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

From Moses to Moses, runs a Jewish saying, “there was none like Moses.” It’s a wry evasion of the relative eminence between the ancient prophet and Moses Maimonides, the 12th-century sage. Doctor, lawyer, scientist, and rabbi, he was a voluminous author but is now remembered chiefly for his Guide for the Perplexed, one of the great efforts to harmonize biblical narrative with secular philosophy. In Maimonides, Joel Kraemer labors to rescue the rest of the great man’s legacy from the shadow cast by this masterpiece — with particular emphasis on his authoritative writings on Talmudic law. Kraemer reconstructs the life and difficult times of a polymath who worked in Spain, Morocco, and Egypt at the height of Islamic cultural and political power. (The author maintains that claims for Islamic toleration of the other monotheistic faiths during this period are sometimes overstated. Even so, Maimonides’ situation was clearly far preferable to that of Jews in Europe at the time.) Kraemer’s diligence is never in question, but his devotion never quite turns into inspiration. The book plods. One often has the impression of note cards being typed up. The narrative is strictly chronological; the possibility that later writings might illuminate the significance of earlier ones is ruled out. The biography ends in 1204, with Maimonides’ death. The last paragraph is about the possible location of his grave. This is peculiar, given what has been shown about Maimonides’ own engagement with tradition — for we know that a sage’s words echo down through generations of commentary.