Renowned Jewish philosopher, scientist, and physician, Maimonides (1138-1204) was one of Judaism’s most original and influential thinkers. He wrote many works on law, philosophy, and science that shaped Jewish doctrine and practice. His most famous work is The Guide for the Perplexed. Originally written in Arabic, it was translated by Maimonides’ contemporary, Samuel ibn Tibbon, into Hebrew. The Guide influenced many thinkers including Christian theologians, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, because of its emphasis on Aristotle’s teachings.
Maimonides is known to Jewish scholars by his acronym, “Rambam” (derived from Rabbi Mosheh ben Maimon). He was born in Cordoba, in Moorish Spain, a place still reflecting the brilliant intellectual achievements of previous centuries. Religious wars resulted in anti-Jewish persecution forcing his family to leave when he was 13 years old. He wandered for many years before making his home in Egypt where he became physician to the court of Saladin, and the leader of the Jewish community.
Throughout his travels, and alongside his medical work, Maimonides continued his theological writing. After completing his major work, the legal code Mishneh Tora, he wrote his famous treatise, The Guide for the Perplexed, a task he undertook “to guide those religious persons… who are embarrassed by the contradictions between the teachings of philosophy and the literal sense of the Torah.” His aim was to harmonise reason and faith, and to reconcile Aristotle’s philosophy with Jewish revelation.
The original Arabic composition was first translated into Hebrew by Rabbi Samuel Ibn Tibbon, a Jewish philosopher and doctor from a family of translators in southern France. Maimonides had been asked to undertake the translation himself but because of other pressing work, the author preferred to have it done by “the ablest and fittest man,” Rabbi Samuel ibn Tibbon, who corresponded with him on difficult issues.
With Rabbi Samuel ibn Tibbon’s translation, together with another independent Hebrew translation, The Guide came to the notice of Jewish communities outside the Arab world. The result was the Maimonidean Controversy, a theological debate that lasted for at least two centuries. It was essentially a clash between traditional orthodoxy and rationalist, philosophical (mainly Aristotelian) theology. Feelings ran very high and in 1232, a group in France enlisted the help of the Inquisition to burn the ‘heretical’ writings of Maimonides. In Spain, in 1305, a rabbi banned the study of all philosophy by students under the age of 25.
Later, Maimonides’ work was translated into other languages including Latin, which had a significant effect on Christian theologians including St. Thomas Aquinas. The Dominican philosopher and theologian carried Maimonides’ work into medieval Christian thought ensuring that his legacy continued.