If Moses Maimonides were alive today, what would he think of a doctor who visited his grave to seek inspiration?
How would the supremely rational physician, astronomer, scholar and courtier of the 12th century feel about having a practitioner of the modern healing arts, armed with a level of scientific support and training that Maimonides himself could never have dreamed of, coming to pray, meditate, and ask for guidance at his final resting place?
For that matter, how would he react to me quietly mumbling the names of my seriously ill patients during the prayer for healing in synagogue? What would he say about me keeping a framed copy of the “Doctor’s Prayer” widely misattributed to him on the wall in my office? What stock would the greatest of rabbis, who was also the greatest champion of reason in the Golden Age of Muslim Spain, put in the spiritual side of healing?
I will have to live with wondering. Last Friday, after lodging with my family in Tiberias just blocks from the gravesite, I decided I had no choice but to go see, to be in the presence of his memory for a little bit. It was as obvious as making the conscious choice to detour down Sir William Osler Way when I was strolling alone through Montreal three years ago – a way of drinking from the well of original knowledge, of consciously climbing onto the shoulders of the giants on whose shoulders I stand every day of my career.
Having been there, I cannot say it was a transformative experience. There was no sudden flash of clarity, of moral certainty or spiritual calm.
In mid-life, my crisis, both professionally and personally, has been coming to the realization that much of the time, I am adrift. It is impossible for me to know whether I am doing right or committing wrong, making a good decision or stumbling into a bad one. The flood of information, often conflicting, that is supposed to inform my medical decision making ends up overwhelming it instead, especially on a subject like aspirin or hypertension where every successive piece of advice keeps moving the therapeutic goalposts.
Likewise, the cacophony of opinions on politics, interpersonal relationships, and religious truths, especially having waded into social media is so deafening that one cannot help feel like a scoundrel, no matter what view one decides to espouse. The only protection seems to be either to abandon any pretense of self-critique and open-mindedness, or build an impenetrable echo chamber.
In such a whirlpool, it is natural to reach for anything that appears solid, even if it is irrational. The solace of sitting for a few minutes in the presence of a spiritual and scientific giant, even one who has been dead for eight hundred years, is just such a touchstone.
I was surprised, then, to walk away without that glow of peace I was expecting. Not until I remembered a story about Maimonides that I learned from my own rabbi did I realize that I hadn’t visited a giant – I was visiting a kindred spirit:
When Maimonides received a letter from the French rabbi Shmuel ibn Tibbon, proposing that ibn Tibbon come visit Maimonides in Egypt so the latter could explain part of his work “The Guide to the Perplexed” in person, Maimonides implored him to stay home. There would be no time for them to study together for even a single minute, for the professional demands on him as a doctor kept him occupied nearly every waking hour. In his exhausting description of his role as physician, both to the locals and to the sultan, and as the leader of the Jewish community of Fustat, there is no mention of the time he somehow found to write his medical treatises, his books of Jewish law and conduct, or the very tractate of philosophy ibn Tibbon came to ask him about.
Yet he did this, somehow. Despite his exhaustion, Maimonides found, or made, the time to try to make sense of it all. It was a different era, and when one reads Maimonides one can hear in his tone of writing a clarity and an assurance of being right that I think I will never find. But underlying that clarity was a massive project of reconciling his medical science, the rational philosophy of Aristotle, and the teachings of Torah, with the goal of showing that one could consistently hold all of these truths at once. He was threading a needle that those of us in the 21st century should be trying a lot harder to thread instead of planting a flag in one kind of truth and jettisoning the others.
So thank you to Maimonides for letting me come visit, even though, like ibn Tibbon, I never got to sit and study with him. I think I learned something anyway. I’ll pay you another visit in a couple years and let you know if I’ve threaded the needle yet.