Chapter One: Sunrise in Andalusia (Final Part)
Young Moses was reared in a household of love and a love of learning. Rabbi Maimon was a gentle, kind father, who fully understood and appreciated his son's intellect and special gifts. Undoubtedly, various nurses and servants helped raise the infant at first, but soon Rabbi Maimon was persuaded to marry again, as was the custom. We do not know much about his second wife, not even her name or any details about her lineage, but some facts can be deduced. No oral traditions point to any difficulties regarding Rabbi Maimon's second marriage, so we may assume she came from his own social strata, probably the daughter of one of the great Jewish families of Spain. When she gave birth to her own child, David, Moses loved his new brother with a profound, unconditional love that lasted a lifetime. Later, he spoke of David as his greatest joy in life. There was no jealousy in the child Moses' heart, no feeling of being apart or different. Much credit can be given to the stepmother for fostering such an atmosphere of love and joy.
Rabbi Maimon educated his sons at home. We know that from Maimonides himself, who claims, "First reading I learned from my father and teacher, may his memory be blessed, who learned it from his own rabbi." This was the custom, and Rabbi Maimon was well-suited to the task. Rabbi Maimon was a devoted and learned scholar, with a particular interest in astronomy and math, and a wide knowledge of Jewish law. He was the disciple of Joseph ibn Migash (1077-1141), who was himself a student of Alfassi and later succeeded him as the head of the school of Lucena; Rabbi Joseph was universally considered the greatest legal scholar in Spain. Rabbi Maimon wrote commentaries to the Talmud, a work on ritual and expository notes on the Pentateuch. He was an emotional, kind man, with a love of religion that was very different from that of his son Moses.
Rabbi Maimon saw God as a personal, loving entity, not as an intellectual abstraction. He loved the legends of the Aggadah (the metaphorical, non-legal sections of the Talmud), believed in angels and wrote with deep and poetic emotion, with many images and allegories. His Letter of Consolation, written in response to an inquiry or request for guidance by a perplexed and despairing community of Jews, comforted many people with its innate kindness and sincere love for his fellow Jews. This simple faith supported Maimon during the years of wandering and trouble that were to come all too soon. His acceptance and submission to God's will acted as an example and comfort to the young and confused Moses, suddenly torn from his lovely home, tight-knit community, good prospects for the future, and often in fear for his very life.
Without Rabbi Maimon, it is unlikely that Moses could have developed, under such circumstances, his feeling of being “perfect with God," which meant so much to him throughout his life. His lifelong attempt to cultivate gentleness, modesty and even temper, succeeded despite his deep-seated knowledge of his superior intellect, social standing, lineage and a natural inclination to pride and dignity. These qualities might have developed into arrogance without the help of his father's gentle teaching.
In addition to his home studies, Moses spent some time with his father's old tutor, Rabbi Joseph ibn Migash, further enhancing his extensive education. Young Moses studied a curriculum that would astonish modern educators, but was not unusual for the time. Any well-educated Jew was well versed in astrology, astronomy, mathematics, geometry, science, optics, philosophy, calligraphy, law and rhetoric. Often he would be a linguist, capable of complicated translations in various languages; his knowledge of Arabic and Hebrew would be so extensive, he could compose poetry in both—and many were truly fine poets. Some of the greatest names in Hebrew poetry come from this era— Judah Halevi, Solomon ibn Gabirol, and Abraham ibn Ezra. However, these poets regarded Jewish education as the most important part of their studies: the Bible, Mishna, Talmud, codes, and commentaries. Later, when describing his education, Moses confessed to studying his father's medical books, probably on the sly. (One wonders if the indulgent Rabbi Maimon secretly knew that his precocious boy already showed interest in poisons, herbs and surgery.) One subject he did not like very much was poetry. Despite the immense popularity of the subject in the Islamic courts, and the prolific, excellent Jewish poetry produced at that time, Moses never had the capacity to express his feelings with the emotional surrender and sense of imagery needed for poetry, and stayed with the precision of prose. This deaf ear to poetry must have caused some frustration to Rabbi Maimon and Rabbi Joseph, but perhaps it accounts for his flawless, meticulous prose style and love of rationalism.
Legends abound in regard to Maimonides' early studies. Various story cycles, meant to represent Maimonides in almost superhuman ways, described him as ignorant and hard of learning as a child. Then by sheer magic—sometimes a kiss from a great rabbi, sometimes a blessing from Elijah the prophet—he suddenly acquired supernatural, profound wisdom. Legends of this type are typical and accompany the life story of many great leaders. Some of the oral traditions, however, contain elements of truth; those legends that tell about his apprenticeship under Rabbi Maimon and then a trip to Rabbi Joseph ibn Migash ring true, even when embellished with supernatural phenomena. And it is true that the young Moses at an early age astonished his teachers by his remarkable depth and versatility.
A subject Moses Maimon was profoundly interested in was his own genealogy, which left a lasting impression on the imaginative boy. The family took its lineage very seriously, and from the earliest age he had heard that he was a direct descendant of Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, and that his line went further back through the royal house to King David himself. Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi was one of the greatest names in rabbinic Judaism, a second-century scholar and the editor of one of the most important legal texts of Judaism, the Mishna. King David was the most powerful and beloved ruler in the history of the Jews. The Messiah, for whom Jews are still waiting, is to be borne of this line. Such heritage is not a light psychological burden for a child; a strong sense of responsibility and an obligation to follow in the footsteps of such individuals was awakened in Moses. This lineage created a core of pride that no later humiliation in the hands of his persecutors, or his own aspiration to perfect humility, could ever erase. He also developed a strong relationship to the biblical Moses. Born on Passover Eve, it is possible that young Moses was at least partially named after that towering figure, so prominent in the Passover story, and for his entire life he considered the biblical Moses the greatest of the prophets and his spiritual mentor. Later, a Jewish saying would declare: "From Moses to Moses there were none like Moses."
And suddenly it all ended. In 1147 the fanatic Islamic fundamentalists of Morocco, the Almohades, invaded Spain like a wave of locusts and destroyed the symbiosis between Muslims and Jews. The Golden Age, at least for the Jews of Spain, was suddenly and painfully over, and with it the perfect childhood of Moses Maimonides. He was only twelve years old.