Eight hundred and seventy-five years ago, Maimonides was born. I didn’t realize that till yesterday, when I was doing a bit of research on the man, and came across a wonderful summation of his life and contentested legacy. It’s a piece by Arthur Hertzberg, another titan of Jewish learning, who attended an academic conference in Paris for Maimonides’ birthday, back in 1985. Though the conference happened a quarter century ago, Hertzberg’s observations are eerily prescient.

The conference came about, Hertzberg writes, after the World Jewish Congress proposed it as an attempt to "reduce Israel’s isolation" after Muslim countries had been increasingly chastizing at Israel for digging on sites deemed holy to Islam. At times, it appeared that the attempt at bonhomie was about to be derailed, particularly as Arab scholars and Israeli scholars tried to claim Maimonides for their own. A focal point of contention was whether Maimonides actually converted to Islam, and how sincere that questioned conversion may have been, after the fanatical Muslim sect, the Almohads, took over Spain. Scholars still debate how Maimonides could have lived under Almohad rule for nearly a decade without converting. And some suspect that he must have converted to save his life before eventually choosing exile in Egypt. But it’s worth pointing out that both Muslim and Jewish scholars at the conference clearly understood the debt medieval Islamic thought owed to the Jewish Maimonides, and conversely, the influence Islam had on Maimonides.

As Hertzberg writes, the Mishneh Torah, the only book Maimonides ever wrote in Hebrew (the rest were written in Arabic), was in part modelled off of the most recent Muslim literature, hadiths. Hadiths are the sayings of Muhammed that were first written down in ninth century, and continued to be written through the twelfth, some even "produced during Maimonides’ lifetime." Like the hadiths, which set down what all Muslims had to believe, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah famously did a similar thing: setting down the 13 articles of Jewish faith. "Even though he nowwhere mentions any of the Muslim codifiers, the structure and organization of the Mishneh Torah showed that Maimonides was more than aware of the Islamic models," Hertzberg writes.

If the life and Maimonides is a poignant reminder of how interwined Islam and Judaism are, it’s also important, I think, to not let all things Jewish be viewed through the prism of politics. Maimonides stands for much else, and for me, that’s several things. It’s his notion of negative theology, or that God is so impossible to comprehend that we can only understand him in terms of what he is not. That means that any anthropomorphic representation of God, for instance, is merely allegorical, and indicates a broader imperative that the Torah must be read figuratively, not literarly.

There is also his idea about the relation of revelation to reason. He argued that only something as unfathomable as God could have created the physcial world, and while we could never fully comprehend him, what we could do is attempt to better understand his creation. In this way, we’d get closer to him. A rationalist to the core–who stands in striking contrast to Kabbalah and the mystics–Maimonides argued that employing reason, God’s great gift to humanity, would lead to a higher state of being.

I can dig that. Here’s to you Rambam; happy 875th!