Maimonides and his modern readers: Adventures in Jewish Philosophy

Note: The following summarizes my approach to Maimonides for a seminar I teach at Boston University, which concludes tomorrow, Monday April 30. The students were prompted to present on a significant text from our readings, or on their term paper. I decided to set myself a task as well, namely, to articulate the arc of the course, and explain what I hoped to achieve. The result is perhaps the first step toward a prospectus of a book.


First, let me explain what I mean by “adventures.” Oxford Dictionaries (online) defines adventure as “an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity.” Its synonyms, according to the same source, are exploit, escapade, deed, feat, experience.

The etymology of the word “adventure” points to things one comes upon by chance, that entail risk, but also the notion of arriving and reaching a goal. It can thus evoke something hoped-for, and something unforeseen, in any case, it points to a sort of encounter with something of great affective value, something stirring the hope that the apprehension felt on the way will be surpassed by the experience of happiness at the end: home, the golden pot at the end of life’s rainbow. If we think of the adventure as part of a dramatic plot, the adventure story belongs in the category of comedy, which on balance offers a redemptive outcome for the hero, a happy end.

Another preliminary remark. In contrast to the adventure story, the “plot” of religions of redemption hovers between comedy and tragedy. The trajectory of the religious life is open-ended, like the novel.[1] In religions of salvation, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the prophetic revelation proclaims an unopposed monotheistic power structure that suggests the guarantee of a just outcome. But the concrete outcome is conditioned by human or divine choice. Religions of salvation offer a dynamic framework, within which the human being either chooses, or is chosen, to succeed or fail, making the outcome of our lives uncertain. This sting of uncertainty is meant to be balanced by faith or joyous submission to the verdict of divine judgment. Faith and submission imbue the believer with the confidence in divine forgiveness and ultimate reconciliation. The uncertainty of outcome may also lead to rebellion of those who, in their own eyes or in those of their fellow-religionists, despair of divine benevolence and succumb to the verdict of divine justice.

The above-mentioned religions are further complicated by the ambivalence of the object of special divine providence. Is it the individual, or is it the collective? (Buddhism is free of this ambivalence. The individual is here just as illusory, as is the world around them.) The Old Testament, or Tanakh, contains the material of both types of salvific religion. Torah, prophets, and the prophetic historiography of the Deuteronomistic school provide the blueprint for collective, i.e., political happiness/despair in the mundane realm of history and politics, whereas wisdom literature and many of the psalms provide a path for individuals to inscribe themselves into the plot of divine redemption.[2] The Book of Job and the pseudo-Salomonic work of Ecclesiastes/Qohelet belong in the category of skeptical wisdom that questions the efficacy of divine providence for the individual. This is precisely what secured their place in a canon that, for acute political reasons, wanted to emphasize and foreground the focus on collective redemption, in the sense of the restoration of the commonwealth.

What does any of this have to do with Maimonides and his modern readers or, more broadly, with Jewish philosophy. What is a philosophical adventure?

No one is born a philosopher. Some of us have stumbled on philosophy like the sleepy son of Strepsiades, for whom (and Aristophanes, his author) the editors of the ubiquitous Random House edition of The Complete Greek Drama show little affection. (See vol 2, p. 537). In other words, while we suspect that the pursuit of philosophy is somehow useful, we have no idea what we have gotten ourselves into until we become entangled in it. Enter: the philosophical adventure. At first it all seems like s suggestive soup of words, with a jumble of heavy concepts that offer a certain taste. Whether or not we like the dish, we are told it’s worth eating. And thus we take it in, wondering whether the meal will be transformative. A better analogy may be the first time we are prompted to consume a hallucinogenic drug. How will it go? An adventure in self-discovery.

Note that in imagining such an entry to philosophy we presuppose a certain configuration that resembles initiation into a mystery. There is an art of thinking (or just talking or speech-making, as its detractors suggest) into which we hope to be initiated. The paradoxical character of initiation is that, what we who hope to see or experience by ourselves (be it the gods, or a special place, a wonder of nature, or an illuminating idea), requires a guide: the novice requires a hierophant, needed for the wished-for encounter to be produced and experienced.

The Maimonides of the “Guide” (henceforth GP) serves as hierophant to those who turn to him to be guided from a state of “perplexity” to a state of clarity. The main difficulty of GP consists in the fact that it undertakes its task of hierophancy in writing. It is a book of instructions for a confused or perplexed reader, who aims to obtain clarity or, as Heidegger would say, “clearing” (Lichtung) which in German is a double entendre. It indicates light in the forest, where trees have been removed. The appearance of such a Lichtung is serendipitous. One comes upon a Lichtung on one’s wandering through the forest. Not everyone will arrive at such an auspicious moment of clearing. The condition of the possibility of finding it is that we enter the forest where we will soon be lost and in need of guidance. Hence the need for philosophical writing.

In our course, we repeatedly stumbled on the question of writing as the lesser of two evils and as always inferior to personal instruction. As I am writing this, I am reminded of the relentless push to increase the reach of academic instruction by means of digital communication. It seems to me, though I can’t be sure, that the virtual classroom is exactly this: a virtual classroom, i.e., a classroom that isn’t. Digital communication wants to extend personal and immediate instruction, the back and forth, the exchange of glances, the response to body posture, the attention to presence of the other, to a much larger “audience.” But audience presupposes speech and ears that are here de-materialized into a “monitorience” controlled by buttons, sidebars, and options to fast-forward and delete. I am quite certain, however, that Maimonides faced the same problem when he decided that the absence of his student Joseph required him to put his instructions for the perplexed in writing. It was an experiment in philosophical distance learning; more precisely, it was the first experiment in Jewish philosophical distance learning.

What are the secrets into which Maimonides wishes to initiate his readers? Are we still perplexed in a way that reading the Guide can be beneficial to us? Can Maimonides be our guide? Or do we approach Maimonides from a place where the questions that haunted him and his pupils are no longer daunting to us? In other words, are the mysteries of the Guide no longer compelling to us? Is Maimonides therefore only of historical, but no longer of philosophical, use to us? Has the “forest” of Maimonides been so completely mapped that we can no longer get lost in it, nor experience the thrill of a philosophical adventure?

I approach Maimonides by placing him, and us as his readers, in a certain company. This is not to say that I “contextualize” him, so as to explain him or his project. Historical antecedents and biographical context are important to get a “feel” for the intellectual and cultural preconditions of this (or any) thinker. This background helps us to see the generic aspects of an author’s writing more clearly. These generic aspects include references to the author’s own writings, or those of other writers and interlocutors that the author directs us to. This information is helpful to the work of understanding an author correctly, and to rule out the presumption of originality where an author merely repeats what others have already written, as well as the presumption of conformity where the author is original. Knowing what others wrote on the same subject also avoids the impression that great thinkers always work alone, rather than in conversation with others. By drawing attention to antecedents and interlocutors, our philosophical guide helps us to realize that philosophy is conducted among kindred spirits, rather than in splendid isolation. Philosophy does not begin from zero or an empty slate. By virtue of writing, philosophical conversations extend across time and place, allowing us to enter into a very special forest and to get lost and found in it: philosophical writing as an invitation to an adventure across times and spaces.

As Strauss points out eight centuries after Maimonides, philosophy begins when we read the “old tomes” again. Just how to read them with a mind that is awake and primed to ask the right questions is the first challenge.[3] Our guide wants the sleepy son or daughter of Strepsiades to awake from his or her slumber, just as Kant says of himself that he was awakened from his own dogmatic slumber by reading Hume. It is a kind of dogmatic slumber from which Maimonides wishes to awaken the perplexed, and guide them to perceiving a certain “light” with their own eyes; to glimpse it at first and then to proceed to a steady pursuit of a life in the light of truth, or at least of seeing clearly in the light that the truth sheds on the things we otherwise only perceive dimly. With these images, we enter into a metaphoric world Maimonides adopts from, and shares with, Plato. But is Maimonides’ goal the same as Plato’s? When they speak of light, do they mean the same thing? Is not Maimonides a student of Aristotle more than of Plato? And does he not affirm the Mosaic legislation as an unsurpassed event?

Before we go too far in this direction, let us flag another great divide. To entrust ourselves to the guidance of Maimonides in this adventure of metaphorical spelunking, we need to know whether we have access to Maimonides. This access is often denied. Maimonides is a remote object that we cannot see clearly. He is separated from us by time and distance, language, culture, and, most importantly, by his presupposition of the “medieval worldview.” He is also distant from us if, unlike him, we do not live under the political condition of compounded unfreedom indicated in the rule of the religious law of his own community and the oppressive circumstances of exile. We live in the “modern” age, an age characterized by a number of things that divide us from the medieval, just as the medieval–according to Maimonides–were divided from the ancients in some important respects. Reading Maimonides in light of Spinoza, Cohen, Strauss, and Arendt’s writing on the difference between the modern and the pre-modern “human condition,” sheds light on this divide. What separates us from Maimonides? What are the difficulties (prejudicial or actual) we must overcome as we approach his texts? How can we make sure we understand him? In fact, what is our goal or expectation in reading him?

Arendt provides us with a general introduction to the difference between the medieval and the modern worldview. Spinoza instantiated the conscious break with antecedent tradition that is characteristic of the so-called “radical enlightenment” of his age. One of the most eminent targets of his “un-reading” was Maimonides and his interpretation of scripture with the aim of reconciling the wording of scripture with the tenets of Aristotelian philosophical rationalism.[4] Cohen instantiates a new reading of Maimonides in light of the Kantian maxim of understanding an author better than he understood himself, which allowed him to bend Maimonides toward a critical idealism that Cohen saw as founded by Socrates-Plato. Strauss worked out a discipline of un-reading this modern hermeneutic, with the express aim of learning again to understand an author as s/he understood himself. Oddly, while it is Strauss who is often suspected to have “politicized” Platonic philosophy, Strauss’s critique of Cohen’s reading of Spinoza flips the presumed intentions of these authors, defending the good faith of Spinoza as grounded in his philosophy, while showing that Cohen’s attack on his modern antecedent – as well as his creative defense of Maimonides – were acts of politically motivated, willful misreading.

Maimonides prompted Strauss to speak of a difference between the natural difficulties of philosophizing, and an additional difficulty that did not exist for the ancients. That difficulty concerns the habituation to opinions, by which Maimonides means the proliferation of prophetic revealed legislation and of regimes based on such revealed legislation. According to Maimonides-Strauss, the fact of revelation and the fact of its political force creates an obstacle to philosophizing that we need to overcome if we wish to arrive at a proper understanding of the natural difficulties where, as Strauss writes, we can benefit, once again, from the guidance of the teacher of ignorance, Socrates. Strauss’s preferred image for our situation, as first articulated by Maimonides, is that we find ourselves in “a second, much deeper cave” from which we need to extricate ourselves. Strauss’s mature writings are an attempt to prompt his readers to extricate themselves from prejudices received by tradition, and arrive at a place of natural ignorance or freedom from all prejudice. More will need to be said about this later on. For now I want to flag the common trope of the cave and the quest for “extrication.” By speaking of “extrication,” Strauss may refer to the Hellenistic sculpture of Laocoon, famously described in an essay (1766) by the German poet Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (whom Strauss admired). The sculpture of Laocoon depicts the moment of agony of a priest and his sons who offended the gods and are punished by being entangled and crushed by sea-serpents. For Lessing, “the medium is the message.” The symbolic or allegorical work of art wordlessly represents the struggle for self-extrication that Strauss associates with the work of reading. Entangled by prejudice rather than mere opinion, the reader must struggle to rise from complete darkness to a place where we can begin to search for a Lichtung. In this reading, the modern Enlightenment (promoted by Spinoza and Lessing, a “Spinozist”) inadvertently generated a kind of eclipse of the medieval that, instead of bringing illumination, merely created a thick layer of prejudices. Strauss believes he can become a guide for the moderns who are safe in their prejudices and aims to raise a suspicion against the modern prejudice that we are insurmountably separate from the medieval philosophy of Maimonides.[5] He further believes that it is through the agency of Maimonides that we can free ourselves from the peculiar misreading of Plato launched by Kant and Cohen.

Approaching Maimonides through a conversation with Spinoza, Cohen, and Strauss (rather than, say, Farabi or Averroes), I follow Strauss’s intuition. Like Strauss, I am interested in a philosophical conversation across time and convinced that we can benefit from reading Maimonides as a philosophical contemporary. This is not to dismiss Arendt and others who help us to become aware of the distance we must travers and the obstacles we need to overcome before we can benefit, once again, from reading Maimonides and benefit from his guidance.

[1] See Michael Zank, “Torah v. Jewish Law. A Genre-Critical Approach to the Political Theology of Reappropriation” in Allen Speight and Michael Zank (eds.), Philosophy, Theology, and Politics [Boston Series in Philosophy and Religion, ed. Allen Speight], Springer Verlag (2017), 195-221.

[2] This is speaking roughly and imprecisely. It would be more accurate to say that the psalms (of lament etc) project vindication in this life rather than reward in the hereafter. The latter idea is conceived in the context of apocalypticism, which combines personal and collective destiny and projects the promise of an afterlife to the partisan who remains loyal to the covenant as an individual (or member of a group) rather than to the nation as a whole. In this sense, the apocalyptic promise of vindication in the hereafter is an extension of, or variation on, covenantal prophetism, not an elaboration on the wisdom literature’s quest for individual virtue. The bridge between the latter and the later Christian doctrines of redemption is the Wisdom of Solomon, not the Book of Daniel. To be sure, Christianity absorbs both of these trends that continue to struggle within it.

[3] Two great variations on this theme come to mind: Wagner’s Parsifal and the parable of the four sons, from the Passover Haggadah.

[4] One of the first open disciples of Spinoza, John Toland (who gave us the term “Pantheism”) promoted the Socinian doctrine, which dismissed all Christian “mysteries.” Similarly, Spinoza deprives the biblical prophets of any claim to metaphysical or mystical insights into divine being, except for the utterly unmysterious teaching of a universal morality.

[5] See Zank, “Arousing Suspicion Against a Prejudice: Leo Strauss and the Study of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed” in Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) – His Religious, Scientific, and Philosophical Wirkungsgeschichte in Different Cultural Contexts, ed. by Görge K. Hasselhoff and Otfried Fraisse (Ex Oriente Lux: Rezeptionen und Exegesen als Traditionskritik, vol. 4) Würzburg: Ergon Verlag, 2004, pp. 549-571.


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trunnion ball valve posted on August 26, 2022 at 2:15 am

Maimonides and his modern readers: Adventures in Jewish Philosophy | Michael Zank1661494533

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