Maimonides' "Guide of the Perplexed"

A Philosophical Guide

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Alfred L. Ivry
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , September
     2016.
     312 pages.
     $50.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780226395128.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Every work of philosophy has a context. In its day, Maimonides’s Guide of the Perplexed was considered a boon to some, but difficult and controversial to many others. Eight hundred years later, it feels foreign to us, and is no less difficult or controversial. Thus, understanding the context of the Guide of the Perplexed requires much more than simply reading it, especially in translation. That’s what makes this book—a guide to the Guide—such a valuable addition to the wealth of Maimonides scholarship. 

Alfred Ivry has dedicated a significant portion of his career to reading the Guide, understanding it within its context, and conveying it to our own. The result is a lucid study presented in two basic parts that follow a preface and introduction. The first part, “Background,” consists of three chapters aimed at situating Maimonides in his historical, religious, and intellectual context. Chapter 1 is a concise biography; chapter 2 is a discussion of Maimonides’s earlier opus, the Mishneh Torah; and chapter 3 discusses Maimonides’s Greco-Islamic heritage. The need for biography goes without saying, but the discussion of the Mishneh Torah and the Greco-Islamic backgrounds of Maimonides’s work are just what is needed to properly situate Maimonides in both his rabbinic and philosophic worlds—worlds that many of his contemporaries viewed as antagonistic. Maimonides’s purported goal was to demonstrate, to those capable of understanding, that rabbinic Judaism and philosophy are, in fact, compatible. 

The second part, which makes up the bulk of the book, is a section-by-section treatment of the Guide itself. These chapters are subdivided into a paraphrase of each section, followed by an analysis. On a practical level, the summaries are valuable for just that: summarizing in plain language each section of the Guide. While Ivry is the first to state that these are not a substitute for reading the Guide, they are valuable in that they reflect his many years of study and teaching of it. At a higher level, the analysis sections that follow are the real prize. Here, Ivry explains and critiques both what Maimonides himself wrote, and what successive scholarship has made of it over the centuries. As an explanation of how the science, philosophy, history, and theology of Maimonides’s times affected his thinking, this book is a great resource. Additionally, it maintains a scholarly dialogue with many of the important commentators and translators of the Guide, such as Alexander Altmann, Schlomo Pines, Leo Strauss, Oliver Leeman, Seymor Feldman, and Sarah Stroumsa, among others. But if omissions are significant, I would mention that the works of Menachem Kellner, Israel Drazin, and Joseph Soloveitchik are not referenced, which indications a glaring omission of anydiscussion of Maimonides’s mysticism.  Be that as it may, this as close to a full commentary on the Guide as may be found in any age.

It is from this analytical section of Ivry’s book that a fuller picture of the man, Moses Maimonides, emerges. From beginning to end, Ivry patiently presents Maimonides in a manner that is both admiring and sober. This Maimonides was both a man of the people and an elitist; a faithful Jew and a committed rationalist. While the Guide was purportedly written to help those who are perplexed, Ivry states his belief that the Guide is a record of Maimonides’s own search for answers to the questions he raised. As he states in the preface, “I see Maimonides as torn in his loyalties, seeking guidance as much as offering it” (p. xi). From Ivry’s point of view, it is possible to speak of Maimonides as both an undisputed master and also a man of his milieu. In my opinion, this is a very believable picture of a great thinker, who is usually either vilified or lionized. But perhaps it is also a picture that is reflective of our own 21st-century milieu. If so, then at least we can say that he is still relevant.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tom Edmondson is Senior Pastor at First Christian Church of Atlanta in Tucker, Georgia.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alfred L. Ivry is Professor Emeritus in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. He is the author, editor, or translator of nine books. Most recently, he edited Averroes’s Middle Commentary on Aristotle’s “De Anima” in both Arabic and Hebrew critical editions, as well as supplying an English-language translation.

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