Mai­monides and the Book That Changed Judaism: Secrets of The Guide for the Perplexed”

Mic­ah Good­man; Yedidya Sin­clair, trans.
  • Review
By – July 10, 2015

Mic­ah Good­man has tak­en up the chal­lenge of ren­der­ing this clas­sic of Jew­ish phi­los­o­phy more acces­si­ble, but it will nev­er be total­ly acces­si­ble. By design, Mai­monides left his guide filled with leaps and con­tra­dic­tions and cloaked rev­e­la­tions, dar­ing his read­ers to make con­nec­tions, resolve or at least med­i­tate on the con­tra­dic­tions, and expose what means and beliefs has been disguised.

Goodman’s way is to regroup the guide’s scat­tered argu­ments and propo­si­tions and proofs into a kind of coher­ence that will release more of its pow­er and bring out the rela­tion­ships between the Rambam’s main con­cerns and 21st cen­tu­ry life.

Also, by inject­ing copi­ous ref­er­ences to the Rambam’s oth­er major work, Mish­neh Torah, Good­man widens our under­stand­ings of the great thinker’s inten­tions, range, wis­dom, and bound­less curiosity.

Those famil­iar with the ten­ants and meth­ods of Jacque Derrida’s decon­struc­tion move­ment in twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry lit­er­ary crit­i­cism will find some affini­ties between it and Goodman’s achieve­ment — and the achieve­ment of Mai­monides as well.

Mai­monides abhorred the infan­til­ism of lit­er­al read­ings of the bib­li­cal text that main­tained anthro­po­mor­phic under­stand­ings of God. Bring­ing the unknow­able and unfath­omable per­fec­tion down to human scale robs the human seek­er of true glimpses of the divine.

Mai­monides also, as Good­man clear­ly and pow­er­ful­ly points out, encour­aged seek­ers to cast off inher­it­ed notions and habits of mind. He also insist­ed on the inabil­i­ty of lan­guage to cap­ture the true nature of God. More­over, he argued that the per­plex­i­ty that could lead peo­ple to despair was an inevitable con­di­tion: one must learn to live with and through it rather than to over­come it.

The pat­tern that Good­man achieves by decon­struct­ing and recon­struct­ing the guide cre­ates a text in three parts: God, Torah, and Per­plex­i­ty. A total of eigh­teen chap­ters (plus a con­clu­sion) fill the three parts in an extreme­ly ser­vice­able pro­gres­sion, link­ing insight to insight and alter­nat­ing doubts and proofs.

The build­ing blocks in the sec­tion on God are inquiries into the con­cepts of prophe­cy, prov­i­dence, and redemp­tion. The sec­tion on Torah takes up the issue of the scripture’s divin­i­ty, the pur­pose of mitzvot, and how human beings may inter­act with Torah on the path to their nev­er-to-be-real­ized per­fec­tion. The dis­cus­sion of per­plex­i­ty explores the role of doubt, the dan­gers of dog­ma­tism, tra­di­tion, and even reason.

Goodman’s book, a guide to The Guide, is an aston­ish­ing achieve­ment. There can be no Mai­monides for Dum­mies, and thus Goodman’s pre­sen­ta­tion will chal­lenge his read­ers might­i­ly. It is a chal­lenge very much worth taking.

Acknowl­edg­ments, index, intro­duc­tion, notes.

Relat­ed Content:

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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