life of Maimonides, a medieval Jewish thinker, a gift not only to the Jewish people but to all people? This question lingers as we set about learning from Kraemer, an emeritus professor at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, not only about Maimonides’ thought but also about his life, his actions. Indeed, why else would we read a biography but to find out about the man and his actions? If all we wanted were his thoughts, we could turn to his writings—and the vast secondary literature already devoted to unlocking the renowned secrets of those writings.

Maimonides is such a towering figure, however, precisely because he was more than a thinker or even a philosopher; he was, as Kraemer says, “in all his activities the Great Healer.” Although Kraemer says this in his chapter on Maimonides as physician, it points to a deeper reason for the reverence that Maimonides elicits. Leaving aside whether Maimonides really was a prophet, it cannot be denied that he fits his own description of the prophet in his magnum opus, the Guide of the Perplexed: “sometimes the prophetic revelation that comes to him compels him to address a call to the people, teach them, and let his own perfection overflow toward them.” Why it should be that some human beings are so great that their greatness cannot but “overflow” toward others is at least somewhat mysterious. Nevertheless, that Maimonides was such a person is evident in the life Kraemer describes.

It is Maimonides’ unparalleled ability to combine the deepest inquiries into “the nature of existence,” or philosophy, with an ability to heal the Jewish people that should make his life and his thought of interest to people everywhere—not only the Jews. Maimonides is so towering because he seems to embody what appears in earlier philosophers as a mere myth, namely, the philosopher-king. Of course, Maimonides is not alone in speaking of prophets as philosopher-kings: he learned this from the great Arabic philosopher al-Farabi, who was of course inspired by Plato’s Republic. Yet there is no other thinker of Maimonides’ caliber who came so close to being a king, a political actor—nor, for that reason, is there any philosopher whose life seems as inspiring as Maimonides’.

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Kraemer offers tantalizing insights into Maimonides’ political actions. Although he was formally Head of the Jews (Ra’is al-Yahud) only for two relatively short periods (in 1171-73 and an uncertain length of time in the 1190s), Kraemer attempts to show that he played this role informally for much of his life. For however long he was Head of the Jews, he exercised onerous administrative leadership over the Jews in Egypt and beyond—often involving himself in surprising detail. Of course, it must be acknowledged that the Jews under his jurisdiction possessed limited autonomy from Muslim authorities, and Maimonides’ powers of coercion were severely limited.

Aside from his involvement in his most narrowly political activity, the Headship, Maimonides was also a jursiconsult (as opposed to a judge) from the moment he established himself as a legal authority with the completion of his Commentary on the Mishnah at the age of 30. With a wonderful eye for significant detail, Kraemer selects from among Maimonides’ many responsa to far flung judges in need of guidance to reveal his “legal philosophy.” Of course, Maimonides’ code of law, the Mishneh Torah, which he composed in his 30s, established him for all time as an incomparable Jewish legal authority. Even though many rabbis were rattled by his evident efforts to reduce attention to the Talmud, his code has cast a long shadow over the study of Jewish law—informing every significant subsequent attempt to summarize the vast ocean that is the Talmud. As Kraemer notes repeatedly, Maimonides had a matchless ability to bring order out of disorder.

To cast light on Maimonides’ life and actions, Kraemer culls what little evidence there is of his feelings about action and honor. ‘Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, a Muslim philosopher and physician, offered a disturbing description of Maimonides, based on first-hand experience of him, as being “overcome by a love of authority and serving the high and mighty.” It appears to me likely that ‘Abd al-Latif was somewhat insensitive as a Muslim to the challenge Maimonides faced in mediating between Saladin (and his descendants) and his patron al-Qadi al-Fadl, on the one hand, and the Jewish community which he served, on the other. Maimonides often bemoaned his position and the position of the Jews as subordinate to Muslims in the Sephardic world and Christians in the Ashkenazi world.

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Did Maimonides love authority, or was he compelled at times to appear to fawn over those who exercised so much control over the life of his people? In any effort to answer this question, one should consider Maimonides’ own oft-sung praise of the ability to don the mask of any passion, without feeling that passion. As well he should, Kraemer draws the reader’s attention to Maimonides’ frequent attacks on the love of honor and on the spiritedness that tends to accompany it throughout his writings and letters. Although Maimonides confesses in a letter to Joseph ben Judah to an excess of “vehemence” in his youth, and his other letters often evince a loss of patience with certain addressees, one must always wonder when Maimonides actually feels anger and when, instead, he merely dons the mask of anger. Similarly, one may wonder whether ‘Abd al-Latif mistook a subtly manipulative Maimonides (compelled to be manipulative by his position as client to Muslim patrons) for a Maimonides deeply enamored of political power.

Although we might desire to know what Maimonides thought and felt, his advocacy of donning masks must give us pause. There is one telling example of this that shows some of the inevitable limitations of inquirying into a philosopher’s life and actions—namely, Maimonides’ reaction to the death of his brother David ben Maimon. Many previous scholars have argued that Maimonides gave up the life of a scholar for that of medicine upon the death of David. Kraemer argues, based on extensive research, that not only had Maimonides trained in medicine well before the death of his brother, but also that he did not move from the one to the other so abruptly. Yet he goes on to argue something much more momentous. He claims the death of David was a transitional moment of another kind. The death of David changed Maimonides’ view of providence: he moved toward a greater acceptance of the role of chance in human affairs. Now, I would be the first to acknowledge the well documented evidence that Maimonides’ legal thought developed over time. But I have some reservations about our ability to draw a similar conclusion about his views on providence. Kraemer does not adduce evidence from Maimonides’ writings, but draws inferences from things he claims about himself in his letters—as well as by developing a complex story about how the death of his brother affected him.

Kraemer argues that David’s death led Maimonides toward a melancholic outlook. Indeed, he appears to insinuate, however subtly, that Maimonides’ own advocacy of donning masks may have contributed to the development of depression! His primary evidence is a famous letter to Japheth ben Elijah of Acre. There, Maimonides claims that he is under great strain and discourages a man to whom he is somewhat indebted from continuing to try to make Maimonides make good on his debt. Maimonides claims to have suffered the greatest of all blows in the loss of his brother, to have been ill for a year (indeed sick unto death), and to have lost whatever money he had when his brother perished. The strange mixture of personal loss with monetary loss should at least have given the author some pause in placing too great store in this letter. I do not mean to suggest that Maimonides was cold-hearted or calculating; I do believe, however, that it is very difficult to know what Maimonides thought or felt, at least based on the evidence adduced by Kraemer. Perhaps the overall impression left by the entirety of Maimonides’ correspondence, which Kraemer has been translating into English, will tell another story. Yet I wonder whether it is plausible to suggest that Maimonides, the “Great Eagle,” knew himself so little that he advocated the donning of masks in the Guide, written long after the death of David, even though it contributed to his own putative tendency toward depression.

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Leaving aside any quibbles about what Maimonides might have felt, Kraemer’s biography is a magisterial work. It provides a window into Maimonides’ times. Even though one might wonder about the extent to which a philosopher of Maimonides’ profundity would be influenced by what Kraemer calls the “mentalité” and “sensibilities of his age,” we cannot but be grateful to Kraemer for bringing to life such a vivid picture of the world in which Maimonides lived. After all, it was that world with which he had to contend—especially in all that he did as the Great Healer of his people.