Book Reviews

Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds

Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds
By Joel KraemerDoubleday
2008, 640 pp., $35

No figure in the long history of the Jews has earned anything approaching the fame and veneration of Maimonides (Rambam in Hebrew, after his acronym Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon: b. Cordoba, 1138; d. Cairo, 1204). His monumental legacy is treated in a massive corpus of both reverentially religious and soberly academic studies, without parallel in the field of Jewish studies. This legendary jurist, philosopher and physician led an uncommonly tumultuous life—one that encompassed several illustrious careers, from chief rabbi of Egypt’s Jewish community to head physician to Cairo’s Royal Court—unmatched in its lasting religious, philosophical, communal and political impact. He authored the most comprehensive and original code of halacha in the history of Jewish jurisprudence, the Mishneh Torah; the most influential work of medieval Jewish philosophy, The Guide for the Perplexed; and a host of other works from authoritative rabbinical responsa to groundbreaking medical tomes.

The only theological creed ever to take root among the Jewish masses, Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith, originated as one of the three prolegomena contained in Maimonides’ Commentary to the Mishnah; another is the standard work of medieval Jewish rationalist ethics, The Eight Chapters. His Epistle to Yemen, which offered great comfort to a community in distress from violent missionary coercion by Muslim fundamentalists and the ravings of a popular Jewish messianic pretender, earned Maimonides honorable mention in the Kaddish recited by Yemenite Jews to this day.

Given these unmatched achievements, it is little wonder that a popular adage declares that “From (the Biblical) Moses to Moses (Maimonides) there never arose anyone like Moses.” No less wonder that the literature on Maimonides is so vast that a search of his name in the database of the New York Public Library yields more than 1,700 titles. Additionally, tens of thousands of articles and monographs have been written about Maimonides, and his works, translated into more than 20 languages, have been the objects of hundreds of rabbinical and philosophical commentaries over the centuries.

In the few years since the worldwide commemorations of the 800th anniversary of Maimonides’ death alone, almost 100 new publications about him have appeared, including four biographies. It was then with no small degree of skepticism that I read the publisher’s advertisement for Joel Kraemer’s new book as the “long-awaited first definitive biography of Moses Maimonides.”

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