Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed


One of the most significant and life changing books ever written is Moses Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. Maimonides lived from 1138 to 1204. Many people consider him the most important person since Moses who handed Israel God’s revelation. Others are convinced that he is far better in many ways than the first Moses. He revealed what the first Moses kept hidden: how to think and the answers to many issues about God, people, and the world. People say: “From Moses to Moses, there was no one like Moses”: he was greater than the biblical prophets and talmudic rabbis. People call him “The Great Eagle” because he soared over all people.

There are two modern English translations of this twelfth century philosophical masterpiece. The first is by M. Friedlander published in 1881. Friedlander rendered the title as Guide for the Perplexed, which seems to make more sense than S. Pines’ Guide of the Perplexed. Friedlander’s version is easy to read English. Pines, who was of German descent, wrote a translation that is frequently difficult to follow and appears to have been written by a person whose first language is German. Maimonidean scholars prefer the Pines product, saying that it is a more precise version of the original Arabic, the language Maimonides used, and therefore any quote from the Guide in scholarly articles has to be made from Pines.

What makes the Guide so important? Maimonides addresses all of the important questions that people have about God and religion. What approach did Maimonides take concerning religion? He was a rationalist. He insisted that people should not base their ideas about this world and life upon blind faith and tradition. Faith is the acceptance of ideas as true even though the ideas are contradicted by the senses (what on sees, hears, etc.), science, and reason. No sensible person would prescribe a medicine to a dying person based only on tradition. He wrote that the views of Hippocrates and Galen, the ancient teachers of medicine, for example, needed to be reevaluated based on modern science. This, he said, is why God put eyes in front of people’s head.[1]

What are some of the Maimonidean rational ideas that most people could not and still do not accept? God has no emotions and does not become angry. The Bible speaks of God becoming angry because the common people need to believe that God will punish them for doing wrong; people who accept this idea are more restrained from committing many misdeeds. God also has no body. The Bible describes God as acting and speaking as humans do only to make what is stated easier for humans to understand.

Actually, we know nothing about God other than that God exists and created the world and its laws of nature, or perhaps God formed the world out of preexisting matter. Average people can think of God as a father or king, and think of God as being just and merciful if this helps them, and think that God judges people and rewards and punishes them, but the truth is we know nothing about God and will never know. Based on philosophy, it is logical to say that God is one – there is no plurality in God; and philosophy teaches that there can only be one God.

As many other philosophers, Maimonides recognized that intelligent people, leaders, clergy, philosophers, and teachers of all kinds need to tell people what the Greek philosopher Plato called “noble lies” and what Maimonides called “essential beliefs.” It is essential to teach people lies – such as, what intelligent people called prophets taught is what they heard from God, you will be resurrected, pray and God will help you, this is what God wants you to do, God will punish you unless you do this, there will be a messianic time when all evil will cease – to make people feel good about themselves, feel secure, “know” that there will be a better time, get them to behave properly, provide stability, preserve order, and teach and promote values.[2] Maimonides tells readers of his Guide that he will place both his true ideas and essential beliefs in his Guide so that the common people will find notions in it that support their beliefs while intelligent people will be able to sift the true teachings from the dross.[3]

Prophets never received a communication from God. Prophecy is a natural event, a higher level of intelligence. Some Maimonidean scholars say that Maimonides considered even the fourth century BCE pagan philosopher Aristotle a prophet because he was so intelligent and was able to communicate truths to people.

Maimonides wrote that “the truth is the truth no matter what its source.” People make a terrible mistake when they think that only their own religion communicates the truth. He himself relied on the writings of the pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle in developing his philosophy and much of his philosophy is a copy of what Aristotle taught.

Angels are not as most people think semi-divine other-worldly beings that aid God. God is all powerful and needs no helpers. If one wants to use the word “angel,” an angel is everything that is in the world that carries out the divine will – that is, that fulfills what God placed in the laws of nature. Winds, rain, storms, snow, ice, and the like are God’s angels.

Maimonides did not believe that miracles exist. God made a perfect world. As the Bible states: God saw the world and it was good. God is not like a human plumber who needs to return from time to time to repair what he fixed in the past. A miracle is an extraordinary event that does not happen often, but is part of the laws of nature and not a deviation from it.

Anyone who believes that the imaginary unnatural events told in rabbinic Midrashim is true is a fool. Yet, most Midrashim should not be dismissed entirely. They are hyperbolic parables designed to teach lessons. People will gain many lessons by reading them for their lessons. One needs to separate the outer peel of an orange from what is inside and not think that the peel is the main part of the fruit.

Neither passive piety nor study of the Bible, Talmud, and mystical tracts bring people to God. Near the end of the Guide, Maimonides summarized his views and pictured Talmud scholars as people who stumble outside God’s palace without knowing how to enter. This may shock people who spend their time sitting and studying Talmud, but this was his belief. The purpose of the Bible, he stressed, is not to sit and study Talmud; the Bible’s purpose is three-fold: it teaches some true ideas and helps improve individuals and society. People fulfill the Bible’s mandate when and only when they study and understand about science and nature and use it to improve themselves and society.[4]

Some scholars are convinced that Maimonides did not believe that God is imminent; God is not present on earth and does not help people. God is transcendental. This is why Maimonides said that prophecy is a natural event. People are helped, Maimonides wrote, by using their intelligence. This is the definition of “Divine Providence,” which the general public erroneously think is God watching over people and taking care of them: “Divine Providence” is not something God does today or in the future; it is the intelligence that God placed in humans; when they use their intelligence to save themselves, it is as if God is saving them.

God is also not involved in the bad things that come to some people. These are natural events. Maimonides explained that the world is good and there are three sources of evil: (1) people do bad things to themselves, such as overeating or consuming improper foods or failing to exercise, (2) other people cause the problem, as when a nation invades another country to acquire its land and resources or when misguided people kill others who do not believe what they believe, and (3) people can be hurt by forces of nature that are good for the world as a whole, such as storms and hurricanes that clean the atmosphere.

These are some of the many insights that Moses Maimonides presented in his philosophical masterpiece. If people read and reread the masterpiece many times, they will derive a new understanding of life from each reading and be able to enter “God’s palace.” They will improve and move toward being all that they can be and create a better society.


[1] Maimonides was also a physician and wrote about a half dozen books on medicine. This view about Hippocrates and Galen is in his book where he corrects the views of Hippocrates. One of Maimonides’ teachings is never leave the dinner table feeling full. Science has confirmed today that it takes about twenty minutes after a meal until the body recognizes that it has enough food. Thus, if you leave the table feeling slightly hungry, in twenty minutes you will feel satisfied.

[2] Plato’s “Nobel Lie” is discussed in his Laws 2.663d-e. He lived in Greece between 427 and 347 BCE. Maimonides’ “Necessary Belief” is in the Guide of the Perplexed 3:28. In essence, although people may consider this incredibly insulting, philosophers recognize that the vast majority of people need to be taught fraudulent notions and treated in a paternalistic fashion by those who are convinced they know what is best for them. Some see these lies as “pedagogical truths” or “pious myths.”

[3] It is not easy to make this distinction and as a result there are Maimonidean scholars who are convinced that Maimonides believed that prophecy is from God, angels exist, etc.

[4] Many scholars, such as Rabbi Kook, see Maimonides saying that revelation continues and exists today in the laws of nature. We need to study these laws, and we will find new divine revelations.