Tuesday, 19 February 2013

This is not a Review: Guide for the Perplexed

The Guide for the Perplexed took me many months to finish reading, mainly because I only read it in between doing other things. Another reason why it took so long to read is that I found some of the ideas quite challenging to grasp and accept.
The Wikipedia entry for the book opens with the following: The Guide for the Perplexed (Hebrew: מורה נבוכים, Moreh Nevukhim; Arabic: دلالة الحائرين, dalālatul ḥā’irīn, דלאל̈ה אלחאירין) is one of the major works of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides or "the Rambam". It was written in the 12th century in the form of a three-volume letter to his student, Rabbi Joseph ben Judah of Ceuta, the son of Rabbi Judah, and is the main source of the Rambam's philosophical views, as opposed to his opinions on Jewish law.
When the book first appeared it was opposed quite strongly in the Jewish world.

In the centuries leading up the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem, there has not been any way of one group of Jews to impose their will on other Jews. No inquisition, military force, court or government that directed Jews dispersed over multiple countries. The strongest means of censure was exile from the community.

In the centuries since the publication of the Guide, Mainmonides’ rulings on Jewish law have become very much mainstream. But his non-halachic (law) works have gained some level of acceptance only to lessen in popularity in recent times. As the Wiki entry sums it up:
In contemporary Jewish circles, controversies regarding Aristotelian thought are significantly less heated, and, over time, many of Maimonides' ideas have become authoritative. As such, the book is seen as a legitimate and canonical, if somewhat abstruse, religious masterpiece.
This raises the question… why bother spending almost a year slogging my way through a book that few people still bother to study?

Because it had a massive influence on another author whose works were censured during his lifetime in the 12th century at least until the 16th century and only saw widespread distribution today. This author is THE focus of my studies in Kabbalah, he is: Rabbi Abraham Abulafia.

When Maimonides comes up in conversations that I have taken part in – he is often portrayed as an ultra-rationlist. As opposed to Nachmanides who is very much at the other end of the spectrum and is immersed in the study of mysticism. However, every time I argue the point that Maimonides was a very spiritual person and keenly interested in how to achieve prophecy, albeit through a rationalist route that focused on philosophy.

So having read the Friedlander translation once, I am now in a position to understand better the context within which Abraham Abulafia writes. That does not mean that I can make sense of what Abulafia is writing, but at least it helps a little (time will tell).

Currently I am reading the Kuzari by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, and when I have finished that I’ll go back to studying the Guide – this time around the Shlomo Pines edition.