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Maimonides by Sherwin B. Nuland
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Years ago, perhaps in college, I read part of the Guide of the Perplexed. In one passage, the author - Moses Maimonides (1138 - 1204) - presents the striking image of silver filigree encasing a golden apple, offering it as a metaphor for the way good writing, beautiful in its own right, cradles an even more valuable substantive message. It's a beautiful image, but as I read other parts of the Guide, I often felt I could perceive only the filigree, while the golden apple itself eluded me. So, it was a joy to find this short (200 pages) biography and introduction to Maimonides and his works.

For someone looking to learn about Maimonides, this book is a marvelous place to start. Sherwin Nuland is a surgeon and historian of medicine, and he approaches Maimonides - who was himself a successful practicing doctor - with a clear grasp of that side of the sage's professional life. Nuland provides context, describes Maimonides' education, and discusses his three major religious and philosophical works: his Commentary on the Mishnah, the Mishnah Torah, and the Guide of the Perplexed. Nuland presents Maimonides as a man gifted with an extraordinary power to absorb and synthesize information from widely disparate sources, fitting it all into a coherent (if deeply personal) framework. Nuland himself writes with simplicity and clarity. In his prologue, he says, "[t]o 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." And yet, anyone reading this brisk biography will be hard pressed not to learn a useful quantity of each along the way. ( )
  bezoar44 | Feb 3, 2013 |
If Sherwin B. Nuland, in his Nextbook/Schocken book titled Maimonides, would only have given a detail picture of 12th century history of the Mediterranean region, including the various rulers’ rise and fall, characteristics of their empire, extending it both in space (covering Africa and Europe) and time (earlier and later centuries) … it would have been enough.

If the book would only have analyzed why so many Jews became doctors from the earliest of times, listing such reasons as medical knowledge being portable, when Jews were forced to move often; or the fact that the minds honed on Talmudic debates could easily use the same techniques for scientific/medical argumentation and produce better results, than other healers’, who were often uneducated … it would have been enough.

If Nuland would only have covered Rambam’s biography, including his travels and the reasons behind them, his relationships to his father, brother, students and women as much as possible; talked about his studies, positions, correspondence, alliances, and enemies … it would have been enough.

If the book would only have introduced Rambam’s major works, putting them in the context of their origin, including how the “Commentary on the Mishnah” with its combination of Greek philosophy and Rabbinic commentary manages to balance and keep scientific approach and unbending faith at their places; how the Rambam spent ten years on writing the “Mishneh Torah”’s fourteen volumes to create a reduction of Talmudic law, making its decrees available for the less educated mind; and how “The Guide for the Perplexed” created divisions between those who understood it, those who did not and those who thought they did… it would have been enough.

If Nuland, as a medical doctor and historian himself, would only have evaluated Maimonides reputation as a medical luminary, pointing out how much of his writings and practice depended on Hippocrates, Galen, Arabic and Christian sources, how Maimonides cannot be really considered an original thinker in terms of medical science, but more of a re-interpreter, similar to all of his contemporaries, but nevertheless not belittling his mental powers… it would have been enough.

If the book would only have pointed out why Rambam viewed health important (so people could devote more time to the most important duty of attaining knowledge of G-d) … it would have been enough.

But, the author also pointed out on page 190,

“The real reason that Maimonides has been an ageless icon to Jews everywhere […is the] memory of a man whose life was devoted to the continuity of the Jewish people.”

(Some of you might have recognized that the “it would have been enough” phrase is from a Pesach song. I wrote this review following that pattern in honor of the Rambam/Maimonides, who was born on the first night of Pesach in 1135.)
1 vote break | Jul 27, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805242007, Hardcover)

Part of the Jewish Encounter series

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:01:29 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"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 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."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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