Rabbi Jacobs presents, in this lecture, a sketch of Maimonides’ life and thought. He starts by noting the scarcity of details available from medieval sources concerning the thinker’s family – his wives, siblings, and children – as well as his physique. The dates and details of his birth (Cordoba, April 1135) and death (December 1204), however, are well known. Maimonides belonged to a prestigious lineage of judges (dayanim) spanning nine generations. He and his family left Cordoba around the age of 13, fleeing persecution, and wondered for over a decade in southern Spain, before moving to Fez (Morocco), and finally settling in Fustat, Egypt (briefly passing through the land of Israel).There, Maimonides found a safe and vibrant intellectual environment, earning a living in jewelry trade, and after the passing of his brother, as a physician.
Rabbi Jacobs notes that Maimonides appears, in his correspondences, as a warm and erudite human being – unlike the elitist, cold portrait that appears from his theoretical works (his halakhic codes and the Guide for the Perplexed). He rose to the position of Court physician in Egypt and advised the sultan on a variety of health issues, and also occupied a prominent position in Egyptian Jewish life. Upon his passing, he was mourned by Jews and Arabs alike, and celebrated as one of the greatest thinkers of his time. His body was then taken to Tiberias, where his tomb remains to this day.
Maimonides’ most important works were his commentary on the Mishnah (1170, at the age of 35); the tremendous, systematic compilation of rabbinic law, the Mishneh Torah; and the Guide for the Perplexed. Rabbi Jacobs offers some historical comments on these works, including the controversies they brought forth concerning theology, commandments, the afterlife, and mysticism. He addresses the Aristotelian background in the Guide for the Perplexed, and also offers some valuable comments concerning their impact in medieval and modern Jewish thought.