History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Maimunists and Anti-Maimunists.

Maimuni and the Jews of Arabia.

Distant communities would send to the learned doctor, "the Light of the East," for counsel in difficulties. Such a case arose in Yemen, Arabia. The condition of the Jews there had greatly deteriorated since pre-Mohammedan days. Their religious knowledge was very vague and they knew Scripture only in Agada tales. In the latter part of Maimuni's life the Mohammedans there were somewhat intolerant and at this critical moment an Israelite arose claiming to be the Messiah. It will be noticed that Messiahs always appeared in times of trouble all through Jewish history, since the days of the exile. They often added to the misfortune they expected to remedy, for such movements would usually be treated by the authorities as treasonable. In this perplexity, the thoughtful few appealed to Maimonides.

His reply, "Letter to the South" (Yemen), is famous. First he appealed to their faith; trials are tests of Providence; and he demonstrated Judaism's supreme worth to those "halting between opnions." This brave letter that dared to criticize Islam and the Church was read by the whole Yemen community, and created a religious revival there; while his influence with the Court of Saladin improved their political standing. No wonder the Jews of Yemen included his name in the Kaddish prayer.

A Strenuous Life.

An idea of his "strenuous life" cannot Be better presented than in an abstract from a letter to a friend:

"My duties to the Sultan (the Vizier Alfadhel) are very heavy. I am obliged to visit him every day, early in the morning; and when he or any of his children, or any of the inmates of his harem, are indisposed I dare not quit Cairo [a mile and a half from his home at Fostat], and must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace. It also frequently happens that one or two of the royal officers fall sick, and I must attend to their healing. Hence, as a rule, I repair to Cairo very early in the day, and even if nothing unusual happens I do not return to Fostat until the afternoon. Then I am almost dying with hunger. I find the ante-chamber filled with people, both Jews and Gentiles, nobles and common people, judges and bailiffs, friends and foes — a mixed multitude, who await the time of my return.

I dismount from my animal, wash my hands, go forth to my patients, and entreat them to bear with me while I partake of some slight refreshment, the only meal I take in the twenty-four hours. Then I attend to my patients, write prescriptions and directions for their various ailments. Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes even, I solemnly assure you, until two hours and more in the night. I converse with and prescribe for them while lying down from sheer fatigue, and when night falls am so exhausted that I can scarcely speak."

Maimuni's Critics.

But greatness often brings enmity. It has already been stated that the office of Exilarch (Resh Gelutha) at Babylonia and that of Gaon of the Academy had passed away. But they were revived again in Baghdad. In Maimuni's day one Samuel ben Ali held the double post. He was a man of the Korah type, caring more for the dazzle of office than for its obligations. He chafed at seeing all this allegiance paid to Maimonides and endeavored to divert it to himself by discrediting the "Jewish Aristotle," as some admirers styled the author of "The Guide." First he pointed out mistakes in the Mishna commentary and then accused Maimuni of heresy because of his views on the resurrection of the body. Ben Ali was endorsed by many sincere Jews who honestly believed these advanced views menaced Judasim.

Maimuni answered his critics in a magnanimous spirit, but his response did not convince them all. It was not the age when men sought rational explanation for religious duties. He who, like Maimonides, dared to bring all questions to the bar of reason, walked a thorny path. So we find that even Moslems feared the "Guide," too, just because it was so rational. Such was the time when people trusted the mysterious rather than the plain. It was in enlightened Spain and the French Provence where Maimonides found his chief allies and sympathetic interpreters. It was there where his "Guide to the Perplexed" was translated into Hebrew and given circulation.

The last drops in life's cup were bitter. Overworked, censured and sick, he experienced the supreme woe — loss of children; only one survived him. He saw, too, in his last years, Egypt disturbed by political faction and ravaged by pestilence and famine.

So, when in 1204 the end came in his 70th year, he may have hailed the merciful release.

The carping voice of criticism was hushed indeed when the calamity came. There was mourning and fasting throughout all the Jewish settlements of the world. Verily, "a prince and a great man had fallen that day in Israel." Verily, "the ark of God was taken."

Opponents of Rationalism.

The opposition awakened by the March Nehuchim continued after the author's death and divided Israel into two classes — Maimunists and Anti-Maimunists. But we cannot hold him responsible for the division. We have seen that two parties, a progressive and a conservative, nearly always existed in Judaism. The "Guide" only presented a new point of departure.

There was always a class that interpreted religion narrowly, who looked upon secular learning with suspicion. They regarded philosophy as the door leading to unbelief. Sometimes it does, but for a Bachya or an Ibn Daud it leads to deeper belief. Blind faith has its pitfalls, too. Some of the opponents of the Moreh harbored some superstitions, and held rather gross concepts of God and the future. Here we face one of the dilemmas of life.

Yet we can well see that Maimonides' philosophy of Judaism would not satify all religious needs, apart from the question of culture or liberality. His reconciliation of religion and philosophy was not quite convincing. Immortality was too shadowy to be satisfying; prophecy was exalted, but its presentation was not warm enough to make human appeal. Nor were all content to interpret the ceremonial law as the temporary expression of eternal principles.

The anti-Maimon forces, Obscurantists, i.e., those who portrayed beliefs in mystical terms, were led by Solomon of Montpelier, of Northern France; the Rationalists by the aged David Kimchi of Sonthern France. The conflict began with excommunications on both sides, and it soon spread through all the Jewish centres of Europe. Letters were exchanged, meetings were called. Nachmanides, of whom we shall hear later, tried to effect a compromise, but failed.

Bigotry's Demgerous Consequences.

If the conflict had been confined within the ranks of Israel, the charges and countercharges, and even the recriminations might have been stimulating. But when men are roused on questions of belief they become very intense and at times very bitter. So when Solomon of Montpelier went to the Dominican monks (who were beginning the practice of burning heretics) in order to enlist their bigotry on his side against his own brethren, he crossed the line of conscientious opposition and became an unintentional traitor. But this very act brought the conflict to a chmax and once more united all Israel for the common cause and against Solomon's dangerous ally. The betrayers were repudiated and punished. So, while Israel continued to be divided into Maimunists and Anti-Maimunists and while occasionally feeling ran high, henceforth all differences were kept within the conflnes of Jewry.

When, in 1242, an attack was made on the Talmud by monkish opponents, the chief offender of the Anti-Maimunist party, Jonah Gerundi, seeing the mischief produced by this appeal to the Benedictines, made a pilgrimage of penance and a public repentance in the synagogue. This did more than anything else to reconcile the opposing parties.

As the years passed by opposition to Maimonides gradually died away. In a much later day the "Moreh" was accepted by the Conservative, and Maimonides' "Thirteen Articles" came to be regarded as the official creed of orthodox Judaism.


Jews and Medicine:—Jews maintained pre-eminence in medicine throughout the Middle Ages. Their physicians were at the same time surgeons. The fact that Shechita (Jewish method of slaughtering animals for food) involved some knowledge of anatomy and of diseases of the blood may in part explain why many renowned rabbis were also renowned doctors. A Jewish school of medicine existed at Lunel which flooded Southern France with its physicians. Some taught in Montpelier by consent of the faculty. That Christians were often forbidden, under threat of excommunication, to consult Jewish practitioners or even to use their medicines, tells us indirectly how widely they must have been sought. Such prohibitory laws, indeed, were more honored in the breach than in the observance. Many a pope publicly discountenanced the use of Jewish doctors and privately engaged them for his own ailments.

Finally, in 1341, a Church Synod at Avignon had to remove the ban against Jewish doctors out of regard for the public health. Even convents were now placed under the care of Jewish physicians.

Among the monarchs who engaged Jewish doctors in the Middle Ages we may mention Hugh Capet of France; Charles, the Bald, Henry III and IV, Alphonso XI of Castile; Christian IV, of Denmark; Emperor Frederick III, and Queen Maria de Medici, of France.

Maimonides as Physician:—Dr. John Young, of Glasgow, in an article on "Jewish Mediciners," has this to say of the medical writings of Maimonides. "They are most interesting for their discusson of tubercle and lung affections. His popular treatise on poisons is full of practical instruction, rich in remedies — his abridgements of Galen and his extracts from Hypocrates (classic masters of medicine) show wide reading. His treatise on the preservation of health combined physical and moral precepts."

Dr. Young also writes appreciatively of Isaac, the Jew, who in the loth century wrote a guide to physicians which will bear perusal now. Here are some extracts from it: "Think well of simple remedies." "Most patients recover by the aid of nature without the physician's aid." "H you have a choice between the nutritive means and drugs, use the former."

Theme for Discussion:—In judging others beware of calling rationalists right and mystics wrong, or vice versa. Both may be right from different points of view. It is not a matter of truth, but of temperament.