How learning to ‘leyn’ Torah helped me connect with long-lost ancestors
From one of our leading medical men of letters, a portrait of the great 12th-century philosopher and medical sage. 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 Nuland—best-selling author of How We Die—focuses his surgeon’s eye and writer’s pen on this greatest of rabbis, most challenging 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.
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.
"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." Continue reading
“Sherwin Nuland’s new biography is concise, thoughtful, informed, and altogether as fine an introduction to this monumental personality as the modern reader could wish. He writes engagingly, willing both to challenge Maimonides’ judgment and to confess to his own limitations of understanding, which are natural when evaluating the life and work of a multifaceted medieval sage.” Continue reading
“Nuland suggests that Maimonides’ clinical thoroughness, alongside his focus on the emotional and spiritual dimension of illness, should be a model for medicine today, as embodied in the many Maimonides hospitals and medical societies that exist around the country…. In today’s religiously and politically polarized world, when crassness and fundamentalisms of all kinds are in ascendance, Maimonides’ literate, humane judgments—even across the barriers of language, belief, and time—make him more than ever a man for all seasons.” Continue reading
SHERWIN B. NULAND is also the author of Lost in America, How We Live, and Doctors. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times, Time, The New York Review of Books, and The American Scholar. He is a clinical professor of surgery … Continue reading