"FROM MOSHE RABBENU, (OUR MASTER MOSES), WHO LED US OUT OF EGYPT AND RECEIVED TORAH AT MOUNT SINAI, TO RABBENU MOSHE BEN MAIMON, (OUR MASTER, MOSES THE SON OF MAIMON),THERE WAS NONE OTHER OF COMPARABLE GREATNESS." This is the meaning of the well known statement quoted above, which today can be found engraved upon the Rambam's tomb in the city of Tiberias, and such is the measure of esteem in which the Rambam is held in to this day.
DURING HIS OWN LIFETIME, MAIMONIDES was revered by his coreligionists all across the Jewish diaspora. The Rambam's philosophical works were of such universal importance that he was quoted on a number of occasions by the church theologian Thomas Aquinas in his written works. Aquinas referred to the Rambam as "Rabbi Moses."
A CONTEMPORARY AND FELLOW NATIVE OF CORDOBA, the Moslem philosopher, Averroes, shared with Maimonides a fascination with Aristotelian thought, and together, their writings introduced the followers of all three religions to the ancient Greek masters, thus laying the foundations for the European renaissance that would take shape in the ensuing centuries.
ALTHOUGH CONTROVERSIAL IN HIS DAY, the Rambam's great works of halacha, (Jewish law), theMishneh Torah, and of philosophy, Moreh Nevuchim, (The Guide for the Perplexed), are considered unparalleled classics of Jewish thought.
BASED ON THE BODY OF WORK THAT HE PRODUCED, and the intellectual influence he exerted upon giants of Islamic and Christian thought, one could easily imagine that the Rambam lived during an idyllic era of peaceful coexistence and mutual appreciation between cultures and religions. One could imagine that the Rambam lived a cloistered and sedentary life, dedicated to study and composing. Neither of these misconceptions could be further from the truth. The twelfth century was a turbulent and violent time. The Rambam found himself constantly in the midst of turmoil and upheaval. He enjoyed neither tranquility nor prosperity. The Rambam produced his body of work and made his indelible mark on history, in spite of the inhospitable and deadly environment that he found himself in throughout the days of his life. Where did it all begin?
The Almohades, a fanatical Moslem dynastyinspired by and established by the North African Berber, Ibn Tumart, have gained control of the city. Under Moslem rule since its initial capture in 711 CE, Cordoba prospered under the relatively moderate rule of the Moslem caliphate. The city flourished, and at its height the Cordovan population may have reached half a million. The Moslem conquerers introduced ancient Greek philosophy, mathematics and science. Cordoba was a cultural center, housing a library that contained as many as 1,000,000 volumes. Cordoba was the capital of the Moslem emirate of al-Andalus, which covered the southern third of modern day Spain. Second class citizens, granted dhimmistatus, Jews and Christians were heavily taxed and faced severe restrictions. They were not actively persecuted. This was all about to change. The conquering Almohades immediately granted all non-Moslems two choices, convert or die. The once noble city was in turmoil.
Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, and reverently referred to by Jews as Rambam, (an acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), was thirteen years old when his mother and father, and his younger brother, along with many thousands of other Jews, fled Cordoba. Moshe ben Maimon was born on erev Pesach, (Passover eve), in 1135. As a child he was able to imbibe upon the cosmopolitan atmosphere and culture of Cordoba prior to the Almohade conquest. But whatever peace and quiet the Rambam had been blessed with as a boy growing up in Cordoba, he would never experience such tranquility again in his lifetime. Disguised as Moslems, the Rambam and his family escaped Cordoba, keeping on the move through southern Spain, eventually arriving in Fez, Morocco, which was also under the tyrannical control of the Almohades. The Rambam later described this time in his life: "[The Moslems] persecuted us severely, and passed baneful and discriminatory legislation against us... Never did a nation molest, degrade, debase, and hate us as much as they."
Years later, the Rambam would again draw from his earlier experience, in writing his famous 1172 "Epistle to the Jews of Yemen." The Jews of Yemen, facing a renewed wave of persecution and forced conversion, appealed to the Rambam for instruction as to how to conduct themselves. In his epistle the Rambam immediately drew the parallel between his own experience of two decades earlier and what was currently taking place in Yemen: "You write that the rebel leader in Yemen decreed compulsory apostasy for the Jews by forcing the Jewish inhabitants of all the places he had subdued to desert the Jewish religion just as the Berbers had compelled them to do in Maghreb [North Africa]." In detailing the history of persecution against the Jews, Rambam referred to Mohammed as " ...the Madman who... added the further objective of procuring rule and submission."
Fez itself would eventually become the scene of massacre, as tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered by the Almohades rulers. While residing in Fez, the Rambam was able to study at the prestigious University of Al-Karaouine. The institution was established in 859 and exists to this day. It was no doubt here, at Al-Karaouine, that Rambam absorbed much of his knowledge of philosophy, mathematics, and the natural sciences. It was in Fez, during these years that Rambam wrote his Commentary on the Mishnah.
In the year 1165, the situation for Jews living in Fez, constantly one of danger, took a turn for the worse. Rambam and his family decided to leave Fez after nearly two decades, and head toward the east. Their destination was the land of Israel. What awaited Rambam in 12th century Israel?
This we will explore tomorrow.
12th Century Israel: The Epicenter of Conflict
The land of Israel, in the 12th century, was the epicenter of the now centuries old conflict between Christendom and Islam. It was the time of the Second and Third Crusade. The Crusades had originated in the prior century, ostensibly with the purpose of capturing Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Moslem rulers and bringing it under Christian dominion. In this manner, the Vatican also hoped to check the steady territorial advancement of Islam. The First Crusade was authorized by Pope Urban II, and in 1099 invading crusaders took Jerusalem, slaughtering its Moslem and Jewish inhabitants. The crusaders likewise succeeded in gaining control of a number of other cities in the region.
A second crusade took place in 1147, just eighteen years before the Rambam would set sail for Israel. A relatively quiet period was ended when Moslems captured the city of Edessa, (in modern day Syria). This prompted renewed attempts by the crusaders to conquer Moslem held cities. This Second Crusade was largely a failure from the crusader perspective, as their attempts to expand their territory were repelled. The Second Crusade did, however, result in the massacre of thousands of Jews across Europe by the crusader armies enroute to Israel, and accompanying mobs who had what to gain by sacking their Jewish neighbors.
The Kingdom of Jerusalem, established in 1099, which included the city of Jerusalem and the outlying areas, contained within its borders some 350,000 Muslims, Jews, and native Eastern Christians. The ruling Frank population, (Western European Christians), was no greater than 120,000.
The northern Israel port city of Acco, (Acre), was captured by King Baldwin I of Jerusalem in the year 1104. The crusaders turned Acco into their chief Mediterranean port.
Twelfth century Israel was a land divided and drenched in blood. Those who had swords, lived by the sword. Those who didn't, were wantonly slaughtered. The Holy Roman Empire's reasons for waging the crusades designed at capturing the Holy Land were many, and were based on local realpolitik and not necessarily on reasons of faith or ideology. Nevertheless, it was faith and ideology which were the rallying cries of the crusades. In the popular mind the battles being waged in the land of Israel were for the honor and advancement of Christianity, and to defeat and humiliate the unbelieving Moslems. Needless to say, the crusader assault on the cities of Israel and the surrounding region aroused a similar fervor among the Moslem rulers and their subjects, every bit as deadly. The entire region, which today would be known as the Middle East, was a tinderbox, ready to ignite. For the Jews of the region, who had no arms and had no army, and who were equally despised by both the Christian crusaders and their Moslem opponents, daily life could not have been more fraught with danger.
|It was into this deadly arena that the Rambam was determined to set foot when, on the 14th day of the month of Iyar, 4925, (May 5, 1165), he embarked from northwest Africa, and set sail for the port city of Acco.However, piracy and life-threatening tempests upon the high seas were the immediate dangers faced by any 12th century traveler, and the Rambam was no exception.|
Tomorrow we will learn in Rambam's own words, of his voyage across the Mediterranean, and his travels through Israel.
Back to day one.