Guide for the Perplexed - Maimonides - Medieval Egypt
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Guide for the Perplexed

white stone carved into lacy patterns
Cordoba synagogue (1315 AD, rebuilt from Maimonides' time)

When Maimonides was a child, in the 1100s AD, he studied Jewish religious law in the Cordoba synagogue. When he was a young man, he studied Aristotle and other scientific philosophers at the University of Fez in Morocco. When he grew up, Maimonides became a famous doctor, and also a famous rabbi. How could Maimonides combine these two ways of thinking about the world? That's what he wrote this book about. To show his concern with science, Maimonides wrote this book in Arabic, the language of science, rather than in Hebrew, the language of religion.

courtyard with white arches
University of Fez, Morocco (1130s AD)

Maimonides began by arguing that people should not think of God as being like a man in shape or in appearance, but instead they should think of God as more of an idea, with no specific shape or form. Maimonides went over all the places in the Bible where God seems to be shaped like a man, and he suggested other meanings for those words.

Then Maimonides described how he thought the universe was put together, mixing Jewish ideas with Aristotle's ideas and some ideas from early Christian writers as well. Maimonides, like many astronomers in the 1100s AD, thought the Earth was a sphere, and that it was in the center of the Universe and the sun and stars all revolved around the Earth in heavenly spheres. (Think of a ball inside a bigger transparent glass ball, inside another bigger glass ball, and so on). Maimonides thought that these spheres were the same thing as angels, and that God's spiritual energy flowed from God to these sphere-angels, and from them to Earth. So God would be the energy that was outside the outermost glass ball.

Finally, Maimonides argued that there were good reasons for all the rules God had told the Jews to follow - the Ten Commandments and other rules laid out in the Bible. Maimonides thought, like the Buddhists and the Greek philosophers, that men could achieve happiness by using morality to control their desires (like following the Commandment to keep from stealing things you want), and by developing their brains to think more clearly. He thought men should avoid pride and anger, which only led to unhappiness.

Maimonides divided the Commandments into two categories. One is the rational commandments, or common-sense commandments, where anyone who thinks can see that these are good ideas, like not stealing or killing. The other category is revealed commandments, where if God hadn't told people to do those things they couldn't figure it out through logic, like the commandments to pray or to observe holidays. He thought that the Jewish Law was meant to keep the soul and the body healthy and happy. In some cases, though, he suggested more specific reasons for specific rules. For instance, the rule against mixing wool and linen in your clothing, according to Maimonides, is in there because Greek priests had to wear that mixed clothing. Still, he said, even if the reason for the rule had gone by, you should still live by all the rules of the Law, just because they were the Law.

Maimonides was not sure what to think about what happened after people died. Sometimes he thought that at the end of the world people would come back to life with both their soul and their body. Other times, he thought just the soul would live after death. And sometimes he thought, like the Roman Neo-Platonists, that after death everybody's soul blended together into one great Intelligence.

Learn by doing: Which of the Ten Commandments do you keep?
More about Ibn Rushd
More about Thomas Aquinas

Bibliography and further reading about Maimonides:

More about Maimonides
Jews in the Islamic Empire
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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