Maimonides (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
A twelfth-century rabbi and community leader, philosopher and physician, Maimonides was fascinated by the relation between science and religion from his earliest days. A polymath by inclination, he needed first to master the sciences then extant, including logic, mathematics and medicine, before being able to assess their relation to his Jewish faith. Indeed, he insisted on philosophy's mediating role in the mutual illumination of faith and reason, notably with regard to creation.
Early life and influences
Mosheh ben Maimon, called Maimonides by Latin authors and known to the Arabic-speaking world as Musa ben Maimun, Moses son of Maimon, was born on March 30, 1135 C.E., in the city of Córdoba, Spain, where eight generations of his ancestors had served as rabbis and rabbinical judges. Capital of the Umayyad emirs and caliphs in Spain since the eighth century, Córdoba had remained even in their political decline the center of a brilliant, prosperous civilization in which Jews and Christians, as well as Muslims, were active participants. Young Moses himself was not to enjoy this cosmopolitan milieu much past his bar mitzvah, as the family was forced to flee their home in the wake of the Almohads from North Africa, who forbade Jews or Christians to profess their religion openly. Yet in the relative calm prior to the shattering of their world, the Jews of Spain had built an intellectual capital from which Maimonides was to profit immeasurably, even after the world that had produced it ceased to exist.
Poetry, astronomy, medicine, philosophy, scriptural exegesis, grammar, history, and mysticism were typically integrated into a comprehensive education. Moses's father, Maimon, led the family to Fez (in present-day Morocco), the very center of the Almohad movement, where they managed to survive for five years, only to move on to Palestine in 1165, where Maimonides journeyed to the site of the temple in Jerusalem to give thanks for the gift of this pilgrimage, and thence to Hebron, the traditional resting place of Abraham, who held a special place in Maimonides's vision of history, not only as the first spokesperson of a universal monotheism, but also as the first to base theological claims on arguments derived from reason. Since the rule of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem offered a less than favorable milieu for developing Jewish life and culture, the family proceeded to Egypt, where Maimon soon died, leaving his son to take up the roles in the community to which his learning entitled him.
Legal and philosophical writings
Remarkably, Maimonides continued his education under the stress of exile and travel, composing his commentary on the Jewish legal canon, the Mishnah, during the seven years of exile from his twenty-third to thirtieth years. Taking up residence in Fustat (Old Cairo), he was appointed judge of the rabbinical court and soon assumed leadership of the community. After the death of his brother and the loss of the family savings in a shipwreck, Maimonides took up the responsibility of supporting the family as a physician, practicing medicine until his death. During this time he was court physician to Saladin (c. 1137193), the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, as well as the entire court, leaving him little time to study and write, yet he accomplished both, along with adjudicating disputes within the Jewish community. The completion of his groundbreaking codification of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, around 1178, brought him even greater fame that his earlier commentary, and he was beset with requests for legal opinions from communities throughout the Islamic world.
At this time, however, he also encountered Rabbi Joseph ibn Judah Aqnin, who insisted Maimonides guide him into the logic, cosmology, theology, and philosophy of the Greco-Arabic tradition, so as to be able to converse with other learned communities in the Islamicate. Following a course of study as old as Plato's Academy in the fourth century B.C.E., Maimonides initiated his student into astronomy and mathematics, and then logic, and finally metaphysics, by using its tools to explicate the conundra the revealed texts often left to readers of the Hebrew scriptures. This series of exercise in biblical interpretation and philosophical exegesis was published in 1190 as the Guide to the Perplexed. It was immediately translated from Arabic into Hebrew, and then into Latin, where it served as a model for Christian thinkers like Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225274) to integrate assertions of faith with explorations of reason.
Science and religion
The most vexing issue turned out to be the claim of Genesis that time itself began with creation, whereas the prevailing philosophical view had long been of a universe emanating necessarily and without beginning from a single unitary principle. Maimonides established the model for addressing this conflict between the divergent claims of reason and of faith by using his philosophical acumen to show that the authority whom philosophers had invokedristotlead neither intended nor achieved a demonstration of the universe coming forth from a single unitary principle without beginning. And having shown that, he proceeded to delineate the anomalies in the actual universe, notably the errant path of the planets (or "wandering stars"), to point out that no set of logical principles could account for the actual ordering of the heavens, despite the elegance of the necessary emanation scheme. So, he said, it makes more eminent sense to posit a free creator, whose intentional ordering could explain what logic cannot.
This central bit of reasoning displays how his scientific acumen could be put to use to make it possible for believers to accept the words of Genesis at face value, yet he was also quick to insist that neither view could be proven. Moreover, where scriptural texts did conflict with proven tenets of reason, then they would have to be interpreted figuratively; since the divine reality could not be bodily, texts referring to the "Lord's mighty arm" would have to be read metaphorically. He was even prepared to read Genesis that way, foregoing a first moment of time for creation, but the absence of a valid demonstration of the prevailing philosophical view reduced it to the level of mere opinionowever widely held it had been, and so opened the way to a belief in scripture that was straightforward yet sophisticated. Such is the legacy that all religious traditions received from Maimonides, whose strategies were transmitted to the Christian world by way of Aquinas and others after him. In short, what seem to be conflicts between faith and reason, religion and science, may often be defused by a proper understanding of each domain, yet doing so requires an education and a sensibility as astute as Moses Maimonides's. As the celebrated Hebrew saying has it: "from Moses to Moses, there arose none like Moses."
See also CREATION; GENESIS; HISTORICAL CRITICISM; JUDAISM; JUDAISM, CONTEMPORARY ISSUES IN SCIENCE AND RELIGION; JUDAISM, HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND RELIGION, MEDIEVAL PERIOD; THOMAS AQUINAS
Goodman, Lenn Evan. Rambam: Readings in the Philosophy of Moses Maimonides. New York: Viking, 1976.
Hartman, David. Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1976.
Maimonides, Moses. Guide for the Perplexed, trans. Michael Friedlander (1904). New York: Dover, 1956.
Maimonides, Moses. Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Schlomo Pines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.
Seeskin, Kenneth. Maimonides: A Guide for Today's Perplexed. West Orange, N.J.: Behrman House, 1991.
DAVID B. BURRELL