History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

The Guide to the Perplexed.

Religion and Philosophy.

Now for a brief survey of Maimonides' greatest work, "Guide to the Perplexed." It was addressed directly to his pupil, Joseph Aknin, and was intended only for the thinking few, perplexed by some apparent contradictions between the Bible and the current philosophy. To quote one of its introductory sentences: — "My theory aims at pointing out a straight way. Ye who have gone astray in the field of the Holy Law, come hither and follow the path which I have prepared." Its purpose was to make clear the essential harmony between the concepts of God and the soul as taught by Revelation and the conclusions about the universe taught by metaphysics. It is, then, a reconciliation between religion and philosophy between faith and reason.

So universal problems are here fully discussed — God's omniscience and man's free-will; the existence of evil and the inherent goodness of the world and many other apparent contradictions of life.

Just as Philo endeavored to reconcile Judaism with Neo-Platonism, the prevailing philosophy of his day, so now Maimonides, a scholar with a profounder grasp of Judaism, endeavored to harmonize it with the teaching of Aristotle, the dominant system of thought in his time.

He first treats both Judaism and philosophy as emanations of the divine spirit. Revelation to him includes both. The rabbis had said that the Oral Law (as contained in the Mishna) had been revealed on Mount Sinai as well as the Written Law (Pentateuch) — why not also philosophy? He further said the human mind at its highest can think out for itself what was revealed at Sinai, and can reach the stage of prophecy without supernatural aid. (Jehuda Halevi took the opposite posit. on — Revelation and Prophecy to him were superior be cause supernatural, while philosophy because dependent on human Reason, was fallible).


So far the introduction. He begins the work proper by laying emphasis on God as pure spirit. Therefore, all biblical anthropomorphisms, i.e., all instances where Scripture speaks of God in a human way are explained by him as symbolic expressions of philosophic ideas. He defines God as the Principle of all Essences, the First Cause, the Ever-active Intellect.

Next as to God's nature. The Bible ascribes attributes to Him. These are not really divine qualities, but only our human attempt to explain the quality of His actions. For God cannot have equalities; they belong only to finite beings and imply limitations. They only express comparative degrees between beings of similar character. A man is good or wise compared with another not as intelligent or as worthy. But God is unlimited, alone, supreme, incomparable. We can speak of His existence — no more.

So far the declaration of God's being; next to prove it (as far as it can be proved). Behind the existing moving universe there must be a permanent Being, setting all in motion without being part of that motion. In this First Being power and action are simultaneous without an intervening step. In God alone they are one

Spirit and Matter.

The bridging of the gulf from infinite to finite, from spirit to matter, from God to the world, had always been a baffling problem. Even Maimonides, rationalist though he is, drops into mysticism here. He imagines nine heavenly spheres, each with a directing soul, an intellect. The highest sphere is the first Intelligence — direct emanation from the First Cause, God. These emanations pass down through groups of spheres until the lowest sphere is reached. Here we come to the active intellect — the world of man. Thus the gradual descent from spirit to matter is attained. From pure spirit comes intellect; from coarse matter, sin. The angels of the Bible are the intelligences of philosophy; thus he sought to harmonize Scripture with the philosophy of Aristotle.

We may be surprised that so sober and rational a mind as Maimonides should imagine the heavenly spheres as endowed with souls! But the era of science had not yet dawned. What knew the world of his day of natural law, of spectrum analysis? Had it not yet to wait four hundred years before Galileo would demonstrate that the earth moves, and he was imprisoned even for making the assertion.


Next, Maimonides' theory of man. He is both matter and spirit in varying degrees. His soul steadily expands as he uses his knowledge to conquer his frailties. For the soul is, as it were, a spiritual stage which we gradually attain in our growth upward. By freedom of will divinely granted to all we can rise intellectually and morally to the degree of the angels. This highest attainable stage is prophecy — communion with God. In its most exalted degree it was attained only by Moses.

Every human being may become a prophet by earnest energy of mind and heart. To attain prophecy is to win immortahty. Therefore, the punishment of those who make no efifort to expand the mind and who yield without a struggle to the lust of the senses, is oblivion, the loss of future life.

Evil, then, he teaches, is not a positive entity; it is simply the failure of man to reach the perfect standard of right. This disposes at once of a Devil, a positive spirit of evil.


He accepted the authenticity and authority of the Scripture, but claimed the right of his own interpretation. He discerned an outer meaning for the multitude, an inner meaning for the penetrating few. That has always been a popular notion.

Perhaps at times he went a little far in expounding Bible teachings on philosophic lines. For example, some of its early stories he treats as abstract ideas in the form of incidents. Adam's three sons are the three divisions of man — vegetable, animal, intellectual. Jacob's wrestling and Balaam's speaking ass are explained away as visions. Adam's sin marks the relations between sensation and moral faculty. (This may recall the explanation of Scripture allegorically by the Alexandrian school in Philo's day.)

He was no blind follower of Aristotle — certainly not when it was a question between Scripture and the Greek master. So he rejected the philosophic theory of "the eternity of matter," for the teaching of Genesis that God created it. Here he followed Ibn Daud. In fact, he parts company with philosophy and stands wholly on religious ground in declaring that everything exists by God's will.

He reveals at once his faith and optimism in teaching that every precept in the Torah was intended to further the physical and spiritual welfare of man. Man is the object of creation and his happiness the ultimate aim of divine law. God imposes nothing arbitrary. Some Mosaic laws that do not reflect the highest phase of civilization are improved modifications of institutions so universally prevalent in the age of Moses that the time for abolition was not yet ripe. He regards, for example, animal sacrifice as such a concession to prevailing practice. We might add to this group slavery and polygamy.

Thus, throughout, Judaism's dogmas are presented as harmonizing with the ripest thought of the twelfth century and Judaism's law as rational, logical, benevolent and uplifting.

Influence of "The Guide."

The "Guide to the Perplexed" gave a new impetus to Jewish thought and a decided status to Jewish theology; Judaism was henceforth regarded as a philosophy as well as a law.

It was a guide to the perplexities of his day; and, though scientific investigation has changed our theory of the universe, it remains in many respects a guide to the perplexities of ours. The salutary influence of the work and the man was felt throughout the whole Jewish world. Nay, further — like Gabirol's "Source of Life", it did missionary work among the Gentiles. Once more "from Zion went forth the Law." Translated from Arabic to Hebrew (Moreh Nebuchim), it was re-translated from Hebrew to Latin; studied by the greatest of the scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages, Albertus Magnus, Duns Scotus, and chiefly by Thomas Aquinas, it largely influenced Christian thought.


So far a general outline of these three great works. but some quotations from them and from his miscellaneous writings may give us a better insight into his great mind and ethical outlook:

"The dietary laws", he declared, "are only sanitary laws." (We would not say "only" to-day. They had a sanctifying purpose, too). And he here uses his medical knowledge to offer valuable suggestions about physical exercise. He said simple laws of health should be a part of every one's education. He strongly condemned asceticism. Here he dealt a blow at the fasting hermits so numerous in his time.

Again he tells us: "We should dress up to our means, but eat below our means." His word on all things is essentially rational; he is that or nothing. "Prayers should be simple and brief." When his enemies said, "the essence of faith is blind obedience," he replied: "Yes, the faith of a fool." "Judaism's verification depends not on miracles." Again: "We hear too much of unions in Israel, let us hear more of union." When asked why he always looked toward the future he replied: "Because my eyes are in front."

But he had to answer skeptics as well as believers. We might almost think that he had to confront the doctrine of evolution when he said: "We do not remove the wonders of creation by pushing it back to the creation of an atom." He, too, realized the danger of indifference, for he preferred a sin done in innocent sincerity to a divine command fulfilled carelessly. He fought hard against formalism and superstition. As to the Hereafter, he ridicules the sensual heaven of the Moslem and the cruel hell of the Christian. "The future life for the good is not a garden of Eden of worldly pleasure enjoyed in idleness, with diamonds, couches and wines, nor for the bad is it a consuming fire." "He who asks what shall be my reward if I obey is still like the child who studies for a cake."

His Estimate of Christianity.

Of Christianity he said: "It has done more to spread abroad the Bible than Judaism itself; wherever it carried trade it carried the Bible, doing Jewish work with non-Jewish hands." How liberal and how true! This remark the Gentile censors struck out of his work. Why? They did not want it to be known how broad and tolerant Jewish teachers were. For the same reason, they struck out the famous line in the Talmud: "The righteous of all creeds shall inherit future life." The persecution of the Jews has taken many subtle forms.

His keen mind discerned the distinction between custom and law; and he drew a sharp line between the true science of astronomy and the false science of astrology.

His Ethical Will.

Here are some extracts from his last will to his son: A will that bequeaths valuable counsel is called an ethical will — a kind of will that is never disputed in the law courts:

"Serve God with love: fear only preventeth sin, but love stimulateth to do good."

"Accustom yourself to good morals, for the nature of man dependeth upon habit, and habit taketh root in nature."

"Conduct yourself with care and with honor."

"When you ask a question or reply to one, be not rash; speak in choice language, in a pure tongue, in a moderate voice and strictly to the subject, as one who seeketh to learn and who searcheth for truth and not as one who quarreleth and is eager for victory."

"Let truth, by which you may apparently lose, be more acceptable unto you than falsehood and injustice by which you may apparently profit."

"I have found no remedy for the faltering of the heart like the pursuit of truth and justice."

"Keep firm to your word; let not document, witness or actual possession be stronger in your sight than a verbal promise."

"Keep far from subterfuges, pretexts, sharp practice, flaws and evasions; woe to him who buildeth his house upon them."

"Discern the value of forbearance and you will be holy in the eyes of your enemies."

"There is no nobility like morality and no inheritance like faithfulness."


A delightful book on Maimonides, by Abrahams and Yellin, has been issued by the Jewish Publication Society of America.

Translations of "Guide to the Perplexed":—Into Hebrew, by Samuel Tibbon — the Moreh Nebuchim. Two into Latin — one by Buxtorf. Into English, by Dr. M. Friedlander, Bloch PubHshing Co.

Philosophic Problems:—An intermediary link between the perfect God and the finite world was posited by Philo in the Logos; it was expressed again by Gabirol, and we shall meet it further expanded in the Kabala.

Nearly all writings on Jewish philosophy since our author's day centre around the "Moreh."

Our author is referred to sometimes as Maimuni. sometimes as Maimonides (son of Maimonides) and also, after his initials, as Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon). Many of Rambam's letters, unearthed from the geniza at Cairo are now extant.

For friendly relations between Jews and Christians, read Jewish Life in Middle Ages, I. Abrahams, pp. 413-414.

Theme for Discussion:—Why did Maimonides write his Summary of Jewish Law in Hebrew and his Philosophy in Arabic?