The Amazing Perplexity Cure


By Sherwin Nuland
256 pages. Schocken. $19.95

Dr. Sherwin Nuland, esteemed Yale surgeon and author, has written a compelling book about the life and times of the Rambam, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, that succeeds in creating a new and vital perspective on the great Jewish leader.

Nuland’s book is the result of an old Jewish dictum that one is not allowed to turn away from a responsibility. One thing that all modern physicians continue to have in common with the great Maimonides is that our lives and our medical practices are teeming with people with urgent requests. And for our patients, like Maimonides' patients, these requests demand a mixture of the medical science of the time, and faith. Faith in medical science, but above all faith in God, faith that illness will give way to cure.

We provide the best treatments we can bring, but beyond this, there is the hope, the faith, that defies statistics. In my practice, there are cancer patients who have outlived their diagnoses as well as those who have died before predicted. One man with a set of leaking capillaries has conquered his grim prognosis and returned to a normal life without illness. Another patient falls in his bathtub and dies instantly. It is my responsibility to care for all, the survivors as well as those who die.

For Maimonides, there was the drive to explain, to interpret his faith and belief in Torah in the context of what he knew about science, to interpret for the Jewish people of his time and since—his attempts, in his first two great works, The Commentary on the Mishnahand The Mishnah Torah, to help explain the Talmud and Jewish teachings in a way that the common man could understand.

By the time of his third great work, The Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides was also working as an extremely busy physician, and according to Nuland, he was attempting in his writings to reconcile the Aristotelian science of the times with a theretofore uncompromising religious faith. In fact, it is this attempt at understanding both science and religious philosophy simultaneously that Nuland suggests is one of the Rambam’s most characteristic and possibly transcendent contributions to Jewish teaching. It is also what brought Maimonides the greatest criticism, and may be why his final great work was tailored more for the elite intellect, for those who could better understand seemingly contradictory explanations at the same time.

“The philosophical problem of the era in which he lived was to find a conciliation between faith and reason… What the Rambam did throughout all of his writings…was to attempt an incorporation of philosophy and science into religious thought… to him, such a consideration not only made theological sense but was a means of his people’s survival.”

Nuland’s book is an interesting accomplishment which in just over 200 pages manages to provide insight into both the great man’s life and his work. He traces how the death of Maimonides’ brother leads him to profound depression and heart disease, which is later worsened by criticisms of his works. We are able to visualize both Maimonides life and his world, crucial to seeing him in perspective. In one of his best insights, Nuland critically evaluates Maimonides as a physician, and rates him as very popular but not transcendent. After all, he was practicing at a time when doctors still believed in the body “humors,” when medicine remained in the Dark Ages. But by helping us to understand Maimonides essential limitations as a doctor, Nuland also allows us to see, by contrast, his transcendence as a great religious thinker and philosopher.

If there is a limitation to this book it is to be found in the massive volume of Maimonides’ literary contribution. Nuland cannot possibly wrap his mind around all of it in a brief account. More direct quotes from the Rambam’s great works might have been helpful. Overall, Nuland’s deft literary strokes are on the mark. What we are brought to cherish is a well chiseled yet sweeping account of a great master in the context of his time and ours.