The most celebrated of Jewish doctors is the subject of Dr. Sherwin Nuland's biography, "Maimonides." Nuland, a Yale University professor of surgery, bioethics, and medical history, and author of the best-selling, "How We Die," appears most comfortable describing his subject's therapeutic style and contributions to medicine. And yet, in a book of barely 200 pages, his fluid writing offers vivid glimpses into Maimonides's multiple careers and his contributions to philosophy and Jewish law.
From the outset, Nuland is careful to point out that what we know of the Rambam, as he is better known to the Jewish world, is a sketchy and sometimes contradictory product of diverse medieval and later biographers and his own correspondence. Nevertheless, it seems clear that he and his family, fleeing from one persecuting Muslim regime in Spain to a somewhat less dangerous one in Morocco, lived for a time as Hidden Jews, much like the Conversos or Marrannos of Christian Spain hundreds of years later. Another flight, to Egypt, a 12th century oasis of tolerance, enabled him to flourish openly as a religious authority and leader. It was here that he wrote his "Commentary on the Mishnah," propounded the still-cherished Thirteen Principles of the Faith, and authored the monumental "Mishneh Torah," which he hoped would enable any layman to determine the halakhah, or law, without having to consult anything beyond his book and the Torah itself.
Having achieved wide recognition for his scholarship, the Rambam was able through correspondence to encourage other hard-pressed Jewish communities in dealing with persecution and in reuniting with co-religionists who had converted under duress. Struggling, as others have, with what Maimonides was trying to convey in his major philosophical work, "The Guide for the Perplexed," Nuland presents some of the widely disparate views expressed over the centuries. Using his own expertise, he offers a balanced evaluation of the sage's place in the history of medicine.
While noting the strong criticisms of Maimonides's works from some Jewish authorities, Nuland comes up short in capturing the vehemence of the denunciations which eventually led to schisms, bans, and, ironically, book-burning. But he does eloquently depict the Rambam's lifelong effort to reconcile Torah and theology on one side with science and philosophy on the other. Our contemporary controversy over creationism, intelligent design, and other aspects of the culture wars suggests we still live with that intellectual/spiritual challenge.