Highlights of Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed: Part 2 – The Preface
Rabbi Todd (Tuvia) Berman
William James presented a series of lectures in natural theology in 1901 and 1902 at the University of Edinburgh. The result of these lectures became his classic work The Varieties of Religious Experience. James records the search for God and divine truth in turn of the century America. He highlights the struggle people who desire a connection to God face in finding truth. In a fascinating way, his recounted testimonials almost echo Rambam’s own formulations.
[The] highest experiences that I have had of God’s presence have been rare and brief — flashes of consciousness which have compelled me to exclaim with surprise — God is here! — or conditions of exaltation and insight, less intense, and only gradually passing away. … I find that, after every questioning and test, they stand out to-day as the most real experiences of my life.
James’ work is full of such examples his writing is as relevant today as in his time. People are searching, sometimes desperately, for a connection with God.
Rambam explains that truth, especially religious truth, is difficult to attain and demands hard work. One cannot expect the path to be easy nor constant. For some, truth comes in a sporadic fashion. For others, understanding comes in a steadier manner, while for many, unfortunately, the religious quest is even more frustrating.
Like the quote from James, Rambam describes the personal search for truth in the following manner:
At times the truth shines so brilliantly that we perceive it as clear as day. Our nature and habit then draw a veil over our perception, and we return to a darkness almost as dense as before. We are like those who, though beholding frequent flashes of lightning, still find themselves in the thickest darkness of the night. On some the lightning flashes in rapid succession, and they seem to be in continuous light, and their night is as clear as the day. This was the degree of prophetic excellence attained by (Moses) the greatest of prophets, to whom God said, “But as for thee, stand thou here by Me” (Deut. v. 31), and of whom it is written “the skin of his face shone,” etc. (Exod. xxxiv. 29). [Some perceive the prophetic flash at long intervals; this is the degree of most prophets.] By others only once during the whole night is a flash of lightning perceived. This is the case with those of whom we are informed, “They prophesied, and did not prophesy again” (Num. xi. 25). There are some to whom the flashes of lightning appear with varying intervals; others are in the condition of men, whose darkness is illumined not by lightning, but by some kind of crystal or similar stone, or other substances that possess the property of shining during the night; and to them even this small amount of light is not continuous, but now it shines and now it vanishes, as if it were “the flame of the rotating sword.”
Rambam’s goal is to direct as many people as possible in the direction of the light. The Guide for the Perplexed is addressed to them. Regarding those who always walk in the darkness and have no hope, ability, or desire to find the truth of religious light, Rambam says “there is no need to notice them in this treatise.”
But for those who strive for the truth, Rambam is prepared to help. He informs us that it will not be simple. Expressing religious truth is complicated, “You must know that if a person, who has attained a certain degree of perfection, wishes to impart to others, either orally or in writing, any portion of the knowledge which he has acquired of these subjects, he is utterly unable to be as systematic and explicit as he could be in a science of which the method is well known.”
Rambam will attempt to help us develop a connection to God. The path will not be straight and at times puzzling; however, he promises that in the end it will also be rewarding.