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 had found a home at Maimonides Group at YahooGroups.com, but in 2020 Yahoo shut down that function. Over a thousand conversations had taken place there, among the 266 members. That was where I conceived the design for these commentary essays on the Guide of the Perplexed.
I have reconstituted the group on Facebook, at "Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed Discussion Group," https://www.facebook.com/groups/809166259487663 .
I hope to see you there.
I recognized that while people found the Guide of the Perplexed attractive, they would also find reading it to be very difficult. The Guide requires a guide.
The original work emerged in the environment of a Medieval Jewish Arabic society, Egypt in the 12th Century, far away from our contemporary consciousness. Few, other than medieval scholars, 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 was written in Judeo-Arabic, which is Arabic in Hebrew letters, with a number of standard Hebrew terms. There is a new specialized dictionary for students of Judeo Arabic writings.
We are also confronted by an the 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 was ever simple.
But then, how could it be simple since the Guide 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. There is an interpretive divide even on threshold 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.
What I found from closely reading each chapter was different from the accounts provided by those other voices, though they all made their contributions, especially Harry Austryn Wolfson. I started writing up my notes on each chapter as an aide memoire, but soon realized that what I learned would help others trying to find their way through the Maimonidean forest.
I feel a special sympathy for serious students who had found a reference to the Guide, perhaps in the commentary to the Artscroll Chumash translation of the Five Books of Moses, but who were frustrated when they tried to read Maimonides' chapter in the Guide.
From my repeated review I 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 Maimonides' commitments was to the controversial idea that prophecy could and should be revived in Israel. In this pursuit, he looked back to the schools of prophets described in scripture.
The study of 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 (the Guide is in 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 at and comfortable 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), shows that the public always preferred his essays over his commentaries. It stands to reason that an interpreter of Maimonides would be more successful in pursuing an essayistic commentary style rather than the Rashi style, since that commentator would be thinking along the same lines that he was following in his own writing.
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 commentary of R. Yehuda Even-Shmuel (Kaufman) 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. I have written a "Commentator's Preface" explaining my aims and methods, as well as the conventions and references that I use. An index has been generated for the first volume but needs work.
I aim at serious publication, but, for now, this web publication should suffice, and I still intend to produce commentaries on the remaining chapters and 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 strive to clarify the issues in terms comprehensible to the intelligent lay reader. I do not use footnotes, since that would result in 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), in whatever translation you prefer, that you return here and read my essay on that chapter. I promise to answer any reasonable questions that arise.
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.