Rabbi Ellenson on Maimonides in the L.A. Journal - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Skip to main content

Rabbi Ellenson on Maimonides in the L.A. Journal

Main Content
Tuesday, August 3, 2004

Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon

Put down your "Da Vinci Code." Set aside your "South Beach Diet." Let your kaballah red string drop off your wrist. I'm here to alert you to the next pop cultural phenom: a 12th-century philosopher popularly known as the Rambam.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended the "Aloud" reading series at the Los Angeles Central Library to hear a conversation between Julie Salamon and Steven Leder.

Salamon, a culture reporter for The New York Times, is the author of the recent "Rambam's Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give" (Workman), a well-reported and thought-provoking book 
that explores the charitable impulse in a post-Sept. 11 context -- who gives, how they give and why.

Leder, who has a day job as Wilshire Boulevard Temple's senior rabbi, was there in his capacity as author of "More Money Than God" (Bonus Books). Leder's book addresses how money can be a positive force in our lives, providing satisfaction, gratification and enriching our lives beyond the mere accumulation of wealth.

So, on this summer night in 2004, when these two interpreters of secular life were talking about the Rambam, I took this as not as a coincidence but as a trend.

Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon -- a.k.a. Maimonides, a.k.a. Rambam -- was a physician, philosopher and Jewish community leader. Born in Cordova, Spain, he was forced at age 13 to flee with his family when the Almohads, a radical Muslim sect, took over.

His family traveled across North Africa. They tried living in what is today Israel, but like many a visitor to the Holy Land, they found it a nice place to visit, but life among the Israelites and Palestinians too difficult to actually reside there. Maimonides and family settled outside of Cairo. The Rambam became a physician to the royal court, had a private practice and lived in Egypt until his death in 1204.

So why are the writings and beliefs of a man who died 800 years ago suddenly in vogue today?

Salamon explained that her editor, Susan Bolotin, had first suggested the Rambam's eight levels of giving as a structure for the book. The highest degree is to give a loan, a job or enter into partnership with someone so that the recipient need not beg; the lowest is to give reluctantly.

"I was constantly amazed by how much of his writing resonated with me," Salamon wrote via e-mail, "enough to draw me through passages that would seem extremely chauvinistic by today's standards."

Leder, for his part, said: "The things he is writing about are precisely the questions that people come into my office about: The veracity of Torah, God and the problem of evil; the balance in religion between the rational and the spriritual; the desire to understand, differentiate and explain differences with the Muslim world."

Maimonides had a brother who was a foreign jewel trader, whom he loved deeply and who traveled to make the money to support the Maimonides family. Each time his brother boarded a ship, Maimonides asked God to grant his brother safe passage. It worked a few times, but then his brother perished at sea.

Leder believes this is a key event in the Rambam's life. The Rambam could have renounced prayer and God; he could have cursed riches and the pursuit of money. Instead, he sought to explain how reason and belief could co-exist.

David Ellenson, the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, feels that Maimonides' appeal is that he spoke of "the universal and the particular." He took all of Jewish law, Ellenson explained, and wrote a "second Torah" the Mishneh Torah, writing in Hebrew so that Jews throughout the world would be able to read a clear and organized iteration of Jewish laws. He then wrote a very difficult disquisition, "The Guide for the Perplexed," a scholarly philosophical text meant for the intellectual elite but written in accessible Arabic. Ellenson feels that the Rambam's ideas continue to resonate, because "they strike us as correct." Maimonides expressed the best in Jewish thought, he says, and that appeals to all Jews from Reform to Orthodox.

But Maimonides was interested in communicating the truths of Jewish thought not just to Jews but to all people. Just as he treated both Jews and non-Jews as a physician, he wrote in Hebrew and Arabic so his work could be understood by all people. At a time when the religious decried "Hellenization" (assimilation), the Rambam applied Aristotlean logic to explaining Jewish law. His Judaism existed in a secular world, his faith was an eternal truth.

In addition to classifying eight rungs of charitable giving, Maimonides distilled Jewish thought to 13 principles. "He redacted without reducing," Leder said. "He made it simple without simplifying."

This is a good thing. I tried reading "The Guide to the Perplexed" and it is tough going. But reading the condensed version is fine. Kenneth Seeskin's "Maimonides: A Guide for Today's Perplexed" (Behrman House) is helpful. But fear not, we are at the start of a Rambam wave, and one need but stay afloat to ride along.

Next year, Sherwin Nuland, a surgeon and author of the critically acclaimed "How We Die," will publish his own book on Maimonides (Nextbooks/Schocken). Nuland believes that the Rambam is an example of a unique personality who appears among us every so often as an inspiration, as "a rallying force." "If such people can exist, there is hope for all mankind," Nuland said.

Every so often, a writer and philosopher speaks to us across the chasm of time. The Rambam's time is now. You heard it here first: Welcome to the Maimonides fest, or as I like to call it, the Rambamalama.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. He also has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu