Turning to a medieval rabbi for modern insight
Maimonides, the 12th-century rabbi, physician, philosopher, and theologian, remains relevant to 21st-century Jews across denominational lines and others in the fields of medicine, science, and ethics.
“Maimonides is the most-talked-about figure in all of Judaism,” said Dr. Alyssa Gray, associate professor of codes and responsa literature at the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. “He mastered pretty much everything there was to know in his time — philosophy, Torah, mathematics, medicine.”
His impact was evident this month, as area synagogues featured two lectures on his legacy in as many days.
On Nov. 14, Gray delivered the annual Louis Schrager Memorial Lecture at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, where she spoke on Maimonides, Continued: Critics, Admirers, and the Crafting of His Image from the Middle Ages to the Present. The lecture series is endowed by Felice Schrager in memory of her husband.
The evening before, physician Edward Reichman spoke about Contemporary Medical Ethics through the Eyes of Maimonides during the Orthodox Forum of Edison/Highland Park at Congregation Ohav Emeth in Highland Park.
Reichman, a medical ethicist specializing in the interface of Jewish law and medicine, talked of Maimonides’ enlightened medical theories and ethics, saying they still provide insight on medical issues never imagined in medieval times, including abortion and cloning.
Also known as the Rambam — the acronym for his Hebrew name, Rabbi Moses ben-Maimon — Maimonides is the author of the “Mishneh Torah,” the 14-book code of Jewish law still in use today, and the three-volume Guide to the Perplexed. His “Thirteen Articles of Faith” often appears in prayer books as “Yigdal.”
“He was extraordinarily accomplished in life in many areas,” said Reichman. “The Rambam is learned in every single yeshiva in the world.”
Reichman, who is associate professor of emergency medicine and of philosophy and the history of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, said Maimonides authored a vast array of articles on common ailments. Among his topics: asthma, hemorrhoids, the influence of diet on health, and advocating what is now termed preventative medicine.
Maimonides tied his medical teachings to Jewish beliefs by, for example, instructing that “maintaining the body is really working in the ways of Hashem,” Reichman said. “You cannot pray or learn effectively and do all your religious duties if you are sick. Therefore you have to engage in preventative medicine to maintain your health.”
He added that it is “quite exciting to turn in the 21st century to a figure from the 12th century,” noting that Maimonides is still cited in modern medical literature. Reichman pointed to a recent article in the Lancet, Britain’s preeminent medical journal, that claimed that modern physicians could be more effective if they adopted Maimonides’ “biopsychosocial approach” to patient interaction.
But while it’s true that the Rambam is now held in high reverence, Gray told her audience at Anshe Emeth, he was often a controversial figure over the centuries.
“Maimonides was not seen or accepted or received in all his complexity in the Middle Ages,” she said. “He had both critics and admirers.”
Gray said no work was more controversial than the “Mishneh Torah,” his opus that is a compilation of oral law and statutes, customs, and decrees enacted from the time of Moses until the Talmud. Maimonides’ code was widely denounced by traditionalists, some of whom feared that with the “Mishneh Torah,” available, Jews would no longer read the Talmud.
Through the centuries, Maimonides and his views gained acceptance through the Ashkenazi learning centers of Eastern Europe, she said.
Today, Chabad-Lubavitch offers a daily study of Maimonides, said Gray, and the Rambam’s “attempt to synthesize Judaism and the worlds of science, medicine, philosophy, and Torah” still resonates among liberal Jews.