Nuland, Sherwin B. 2005. Maimonides. New York: Schocken.
Sherwin Nuland, a clinical professor of surgery at Yale University, teaches bioethics and medical history there. He has written a number of books, resulting in a number of literary awards.
Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides, was born in what is now present-day Sapin in 1135 (probably) and died in Egypt in December 1204. He worked as a rabbi, physician and philosopher and is known for his writings on Jewish law and ethics. His fourteen volume Mishneh Torah is a codification of Talmudic law.
Nuland devotes a chapter, “The Commentary on the Mishnah,” in which Moses, (another name for Maimonides), outlines the moral and social responsibilities of Judaism, as well as expounds its concepts, especially those which he believed had been misinterpreted.
The work by Maimonides “provided a new and unique perspective on Judaism, originating in the mind of the only authority of that time who had an intellectual background sufficiently eclectic to produce it” (p. 62). His 13 principles, which he believed about God and any one which not ascribed to would be a violation of Judaism, are (abbreviated):
- God the creator, sustainer
- One God
- No form of God
- God: the first and the last
- Prayer only to God
- Substantiates the truth of the prophets
- Appointed Moses as chief of prophets
- Whose whole law is in “our possession” (p. 69)
- Whose law is complete, unchangeable
- Knows the hearts of everyone
- Gives rewards and punishments
- Assures Messiah will come
- Ressurection of the dead
Maimonides was 30 years old when he composed his principles and he explains that it took him years to write it. He did not reject criticism as injustice, but (although this is debated) felt it to be “a divine craft” (p. 71). However, there was great opposition by the Jews at his time, who felt that his creed was unforgiving and pretentious.
The Commentary was written in Arabic, which did not help Maimonides cause, and meant that it did not achieve the affect that he intended.
Nuland devotes a chapter to the “tragedy and depression” that stalked Maimonides. In addition to family concerns, such as the death of his brother, “was the status of the many Jews who had been taken captive and enslaved in the wars of the period, originally by the Crusaders, and later by the forces of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and even by some Muslim chieftains” (p. 81). Maimonides was intolerant of the Muslims and Christians who claimed their religions has replaced Judaism—a notion he “scoffed at” (p. 86).
A primary concern of Nuland is with “The Mishneh Torah”, one of three great works by Maimonides. The title means “second Torah” (p. 105) and its 14 volumes consist of 86 monographs, divided into 1,000 chapters. It was meant to be a reference for anyone who wanted “rapid resolution of points of [Talmudic] law” (ibid). Unlike the Commentary, which was written in Arabic, the Mishneh Torah was written in a form of Hebrew. It was meant to be “a universal and authoritative statement on how a Jew should live his life and worship God” (p. 111). It includes philosophy, theology, ethics and ritual.
In 1175 Maimonides begins to practice medicine and in 1190 he completes “The Guide for the Perplexed,” which was his attempt to reconcile faith and reason.
When Maimonides began to practice medicine it was in a “holding pattern” (p. 155), following the eminent Galen, who was a “showman of medical practice and experimentation” (p. 156). Maimonides himself was not a researcher and his contributions were not original. Mainly he commented on medicine “as it had been handed down to him by Hippocrates” (p. 161).
Maimonides wrote all of his medical books in Arabic, with Arabic lettering (p. 166) and he was particularly interested in the psychological aspects of illness. His book, The Medical Aphorisms of Moses, was best know in Christian Europe, was mainly compilations of Galen and other Greek authors on health and disease. He believed that mental states could influence disease and gave attention to the emotional side of his patients.
For young physicians, the so-called Prayer of Maimonides rivaled the Hippocratic Oath. The prayer was translated into a number of European languages and it is attributed to Maimonides, although this is debated. Nevertheless, “the sentiments expressed in the prayer are characteristic of so many statements distributed widely among the medical and nonmedical works of Maimonides….” (pp.183-184).
His contributions ae still “resifted and rethought” (p. 198) and each era attempts to attribute to him certain universal truths about medicine and life.
Nuland concludes his book with two appendices: 1) The medical works of Maimonides; and 2) a chronology of his period and his life.