The Secrets of ‘Guide to the Perplexed’

In the introduction to the most important book in Jewish philosophy, the Rambam asks the reader to swear not to share its secrets with others. In this way, the Rambam hoped that his philosophy would not be taught by intermediaries. However, since this work was published, his students and interpreters have continually violated his instructions. Dr. Micah Goodman, who is currently completing the first book in Hebrew that is completely dedicated to the Guide to the Perplexed, explains why he also chose to reveal its secrets

In the introduction to the most important book in Jewish philosophy, the Rambam asks the reader to swear not to share its secrets with others. In this way, the Rambam hoped that his philosophy would not be taught by intermediaries. However, since this work was published, his students and interpreters have continually violated his instructions. Dr. Micah Goodman, who is currently completing the first book in Hebrew that is completely dedicated to the Guide to the Perplexed, explains why he also chose to reveal its secrets.

 
In recent years, more than a few books have been written on the various issues in the philosophy of the Rambam, and numerous studies have been done on the wide variety of subjects examined in Guide to the Perplexed, such as politics, mysticism and halakha. However, there have surprisingly not been any books in Hebrew that deal with Guide to the Perplexed itself, and certainly not in its entirety. Although there have been important and in-depth books written in recent years on the Rambam himself, which contain chapters on Guide to the Perplexed, it is hard not to be amazed that in the last generation not one comprehensive book in Hebrew has been written on the most important work in Jewish philosophy.
 
My book, entitled: The Place of Doubt – The Story of Guide to the Perplexed (a working title), is highly ambitious. It offers a thorough reading of all the main subjects in Guide to the Perplexed, in a way that will challenge scholars yet will be accessible and interesting to the general public.
 

A page from a manuscript of the Guide to the Perplexed (14th century) from Der Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen (Wikipedia)
 
In my opinion, two types of readers are likely to be interested in the book: those who are interested in the content and secrets of Guide to the Perplexed, and those who are interested in the big questions of human existence and the ideas to be found in the Rambam’s great work.
 
“The Place of Doubt” presents the Guide’s views on a series of basic questions: Part I deals with the existence of God and, in addition, the question of how God’s greatness does not empty religion of meaning. Part II deals with the question of who wrote the Torah and the reasons for the commandments. Part III deals with the question of perplexity, i.e., the place of doubt and its healing function. Part III concludes with a midrash that brings together Guide to the Perplexed with the perplexity revealed in the post-ideological and skeptical era of the 21st century.
 
Two additional questions exist in the background to most of the book’s discussions. The first deals with how one should live: in the Rambam’s opinion, a man’s life is his greatest creation, and therefore one should ask what kind of life he should create for himself. The second question is a political one which seeks to clarify the conditions for the creation of a whole society and what kind of state it is worthwhile creating.
 
The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon) believed in the existence of a secret, and that the life of man is measured by his success in coming close to that secret. This secret is the body of knowledge that is exalted and inaccessible, exposure to which constitutes the purpose of life. The movement towards this secret can last for many years, but reaching the destination ends the mental suffering of the individual and the political distress of a society. This knowledge redeems.
 
This secret knowledge functions not only as a redemptive force from a personal and spiritual viewpoint but also has a social function. If in the world of the priests, the closed-off portions of the Temple – the kodesh and the kodesh ha’kodeshim – reflected the social hierarchy, then in the intellectual world of the Rambam, it is access to closed-off knowledge that defines the social hierarchy and the importance of each individual, rather than the access to closed-off spaces. According to the Rambam, there was a small group in the ancient world that possessed a monopoly on knowledge. Following a series of historic catastrophes, the secret-holders were lost and with them the secret itself. Only hundreds of years later did the Rambam, according to his own testimony, recreate the lost secret.
 
The Rambam believed that his function in history is to pass the secret down, to decipher it and nonetheless to preserve it as a secret. That is the reason for the writing of Guide to the Perplexed, which contains this exalted body of knowledge. The book, which was written during the period 1187-91 when the Rambam was in his early fifties, brings together the Rambam’s philosophical principles and is considered to be one of the high points of his creative career. Through a complicated system of code, the Rambam concealed what he viewed as the great philosophical secret of Judaism. The book changed Jewish philosophy beyond recognition and for the last eight hundred years researchers, philosophers and commentators have been trying to decipher it.
 
In the introduction to Guide to the Perplexed, in which he shares with the reader many of his techniques for concealment, the Rambam concludes in a surprising way: he asks the reader who feels he has successfully deciphered the secrets and achieved the redemptive knowledge to swear not to share the secrets with other people. The Rambam asks that his philosophy not be taught by intermediaries. He tried to create a world in which there are no classes in Guide to the Perplexed, nor even any commentaries, research or books written on it. Someone who wants to understand the secrets of the Rambam is asked to do so only directly through the text.
 
The hundreds of books and thousands of research studies and lectures that have been written on Guide to the Perplexed are proof that the Rambam failed in his attempt to control his readers. The oath of the Rambam has been violated in each and every generation. There are those who justified this from a halakhic point of view, since an oath that does not have the agreement of both sides is not valid. There were those who claimed that books have already been written which reveal the secrets of the “Guide” and therefore the dike has already been breached and the pledge is no longer valid. Perhaps this was an intellectual passion that burned in the hearts of the book’s readers and motivated them to release themselves from the chains of the oath and to decipher his secrets. In any case, my book also deals with the secrets of the Guide to the Perplexed and joins a long tradition of oath-breaking. Nonetheless, the ambition of the book – to lay out before the intelligent reader the secrets of Guide to the Perplexed – constitutes one of the most blatant violations of the oath until now. In view of this declaration, it may be that some readers will decide to stay away from my book and thus remain faithful to the Rambam. Nevertheless, it is possible that Rabbi Shmuel ibn Tibon, one of the Rambam’s students, was right in believing that the knowledge in Guide to the Perplexed was perhaps worth preserving as a secret in the generation of the Rambam, but that in generations after him there is a deep educational need to indeed expose it.
 
Dr. Micah Goodman teaches Jewish Thought at Hebrew University, is a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and is head of the Ein Prat Midrasha. His book on Guide to the Perplexed will be published by Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir Publishing. 
 
  

add a comment