Maimonides, Moses

Assigned: Maimonides, Moses. From The Guide of the Perplexed (180-88). Also read the editors’ introduction (177-80).

From The Guide of the Perplexed (1190)

From [Introduction to the First Part]

1. On 180-81 (“The first purpose of this Treatise…”), what is the first purpose, as most fully stated, that Moses Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), identifies for his treatise? For what kind of person has he written The Guide of the Perplexed, and how might the “perplexity” such people are experiencing have arisen? Who should not expect to gain much from consulting the treatise, and why? Briefly, what is the “second purpose” that Maimonides gives for writing his treatise?

2. On 181-82 (“I do not say that this Treatise…”), Maimonides explicitly declares that his aim in publishing his treatise is not simply to clarify difficult passages in Hebrew scripture and rabbinic law to the maximum possible extent. How does he justify this refusal to go “all in” for clarity, and this insistence that the truths he addresses should be “glimpsed and then again be concealed” (181 bottom)? Why, too, do the Sages explain difficult material not plainly but rather “in riddles and parables” (182)?

3. On 182 (“You should not think that these…”), how does Maimonides describe the varying degrees of the state of understanding or illumination experienced by the prophets (Moses of Exodus renown being “the great one among the prophets”) and “the perfect” or most learned students of the Hebrew scriptures? Consider the metaphor that Maimonides uses here, which is that of flashings of lightning that light up the extreme darkness of the night. What does the dark night signify in this metaphor, and what do the flashings of lightning signify? How does this metaphor dramatize for us the radical, unsettling nature of the experience that we call “understanding”? What about those who, as Maimonides says, never actually receive their own “lightning flash,” but are instead left in perpetual darkness?

4. On 182-84 (“Know that whenever one of the perfect…”), following up on his introduction of a striking metaphor to help readers grasp what it is like to receive understanding of the difficulties of scripture and rabbinic law, Maimonides extends the metaphor to the act of teaching others what has been understood: “the subject matter will appear, flash, and then be hidden again” (183 top). How, then, does he address the difficulty of trying to convey the knowledge or insight that one has received? Why can’t such knowledge be passed along seamlessly? Why are “parables and riddles” (183) often requisite in the teaching of “secrets” from scripture or other material? Consider also what Maimonides writes about the use of parables and riddles to convey the Genesis account, or Account of the Beginning. In what sense is this account “natural science,” in Maimonides’ view, and why is it nonetheless given “in parables and riddles and in very obscure words” (183)?

5. On 184-86 (“My speech in the present Treatise…”), Maimonides addresses the significance of parables in scripture. Consider the “pearl” and “apples of gold” parables to which he refers (185-86): how does Maimonides use these parables to convey to readers the manner in which a “well-constructed parable” (186) delivers insight, and the sort of insight or understanding it offers? What is your own understanding of what parables are, how they work, and the kinds of lessons they can be used to teach?

6. On 186-87 (“Know that the prophetic parables…”), according to Maimonides, what are the two kinds of prophetic parable? How do they differ in their approach to the topics they address and in terms of what is required to interpret them properly?

7. On 187-88 (“When, therefore, you find that…”), what concluding advice does Maimonides offer his readers regarding the apparently common desire to “inquire into all the details occurring in the parable” (187) even when the parable is one of the more general kind? What errors does this desire, when insisted upon, cause interpreters to commit? In what sense is Maimonides trying to set certain boundaries to the interpretive process, and how should we describe the mechanism whereby he does that?

8. General question: Making due allowance for the theological cast of Moses Maimonides’ analysis and purpose, how might we reflect on his words on 182-84 in The Guide of the Perplexed the better to understand the nature of learning and teaching? It is common for us, who live in a modern, scientifically advanced society, to suppose that learning is mainly about aggregating and combining facts, “building up” our knowledge until we become experts, or at least until we learn as much as we would like to know. How does Maimonides’ viewpoint challenge that understanding of how and why we learn? To what extent do you agree with his dramatic characterization of the attainment of spiritual or intellectual insight? Explain.

9. General question: In our selection from The Guide of the Perplexed,Moses Maimonides sometimes suggests that secrecy is a legitimate mode of discourse or property of a written text. Do you agree with his suggestion if it is applied to a modern, secular context? Is “secrecy” or mysteriousness worth cultivating for some purposes, or do you believe that treating a text as mysterious turns interpretation into an exclusionary operation, a way to control people’s thoughts rather than expand them? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake