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Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization's Greatest Minds Paperback – February 9, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
In 1947, when he was 14, Kraemer started to study Maimonides. Now, the 75-year-old professor emeritus at the University of Chicago has produced his magnum opus, a definitive biography of medieval Judaism's chief intellectual sage. To prepare himself, Kraemer mastered many languages, traveled throughout the world and studied innumerable documents, including those found in the Genizah, the storeroom of Cairo's Ben Ezra synagogue. The impressive results of Kraemer's diligent research are set forth in this learned book, supported by 90 pages of footnotes. He offers a splendid analysis of Maimonides's major works: Commentary on the Mishnah; Mishneh Torah and Guide to the Perplexed (which Kraemer calls Guide of the Perplexed.) The erudite presentation includes vital information about the life of Maimonides, tracing his path from his birth in Spain to his move to Morocco, his visit to Palestine and, finally, to his settling in Egypt. Kraemer's imposing contribution is designed for his fellow scholars. General readers should turn to the more fathomable 2005 biography, Maimonides by Sherwin B. Nuland, from Nextbook/Schocken's Jewish Encounters series and just published in paper. (Oct. 28)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Kraemer’s comprehensive study of the great medieval philosopher and Jewish theologian Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) shows that Maimonides’ wisdom arose in no small part from having feet in multiple worlds. Although a product of Andalusia and the Mahgreb, Maimonides set down roots in Egypt; a pious Jew, he successfully navigated corridors of power dominated by Islam. A dedicated writer and scholar, he nevertheless spent a significant portion of his life immersed in the daily exigencies of medicine, business, government, and law. Perhaps most significant from a philosophical perspective, Maimonides was both an expert on the Talmud and an intellectual heir to Aristotle’s rationalism. Such multifaceted experiences, shows Kraemer, made Maimonides a gifted synthesizer of ideas, and an exemplar of the richness of twelfth-century Mediterranean culture. Kraemer, too, has a talent for synthesis, distilling Maimonides’ entire corpus of writing (including copious correspondence) and a small mountain of secondary sources (some apocryphal) into a fluid and accessible narrative. Lucid descriptions of medieval Mediterranean life—including commerce, political intrigue, and the constant interplay between cultures—will be compelling even for readers unfamiliar with Maimonides’ contributions to philosophy. --Brendan Driscoll --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
In January, during Interfaith Heroes Month, Daniel Buttry wrote a short tribute to the 12th-century Maimonides among 31 short profiles in his book, "Interfaith Heroes." Buttry's summary remains a pretty good snapshot of this towering figure: "Maimonides was one of the greatest Jewish thinkers ever, producing foundational philosophical works on Judaism. ... He also was known for the breadth of his thinking and scholarship. He wrote medical works in Arabic ... and he worked diligently to reconcile scientific teachings with the teachings of his faith. ... Because Maimonides was open to diversity and was knowledgeable about many different streams ... he was able to weave together ancient Greco-Roman, medieval Arab, Jewish and Western cultures while retaining clear and cogent roots in his own Jewish faith."
In short: This is a guy we need to consult today in our own period of cultural upheaval!
Dr. Joel Kraemer has spent 60 years of his own life studying Maimonides--including many years Dr. Kraemer devoted to learning the languages that Maimonides himself mastered. Fortunately, Dr. Kraemer's lifelong pursuit of the great sage has ended in the gift of this eye-opening exploration of Maimonides' life, work and wisdom.
This book could not have come at a better moment.
If you like to dive into challenging, in-depth biographies, like David McCullough's "John Adams" or Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," then you're going to enjoy Dr. Kraemer's approach to Maimonides. The book is written for a general readership, but Dr. Kraemer's decades of original research is backed up in more than 100 pages of notes and supplemental materials at the back of the volume--in case you want to dig further into particular details.
Maimonides' life flows through lands and cultures that seem exotic to us today, nearly a millennium later. His movement from what is now Spain to Morocco to Egypt involves groups and major figures who aren't household names today. We may even have trouble pronouncing some of them. Nevertheless, I find Dr. Kraemer's welcoming prose, his use of frequent sub-heads in the book and his organization of Maimonides' life into thematic units results in a clear and compelling story. Plus, his overall approach balances Maimonides' chronological path through life with detours to let us explore vignettes from his work as a scientist, doctor and jurist. These moments, when we get to explore how Maimonides resolved a particular legal dispute or to peek inside a medieval physician's practice come along in the text like gems to pause and ponder.
In the end, the great sage's confident and humane approach to global conflict and the alleviation of suffering--while he also was deepening the world's appreciation of Judaism and expanding the world's range of philosophy--give us a refreshing model for how we might strive to live in the rough-and-tumble changes of this new millennium.
Maimonides transformed Judaism, composing its Thirteen commandments of faith. the celebrated 12th commandment, " I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the messiah, and though he tarry, i will wait daily for his coming - he entered popular consiousness. His "Guide for the Perplexed" written in Arabic and finished in 1190, further recast Judaism, offering a philosophical interpretation of the Scriptures far removed from the conventional readings of his, and our own, times.
Today, Maimonides stands for an austerely doctrinal Judaism, the severe reprimand of all forms of idolatry and the combining of Jewish learning with secular science and Aristotillean philosophy( by way of Islamic intellectuals such as Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushid and others). Maimonides is also known for having been studied by professor Leo Strauss, the conservative professor and an inspiration to the current crop of 'neocons', who championed and built upon Maimonides' distinction between esoteric & exoteric learning, wisdom for the few and a practical piety for the many. Dr Kraemer's concise account of Maimonides endeavors to find " commond ground on which Maimonides can walk together with a man or a woman of today."
Dr Kraemer writes sympathetically of Maimonides given that he has studied and researched him for most of his professorial career. Dr Kraemer, emeritus professor of religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, is a careful and appreciative expositor, and has taken the trouble to read the critical literature, especially at Cambridge University, the Genizah Snynagogue in Egypt and consulted the leading scholars such as S.D. Goiten and others. His book is a guide for those perplexed by Maimonides, as well as those who have not heard of him. It is also a useful guide to Jewish ethics. For example, the punishment in Jewish law for using incorrect weights and measures in business is more severe than the punishment for sexual immorality, because the latter is a sin against god, while the former is a sin against one's fellow man. There is also a secular ethics implicit in this distinction waiting to be developed, as it would be by John Stuart Mills, centuries later. A somewhat forbidding aspect of Maimonides' thought is his rigor in matters of heresy.
Example, His relentless rationality and contempt for superstition is also forbidding, though perhaps not quite so antipathetic to modern sensibilites. He was fierce with Jewish thinkers who embraced obscurantism. This is one of the better passages from "The Guide for the Perplexed," chapter " there is a group of human beings who consider it a greivous thing that causes should be given for any law; what would please them most is that the intellect would not find a meaning for the prohibitions and commandments. What compels them to feel thus is a sickness that they find in their souls, a sickness to which they are unable to give utterance and of which they cannot furnish a satisfactory account. For they think that if those laws were useful in this existence and had been given to us for this or that reason, it would be as if they derived from the reflection and the understanding of some intelligent being. If, however, there is a thing for which the intellect could not find any meaning at all and that does not lead to something useful, it indubitably derives from God; for the reflection of man would not lead to such a thing. It is as if, according to these people of weak intellects, man were more perfect than his maker, for man speaks and acts in a manner that leads to some intended end, whereas the Deity does not act thus but commands us to do things that are not useful to us and forbids us to do things that are not harmful to us."
Notice the tone of reproachment, amounting to contempt for his intellectual adversaries. Maimonides' writing has a polemical tone: he is impatient with stupidity, especially a stupidity masking as piety. The arguement in which he is intervening here concerns the question of whether there are reasons for the commandments, specifically those commandments not amenable to immediate justification. For Maimonides, even the most puzzling commandments have an instrumental purpose, teaching right opinions, moral qualities or proper civic conduct. Maimonides was concerned with mainting the simple faith of the uneducated. The difficult idea of philosophy, the esoteric understanding of religious truth, was not for them. He had no conviction that the profound truths of Judaism were within equal reach of all Jews.
Dr Kraemer does not concern himself with the tension between what Maimonides stood for and what Modern Judaism stands for; and though he remarks on it, he does not explore the implications of the tension in Maimonides' thinking between the few and many, the esoteric and the exoteric. The book remains a satisfying and humane introduction to 'one of civilization's greatest minds.'