Mysterious Ways: Blessed by Bashert
A rabbi miraculously gains access to the teachings of a 12th-century mentor.
If there is one thing that I have learned as a tenth-generation rabbi and longtime professor at Yeshiva University in New York City, it is that things are rarely what they seem, and that the hand of God is ever present in our lives. We Jews even have a word for it.
I’ve spent a lifetime studying and teaching the Talmud, the central text of Judaism and the basis of all Jewish law. It’s a sacred record of Jewish thought and debate dating back to the earliest rabbis. One that has inspired numerous commentaries over the centuries by some of the great Hebrew scholars, giants of our faith.
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Generations of rabbis have looked to these sages for wisdom and inspiration. My personal hero is Moses Maimonides—a twelfth-century rabbi, physician and philosopher, whose guidance on everything from marriage to medical ethics is still followed by millions of Jews today.
But few have read his actual words, relying instead on texts based on original source material published long after his death that may contain critical errors—a point of considerable debate among Talmudic scholars.
For example, Jewish law states three requirements for marriage, any of which constitutes an effective union: for the groom to give the bride something of value, such as a ring, to sign a Ketubah, a Jewish wedding contract, and to consummate the marriage.
But according to the available texts, Maimonides claimed only the last two were effective biblically. For generations, scholars puzzled over this. Had the great Maimonides erred? Or had his words been misinterpreted? Was this perhaps a sign of a scribal error?
Perhaps the original document could help solve a centuries-old riddle.
However, Maimonides’ writings—tens of thousands of pages—are stored deep in the vast archives of the Vatican. The Vatican was reluctant to put such old, fragile documents on display. Oh, how I prayed to gaze upon those sacred texts myself!
In 2002 I was invited to present an award at an international medical ethics conference in New York City, to a doctor who had dropped everything to be of service at Ground Zero on September 11. The award was named for none other than Maimonides.
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The teacher in me couldn’t resist telling the attendees about the special significance behind their recognition. I told them how Maimonides was one of the first scholars to strike a balance between science and religion, to see the spiritual dimension in medicine. How he wrote a Physician’s Oath similar to the Hippocratic Oath doctors recite today.
Afterward, a man rushed up to me. “That was fascinating,” he said. “I’m Jewish, but I’ve never heard of Maimonides.”
“Are you a doctor?” I asked him.
He laughed. “No,” he said. “My name’s Gary. I’m actually one of seven Jews ever knighted by the pope—an honor given to me after I was instrumental in the Vatican obtaining a charitable donation of very expensive medical equipment.”
“You know the pope?” I interjected. “The Vatican is where many of Maimonides’ writings are kept. I’d give anything to study those manuscripts.”
His smile widened. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll make some inquiries. I was supposed to be somewhere else today, then at the last minute that fell through and a friend I hadn’t talked to in years invited me to this conference. Lucky coincidence, huh?”
Luck? Coincidence? I shook my head. “No,” I said. “It feels a lot more like bashert.”
“B-what?” he asked.
“It’s Yiddish,” I explained, “for seeing God’s hand at work in our lives.”
“Well, don’t count on any miracles yet, Rabbi,” Gary said.
This story is excerpted from the October-November 2012 edition of Mysterious Ways magazine.