There is a famous Jewish saying "From Moshe (Moses) to Moshe, there arose no one like Moshe". The first Moses is the Biblical personage who led the Jews out of Egypt; the latter is Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, better known as Rambam or the Latinized version Maimonides, and without doubt the greatest and most rational Jewish thinker to emerge from the Middle Ages.
His influence was widespread both within the Jewish and non-Jewish community, and he is still a respected figure for his enlightened views and his work on codification of the Talmud.
Born on the eve of Passover in 1135 in Cordoba, Moorish Spain, Maimonides came from an illustrious and progressive Jewish Family descending from Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (one of the interpreters of the Mishneh), and King David. His father, like many of his ancestors had been, was a dayyan (a judge).
Maimonides and his siblings received a sound religious as well as secular education, and his scholarly aptitude became apparent here, marking him early on for a Rabbinic career. This stable existence came to an end when he was around thirteen.
The Moors in Spain were dislodged by the fierce and intolerant Almohade Arabs, and the general atmosphere became awkward for both liberal-minded people and the non-muslims.
The ben Maimon family joined the mass-scale exodus from the country and fled to the great learning center of Fez in Morocco. Here, for a period there was peace and he was able to resume his studies, taking up Medicine and commencing his literary career as well now.
When he was just 23, he wrote treatises on Logic and the Jewish Calendar. He also began his famous work, the Commentary to the Mishneh, and found himself, along with his family, becoming involved with the problems of the local Jewish Community, particularly of those Jews that, despite forcible conversion to Islam, still adhered to Judaic tenets.
He viewed these unfortunate people with compassion, and, in the renowned 'Igeres Kiddush HaShem' or 'Igeres HaShmad' (Letter on the Sanctification of God), he advised them to maintain their Jewish Identity and to move to another, more tolerant land where they would be free of persecution.
In alleviating the suffering of these people however, he also incurred the wrath of the Muslim rulers of Fez, and in 1165 the family once again had to flee, this time to Israel.
However Jewish existence in Israel then wasn't particularly flourishing either and so after remaining for a short duration they moved on to the more opportune land of Egypt, which was then under the enlightened rule of the famous Saladin of the Fatamid Dynasty.
Soon after they had established residence at Fostat near Cairo, the family became bereaved with the loss of Maimonides's father.
The Turning Point
The ben Maimon brothers continued as they had before, Maimonides pursuing his Rabbinical studies and literary works and his older brother David, who supported the family financially, resuming his prosperous Jewelry trade.
The Commentary to the Mishneh, the first such commentary ever written and moreover in Arabic, was published in 1168, and made him more well-known than he already was. Just when everything was looking well, misfortune struck. The very next year David ben Maimon was drowned in a shipwreck and with him went all the riches that the family possessed.
Maimonides, devastated from this blow, went into a paralyzing depression for nearly two years and even after that never really came to terms with the loss of his beloved brother. However, there was the family to consider and he needed to pull himself together and put aside the sole scholarly pursuits and find some means of employment now.
As there was no money to be made out of being a Rabbi, since the original Moses had taught the Torah for free, it was considered sacrilegious to pay his successors. Hence he was trained in Medicine, and opened shop as a Physician.
As an Adviser
His new profession kept him immensely busy, but even so, Maimonides managed to continue his literary output and keep in touch with the happenings within the Fostat Jewish Community, of which, in 1177, he became the leader.
As he had once supported the Jewish converts of Fez, he now took up the cause of the persecuted Yemeni Jews in another famous epistle called 'Iggeres Teiman' (Letter to Yemen).
In this, demolishing both the attempts of the Islamic rulers to denigrate the Torah and of an impostor claiming to be a Messiah, he offered the Jews courage as well as practical advice. He also stemmed the rising tide of the heretical Karaite sect in Fostat.
In 1183, Maimonides was appointed in the Caliph Saladin's Egyptian Court as his Vizier's physician, an association that was to last until his death. His fame grew to such an extent, that even the Crusaders sought him out.
Maimonides's literary output at this time was prodigious. His Hebrew 'Misheh Torah' (Review of the Torah), on which he had been working for the past ten years, was published. Meant to provide basic and simplified guidance to the common folks, it systematically abridged and codified the Jewish laws.
Some Jewish scholars regarded this with distrust, thinking that it would make the study of the Torah itself obsolete. Maimonides had to publish a letter stating this was not the intention. Soon afterwards, around 1190, he wrote the famous 'Moreh Nevuchim' or 'Guide for the Perplexed'.
This was written as an explanation for a student of his, who wanted to know the differences between Aristotle's and Judaic philosophy.
Maimonides felt that there was an inherent truth in both, but since scientific relevance was small in scope (Aristotelian Physics wasn't capable of explaining astronomy and he didn't trust Arabic astronomy that tried to explain Aristotelian Physics), it surely couldn't affect religious beliefs.
'The Guide to the Perplexed' is a book seeped with rational reasoning, but, for all that, not an easy book to digest in one sitting. Maimonides wrote it for the already learned, and the book has been the subject of much controversy.
Maimonides then wrote in Arabic the 'Sefer HaMitzvos' or 'Book of the Commandments' enumerating the 613 Torah commandments. He meant this work to preface the Mishneh Torah. Aside from these heavyweight works, Maimonides also wrote on many diverse subjects as Medicine, Law, and Talmudic commentaries, and maintained a wide correspondence.
Within the context of the twelfth century and even without, Maimonides's reasoning and broad-mindedness are quite awe-inspiring. Equally respected by Muslims, Christians, and Jews, he can be considered a precursor of the Renaissance.
Upon his death at the age of seventy in 1204, he was mourned for three days by the entire Fostat populace, Jewish and non-Jewish. He was buried in Tiberias in Israel and his tomb has become a place of pilgrimage. After him, his son Rabbi Avraham became the Community leader.