2009/05/18

I've Got a Crush on Maimonides

If you've been paying attention you know that I'm falling in love with Maimonides. So, when I saw a little biography at Half-Price Books I snapped it up.

Maimonides, or The Rambam, is one of the truly larger than life figures on the stage of world history. Between Moses and Moses there was none like Moses, goes the saying. The Jews have long accepted the near equality of Moshe ben Amram and Moshe ben Maimon, and for good reason. Just consider:
  • Both lived during a time of persecution,
  • Both lived in Egypt,
  • Both did miracles,
  • Both had siblings who were significant in their lives/survival,
  • Both had powerful ememies,
  • Both were close to the king,
  • Both were leaders of their people.
Thus, it's hard to understand why Sherwin B. Nuland focused almost exclusively on Maimoides' life as a physician.
I mean, it was interesting. I still recommend it. But, it seems like we can't really call it a biography, maybe a partial biography, or a refraction of a certain light. But, not a true biography.

One of the things I do like about the way Sherwin B. Nuland put the book together is that he spent as much time telling us about the things that influenced Maimonides as he did about what Maimonides himself said and did. And, while I knew a lot of what he told me, it was helpful to have it gathered up in this way and made part of one single story. I feel like I understand the times and the culture of Maimonides much better than I did before.

For example, there's this from the section on how ancient medicine merged with religion, and how the Hippocratic practitioners, along with the Jews, rejected such merging:
...but some of the leading practitioners of Hippocratic medicine saw the study of their art as a way of understanding the divine, just as the Jews did. And they went even further, Galen of Pergamon, the most imfluential physician who has ever lived, believed that the proper way to worship the Divinity is not with prayer and sacrifice but with experiment and observation. Late in the second century C.E., he described his greatest anatomical work, De Usa Partium, as "the sacred discourse which I am composing as a true hymn of praise to our Cereator." To him, learning about the body was the sure way to learn about the godhead. He wrote:
And I consider that I am really showing him reverence, not when I offer him unnumbered hecatombs of bulls and burn incense of cassia worth the thousand talents, but when I myself first learn to know his wisdom, power and goodness and then make them known to others. - 1
And this big discussion of Galen and his beliefs helped me understand how Maimonides thought about both science and religion. A few other little gems on that subject:
To them [Hypocratic practitioners] and to Maimonides, the physician's skills may have been God-given, but they were to be applied independently of any direct divine intervention. It is not a prayer that one should rely on when sick, he argued, but medical aid; the means of curing disease are provided by God, but "He has given wise and skillful men the knowledge of how to prepare and how to apply them." It is to these wise and skillful physicians that one should turn when disease strikes. - 2
And in his Discourse on Fits, written for Al Afdal (Fatimid vizier in Cairo) Maimonides said,
"Religion prescribes all that is useful and forbids all that is harmful in the next world; while the doctor indicates what is useful and warns against what is harmful in this world." - 3
Some have argued that this statement speaks to Maimonieds' life-long quest to integrate religion and science. But, when you stop to realize that such a dichotomy didn't really exist until later, and when you take into account the various other influences on Maiomonides, especially Galen and the Greek physicians, it starts to seem more and more like Maimonides was simply placating his patient, not trying to justify science to religion or vice versa.

I am glad to have gained a better understanding of this, and Maimonides' formation in this area for three reasons.

One - I just love him and want to know everything about him. Like a little girl, I have a crush on Maimonides. I admit it. And,

Two - It makes me think about worship and how silly it is to spend hours chanting, and praying, and staring at candles and then to go do something else. Because, it's not something else. If Bishop Rowan has taught us anything it's that every thing we do is worship. I think Maimonides got that, and it feels refreshing, and validating to me to hear him say it.

Three - Same thing in reverse. It makes me think about work in a different way. Maimonides helps me to see that we don't worship on the mountain or in the temple. We worship at work, at play, at home, with friends, in the car, all the time. Look, I will still light a candle this evening, and I'll kiss my icon, and I'll say my prayers. I did it just this morning too and prayed for many of you. We still do that, all of us. But, there's no big line marking off "holy" time from... let's call it "ordinary" time since that's coming up. These "times" to the extent that they exist at all are pretty much the same I think. And, it seems like Maimonides thought that too.


Despite the death of his brother, which left Maimonides depressed and in his bed for nearly a year, and the resulting financial crises in his family, Maimonides steadfastly refused to take money for his work as a rabbi.
Being committed to a principle that the talmudic sage Rabbi Zadok articulated with the words (later reiterated by Maimonides), "Make not of the Torah a crown wherewith to aggrandize thyself, nor a spade wherewith to dig") and also stated by the great Hillel, who said, "Whosoever derives a profit for himself form the words of the Torah is helping in his own destruction"), the scholars of that period and afterward rejected payment for their religious services and sought secular employment. - 4
Surprisingly, I am not going to go on one of my usual rants about the clergy. Instead, I want to talk about the many ways that even an imbecile like me can make a spade out of the Torah. In fact, I'd like to see some kind of multi-session study group on this because I think it would be very interesting. I am not going to give you all the answers. I don't have them anyway. But, I'll tell you what questions I'd like to explore:
  • What's the point of Torah study anyway?
  • What -- besides money/benefits -- can we acquire from Torah study? (knowledge, understanding, prestige, self-importance...)
  • How do those things (above) help/hinder us in knowing God?
See, lately I've seen quite a lot of people who are real impressed with all they know. And, they may actually know quite a lot. I don't know. But, what I do know it that the point of Torah study is not to be able to puff yourself up like some kind of puffy thing and be all big about it. That's not it. Jesus, you'll recall, was more of a humble guy. And he told us that if we want to know God, we should try to be like him. "Just look at me," he says. And you hardly ever see Jesus strutting around like a peacock.

Moses Maimonides could very easily have made a comfortable living from his Torah knowledge, his writing, and his judgments, the vast work he did on behalf of the Jewish people. But, he was absolutely committed to this idea that to benefit from Torah was its own destruction.

I don't have to worry about making a living from Torah, or the Bible. You all don't even want me in church, remember? But, like all of you, I want to be very careful that I don't accrue any little foxes of profit. Maimonides is a reminder to us that all we know came from God and belongs to the whole community. It is not our private information to dole out to those on whom we smile and to withhold from those whom we deem unworthy.

My rabbi once said that if you know something, and you refuse to teach it to others, you are steeling. I think he was right. In fact, that's the main reason I started my blog, lo these several years ago. I wanted a place to share the things I learned. I know, I know, it often turns into post after post about what I think about various things. But, once in awhile, I share something worth knowing too.

Regarding Torah itself, the Rambam was very clear that it's not to be taken literally.
"Literal interpretation, Maimonides believed, is only an adornment to attract those who are incapable of conprehending the comples truths that lie beneath. "Employ your reason," the Rambam exhorted those capable of doing so, "and you will be able to discern what is said allegorically, figuratively, and hyperbolicallym, and what is meant literally."" - 5
I don't know to what extent the Jews of today have this problem of literalists in their midst but it is a big problem in Christendom. I really do believe that we've got to stop being so very accommodating of these "differences" in thought and just call it what it is: childish nonsense.

Of course we have stories. How else can we speak of the ineffable? How else to communicate God's goodness and love to children? The stories help us see the unified whole of religion. They are very, very, good. But, they are not the literal truth of God once delivered to anybody.

Maimonides was concerned with preserving the faith of his people. And, given that it was under attack from many corners, that was a reasonable approach. But, he also understood that religion moves and changes. The temple sacrifices had been abandoned, he argued, because the people had grown up, matured, and the sacrifices were no longer needed. Maimonides understood Rabbinic Judaism to be a new paradigm, and that there would be others as well.

Like a primitive people, we too may have been attracted to stories and myths of our religion. We use them to teach children and the simple minded, we think about them because they contain the seeds of truth. But, they are not the truth itself.

Maimonides often used charms or rituals in his healing. He knew the value of the placebo effect well. And to be healed by placebo is no less healing than to be healed by medicine. But, the doctor knows that the medicine, the stuff of health, is in the application, not in the charm. So it is with the actual words in Torah. If we apply the truth well, we can enjoy the stories without placing ourselves in the position of being anti-science. Maimonides, and his times, show us that science and religion are compatible. Rightly understood, they don't ever contradict. They just don't. But, I suppose this will remain perplexing for the literal minded. ;)

I want to read more from Maimonides. Not sure I am ready to tackle the Mishna Torah. But, maybe. I don't know. I am taking recommendations from the audience. What's your favorite Maimonides book? What should I read next?
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1 - Sherwin B. Nuland, Maimonides (New York: Shocken Books, a division of Random House, 2005), p. 7, 8.
2 - Ibid, p. 177
3 - Ibid, p. 210
4 - Ibid, p. 12
5 - Ibid, P. 134

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