Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Body and Soul

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Body and Soul

Article excerpt

Body and Soul MAIMONIDES by SHERWIN B. NULAND Schocken, 234 pages, $19.95

THE EIGHT-HUNDREDTH anniversary of the death in 1204 of Rabbi Moses the son of Rabbi Maimon the Spaniard-better known to the world as Maimonides-was celebrated throughout the world. It gave Jews, especially, the opportunity to call the world's attention to Maimonides' great contribution to Judaism, to philosophy, and to medicine. This was very much in keeping with Maimonides' career as a thinker who extensively employed philosophy as well as a dedicated physician and writer of a number of important medical treatises.

But it should be remembered that Maimonides was primarily a Jewish theologian, one who radically yet faithfully rethought the two strands of Jewish theology: the law (halakhah) and its norms, and the biblical narrative (aggadah) and its ideas. Even his interest in philosophy was for the sake of explicating the norms and ideas of the Jewish tradition; and his interest in medicine came from an imperative he first saw being emphasized by the Jewish tradition.

Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland, himself both a committed Jew and a distinguished surgeon and teacher of medical history and ethics at Yale, has written a popular appreciation of Maimonides, one that reflects on Maimonides' theology, his philosophy (which, for any medieval thinker, would include natural science), and his work as a medical theorist and practitioner. Sherwin Nuland is an amateur in the highly specialized field of Maimonidean studies. Still, not being afflicted with the professional desire to please one's colleagues (and possible reviewers) in the field, amateurs have the ability to bring fresh insights and perspectives to the materials they use because they often approach them with more spontaneity. Fresh treatments of Maimonides, which are not as stodgy as much current Maimonidean scholarship seems to be, are indeed welcome.

Nuland's book is ambitious. It deals with Maimonides' life and the social and political background of his era-together with his views in theology, philosophy, and natural science. The book succeeds fairly well in its presentation of the main features of Maimonides' life and (although one wishes that Nuland had appended some sort of bibliography so the reader might appreciate which secondary works he has so extensively drawn on). A doctor himself, Nuland is at his best when reflecting on Maimonides as physician and medical writer. He also skillfully shows us how Maimonides can be a role model for physicians today, especially for Jewish physicians who want their Judaism to influence their medical practice the same way Maimonides' Judaism influenced his.

BUT I FOUND Nuland's treatment of Maimonides' theology to be confusing. I suspect this is because Nuland is often theorizing out of secondary sources about Maimonides rather than developing his own approach from the original sources in Maimonides' own work. And, by relying so heavily on what others say Maimonides says, he seems to have imbibed some of the decidedly modernist prejudices of many modern treatments of Judaism. Indeed, some of these prejudices may have been part of Nuland's overall philosophical outlook before he actually came to study Maimonides-which might explain why he adopted them so uncritically.

In his epilogue, Nuland speaks of Maimonides accomplishing "an incorporation of philosophy and science into religious thought... because he was bringing a progressive worldview to this theology." By "philosophy and science," Nuland means, here and elsewhere in the book, Aristotelian physics and metaphysics, what we today might call "natural science" and "science-based philosophy." By "religious thought," Nuland means "the Law [better, the Torah] of the Jews." Thus Nuland speaks of this synthesis of Judaism and Greek philosophy and science as "appealing to both ancient and progressive impulses." But, of course, many Jews have (as have many Christians) asked Tertullian's famous question: "So what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? …

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