Thursday, November 3, 2016

Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism: Secrets of The Guide of the Perplexed

Micah Goodman’s Maimonides and the Book that Changed Judaism: Secrets of The Guide of the Perplexed was a best seller in Israel.  The English translation was published in 2015.  

I learned Rambam primarily from Leo Strauss’ writings and his students.  The ‘secrets’ of the guide for Strauss were the dramatic depictions of G-d (allegorically) engaged in reproduction in the so-called Account of the Chariot and Account of Creation.  Untangling this mystery was the prime focus of Strauss and his students.

Goodman defines secrets far more broadly.  So much so that I am not exactly sure what the secrets of The Guide are under his rubric; perhaps there are many, and his broad approach is in keeping with that.  Goodman aptly says that the Rambam complied halacha from the confusing array of rabbinical sources to create one rational, easy to approach source - the Mishnah Torah.  

When he wrote The Guide he purposely took rational, logical philosophical accounts and broke them into pieces.   The Guide is a book that conceals more than it reveals.  And according to Goodman, whereas the Rambam is certain on matters of Jewish law and practice, he allows philosophy to be a highly equivocal pursuit, open to uncertainly. And that is the Rambam we get in this book.  Both Goodman’s The Guide of the Perplexed and Maimonides are very post-modern.  They are not comfortable with meta-narratives.  The subjects under study are uncertain and equivocal, and so are our conclusions.  Maimonides comes across as non-dogmatic and within constraints even pluralistic.

Although Goodman presents a solid summary of The Guide, I can’t see how, with this conclusion, the book changed Judaism.  Oddly, Goodman does not provide a summary of this claim.  What changed after The Guide?  For the most part, Jewish philosophy is a backwater of Jewish history.  The Kabbalah and its various incarnations have changed Judaism far more than the Rambam’s intriguing work.

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