On Yom Kippur and Moses Maimonides

“Monday Musings” for Monday September 9, 2013

Volume III, No. 34/128

moses_mamoides

Yom Kippur,

Moses Maimonides of Cordoba

(Editor’s Note: Muslims have Ramadan, month of fasting and worship. Christians have Lent dedicated to worship, fasting and contemplation. Jews have Yom Kippur. Etymology: Yom in Arabic and Aramaic means Day, Kippur from Semitic roots means atonement.  It is a Holy day observed on the 10th day of Tishra marked by fasting, prayer, and atonement of sins. On our calendar this year, it falls on Friday September 13, 2013.  We thought it is appropriate to look at one of the most formidable Jewish Rabbis, philosopher, physician, research scientist, astronomer, and theologian, Moses Maimonides of Cordoba.)

BOOK REVIEW

by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Moses Maimonides

Edited by Fred Rosner, MD and Samuel S. Kottek, MD

229 pages of text, 41 pages of reference notes and 10 pages of index

Jason Aronson, INC., Publisher

There is a sweet anecdote at the beginning of Sherwin Nuland’s biography of Moses Maimonides which has to do with Jewish mothers insisting their sons to become doctors, the “My son, the Doctor” paradigm.It goes something like this: “Imprisoned in a tower in Madrid, disabled by syphilis and further weakened by abscess in his scalp, The French King Francis asked of his captor, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to send the finest Jewish physician to attempt a cure.” Frances discovered that the doctor sent to him was not Jewish but a baptized Christian. Irate, Francis dismissed the doctor and insisted to be treated by a genuine Jew. That physician may have been-most historians say it was-“Moses Maimonides brought all the way from Cordoba.” Not only was Moses Maimonides of Cordoba a good Jewish doctor, he was a rabbi, a philosopher and a prolific writer. During his life time he wrote 5.3 million words, most of which have been preserved. He wrote on all aspects of medicine, infectious disease, nutrition, spirituality, and internal medicine. But he also made inroads into the world of psychiatry.

You would think that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an effective method of treating a wide range of psychiatric problems, including obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety disorder, depression, borderline personality disorder and many other neuroses including phobia and panic disorder, is thought to be one of the contributions of the twentieth century medicine, until you read about the life and work of the polymath, “super-genius” physician, theologian, philosopher and astronomer, Rabbi Moses Maimonides of Cordoba.The Rabbi, a major author of Helakhic authorities, the collective corpus of Jewish religious, rabbinical and later Talmudic laws wrote about CBT way back in 1170. Fred Rosner, a respected hematologist and medical ethicist, a professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in NY, and his colleague Samuel Kottek, professor of the history of medicine at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School, Jerusalem, have collected papers and articles by no fewer than 20 scholars offering this remarkable edited volume. It is a slender and compact 229 pages chock full of historical jewels. In essence, it is a biography of Dr. Maimonides, along with a description of his writings and work.

Fred Rosner’s erudite discussion in this well-researched and meticulously referenced book shows the reader that Moses Maimonides in his famous trilogy, the Commentary on Mishnah ( repetition), which is the major source of rabbinic Judaism, the Mishneh Torah, and the Guide for the Perplexed, which traces much of what we know today about the effect of nutrition, methods of practicing CBT and biofeedback, guided imagery, and self-awareness, a discipline he learned from the  work of the Persian physician, Abu Ali Sina, Ibn Sina or Avicenna (980-1130) and Saint Augustine of Hippo (345- 420).

In a chapter that asymptotically approaches brilliance and virtuosity, Gad Fruendenthal explains how Maimonides, a citizen of the medieval age of superstition and primitive thinking, radically opposed astrology. He was quick to give credit for his enlightened thinking to Omar Khayam, the Persian poet and astronomer, born 1085, died 1123, only eight years before the birth of Maimonides. So, for all practical purposes, Avicenna, Khayam and Maimonides were contemporaries. Although Omar Khayam is known for his poetry and the Rubayats, he was a scientist and an avid astronomer to whose work Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) has made numerous references. Like Aristotle, Maimonides insisted on scientific objective and not speculative findings. In a seminal paper (Resaleh), Maimonides outlined four methods of learning that remain in practice today.They are:

1)  Learning by Devine authority. He gives the example of Moses learning on Mt Sinai and bringing to his people the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

2)  Learning by human authority through science and scientific method. Science is not faith-based, it is fact-based. This reminds me of a former professor of pathology of mine at GW school of Medicine who used to insist that “In God we Trust, the rest bring data…I am sure my professor learned that from Maimonides.

3)  Learning by experimental observation. Our current discoveries of Genomics, Proteomics and Connectinomics (also called Connectomics) are examples. We will soon have ’MM’ devoted to this exciting topic showing that stem cell utilization to grow body parts and organs are as the result of this type of learning.

4)  Learning by logic and deductive reasoning. Maimonides credited Aristotle for this type of learning.

In his book, the Guide, collection of his personal letters referring to the practice of medicine, Maimonides wrote: “Medicine is not knitting and weaving and the labor of the hands, but it must be inspired with soul and be filled with understanding…” 

Reading this fascinating book about Moses Maimonides of Cordoba make us fall in love with our holy profession of medicine all over again, and take refuge from the oppression and intrusions of the government, Obamacare, HMOs and BCBS!

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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