Ben Zion Katz, Student’s Companion to The Guide of the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides (Urim Publications, 2021), 156 pp.
From my vantage point, interest in Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhim (Guide of the Perplexed) seems to be increasing. As someone who teaches the Guide online, I note an enduring and growing engagement with Maimonides’ magnum opus among participants across the spectrum of the Jewish world – left, right, and center. More right-wing yeshiva circles have taken up study of the Guide – a book that was traditionally absent from the shelves in the Beit Medrash – as witnessed by the podcast of Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva of Greater Washington. The Guide also fascinates secular Jews, and its popularity has been reinvigorated by Micah Goodman’s recent bestseller, in both Israel and abroad, Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism (JPS, 2015).
This recent uptick in interest in the Guide may be due to a number of factors. Despite Rambam’s anachronistic scientific views – his use of Aristotelian philosophy to explain all of scientific reality both in our world and in the cosmos, views which have long since been debunked and are viewed as primitive and provincial by today’s standards – his overall project of synthesizing and reconciling the science of his day and the depictions of God and the universe made by the Torah and Hazal, is attractive to the 21st-century thinker. As much as religion has been the object of derision in current mass media, many are seeking meaning in their faith while at the same time remaining contemporary in their thinking. Finding this kind of kindred spirit in a medieval giant like Rambam is comforting to someone who wishes to reconcile their Judaism with their modernity. Instead of forcing us to choose between two seemingly opposing systems, Rambam taught us that synthesis was indeed possible. As much as he based his views of the universe on now outdated science, he paved the road for those who would do the same with modern science in the modern world.
Still, the Guide remains a closed book to so many students of Torah because of its daunting but necessary prerequisite knowledge of Aristotelian philosophy. How does someone begin on the long road of tackling the Guide? Fortunately, there’s no shortage of commentary and analysis. In addition to the classical mefarshim, I’m partial to Rabbi Shlomo Toledano’s Dibbur u-Mahashava (Hebrew), a chapter-by-chapter synopsis and analysis, as well as the efforts of many from the scholarly community, such as Alfred Ivry (who also offers a chapter by chapter synopsis in his Guide commentary), Menachem Kellner, Herbert Davidson, and Moshe Halbertal. Recognizing, however, that many of these works may be inaccessible to the average reader, because of language and/or scholastic barriers, the latest entry by Dr. Ben Zion Katz, Student’s Companion to the Guide of the Perplexed, is a welcome addition.
Dr. Katz came upon the study of the Guide as a “layman,” being a doctor of medicine and not of philosophy. The layman’s view, however, will be appreciated by so many in the Jewish community who lack the years of academic training in both secular and Jewish philosophy and who are seeking an explanation of and entrée to complex ideas and concepts. Katz has spent much effort researching many of the more abstruse topics in the Guide and he does a good job at simplifying these concepts.
This is not a definitive work, but a brief and clear reader’s guide (it recalls the old “Cliff Notes” of my youth), weighing in at under 140 pages in “pocket book” format. Katz has attempted to economize on any embellishments, sticking to “just the facts” as much as possible. He presents a straightforward synopsis of what the Guide is, and only rarely adds terse commentary and analysis.
Katz utilizes the Shlomo Pines edition of the Guide in English, which has become the gold standard ever since its publication in 1963 (University of Chicago Press), and is still widely available. It will therefore be helpful for anyone using this companion to have access to Pines. After a brief introduction, the book starts with an outline of the life and works of Rambam. It then presents, in two sparse pages, the “Plan of the Guide of the Perplexed,” laying out what Rambam sought to accomplish, noting the respective themes of each of the three “books,” or major divisions, of the Guide. This is followed by an outline of the work’s structure. The remainder of the book gives a brief synopsis of the Guide’s important Introduction, and then goes through each chapter, providing a summary of either individual chapters or groups of chapters where appropriate. The book ends with a helpful bibliography for further study, and citation and topical indices.
Student’s Companion succeeds in its stated objective of being just what it claims to be. It is a great way to get one’s feet wet without investing a large amount of time and mental energy into trying to decipher some of the more academic writings on the Guide. At the same time, one should not think that this work alone will suffice to help one wade through the often tempestuous waters of the Guide. In his Introduction, Rambam revealed that he wrote the Guide esoterically, with many hidden messages that would not be easily evident to the casual reader. He deliberately contradicts himself in subtle ways throughout the Guide, and injects a number of controversial interpretations of both Scripture and the Hazal.
The limitations of the Student’s Companion, therefore, need to be appreciated. Katz lays out the “what” but not always the “why.” The overarching mystery is, of course, why Rambam felt, contrary to so many other great medievalists, that it was so important for an enlightened individual to have a proficient knowledge of Aristotelian science, and not rely simply on Torah texts and our “Mesorah” (tradition) as a way of connecting with the Divine. For Rambam, studying Aristotle was the key to achieving immortality in Olam HaBa. Already in the Mishneh Torah, written several years before the Guide, Rambam had laid out in Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah (chapters 1-4) that every Jew needs a working knowledge of what the Mishnah calls Ma’asei Bereishit (the Act of Creation) and Ma’asei Merkavah (the Act of the Chariot). The Rambam understood that these are simply alternate terms for Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics, respectively.
As Menachem Kellner has reiterated in his latest essay in TRADITION (“Today’s Perplexed: Between Maimonidean Promise and Peril,” Fall 2021), for the Rambam, Judaism demands a very high epistemological standard from a Jew who wishes to achieve human perfection and conjunction with God. Even one who has lived a devout life of pious observance of mitzvot and extensive Torah study may be denied immortality due to his or her failure to accurately understand God’s universe. Even other philosophical systems – notably the Kalam – which competed with Aristotelianism in Rambam’s lifetime (and which are often closer to modern science than Aristotelianism), were attacked by Rambam for this very reason.
Katz also does not provide any commentary on Rambam’s often controversial stances. Issues of whether Judaism possesses core dogmas; of the nature of prophecy; of whether certain biblical narratives occurred in a vision or in the real world; of the nature of creation ex nihilo; of the role of creed vs. deed in Judaism; of a sliding scale of Divine providence depending on the individual’s deservedness; of the very role of Greek philosophy in informing us of the truths contained in the Torah; and so many other issues where he takes often iconoclastic or controversial positions. Katz notes many of these issues but does not hold up Rambam’s stance to compare or contrast with other Rishonim. Anyone studying the Guide who seeks a comprehensive theology of Judaism will therefore need to reference multiple other works to gain a well-rounded and balanced view on these basic issues of Jewish thought, especially because Rambam was in the minority on so many of the aforementioned issues. (Rabbi J. David Bleich’s With Perfect Faith, although organized around Rambam’s thirteen principles of belief and not the Guide, is a good model for how to anthologize, present, and explain a variety of positions.)
If I may be permitted a sidebar to younger students who are attempting a first venture into the Guide: Please take the above seriously. Do not allow Rambam’s Guide to be the be-all and end-all of Jewish philosophy and theology. By all means, use Dr. Katz’s work as a helpful havruta to aid your understanding of the Guide. But also remember the maxim of “Asei lekha Rav” – get a teacher, a Rebbe or Morah, who has a well-rounded knowledge of Rambam, Ramban, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, and Ralbag, to name just a few of the more important Rishonim, as well as later important authors of Jewish thought, and put Rambam’s theology in its proper historical and theological context. Your teacher will open your eyes to an entirely different world of mahashava that, among other things, embraces Jewish mysticism, something that Rambam eschewed.
As long as one appreciates what Dr. Katz’s work will bring to one’s Torah table, as well as its limitations, this small book will prove to be very helpful in making an initial foray into the world of Rambam’s Guide. I trust it will be well received by a new generation of the perplexed.
Rabbi Daniel Korobkin is the rabbi of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation, and immediate past president of the Rabbinical Council of America. He studied Jewish and Islamic philosophy at UCLA.