An Explanatory Commentary on Each Chapter
of Maimonides' Guide of The Perplexed
By: Scott Michael Alexander
ABOUT Scott Alexander and the Guide Project
I began working on Maimonides' philosophy in 1997 when, with Lance Fletcher and his FreeLance Academy, we created the Maimonides Listserve on the ONEList.com. ONElist was a free mailing list service created by Mark Fletcher in August 1997. In November 1999, ONElist merged with eGroups. In June, 2000, eGroups was purchased by Yahoo! It has since found its home at Maimonides Group https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/maimonides/info . Over a thousand conversations have taken place there, among the 266 members. That was where I conceived the design for my commentary essays on the Guide of the Perplexed.
I recognized that while people found the Guide of the Perplexed attractive, they would find reading it to be almost impossibly difficult. The Guide requires a guide.
The original work emerged in the environment of Medieval Jewish Arabic society, Egypt in the 12th Century, far away from our contemporary consciousness. Few, except for scholars in that discipline, would be familiar with that world. Comprehension requires access to and understanding of Jewish and Islamic theology, as well as the Neo-Platonized Aristotelianism of that era. The text itself is in Judeo-Arabic, which is Arabic in Hebrew letters, with a number of standard Hebrew terms, for which a specialized dictionary has recently been composed.
There is an additional set of problems posed by the Moses Maimonides' writing style. With its smoothly elegant surface, especially in his legal encyclopedia, the Mishneh Torah, readers may think they grasp the message, but any serious look opens up multiple layers, dense with meaning. Nothing with Maimonides is ever simple.
But then, how could it be simple since the Guide is negotiates many treacherous divides: ancient vs. modern, East vs. West, North vs. South, Platonism vs. Aristotelianism, Ptolemaic vs. Copernican cosmology, science vs. religion, cabala vs. philosophy, Judaism vs. Islam, and both against Christianity.
Beyond those complexities, scholars are in no agreement about what the Guide is about or what Maimonides' purposes were. An interpretive divide exists on threshhold issues between schools of interpretation represented by Leo Strauss and his followers, on the one hand, and the school of Harry Wolfson and Isidore Twersky, on the other.
I began to study each chapter in turn, looking at all available translations and commentaries, ancient and modern, as well as contemporary and older literature on the topic. However, the story that I was reading was different from the accounts provided by those other voices, though they all made their contributions, especially Harry Austryn Wolfson. I started writing up each chapter I read as an aide memoire, but soon realized that what I had learned would help others trying to pick their way through the Maimonidean forest.
I feel a special sympathy for serious students who had found a reference to the Guide, say in the commentary to the Artscroll Chumash translation of the Five Books of Moses, but came to a complete halt when they tried to grasp the meaning of that reference in its full context.
From my repeated review I also conceived a unique slant on the text: Maimonides did not primarily intend this to be a book of philosophy, theology or jurisprudence. These were all subsidiary, in my opinion, to his desire to produce an advanced textbook for the training of prophets. One of his commitments was to the controversial idea that prophecy could and should be revived in Israel. In this pursuit, he hearkened back to the schools of prophets we meet in scripture. In modern terms, prophecy is the study of the mysteries of personal inspiration and illumination, as well as that unutterable sacred dimension which is their source.
I began to both teach and write about the Guide in 2000, producing the original version of my first explanatory essay in 2004, Introduction I, subtitled The Well, the Pearl and the Golden Apple, where I began to examine these issues. I have now produced an explanatory commentary in essay format on each of the 76 chapters of the first volume Guide of the Perplexed (three volumes).
I chose the essay format rather than the traditional Rashi-style Jewish commentary format, where particular sentences and terms receive comment, terse or fulsome. The reason for my choice is that Maimonides was far more adept and comfortable writing as an essayist than as a commentator, even though his first major work, Commentary on the Mishnah, was in the old style. The fact is that most readers his Commentary on the Mishnah are more familiar with Maimonides' introductory essays to that work, rather than the commentary itself, for example, the essay Helek, and the essay Eight Chapters.
More to the point, it is impossible to orient readers in the chapters of the Guide without taking the time and space of an essay to explain all that is going on. This is why I wrote a “commentary” in this unusual manner. There is nothing like this essay-style commentary on the Guide in any language, although some of the longer commentaries, like that of Rabbis Shem Tov and Abravanel among the ancients, and the modern Yehuda Even-Shmuel (Kaufman) commentary of the early 20th Century, are works that I learned much from. However, even those longer commentaries failed to achieve what they could have had they proceeded in an explicitly essayistic manner.
This project is unfinished, even though the commentaries on Volume One of the Guide are complete. The volume requires a preface explaining my aims and methods, as well as the conventions and references that I use. An index has been generated but needs work.
I aim at serious publication, but I have not, as yet, devoted time for work on that front. I do still intend to produce commentaries on the remaining volumes of the Guide. This is a project with very long time horizons, and I wanted to place the fruits of this labor in the hands of readers now.
I have also begun to produce, as you will see on another tab of this website, spoken and video podcasts designed to introduce some of my chapter essays. I designed them as a gentle and brief introductions to several of the later essays, whose complications reflect Maimonides’ own complicated thinking.
You may not agree with my point of view, but even so, these essays should make comprehension of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed available to a wider circle, since I try to clarify the issues in terms comprehensible by the intelligent lay reader. I never use footnotes, since that would end up producing a commentary on my own commentary, a hall of mirrors that could go on forever. Rather, I keep my internal commentary to a flat minimum of parenthetic references, so as not to unduly delay the reader.
So, while Maimonides only hoped to reach the “single virtuous man” though “displeasing ten thousand ignoramuses,” I hope to reach more virtuous people and save them from the myriad stumbling blocks of the Guide of the Perplexed. All I ask is that after you read any of the chapters in Guide (none are very long) that you return here and read my essay on that chapter.
Recall the motto preceding the Guide: “Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in” (Isaiah 26:2). If I have done anything to help the Rambam open those gates I will have accomplished my purpose.