Born 1135

Córdoba, Spain

Relevant Work The Guide of the Perplexed


(NATC, 2nd ed.)

Biography Edit

  • Maimonides was born into an influential Jewish family in Cordova, Spain.
  • At age 13, Cordova was captured by members of a fundamentalist Islamic sect, driving his family to flee to Fez, Morocco. Eventually, he settled in Cairo, Egypt, where he lived for the rest of his life.
  • He received a secular education from the most distinguished Arabic scholars of his time as well as rabbinic instruction from his father. After working for a time in the business of precious stones, he turned to medicine and eventually became physician to the court of the grand vizier. Maimonides substantially affected literature and criticism as he offered a different way of thinking than the Greek philosophical tradition. He also helped to reintroduce the works of Aristotle and influenced future scholars like Thomas Aquinas (NATC 162).
  • Died on December 12, 1204, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most celebrated Jewish people of the Middle Ages.

The Guide of the Perplexed Edit

Background and Historical Context Edit

Supposedly written for his disciple, Joseph ben Judah, The Guide of the Perplexed explains obscure parables and terms found in "the books of the prophets." Maimonides argues that to penetrate the meaning of the Scriptures and the Talmud demands a fully elaborated method of interpretation (a hermeneutic). The Guide brings into view Hebraic methods of thinking about textual interpretation that continues to be relevant to literary theory today.

Key Words and Terms Edit

Account of the Beginning - The Genesis story. Amphibolus - Having sometimes one meaning and sometimes many meanings.

Derivative - Containing supplemental meanings derived from other terms. Equivocal - Having more than one meaning; ambiguous.

Mishnah - The first major written redaction of the Jewish oral traditions known as the "Oral Torah." It is also the first major work of Rabbinic literature.

Parable - A story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson.

Key Quotations Edit

"...even when one who truly possesses knowledge considers these parables and interprets them according to their external meaning, he too is overtaken by great perplexity. But if we explain these parables to him or if we draw his attention to their being parables, he will take the right road and be delivered from his perplexity" (166). "Thus we have mentioned there that the Account of the Beginning is identical with natural science, and the Account of the Chariot with divine science..." (167).

"... my purpose is that the truths be glimpsed and then again be concealed, so as not to oppose that divine purpose which one cannot possibly oppose and which has concealed from the vulgar among the people those truths especially requisite for His apprehension" (167).

In regards to sayings, parables, proverbs, etc.: "the external meaning ought to be as beautiful as silver, while its internal meaning ought to be more beautiful than the external one, the former being in comparison to the latter as gold is to silver," (171).

"This, then, will be a key permitting one to enter places the gates to which were locked. And when these gates are opened and these places are entered into, the souls will find rest therein, the eyes will be delighted, and the bodies will be eased of their toil and of their labor" (177).

Discussion Edit

The Rise of Perplexity Edit

In the introduction Maimonides conveys that two failures of understanding give rise to perplexity - 1) the polysemy of biblical language and 2) the biblical use of obscure parables. With that, biblical texts are full of terms that are hard to understand due to the fact that they are either "equivocal," "derivative," or "amphibolus."

Approaches to Interpretation Edit

According to Maimonides, a solely linguistic interpretation of the richness of biblical language is insufficient for understanding the Torah and Talmud as these texts also consists of parables designed to obscure the "secrets of the prophetic books." Maimonides feels this understanding calls for a more fully elaborated theory of narrative, which he sketches in the reading including a key distinction between parables that must be interpreted word by word and parables that must be interpreted holistically (164).

Major Criticism and Reception Edit

Ironically, the text was not avidly accepted within the Jewish community, even though during the Middle Ages, it was translated from its original Arabic into Hebrew and Latin. The reason for this was because it advocated the study of philosophy alongside the more important study of the Torah. With that, Maimonides' influence spread widely among both Christians and Jews the century following his death. Both Maimonides and his predecessor Rashi were important forerunners of the Scholasticism of the High Middle Ages (164).

Related Works Edit

  • Jacques Derrida. Writing and Difference.
  • Plato. Republic.
  • The Torah
  • The Talmud

References Edit

Leitch, Vincent B., editor. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed., W.W. Norton & Co., 2010.