Moreh Nevuchim is a book that has provoked an enormous amount of discussion and debate since it was first published a thousand years ago. Rambam’s masterpiece of Jewish thought was a bold embodiment of the rich and vibrant approach to Jewish philosophy that had taken hold in Andalusia—a philosophy that sought to express and develop the received Geonic tradition in the contemporary Aristotelian milieu. While the Judeo-Andalusian world had been somewhat self-contained up until Rambam’s time, Almohad persecution sent Rambam and many others into exile in North Africa. This spread of Andalusian thought beyond its original borders, coupled with Rambam’s famed scholarship and reputation in the halachic sphere, meant that the Moreh could not be ignored by its diverse rabbinic audience. The question of what the rest of the Jewish world was to make of this philosophically rigorous work—whose ideas appeared both seductively mysterious and also frustratingly elusive—has confronted and occupied rabbis and thinkers ever since.
A Guide to the Guide, a newly released synopsis and summary of the Moreh by Rabbis Yosef Kohn and Yaakov Reinman, adds a new dimension to the discussion of how Rambam’s Jewish philosophy should be approached in the modern world. Rabbi Reinman is a well-established talmid chacham in Lakewood and a veteran author. He partnered with Rabbi Kohn, a medical doctor, for five years to write this book.
It is an enduring irony that perhaps the most complex book that has ever been written on Jewish thought was to be defined by the reaction of those who were not its intended readership. One thing that Rambam does appear to make abundantly clear in his introduction is that “its purpose is to give indications to a religious man for whom the validity of our Law has become established in his soul and has become actual in his belief—such a man being perfect in his religion and character, and having studied the science of the philosophers and come to know what they signify.”
Yet the Moreh, together with philosophical chapters of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah legal work, was banned and burned by rabbinic opponents in Christian-dominated France, for whom philosophy was a foreign pursuit. These rabbis were quick to denounce what they perceived to be an unwelcome Aristotelian or rationalist attempt to reconstruct Judaism in its own image. The strong criticism, bans and book burnings of the Moreh in its early years set the tone for an uneasy relationship with the work, which for many religious Jews has continued to this very day.
In the other corner of the ring, Jewish thinkers who had indeed studied the “science of the philosophers” but for whom the validity of our Law had not “become established in their soul” (a requirement Rambam set for readers in his introduction) found that the Moreh fell short of their own Aristotelian-rationalist attempts to interpret Judaism. Samuel ibn Tibbon, who first translated Rambam’s work into Hebrew, criticized what he considered to be its overemphasis on worldly religious activities at the expense of philosophical contemplation. Even rationalist rabbinic sages such as the Ralbag were critical that some of Rambam’s positions were “not implied by any philosophical principles . . . it seems rather that theological considerations have forced him.” These critics deemed Rambam insufficiently rationalist.
Meanwhile, Rambam’s indication that the Moreh contains some deliberate contradictions and concealments opened up the work to interpreters from less traditional quarters to speculate as to what Rambam’s true meaning and agenda had been.
Set against this daunting backdrop, A Guide to the Guide is a bold statement as to the significance—and continuing relevance—of the simple meaning of Rambam’s masterpiece. By providing a clear and concise English summary of each chapter, Rabbis Kohn and Reinman are inescapably taking a position on two questions that are controversial among interpreters of the Moreh.
(1) Value in the Moreh’s plain meaning
For the Moreh’s traditionalists, Rambam’s masterpiece cannot be neatly distilled into easily digestible bite-sized summaries. Such purists draw on Rambam’s own introductory guidance to the Guide, which insists that a careful methodology be employed to plumb the depths of his intricate theological theories:
If you wish to grasp the totality of what this Treatise contains, so that nothing of it will escape you, then you must connect its chapters one with another; and when reading a given chapter, your intention should be not only to understand the totality of the subject of that chapter, but also to grasp each word that occurs in it in the course of the speech, even if the word does not belong to the intent of the chapter.
In fact, Rabbis Kohn and Reinman freely acknowledge in their own introduction that Rambam did not intend the Moreh to be an easy read. Nevertheless, despite recognizing that many of the deeper secrets will remain beyond those who are insufficiently grounded in both Torah and philosophy, Rambam does not deem it to be entirely unhelpful to an uninitiated audience:
I know that, among men generally, every beginner will derive benefit from some of the chapters of this Treatise, though he lacks even an inkling of what is involved in speculation.
(2) The Moreh’s relevance to twenty-first-century Judaism
While Rambam’s own consideration of the benefits that various groups can derive from studying his work is, of course, important, it cannot be ignored that the fields of science and philosophy—which he sought to reconcile with the Torah—have advanced enormously over the past millennium. The long and winding passages that seek to rebut aspects of Aristotelian astronomy or subsets of medieval Islamo-rationalist philosophy will strike the typical modern reader as tedious and unrewarding. Once these chapters have been set aside, however, a modern, educated and religious reader of the Moreh may find some of the challenges that Rambam grappled with to be strikingly similar to some of those that confront twenty-first-century Jewry.
Today’s faithful, who must contend with widely accepted theories of evolution and the age of the universe, can find comfort in the style of techniques and arguments adopted by Rambam to rebut the science of his day or reconcile it with received Torah wisdom. More broadly, recent decades have seen a shift toward viewing mitzvot and other ritual customs as forms of segulot—mystical actions that can manipulate spiritual dynamics in order to achieve desired results. Rambam’s emphasis on the Torah and its commandments as a means to develop a serious intellectual (and thereby providential) relationship with G-d over the course of a lifetime may be seen by some as a welcome alternative. His approach to prayer as a primary tool for maximizing a meaningful relationship with G-d, rather than an aggressive storming of the heavens to make demands of the Almighty, may be similarly beneficial. Such benefits can be enjoyed by modern readers even if they lack a precise sophisticated insight into some of Rambam’s more intricate ideas that are woven subtly into the Moreh. In this regard, A Guide to the Guide is of particular value to today’s perplexed readership who can identify and internalize core components of Rambam’s Judaism and thereby enrich their own relationship with the Torah. They need not, for example, grasp the elusive nuances of the Moreh’s negative theology—Rambam’s solution to the problem of describing G-d by instead describing what G-d is not—in order to sense the theological gulf between the human and Divine realms that forms the basis of Rambam’s monotheism and, in the reported words of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, “served as a brake against the deterioration of Kabbalah into idolatry.”
It would be wrong, however, to characterize A Guide to the Guide merely as an accessible English summary of Rambam’s work. The book also includes many helpful footnotes, with cross-references, contextualizations, insightful explanations and often crucial background information for uninitiated modern readers. Perceptively, these notes draw upon the fundamental distinction Rambam makes in his second chapter between good and evil and true and false, recognizing that this idea is placed at the start of the Moreh as a conceptual platform upon which subsequent theories would be constructed. Certain details, though, could have been more polished. In that same chapter, for example, Rambam adopts the translation of Onkelos to explain the verse (Bereishit 3:5) “And you will be kelohim knowing good and bad,” which Onkelos translates as ravrevaya; Rambam explains this to refer to political leaders. By simply writing that G-d did not want humans to be inordinately powerful, the book misses an important nuance. According to Rambam’s approach, political leaders, due to the nature and requirements of leadership, must construct policies based on conventional values of tov v’ra (good and bad), rather than absolute truths of emet v’sheker (true and false), which Rambam says is only appropriate for humanity before Adam and Eve committed the initial sin. Rambam was making a point about the nature of political leadership and not just the limitations placed on leaders.
For the most part, however, these notes are useful and informative. Readers will be assisted by background information they are likely to have been unfamiliar with—such as ancient beliefs in the intelligence possessed by celestial beings (1:2)—as well as thoughtful suggestions as to the nature of the theological error that Rambam (1:5) understands the atzilei Bnei Yisrael to have made at Mount Sinai when they “gazed at G-d, and ate and drank” (Shemot 24:11). Following Rambam’s own path, the authors appear to have a particular interest in explaining how prophecy functions. A number of their longer footnotes relate to this subject, drawing upon both Talmudic passages and Rambam’s other works to help explain his theories. Some footnotes are creative and even entertaining. In their speculative attempts to make some of the more remote passages of the Moreh relatable to a modern readership, Rabbis Kohn and Reinman explain the esoterics of Ma’aseh Bereishit in terms of a “primordial biological supercomputer” that controlled “the DNA of nature” (2:30).
Some readers may be disappointed with the paucity of explanatory notes on the crucial closing chapters, where Rambam provides detailed guidance as to how to maximize one’s providential relationship with G-d (3:51) and emphasizes the importance of being morally and ethically engaged with the world (3:54). Taken in its totality, however, the authors should be applauded for an important contribution to Torah literature, which will open up Rambam’s systematic religious philosophy to a readership that might not otherwise have had access to it. In a generation whose youth, like those during Rambam’s time, are grappling with how to reconcile the Torah with outside ideas and seeking a philosophy of Judaism that is both comprehensible and comprehensive, A Guide to the Guide is a valuable gift and a praiseworthy project.
Rabbi Shmuel Phillips is the author of Judaism Reclaimed: Philosophy and Theology in the Torah (Beit Shemesh, 2019) and Talmud Reclaimed: An Ancient Text in the Modern Era (Beit Shemesh, 2023). He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and four children.