Monday, March 16, 2009

Iconic Heroes

Mural depicting Saint Francis receiving Saint Clare
Southwestern wall of nave of Grace Cathedral
San Francisco, CA
Photo by Son Brad

Throughout history there have been and are and will be extraordinary men and women who uniquely demonstrate genius, talent, innovative thinking, ingenuity, creativity, etc. to the extent that they embody the very best of a given people, nation, culture, religion, profession, field, etc.

The gifted men and women serve as “icons” or “images” of beauty, intelligence, virtue, etc. They are our heroes, role models, ideal examples, or archetypes by which everyone and/or everything is evaluated and judged. In terms of Platonic philosophy and Jungian psychology these heroes are “archetypes”. Archetypes are images of thought or symbols that are derived from humankind's past collective experience and present in an individual unconscious. Our heroes take on mythic or legendary proportions when they are seen through such an “archetypal” lens.

What follows are some of my personal heroes, as well as some of Son Brad's. They are listed in the order they appeared in history.


(Retrieved from February 10, 2009 and condensed.)

Moses Maimonides (also known as Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, the Rambam, and Musa ibn Maymun) was born in Cordova, Spain on March 30, 1135. He died in Egypt on December 13, 1204.[6][7].

Maimonides is one of my heroes.

He was one of the greatest Torah scholars of all time. He was a rabbi, physician, and philosopher in Spain, Morocco and Egypt during the Middle Ages. He was the preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher whose ideas also influenced the non-Jewish world.

One of the central tenets of Maimonides's philosophy is that it is impossible for the truths arrived at by human intellect to contradict those revealed by God. Maimonides held to a strictly apophatic theology in which only negative statements toward a description of God may be considered correct. Thus, one does not say “God is One”, but rather, “God is not multiple”. [8] Although many of his ideas met with the opposition of his contemporaries, Maimonides was embraced by later Jewish and many non-Jewish thinkers. St. Thomas Aquinas held him in high esteem, and the fourteen-volume Mishneh Torah today retains canonical authority as a codification of Talmudic law.

Although his copious works on Jewish law and ethics were initially met with opposition during his lifetime, he was posthumously acknowledged to be one of the foremost rabbinical arbiters and philosophers in Jewish history. Today, his works and his views are considered a cornerstone of Jewish thought and study.


As I said, Maimonides was born in ca 1135 in Cordoba, Spain. He was born during what some scholars consider to be the end of the golden age of Jewish culture in Spain, after the first centuries of the Moorish rule. At an early age, he developed an interest in the exact sciences and philosophy. In addition to reading the works of Muslim scholars, he also read those of the Greek philosophers made accessible through Arabic translations. Maimonides was not known as a supporter of mysticism. He voiced opposition to poetry, the best of which he declared as false, since it was founded on pure invention -- and this too in a land which had produced such noble expressions of the Hebrew and Arabic muse. This Sage, who was revered for his saintly personality as well as for his writings, led an unquiet life, and penned his classic works with the staff of the wanderer in his hand.[9] Maimonides studied Torah under his father Maimon, who had in turn studied under Rabbi Joseph ibn Migash.

The Almohades from Africa conquered Cordoba in 1148, and threatened the Jewish community with the choice of conversion to Islam, death, or exile.[9] Maimonides's family, along with most other Jews, chose exile. For the next ten years they moved about in southern Spain, avoiding the conquering Almohades, but eventually settled in Fez in Morocco, where Maimonides acquired most of his secular knowledge, studying at the University of Al Karaouine. During this time, he composed his acclaimed commentary on the Mishnah in the years 1166-1168[10].

Following this sojourn in Morocco, he lived briefly in the Holy Land, before settling in Fostat, Egypt, where he was physician of the Grand Vizier Alfadhil and Sultan Saladin of Egypt, and also treated Richard the Lionheart while on the Crusades.[11] He was considered to be the greatest physician of his time, being influenced by renowned Islamic thinkers such as Ibn Rushd and Al-Ghazali.[2][3] He composed most of his œuvre in this last locale, including the Mishneh Torah. He died in Fostat, and was buried in Tiberias (today in Israel). His son Avraham, recognized as a great scholar, succeeded Maimonides as Nagid (head of the Egyptian Jewish community); he also took up his father's role as court physician, at the age of eighteen. He greatly honored the memory of his father, and throughout his career defended his father's writings against all critics. The office of Nagid was held by the Maimonides family for four successive generations until the end of the 14th century.

Maimonides was a devoted physician. In a famous letter, he describes his daily routine: After visiting the Sultan’s palace, he would arrive home exhausted and hungry, where “I would find the antechambers filled with gentiles and Jews ... I would go to heal them, and write prescriptions for their illnesses ... until the evening ... and I would be extremely weak.” [12]

He is widely respected in Spain and a statue of him was erected in Cordoba by the only synagogue in that city which escaped destruction, and which is no longer functioning as a Jewish house of worship but is open to the public.


Maimonides was one of the most influential figures in medieval Jewish philosophy. A popular medieval saying that also served as his epitaph states, From Moshe (of the Torah) to Moshe (Maimonides) there was none like Moshe.

Radical Jewish scholars in the centuries that followed can be characterized as “Maimonideans” or “anti-Maimonideans.” Moderate scholars were eclectics who largely accepted Maimonides's Aristotelian world-view, but rejected those elements of it which they considered to contradict the religious tradition. Such eclecticism reached its height in the 14th-15th centuries.

The most rigorous medieval critique of Maimonides is Hasdai Crescas' Or Hashem. Crescas bucked the eclectic trend, by demolishing the certainty of the Aristotelian world-view, not only in religious matters, but even in the most basic areas of medieval science (such as physics and geometry). Crescas's critique provoked a number of 15th century scholars to write defenses of Maimonides. A translation of Crescas was produced by Harry Austryn Wolfson of Harvard University, in 1929.

The 13 principles of faith

In his commentary on the Mishna (tractate Sanhedrin, chapter 10), Maimonides formulates his 13 principles of faith. They summarized what he viewed as the required beliefs of Judaism with regards to:

  1. The existence of God

  2. God's unity

  3. God's spirituality and incorporeality

  4. God's eternity

  5. God alone should be the object of worship

  6. Revelation through God's prophets

  7. The preeminence of Moses among the prophets

  8. God's law given on Mount Sinai

  9. The immutability of the Torah as God's Law

  10. God's foreknowledge of human actions

  11. Reward of good and retribution of evil

  12. The coming of the Jewish Messiah

  13. The resurrection of the dead

These principles were controversial when first proposed, evoking criticism by Rabbi Hasdai Crescas and Rabbi Joseph Albo, and were effectively ignored by much of the Jewish community for the next few centuries. (“Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought,” Menachem Kellner). However, these principles became widely held; today, Orthodox Judaism holds these beliefs to be obligatory. Two poetic restatements of these principles (Ani Ma'amin and Yigdal) eventually became canonized in the siddur (Jewish prayer book).


Through the Guide for the Perplexed and the philosophical introductions to sections of his commentaries on the Mishna, Maimonides exerted an important influence on the Scholastic philosophers, especially on Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotus. He was himself a Jewish Scholastic. Educated more by reading the works of Arab Muslim philosophers than by personal contact with Arabian teachers, he acquired an intimate acquaintance not only with Arab Muslim philosophy, but with the doctrines of Aristotle. Maimonides strove to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy and science with the teachings of the Torah.

Negative theology

The principle which inspired his philosophical activity was identical with the fundamental tenet of Scholasticism: there can be no contradiction between the truths which God has revealed, and the findings of the human mind in science and philosophy. Maimonides primarily relied upon the science of Aristotle and the teachings of the Talmud, commonly finding basis in the former for the latter. In some important points, however, he departed from the teaching of Aristotle; for instance, he rejected the Aristotelian doctrine that God's provident care extends only to humanity, and not to the individual.

Maimonides was led by his admiration for the neo-Platonic commentators to maintain many doctrines which the Scholastics could not accept. For instance, Maimonides was an adherent of “negative theology” (also known as “Apophatic theology”.) In this theology, one attempts to describe God through negative attributes. For instance, one should not say that God exists in the usual sense of the term; all we can safely say is that God is not non-existent. We should not say that “God is wise”; but we can say that “God is not ignorant,” i.e. in some way, God has some properties of knowledge. We should not say that “God is One,” but we can state that “there is no multiplicity in God's being.” In brief, the attempt is to gain and express knowledge of God by describing what God is not; rather than by describing what God “is.”

The Scholastics agreed with him that no predicate is adequate to express the nature of God; but they did not go so far as to say that no term can be applied to God in the affirmative sense. They admitted that while “eternal,” “omnipotent,” etc., as we apply them to God, are inadequate, at the same time we may say “God is eternal” etc., and need not stop, as Moses did, with the negative “God is not not-eternal,” etc. In essence what Maimonides wanted to express is that when people give God anthropomorphic qualities they do not explain anything more of what God is, because we cannot know anything of the essence of God.

Maimonides' use of apophatic theology is not unique to this time period or to Judaism. For example, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor, Eastern Christian theologians, developed apophatic theology for Christianity nearly 900 years earlier.


He agrees with “the philosophers” in teaching that, man's intelligence being one in the series of intelligences emanating from God, the prophet must, by study and meditation, lift himself up to the degree of perfection required in the prophetic state. But here, he invokes the authority of “the Law,” which teaches that, after that perfection is reached, there is required the “free acts of God,” before the man actually becomes a prophet.

The problem of evil

Maimonides wrote on theodicy (the philosophical attempt to reconcile the existence of a God with the existence of evil in the world). He took the premise that an omnipotent and good God exists. He adopts the Aristotelian view that defines evil as the lack of, or the reduced presence of a God, as exhibited by those who exercise the free choice of rejecting belief.

True beliefs versus necessary beliefs

In “Guide for the Perplexed” Book III, Chapter 28 [16], Maimonides explicitly draws a distinction between “true beliefs,” which were beliefs about God which produced intellectual perfection, and “necessary beliefs,” which were conducive to improving social order. Maimonides places anthropomorphic personification statements about God in the latter class. He uses as an example the notion that God becomes “angry” with people who do wrong. In the view of Maimonides (taken from Avicenna) God does not actually become angry with people, as God has no human passions; but it is important for them to believe God does, so that they desist from sinning.

Resurrection, acquired immortality, and the afterlife

Maimonides distinguishes two kinds of intelligence in man, the one material in the sense of being dependent on, and influenced by, the body, and the other immaterial, that is, independent of the bodily organism. The latter is a direct emanation from the universal active intellect; this is his interpretation of the noûs poietikós of Aristotelian philosophy. It is acquired as the result of the efforts of the soul to attain a correct knowledge of the absolute, pure intelligence of God.

The knowledge of God is a form of knowledge which develops in us the immaterial intelligence, and thus confers on man an immaterial, spiritual nature. This confers on the soul that perfection in which human happiness consists, and endows the soul with immortality. One who has attained a correct knowledge of God has reached a condition of existence which renders him immune from all the accidents of fortune, from all the allurements of sin, and even from death itself. Man, therefore is in a position not only to work out his own salvation and immortality.

The resemblance between this doctrine and Spinoza's doctrine of immortality is so striking as to warrant the hypothesis that there is a causal dependence of the latter on the earlier doctrine. The differences between the two Jewish thinkers are, however, as remarkable as the resemblance. While Spinoza teaches that the way to attain the knowledge which confers immortality is the progress from sense-knowledge through scientific knowledge to philosophical intuition of all things sub specie æternitatis, Maimonides holds that the road to perfection and immortality is the path of duty as described in the Torah and the rabbinic understanding of the oral law.

Religious Jews not only believed in immortality in some spiritual sense, but most believed that there would at some point in the future be a messianic era, and a resurrection of the dead. This is the subject of Jewish eschatology. Maimonides wrote much on this topic, but in most cases he wrote about the immortality of the soul for people of perfected intellect; his writings were usually not about the resurrection of dead bodies. This prompted hostile criticism from the rabbis of his day, and sparked a controversy over his true views.

Rabbinic works usually refer to this afterlife as “Olam Haba” (the World to Come). Some rabbinic works use this phrase to refer to a messianic era, an era of history right here on Earth; in other rabbinic works this phrase refers to a purely spiritual realm. It was during Maimonides's lifetime that this lack of agreement flared into a full blown controversy, with Maimonides charged as a heretic by some Jewish leaders.

Some Jews at this time taught that Judaism did not require a belief in the physical resurrection of the dead, as the afterlife would be a purely spiritual realm. They used Maimonides' works on this subject to back up their position. In return, their opponents claimed that this was outright heresy; for them the afterlife was right here on Earth, where God would raise dead bodies from the grave so that the resurrected could live eternally. Maimonides was brought into this dispute by both sides, as the first group stated that his writings agreed with them, and the second group portrayed him as a heretic for writing that the afterlife is for the immaterial spirit alone. Eventually, Maimonides felt pressured to write a treatise on the subject, the “Ma'amar Tehiyyat Hametim” (“The Treatise on Resurrection”).

Chapter two of the treatise on resurrection refers to those who believe that the world to come involves physically resurrected bodies. Maimonides refers to one with such beliefs as being an “utter fool” whose belief is “folly”.

If one of the multitude refuses to believe [that angels are incorporeal] and prefers to believe that angels have bodies and even that they eat, since it is written (Genesis 18:8) 'they ate', or that those who exist in the World to Come will also have bodies -- we won't hold it against him or consider him a heretic, and we will not distance ourselves from him. May there not be many who profess this folly, and let us hope that he will go no farther than this in his folly and believe that the Creator is corporeal.

However, Maimonides also writes that those who claimed that he altogether believed the verses of the Hebrew Bible referring to the resurrection were only allegorical were spreading falsehoods and “revolting” statements. Maimonides asserts that belief in resurrection is a fundamental truth of Judaism about which there is no disagreement, and that it is not permissible for a Jew to support anyone who believes differently. He cites Daniel 12:2 and 12:13 as definitive proofs of physical resurrection of the dead when they state “many of them that sleep in the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence” and “But you, go your way till the end; for you shall rest, and will arise to your inheritance at the end of the days.”

While these two positions may be seen as in contradiction (non-corporeal eternal life, versus a bodily resurrection), Maimonides resolves them with a then unique solution: Maimonides believed that the resurrection was not permanent or general. In his view, God never violates the laws of nature. Rather, divine interaction is by way of angels, which Maimonides holds to be metaphors for the laws of nature, the principles by which the physical universe operates, or Platonic eternal forms. Thus, if a unique event actually occurs, even if it is perceived as a miracle, it is not a violation of the world's order. [17]

In this view, any dead who are resurrected must eventually die again. In his discussion of the 13 principles of faith, the first five deal with knowledge of God, the next four deal with prophecy and the Torah, while the last four deal with reward, punishment and the ultimate redemption. In this discussion Maimonides says nothing of a universal resurrection. All he says it is that whatever resurrection does take place, it will occur at an indeterminate time before the world to come, which he repeatedly states will be purely spiritual.

He writes “It appears to us on the basis of these verses (Daniel 12:2,13) that those people who will return to those bodies will eat, drink, copulate, beget, and die after a very long life, like the lives of those who will live in the Days of the Messiah.” Maimonides thus disassociated the resurrection of the dead from both the World to Come and the Messianic era.

In his time, many Jews believed that the physical resurrection was identical to the world to come; thus denial of a permanent and universal resurrection was considered tantamount to denying the words of the Talmudic sages. However, instead of denying the resurrection, or maintaining the current dogma, Maimonides posited a third way: That resurrection had nothing to do with the messianic era (here in this world) nor to do with Olam Haba (the purely spiritual afterlife). Rather, he considered resurrection to be a miracle that the book of Daniel predicted; thus at some point in time we could expect some instances of resurrection to occur temporarily, which would have no place in the final eternal life of the righteous.

Maimonides, the physician

Maimonides was trained as a physician in Cordoba and in Fez. He later practiced his profession in Egypt, probably in 1166 or 1167, after the death of his brother who had supported him, and did so for the remainder of his life. He gained wide-spread recognition and became a court physician to the Grand Vezier Alfadil, then to Sultan Saladin, after whose death he remained a physician to the royal family [18]. In his writings he described many conditions including asthma, diabetes, hepatitis, and pneumonia, and emphasized moderation and a healthy life style. [19] His treatises became influential for generations of physicians. He was knowledgeable about Greek and Persian medicine, and followed the principles of humorism in the tradition of Galen, however, did not blindly accept authority but used his own observation and experience. [19] Frank, however, indicates that in his medical writings he sought not to explore new ideas but to interpret works of authorities so that they could become acceptable. [18] Maimonides displays in his interactions with patients attributes that today would be called inter cultural awareness and respect for the patient's autonomy. [20]

The Oath of Maimonides

The Oath of Maimonides is a document about the medical calling and recited as a substitute for the Oath of Hippocrates. The Oath is not to be confused with a more lengthy Prayer of Maimonides. These documents may not have been written by Maimonides, but later. [18] The Prayer appeared first in print in 1793 and has been attributed to Marcus Herz, a German physician, pupil of Immanual Kant. [21]

Maimonides and the Modernists

Maimonides remains the most widely debated Jewish thinker among modern scholars. He has been adopted as a symbol and an intellectual hero by almost all major movements in modern Judaism, and has proven immensely important to philosophers such as Leo Strauss; and his views on the importance of humility have been taken up by modern humanist philosophers, like Peter Singer and Iain King. In academia, particularly within the area of Jewish Studies, the teaching of Maimonides has been dominated by traditional, generally Orthodox scholars, who place a very strong emphasis on Maimonides as a rationalist. The result of this is many sides of Maimonides's thought, for example his opposition to anthropocentrism, have been obviated. There is some movement in postmodern circles, e.g. within the discourse of ecotheology, to claim Maimonides for other purposes. Maimonides's importance to diverse systems of thought lies in the philosopher's embrace of paradoxical and often contradictory ideas. Maimonides's reconciliation of the philosophical and the traditional has given his legacy an extremely diverse and dynamic quality.

Works and bibliography

Judaic and philosophical works

Maimonides composed works of Jewish scholarship, rabbinic law, philosophy, and medical texts. Most of Maimonides' works were written in Judeo-Arabic. However, the Mishneh Torah was written in Hebrew. His Judaism texts were:

  • Commentary on the Mishna (Hebrew Pirush Hamishnayot), written in Judeo-Arabic. This text was one of the first commentaries of its kind; its introductory sections are widely quoted.

  • Sefer Hamitzvot (trans. The Book of Commandments).

  • Sefer Ha'shamad (letter of Martydom)

  • Mishneh Torah, also known as Sefer Yad ha-Chazaka, a comprehensive code of Jewish law

  • Guide for the Perplexed, a philosophical work harmonizing and differentiating Aristotle's philosophy and Jewish theology. Written in Judeo-Arabic. The first translation of this work into Hebrew was done by Samuel ibn Tibbon

  • Teshuvot, collected correspondence and responsa, including a number of public letters (on resurrection and the after-life, on conversion to other faiths, and Iggereth Teiman -- addressed to the oppressed Jewry of Yemen).

  • Treatise on Logic (Arabic: Makala Fi-Sinat Al-Mantik) has been printed 17 times, including editions in Latin (1527), German (1805, 1822, 1833, 1828), French (1935), and English (1938), and in an abridged Hebrew form.

Medical works

Maimonides wrote ten known medical works in Arabic that have been translated by the Jewish medical ethicist Fred Rosner into contemporary English. [19]

  • Extracts from Galen, or The Art of Cure, is essentially an extract of Galen's extensive writings.

  • Commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates is interspersed with his own views.

  • Medical Aphorisms of Moses titled Fusul Musa in Arabic (“Chapters of Moses,” Pirkei Moshe in Hebrew) contains 1500 aphorisms and many medical conditions are described.

  • Treatise on Hemorrhoids discusses also digestion and food.

  • Treatise on Cohabitation contains recipes as aphrodisiacs and anti-aphrodisiacs.

  • Treatise on Asthma discusses climates and diets and their effect on asthma and emphasizes the need for clean air.

  • Treatise on Poisons and Their Antidotes is an early toxicology textbook that remained popular for centuries.

  • Regimen of Health is a discourse on healthy living and the mind-body connection.

  • Discourse on the Explanation of Fits advocates healthy living and the avoidance of overabundance.

  • Glossary of Drug Names represents a pharmacopeia with 405 paragraphs with the names of drugs in Arabic, Greek, Syrian, Persian, Berber, and Spanish.

See also

  • Golden age of Jewish culture in Spain

  • Thomas Aquinas

  • Averroes


  1. Goldin, Hyman E. Kitzur Shulchan Aruch - Code of Jewish Law, Forward to the New Edition. (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1961)

  2. “H-Net”.

  3. “Maimonides Islamic Influences”. Plato. Stanford.

  4. Moses (1138-1204)

  5. Isaac Newton: “Judaic monotheist of the school of Maimonides”

  6. Bar Ilan CD-ROM

  7. Maimonides (1135-1204) - ReligionFacts

  8. Moreh Nevukhim 1:58

  9. 1954 Encyclopedia Americana, vol. 18, p. 140.

  10. Seder HaDoros (year 4927) quotes Maimonides as saying that he began writing his commentary on the Mishna when he was 23years old, and published it when he was 30. Because of the dispute about the date of Maimonides's birth it is not clear which year it was actually published

  11. Nash, Elizabeth (2005). Seville, C'ordoba, and Granada: A Cultural History (Cityscapes). Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 0-19-518204-9.

  12. Responsa Pe’er HaDor, 143.

  13. Last section of Maimonides's Introduction to Mishneh Torah

  14. Moses Maimonides, Sefer Hamitzvot, Negative Commandment no. 290.

  15. Moses Maimonides, The Commandments, Neg. Comm. 290, at 269–71 (Charles B. Chavel trans., 1967).

  16. Guide for the Perplexed, on

  17. Commentary on the Mishna, Avot 5:6

  18. Julia Bess Frank. “Moses Maimonides: Rabbi of Medicine”. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine (1981) 54:79-88.

  19. Fred Rosner. “The Life o Moses Maimonides, a Prominent Medieval Physician”.

  20. Gesundheit B, Or R, Gamliel C, Rosner F, Steinberg A. “Treatment of depression by Maimonides (1138-1204):Rabbi, Physician, and Philosopher". Am J Psychiatry (2008) 165:425-428.

  21. Oath and Prayer of Maimonides

(Retrieved from on February 10, 2009 and condensed.)

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