Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 135
“From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses” is a famous phrase that indicates something of Maimonides’ place of importance in Jewish thought. The First Moses represents the origin of the great Jewish religious tradition and the Jewish Law. The Second Moses stands for an attempt to reconcile this inherited tradition with the growing Arabian and Western philosophy and culture that were being absorbed in the eleventh century.
Intellectuals of his age were perplexed by the disparity between the Law, which meant so much to them, and the philosophical sophistication they could not resist acquiring. For them, Maimonides provided The Guide of the Perplexed, as well as a new summary of the Law, both of which were so successful that they have become classics in the religious tradition as well as in secular philosophy.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433
Maimonides addressed The Guide of the Perplexed to those who had studied philosophy and had acquired knowledge and who “while firm in religious matters are perplexed and bewildered on account of the ambiguous and figurative expressions employed in holy writings.” Moses’ audience was from the beginning firmly committed to its religious tradition; but now that philosophy had penetrated religion, the question was never one as to whether religion should be maintained but only how it was to handle its philosophical content. Maimonides wrote for those whose religious roots were deep and who had held to religious practice: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.
It is not difficult to see why such people were “lost in perplexity and anxiety,” caught in tensions they could not easily resolve. Their religious training was too deeply ingrained even to consider surrendering it, and yet the new sophistication made philosophy naturally attractive. It is not that such people had for the first time become intellectuals—because as Jews, they had inherited a long and subtle intellectual tradition—but that formerly reason had worked only within the Law, and afterward, philosophy took this same reason outside the Law and offered it new and alien foundations. This was the general cause for concern, but The Guide for the Perplexed focuses on the particular problem of trying to explain certain words in Scripture central to the religious tradition whose common interpretation sets them at odds with philosophical refinements. Reason never ceased to accept the Law, but it found it difficult to accept any teaching based on a literal interpretation of the Law.
Furthermore, the perplexity had to be met by finding a way to live with it, because to surrender either the Law or the newly found philosophy was unacceptable. Maimonides’ attempt is never to try to remove the source of the anxiety, as might seem natural, but to try to find a way in which to adapt to it. To surrender religion would mean to break down the context that gave meaning and continuity to Jewish life, but to surrender philosophy would be no service to religion either because it would leave religion still disturbed by the unanswered philosophical questions. To reject philosophy would not remove the objections with which philosophy perplexes religion. Because there could be no escape from perplexity, it had to be met and accepted as the starting point.
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Maimonides’ first step toward meeting this perplexity is the ancient one of suggesting that the offending words in Scripture may also be understood in a figurative sense. Although this is the general line of Maimonides’ reply, he was quick to see that it would provide only temporary relief from perplexity unless backed up by an explanation as to why it was necessary to use figurative language in the first place. This he began to do by explaining that even in natural science, some topics are not fully explained, that most difficult problems cannot be thoroughly understood by any one of us, and that, because people differ in degree of intelligence, truth is withheld from most ordinary people, and, therefore, their objections can be ignored. The necessity for metaphor, it seems, cannot be explained until people are convinced that reason allows only a few to reach great heights, and that even here they must all accept final limitations.
If such is the case, we are forced back to metaphor as the most adequate means available for expressing what we do know. If all obscurity could be removed from the subject, then literal terms could be used without reservation. Because literal description is completely successful only where all tinges of mystery can be removed, the acceptance of metaphorical expression depends upon the existence of some sense of mystery where God is concerned. The purely philosophical mind might have difficulty accepting mystery, even in the case of God, but Maimonides wrote for an overtly religious person, for whom the sense of mystery in the divine nature did not seem at all abnormal.
Maimonides was not fooled into thinking that an allegorical interpretation of religious literature is a full explanation to a philosophical mind. Instead, the intent of this method was to show the philosophical-religious mind that to ask for a complete exposition in these matters is an exorbitant demand. The difficulty of understanding a literal impossibility arises only for the intelligent because the ill-informed do not recognize an impossibility when it appears. Yet intelligent observers who can admit the plausibility of a secret meaning need not reject the difficult religious doctrine at once, because they can treat it allegorically, as well as literally, to see if it may be accepted in this second mode. For Maimonides, the literal meaning was never to be rejected but was always to be retained along with the more subtle metaphorical treatment.
All of this can serve to relieve philosophical perplexity, but, interestingly enough, it can do so only for one made sensitive to the limitations of human reason through a religious tradition. Without the religious sensitivity, no solution can be found. The religiously untrained person simply cannot see the need for metaphorical expression. It takes some acquaintance with God, which only a religious discipline is likely to provide, to convince one of how difficult a matter it is to deal with the divine.
When the mind comprehends one thing, it tends to think that it can comprehend everything, but it is just this view of knowledge that must be guarded against if the metaphorical method is to be successful in dealing with human perplexity. If there are no limitations set for the mind, everything would theoretically be open to literal interpretation. Metaphor can become meaningful when the mind finds that it cannot go everywhere directly. Metaphor is the shortest distance between two points only when the direct path is not open to the human mind.
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Here is the paradox: The religious spirit, which feeds on the sense of the final mystery within the divine nature, leads to perplexity when brought into contact with philosophical optimism and its literal, one-level mode of statement. Yet the only hope for the reconciliation without surrender is that a sense of divine mystery might force one to see that a frontal attack is not possible in the case of God. Thus, allegorical interpretation provides a genuine basis of latitude that alone is generous enough to retain both the religious sense of a divine mystery never fully disclosed, together with a philosophical directness whenever possible.
Such an interpretation of mystery and literalness together, which requires metaphorical expression, opens the way for a genuine meaning for faith. “By faith’ we do not understand merely that which is uttered with the lips, but also that which is apprehended by the soul, the conviction that the object of belief is exactly as it is apprehended.” If God is not directly approachable by literal means, faith always concerns something seen only incompletely through the figure of a symbol. Such belief cannot be compelled; however, if the necessity for indirect approach is admitted in the case of objects exceeding the limits of direct grasp, metaphor becomes meaningful and faith an appropriate and possible way of relating oneself to such a Being. If all things were open to direct knowledge, a relation of faith could only seem unnecessary and inappropriate.
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Metaphor is not a completely successful or controllable means of communication. People can employ only inadequate language where God is concerned, and metaphor is the best method at their disposal, because it allows the mind to get around barriers by subtle and indirect means. “We therefore make the subject clearer, and show to the understanding the way of truth by saying He is one but does not possess the attribute of unity.” This seems to contradict ordinary expression, but by negating part of the phrase in the figurative statement, the sensitive mind passes on to a grasp of God’s nature, which could not be given by direct statement. What we learn from this example is that “we cannot describe the Creator by any means except by negative attributes.” Metaphor and negative theology, then, are natural companions.
Positive assertions about God allow the imagination to mislead one, whereas proof by negation leads one gradually to more perfect knowledge of God. The mystery involved in the divine nature turns the ordinary situation around, so that one can be convinced that certain qualities must be negated, whereas one cannot be as sure of positive attributes as one might be in an ordinary instance. The method of negative attributes is necessary “to direct the mind to the truth that we must believe concerning God,” but it could be adopted only by one who felt the presence of mystery in the divine nature and realized the inappropriateness of frontal attack.
One’s only complete knowledge concerning God, it turns out, “consists in knowing that we are unable truly to comprehend Him.” God alone comprehends himself, and one not made aware of these matters too quickly jumps to the conclusion that people can know nothing about God at all. The truth lies somewhere in between, and it requires the energy of religious interest to keep from slipping into either extreme. God may be approached, but only by indirection. The negative method provides the mind with positive apprehensions of the divine nature but not such that all mystery is removed because God remains never fully comprehended by any being other than himself.
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Thus, Maimonides has provided a context in which perplexity may be stabilized, but it is not a simple solution. He speaks to people whose sense of religious tradition is basic to them, and thus he is able to call on their religious discipline to hold a flexible position that does not go all the way in either direction. The use of metaphor allows the literal meaning of the ordinary religious language to remain, while making room for the more subtle and refined meaning of terms in philosophical usage. A willingness to grant metaphor as legitimate and applicable depends upon an agreement that knowledge reaches its limits at least in the case of God, and it is almost inconceivable that one should allow this limit to be placed on knowledge philosophically unless one had experienced some feeling of the mystery present at the center of the divine nature. Recognizing the difficulty, people employ the negative method to protect them while they look directly into the light, and the knowledge they achieve will not seem contradictory as long as it is regarded as at least partly metaphor and symbol. If people’s religious sense is strong enough to feel this, they can accept metaphor and control the anxiety that philosophical sophistication has brought to them. This is the guide for the perplexed, but only for one whose perplexity stems from a strong religious tradition and its accompanying sense of the mystery encountered whenever the mind is turned toward God.
Turning to Maimonides’ doctrine of nonliteral or metaphorical interpretation, we have to ask what it is that allows such duality of meaning without simple equivocation of terms. Maimonides’ answer is that this is possible only when people deal with a kind of existence not capable of reduction to a single level, and they are not likely to grant this if they have lost all sense of mystery in the divine nature. Philosophy can be counted on to take the mystery out of the natural order, as well it should; but it cannot be asked to provide feeling for the irreducible mystery in the divine nature. The cultivation of the religious life provides the datum on which philosophy applies itself to develop theology—that is, the rational statement of the divine insofar as this is possible. However, if theology is not to become pure philosophy, the devotional life must have provided it with some sensitivity regarding the difficulty of handling God on one’s own terms.
In spite of this rather clear framework and simple objective, the casual modern reader is likely to be struck by the elaborate scholarly nature of much of The Guide of the Perplexed. The opening pages are entirely given over to an exegesis or analysis of the use of certain Hebrew terms, all of which are central to Jewish religious thought. Interspersed is a discussion of the limits of human intellect as well as an appraisal of the value of studying metaphysics. Such a diversity gives a correct picture of the blend of religious thought, scholarly study of concepts, and traditional philosophy that makes up The Guide of the Perplexed. Then follows a consideration of the nature of God and of God’s attributes.
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The scope of The Guide of the Perplexed is as wide as all traditional theology and religious thought. It is by no means simply a piece of philosophical apologetic, as might be thought from its title. Maimonides correctly sees that the only adequate way to provide a guide out of any perplexity is to discuss all the major theological issues. To do so successfully is to provide the best, most substantial guide that can be produced. After considering the traditional attributes of God (such as unity and incorporeality), the second Moses begins part 2 with a discussion of twenty-six propositions employed by philosophers to prove God’s existence.
Next comes the question of creation versus the eternality of the universe, and Maimonides sets forth as best he can the way in which a doctrine of creation ex nihilo can be justified philosophically. Prophecy and the prophets then occupy him, as one might almost guess, for the Jewish tradition demands that prophecy be made acceptable. Visions are discussed, but evil and divine providence are the two central problems in this section. A religious belief in God runs into its greatest philosophical difficulty in trying to reconcile its conception of divinity with the evils and difficulties of the world.
What Maimonides has provided is a comprehensive summa of religious belief and philosophical tradition. Out of this meeting, a theology is born, although its material setting within the literature of Judaism makes it appear less abstract than most modern questions. The Guide of the Perplexed is a vast compendium of philosophical and religious material, which is then given shape through Maimonides’ attempt to draw answers out of this combination. The towering position of influence that he occupies within the Jewish tradition gives some measure of his success.
Philosophy and religion in certain areas treat the same questions, but they do so in different ways and in different settings. When they are kept apart, as they can be in some ages, no conflict arises. Whenever an age becomes generally sophisticated philosophically, perplexity is bound to come. To those who can drop neither perspective, some reconciliation of the two bodies of material must be made. Out of the attempt to reconcile philosophy and religion, each age arrives at a new theological perspective, which has implications for both technical philosophy and the religious life.
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Benor, Ehud. Worship of the Heart: A Study of Maimonides’ Philosophy of Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. Benor explains and evaluates the key points in Moses Maimonides’ philosophical understanding of religion and Judaism in particular.
Botwinick, Aryeh. Skepticism, Belief, and the Modern: Maimonides to Nietzsche. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997. Appraises the contributions and implications of Maimonides’ philosophy for later developments in philosophical criticism and religious belief.
Buijs, Joseph A., ed. Maimonides: A Collection of Critical Essays. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988. Well-qualified Maimonides scholars offer helpful interpretations and criticisms of Maimonides’ philosophy.
Dodds-Weinstein, Idit. Maimonides and Saint Thomas on the Limits of Reason. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. Compares and contrasts two great medieval thinkers on issues concerning reason, revelation, and religion.
Faur, Josâe. “Homo Mysticus: A Guide to Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1999. A helpful aid in understanding Maimonides’ contribution to mysticism.
Fox, Marvin. Interpreting Maimonides: Studies in Methodology, Metaphysics, and Moral Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. A scholarly study of Maimonides’ approaches to and views about the nature of reality and ethics.
Hartman, David. Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1976. Attempts to reconcile Maimonides’ hidden theories with those he openly expounded and integrates Maimonides’ religious views with his philosophical doctrines.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Prophetic Inspiration After the Prophets: Maimonides and Other Medieval Authorities. Edited by Morris M. Faierstein. Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav, 1996. A leading Jewish theologian and philosopher evaluates Maimonides’ contributions to religious tradition and to understandings of revelation in particular.
Kellner, Menachem Marc. Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. Kellner clarifies Maimonides’ influential interpretation of Jewish tradition and the significance of Jewish life.
Strauss, Lev. Philosophy of Law: Contributions to the Understanding of Maimonides and His Predecessors. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. A helpful interpretation of Maimonides’ views on law, ethics, and religious tradition.
Weiss, Raymond L. Maimonides’ Ethics: The Encounter of Philosophic and Religious Morality. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991. An illuminating study that show how Maimonides understood the similarities and differences between the ethical outlooks of philosophy, religion, and Judaism in particular.