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by Sherwin B. Nuland

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Moses Maimonides was a Renaissance man before there was a Renaissance: a great physician who served a sultan, a dazzling Torah scholar, a community leader, a daring philosopher whose greatest work--The Guide for the Perplexed--attempted to reconcile scientific knowledge with faith in God. He was a Jew living in a Muslim world, a rationalist living in a time of


Moses Maimonides was a Renaissance man before there was a Renaissance: a great physician who served a sultan, a dazzling Torah scholar, a community leader, a daring philosopher whose greatest work--The Guide for the Perplexed--attempted to reconcile scientific knowledge with faith in God. He was a Jew living in a Muslim world, a rationalist living in a time of superstition. Eight hundred years after his death, his notions about God, faith, the afterlife, and the Messiah still stir debate; his life as a physician still inspires; and the enigmas of his character still fascinate.

Sherwin B. Nuland--best-selling author of How We Die--focuses his surgeon’s eye and writer’s pen on this greatest of rabbis, most intriguing of Jewish philosophers, and most honored of Jewish doctors. He gives us a portrait of Maimonides that makes his life, his times, and his thought accessible to the general reader as they have never been before.

Editorial Reviews

Anthony Julius
… [Nuland's] book remains a deeply satisfying and humane introduction to the greatest of Jewish thinkers.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Maimonides, one of the preeminent personalities of medieval Jewish history, was a jurist, philosopher, expert in Jewish law, physician at the court of Saladin and a respected and dedicated communal leader. Given all that, it's difficult to understand the decision to present Maimonides's legacy primarily through the lens of his work as a physician. The 12th century was a time of stagnation in the history of medicine, and the author himself concedes that Maimonides contributed very little that was new or innovative to the field. By contrast, his jurisprudential magnum opus, the Mishne Torah, constituted a groundbreaking work in its own day and continues to be authoritative almost a millennium later. Although Nuland acknowledges this in a chapter on Maimonides's religious scholarship, it is dwarfed by the overarching concern with medicine--which seems the primary interest of Nuland, a clinical professor of surgery at Yale. The author does a serviceable job of stitching together this slight, popular biography of the larger-than-life Maimonides, but his writing is marred by an overwrought prologue and some glib generalizations. (Oct.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Nuland (surgery, Yale Univ.; How We Die) condenses the life of Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish philosopher, natural scientist, and physician, into a short, accessible work relevant to contemporary readers. The text traverses the highlights of Maimonides' religious and medical career without delving too deeply into any area. Though Nuland's focus is usually more biomedical and scientific, here he devotes only about 30 pages to Maimonides as a physician (his primary contribution was a condensing and correcting of Galenic writings); there is little explanation of medical beliefs at the time. As in his Leonardo da Vinci, Nuland has succeeded in capturing the essence of Maimonides and explaining why physicians still esteem the rabbi today. A short biographical notes section allows readers to look deeper into any area that interests them. Another title to consider is Ilil Arbel's Maimonides: A Spiritual Biography. Recommended for general collections. [This marks the first volume in the "Jewish Encounters" series, a collaboration between Schocken and Nextbook.-Ed.]-Eric D. Albright, Tufts Univ. Lib., Boston Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A portrait in brief of a remarkable scholar/philosopher/physician of the 12th century, and an examination of the long tradition of Jewish healing. In this second volume in the Jewish Encounters series, Nuland, a surgeon and NBA-winning author (How We Die, 1994, etc.), sketches the religious and political tensions of the time, chronicling the Maimon family's wanderings around the Mediterranean in search of a place to live. Moses ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides, settled in Islamic Egypt, where his driving purpose was preservation of the Jewish community, a task demanding strong leadership. As a young man, Maimondes became the spiritual leader of Jews in Saladin's kingdom and the foremost scholar of his time. Nuland sifts out the facts from the many legends and myths surrounding Maimonides, and for readers unfamiliar with Jewish traditions, carefully explains the significance of his major religious works, which incorporate science and philosophy into religious thought. Maimonides possessed a remarkable mind for observing and interpreting the world, and a powerful talent for collecting, codifying and clarifying. If the portrait of the man himself is hazy, Nuland cannot be blamed, for details of Maimonides' personal and family life are obscure. What is known is that tradition forbade him from making a living as a rabbi, and when his brother's ship was lost at sea, taking the family fortune with it, Maimonides turned to the practice of medicine for income. Already a prominent public figure, he was soon made a physician in Saladdin's court. Nuland concludes that Maimonides, who inspired centuries of Jewish physicians, should be revered for his devotion to the Jewish people and theprogressive worldview he brought to theology. An appendix briefly discusses his medical writings. A fine distillation.
From the Publisher
"Will educate and inspire not only people of faith, but all who seek to lead a life of significance and meaning."
—Dr. Jerome Groopman, author of The Anatomy of Hope

"Nuland writes sympathetically, one Jewish doctor considering this most extraordinary of Jewish doctors . . . His book is a guide for those perplexed by Maimonides, as well as those ignorant of him. [It is] a deeply satisfying and humane introduction to the greatest of Jewish thinkers."
The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Jewish Encounters Series
Product dimensions:
5.32(w) x 7.71(h) x 0.98(d)

Read an Excerpt


The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me around about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. — Jonah 2:5
So cried out Jonah to the Lord, recalling how he had been "cast into the deep, in the midst of the seas," before being taken up into the capacious warm body of the great fish. He had done what he could to avoid the impossible task for which he was chosen by a power whose determination was not to be escaped.

And so, too, I cried out to Jonathan Rosen, the general editor of this new series of books on Jewish themes, when I had for several months been immersed in the deep, inky waters of the vast Maimonidean literature, and not yet sighted a whale. I was being suffocated by weeds so densely wrapped about my head that, emulating Jonah, "I cried out by reason of my affliction" and begged to be relieved of a burden for which I had become certain that I was incompetent.

But Jonathan would hear none of it; I was not to be allowed the flight to Tarshish and the release for which I so desperately yearned. Though I bombarded him with the names of scholars who had spent distinguished careers swimming comfortably in the Judaic and Aristotelean seas in which I was being drowned, Jonathan rejected them all. There had been several reasons that I—rather than an acknowledged authority—had been chosen for this mission, he replied to my importunings. He did not want a scholar steeped in the complexities of his subject's philosophy; he wanted a writer, who might seek out the essence of the man and tell the story of his lifelong journey toward understanding. Mainly what he was seeking, he explained, was an encounter between a contemporary observer and that towering figure from the Jewish past. Is there some common ground on which Rabbi Moses ben Maimon—commonly called by the acronym "the Rambam" but since the Renaissance more often known by the Hellenized appellation—can walk together with a man or woman of today? Are the issues that absorbed him so different from those with which we grapple in our secular era, that his memory can only be iconic rather than meaningful? In the more restricted sense, how does a Jewish doctor of the twenty-first century relate his sense of calling to the legendary Jewish doctor of the twelfth? Is it, in fact, even possible that anyone other than the small cadre of dedicated and deeply learned Maimonidean scholars can discover any sort of intellectual or emotional relationship with that great man of so long ago? Can we in our time recognize in him attributes we see in ourselves, or is he so removed from the experience of a present-day mind that we can only study him, but never fully comprehend who he was? "If Maimonides is lost to you," wrote Jonathan, "then he is lost to all of us."

And with those words, I decided to become Everyman. Not yet a bit less fearful of submitting a simplistic, superficial, or error-filled manuscript, I returned—resigned, though still reluctant—to the confrontation with my ignorance. I began reading again, immersing myself once more in the very waters from which I had sought rescue. And like many another drowning man, I one day unexpectedly found a buoyant object to which I might cling, at first desperately and then gradually with an increasing sense that I might yet be saved, and my literary undertaking with me. It came in the form of a single sentence written by one of the scholars whom I had recommended to Jonathan Rosen. In his introduction to Jacob S. Minkin's 1087 volume The Teachings of Maimonides, the eminent historian Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg had written, "Distinguishing between what we learn from Maimonides as he would have wanted us to learn from him, and what we make of him because that is what we want to hear, remains an insoluble problem."

I had already begun to perceive through the mists of my vague comprehension that many of the twentieth-century commentators on the Rambam had made interpretations that reflected their own religious or historical worldviews; that hyperbole and hagiography were common; and that an element of the muddling factor that historians call presentism—seeing the events of the past through the prism of today's values and knowledge—existed in far too many of the books and essays of even the most authoritative biographers. In each generation, scholars have found in Maimonides what they have wished, or needed, to find.

And of course, this last observation describes a state of affairs that is not all to the bad. Much the same might be said of the Bible, of Jewish scripture in general, of historical events and trends, and it is certainly true of the Constitution of the United States or of any other democracy. Particularly in biography, constant reinterpretation can be a source of strength in a body of writing or knowledge, if one can but avoid the presentism and the exaggerating distortions that too often accompany it. As for the subjectivism, that is not in itself necessarily an obstacle, because a degree of subjectivity can only benefit the freshness of commentary. And freshness of commentary is, after all, the hallmark of the Rambam's contribution to religious thought. All of this was very reassuring to me as I thought over my communications with Jonathan.

Armed with these new realizations, I returned to the work; the present volume is its issue. This book is, quite simply, the outcome of the ancient Jewish dictum that one is not permitted to turn away from a responsibility, though it may prove impossible to bring it to a state of finality. And that, too—the impossibility of ultimate completion—is a good thing for this enterprise, because there will never be a finality in the interpretation of the Rambam's body of work or of understanding the events of his life, nor should such a thing be sought. Setting aside a bit of remaining trepidation, I continued to read and to study and to ruminate and to discuss with any colleague I thought knowledgeable (and some, chosen quite deliberately for this reason, who were not). In time, the turbulent seas somehow began to calm themselves, although at first ever so slowly. After some months, I really came to believe that I could see just a bit into the mind of the man I had been taught since childhood to revere though so much of him had been unknown or at least obscure to me. With further study came further understanding. Of course, the mind I was seeing into was as much my own as his.

What is presented in these pages is, as Maimonides himself might have put it, a guide for the perplexed—those many like me who have known of Maimonides all of our lives and familiarized ourselves with just enough of him to believe, whether justified or not, that we have some modicum of understanding, but that it is never quite enough. To the majority of us, he has been little more than an honored name. And yet, some of us have frequently recited his Thirteen Principles of the Faith in our synagogues; some of us have had our photographs taken alongside his bronze statue in the Plaza of Tiberiades in Cordoba; some of us have made the pilgrimage to the site believed to be his grave in Tiberias; some of us have attended lectures about him by learned authorities; some of us have tried to learn more by occasionally spending an evening reading directly from The Guide for the Perplexed, and found much of its text well-nigh impossible to comprehend; some of us have pored over the large volume of twentieth-century literature about his teachings; some of us have even ventured into the pages of his Mishneh Torah to clarify a point of Jewish law, without so much as wondering about the man behind the words; some of us have donated funds to support a Maimonides school or hospital; and some of the doctors among us have belonged to a professional group in our communities called the Maimonides Medical Society.

I have done almost all of these things, and yet remained perplexed, needing a guide. The attempt to learn that was involved in producing this volume has been that guide. I have written it in much the same way as Maimonides wrote his Mishneh Torah, a book brought forth to elucidate Jewish law, or halakha, to the Everyman who would read it. It is not a book for scholars. Its aims, like the Rambam's, are clarity and conciseness; its purpose is to make Maimonides accessible to myself and therefore to others. To understand this little volume of mine, no previous knowledge of Moses ben Maimon or of his era is required, nor of philosophy, medicine, Judaica or academic methods. It is accordingly without references that might distract the general reader; it is completely the product of the understanding to which I have come after a long voyage of study; in emphasis and interpretation, it is without any attempt to avoid a certain level of personal viewpoint and subjectivity; on reaching its last page, each reader must decide individually whether he or she is any closer to answering the questions posed in the third paragraph of these introductory thoughts. I offer my book as this Jewish doctor's study of the most extraordinary of Jewish doctors.

Copyright © 2005 by Sherwin Nuland. Reprinted by permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

Meet the Author

Sherwin B. Nuland, M.D., is the author of nine previous books, including Doctors: The Biography of Medicine, The Wisdom of the Body, The Mysteries Within, Lost in America: A Journey with My Father, and The Doctors’ Plague. His book How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter won the National Book Award and spent thirty-four weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times, Time, and The New York Review of Books. Nuland is a clinical professor of surgery at Yale University, where he also teaches bioethics and medical history. He lives with his family in Connecticut.

Lost in America, Doctors: The Biography of Medicine, How We Live, and How We Die are available in paperback from Vintage Books.

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Maimonides 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Sherwin Nuland's fascinating biography of Maimonides focusses mostly on the sage as a physician and philosopher. He was also a jurist and dedicated communal leader. The book is very well written, gives historical insights into medicine and philosophy in the 12th century period, and is easy to read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago