It is good to be reminded of Maimonides, especially in this time when so many people are influenced by the idea that God wants people to have faith, that faith is all that is important, except, possibly, so some people contend, God created the world so that people can, indeed should, sit back and read prayers, or the Talmud, or Midrashim.
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.
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 our senses, science, and reason. No sensible person would prescribe a medicine to a dying person based only on tradition. He wrote that the traditional views of Hippocrates and Galen, the ancient teachers of medicine, for example, needed to be reevaluated based on modern science.
Is the Guide easy to understand? No. Maimonides recognized that the common uneducated people, who rely on the teachings they were given as children and never advanced, could not accept his rational teachings, so he tells us in his introduction that he wrote his Guide in a way that the general public would think he agreed with them and the educated would see that he is presenting new ideas. Thus, people need to learn how to pay special attention to what he wrote. Do all people agree with Maimonides today? No. the same problem that Maimonides faced during his lifetime continues to exist. There were Jewish religious leaders who pleaded with the non-Jewish authorities to burn his books. As a result, his books were burnt, and so were volumes of the Talmud.
What are some of the Maimonidean rational ideas that the common people could not and still do not accept? We know nothing about God, except negatives, such as God has no body as humans do.
God has no emotions; he 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 wrongs.
Angels and demons do not exist. God is all-powerful and needs no helpers. When the Bible speaks of angels, it is referring to a force of nature. The word “angel” is a metaphor for anything that carries out what God would have considered proper. The wind, rain, snow, summer heat, and good people, although human, are angels.
Prophets never received a communication from God. Prophecy is a natural event. It is the thinking of a man or woman with a higher level of intelligence. A “prophet” needed intelligence, a developed imagination so as to be able to put his or her thoughts in a way people could understand, and live a proper life, what people call a moral life. 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.
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 in a parable and pictured Talmud scholars as people who stumble outside God’s palace seeking ways to enter the palace but without knowing how to enter. They are forever, going in circles.
The purpose of the Bible, he stressed, 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 their knowledge of the world to improve themselves and society.
These are some of the many insights that Moses Maimonides presented in his philosophical masterpiece. If people read and reread his master work many times, they will derive a new understanding of life and what life requires of them. They will then be able to become all that they can be.