Maimonides and his perplexing Guide of the Perplexed

His magnum opus, the Guide of the Perplexed, remains the most influential attempt to reconcile Judaism’s sacred texts with scientific truths.

By JAMES A. DIAMOND
August 22, 2018 13:02
Rambam

The Rambam. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 
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THE OFT cited assertion that the entire history of Western philosophy consists of a series of footnotes to Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, is equally true of Jewish thought and philosophy vis-à-vis Moses Maimonides (a.k.a. Rambam 1138-1205). He revolutionized Judaism on all its fronts. On the doctrinal front, his 13 principles of faith underpinned Judaism with a fundamental credo it surprisingly lacked before him. On the legal front, he compiled the first comprehensive and systematic code of halacha. Though Joseph Karo’s sixteenth century Shulhan Arukh superseded it in practice, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah nevertheless became an essential component of the rabbinic curriculum. Whether examined in university or yeshivah classrooms, it is one of the most microscopically studied text in all halls of Jewish learning to this day.

On the philosophical front his magnum opus, the Guide of the Perplexed, remains the most influential attempt to reconcile Judaism’s sacred texts with scientific truths. The Guide is a hefty dense work written in Judeo-Arabic, or Arabic in Hebrew characters, a reminder of an intertwining of cultures that is unimaginable in today’s political and social climates. Originally conceived as a private communication with his most beloved of students Joseph ben Judah, when we read it today we are eavesdropping on an intimate, sophisticated conversation between a master and his disciple. In an age when ideas and beliefs were matters of life and death, Joseph and other intellectuals like him were experiencing a disturbing, familiarly modern, crisis of faith. Their proficiency in both the philosophy and science of their day, as well as an unwavering devotion to their own Jewish texts, led them to what they thought was an either/ or choice. Since these two bodies of knowledge were patently at odds, they felt caught in a no-win situation of either renouncing their allegiance to the Torah or living with it at the cost of intellectual dishonesty.

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