Jewish Philosophy A Bridge Over Doubt

This new book about Maimonides’ philosophical treatise offers a penetrating look at prophecy, redemption and commandments, and doesn’t tiptoe around religious sensibilities

Meir Buzaglo
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Meir Buzaglo

Sodotav shel Moreh Hanevukhim (The Secrets of the ‘Guide to the Perplexed’),
by Micah Goodman. Dvir Publishing House (Hebrew), 383 pages, 92 NIS

In a 1940 speech, “In Favor of Perplexity and Against Whitewashing,” Berl Katznelson declared: “When I see a person walk among us as though he has solved all riddles and conundrums, or as one for whom a new ‘Guide for the Perplexed’ has been written ... or one who really doesn’t need any such guidance at all, since his mind is clear and relaxed and he has never known any sort of confusion, I think of him as someone who lives in other worlds, beyond the reversals, torments and hopes of our own muddled world, or perhaps someone who has solved all problems by chewing some magical cud. As for myself, I’m happy with my confused, uneasy soul ...”

Sculpture of Maimonides in the Jewish Quarter of Cordoba, Spain.Credit: Getty Images

Dr. Micah Goodman, a rising star in the field of Jewish thought, has something new to say. He thinks that perplexity is, indeed, one of the fundamental elements of the “Guide for the Perplexed.” Yet while the sort of confusion contemplated by the Zionist leader Katznelson was basically political in character, the perplexity that engaged Maimonides in his 12th-century philosophical text had to do with living a life of faith. The Rambam’s work promised to be a guide that would enable one to bypass both popular folk religion and atheism, and to build a narrow bridge over doubt.

Goodman’s book is part of an upsurge of interest in Maimonides. Relatively recent publications on this topic include Kenneth Seeskin’s “Maimonides: A Guide for Today’s Perplexed” (1991), “Dialogue on Faith and Philosophy,” by Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Aviezer Ravitzky (2006), and Moshe Halbertal’s 2009 study “The Rambam.” Goodman’s work is special in that it presents a panoramic look at the “Guide,” and also features refreshing, careful and penetrating study of subjects such as prophecy, redemption, commandments and their rationale, and Maimonides’ enigmatic writing style.

The book begins with a presentation of the crucial problem of faith in a transcendent God. Such a removed God presents “the greatest threat to religion,” says the author; the solution he offers is that Maimonides had as his goal the creation of a new hero of faith; and faith in God is not a matter of passive waiting, but rather a function of human initiative, a heroic undertaking in which man creates his own personality. In the same way, redemption is seen not as the result of miraculous intervention that transpires as a result of divine beneficence, but rather is a natural result of man’s striving, his commitment of all his resources to the search for God. Redemption is a natural process in which the redeemed is also the redeemer.

“Guide for the Perplexed” leads the reader to a Socratic conundrum in which a person knows that he does not know, yet does not give up on the possibility of knowledge. Despair about great ideologies, which comes to us courtesy of postmodernism, derives from a loss of the possibility of knowledge, which is also the possibility of doubt. In Goodman’s view, this despair can be converted into an enabling form of perplexity. This is the subject on which he has written an elegant, comprehensive, rich, penetrating and deeply engaged book.

As the author sees it, there is no contrast between revelation and wisdom, since wisdom is that which has been revealed. And what about the Torah? In the book’s second part, after reviewing analogies between the Torah and nature, the author interprets Maimonides as implying that the Torah is divine, but not written by God. Moses observed nature scrupulously and wrote the Torah, and since nature required the existence of God, the Torah has to be divine.

Redemptive perplexity

It is in its third part that the book reaches its pinnacle, as it presents a discussion of the concept of perplexity that distinguishes between forms of confusion and identifies a form of redemptive perplexity, enabling us to keep a distance from the cult of reason and from the paralyzing authority of tradition; this state of perplexity propels an individual on a journey of self-growth. Influenced by the late philosopher Shlomo Pines, Goodman suggests that the aim of this journey is to identify the limits of knowledge and allow elements of mystery to enter an individual’s spiritual life. A fulfilling intellectual life brings wonder into an individual’s existence. This is a life in which the individual does not view himself as the center; it is life lived in the constant awareness of mystery.

The concept of an individual who creates his own personality has about it an air of existential analysis, but we should be wary of attributing an atheistic form of existentialism to Goodman’s text. This analysis does not depend upon a Nietzschean idea of the death of God in order to discuss individual autonomy; nor does the analysis depend upon a Lurianic kabbalistic view of divine contraction in order to provide room for individual autonomy. “On the contrary,” writes Goodman. “The huge majesty of God is what frees the world from its dependence on [God], and provides free space for individual creativity.”

Maimonides believed that man is the only creature liable not to fulfill its designated purpose. Man can realize his potential to be a man only by coming close to knowing God to the extent that he is capable. In this regard, I think it is important to recall that, in that we are talking about purpose, there is no room for creativity, nuance and differences between individuals. There is but one way to become a man: worship of God. Without this, even such figures as Edith Piaf, Pablo Picasso and Bill Gates, with all their accomplishments, have not necessarily realized their hidden human potential.
We thus face an interesting question: To what extent is this theological idea that an individual’s self-realization renders him closer to God akin to everyday popular metaphors about “the creation of personality”? To what extent is the presumably secular idea of self-realization consistent with the religious idea maintaining there is only one way of heeding an absolute commandment? It is on this level, I believe, that the allure of secularism needs to be compared with the allure of Maimonides.

Religion is heresy?

In general, Goodman’s prose is clear, challenging and emphatic. Sometimes, a bit less would have been sufficient. For instance, Goodman writes: “Religion that assumes God punishes evildoers, rewards the pious, listens to prayers and needs sacrifices is also a religion of disbelief, since it is based on an assumption that God is incomplete, and according to Maimonides, a God that is incomplete cannot be God. Religion, therefore, is an ancient form of heresy.” Here it appears that Goodman is aware of the provocative nature of his words, and he tries to continue waging the war started by Maimonides against pagan idolatry. Nonetheless, the passage’s final phrases do not add anything of substance to the argument; the value of Goodman’s book would not be lessened without it.

The belief that God punishes evildoers and rewards the pious is fundamental to Maimonides’ thought. Goodman explains eloquently that Maimonides provided a different interpretation of Jewish faith, but did not annul it. In his famous parable of the palace, in which humanity is ranked according to levels of proximity to the king (that is, God), the Rambam viewed the traditional believer as someone who is headed toward the palace to meet the king. Most such traditional believers, including very committed people who may have paid a heavy price for their faith, believe that God punishes evil and listens to prayers. It is incorrect to accuse them of heresy, and certainly doing so in a parenthetical statement is problematic. The lesson to be learned here is not limited to Goodman, but instead applies widely to much modern writing about faith. Dramatic, provocative prose is conventional in this genre, and a writer who comes from the world of faith needs to show caution here.

A few comments are necessary. First, the claim that God listens does not impose an independent description upon God, but by the same token the claim that God is apathetic, or ignores, poses the risk of according anthropomorphic attributes to God. God is not wise and not foolish; he does not listen and is not apathetic. But if one has to choose any such attributes, they should be wisdom, compassion and attentiveness to prayer, not their opposites.

Second, and more generally, the activism of an individual, Goodman correctly emphasizes, is not expressed at the expense of God’s activism. In fact, Maimonides’ main goal is to explain that human activism can remove the partition that separates an individual from divine abundance. God is in a state of perpetual giving, rather than one of passivity or lack of involvement. As Maimonides sees it, it is wrong to speak of potential in relation to God, since without human corporeality, God is in a state of constant activity. By declaring that man is both redeemer and redeemed, Goodman does not relate to the whole picture. Man can be his own redeemer only because the ultimate redeemer is his faithful provider.

“Their transgressions would have distinguished between you and your lord,” Maimonides explains, and what emerges from this is that the charged question is not the closeness of man created in the image of God, but how that man can be distanced from God. The natural situation of the human being, before sin, is one of closeness. From the moment that sin, materialism and the expulsion from Eden are created, distance comes into being. Thus the differences between the doctrine of tzimtzum, or divine contraction, promulgated by Rabbi Yitzhak Luria and that espoused by the Rambam are minor, because this doctrine sees the need to explain how there can be places where God is only partially present.

Goodman’s study is riveting, enlightening and relevant. Though its enthusiasms sometimes lead to intemperate formulations, such an engaged reading is, in our era, to be preferred to the careful and tedious academic precision that is rather widespread here.

Dr. Meir Buzaglo researches the philosophy of Judaism, language and mathematics at Hebrew University.



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