Maimonides: Faith in Reason (Jewish Lives)

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Release Date: 
March 21, 2023
Yale University Press
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“Manguel introduces the reader to an important thinker who deserves to be far better known. It's a masterly feat . . .”

Joel Kraemer's thoroughly researched biography of Maimonides remains the essential book about this pivotal medieval Jewish thinker, but at more than 600 pages, it can be daunting. Alberto Manguel provides a much more accessible overview in his book. The book opens with a brief description of Maimonides’ peripatetic life, being chased as a Jew out of Spain, then Morocco and Palestine, finally ending up in Egypt as personal physician to the Sultan Saladin himself. Manguel brings his own personal experience to this constant uprooting, offering the reader a sensitive reading of the personal cost of such displacement.

". . . not all wandering is due to persecution. In my case, it certainly was not, and the many places in which I have lived have never seemed to me enforced habitations. Rather, they have been, for a variety of reasons, the result of conscious choices. However, after reading about Maimonides' peregrinations, I identified with the experience of constantly changing landscapes, voices, customs, languages, and skies. I often wondered how these metamorphoses were affecting me—to what extent a change of vocabulary, of conventions, of tone and style transformed my way of thinking. I discovered that for Maimonides these changes enriched his own thoughts . . ."

After the biographical outlines have been filled in, Manguel turns to Maimonides’ intellectual life, first as a physician and an astute student of nature. Here the 12th century scholar follows firmly in Aristotle's footsteps, basing his sense of the world on observation. His reliance on finding proof for conjectures in the natural world set him apart from other religious writers, while placing him firmly within the Greek philosophical tradition. These are the tools Maimonides brings to his writings on the Torah, the Midrash, the Talmud, a synthesis that Manuel does a superb job of illustrating. The later chapters focus on each of Maimonides’ major books, with the most time spent on The Guide for the Perplexed. Using apt quotes from the scholar himself, Manguel gives a solid overview of this most perplexing book.

"'I have called this Treatise The Guide of the Perplexed, because, trapped between philosophical, legal, and religious questions, a person might be haunted by 'imaginary beliefs to which he owes his fear and difficulty and would not cease to suffer from heartache and great perplexity.' Maimonides proceeded to write the Guide in a seemingly rambling, beautifully poetic, deliberately cryptic voice, jumping from point to point and changing the direction of his thoughts midstream, going from strictly logical constructs to metaphysical puzzlements and lucubrations."

That last section of the book shows the impact Maimonides had on later thinkers, both religious and philosophical, as well as on the Jewish community as a whole. Manguel demonstrates the continued relevance of Maimonides' thinking, his way of looking at the world carefully, critically, and compassionately, merging religious faith with scientific exploration.

In a scant 200 pages, Manguel introduces the reader to an important thinker who deserves to be far better known. It's a masterly feat to pack so much in while keeping the language accessible. This is exactly the kind of book that should be on college summer reading lists, a guide not just to a great thinker but to the process of thinking itself.