Shiur #01: Who Are the “Perplexed?”

  • Rav Chaim Navon



A.        Who Was the Rambam?


The Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, was born in 1138 in Cordova, Spain, to a family of respected lineage. In 1148 Spain was invaded by zealous Muslims who came from North Africa, and the Rambam's family was forced to leave Cordova. The family first wandered about in southern Spain, and then around the year 1159 moved to Fez, Morocco. There, too, they found no rest, and in 1165 the family fled to the Land of Israel, where the Rambam himself resided for about six months, but then moved to Egypt. For some time his merchant brother was in charge of supporting the family, but when his brother died on one of his journeys, the Rambam took over this responsibility, making his living as a doctor. He was the physician who attended to the Egyptian royal court, and at a later stage may also have been appointed Nagid (the head) of Egypt's Jewish community. The Rambam passed away in 1204.


He composed his first important work, his Commentary on the Mishna, during his twenties, completing it in 1168. Ten years later, he completed his great halakhic opus – Mishneh Torah, an unprecedented systematic summary of all the halakhic material that had accumulated up until his time. As a sort of introduction to the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam wrote his Sefer Ha-mitzvot, which systematically sets forth the 613 commandments of the Torah. His important philosophical work, The Guide of the Perplexed (Moreh Nevukhim), appears to have been written later on, around 1185-1190.  Like his Commentary on the Mishna and his Sefer Ha-mitzvot, it was composed in Arabic.


The Hebrew Encyclopedia introduces its entry on “Moshe ben Maimon” with the assertion that the Rambam is “the most famous Jewish personality of the Middle Ages.” Unquestionably, the Rambam was both the greatest halakhic authority and the greatest Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages, and this rare combination further enhanced his renown. He exerted a tremendous influence on all spheres of Jewish thought: philosophy, Kabbala, modern thought, and more. He is viewed by many as the greatest Jewish thinker ever to have arisen.


In this series, we will be undertaking a “journey of exploration” into The Guide of the Perplexed. Why the need for a journey? Because the cultural climate in which the work was written is so very distant from our own. Over the course of the series we shall attempt to understand not only the content of the book, but also its significance for us.


Quotes from the book are based on the English translation of the text by M. Friedlander (freely available online),[1] with occasional adjustments.


B.        The Guide of the Perplexed and the Question of Religious Language


In this and the next lesson, we shall focus on the Rambam's introduction to his The Guide of the Perplexed. The introduction is instructive as to the Rambam's purpose in writing the book, and his philosophy in general.


The Rambam starts with a declaration of his aims for the book: “My primary object in this work is to explain certain terms appearing in the Prophetic books.”


Later on, he adds a further aim:“This work has also a second object in view. It seeks to explain certain obscure metaphors which appear in the books of the Prophets, and are not distinctly characterized as being metaphors.”


The Rambam comments again later concerning the purpose of the book:


It was not my intention when writing this treatise to expound natural science or discuss metaphysical systems; it was not my object to prove truths which have already been demonstrated, or describe the number and the properties of the spheres: for the books written on these subjects serve their purpose, and if in some points they are not satisfactory, I do not think that what I could say would be better than what has already been explained by others. But my intention is, as has been stated in the introduction, to elucidate difficulties in the Torah, and to disclose their hidden and true meaning, which is above the comprehension of the multitude. (Guide, Part II, chapter 2 [henceforth to be denoted as II:2])


Once again the Rambam emphasizes that The Guide of the Perplexed does not pretend to summarize all the knowledge that exists in the sphere of physics or metaphysics; its entire aim is “to elucidate difficulties in the Torah.”


These repeated declarations might be disappointing. For some reason, the Rambam presents the aims of his The Guide of the Perplexed as being focused in the linguistic-exegetical realm. We might have expected a more dramatic and ambitious declaration, such as, perhaps, “The purpose of this book is to solve the contradictions between Judaism and philosophy,” or “to present what a Jew should believe.” However, it is no coincidence that the Rambam set forth specifically linguistic and exegetical aims. In order to understand this, we must understand the philosophical and cultural climate in which the Rambam lived and in which he wrote his Guide of the Perplexed.


The Rambam had to contend with Aristotelian philosophy, which had exerted its influence for more than 1,500 years, although of course it was not the only existing school of thought throughout this period. Nevertheless, from the time of Aristotle himself (4th century B.C.E.) until the time of the Rambam (12th century C.E.) an enormously long time had passed, and by the end of this period the Aristotelian way of thinking was more firmly entrenched than ever. Therefore the Rambam addressed it not as just one school of philosophy, but rather as “the truth” (although he disagreed with it regarding several details). For the Rambam and his generation, squaring Aristotelian philosophy with religious faith was an urgent and important task.


To illustrate what this means, we might compare the Rambam's situation to the discomfort that we experience in view of the verse in which Yehoshua commands, “Sun – stand still upon Giv'on” (Yehoshua 10:12), which seems to suggest that the normal course of nature – where Yehoshua is not asking God to perform a miracle and stop the heavenly bodies in their path – entails the sun revolving around the earth. How are we to reconcile this with our modern scientific knowledge that it is the earth that revolves around the sun, and not vice versa? This is a good question, and there are good answers to it, but they do not concern us here. We present the question only with a view to illustrating something else. For us, the heliocentric model, which places the sun at the center of our solar system, is not just some theory, but rather a proven fact, and therefore we have great difficulty dealing with verses which seem to contradict this. It was with the same respect for scholarship that the Rambam viewed Aristotelian philosophy.


In The Guide of the Perplexed, the Rambam joined a long list of Jewish – as well as Muslim and Christian – philosophers who had taken upon themselves this endeavor (the Rambam drew mainly on the work of Muslim thinkers). Over the course of many generations, tremendous effort had been invested in the attempt to square two systems that were completely different in their essence: the principles of faith of the revealed religions, and the principles of Aristotelian philosophy. These attempts had been undertaken by virtue of a basic similarity that did in fact exist between them. It is truly amazing that the two great Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, managed, through their study, to refine to such a degree the pagan culture from which they had emerged, and to attain a world-view that bore some resemblance to monotheistic faith. Second Temple-era Hellenistic Jewish scholars had already noted the similarity between the religious views of the Greek philosophers and the view of the Torah.[2]


Aristotle did not speak of God, but he did speak of a “First Cause” or “Prime Mover,” which is the cause of all movements and events in the world, and which is pure intellect without any body. When later philosophers tried to square his philosophy with religious faith, they elected to do so by means of translation – i.e., they gave Aristotelian concepts names from the world of religious faith: the “First Cause” is actually God; the heavenly “spheres” in which, according to Aristotle, the stars are embedded, or the “separate intellects” which are more important than them, are angels, etc. As an example, we might quote the Rambam:


We have already stated above that the angels are incorporeal. This agrees with the opinion of Aristotle: there is only a difference regarding the names employed; he uses the term “intelligences,” and we say instead “angels.” (Guide II:6)


Here we encounter for the first time the importance of the linguistic dimension in the Rambam's cultural world. In the philosophical enterprise that is focused on “translation,” language and the formulation of ideas are of critical importance.


Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi challenged the entire “translation” enterprise, arguing that it represented a distortion of the religious world: even if the “First Cause” is called “God,” it is the “God of Aristotle,” which is a very different concept from the “God of Avraham.” Indeed, it is worth noting that the Rambam did not suffice with a simplistic translation; he also enlisted the opposite (or complementary) approach: the amendment of some of Aristotle's most fundamental philosophical perceptions in order to align them more closely with Jewish faith. Nevertheless, it is clear that even the Rambam viewed the “translation” process discussed above as a central endeavor.


However, this process of translation was never perfect and complete. The main area of tension between philosophy and religious faith arose because of the sacred Scriptures. The sacred texts of the revealed religions describe God as being very different from the Aristotelian “First Cause.” The “First Cause” is supreme intellect that is immersed in profound thought, and nothing more. The God of the Torah, on the other hand, is dynamic, active, feeling. The most problematic descriptions, from the philosophical point of view, were those which appeared to attribute to God a material dimension: “the hand of God,” “God descended,” “God's anger burned.” We all understand these expressions simply as metaphors, and it is clear to us that God does not have a hand or any other human characteristics. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that we live many generations after the Rambam's monumental work. It was the Rambam who, with his stubborn insistence, turned this interpretation into the most obvious one accepted in the Jewish world. Moreover, he did not suffice with a negation of physicality; he also tried to present a similar exegetical theory in relation to descriptions in the Torah and rabbinic texts that attribute feelings to God.


In summary, then, as the Rambam saw it, the tension between Aristotelian philosophy and religious faith is focused on the realm of interpreting the sacred texts. Therefore, in his Guide of the Perplexed he devotes extensive attention to the question of religious language. In fact, what we describe as a conflict between philosophy and Torah was viewed by the Rambam as a conflict between the intellect and the text; this is a conflict whose fundamental solution is exegetical.


In light of all of the above, some people define The Guide of the Perplexed as a biblical lexicon. I believe this definition to be too extreme. The Guide of the Perplexed is far more than a lexicon; it goes beyond even a philosophical lexicon. We find explicit statements in this vein within the book itself:


From the introduction to this treatise you may learn that its principal object is to expound, as far as can be done, ma’aseh bereishit (the account of the creation, Bereishit 1-3) and ma’aseh merkava (the account of the divine chariot, Yechezkel 1), and to answer questions raised with respect to prophecy and to the knowledge of God. (II:2)


This is the continuation of the excerpt I quoted above. From these lines we understand that the aim of the book is not limited to the linguistic-exegetical level. The above excerpt also tells us that one of the aims of the book is to “disclose [the] hidden and true meaning, which is above the comprehension of the multitude.” In other words, resolving the contradictions between philosophy and Torah demands a clarification of the concealed tenets of the Torah, which, in the Rambam's view, are identical with the tenets of philosophy. The passage quoted above should therefore be understood thus: The Guide of the Perplexed is not a book of philosophy, in the full sense of the word, and therefore it does not bring detailed philosophical proofs. Rather, it limits itself to concise explanations of the beliefs alluded to in the Bible, in order to relieve the tension between the Torah and philosophy.


In a similar vein, the Rambam writes elsewhere:


For the primary object in this treatise has been to expound as much as possible of ma’aseh bereishit and ma’aseh merkava. (II:29)


Expounding ma’aseh bereishit and ma’aseh merkava means more than just interpreting the passages in the Torah that deal with these topics (although the Rambam does so). It also entails an extensive discussion of the realms which, to the Rambam's mind, are included under these headings: physics and metaphysics.


The Guide of the Perplexed attempts to address the apparent contradictions between faith and philosophy. Many of these contradictions require linguistic or exegetical attention, but the task also involves a detailed description of the true beliefs which, the Rambam believes, are common to religion and philosophy.


C.        To Whom is The Guide to the Perplexed Addressed?


Having presented at the outset his linguistic, exegetical aim, the Rambam goes on to define his target audience:


It is not here intended to explain all these expressions to the unlettered or to mere tyros, a previous knowledge of Logic and Natural Philosophy being indispensable, or to those who confine their attention exclusively to the study of Torah, that is, the Halakha. The object of this treatise is to enlighten the religious man who has been trained to believe in the truth of our Torah, 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 Torah… Hence he is lost in perplexity and anxiety. If he be guided solely by reason, and renounce his previous views which are based on those terms, he would consider that he had rejected the fundamental principles of the Torah; and even if he retains the opinions which were derived from those expressions, and if, instead of following his reason, he abandon its guidance altogether, it would still appear that his religious convictions had suffered loss and injury. He would then be left with those errors which give rise to fear and anxiety, constant grief and great perplexity.


This offers us a better understanding of the name of the book, The Guide of the Perplexed. The Rambam chose the title with great precision. He is not addressing the masses, but rather the scholars who are “perplexed.” As the Rambam sees it, one is on a fairly high level if he is counted among those who are “perplexed.” These are people who are familiar with both the Torah and philosophy, and they are confounded by the apparent contradictions between the literal meaning of Scripture and philosophical perceptions. The aim of the book is to deliver them from their perplexity through a new interpretation of the texts. One might propose a different way of delivering them from perplexity: proving to them that philosophy is mistaken, and therefore it presents no difficulty when juxtaposed with the Torah. However, as noted, the Rambam viewed many parts of the Aristotelian system as truth that was above any question; therefore, this approach was not an option for him.


The Rambam limits his audience to religious scholars who are also familiar with philosophy. Seemingly, he does so because others are not “perplexed” and therefore have no problems of faith. However, this explanation conceals a deeper reason for the narrow focus of the work. The Rambam asserts that Aristotelian physics is what Chazal referred to as “ma'aseh bereishit,” and that the philosophical study of metaphysics is the “ma'aseh merkava.Chazal restricted very heavily the framework for the study of these two areas:


There is to be no teaching… of ma'aseh bereishit to two [or more students], nor of ma'aseh merkava to a single one, unless he is wise and discerning in his own mind… Only the main concepts are to be conveyed to him. (Chagiga 11b-13a)


In other words, ma'aseh bereishit may only be taught to one individual student at a time, while ma'aseh merkava cannot be taught even to an individual student, unless he is on the level of one who is “wise and discerning in his own mind,” in which case he may be taught “the main concepts,” such that he is able to deduce the rest on his own. Since the Rambam identifies ma'aseh bereishit and ma'aseh merkava with physics and metaphysics, respectively, he understands this rabbinic limitation as applying to philosophical instruction for the masses.


It must be pointed out that scholars such as Rabbi Chasdai Crescas (in the Introduction to his Or Hashem) expressed vehement opposition to the Rambam's identification of ma'aseh bereishit and ma'aseh merkava with scientific and philosophical concepts. In Crescas's view, ma'aseh bereishit and ma'aseh merkava are divine secrets, not philosophical or scientific knowledge. Other commentators have avoided accepting the Rambam's words literally, interpreting them instead in a metaphorical sense. Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of the 20th century, wrote that the Rambam should not be understood literally when he asserts that ma'aseh bereishit is the science of physics:


Certainly, if the Rambam meant this literally then it is most startling, since this ma'aseh bereishit is studied at every high school… while the Rambam was referring to the wisdom concealed in nature… (Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, Kovetz Ma'amarim ve-Igrot, Jerusalem 5766, p. 95)


However, such explanations are not convincing. It seems that the Rambam did indeed believe, in all seriousness, that physics and metaphysics are themselves ma'aseh bereishit and ma'aseh merkava. Therefore, he perceived a religious value in concealing these philosophical truths from the masses. Indeed, in his introduction to The Guide of the Perplexed he writes that in view of the Talmudic restrictions concerning the instruction of ma'aseh merkava, he includes only “main concepts” in the book – and even these are concealed amongst other matters.


In this way the Rambam tried to adapt to the world of books Chazal's limitation on the oral transmission of esoteric matters. At first glance, The Guide of the Perplexed would seem to be accessible to all. As the Rambam writes in his introduction, “If an author were to explain these principles in writing, it would be equal to expounding them unto thousands of men [and not one individual student].” How, then, is it possible to write a book about ma'aseh merkava, while still upholding the rabbinical directive that one is permitted to convey only its main ideas – and even this only to outstanding individuals? The Rambam's response is that through concealment and obscuring of the deepest messages, the directive can be fulfilled even through the writing of a book. The Rambam adds that the Torah itself adopts the same approach; it hides its most profound philosophical foundations, revealing only hints of them. The Rambam, who tried to expose the concealed treasures of the Torah, hid them using the same technique that was used, in his view, in the Torah itself.


In summary, the Rambam composed a book for the “perplexed,” who are in fact superlative individuals: scholars who are proficient both in Torah and in philosophy, and who thereby become confounded as to the correspondence between these two worlds. Those who are not perplexed have no need for the book. Moreover, since they lack the necessary profound knowledge of the wisdom of the Torah, they should not be exposed to its secrets. The “perplexed” to whom the book addresses itself are not the stragglers at the tail end of the camp; rather, they are the scholars who lead it.


Why must philosophical matters be hidden from the masses? We shall discuss this further in the coming lessons. In the meantime, let it suffice to say that philosophical study might cause the masses to lose their simple, wholehearted faith, without allowing them to extract from philosophy the more profound and mature faith that it offers.


Moreover, the Rambam emphasizes that profound ideas, by nature, escape precise definition, and therefore they are of necessity presented as allusions. Not only the simple masses, but even a learned scholar must study the truth in gradual stages. The Guide of the Perplexed accompanies him on what the Rambam perceives as this most important of journeys.


Translated by Kaeren Fish



[1] The English translation by Shlomo Pines (Chicago, 1963) is in many ways superior, but we shall make use of the Friedlander translation because it is in the public domain. 

[2]See, for example, Josephus's Against Apion, book II, chapter 16, section 168.