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Sun, Dec. 27th, 2015, 07:52 am
Review: "Maimonides: A Guide for Today's Perplexed"

At the recommendation of a friend from shul who is a rabbi and a teacher at the Maimonides school here in Boston, I recently read "Maimonides: A Guide for Today's Perplexed" by Kenneth Seeskin.

This is an amazing book which I recommend in the strongest terms, not just to readers interested in Maimonidean Judaism but to anyone, of any or no religion, who wants to understand how a rigorously rational religious philosophy can work.

Seeskin succeeds in translating Maimonides (also known in Hebrew as the Rambam). This is not a literal translation; there are several excellent choices for that. What Seeskin does is translate the concepts that the Rambam expresses, not just into English, but into contemporary terms. Recall that the Rambam was writing for students of Aristotle and Plato, and for the leading scientific minds of his day. Today's readers are not as familiar with the "dog whistles" of Greek philosophy; our best understanding of science has changed greatly; our cultural referents are vastly different. Seeskin gets to each core idea that Maimonides expresses, collects the source material by topic (which was expressly not the Rambam's plan with the Guide -- he wanted the reader to have to work to put these ideas together), and then expresses the idea in ways that a modern reader with a good general education can appreciate. (Obviously, in a work of this length, he can only deal with the "top level" of each concept.)

As a contemporary Jew, modern in outlook but traditional in practice, I have often wished that I could find the words and the logical structure to explain my beliefs. So many people, when thinking of religion, start off with assumptions about theurgy and other superstitious practices, us-vs-them religio-ethnic superiority, and the idea that religious faith somehow requires one to leave one's rational ability for critical thought at the door. Seeskin's explanation of Maimonides' philosophy of religion is the exposition I have been seeking for years of a very different view of religion, one in which the adherent uses the structure of religion to frame an intellectually honest inquiry into the nature of the world and the betterment of the self.

This is a fairly short book, considering what Seeskin is covering, and it is the most readable treatise on Maimonides that I have ever encountered. (Kellner is great but a little too technical and detailed for a general audience, and Goodman is a bit dry and, in English translation, more sesquipedalian than necessary.) Seeskin's exploration of the Rambam's thought is a great antidote to a lot of sloppy thinking out there.

As I said above, regardless of your religious beliefs (including atheism), if you are at all interested in a refreshing perspective on how -- and why -- a devoutly religious person can apply their intellect to create a rigorously sound and honest application of religious philosophy to life, I recommend as strongly as I can that you devote a few hours to "Maimonides: A Guide for Today's Perplexed".

Mon, Dec. 28th, 2015 03:58 am (UTC)
cellio

Thanks for sharing this. I've read occasional Rambam passages (mostly from Moreh, I think) in classes and stuff, and it's always felt like there's something important there that I'm just not equipped to grasp yet -- it feels like I lack some important foundations. It sounds like this would help.

Thu, Jul. 14th, 2016 06:33 pm (UTC)
seekingferret

I read this book on your recommendation, and wanted to come back and say thank you- it was as good, and as challenging, as advertised.