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.

The Rambam (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Rambam
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
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 Though Joseph Karo’s sixteenth century Shulhan Arukh superseded it in practice, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah nevertheless became an essential component of the rabbinic curriculum.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.
Maimonides, a physician so renowned that he was appointed to serve in Saladin’s royal court, diagnosed their existential anguish which, unresolved, would have caused ceaseless “heartache and great perplexity.” He prescribed the Guide as therapy for these troubled psyches. No serious attempt to broach this timeless dilemma ever since can do without engaging the Guide in one form or another. Its importance also extends well beyond Judaism’s borders. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of all Christian theologians, for example, repeatedly cites “Rabbi Moses” throughout his works. Over the centuries the Guide variously evoked endorsement, revision, reinvention, and opposition so fierce as to end up being condemned as heretical and consigned to flames. It was never, however, met with indifference.
In order to accommodate demonstrated scientific truth the Torah’s basic vocabulary had to be reinvented, leading Maimonides to his project of liberating biblical and rabbinic texts from their literal constraints. In Maimonides’ hands, many of the fantastic biblical narratives involving absurd phenomena like the talking animals in the Garden of Eden and Balaam stories were intended as parables and not as historical accounts. He compared their literary structure to “apples of gold in silver filigree,” where only the silver is seen from a distance, while the closer one approaches the more one notices the precious gold peeking out through the lattice. The Guide challenges its readers to pierce through the literal “silver” layer of the Bible and mine the esoteric philosophical “gold” buried beneath it. As a result, it forces its struggling audience to reexamine every single theological tenet crucial to Judaism they took for granted, whether it is the nature of God, providence, prophecy, creation, miracles, or the purpose of the commandments.
Maimonides’ God radically differs from traditional conceptions of Hakadosh Baruch Hu. In fact, his supreme Being defies any description whatsoever. Since the Bible depicts God throughout in human terms, or anthropomorphically, they lead to false conceptions of God. If the Torah is to be believed, then it cannot be taken literally. For example, how are we to understand the biblical accounts that God ‘sees’? God suddenly “sees,” for example, the Israelites suffering during their Egyptian enslavement and decides to liberate them. This causes a host of philosophical problems. What kind of sight is there without eyes? If God is all-knowing, how could He see something new He wasn’t aware of previously? Changing one’s mind usually results from acquiring new information. That would imply that God lacked something when formulating His original decisions. And if the change of heart was due to some reevaluation of God’s original intelligence, what would ever cause a perfect God to change His mind? How could historical events affect or impress a God, who surely would have foreseen all of them to begin with? Finally, if God is timeless, how do we even understand the terms before and after in regard to His actions? For Maimonides, God’s sole activity is knowing and thus, when the Torah depicts God seeing, it simply means “God knows.” Likewise, every biblical instance of human activity, emotion, or character trait must be taken metaphorically so that it doesn’t clash with Maimonides’ abstract idea of God.
The theological implications of this kind of God though are spiritually disconcerting since they tend to minimize God’s contact with and involvement in the world. If God is unchanging, how can He respond to historical events which are constantly in flux? In that same biblical story of Egyptian oppression God “hears” the Israelites’ cries. What kind of hearing is there without ears? If God doesn’t hear, then what use is prayer, another daily mainstay of Jewish religious practice? How can God be petitioned if He cannot be affected? How can the standard prayers in the Siddur address God as “great, mighty, and awesome,” when He is in fact none of these? What good would the blessing for the safety of Israel’s soldiers or the security of the State do? Even worse, a belief that these are accurate descriptions of God is a false one. It is therefore tantamount to idolatry for Maimonides!
On the issue of divine providence, or hashgacha, since Maimonides valued the world of the mind above all else, only those who accumulate knowledge are worthy of God’s attention. He states quite clearly, “I believe that providence is consequent upon intellect and attached to it.” If so, what is the destiny of those who are observant of the mitzvot and ethically righteous, the pinteleh yid as the rabbinic world of Eastern Europe characterized them, yet fail to follow the path of knowledge? Are they simply ignored by God and abandoned to the vicissitudes of nature?
Maimonides’ idea of prophecy poses more problems. He sees it as an automatic result of moral and intellectual self-perfection. It is both “not possible that an individual should be fit for prophecy and prepared for it and not become a prophet.” Vice versa, it is impossible for God to turn an ignorant person into a prophet “except as it is possible that He should turn an ass or a frog into a prophet.” This theory seems to deny God any active role in revelation, weaken His omnipotence to do whatever He wills, and do away with any significant distinctions between a prophet and a philosopher.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Maimonides’ thought is his rationalization of the commandments or taamei hamitzvot. The purpose of the mitzvot, he claims, is to eradicate idolatry and inculcate an authentic conception of the one God. He rejected the traditional distinction between commandments classified as chukim, or having no discernible reason, such as dietary laws and prohibited mixtures of wool and linen, and mishpatim, or having reasons, such as prohibitions against murder and theft. For Maimonides, it is simply inconceivable that a wise God would demand anything that is devoid of wisdom. Thus, all commandments are reasonable with clearly defined purposes. Chukim are simply commandments whose rationale is more difficult to discover.
Take animal sacrifice, for example. Why does the Torah obsessively promote what was a popular pagan mode of worshiping God? Maimonides responds that the ancient Israelites needed to be slowly weaned off the idolatrous ideology they had been accustomed to for hundreds of years. This is analogous to a drug addict who cannot become drug free overnight and must slowly withdraw from that which is killing him. Likewise, God, who operates in accordance with the laws of nature, doesn’t change human nature and therefore did not instantly abolish sacrifice. Rather, the Torah subverts it from within by severely regulating it, hoping to legislate it out of existence. Only a small group, the priests, can offer sacrifices and even then, only at a specific location, the Temple. What determined the choice of sheep for the paschal sacrifice was precisely because it was worshiped by the Egyptians. God commanded the Israelites to slaughter the very objects the Egyptians deified. The host culture viewed its blood as a bad omen, so the Jews sprinkled its blood on their doorposts as a protective sign, publicly undermining Egyptian ritual. It was therefore a frontal assault against pagan belief - to “proclaim what is contrary to them, and bring forth the belief that the act, which they deemed to be a cause of destruction, saves from destruction.”
However, the implications that the mitzvot are timebound elicited fierce resistance. Why observe them once they have served their purpose? To compound the problem Maimonides seems to contradict himself by envisioning, in his legal code, the Mishneh Torah, the rebuilding of the Temple and reestablishment of the sacrificial cult in the messianic period. Once the urge to sacrifice has been overcome, and replaced by the more spiritually refined worship of prayer, why ever return to its primitive rites? These questions vexed, and continue to vex, up to the present time. Whatever the answers are, Maimonides’ lasting accomplishment is to provoke Jews, and all people, to struggle independently in their search for purpose and truth.
Abraham, Judaism’s founding father, set the precedent. Maimonides cast Abraham as an Israelite Socrates who pursued the truth so vigorously that he came to reject as false everything he had been taught by parents, teachers, elders, and religious and political authorities. Maimonides, the rabbinic halachist and Maimonides, the philosopher is absolutely consistent on this iconoclastic spiritual model. And on this Maimonides is in complete agreement with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living. Life can never be accomplished for Maimonides by blindly accepting the truths others have handed over or imposed without subjecting them to their own test of reasoned investigation. The Guide does not offer the comfort and certainty most look for in religion. On the contrary, it advocates a paradoxically self-defeating life of anxiety and persistent questioning where the ultimate aim of knowing God is to truly know that He can never be known.
Maimonides persisted in communicating his new teaching, knowing full well that its inevitable disclosure would invite persecution. In an age when the term ‘fake news’ perverts the printed and virtual word, and people on all sides shape the truth to advance their own interests, we could do no better than to remember Maimonides’ conviction that the truth in fact requires self-sacrifice. It is worth citing in full Maimonides’ own confession of a near self-destructive compulsion to publicize the truth – “I am the man who when the concern pressed him and his way was straitened and he could find no other device by which to teach a demonstrated truth other than by giving satisfaction to a single virtuous man while displeasing ten thousand ignoramuses – I am he who prefers to address that single man by himself, and I do not heed the blame of those many people. For I claim to liberate that virtuous one from that into which he has sunk, and I shall guide him in his perplexity until he becomes perfect and he finds rest.”
Over eight centuries after its composition, Maimonides’ Guide continues to provoke and challenge institutionalized Jewish thought. Hayim Nahman Bialik (18731934), one of the great pioneers of modern Hebrew literature, reminisced about his time as a student in the renowned Eitz Chaim yeshiva, Eastern Europe’s rabbinic Harvard of its day in Volozhin. His famous poem, “HaMatmid” (“The Yeshivah Student”) recalls those troublemakers who were expelled for various infractions of house rules. Along with the usual offenders who smoked on the Sabbath, socialized with girls, and gambled, there was also “the one who hid himself away in the attic with the Guide of the Perplexed.” 
Prof. James A. Diamond holds the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario and has published widely on Maimonides. Oxford University Press has just released his latest book, ‘Jewish Theology Unbound’