Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Job the Patient/Maimonides the Physician: A Case Study in the Unity of Maimonides' Thought

  • Jason Kalman (a1)

The study of Moses ben Maimon's works is ultimately tied into scholars' assumptions about whether they are reading the writings of Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher par excellence, or Rambam, the premier medieval codifier of halakhah. Three approaches to interpreting his works have dominated scholarship for the last century. Some read the works as consisting of two essentially independent oeuvres: halakhic works written for one audience and philosophical works for another. Thus, Maimonides did not need to be consistent in his views. The supporters of Maimonides the philosopher read his halakhic works as secretly containing philosophical truths consistent with those in the Guide of the Perplexed (referred to as GP herein). The supporters of Rambam prefer to see the Mishneh Torah as the foremost statement of his views and the philosophical stance expressed in the Guide as disingenuous. In the words of Menachem Kellner, Maimonides is presented as “everything from a late convert to Kabbalah to a halakhist, who in truth disdained philosophy, to an Aristotelian philosopher, whose own innermost thoughts stood in conscious opposition to normative Jewish teachings.”

Hide All

1. Menachem Kellner, “Reading Rambam: Approaches to the Interpretation of Maimonides,” Jewish History 5 (1991): 73.

2. Lawrence Kaplan, “The Unity of Maimonides' Religious Thought,” in Judaism and Modernity: The Religious Philosophy of David Hartman, ed. Jonathan W. Malino (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 393–94.

3. See Isadore Twersky, “Some Non-Halakhic Aspects of the Mishneh Torah,” in Biblical and Other Studies, ed. Alexander Altmann (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), 95–118; and idem., Introduction to the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980), esp. 356–514.

4. Twersky, Introduction to the Code of Maimonides, 359.

5. Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” in Textual Strategies, ed. Josué Harari (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979), 143.

6. Tzvi Langermann, “Maimonides and the Sciences,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, ed. Daniel Frank and Oliver Leaman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 157.

7. Leon Stitskin, Letters of Maimonides (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1977), 9. Howard Kreisel put this approach into practice quite successfully in his treatment of Maimonides on prophecy. See his Prophecy: The History of an Idea in Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 2001), 148–314. For a further discussion of the importance of Maimonides' letters to the study of his thought more generally, see Abraham Halkin and David Hartman, Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1985).

8. See, among others, Idit Dobbs-Weinstein, Maimonides and St. Thomas on the Limits of Reason (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995); Hannah Kasher, “Demuto ve-de'otav shel ’iyov be-moreh ha-nevokhim,” Da‘at 15 (1985): 81–89; Leonard Kravitz, “Maimonides and Job: Method of Moreh,” Hebrew Union College Annual 38 (1968): 149–58; Oliver Leaman, “Maimonides,” in Evil and Suffering in Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 64–101; Jacob S. Levinger, “Maimonides’ Exegesis of the Book of Job,” in Creative Biblical Exegesis: Christian and Jewish Hermeneutics throughout the Centuries, ed. Benjamin Uffenehimer and Henning Reventlow (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988), 81–88; and Martin Yaffe, “Providence in Medieval Aristotelianism: Moses Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas on the Book of Job,” in The Voice from the Whirlwind: Interpreting the Book of Job, ed. Leo Perdue and W. Clark Gilpin (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1992), 111–28.

9. For an overview and evaluation of these scholarly debates, see Robert Eisen, The Book of Job in Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 43–77.

10. Eisen concludes, “At the center of the tradition of Joban interpretation in medieval Jewish philosophy is Maimonides … It is his reading of Job that sets the agenda … and the fact that … writers hark back to Maimonides is an important factor in explaining the commonalities found among their readings of Job” (ibid., 205).

11. Herbert Davidson counts more than 1,500 verses cited and explained in the Guide. Although Maimonides claimed that exegesis was a primary purpose of the Guide (see GP II:2), modern scholars, with few exceptions, have focused primarily on its implicit purpose, philosophy. See Davidson, Moses Maimonides: The Man and His Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 331–35. In the introduction to the Guide, Maimonides states, “This treatise has a second purpose: namely, the explanation of very obscure parables occurring in the books of the prophets, but not explicitly identified their as such” (Shlomo Pines, trans., The Guide of the Perplexed [Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963], 6). Although Maimonides treats much material, only three parables receive extensive discussion: Ma‘aseh Bereishit, Ma‘aseh HaMerkavah, and Job.

12. The perspectives of Heschel, Eisen, and Goodman are treated in later in this essay.

13. On Maimonides' use of allegory as an exegetical tool, see Warren Z. Harvey, “On Maimonides' Allegorical Reading of Scripture,” in Interpretation and Allegory, ed. Jon Whitman (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 181–88. In light of Harvey's conclusions, it would seem that Maimonides would require a text such as Job, which, when read literally, contradicts truths known about God and the world, to be read allegorically or as a parable. It would seem, then, that Job served as an exceptional example for Maimonides to demonstrate how to read a troublesome text correctly according to his hermeneutical principles, given that this, in fact, was a significant priority in the Guide. See note 11 herein.

14. On the identification of Satan, see Eisen, The Book of Job in Medieval Jewish Philosophy, 55. He summarizes the views of various medieval and modern interpreters of Maimonides on page 51. According to these, Satan may be equated with privation generally and with privation of wisdom in particular: the imagination, a combination of matter and privation, a combination of privation and imagination, or a combination of harmful chance occurrences and privation.

15. Contemporary scholars disagree about a number of issues, including the nature of Elihu's response and his discussion of an interceding angel who can help alleviate suffering (GP III:23; and Pines, Guide, 495). See the summary of the various views in Eisen, The Book of Job in Medieval Jewish Philosophy, 57–58. Among the opinions expressed are the possibilities that the angel is the active intellect, the human intellect, or the perfected human intellect. Understandably, the identification of the angel depends largely on how the interpreter views Maimonides' understanding of how providence functions. For very different readings, compare Kravitz, “Maimonides and Job,” 149–58; and Charles Touati, “Les deux theories de Maïmonide sur la providence,” in Studies in Jewish Religious and Intellectual History, ed. Sigfried Stein and Raphael Loewe (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1979), 331–40.

16. Eisen, The Book of Job in Medieval Jewish Philosophy, 57.

17. Abraham J. Heschel, Maimonides: The Life and Times of the Great Medieval Jewish Thinker, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982), 126–40. The original German-language edition was published as Maimonides: Eine Biographie (Berlin: Erich Reiss Verlag, 1935).

18. On dating the death, see Shlomo Dov Goitein, Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), 207–12.

19. Heschel, Maimonides, 130.

20. Ibid., 131.

21. See Barry Kogan's review of the English translation of the biography in the Journal of Reform Judaism 30 (1983): 70–73; and that of David Blumenthal in the Journal of Jewish Studies 34 (1983): 108–9.

22. In an effort to make up for his commercial losses, David decided to risk a trip to India. See “Letter to Moses Maimonides from His Brother David While on His Way to India,” in Goitein, Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders, 207–12.

23. Kogan, “Review: Maimonides: A Biography,” 171.

24. On Maimonides' treatment of Saadiah in the Guide, see the brief discussion by Pines in his translator's introduction to the Guide, cxxxii–cxxxiii. Pines suggests that I:71 and III:17 allude to Saadiah's understanding of the unity of God and compensation for this-worldly suffering in the afterlife. Maimonides' attitude to the geonim is complex. It is clear that he was much troubled by their philosophical positions, but his response to their legal innovations also suggests that he doubted their legal authority to implement changes in matters of halakhah. See Robert Brody, “Maimonides' Attitude towards the Halakhic Innovations of the Geonim,” in The Thought of Moses Maimonides, ed. Ira Robinson, Lawrence Kaplan, and Julien Bauer (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990), 183– 208. The letter, which deals in no small part with messianic speculation, responds explicitly to those calculations put forth by Saadiah in Sefer Emunot v'Deot, chapter 8. A number of parallels to Saadiah's work are found in Maimonides' Eight Chapters. See, e.g., the explanation of ḥukim in Eight Chapters (chap. 6) as briefly discussed by Lawrence Kaplan, “An Introduction to Maimonides' ‘Eight Chapters,’” Edah Journal 2, no. 2 (2002): 21–22.

25. Eisen, The Book of Job, 38–39.

26. Ibid., 71–72, 203–5.

27. Lenn Goodman, “Maimonides' Responses to Sáadya Gaon's Theodicy and Their Islamic Backgrounds,” in Studies in Islamic and Judaic Traditions II, ed. William Brinner and Stephen Ricks (Atlanta, GA: Scholars' Press, 1989), 3.

28. Ibid., 5.

29. On Maimonides' presentation of Kalam theology, see Harry Wolfson, Repercussions of the Kalam in Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979); and more recently, Michael Schwarz, “Who Were Maimonides' Mutakallimun? Some Remarks on the Guide of the Perplexed Part 1 Chapter 73,” Maimonidean Studies 2 (1992): 159–201; 3 (1995): 143–72.

30. Davidson, Moses Maimonides, 87.

31. The Guide was completed around 1191.

32. On the interrelatedness of the exegesis of Job in GP III:22–23, the discussions of providence in III:17–18 and III:51, and a review of early attempts to treat this relationship, see Charles Raffel, “Maimonides' Theory of Providence,” AJS Review 12, no. 1 (1987): 25–71.

33. The letter, addressed to Japhet ben Eliahu of Acco, was composed in Cairo in 1176. For a discussion of the history of the letter's transmission and printing, see Yitzhak Shailat, ’Igrot ha-Rambam, 2 vols. (Maale Adumim: Shailat, 1988), 224–26.

34. Maimonides began the project in 1160 and completed it seven years later, in late 1167 or early 1168.

35. Maimonides’ attitude toward the critiques of his readers seems to have been maintained throughout his life. In one of his last letters, he wrote to Jonathan ben David HaKohen that, with regard to the Mishneh Torah, he would appreciate “the efforts of anyone who will emulate [Jonathan HaKohen's] example and point out any error he may find in the book. In this manner every ambiguity and confusion will be removed from the text and my principle reason for writing the Code will be accomplished: to clear the path and remove the stumbling blocks in order that students of the Law should not tire of intricate discussions requiring long hours of study which may cause one to render an erroneous judgment” (Stitskin, Letters of Maimonides, 162).

36. My translation; see Yosef Kapah, Mishnah im Peirush ha-Rambam (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1996), 3:455–56.

37. Davidson noted that the seven-year period included numerous travels for Maimonides, including a visit to Palestine with his father and brother before finally settling in Egypt (Davidson, Moses Maimonides, 148).

38. Translation from Herbert Danby, The Mishnah (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933), 299.

39. For a full discussion of the significance of this passage in its rabbinic context, see Irving Jacobs, “The Historical and Ideological Implications of Mishnah Sotah 5:5,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 23, no. 2 (1992): 227–43.

40. Translation from Abraham Hershman, The Code of Maimonides Book Fourteen—The Book of Judges (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1949), 198.

41. Hershman, Code of Maimonides, 199.

42. Warren Harvey correctly noted that Maimonides the doctor asserted the reason the halakhah ordained a mourning period was that “those who grieve find solace in weeping and in arousing their sorrow until their bodily forces are too tired to bear the affection of their of the soul, therefore the Torah had pity” (GP III:4; and Pines, Guide, 567). Harvey concluded that the period of mourning in Maimonides' understanding serves a psychotherapeutic service. See Warren Harvey, “Love: The Beginning and the End of Torah,” Tradition 15 (1976): 15. For a thorough discussion of the relationship between the treatment of mourning in the Mishneh Torah and the extremely limited concern for the issue in the Guide, see Kaplan, “The Unity of Maimonides' Religious Thought,” 393–412.

43. Ibid., 178.

44. Pines, Guide, 487–88.

45. Stitskin, Letters, 72.

46. Goitein, Letters, 207–208.

47. That Maimonides was forced to flee his home added to the intensity of his suffering. In addition to his property, he lost his religious and intellectual community, along with his prestige and position therein.

48. Stitskin, Letters, 73.

49. Pines, Guide, 492–93.

50. The letter also stands in stark contrast to Maimonides' assertion in the Mishneh Torah: Laws of Mourning 13:11 that one who engages in extended mourning is a fool.

51. On the accuracy of Maimonides' description of his difficulties, see the biographical survey of this period of his life in Davidson, Moses Maimonides, 28–75.

52. GP, introduction; and Pines, Guide, 7–8. For a discussion, see Kreisel, Prophecy, 212–14.

53. Maimonides' assertion that Job lacked knowledge appears for the first time in his Ma'amar ‘al kidush ha-shem, written in 1160 or 1161, in which he compares Job and the writer of the responsum that he had been asked to examine. According to Maimonides, both men, the respondent and Job, spoke without knowledge. To support this view, he cites Job 34:35, which highlights that Job spoke without knowledge. Though this does not show that Maimonides identified with Job in any way (he begins the subsequent paragraph in the letter by stating that, unlike the respondent, he is not an ignoramus), it makes clear that Maimonides had been thinking about the biblical book even at this early stage in his writing career.

54. Stitskin, Letters, 73. Joel Kramer's understanding of the letter is worth noting here: “Were it not for Torah which is my delight, and for scientific matters, which let me forget his sorrow, I would have perished in my affliction” (Kramer, “Moses Maimonides: An Intellectual Portrait,” in The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides, ed. Kenneth Seeskin [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005], 27; and idem, “The Life of Moses ben Maimon,” in Judaism in Practice, ed. Lawrence Fine [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001], 425).

55. GP III:54; and Pines, Guide, 635. For a thorough discussion of human perfection and this passage in particular, see Menachem Kellner, Maimonides on Human Perfection (Atlanta, GA: Scholars' Press, 1990), 13–39.

56. GP III:22; and Pines, Guide, 488.

57. Abraham J. Heschel, “Did Maimonides Believe That He Had Attained the Rank of Prophet?” in Prophetic Inspiration after the Prophets, ed. Morris Faierstein (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1996), 74–75.

58. Warren Zev Harvey, “Political Philosophy and Halakhah in Maimonides,” Binah 3 (1994): 58.

59. Pines, Guide, 5.

60. Ibid., 6.

61. A significant number of parallels between this part of the Guide and the discussion of Job are treated by Raphael Jospe, “Sefer 'iyov ke-‘Moreh nevukhim’ mikra'i,” Da ‘at 50–52 (2003): 83–95.

62. Stitskin, Letters, 161.

63. Davidson, Moses Maimonides, 72–73.

64. In his final letter, addressed to the Jewish leaders of Lunel, he explicitly notes that he has written the letter out of respect for his “honored friends.” See Stitskin, Letters, 164.

65. Earlier in the letter, he notes that Torah study had since his youth been like a beloved wife to whom he was betrothed.

66. For a discussion of the text and an English translation, see Ariel Bar-Sela, Hebbel E. Hoff, and Elias Faris, “Moses Maimonides' Two Treatises on the Regimen of Health,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 54 (1964): 3–50.

67. Ibid., 26. I would like to thank the anonymous reviewer of my article for directing me to an important parallel to this text in GP 3:12. There, Maimonides' outlines the varieties of evils that befall people. As in the Regimen, Maimonides suggests that knowledge will help the ignorant, who suffer as a result of their misperceptions of the ways of God and the world, and that a balanced life wherein one seeks what one needs rather than what one desires will lead to a comfortable existence. Those who seek unnecessary possessions or physical pleasures will place themselves in dangerous situations to have them, or they will suffer because they cannot have them or when they lose them. This can be avoided by understanding what is of value and shunning that which is not.

68. See, e.g., Samuel Kottek, Maimonides: Rabbi, Philosopher & Physician,” in Sobre La Vida y Obra de Maimonides, ed. Jesus Pelaez Del Rosal (Cordoba: Ediciones El Almendro, 1991), 335–44; and Harvey Kranzler, “Maimonides' Concept of Mental Illness and Mental Health,” in Moses Maimonides: Physician, Scientist, and Philosopher, ed. Fred Rosner (Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1992): 49–58.

69. In the case of Job, suffering and grief resulted both from the loss of his children and from the physical sores inflicted on him by Satan. With regard to Maimonides, physical suffering (he was stricken with fever and could not leave his bed) resulted from the grief caused by the death of his brother.

70. Suessman Muntner, The Medical Writings of Moses Maimonides: Treatise on Asthma (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1963), 37–38. In a letter to Joseph bar Judah written in the period of the composition of the Guide, Maimonides offers similar advice. In writing about the death of a little girl (whose is not clear; see Shailat, ’Igrot, 260–61), Maimonides tells Joseph not to mourn over any person, male or female. Rather, one should contemplate matters by looking at the goodness of the species and not individual experiences of affliction and distress. When one contemplates the big picture, one sees that the world was created by God and operates in good order. The letter appears as, “Excerpts from a letter to R. Joseph on the Vicissitudes of Life” in Shailat, ’Igrot, 262. I extend my appreciation to Lawrence Kaplan for directing my attention to this material.

71. Bar-Sela, Hoff, and Faris, “Maimonides' Two Treatises,” 25.

This article began as a presentation at the Midewest Jewish Studies Association (MWJS) conference held at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati in September 2006. A draft of the article was later shared at a workshop for junior faculty in Jewish studies hosted by the American Academy of Jewish Research and the Frankel Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Michigan in May 2007. I am grateful to the organizers and the participants for their insightful responses. In addition, I would like to thank my colleagues, David H. Aaron, Barry Kogan, Lawrence Kaplan, Haim Rechnitzer, Dana Herman, and Jaqueline Du Toit, for their guidance and help.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

AJS Review
  • ISSN: 0364-0094
  • EISSN: 1475-4541
  • URL: /core/journals/ajs-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 1
Total number of PDF views: 8 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 297 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 21st October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.