Maimonides: A Guide for Today's Perplexed
By Kenneth Seeskin
Behrman House, Inc., 1991, 135 pages
ISBN 13: 978-0-87441-509-4
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - September 22, 2009
Kenneth Seeskin, Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Northwestern University, recognizes that Maimonides classic book on philosophy The Guide of the Perplexed is difficult reading for most people. It is long; made up of three books with 178 chapters. Secondly, Maimonides never intended that an insufficiently educated general audience should read it. He expected that his readers knew the sacred books of Judaism, the classics of Greek philosophy and the commentaries written on these classics. The third problem is that this book was composed in the twelfth century when science was radically different than it is today. Seeskin states that he intends to make Maimonides clear to modern readers. He does so by writing in clear English and by clarifying each point with examples from modern life.
What is idol worship?
Maimonides contends that the Torah considers idolatry to be the most reprehensible wrong. It is another name for ignorance, for disregarding what is rational. People can only worship God when they abandon superstition and other forms of ignorance and seek to understand God and the universe in a rational way. In a word, Maimonides felt that Judaism is a religion that teaches the truth. If people think that the Jewish faith is a belief system for which there is no supporting evidence, only blind reliance on tradition, they are wrong; this is not Judaism. This Maimonidean teaching becomes clear when we understand several of his ideas.
God has no body and human functions
Seeskin begins his book, as does Maimonides in his Guide, by stating that God has no physical form and does not act like a human being. Since God has no eyes, feet, and mouth, God does not see, move about or speak. When the Torah uses such terms as God looking, going up and down, coming near, speaking, and creating humans in the divine image, Scripture is speaking figuratively. The Bible does not intend that these words be taken literally because if they were taken literally, they would be describing a God with a body or doing an act that implies that God has a body.
As in English, God "looking" in the Bible does not mean that God has eyes, it should be understood as thinking, as in "I see your point." When the prophet Isaiah says in chapter 6 that he saw God, he means that he understood something about God. Similarly, when the Bible states that God "comes down," it means that there is a divine revelation, and "going up" means that the revelation ended, as in "she moved on to higher mathematics." God did not move. When Scripture writes that God is "coming near" it means that the person begins to understand, as in "the doctors are getting closer and closer to finding a cure." When a prophet hears God "speaking," he is thinking that he understands what God wants him to do. God has no mouth. The statement that humans are created in "God's image" does not imply that God has a physical form, but that humans are given intelligence. Thus the relationship between humans and God is not physical, but intellectual.
What can humans know about God and how should God be worshipped?
If God has no body, how can people describe God? Maimonides insists that it is impossible for humans to know anything about God. God is unlike anything here on earth. He is not like humans at all. When people speak about God knowing or God being all-powerful, they are saying something that is wrong. All we can do is confess ignorance.
If all biblical descriptions of God should be understood as figures of speech and if we cannot know anything about God, how can we worship God? Maimonides explains that while we cannot know God we can know what effect God has upon the earth and humans. We are unable to know if God is just and merciful; however, we are able to read in the Torah how God can cause justice and mercy to occur. This is really all we need to know about God, that God causes good, and we should copy these attributes of God and also act to produce good results. Thus Judaism is not a religion that encourages passive philosophical thinking about God, it is a practical and active religion that teaches true ideas about the world and helps improve individuals and society.
One of the ways that people can "copy" divine behavior is to remember that the Bible begins by teaching that people are created in God's image. Thus one human duty, indeed the paramount human duty, is to "copy" God by not accepting ideas simply because people claim that something is true; people have a duty to think rationally.
Seeskin stresses that Maimonides was opposed to religious fundamentalism; people must use their reason; this is what God wants. This is the implication of people being created in the "divine image."
How was the world created?
Since we cannot know anything about God other than the consequences of the divine acts, what can we know about how the world came into being? The Torah seems to say that God created the world out of nothing. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato claimed that God formed the world from pre-existing matter. His student Aristotle said that both God and the world existed for eternity. Some scholars are convinced that Maimonides was unable to decide between these three views. Maimonides states explicitly that if he wanted he could read the Bible as expressing any of the three views. "In fact," Seeskin writes, "he is so open minded about it that some scholars think he is actually committed to a version of the Aristotelian position." Seeskin himself thinks that Maimonides preferred the Platonic view.
Do miracles occur?
Should the biblical accounts of miracles be understood literally? Seeskin notes that Maimonides is not altogether clear on this issue. He describes some biblical miracles as dreams and others as really part of the natural order. People viewing an unusual event might think that it is not natural – such as a twelfth century man seeing a plane flying in the air. While Seeskin is correct that Maimonides is unclear whether miracles occur, other scholars say that Maimonides is hinting that all "miracles" fall into one of these two categories, but he does not say this explicitly because he did not want to offend or confuse those people who felt strongly that God interferes with nature and performs miracles.
Does the universe contain evil? Maimonides answers, "No." Some things in nature appear to be evil but are not. It is impossible to have a universe without the imperfections inherent in material things. When a mountain is washed with rain, the rocks that compose the mountain will be eaten away. When the sun shines on part of the earth, the other part will be dark. When a doctor saves a person's life with surgery, the person will experience pain. This is the nature of this world. The eaten away rocks, the darkness and pain are not evil; they are the natural consequences of having a universe.
Why do good people suffer? Maimonides states that God is not behind misfortunes; suffering may come from one of three sources. The first is the one just described. The individual suffers because of the laws of nature. A wind or hurricane blows and harms a person. The second is the harm that people do to themselves, such as by laziness, greed or self-deception. The third is the harm that some people inflict on other people, such as cruelty, murder, robbery and injustice. Maimonides adds that people need to understand that the universe does not revolve around people. We do not know and cannot know why God created the world, but it seems clear that it was not focused on humans who make up a very small part of the world.
What is prophecy? Maimonides describes three positions. The first, the one held by most people, is that prophecy is supernatural. God chooses the person to speak to. The human has no choice in the matter and he or she may be smart or ignorant, rich or poor. The second is a natural view: prophecy is a natural event; it is a higher level of intelligence; only a highly intelligent and well-learned person can be a prophet. God is not involved. The third notion is called a compromise. It is the Maimonidean view. It accepts the second position that prophecy is a higher level of intelligence, but says that while God does not instigate it, God can stop it.
Scholars debate what Maimonides understood by his statement that God can stop prophecy. Seeskin takes Maimonides' words literally, although an individual has attained the level of prophecy and wants to communicate his or her ideas, God may not concur and may stop the prophet from speaking. However, others, such as Joseph ibn Caspi, say that God is not involved at all. He understands that Maimonides is saying that even the most intelligent person will be unable to express an understanding/prophecy if that person is ill or depressed. By saying "God can stop prophecy," Maimonides meant what he said at the end of the section on prophecy, in 2:48: many actions are ascribed to God even though the act is not directly done by God, but is simply the result of natural laws, but they are ascribed to God because God is the ultimate cause of everything, since God created the world and its laws of nature.
What kind of intelligence does a prophet need? A prophet must have both a keen understanding of the world and the imagination of how to implement what he or she understands. The prophet must also be virtuous. A person who only has one of these attributes will not be able to help improve people and society.
The Torah commands
Since prophecy is obtained through intelligence (and can only be stopped but not started by God, according to Seeskin), then, Seeskin writes, the Torah commands must also be the result of the natural use of intelligence. Yet all are divine in the sense that they contribute to human excellence.
Most Jews today and yesterday thought that they must obey God's commands even if they are irrational simply because God as king demanded that they be obeyed. Maimonides rejected this view. He wrote that all the Torah commands, without exception, are rational and have one or more of three purposes. They (1) teach true ideas, (2) help society, and (3) provide for an individual's physical or mental health. Since the goal of the commands is best achieved when people understand why they are acting, it follows that the proper way to observe the commands is to understand why they were instituted, teach this understanding to others and act in a rational way with others. Maimonides understood that most people are unable to do this.
Contrary to the method of study of most people today who feel that they have fulfilled the obligation of Torah study if they simply read the Torah at least in the synagogue without understanding it, as if the Torah were prayers, Maimonides felt that Torah must be studied carefully. He even said that only a person who has mastered secular subjects, such as philosophy and science, can decipher the wisdom in the Torah. A fervent recital of the basic biblical statement "Here Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one" twice a day places the Jew within the community of monotheists, but without study and understanding, the recital does not clarify what the community is committed to and how individuals can help themselves and others.
Maimonides recognized that some biblical commands were developed to wean the people away from idolatry (teach true ideas) and others were instituted because of the needs of people, for example God has absolutely no need for sacrifices, but the Torah allowed them as a concession because the ancient Israelites felt that this was the way to worship and show love to God.
In his appendix, Seeskin mentions that the Maimonidean scholar Leo Strauss put heavy emphasis on the talmudic prohibition against teaching esoteric matters publicly. Therefore Strauss concluded that Maimonides hid his true ideas in the Guide and that Maimonides real message is given in hints and clues. Seeskin writes that his approach is the opposite; he assumes that the Guide was written just like any other book of philosophy.
The difference in the two approaches was shown above in how Seeskin and ibn Caspi interpret prophecy and how Seeskin and others see Maimonides' view on miracles. It can also be seen in the fact that Seeskin ascribes to the generally accepted notion that Maimonides thought that all thirteen of his famous thirteen principles of Judaism are correct, while other scholars insist that he only considered a few of them to be correct.