July 13, 2024
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New Tools to Learn the Moreh

Reviewing:

“Moreh Nevuchim” (all three parts), edited by Mordecai Plaut. Feldheim, Publishers. 2019. Hebrew. Hardcover. ISBN-13: 978-1680251005. 568 pages.

“Moreh Ha-Nevuchim part 1,” edited by Yochai Makbili. Mifal Mishneh Torah Publications. 2018. 400 pages.

“Moreh Ha-Nevuchim Le-Rambam,” peirush by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner. Hava Books. Hebrew. Part one, volume one. 2016. 445 pages. Part one volume two, 2017.
423 pages.

I. Challenges

Rambam intentionally wrote his Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed) in a confusing and contradictory way, in order to restrict his philosophical insights to readers who are sufficiently intelligent and prepared. However, his masterpiece has taken on a life of its own. Conflicting commentaries to the Moreh interpret Rambam in radically different ways. Later thinkers inevitably address the Moreh, whether explicitly or implicitly. Even those who condemned the work as heresy necessarily interpreted it before reaching judgment. Isaac Husik rightly commented, “In the post-Maimonidean age, all philosophical thinking is in the nature of a commentary on Maimonides whether avowedly or not.” How can anyone interested in Jewish thought avoid the Moreh? And yet, how can he hope to understand it?

The past few years witnessed a flurry of new Hebrew editions, each explicitly published to help the novice enter this daunting but crucial territory. One barrier throughout the years has been the need for a translation, since Rambam wrote the Moreh in Arabic. While originally this language choice helped readers, the book’s audience quickly expanded beyond the Arabic-speaking, which over the centuries has diminished to near extinction. Already in Rambam’s life, and with his approval, Rabbi Shmuel Ibn Tibbon translated the work into Hebrew. However, his translation itself poses a challenge with its overly literal approach and long, awkward sentences. Other translations have been written over the years into multiple languages. In the 20th century, Rabbi Yosef Kafach retranslated the Moreh into Modern Hebrew and Prof. Michael Schwartz did likewise in an academic edition.

II. Small Changes, Big Difference

However, despite the frustration of many, there remain important reasons to retain the Ibn Tibbon translation. Most commentaries over the centuries have used it. If we want to engage with them and continue in their tradition, we might be wise to stay with their version. But what to do about the teeth-breaking read? In a single volume comprising the entire Moreh, Rabbi Mordecai Plaut has made great strides in solving this problem. First, he broke up the long sentences and paragraphs to ease the read. While this may create sentence fragments, it greatly increases the work’s readability. I was pleasantly surprised by the dramatic improvement made by this seemingly minor change. Rabbi Plaut added to the bottom of the page very brief translation of difficult terms and concepts into Modern Hebrew. With this, he performs a remarkable transformation of this old, awkward translation into a readable text.

Rabbi Plaut adds as endmatter three collections of explanations of difficult philosophical terms, respectively by Rambam, Ibn Tibbon and the Vilna Gaon. Additionally, he includes extensive topical and source indexes, which are very useful for cross-referencing discussions in the Moreh, and lists of commentaries for most chapters. One strange feature in this edition is the smaller font used for all discussion of gentile philosophers. Effectively, large portions of the Moreh are labeled as unnecessary. In his introduction, Rabbi Plaut explains he did this so those who want to study only Torah philosophy can do so easily. In other words, he created an option for a charedi student to learn most of the Moreh. I find this objectionable for many reasons, but note that, to his credit, the editor only changed the font size and did not censor any of the Rambam’s words.

III. Expanding the Moreh

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner also chose to stay with the Ibn Tibbon translation but, rather than tweaking its format, he expanded it. In the two volumes currently available, comprising just the first of Moreh’s three parts, Rabbi Aviner retains the Ibn Tibbon translation in bold while interspersing brief explanations of the text and additional possible translations in Roman (non-bold) font. Readers may be familiar with this style of expansion-commentary used in the Lev Tov edition of Chovot Ha-Levavot and the Steinsaltz Talmud. This can double or triple the time required to read a chapter. To address this concern, Rabbi Aviner begins each chapter with just the Ibn Tibbon translation and then repeats it with his expansions.

Rabbi Aviner supplements the text with in-depth commentary on select topics throughout the text. In this commentary, he surveys the commentaries throughout the generations and adds his own insights. In a surprisingly robust fashion, these discussions pull from academic and traditional scholarship, offering a view to the often-contentious battles over Rambam’s meaning. Rabbi Aviner’s bibliography contains a dizzying number of citations from across the spectrum of sources.

IV. Beginner’s Apparatus

The organization Mifal Mishneh Torah, run by a student of Rabbi Yosef Kafach, aims to make Rambam’s scholarship widely accessible. After publishing a new edition of Rambam’s halachic treatise, Mishneh Torah, the organization has begun its work on Moreh Nevuchim. The first volume, covering one of the three parts of the Moreh, is currently available with a new translation and the second is forthcoming imminently. Like his teacher but more so, the editor strives for a translation that can be understood by someone with an average ability in conversational Hebrew, without sacrificing accuracy.

This edition includes chapter introductions, paragraph headers and a running commentary, generally following a conservative approach similar to that of Rabbi Kafach. Effectively, it tells readers what Rambam is about to say, allows them to read him say it, and offers insights into what he is saying. A brief commentary on the bottom offers additional depth into select subjects. This edition fulfills its promise to make Moreh Nevuchim radically accessible but poses a challenge to those who are not native Israelis. Contemporary readers who find Ibn Tibbon’s Medieval Hebrew difficult may also face difficulties in understanding this edition’s very contemporary Modern Hebrew.

V. Conclusion

Each edition we have discussed offers exciting opportunities to new, and even experienced, students of the Moreh. Rabbi Plaut’s edition is most compact with an enhanced Ibn Tibbon translation and brief translation of difficult words below the text. It makes for the quickest read of Rambam’s text. Rabbi Aviner’s edition includes expansions of the translation and in-depth commentary, offering new readers an exciting journey into debates over Rambam’s meaning. Because of both the repetition in the translation-expansion and the in-depth commentary, this edition is the longest of those we have discussed. The Mifal Mishneh Torah edition offers readers the most guidance for a simple reading of the text, with light introductions and commentaries that supplement the text. However, those with limited skills in Modern Hebrew may find the work challenging.

These are exciting times for students of the Moreh. More than ever, the book is open to those with limited background. One wonders whether the Rambam would celebrate this development, but times have changed since his day. However, today’s thinking Jew cannot make do without a direct engagement with this classic, influential text.

By Rabbi Gil Student

 

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