Highlights of Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed: Part 1
Rabbi Todd (Tuvia) Berman
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam), also known as Maimonides, is arguably the most noted Jewish sage of the Middle Ages. Despite a complicated and precarious childhood, Rambam was a prolific writer in Halacha as well as Jewish philosophy and theology. Mishneh Torah, his massive legal code, maintains considerable importance even today. Rav Yosef Karo’s Shulchan Aruch borrows extensively from both Rambam’s decisions as well as his language and formulation; indeed, a considerable amount of the content of Shulchan Aruch consists of direct quotations of Rambam. In the development of “lamdut” Talmud study, Mishneh Torah serves as the springboard for the most important modern writers and thinkers.
However, both inside traditional Jewish circles as well as throughout the world at large, Rambam’s philosophic writings in general and his Guide for the Perplexed specifically have captured the imagination of Jews and non-Jews alike. kabbalists, academics, ba’alei mussar, Christian theologians, Roshei Yeshiva as well as yeshiva students have been mesmerized by this critical and influential work of post- Tanach and Talmud Jewish theological writing.
In the upcoming weeks, we will look at a sampling of famous chapters in Rambam’s philosophic magnum opus. The presentation will, IY”H, follow the book’s order but not present a full outline. Looking at sample chapters will hopefully allow us to see a bit beyond the veil of this cryptic and challenging work.
A brief note regarding reading the Guide: Rambam wrote works in both Rabbinic Hebrew as well as medieval Judeo-Arabic. In the case of the Guide for the Perplexed, Rambam chose the vernacular of his day writing Arabic in Hebrew characters. The Guide was translated numerous times into many languages. Almost immediately, R. Shmuel Ibn Tibbon translated the text into Hebrew. The Ibn Tibbon translation held primacy throughout the time of the Rishonim despite others such as that of Judah al-Harizi. Two modern Hebrew translations have become very popular. Mosad HaRav Kook published the translation by Israel Prize Laureate, Rabbi Yosef Kafah, in 1977 and it has merited over 11 printings. Prof. Michael Schwartz has recently published a new translation from the Arabic original with extensive and valuable notes. In general, quotations here will be taken from the first complete English translation byM. Friedländer written in 1881 and revised in 1904. This translation is widely available on the internet. Another important translation consulted is that of Prof. Shlomo Pines published in 1963 by University of Chicago Press.
As a start, let’s understand the title of our book. Rambam called his book “Dalalat al-hairin” which was translated into Hebrew as “מורה לנבובים”. In English this has been rendered as either “Guide for the Perplexed” or as “Guide of the Perplexed.” Who are these “Perplexed”? Rambam answers this question through a letter to his student R. Yoseph ben Yehuda printed at the beginning of the book. Rambam studied Astronomy, Mathematics, and Logic with his pupil in addition to Tanach and passages in rabbinic literature. After parting ways, Rambam decided to write a book for Yosef and “for those who are like [him], however few they may be.” Apparently, there existed an elite group schooled in both Torah and secular studies. He wrote his book for them and explains the need and his goal in the following manner:
The object of this treatise is to enlighten a religious man who has been trained to believe in the truth of our holy Law, who conscientiously fulfills his moral and religious duties, and at the same time has been successful in his philosophical studies. Human reason has attracted him to abide within its sphere; and he finds it difficult to accept as correct the teaching based on the literal interpretation of the Law, … Hence, he is lost in perplexity and anxiety. If he be guided solely by reason, and renounces his previous views which are based on those expressions, he would consider that he had rejected the fundamental principles of the Law… he would then be left with those errors which give rise to fear and anxiety, constant grief and great perplexity.
Torah and reason need not be in conflict. The Rambam has come to guide those who feel tension between the two towards a synthesis. In today’s world, conflicts between religion and reason have again risen in a modern idiom. The Guide to the Perplexed serves as a powerful model on how to resolve our faith with the world at large.