Maimonides—known in Hebrew as Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon)—is considered by many to be the greatest of all Jewish philosophers. He advanced a universalist vision of Judaism through a unique integration of science and religion and the application of Aristotelian thought to an understanding of Torah.
Maimonides was born in Cordova, Spain, but the Almohad (Islamic) invasion of 1148 forced his family to relocate to Fez, Morocco. Maimonides spent the last 40 years of his life in Cairo, Egypt.
His two most important works are the Mishneh Torah, a 14-volume systematization of the commandments of the Torah that emphasizes the rational basis for Jewish law, and the Guide for the Perplexed, his philosophical magnum opus, which lays out a negative theology (we only know God by what God is not) and theories of creation, prophecy, providence and jurisprudence.
In seeking to integrate secular and religious knowledge, the Guide for the Perplexed exerted a significant influence on later thinkers, including Aquinas, Spinoza, Leibniz and Newton. It was a controversial work—even banned—among rabbinic circles, in part because of Maimonides’s strong rejection of literal interpretation of the Bible. Such literalism, he says, results in a material conception of God, a form of idolatry.
While Judaism has rarely presented itself as a dogma-based religion, Maimonides articulated in his commentary on the Mishnah 13 fundamental principles of Jewish faith: the existence of God; the absolute unity of God; the incorporeality of God; the eternity of God; God alone is to be worshipped; God communicates through prophets; Moses is the greatest prophet; the Torah was given by God; the Torah is immutable; there is divine providence; there is divine punishment and reward; there will be a Messiah; and the dead will be resurrected.
In addition to his work as a philosopher and commentator, Maimonides was a renowned physician who served the court of Saladin and the royal family in Egypt. In his 10 medical treatises, in which he addressed asthma, diabetes, pneumonia, hepatitis and other diseases, he advocated preventive medicine and a holistic approach to patient care.