Shiur #02: How Should the Guide Be Studied?

  • Rav Chaim Navon


In this shiur we shall continue our study of the Rambam's introduction to the Guide, with an emphasis on the literary nature of the book. Those readers who still suffer from the trauma of literature lessons in high school can rest assured: it is not my intention here to discuss linguistic style and the like. Rather, I will address the literary character as it relates to the Rambam’s stated purpose for his book. The question is: what sort of book could realize all the hopes that the Rambam pinned on it? To answer this, we will need to address the Rambam's view of society, and specifically the relationship between the philosopher and the masses.


a.            The Metaphors of the Prophets


As we have already seen, the Rambam declares that his intention in The Guide of the Perplexed is to resolve the contradictions and tensions between philosophy and the Torah. These contradictions are focused mainly on the question of interpretation of the sacred texts. The plain sense of the text seems to run counter to the philosophical (meaning, for the Rambam, his contemporary scientific) theories concerning God. In this situation, a religious person has two main options for dealing with this tension: he can either reject philosophy, or he can reinterpret the religious texts. The Rambam chooses mainly the second option.


One of the main points in Tanakh that troubled the Rambam was the matter of the metaphors used by the prophets. In general, the Torah does not deal with matters of faith and belief; rather, it concentrates on commandments and stories about the forefathers. The prophets, in contrast, spoke at length about matters of faith, and often offer descriptions of the divine realm. The Rambam devoted considerable intellectual energy to dealing with these descriptions. He argued that they were meant as metaphors, and should not be understood literally. Moreover, he insisted, some of these metaphors – whose plain meaning contradicted the views of the philosophers – actually conveyed (through allusion) the truths of Aristotelian philosophy itself.


A good example is the description of the ma'aseh merkava – the divine chariot – in the book of Yechezkel. The Rambam interpreted Chazal's teaching concerning ma'aseh bereishit – the creation of the world – and ma'aseh merkava as referring to Aristotelian physics and metaphysics, respectively. Yechezkel's prophecy concerning the ma'aseh merkava is seemingly a rather material description of the divine realm. The Rambam, in the third section of the Guide, transforms it into a metaphor that conceals within it the Aristotelian world-view.


At the outset, the Rambam provides us with some keys for understanding his approach to prophetic metaphors:


The key to the understanding and to the full comprehension of all that the Prophets have said is found in the knowledge of the figures, their general ideas, and the meaning of each word they contain.


In this context, the Rambam sets down an important statement concerning our understanding of prophetic metaphors, basing himself on the verse in Mishlei: "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in vessels of silver" (25:11). As the Rambam understands it, this is a second-order metaphor – i.e., a metaphor about metaphors. He interprets the verse as follows: something that has two aspects or levels may be compared to a golden apple inside a silver filigree net. What is the meaning of this image? First,


It shows that in every word which has a double sense – a literal one and a figurative one – the plain meaning must be as valuable as silver, and the hidden meaning still more precious, so that the figurative meaning bears the same relation to the literal one as gold to silver.




It is further necessary that the plain sense of the phrase shall give to those who consider it some notion of that which the figure represents, like the golden apple overlaid with a network of silver… when a keen-sighted person examines the object well, he will find what is within, and see that the apple is gold.


The Rambam's first point is especially interesting. He asserts that the metaphors used by the prophets also have meaning on the plain level. The metaphors are like golden apples overlaid with silver filigree. The important element is the "golden apple" – the message or referent, but the metaphor in which it is enveloped is more than just a wrapping to be discarded; it is pure silver. The metaphor is not just a disguise, or medium, for conveying the message; "the medium is the message." What does this mean? The Rambam explains:


Taken literally, such expressions contain wisdom useful for many purposes, among others, for the amelioration of the condition of society; e.g., the Proverbs (Mishlei), and similar sayings in their literal sense.


As an example, we may cite an interpretation that the Rambam goes on to propose for chapter 7 of Mishlei, which speaks against prostitution and adultery. He explains that the prostitute described in this chapter is a metaphor for that which is material, and the text is teaching a person not to succumb to material pleasures, but rather to follow his rational intellect. However, the plain meaning of the text also has meaning: there is great value in this simple warning not to commit adultery.


I would venture to suggest an application of the Rambam's principle, though he would never agree to this particular application. The entire text of Shir Ha-shirim is a metaphor for the relationship between man and God. This is the "golden apple," the hidden message. However, there is also value in the "silver filigree" – the revealed metaphor. The choice to use images from the realm of the physical love between husband and wife tells us that the Torah presents a positive view of this simple, human, physical love too, when it is conducted in sanctity and purity.


The message of the metaphors employed by the prophets is multi-layered and sophisticated.


b.            How Should the Guide Be Studied?


Following the Rambam's introduction to the Guide, there are two more prefaces, entitled "Directions for the Study of this Work" and "Foreword." In these the Rambam explains in greater detail the manner in which he wrote the Guide and the way in which it should be studied.


If you desire to grasp all that is contained in this book so that nothing shall escape your notice, consider the chapters in connected order. In studying each chapter, do not content yourself with comprehending its principal subject, but attend to every term mentioned therein, although it may seem to have no connection with the principal subject. For what I have written in this work was not the suggestion of the moment: it is the result of deep study and great application…


This is not just a general recommendation that the book be read systematically and carefully. As we have seen, the Rambam believed that philosophy should not be taught in a populist manner. How, then, are these issues to be treated in writing? In his introduction, the Rambam already explained:


You must, therefore, not expect from me more than such headings (i.e., the "main ideas" of ma'aseh merkava, which are permissible to convey to a single disciple if he is wise and discerning). And even these have not been methodically and systematically arranged in this work, but have been, on the contrary, scattered, and are interspersed with other topics which we shall have occasion to explain.


Now, in his "Directions," he repeats and emphasizes this point. The literary character of the Guide reflects the need to simultaneously conceal and reveal, like the golden apple which is concealed but may be glimpsed through the silver lattice enveloping it. Here the Rambam reveals one of the literary techniques that he uses: although something may be mentioned in passing in one chapter, a scholar who studies the book with great care will discover that this seemingly casual remark is the key to decoding a different chapter.


Despite all of this, the Rambam still felt a need to justify having committed such sensitive matters to writing. In doing so, he asserts, he relied on two principles:


First, to similar cases our Sages applied the verse, “It is time to do something in honor of the Lord: for they have made void Your law” (Tehillim 119:126, see the mishna at the end of Berakhot, and the Gemara ad loc. 63a). Secondly, they have said, “Let all your acts be for the sake of Heaven” (Avot 2:12).


These principles permit a deviation from the rules that usually apply, where necessary to preserve and uphold the faith and for the sake of Heaven. The Rambam felt that there was no choice but to commit the explanations offered by the Guide to writing, for the sake of those who were “perplexed” and distressed by the seeming contradictions between the Torah and scientific wisdom. His endeavor is undertaken for the sake of Heaven, in order to extend and increase true faith.


In his introduction to the third part of the Guide, the Rambam once again apologizes for committing divine secrets to writing:


But if, on the other hand, I were to abstain from writing on this subject, according to my knowledge of it, when I die, as I shall inevitably do, that knowledge would die with me, and I would thus inflict great injury on you and all those who are perplexed [by these theological problems]. I would then be guilty of withholding the truth from those to whom it ought to be communicated, and of jealously depriving the heir of his inheritance. I should in either case be guilty of gross misconduct. Nevertheless, to give a full explanation of the hidden passages of the Bible is contrary to the Law, and this also stands to reason…”


The Sages forbade explicit discussion of divine secrets, and in any case “this [prohibition] stands to reason.” Later on, the Rambam adds a further reservation, quite uncharacteristic of his usual mood of decisiveness. Another reason to avoid writing down explicitly all the secrets of divine wisdom is the presence of doubt: is our understanding of it truly accurate?


I have not received my belief in this respect from any teacher, but it has been formed by what I learned from Scripture and the utterances of our Sages, and by the philosophical principles which I have adopted. It is therefore possible that my view is wrong, and that I misunderstood the passages referred to…


In any event, the Rambam ultimately decides to write these secrets, but under camouflage. How is this done? In his introduction to Book III, he reveals one technique, which is illustrated in the first chapters of Book III. In these chapters, which explain the ma’aseh merkava, the Rambam quotes the verses from Sefer Yechezkel and adds brief, simple explanations which emphasize certain points. Only someone who has studied the Guide in its entirety, and is on the lookout for philosophical insights, will understand that the Rambam is hinting to a certain philosophical interpretation of Yechezkel's words. Introducing Book III, he writes:


It has been shown that a person favored by Providence with reason to understand these mysteries is forbidden by the Law to teach them except orally, and on condition that the pupil possesses certain qualifications, and even then only the chapter headings may be communicated. This has been the reason why the knowledge of this mystery has entirely disappeared from our nation, and nothing has remained of it. This was unavoidable, for the explanation of these mysteries was always communicated orallyand was never committed to writing. Such being the case, how can I venture to call your attention to such portions of it as may be known, intelligible, and perfectly clear to me?...


Correct thought and divine help have suggested to me the proper method, viz., to explain the words of the prophet Yechezkel in such a manner that those who will read my interpretation will believe that I have not added anything to the contents of the text, but only, as it were, translated from one language into another, or given a short exposition of plain things. Those, however, for whom this treatise has been composed, will, on reflecting on it and thoroughly examining each chapter, obtain a perfect and clear insight into all that has been clear and intelligible to me. This is the utmost that can be done in treating this subject so as to be useful to all without fully explaining it. (Guide, Introduction to Book III)


The Rambam writes that the secrets of Torah are meant to be conveyed via a verbal technique of transmission – “from mouth to ear.” By means of this sort of verbal transmission it is possible to hint to the student and to convey only “the main ideas.” How is this verbal technique to be translated into a written technique? The Rambam presents a particular technique of writing which, to his mind, achieves results similar to verbal transmission.


c.            Contradictions within the Guide


In his Introduction, the Rambam enumerates seven possible causes of internal contradictions that are to be found in a text. We shall list all of them, and then discuss the seventh cause, which has engendered a tremendous polemic among contemporary scholars and commentators of the Rambam. This polemic is perhaps the most important key to the manner in which the Guide should be studied in our time.


a.            The text sometimes includes a range of opinions of different people, whose views differ, but their names are omitted, such that it appears as though all of these views were the opinion of the writer himself.

b.            Sometimes the author changes his mind about something, such that some of the things he writes contradict other things.

c.            Sometimes part of what is written is not meant to be understood literally; therefore, it may appear contradictory.

d.            Sometimes it is necessary to attach to one of the seemingly contradictory statements a condition or reservation which is not stated explicitly.

e.            It is sometimes necessary to explain a profound matter in a simple – even distorted – way, when it is presented for the first time.

f.             Sometimes two statements are not obviously contradictory, and the discord becomes apparent only after careful study. The author simply failed to notice this contradiction.

g.            Here let us quote the Rambam in his own words:


Seventh cause: It is sometimes necessary to introduce such metaphysical matter as may partly be disclosed, but must partly be concealed; while, therefore, on one occasion the object which the author has in view may demand that the metaphysical problem be treated as solved in one way, it may be convenient on another occasion to treat it as solved in the opposite way. The author must endeavor, by concealing the fact as much as possible, to prevent the uneducated reader from perceiving the contradiction.


The Rambam declares that the internal contradictions to be found in The Guide of the Perplexed – and such contradictions abound – arise from the fifth and seventh causes. The seventh cause is of particular interest. The German-American Jewish scholar Leo Strauss placed it at the focus of 20th century discussion of the Rambam, such that the conventional view maintains that what the Rambam is saying here is that he deliberately planted contradictions in his book in order to mislead the masses, so that they would not understand the radical, true meaning of what he is saying. In other words, the Rambam wrote some things that he himself did not believe, and hinted at his true opinion through casual comments which contradict them.


Strauss integrated his approach to the Rambam within a broader view of philosophical writing in general. Strauss argued that many philosophers resorted to esoteric writing – i.e., a style that targeted only singular individuals, while concealing their true views from the regular reader. They did this for two reasons. First, they wanted to protect themselves and their fellow philosophers from the fury of the masses. Philosophers did not always wish for everyone to know what their opinions were. Second, even during periods where there was relative freedom of belief, the philosophers did not always want to share their real views, for fear that the masses might actually become convinced. Usually, the philosophical views undermine social conventions and accepted norms. The philosophers themselves realized that there have to be some generally accepted social norms, for the sake of social order. If the masses were to discover that not every procedure and custom is anchored in a divine command, they may come to scorn morality, perhaps even degenerating to anarchy. For this reason the philosophers concealed their true opinions and refrained from publicly undermining the absolute validity of the social order. They merely hinted at their positions, with the hope that some exceptional individuals would understand.


In the wake of Strauss's theory, the esoteric interpretation of the Rambam has become widespread in the academic world.[1] In general, the adherents of this interpretation argue that the Rambam concealed his true opinion on various matters, and that this is indicated by the internal contradictions in the Guide. For example, the esoteric interpreters would argue that the Rambam truly believed that the world is eternal – i.e., that it has always existed, and was not created by God. Although the Rambam writes explicitly that the world was created, this is merely – according to this view – an instance of his esoteric technique. To cite another example, they argue that the Rambam did not really believe in the resurrection of the dead, though he wrote explicitly that he did believe in it; this, too, is interpreted as a manifestation of esoteric writing.


Commentators and scholars of the Rambam who maintain a traditional religious approach are usually critical of the esoteric interpretation. How is it possible that the Rambam, the greatest of Jewish sages, who devoted ten years of his life to the writing of the Mishneh Torah, would regard a large portion of Jewish traditional beliefs as mere propaganda to be fed to the masses? It is possible that the Rambam lied to us concerning his true beliefs?


Moreover, the esoteric view suffers from a fundamental flaw which, I believe, is critical in this context. This view allows one to say anything one chooses about the Rambam's real opinions. We might say that the Rambam actually believed that the world is perched on the backs of three green turtles, but chose to hide this from us. If one does not believe that an author has written his true opinion, then one is completely free to interpret his writings as one wishes. There is no way to argue with a person who maintains the esoteric view; regarding any proof that one might bring against him, he would insist that this only serves to show how skillfully the philosopher managed to hide his real views.


It is important to understand in what way the esoteric approach is revolutionary. It is clear to everyone that at times the Rambam wanted to hide his true belief; he states this explicitly.[2]The question is: how did he go about doing so? We have already seen that in his discussion of the ma'aseh merkava in Yechezkel, the Rambam suffices with brief hints which only a reader who is sensitive to philosophical ideas will pick up. This is an example of the means which the Rambam employs in order to conceal his real message from those who should not be exposed to it. The esoteric approach, on the other hand, argues that the Rambam employs another major means of concealment: deceit. In their view, the Rambam deliberately wrote things which he himself did not believe, and he then hinted elsewhere that these were not his true views. Traditional commentators distance themselves from this approach, which is problematic both hermeneutically and morally.[3]


Opponents of the esoteric approach generally propose limiting the scope of the contradictions arising from the seventh cause enumerated by the Rambam. However, a different solution was recently proposed by Prof. Yair Lorberbaum. He argues that we should re-examine the Rambam's words concerning the seventh cause of contradictions. According to his interpretation, what the Rambam is saying has nothing to do with esoteric writing.[4] He also posits that the Rambam is not saying anything at all about concealing his true opinion. He talks about "matters that are extremely profound, of which some of their discussion must be concealed" – but he never says that the reason for this concealment is related to social problems, etc. Lorberbaum therefore argues that the Rambam refers here to the dialectical manner of expression, each time emphasizing a different aspect, owing to the limitations of the human intellect. There are some subjects in which our logic is incapable of reaching an unequivocal solution, and owing to methodological reasons it is necessary to treat an argument in one way in some places, while treating it in the opposite way elsewhere. This manner of discussion creates apparent contradictions in the book, but the real reason for this is the inability of the intellect to decide the matter one way or the other.


Whether or not we accept this interpretation, Lorberbaum has succeeded in highlighting a very major weakness in Leo Strauss's argument. Strauss applied the "esoteric writing" approach to the works of many different philosophers. (His students, incidentally, argue that his own writings should also be read in this way.) But in a certain sense, his entire theory rests on what the Rambam says here, in his "seventh cause" – since this is a major source representing a philosopher's own open declaration that he has adopted the path of concealment and esoteric writing. In this sense (among others), Strauss's argument rests on shaky foundations. If we arrive at a different understanding of the Rambam's "seventh cause," the entire basis for the "esoteric writing" theory is undermined.


There are contradictions in the Guide. The riddle of its literary structure continues to challenge its readers. There is no doubt that the Rambam did try to conceal some of his messages. To this end, he used various literary devices. However, it is difficult to accept that deceit was one of them.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] The esoteric view of the Guide is far from being a completely new concept. Some of the earliest, classical commentators on the Guide adopted this position at times. However, the systematic adoption of this approach, its scope, and its hegemony are new phenomena.

[2] Likewise, there is no doubt that many other thinkers concealed their view on certain subjects. An excellent example is to be found in Ramban's commentary on the Torah, where his views in the realm of Kabbala are couched in hints and allusions which only scholars of Kabbala are able to decipher.

[3] See, for example, Y. Tzvi Langermann: "A clear distinction should be drawn between the concealment of sensitive matters, or alluding to them in an elusive and sophisticated way, and a transparent lie. Philosophers such as Maimonides were indeed inclined to reveal much less than they left concealed, when it came to sensitive matters… but they did not present a false picture; they did not propose, simply and innocently, ideas which they knew to be without any foundation… An 'official' lie, a lie which is disseminated knowingly by bodies and institutions, with the deliberate purpose of misleading people, is among the plagues of our own era. It does not belong to the religious literature of the Middle Ages, and it has no bearing on or place in Maimonides' discourse" (Y.Z. Langermann, "Sugiot Astronomiot be-Machshevet ha-Rambam", Da'at 37, 5756, p. 118).

[4] Y. Lorberbaum, "'Ha-Siba ha-Shevi'it,' Al ha-Setirot be-'Moreh Nevukhim' – Iyun me-Chadash," Tarbiz 69 (2), 5760, pp. 211-237.