The Spanish-born medieval philosopher, physician, and Talmudic scholar Moses Maimonides (1135 – 1204 C.E.) was one of the greatest and most influential Jewish leaders in history. Moses ben Maimon, also known as the “Rambam,” authored such revered works as The Guide for the Perplexed and his great codification and explication of Jewish law entitled the Mishneh Torah. He also wrote treatises on logic, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, and other subjects.
Maimonides, a native of Córdoba, grew up under the relatively enlightened rule of Spain’s Muslim rulers during a time widely remembered as a “Golden Age,” in which Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scientists, writers, and thinkers freely shared knowledge and ideas and influenced one another.
Maimonides became known while still in his youth as a prodigiously learned man. He later managed to combine his day-to-day work as a practicing physician with his Torah and Talmudic scholarship. After he and his family chose to leave Spain following the ascent of a fundamentalist sect that enacted harsh laws against non-Muslims, they settled in North Africa. Such was his renown that Maimonides subsequently became court physician to the philosopher-sultan Saladin and his son.
Among Maimonides’ most influential writings was his listing of 13 Principles (or “Attributes”) of Jewish Faith, based on his study and teaching of the Talmud. According to Maimonides, these principles are the foundation of what it means to follow Jewish tradition. Here is a basic summary and restatement of those principles, which continue to influence the writings and sermons of today’s leading rabbis:
1. Belief in the existence and perfection of God, the chief cause of all that exists. Maimonides, who like many of his contemporaries was influenced by the writings of Aristotle, here parallels the ancient Greek philosopher’s belief in a “First Cause.” Maimonides went on to say that it would be impossible for God not to exist, because then everything else in the universe would cease to be.
2. The belief that God is one being, united and indivisible. Maimonides wrote that God’s unique oneness has no parallel or counterpart anywhere in nature. This second principle finds a common restatement in observant Jews’ regular recitation of the Shema prayer, whose words, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One,” are derived from the Torah verse in Deuteronomy 6:4.
3. The belief that God has no corporeal being. Maimonides stated that God cannot be affected by any occurrence in the physical world, such as motion, rest, or condition. God, he believed, has no body, and is not limited by considerations of time or space. Any time a Biblical or Talmudic writer uses physical imagery to describe God—saying that He “walks,” “speaks,” etc. —this is purely metaphorical, an instance of the Sages using the language of human beings to aid understanding.
4. Belief in the eternal nature of God. God and His Oneness, said Maimonides, are the primary force in the universe. Anything else in existence is, necessarily, not primary. Among the relevant Torah references is that of Deuteronomy 33:27, which states that God, who came before all other existence, remains a refuge for humanity.
5. The command to serve God, and to foreswear the worship of idols or other gods. Human beings, wrote Maimonides, are to praise God and fulfill his commandments to do good in the world. They are not to devote their worship to any other beings, including angels, heavenly bodies, or anything else in nature.
6. The belief in God’s use of prophecy to communicate with human beings. Maimonides believed that certain individuals, extremely sagacious and morally just, have had souls ready to receive God’s wisdom directly from the source. The power of these prophets, wrote Maimonides, is demonstrated time and time again throughout the Torah.
7. The belief in the primacy of the prophetic leadership of Moses. According to Maimonides, Moshe Rabbeinu (“Moses our Teacher”) is first among all prophets; he is superior in wisdom and insight to any other prophet and teacher before or after him.
8. Belief in the divine nature of the Torah. Maimonides wrote that the Torah used by Jews throughout the generations is the same Torah that God gave to Moses at Mount Sinai. Maimonides believed that Moses, through a unique communication from God, heard all the stories, commandments, and histories in the Torah and faithfully transcribed them.
9. The belief that the Torah is unchangeable and immutable. In Maimonides’ philosophy, this means that the Torah cannot be altered in any way, and that it will remain the definitive word of God. It will never become obsolete or irrelevant.
10. Faith that God is all-knowing and is concerned about the welfare of human beings. In this principle, Maimonides expressed his belief that God sees all human actions and does not ignore their consequences.
11. Belief that God will extend rewards and punishments appropriately. Maimonides wrote that God confers benefits on those who follow the commandments of the Torah, and delivers consequences to those who ignore them. In Maimonides’ view, the greatest reward is the enjoyment of the World to Come, and the greatest punishment is the loss of that enjoyment.
12. The belief in the arrival of the Messiah, and of a Messianic Age. For traditional Jews such as Maimonides, there was no doubt that the Messiah, a powerful and just earthly leader, would one day arise to protect the Jewish people and usher in a Messianic age of peace and brotherhood.
13. Belief in the resurrection of the dead. This principle may be little discussed today, but for Maimonides, it was a solid article of faith. Though scholars have debated what type of bodily resurrection Maimonides believed in, he did state that individuals who follow the path of righteousness will experience resurrection after their death.