Ask a traditional Jew—he will be effusive in praise of Maimonides the halakhic genius. Present the same scholar to the Progressives in Jewish life—you will hear mostly about Maimonides the daring philosopher. Ask the historian—we will hear about Maimonides the great communal leader. But, of course, the greatness of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon is his combination of all three of his roles in our history. His ability to live on three different planes at once is the hallmark of his genius.
Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah is formidable. In an age before publishing and the Internet, this rabbi was able to distill in fourteen divisions all the mitzvoth from the arguments over the particulars of Oral Law in the formidable tomes of the Talmud. And he did this either on the run from the Muslim Almohades’ threat of forced conversion of Jews to Islam and, once settled in Egypt, facing a schedule as a physician that allowed little time for scholarship. The Mishneh Torah set the stage for later important codes of law that would define the practice of Judaism.
The Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides’ philosophical magnum opus, accomplished what many Jews though impossible: the reconciling of Torah with the philosophy of Aristotle as interpreted by Muslim thinkers. The god of Aristotle could not be more different than the God of Israel. The former was a Prime Mover who set the world in motion yet seemed to have little interest in human affairs; the latter constantly interfered in history and chose one slave people as a treasured people. Whether Maimonides succeeded in his goal can still be argued almost 1000 years after The Guide was composed. But it was an effort of courage, nevertheless—the attempt to be both a man of faith and a follower of the science and philosophy of the day.
Finally, Moses ben Maimon’s answers to questions posed by Jews in both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic worlds reveal a practical man who, at the same time, was sensitive and inspiring. Whether the Jews of Yemen asking for answers in the face of persecution or the rabbis of Lunel wanting to know whether it was acceptable for Jews to study astrology—Maimonides wrote with clarity and with humanity. Likely the most poignant letters he composed defended Jews who were forced to convert to Islam and were being barred from participation in Jewish ritual and synagogue life once they were free to reclaim their Jewish heritage. It is likely that for a short period in North Africa, the Almohades had forced Maimon and his family to convert to Islam. Maimonides was speaking with Jews from experience.
What would Maimonides have accomplished were he alive today? We have no answer but we do have the legacy of his courage—to be both a halakhic Jews as well a man of the world. And to be a lover of his people.