Professor Rabbi Dr. Michael A. Shmidman described “Isadore Twersky’s Unique Contribution to the Study of The Guide of the Perplexed” in five steps. These were Maimonides’ descriptions of ideal humans. They are people who enhance their thinking and study the sciences to understand how the world functions and use that knowledge to act and improve themselves and society so that each can be all they can be.[1] I generally agree with Professors Twersky and Shmidman. I will outline what Professor Shmidman wrote with more citations, other additions, and some of my interpretations, including that there is a sixth step.


  • The Jewish Spanish rational thinker Maimonides, also called Moses ben Maimon and Rambam (1138-1204), left Spain because of religious persecution and settled in Egypt. He became the most significant Jewish philosopher. People say, “From Moses to Moses, there was none like Moses.” The first was Moses, the lawgiver during and after the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites. The second is Maimonides. Many call him the “Great Eagle” because he flew higher than others. He became a physician to the leader of Egypt and his family and was accepted as a guide to world Jewry in the past and today. He wrote many books on philosophy, law, and medicine.
  • The first step in the six-step ladder leading to an understanding of the ideal human is to realize that the rational, philosophical truths were known to Jewish sages in ancient times, long before they were taught in Greece. A concept is even in the Torah.
  • In Exodus 33:17-23, Moses requests God, “Show me Your glory.” God responded by telling Moses how and to what extent humans can know God. “I will cause My goodness to pass before you…. You cannot see My face. No human can see My face and live. And Y-h-v-h said, Behold, there is a place where you can stand on a rock. When My glory passes by, I will place you in the cleft of the rock. I will shield you with My hand until I have passed. Then I will remove My hand, and you will see My But you will not see My face.” In short, this simile states that humans can only understand God by viewing, studying, and understanding what God placed on earth. Maimonides discusses this in his philosophical book “The Guide of the Perplexed,” book one, chapter 54.[2]
  • Relying on the sixth century CE Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 7a, the Bible and Talmud commentator Rashi (1040-1105) interprets the passage as a similar simile. God showed Moses His tefillin, His phylacteries. The sages said we can know about God by understanding the value of the divine commandments.
  • Maimonides wrote in his Guide 1:71, “Know that the many sciences devoted to establishing the truth regarding these matters that have existed in our religious community have perished because of the length of time that has passed, because of our being dominated by the pagan nations, and because…it is not permitted to divulge these matters to all [3]
  • Maimonides is referring in the last item to what he tells readers in the introduction to his Guide. It is not advisable to reveal all truths to all people because they lack sufficient education to understand the truths. They need to continue to think about what they were taught as children and feel threatened when they hear other ideas. Thus, as the Greek philosopher Plato (about 428-348 BCE) suggested, we must teach them “noble lies.” Maimonides also accepted this as necessary and called them “necessary truths.” An example is that God becomes angry when people act unreasonably. This “necessary truth” encourages people to act properly. A superb, immensely readable narrative addressing this issue is found in Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan (about 1105-1185).[4]
  • It will surprise many people to recognize that we do not even know God created the world from nothing. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) wrote[5] that matter existed as long as God. God did not make it. God formed what was present into the world we see today. Maimonides has a lengthy discussion on this matter, covering many chapters beginning in his Guide 2:13. Plenty of scholars contend that Maimonides did not cast aside the Aristotelian view. Genesis 1:1 says, “At the beginning when God (Elohim) bara the heavens and earth, the earth was tohu vavohu.” Maimonides recognized that the meaning of the italicized Hebrew words are obscure. Bara could mean creation from nothing, formed from preexisting material or something else. Tohu vavohu may be defined as empty, in disarray, or something else. Thus, the Torah could be interpreted to reveal what Aristotle contended.
  • The second step gives us the first description of the ideal human. It is the individual who knows, not believes in God. Maimonides quotes Aristotle, who wrote that what distinguishes humans from animals and plants is their intelligence. Therefore, to be truly human, we must use it. Maimonides begins his Guide 1:1 by telling readers that intelligence is the “Image of God” placed in humans, mentioned in Genesis 1:27.
  • Maimonides follows Guide 1:1 with chapter two, where he interprets the biblical tale of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit as a parable teaching the difference between the truth as revealed in science and morality. Morality is not a reflection of reality but a collection of easy-to-understand guides to behavior that differ in different countries and times and do not address every possible situation.[6] Maimonides does so to emphasize that when he states to develop and use intelligence, he is speaking of the knowledge of the world revealed by the sciences, not morality. Morality has a vital function, but it is not the ideal humans should strive to know.
  • The third step shows the connection to the prior one, the recommendation of the sages for Jews to study the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, and its commentaries in the Talmuds and biblical commentators. Since pursuing knowledge is fundamental to being human, we must realize that it is part of the command of Talmud Torah, the obligation to study Torah. Maimonides codified this in his law book Mishnah Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:11-12, the laws relating to Torah study. In his Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 4:13, the rules concerning the basic teachings of the Torah, he also states that the fundamental philosophical subjects are discussed in the first four chapters of his Yesodei Ha-Torah. He calls them ma’ase bereshit and ma’ase merkava, meaning physics and metaphysics.
  • The fourth step focuses on what a segment of Jews disbelieve. They reject Maimonides’ idea that the Jewish tradition of Talmud Torah, Torah study, includes, even urges, the study of science, which is the study of the laws of nature that God created or formed, and thereby know God.
  • As an aside, it is my view that the Jewish elders of Amsterdam banished Spinoza (1632-1677) because although the non-Jewish Amsterdam government treated Jews reasonably well, the Jews feared that if Spinoza’s ideas became known, the government would say he was teaching ideas that threatened their understanding of Christianity and attack the Jewish community. I think that Spinoza accepted most Maimonidean teachings. This included that we can only know God by understanding what God created or formed. After being banished, Spinoza hid the details of his philosophy to protect the Jewish community. As a result, there are different opinions about what he meant when he spoke of God’s nature and other subjects.
  • Back to our topic, a segment of Jews felt and still feel that the Torah desires them to spend each day observing the practical Torah commands, studying the Torah and Talmuds, and saying prayers. Maimonides composed his celebrated “Palace Metaphor” in Guide 3:51. It imagines a king in a palace with groups of subjects trying to enter his chamber and see him. Virtually every group fails. The sole exception is the religious philosopher who studies the sciences. The religious people who devote their lives to all the Torah laws but neglect the philosophical treatment of the rules arrive at the palace but go around it, never see its entrance, and never enter it.
  • The fifth step is the opposite of the fourth. A segment of Maimonists are convinced that Maimonides wrote his philosophical Guide and other books with two ideas: for the philosophically-minded Jew and for Jews who reject the study of the sciences. They contend that Maimonides wrote in the introduction to the Guide that intelligent people need to pay attention to his writings and not accept his comments written for the general population. An example is the thirteen principles of Judaism outlined in his essay Shemoneh Perakim, “Eight Chapters.”[7] This view contends that Maimonides wrote almost all thirteen for the general public. He only thought the ideas about God were correct. In the Introduction to Shlomo Pines’ 1963 volume, The Guide of the Perplexed, Leo Strauss (1899-1973) discusses this issue. I agree with Strauss. According to this dualistic approach, many Maimonideans insist that Maimonides did not take a sixth step.
  • Another segment of Jewry, including Professor Twersky, rejects this view. While I do not agree with Twersky regarding the dualistic approach, I agree with his belief that there is another part to the ideal human.
  • Maimonides concludes Guide 3:51 by citing the prophet Jeremiah 9:22-23 (about 650-570 BCE). The prophet envisions God saying, “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom…. But let him that glories, glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am Y-h-v-h who exercise mercy, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For I want these things, says Y-h-v-h.” The dualists find support for the Maimonidean philosophy in the prophetic words about understanding and knowing. They ignore the final desire for mercy, justice, and righteousness. I agree with the professor. In his behavior and writings, Maimonides showed that proper behavior is essential to the ideal human.[8]

[1] Tradition, volume 55, number 3, 112-123.

[2] I understand “glory” to be a synonym for “Me.” In the post biblical period, many Jews saw “glory” as a separate divine creation and called it Shekinah, “the Presence.”

[3] Translation by S. Pines in The Guide of the Perplexed, University of Chicago Press, 1963, 175. This is the translation in Shmidman’s article. I generally prefer Friedlander’s translations because they are more colloquial.

[4] Translation by Lenn E. Goodman, The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

[5] Nicomachean Ethics, translated by C. D. C. Reeve, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2014.

[6] For example, it is morally right to not cross a street against a red light, but there are times when using one’s intelligence requires him to do so, such as when he is pursued by a fanatic intent on killing him. Another example is the moral code not to kill, but situations arise where using one’s intelligence reveals it is necessary.

[7] The Eight Chapters of Maimonides, Agnes S. College, 2017.

[8] This is also an essential ingredient in Aristotle’s philosophy.