Essays Print
Focus On:The Rambam - Bodies and Soul: Maimonides, Torah and Holistic Healing by Andrew Krakauer
Focus On:The Rambam - Bodies and Soul: Maimonides, Torah and Holistic Healing
Volume 4 , Issue 2

Bodies and Soul:

Maimonides, Torah and Holistic Healing

By Andrew Krakauer

Contrast Maimon's with Galen's art,
Health to the body Galen can impart,
But the wise Hebrew with
a two-fold skill
Relieves both mind and
body of its ill!
Shows how base ignorance
can hurt the soul
While wisdom counteracting
makes it whole.

from a poem by the Arabic poet
Sa'id ibn Sana' al-Muk1

Our great sage and teacher of the twelfth century, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, was also the court physician to another historical figure, the Egyptian Sultan Saladin. Maimonides was a renowned healer in the Occident and the Orient; among Jews,Muslims, and Christians alike. Patients came to him not only with physical ailments, but also with conditions that today would be considered psychological in nature, such as depression, anxiety, compulsiveness, hypochondria, and mania.

As a physician, and as a great rabbi and philosopher, his understanding of the interrelationship between the physical body and the mind was extraordinarily profound. He wrote in a letter to al-Afdal, Saladin's son: "The passions of the soul greatly alter the body in ways obvious to any observer." To Maimonides, the movements of the soul directly affect the vital energy and the material substance of which the body is composed. He continued in his letter:

Consider a man with a powerful build, booming voice, and radiant face. If he were suddenly to receive news which greatly saddened him, in that instant you would see his complexion become pale, the radiance of his face fade, his bearing slacken, and his voice drop.His strength would wane, he might tremble because of his weakness. The cause of all these effects would be the natural heat and the blood withdrawing deeper into the body.

Good tidings and success encourage the soul to move outward, desiring a fuller engagement with the external world. Bad tidings and defeat tend to cause withdrawal. A pillar of the Rambam's teaching therefore, was to encourage equanimity in the face of life's vicissitudes, so as to minimize damage to both the body and the soul.

Inner Person Must Be Given First Priority

Part of Maimonides's genius in this area lay in the very recognition of the need for psychosomatic and even psycho-spiritual medicine. The physician needs to know the soul conflicts of the individual he is treating, and help bring him back to a state of psychological equilibrium in order to effect a physical cure. Concern with the inner person must be given first priority in treatment. This applies to the healthy as well as the sick, for "this way the health of the healthy will endure", he wrote al-Afdal, "for this reason physicians have recommended constant concern for,and awareness about, the soul's movements, as well as concern for putting them into equilibrium at the time of health and sickness - giving no other treatment precedence in any way." This concern with the entire person, not just the presenting symptom, is what many call holistic medicine in today's world.

The cure of the body and the soul also takes into consideration environmental and life-style issues. He wrote extensively on diet, "Since preserving the body's health and strength is among the ways of the Lord." (Hilkhot De'ot: 4) Maimonides constantly warned of the deleterious effects of overeating, and even suggested that, "A man should not eat until his stomach is full,but about one-fourth less than would make him sated." He suggested physical exertion, followed by a wash with warm water, if possible, and then resting before eating in the morning. He wrote about what foods to eat in particular climates and in the different seasons. Food to be avoided included "Fine flour sifted to such an extent that no trace of coarse bran remains." Drink should not be taken with solid food. Constipation should be avoided at all costs, and interestingly, "Whomever leads a sedentary life and does not exercise, or delays excretion or has hard bowls, even if he eats good food and guards himself in accordance with medical practice, all his days will be painful and his strength will diminish." Maimonides also discussed in Hilkot De'ot how to bathe, when and in what position to sleep, and even what kind of city a man should live in based upon his physical condition and moral needs.

Purpose of Life is to Draw Closer to God

However, physical health should not be an end in itself. While one man's most earnest goal may be physical health, for example, another's may be accumulating wealth, or becoming a powerful leader. Human life has a purpose, and that is to draw as close to the Creator as possible through the systematic improvement of character and the development of the rational mind which is man's special gift and raison d'etre.

While the passions of the soul affect the body,the body in turn affects the soul. The body needs to be kept clean and unencumbered by dross so that the soul need not be weighed down constantly with material concerns, such as pain, discomfort, and uncontrolled instinctual desires.

Maimonides's vision of the universe is of diverse beings and forces yearning for upliftment and union with God. This manifests in man as the conscious striving for perfection. Therefore, true health and happiness can ultimately be found only in the systematic spiritual sensitization and transformation of the soul. In his Guide For The Perplexed, Maimonides outlined the levels of perfection:

The ancient and the modern philosophers have shown that man can acquire four kinds of perfection. The first kind, the lowest, in the acquisition of which people spend their days, is perfection as regards property ... The second kind ... includes the perfection of the shape, constitution and form of man's body; the utmost evenness of temperaments, and the proper order and strength of his limbs. ...The third kind ... includes moral perfection, the highest degree of excellency in man's character. ...The fourth kind of perfection is the true perfection of man; the possession of the highest intellectual faculties; the possession of such notions which lead to true metaphysical opinions as regards God.

If a man sets a goal of acquiring money, his goal should be to use it to sustain his body and prolong his existence. In turn, the goal of his bodily health is to help insure that he has the fortitude, clarity, and longevity to acquire knowledge, "so that he perceives and knows of God what is possible for him to know."(Perush HaMishneh). "Therefore," he wrote to his son, "know that physical perfection precedes spiritual perfection, the former acting like a key opening the gates of a palace."

Ethics Placed in Pivotal Role

The health of the soul "consists in its condition and that of its parts being such that it always does good and fine things and performs noble actions." (Perush HaMishneh). The opposite is true concerning the sick soul. This contrasts sharply with pre?vailing contemporary psychology and philosophy. Whereas modern thinking accents ego functioning and attempts to be "value free," Maimonides placed ethics in the pivotal role. "The virtues are states of the soul," he wrote in Perush HaMishneh. Doing good and fine things actuates a state of inner harmony. Such a person is living in accordance with a higher principle and is not simply pursuing his own selfish, base desires.

Ibn Aknin, Maimonides's most well known talmid, said that his teacher possessed the "science of inwardness." This science stressed mastery and self-control. Raw emotions are to be refined. Personal inclinations are to be honed and shaped through ethics and religion. Equanimity is to be sought and cherished. Indeed, "Men of equanimity are called wise." (Mishneh Torah). Meditative and purposeful action are important even in regard to everyday affairs. In this light, Maimonides was fond of quoting from Avot, "Let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven."

Impeding the individual's moral and spiritual progress are the "passions." These are the extremes in temperament and character. In accord with philosophic tradition prevailing in his times, the middle way between excesses is extolled. "The virtues are states of the soul and settled dispositions in the mean between two bad states, one of which is excessive and the other deficient,' (Perush HaMishneh). As to dispositions and what he considered the mean in each case,

"Liberality is the mean between miserliness and extravagance; courage is the mean between rashness and cowardice; wit is the mean between buffoonery and dullness; humility is the mean between haughtiness and self-abasement; ... and so, too, with the rest of them."

Maimonides reached conclusions that some non-Jewish theologians may find peculiar. "Lust is the first extreme and total insensibility to pleasure the other extreme; both of them are completely bad. The two states of the soul ... are both moral vices." (Perush HaMishneh) Calling insensibility to pleasure a moral vice may have a ring of irony to our ears, but Maimonides, in the true Jewish tradition, had disdain for asceticism.

Vice is a state of the soul that is out of balance. Unfortunate and harmful actions necessarily result from such an imbalance. In Perush HaMishneh he wrote, "Those who recognize their illness and pursue their pleasures are spoken about in the true Scripture, which describes them as saying: 'For in the stubbornness of my heart I walk', etc.; i.e., he intends to quench his thirst but he actually increases it." Maimonides also quoted Proverbs extensively: "There is a way which seems straight to a man, but its end is the ways of death."

The physician, however, "ought not to expect his art to provide knowledge of how to remove these passions. Indeed, this understanding is acquired from practical philosophy and from the admonitions and disciplines of the Law," he wrote al- Afdal. Maimonides respected the fact that philosophers and wise men have taught the correct way to live through the ages, how to live a moral life and how to correct defects in one's character.

Torah Means to Safeguard the Human Soul

Concerning the Law, he wrote to his talmid, Rabbi Hasdai Ha-Levi, "The entire Torah is actually a code of ethics designed to safeguard the human soul." Additionally, "the whole object of the Torah is the perfection of the faculty of the soul to apprehend the Creator." The Torah is the means to both establish and maintain psychological well-being, and to reach spiritual heights. The first is a necessary pre?condition for the latter. In order to perceive and understand the infinitely deep truths contained in the Torah, one must have a balanced and clear mind and be an ethical person.

The Torah is a path towards truth and the ennoblement of character. The Law teaches man how to live in moderation and to avoid extremes. In his Guide, Maimonides discussed the Biblical verse which states that the Law contains "just statutes and judgments." (Deut. 4:8)

Just is here identical with 'equibalanced.' The statutes of the Law do not impose burdens or excess as are implied in the service of a hermit or pilgrim; but, on the other hand, they are not so deficient as to lead to gluttony or lewdness, or to prevent, as the religious laws of the heathen nations do, the development of man's moral and intellectual faculties.

The disciplines of the Law, the teachings of the prophets and the example of their lives help to mold virtuous character so that the soul is healthy and only good actions result. Concerning "This perfect Law," he wrote in Perush HaMishneh, "as the Psalmist who knew it testified about it: The Law of the Lord is perfect, making wise the simple, restoring the soul (Psalms 19:8). Indeed, its goal is for man to be natural by following the middle way."


1. Galen was a Greek physician of the fifth century, B.C.E. whose thinking dominated medicine in Maimonides's time.

Andrew Krakauer, Ph.D., lives in Brooklyn.



All Rights Reserved(c) The Jewish Review, Inc., 1987-2011