Point to Ponder: Maimonides


Think about this. I have been saying that there are many divergent interpretations of the Guide of the Perplexed by the great sage Moses Maimonides (1138-1204). Some scholars, such as Leo Strauss of the University of Chicago and I, are convinced that Maimonides wrote for two audiences, intellectuals and the general population, and that he frequently hid his true views from the non-intellectuals, convinced that he could still reach more philosophically-minded readers who could delve into what he wrote and understand what he really wanted to teach. Strauss explains that philosophers have to hide the truth from the general public because most people are unable to understand the truths that philosophers know. In fact, philosophers are “in grave danger” when they tell the truth. When the public hears the truth they feel threatened and may feel like killing the individual speaking to them, as they did with Socrates in 399 BCE. Strauss gives many examples of this phenomenon. He stresses that “all ancient philosophers had distinguished between their exoteric (open) and their esoteric (hidden, true) teaching.” The general public needs to be deceived and taught only “essential truths,” not real truths, what some philosophers such as Plato called “the noble lie,” what Spinoza and others described as “legitimate ruses.” The essential truths aid the masses in living a reasonably good and safe life.

Even the Catholic Church realized that the multitude could not deal with the real truth and took a drastic action. In 1199, during Maimonides’ lifetime, Pope Innocent III declared that the Bible has information that is too profound for laymen to grasp and ordered that Christians should not read the Bible but rely on priest to tell them what the Bible contains.

Scholars, like Strauss, said you cannot pick isolated statements from the Guide to prove what you want to see there. You have to read the entire book and understand isolated statements based on what Maimonides says elsewhere and your understanding of Maimonides’ entire book and how he wrote his book. Reading Maimonides properly reveals that he thought that angels and miracles do not exist, prophecy is not supernatural but the thinking of very wise people, and people need to use their intelligence for God does not interfere with nature and aid people.

But the majority with conventional views, respecting the great sage, felt that he would not and could not deviate from what their teachers taught them in grade school. They read Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed and saw their own views there, as if Maimonides was not saying anything new or anything startling, just what these people already knew, although Maimonides said it better. They saw him saying that God is present in the universe and helping people, God uses angels and demons to accomplish the divine will, God spoke to prophets, and God answers prayers and helps people who are obey divine laws.

They fail to note that there is proof that Strauss was right. He was not alone in reading what the majority call non-orthodox ideas in the Guide. Many highly respected intelligent Jewish sages saw Maimonides’ unconventional teachings and criticized him for his views during his lifetime.  Many wanted him to be excommunicated. Maimonides’ pupil and son were forced to defend him during his lifetime and after Maimonides died. Maimonides Guide and his Sefer haMada, which contained some of his radical views, were burned in 1233 in Montpellier in southern France. Rabbis ruled that people should not read the Guide and Sefer haMada. Would this strong opposition have occurred if Maimonides was only repeating the conventional teachings as many people claim today?