Navigate to History section

A Guide of the Perplexed

How Philadelphia’s local ‘Jewish Exponent’ came to host in 1963 S.D. Goitein’s insightful but overlooked scholarly essay on Maimonides, now reprinted here

Warren Zev Harvey
January 08, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

I was taken by surprise when Menachem Butler of Tablet magazine asked me to write this introduction to Shelomo Dov Goitein’s review of the 1963 University of Chicago edition of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, which is republished below. I of course knew that Goitein (1900-1985), the celebrated historian of the Jews in Arab lands, had discovered important documents in the Cairo Geniza about Maimonides (1138-1204), that he was the foremost expert on his biography, and that he had written learned articles on his rabbinic responsa. However, I never heard that he had written anything on his philosophic masterpiece, the Guide of the Perplexed. I was very curious to read what Goitein had to say about the University of Chicago edition of the Guide, and immediately agreed to write this introduction.

Let me begin my introduction with a few words about the University of Chicago edition of Maimonides’ Guide. The publication of this edition in 1963 was a revolutionary event that gave a new impetus to Maimonidean studies in the English-speaking world and elsewhere. It presented a new English translation of the Guide by Shlomo Pines (1908-1990) of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the incredibly erudite scholar of Jewish and Islamic philosophy. His translation was prefaced by two introductions: his own “Translator’s Introduction,” which remains today the best analysis of Maimonides’ philosophic sources; and “How to Begin to Study the Guide” by Leo Strauss (1899-1973) of the University of Chicago, the brilliant political philosopher, which remains today the best interpretive essay on the Guide.

As soon as the volume appeared, it was clear that Pines’ translation was more accurate than the 1885 translation by Michael Friedlander, and would replace it as the standard academic English translation. English-speaking philosophers, theologians, and scholars, who could not read the Guide in the original Arabic, now had a more authoritative translation of the book, and in addition they also had two magisterial introductions to help them fathom its secrets.

Scholars quickly recognized the significance of this volume. Leading experts wrote extensive and incisive reviews of it in top scholarly journals. Alexander Altmann reviewed it in the Journal of Religion, Lawrence V. Berman in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, Marvin Fox in the Journal of the History of Philosophy, Nicholas Rescher in Dialogue, Isadore Twersky in Speculum, etc. However, how come I had never heard that S.D. Goitein was also among the reviewers? The answer to that is easy. Goitein did not review the volume in a scholarly journal, but rather in the Jewish Exponent, a weekly serving the Jewish community of Philadelphia. Thus, the review was largely overlooked by scholars. It was written when Goitein was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and lived in Philadelphia.

The review appeared in the Exponent on Dec. 6, 1963 (20 Kislev 5724) in the “Speaking of Books” section, buried deep inside the paper on pp. 22 and 54. It begins with some comments about the physical appearance of the volume. Goitein praises the printing, paper, and binding, and borrowing a phrase from Genesis 3:6, calls the book “a delight to the eyes.” The “exquisite” production was made possible, he explains, by the generous support of 18 (=chai) “sponsors” whose names are listed on the leaf following the title page in accordance with an old Jewish practice. Goitein recalls that a rabbinic book by his great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Baruch Bendit Goitein, begins with a similar list of sponsors, which included Theodor Herzl’s grandfather. Having commented about the aesthetics of the volume, Goitein exclaims: “I cannot imagine a more beautiful gift for Hanukkah.”

Goitein has accolades for Pines’ translation. He remarks that Pines is “extremely sensitive to the linguistic expression of delicate nuances of thought.” In his opinion, Pines’ translation is not only superior to Friedlander’s, but “will remain the standard work ... as long as the English language will be spoken.” No more, no less! Goitein also lauds Pines “Translator’s Introduction.” It is, he writes, “an extremely learned and valuable survey” of Maimonides’ philosophic sources. Regarding Strauss’ introduction, Goitein is more guarded. It is, he opines, an “admirable essay,” but the esoteric character of the Guide is “perhaps a little overemphasized” in it. Goitein complains that neither Pines nor Strauss has provided “a systematic exposition of Maimonides’ philosophy.” In reply to this complaint, it might be argued that such an exposition is implicit in the Pines and Strauss introductions.

Goitein considers Maimonides “the greatest Jewish mind of the Middle Ages,” and observes that, in addition to his being a preeminent Talmudic scholar, he was also “an expert in philosophy and the sciences … in particular mathematics, astronomy, and medicine.” Goitein’s review contains many fascinating observations concerning the Guide, reflecting his own profound reading of the book.

For example, Goitein reminds us that the Guide was written for “the perplexed … of the 12th century,” not for today’s perplexed. However, he continues, the book’s aim is not to advocate for 12th-century Aristotelianism, which would be irrelevant today, but rather to advocate for “rational thinking,” which is as relevant today as ever. Maimonides urges that “religion is not … opposed to rational thinking, but represents the highest form of rational thinking itself.”

Moreover, Goitein makes clear that religion for Maimonides’ is dynamic, not static or dogmatic. “Spiritual perfection,” he paraphrases the Guide, is “the constant pursuit of a life with God.” Spiritual perfection is thus not an accomplishment, but a “constant pursuit.” Although this may sound more Kierkegaardian than Aristotelian, it aptly describes Maimonides’ spirituality.

Maimonides’ ultimate goal was not the promotion of ‘peace of mind,’ but ‘the guidance of the select few to the highest possible level of spirituality the human mind is able to attain.’

Goitein sees “individualism” as a major theme of the Guide. In this he obviously reflected the American ethos of the 1960s which glorified individualism. He writes that, according to Maimonides, “the ultimate purpose of life” is “the perfection of one’s own individuality, consisting … in the right knowledge of God and permanent consciousness of his presence.” Goitein adds that “[t]his insistence on incessant striving for one’s own perfection is an ideal valid for all times.” Note that the ideal that Goitein extols here as “valid for all times” is not the “knowledge of God” but the “striving for one’s own perfection.”

However, Goitein did not try to make Maimonides relevant to all the ideals of 1960s America. Like Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Joseph B. Soloveitchik, he sought to separate Maimonideanism from the then current American ideal of “peace of mind.” Maimonides’ ultimate goal,” he wrote, was not the promotion of “peace of mind,” but “the guidance of the select few to the highest possible level of spirituality the human mind is able to attain.

Goitein notes that “the literary character” of Maimonides’ Guide is “the opposite” of that of his great legal code, the Mishneh Torah. The latter work is “a model of good composition and structural craftsmanship,” while the former gives the impression of “loose leaves bound together.” Goitein has a novel explanation for the non-systematic or “haphazard” nature of the Guide. According to him, the Guide was not planned ab initio but “grew out of conversations and correspondence” with Maimonides’ devoted pupil, Rabbi Joseph ben Judah ibn Simeon. The Guide consequently consists largely of “answers to questions put somewhat haphazardly.”

I have already mentioned that Goitein thought that Strauss had exaggerated the esoteric nature of the Guide. There is, Goitein allows, some intentional “ambiguity” and “obscurity” in the Guide designed to conceal controversial doctrines from the vulgar, but such misdirection is not as extensive as Strauss had imagined. Like Friedlander, Goitein argues that while the chapters of the Guide often seem to fit together haphazardly, the individual chapters in themselves contain for the most part “clearly formulated and well argumented points of discourse.”

Goitein concludes his review with some helpful advice for the reader who wishes to begin to study the Guide. His advice is clear. Begin your study of the book not with its beginning, but with Part I, Chapter 32; and after you have studied that chapter, “read wherever [you are] attracted by the subject matter.” I have been studying and teaching the Guide for more than half a century, and have not previously heard such advice. Part I, Chapter 32 is the chapter in which Maimonides warns the reader about the challenges and dangers of study. It contrasts the excellent scholar Rabbi Aqiba with the infamous heretic Elisha ben Abuyah, known as Aḥer (“the Other”). Rabbi Aqiba studied subjects in an orderly way and did not rush to make definitive pronouncements about things that had not been demonstrated, while Elisha Aḥer, on the contrary, was rash and made definitive pronouncements about things that were beyond his knowledge. In science, Maimonides teaches, as in other areas of life, humility is a virtue and impetuousness a vice. Goitein, it seems, thought that this teaching was so important that it should be the first lesson learned by a student of the Guide. Having learned the lesson of Part I, Chapter 32, the reader may then move on to whichever chapter attracts him or her. After all, Goitein seems to reason, if the chapters of the Guide have been organized haphazardly, then it does not matter much in which order one reads them.

Tablet has done a great service by republishing S.D. Goitein’s 1963 review of the University of Chicago Guide of the Perplexed. His review, which had been ignored and forgotten, reveals to us not only this outstanding Semitist’s opinion of Pines’ and Strauss’ scholarly contributions, but also his keen insights into Maimonides’ ever-perplexing philosophic classic.

S.D. Goitein’s Forgotten Review of the Pines-Strauss ‘Guide of the Perplexed’

The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, December 6, 1963

[S.D. Goitein was a member at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey; Professor Emeritus of Islamic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and Professor Emeritus of Arabic at the University of Pennsylvania. He died in 1985.]

Before anything else, something must be said about the external appearance of this new translation of Maimonides’ Guide. The binding is superb and at the same time austere as becoming a book of that kind. The paper, the type of print, the setting—all are of exquisite quality.

The book is a delight to the eyes. I cannot imagine a more beautiful gift for Hanukkah to a person interested in the history of Jewish thought than this masterpiece of typography put out by the University of Chicago Press.

One wonders how it was financially possible to bestow such a luxurious garb on a comparatively esoteric book. The answer is found on the leaf following the title page, which contains the names of 18 “sponsors” who made the printing of the book possible.

In older times this was the normal procedure in the publication of scholarly books. My own great-great-grandfather’s Kesef Nivhar, which is still popular with the Talmudists and has often been reprinted, also in this country, appeared first in Prague 1827, preceded by a long list of sponsors including, incidentally, the grandfather of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism.

In our days, scientific foundations fulfill the function of sponsors. Still, there is room also for private initiative in this field. Could there be a more dignified form of immortalizing one’s name than having it printed next to the title page of this translation, which, as far as we can foresee, will remain the standard work on the subject as long as the English language will be spoken?

The translator, Prof. Shlomo Pines, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is particularly well qualified for the task. He is a renowned expert in Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew philosophical writings, well versed also in Indian thought and has made important contributions to the study of medieval philosophy.

He is a Russian Jew, who lived for extended periods in Germany, France and England before settling in Israel. He spent also a year at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey. He is thoroughly familiar with all the languages in which studies pertinent to the Guide have been published and is extremely sensitive to the linguistic expression of delicate nuances of thought.

The introductory essay, which explains the plan, aim and character of the book, is from the pen of Leo Strauss, distinguished service professor at the University of Chicago and one of the outstanding contemporary authorities on the history of political thought.

Leo Strauss has devoted several studies to Maimonides’ philosophy, which are counted among the most significant written about the subject in our time. Such a combination of two highly qualified scholars guarantees of the enduring value of this undertaking. Maimonides, the greatest mind of the Middle Ages, is of course a name with which the readers of this paper are familiar. Still, since he has remained a puzzle even to those who have studied his writings all their lives, a word about him may be not superfluous.

Born in Cordova, Spain, in 1135 [1138], he emigrated via Palestine to Egypt in or around 1165 and died in Old Cairo in December 1204. His greatest single contribution was the Mishnah Torah, a compilation of Jewish thought, law and ritual, which is a masterpiece of synthesis and composition.

It is simply unconceivable how a single man could have been able to assemble, sift and organize the immense material included in this book, which is remarkable also for his lucid and pleasant Hebrew style. Before the Mishnah Torah, Maimonides had gained fame through his huge commentary on the Mishnah, composed in Arabic.

During all his life Maimonides wrote treatises on specific topics connected with Judaism and Jewish realities and answered questions submitted to him. About 500 answers or “responsa” have been preserved, but many more must have been written by him.

The present writer found three hitherto unknown autographed responsa by Maimonides in an ancient hoard of manuscripts known as the Cairo Geniza.

In addition, Maimonides was an expert in philosophy and in the sciences cultivated in his time, in particular mathematics, astronomy and medicine, and was a practicing physician during most of his life.

For many years he served as physician to the court, in which capacity he had to ride every day two miles (on a mule, not in a car) from Old Cairo, where he lived, to the new capital, where he treated “the sultan, his wives, concubines, slave-girls and attendants.”

On the top of all this he was trice the official head of the Jews of Egypt, an office of communal as well as political character. After serving about five years in this capacity, he was ousted by a rival and was reinstituted only about eight years before his death.

Maimonides’ being out of office for the major part of his stay in Egypt (a fact seemingly overlooked by his biographers) was most fortunate. Otherwise, he would not have been able to leave us his Mishnah Torah and his Guide.

Finally, attention must be drawn to a long letter addressed to Maimonides by his brother, David, written immediately before the latter set out on a journey from an East African port on his way to India (on which he perished). The letter, also found by the present writer among the treasures of the Cairo Geniza, reveals the astonishing fact that the great sage was the mastermind behind his brother’s business.

The Guide—we should remember—was intended to give an answer to the questions of the perplexed not of our own time, but of those of the 12th century. At that time there were many educated Jews who had studied the sciences and Greek philosophy and were also versed in the Bible and post-Biblical Jewish writings.

Such people were very much disturbed by the obvious discrepancies between rational thinking and many passages in the Hebrew scriptures. Maimonides’ first aim was the demonstration of the rationality of the Jewish religion. For, according to him, religion is not a faith opposed to rational thinking, but represents the highest form of rational thinking itself.

However, it would be entirely erroneous to assume that Maimonides solely intended to restore the “peace of mind” to the Jewish intellectuals of his time. Maimonides’ ultimate goal was the guidance of the select few to the highest possible level of spirituality the human mind is able to attain.

It was not only moral perfection, utmost justice and loving kindness in relation to our fellowmen, which was postulated by Maimonides.

This, according to him, was only a preparatory stage, to be complemented by the struggle for spiritual perfection, the constant pursuit of a life with God.

Maimonides, in his common sense, fully pays attention to a man’s duties towards his wife and children and his communal and professional obligations. But he impresses on the reader that the ultimate purpose of life was the perfection of one’s own individuality, consisting, according to him, in the right knowledge of God and permanent consciousness of His presence. This insistence on incessant striving for one’s own perfection is an ideal valid for all times.

The literary character of the Guide is the opposite of the Mishnah Torah. While the latter, despite its huge size, is a model of good composition and structural craftsmanship, the Guide, or at least considerable sections of it, make the impression of loose leaves bound together.

The reason for this strange fact is to be sought both in the origin and the nature of the book. As the introductory remarks show (pp. 3-17), the book grew out of conversations and correspondence with a devoted disciple. Many passages in the book prove that this background was real and not a literary fiction. Therefore, considerable parts of the book have to be regarded as answers to questions put somewhat haphazardly.

Moreover, the main subjects of the Guide, the wonder of Creation and the Nature of God, were topics which, according to Jewish law, should not be taught in public, but confided only to well-prepared students in individual conversation.

However, writing a book means teaching in public. The dilemma was solved by Maimonides through arranging the subject matter in such a way and formulating his conclusions in such terms that the book was easily accessible to the initiated, but closed to those for whom it was not destined.

The translator took much pain in preserving any ambiguity or obscurity which might have been intended by the author. This esoteric character of the book is perhaps a little overemphasized in Leo Strauss’ Introduction. In reality, most chapters contain clearly formulated and well argumented points of discourse.

It seems to the present reviewer that the two distinguished scholars who undertook to make Maimonides’ Guide accessible to the modern reader have not yet completed their task.

The translator’s introduction contains an extremely learned and valuable survey of the philosophical writings which might have served Maimonides in one way or another as sources. However, neither he, nor Leo Strauss in his admirable essay, has provided the reader with a systematic exposition of Maimonides’ philosophy.

Such a key to the Guide is the more necessary as its gates do not open readily to any one desirous of understanding its guiding principles and their relevance for contemporary Jewish thought.

The reader who wishes to attempt the study of the Guide without additional help is advised to start, after the reading of the introductions, with Part I, Chapter 32, and then to read wherever he is attracted by the subject matter. He will be rewarded richly.

S.D. Goitein’s review is reprinted with permission of Mid-Atlantic Media and Jewish Exponent.

Warren Zev Harvey is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University ofJerusalem where he has taught since 1977.