Rambam Conference
Rambam ConferenceYoni Kempinski

One of the most well known portraits of a Jewish Sage, that of the turbaned Rambam gazing placidly at the viewer, graces many of the places that bear his name - hospitals, school, medical centers, institutes, but did you know that it was first drawn by an American magazine illustrator named A.B. Frost in the nineteenth century?

Dr. Yitzchak Schwartz, a physician at the Haifa Rambam Hospital and Medical Center, has chosen as his hobby research into the sources of pictures of Torah luminaries. At last week's Rambam Conference in Israel, he lectured on the various attempts to draw the Rambam, showing that none of them are based is on how he really looked -  because we simply do not know the answer to that question.

Maimonides lived over 800 years ago, but, whether or not we know how he looked, he is still being researched, quoted, studied and argued over constantly by Torah sages and scholars, historians, physicians and members of the legal profession. This past weekend, over 500 people from all over Israel attended the seventh annual 3-day Rambam Conference in Tiberias to hear lectures by rabbis, public figures and academics on various aspects of the life and works of Maimonides.  Seven years during which none of the lectures have repeated themselves -  and next year is already being planned.

Why Tiberias? After all, Rabbi Moshe (Moses) ben Maimon, known by his acronym, the Rambam, is claimed by the city of his birth, Cordoba, Spain. A world-famous statue of the Torah giant, astronomer, philosopher and physician, though actually a likeness of Muslem philosopher Avicennes according to Dr. Schwartz, stands in the Cordoba Hudariya (Jewish quarter), glossing over the insignificant fact that the Rambam was forced to flee the city in order to save his life at the age of 10.

The Rambam lived in Morocco for a time and then spent most of his life in Egypt at the court of the Sultan, but his burial place, although the subject of some debate, is believed to be in Tiberias, based on artifacts found at a now-reconstructed site at the edge of the ancient city's cemetery. A folk legend states that when he died, his body was put on the back of a camel to prevent controversy over where he should be buried, and that the camel made its way to Tiberias.

It is there, overlooking the grave, that the Rambam Heritage Center was established by Rabbi Yemin Levy and his American congregation, on a route built over part of the ancient cemetery and elevated according to halakhic standards by the Israeli government, enabling Kohanim to walk or drive on it. Tens of thousands come to the visitors center there every year, families, students,soldiers and tourists, to learn about the great man of whom it was said: "From Moshe (in the Bible) to Moshe, there was none like Moses."

Rabbi Chaim Fogel, an alumnus of Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, former head of the Jewish Studies Department at Emunah College of Technology and now Chairman of the Board of the Orot-Moreshet Yaakov Teachers College, is director of the Rambam Center. He plans and directs the conference every year with Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Aviad, formerly of Israel's Education Ministry's Torah Culture Department, son of the late Chief Rabbi of Yemenite Jewry and a Rambam expert who wrote the Hebrew work "Guide to the Spiritually Perplexed: Educational Hygiene for the Soul."

The lectures this year illustrate the endless variety of subjects that barely span the Rambam's fields of endeavor, starting with an eye-opening analysis of the Rambam's thoughts on checking up on a convert's commitment to the commandments,, given by former Israel Supreme Court Justice Tzvi Tal. The Rambam's opinion of Islam was elucidated by Bar Ilan University Arabic and Jewish Philosophy Professor Eliezer Schlossberg, who noted that Islam considers the Rambam one of its prominent thinkers (move aside, Cordoba), but although the sage said clearly that Islam is not idolatry,he had hard words for Islam due to its persecution of Jews, its efforts to convert them and the low moral standards he attributed to its adherents.

Dr. Gil Shachar, head of the Center for Medicine According to the Rambam,compared the Rambam's views on types of food, such as bread, meat and fish to those of modern nutritionists, showing a strong correlation between the two, while Rabbi Dr. Mordecai Halperin, an expert on halakhic medical ethics, defined the Rambam's views on the laws pertaining to life-threatening situations, such as women in childbirth, on Shabbat.

The Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Rav Aryeh Stern talked about some of the subjects the Rambam does not mention - and not because he forgot them - and what those omissions signify,adding that although people generally see the Rambam as a rationalist, there are emotional passages where the Rambam describes his love of Torah. He read some of them, movingly, to the audience.

Rabbi-philosopher Uri Cherki of Machon Meir lectured on the universalistic aspects of the Rambam's ideas, explaining his specific plan for achieving tikkun olam.

In recognition of women's advances in Torah scholarship, Rabbanit Nurit Fried (whose husband Yochanan, head of Beit Harav in Jerusalem, led the Friday night tish and dvar Torah) taught the meaning of the mystic Friday night Lecha Dodi prayer,- unrelated to the Rambam - before candle lighting, while on Shabbat afternoon, Rabbanit Dr. Michal Tikochinsky,who heads Beit Morasha, showed the sources of the Rambam's 13 Principles and how they can be understood in a generation where so many do not observe the commandments.

The IDF Rabbinate choir, Chief IDF Cantor Shai Avramson, who also led the Shabbat prayers, and well-known singer Yonatan Raz'el, provided an evening of entertainment. Blending into the lecturers until he seemed to be one of them, noted linguist and broadcaster Dr. Avshalom Kor, known for his sharp wit, acted as emcee. 

The Rambam may have lived in Cordoba, Morocco and Egypt, but his soul comes to life in the Land of Israel where he is buried. A leader of world Jewry in his time and the halakhic decisor for Yemenite Jewry, to whom he wrote a letter of encouragement when they underwent persecution, he continues to be part of Jewish life through the close study of his prolific works taking place in Israel, including the scholarly edition of the Mishne Torah by late Israel Prize winner, Rabbi Yosef Kapach.

Where else would 500 people from all walks of life, including the writer of this article, fill an auditorium for three days of learning despite the beautiful blue Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) beckoning right outside the hotel doors? (And if enough English speakers would like to join next year, perhaps a translator and earphones could be arranged...)