The eight-hundredth anniversary of the death in 1204 of Rabbi Moses the son of Rabbi Maimon the Spaniard—better known to the world as Maimonides—was celebrated throughout the world. It gave Jews, especially, the opportunity to call the world’s attention to Maimonides’ great contribution to Judaism, to philosophy, and to medicine. This was very much in keeping with Maimonides’ career as a thinker who extensively employed philosophy as well as a dedicated physician and writer of a number of important medical treatises.
But it should be remembered that Maimonides was primarily a Jewish theologian, one who radically yet faithfully rethought the two strands of Jewish theology: the law (halakhah) and its norms, and the biblical narrative (aggadah) and its ideas. Even his interest in philosophy was for the sake of explicating the norms and ideas of the Jewish tradition; and his interest in medicine came from an imperative he first saw being emphasized by the Jewish tradition.
Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland, himself both a committed Jew and a distinguished surgeon and teacher of medical history and ethics at Yale, has written a popular appreciation of Maimonides, one that reflects on Maimonides’ theology, his philosophy (which, for any medieval thinker, would include natural science), and his work as a medical theorist and practitioner. Sherwin Nuland is an amateur in the highly specialized field of Maimonidean studies. Still, not being afflicted with the professional desire to please one’s colleagues (and possible reviewers) in the field, amateurs have the ability to bring fresh insights and perspectives to the materials they use because they often approach them with more spontaneity. Fresh treatments of Maimonides, which are not as stodgy as much current Maimonidean scholarship seems to be, are indeed welcome.
Nuland’s book is ambitious. It deals with Maimonides’ life and the social and political background of his era—together with his views in theology, philosophy, and natural science. The book succeeds fairly well in its presentation of the main features of Maimonides’ life and times (although one wishes that Nuland had appended some sort of bibliography so the reader might appreciate which secondary works he has so extensively drawn on). A doctor himself, Nuland is at his best when reflecting on Maimonides as physician and medical writer. He also skillfully shows us how Maimonides can be a role model for physicians today, especially for Jewish physicians who want their Judaism to influence their medical practice the same way Maimonides’ Judaism influenced his.
But I found Nuland’s treatment of Maimonides’ theology to be confusing. I suspect this is because Nuland is often theorizing out of secondary sources about Maimonides rather than developing his own approach from the original sources in Maimonides’ own work. And, by relying so heavily on what others say Maimonides says, he seems to have imbibed some of the decidedly modernist prejudices of many modern treatments of Judaism. Indeed, some of these prejudices may have been part of Nuland’s overall philosophical outlook before he actually came to study Maimonides—which might explain why he adopted them so uncritically.
In his epilogue, Nuland speaks of Maimonides accomplishing “an incorporation of philosophy and science into religious thought . . . because he was bringing a progressive worldview to this theology.” By “philosophy and science,” Nuland means, here and elsewhere in the book, Aristotelian physics and metaphysics, what we today might call “natural science” and “science-based philosophy.” By “religious thought,” Nuland means “the Law [better, the Torah] of the Jews.” Thus Nuland speaks of this synthesis of Judaism and Greek philosophy and science as “appealing to both ancient and progressive impulses.” But, of course, many Jews have (as have many Christians) asked Tertullian’s famous question: “So what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” In other words, why do Jewish thinkers need to incorporate the views of some other culture (let alone the views of another religion at the heart of that other culture) into their own theological view of the Torah? Classical Jewish thinkers like Maimonides hardly thought that Judaism needs “updating,” let alone updating beholden to some non-Jewish criterion.
By dogmatically accepting the distinctly modern assumptions of historical progress and cultural synthesis, Nuland misses a key point in Maimonides’ philosophical theology: the true relation of the Torah to the created world. Maimonides pointed out in several places (unfortunately, not mentioned by Nuland) that the Torah is given into the world and that, like the world into which it has been given, it too is a creation of God. As such, our understanding of the Torah’s content requires that we simultaneously understand its worldly or natural context.
If human language, with its logic, is the way God has given us to understand the world, then the Torah must be understood in that same language and with that same logic. “The Torah speaks according to human language” is a rabbinic principle that Maimonides reworked and made a cornerstone of his theology. For Maimonides, the Torah is in the world but not of it.
Further, for Maimonides, human language in its logical and metaphysical purity (that is, when it is truly scientific in the classical sense of the term) is not subject to any historical development or any cultural synthesis. That is because logic and metaphysics deal with eternal truths. So does the Torah. Conversely, historical development is about how ideas change. Cultural synthesis is how a compromise between various opinions is worked out. But truth does not change, and truth is not arrived at by some sort of compromise.
Maimonides’ liking for Aristotelian science and philosophy (of which he was far more critical than Nuland is aware) was not due to its being more “progressive” than “ancient” Judaism. In fact, Maimonides was convinced that the Jews originally had of their own science-philosophy, every bit as universal as that of Aristotle, the supreme Greek philosopher (although in some places Maimonides prefers Plato to Aristotle). What the Greeks helped the Jews do is to retrieve the Jews’ own universal science-philosophy. Hence reading the Greek thinkers (mediated by the Arabs) enabled Jews to reintroduce Judaism into universal scientific and philosophical discourse.
That is why Maimonides continually argued that Jewish ideas and even Jewish laws can be reformulated to appeal to universal human reason and not just to traditional Jewish interests. That was also why Maimonides saw Judaism to be a religion that, in theory, could be the content of universal proselytizing. Maimonides believed that Judaism is capable of being represented as the most rational relation with God possible for any human being in the world at any time. Thus Judaism begins with Abraham’s discovery of the original religion of Adam, a religion Moses reiterated and expanded.
What Maimonides wanted to do, in Nuland’s own words, is to have “the real truth of Jewish law . . . be sustained by the methods of the philosophers.” In that way, philosophy can be the “handmaiden of theology.” The universal methods of the philosophers are well suited to show us the truth of the world and the truth of the Torah given into that world, both of which are direct creations of God. “Uncovering” the truth of the Torah would have been a better word for Nuland to use than “sustaining” in order to more accurately characterize the relation of philosophy to theology in Maimonides’ thought. “Sustaining” suggests that philosophy can ground theology, which Maimonides, like any Torah-committed Jew, would have to deny.
Truth, for Maimonides, is neither ancient nor modern. It is both universal and eternal: applying everywhere and always. This is so whether the truth is the Torah’s truth or worldly truth. The task of philosophical theology is to correlate revealed truth with natural truth—a correlation possible and desirable because truth is one. To introduce modern historicist notions of “progress” confuses one of Maimonides’ most important insights. Only regarding medicine does Maimonides occasionally stress that contemporary knowledge is to be preferred because our contemporaries seem to know things about the human body that were unknown to our ancestors, even unknown to the ancient sages of the Talmud.
A second modernist prejudice appears in Nuland’s treatment of Maimonides and, indeed, in his treatment of what constitutes a good Jewish approach to medicine, epitomized by Maimonides. It shows up in his argument that even in Judaism one can separate ethics from theology. (That prejudice goes back at least as far as Kant, who was adopted by many modern Jewish thinkers as the philosopher.) Thus Nuland writes: “Whether the physician of today believes himself or herself to have been called by God or to have been self-chosen, the obligation is the same.” By the term “self-chosen,” Nuland is invoking here the modern notion of autonomy—namely, that our norms are morally valid only when we can justify them as the products of our own will.
To be sure, Maimonides did not think that in order to be a Jewish physician one had to have a particular calling from God (as would be the case with a prophet). Nevertheless, Maimonides clearly believed that the general benevolence God commanded in the Torah—and which could be readily intelligible to human reason—is still theonomous: a divine command, a mitzvah. As such, human beings have the free choice to accept or reject this divine command, but it is not the invention of their own autonomous will. Nuland approves of what he takes to be the Jewish view that the physician “is the individual messenger or deputy of God.” But do messengers of God choose themselves? Aren’t their appointments as messengers—as well as the message they are given—the result of divine election
Nuland might have been on stronger ground had he emphasized that Maimonides saw the practice of medicine to be perhaps the highest form of the imitatio Dei: the imitation of the supremely benevolent God. The choice of the individual physician to imitate God (who is called in Exodus 15:26 “your physician”) might then be seen as the individual’s choice rather than God’s. But that is not the autonomy Nuland seems to be endorsing. The imperative still comes from God, albeit God exercises that imperative by revealing Himself to be attractively benevolent. Here the divine imperative is made in an implicit, exemplary way rather than by explicit precept. And to use the kind of Aristotelian terminology Maimonides would have liked, we could say that in this way God is more the formal cause than the efficient cause of the imperative to imitate Him.
Sherwin Nuland has really written two books here. The historical one is quite good; the philosophical and theological one less so. If he ever writes a revised version or a sequel (which I hope he will), I would advise him to expand the historical part and either leave out the philosophical and theological part or radically rethink it.
On the whole, however, the information in the book, especially pertaining to the history and practice of medicine, which Dr. Nuland knows so well, makes Maimonides a worthwhile read.
David Novak is the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Professor of Jewish studies at the University of Toronto, and vice-president of the Union for Traditional Judaism.