Some may wonder whether the world needs another biography of Moses Maimonides (1138−1204). The life of Rabbi Moses, son of Maimon (also known by the acronym Rambam) — an enormously influential philosopher, physician, communal leader, and expert on Jewish law — has been retold countless times. But members of every generation find new inspiration in Maimonides’s tumultuous life and impressive corpus. Even though the “Great Eagle” took his last breath centuries ago, scholars have continued to study his life, drawing on recently uncovered documents and applying scholarly methods that have opened new possibilities for making sense of this famed medieval figure.
Alberto Manguel might be a surprising candidate to pen a biography of Maimonides. An accomplished novelist, essayist, and the former director of the National Library of Argentina, Manguel does not hold advanced degrees in either Jewish thought or philosophy. By his own admission, only in the past decade has he undertaken serious study of Maimonides — but that’s precisely what gives the book its charm. In this latest addition to the award-winning Jewish Lives series published by Yale University Press, the reader experiences the joy of discovery alongside Manguel, who places Maimonides’s life and thought in conversation with other great thinkers (such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Franz Kafka). Manguel’s understanding of the psychology of his subject adds texture to writings like The Guide of the Perplexed and the Mishneh Torah, which are often read as separable from the person who produced them.
Manguel’s Maimonides, like Manguel himself, is a wanderer. Born in Córdoba in the relatively pluralistic religious environment of al-Andalus, Maimonides and his family were forced to flee religious persecution when he was a teenager. After escaping to Palestine and Morocco, the family went to Egypt, where they settled in Fustat (known as “Old Cairo”). Then, following the tragic deaths of his father and brother, Maimonides became the court physician of the Muslim sultan in Cairo. Drawing on insights gained from his own peripatetic life, Manguel’s narrative is full of empathy and perspective.
In Egypt, while Maimonides spent exhausting days treating patients at the court and in his home, he nevertheless carved out precious time to compose a vast and sophisticated corpus. Manguel devotes whole chapters to Maimonides’s works on Jewish law, medicine (from asthma to hemorrhoids), philosophy, and the messiah. The lengthy final chapter explores the public reception of Maimonides’s thought — the controversies it has generated, and the influence it has had on other thinkers.
Maimonides: Faith in Reason mines the rich body of scholarship on Maimonides to create an engaging biography. It invites us to learn about, and enter into conversation with, one of the world’s greatest, most complex minds.
Brian Hillman is a visiting professor in the Jewish Studies program at Indiana University, Bloomington.