Michael Castro

Guide to the Perplexed
Moses ben Maimon,
Moses the Spaniard,
Moses the Jew,
Maimonides, Moses
ben Maimon ha-Sepharadi,
The Rambam, giver
of the essence
of the law-
Mishnah Torah-gentle
in manner, but fierce in in-
tellect, endurance, sheer nerve-
"from Moses to Moses,
there is no one like Moses:"

Cordoba 1135, Sapharad,
where this life begins,
amidst war & woe, caught
between one interpretation & the other-

Allah, Allah,

the Alhmohades insist
on their version of the name
of God who is beyond
names (we say), they don't
listen, in the name of Allah,
the Almohades burn down
the corrupted Islamic mosques
of those whose accent's off;
we don't even speak
the same language,
& the synogogues burn too on general principles-
Jews must swear allegiance to Allah,
must pay lip service
& through the nose-

It's not the names we fear, it's the sticks, the stones,
           the fire-
Amidst flames-not of a burning bush-
but of burning books,
scorched scrolls, smoking letters,
my wanderings began-

ningun encarcelado, se puede descarcelar.
No one is a prisoner if he can escape.

& so we left our home, our wealth-

si los anios calleron, los dedos quedaron-
if the rings fell off, at least the fingers stayed,

we fled through Sapharad, from town to town, to Almeria.
the Almohades hot on our heels-

(Cominos macarones, alambicos corazones.
We ate macaroni, & licked our hearts.)

& when the Almohedan armies stormed Almeria's gates,
we set sail for Africa-Morocco.

Thus began my journey-Fez, Acco, the Holy Land,
      Alexandria, Cairo. My mind was troubled,
& amid divinely ordained exiles, on journies by land
      & tossed by tempests of the sea . . .

Sepharad was our Jerusalem, our jewel, a garden
we had tended, transplanted trees,
& put down roots. . .
                  we knew the bite
of the olive and the fig, the land's strange fruits
                we tried to live
amidst the Christians, amidst the Muslims, to work through our
      tikkun-& now
           another wound to heal . . . another burning

I think of those round Andalusian hills,
      the play of God's light off the green leaves
after a cleansing rain-
      as I watch

      the gray waves
           rise & fall,
the horizon flat
           as unleavened bread.

Quien no sabe de mar,
           no sabe de mal.
He who knows nothing of the sea,
      knows nothing of suffering.


Since we went into exile,
      the persecutions have not stopped.
I have known affliction since childhood,
      since the womb.

Ah, the sun, the beautiful sun
that creates this desert-the aching beauty
of these desert flowers. . .

                The greater the pain,
                     the greater the reward.

Fez is a labyrinth, its streets reflect its soul.
Everything is hidden: the faces of its women
behind dark veils, the sumptuous interiors
of its white-walled, shuttered homes

Here we hide in plain sight.
Tired of running.

The Almohades approach the city gates.
Some say, resist, refuse, martyr yourselves-
    as others have. But I say, be calm,
when the Almohedes come to your door,
listen carefully to their conditions-
    If they are as we hear,
submit &
take the vow.

Before you protest,
Think it through:
In the earlier religious persecutions
we were forced to violate certain shalls and shall nots
through our deeds. In the present persecution, however,
no deed is demanded of us,
only words. A name.

I am a man of words, but listen to me O Jews.
We do not need martyrs. Resist
the long winded foolish babbling & nonsense
of those who argue for unflinching death.
Use your heads.

                Live your name
behind closed doors-cover your windows.
After all, if someone wishes to observe
all 613 laws in private, no one hinders him.

Now, if they tried to force us to commit a forbidden act,
of course, we would rather be killed than carry it out.
But there has never been so strange a persecution
in which we are forced to transgress only verbally.

Lie then, & live
the truth.

      Submit, for now,

      Faste a amigo con el huerco,
   hasta ques pases el ponte.
    Befriend the hangman,
     till you are over the bridge.

 but remember:

      Quien muncho se aboca, el culo se le vee.
       He who bends down too low, exposes his rear end.


I was of "the exile of Jerusalem
that was in Sepharad," as the book of Obadiah describes us.
And now we were doubly exiled. We
who had lived in Sepharad
before the Visigoths & the Vandals invaded,
before the Christians or the Muslims
were conjured up by their prophets,
before the Almohades, who were Berbers from Morocco,
began their righteous pillage, we
who were part of the soil & soul of that place,
    who helped to make a Golden Age, we

abandoned our ancient villages & ourselves
to God's will, without any signs
save those of danger, took up the challenge
with Hope & Faith-& if truth be told,
with fear
for ourselves & for those
who remained behind-

I landed in Fez, in the heart
of the beast.


My desire & my quest
was to know God
so far as this is possible for a human being.

I mastered first mathematics, then the natural sciences,
especially to familiarize myself with their patterns
& subtle perfections,
before I grappled with metaphysics. My brother,
David, sailed around the world buying & selling
to support my efforts-this was his way
of worship & of love-& I studied, & I taught, & wrote.

I wrote many books, among them the Mishnah Torah:
here I put into one book
the unraveled strands, the distilled opinions,
the essence of Talmudic wisdom.
Someone had to resolve the disputes, the split hairs,
the rabbinic quibbling, & testing-
Who could really read through the whole megillah
of the Talmud, that weighty treasure chest,
every time another dispute arose?
Here it is, I said, & people listened & read:
the naked heart
of the matter.

I wrote from mind, & breath, & source-
from God, seeking God.

My only master was Aristotle.
Reading him encouraged me to live
in the mind, showed me
that thinking is godly,

that even a master, an Aristotle,
is not to be followed
blindly. Blind dedication,
   blind faith, blind obedience
      leads to blind fanaticism, blind persecution,
           blind hatred.

What's a mind for, I thought,
                if not to help us


Some call me "Rabbi."


I advise my neighbors & friends:
 never eat except when hungry, or drink except when thirsty.
 Observe moderation. Don't go out in the cold after bathing.
 Avoid constant bloodletting.

Be guided by hesed: lovingkindness & compassion;
             tsedekah: righteousness;
              mishpat: judgement.

 For stating the obvious,
  I am called 'wise.

    Everyone wants to obey

We are too immersed in tradition,
too bogged down in faith, too frozen
in ritual. In our exile
we have forgotten
    how to think.

      And therefore, we must train the mind,
           as we do the body:

Think of God
                as a King.
& think
  how, in a kingdom,
some have more direct access than others.

In the Kingdom of God,
those who have studied
the mathematical sciences & logic,
& who have studied the Talmud,
but who have not asked
whether the propositions found there
are actually true, these seekers
wander around the walls of the palace,
looking in vain for the entrance.

And those who have studied the mathematical sciences & logic,
& who have studied the Talmud
& the natural sciences
& actually thought about them,
these seekers enter the palace's forecourt.

But those who have studied the mathematical sciences & logic,
who have studied the Talmud,
the natural sciences,
& metaphysics, & who have thought
about all of them,
      & understood what can be understood-
      these seekers arrive
      in the interior of the royal palace.

Thinking is a way to God.

    Consider this:
The prophet who "sees" God
does not really see in form
He who is beyond form.
The prophet is thinking
of God.

And when God is said to see
something, as He doesn't have sense organs, truly
He is contemplating the world.

God is a perfect intelligence.
The thinking that pours out from God
upon us is the link betweeen Him & us.

We must solidify this link
& make it more intimate,
or it will gradually loosen
& dissolve altogether.

I am doctor, attending at the birth
& rebirth of philosophy, metaphysics,
imagination, & prophecy.
I labor at preparing the way
to the Protecting King, the Active Intellect.
I teach the burnishing & restoring,
the lighting of the inner lamp-
the bond of light between God & us-

The more active the mind, the more open
to God.

For just as we know God by the light
that he has streaming out to us,
thus does He look through us
by means of this light.

This light is what makes everything
we see or do possible.

& yet this light is so brilliant
no one alive can
stare directly into it.


There have been times when I have lost the light.
I dwelt in darkness
when my beloved brother, David, died at sea;
my world collapsed.
There were days I moaned in despair.
What was the logic of the bad happening to the good?
Why is it that each of us is Job?
How do we fill the loss of love?
My friends & family gathered & we wept.
We cursed & praised, we remembered, & we prayed.
We chanted Kaddish.
Its mystic sounds & rhythms
gave us a music to calm the soul.
We could not understand its ways & power,
or the ways & power of our God.
We pictured David in our minds, where he would always live.
Rains came, & we thought it was David, cleansing & renewing
  our shattered reality.
We felt his presence.
& the presence of God.


I say to you, there is nothing
but God and His works. & His works include
everything in existence except God.
God is One--his own source
& the source of everything else.

God be thanked for all conditions,
whose universality is to be found
in the universe of existences
& whose specificity is to be found
in every single individual.
May the praise for every single condition
be constant, no matter what the situation may be.


To support myself, & others,
I became a Doctor. For many years
I have worked
long hours to improve the human condition.

Now, even in my old age,
I go to Cairo every morning
at the crack of dawn to treat the Sultan
& his family, and if nothing unforeseen happens,
if nothing keeps me there, I can come home in the afternoon
but never earlier. Here, starving as I am,
I find the antechamber full of people: Jews
& non-Jews, nobles & lowly people, judges & officials,
friends & foes, a motley company awaiting me
with impatience. I dismount from my horse, wash,
& enter the waiting room with the plea that they
may not feel offended if I have to make them wait a bit longer
while I partake of a hasty light meal, which normally happens
once every twenty-four hours. Then I go out to them again,
treat them, & prescribe medicine on notes.
Thus the people go in & out of my home until late in the evening. Sometimes, I swear on the Torah,
it is 2 a.m. or even later before I manage to consume anything.
I am then so worn out that I collapse on my bed;
I have to say good-night. I am totally exhausted
& incapable of speaking. Only on the Sabbath
can anyone speak to me alone, or can I be alone with myself,
if only for an instant. Then the members of my community
gather in my home after the morning prayer.
I indicate what is to be done in the community
during the coming week; then they listen to a lecture
until noon, go home, and return in smaller number
for another lecture. Thus do my days go by.

I teach & I heal. I give all I have
 to continue, to improve, to perfect
    the creation.
    This is our purpose.
     I think.

There are four perfections:
  the perfection of wealth-a king's perfection-
  illusory because transient;

  the perfection of health-the body's perfection-important
  because a well-tuned instrument
   keeps the mind clear;

 But these things we look upon as the basis of happiness-
  riches or health-are not
   the purpose of life.

 There is the third perfection-perfection of character-
  moral perfection, which contributes
  to the social good.

 This perfection improves mankind,
 & provides important training for the mind;

 for only a person whose character is pure, calm,
 & steadfast can attain to the fourth-

 intellectual perfection:

 the ability to acquire correct conceptions;
 the perfection of the highest intellectual qualities;
  training the mind to a rigor & openess

  capable of receiving divinity;
  capable of expanding to God.


The Lord of the Universe
knows in what condition I write these lines.
I have withdrawn from people & sought peace
& quiet in order to remain undisturbed. At times,
I lean against the wall; at times, I continue my writing.
I am so feeble that I mostly have to lie down;
a weak body has joined forces with my age.

My body aches & breaks, but still I work, still
I study, still I think, still I try to heal & improve.
I observe, remember, make notes, logical connections.

But logic cannot tell us where creation comes from,
 or why nothing leads to something. Knowing God
  is beyond thought, beyond words &
    their source.
 How can you compare 100 cubits
  to the sharpness of pepper?

 Know that there is a level that is higher
 than all thought, than all philosophy:
 Call it "prophecy."

 Prophecy is a different world.
 Arguing and investigating are out of place here;
 no evidence can reach prophecy;
  any attempt to examine it in a scholarly manner
  is doomed to fail. It would be like trying to gather
  all the water in the world in a single cup.

When the Bible says, "And God said,"
it means, "A Prophet understood."
God chooses prophets
from among those
whose minds are finely honed,
& whose imaginations
are vital: those who are open
to seeing new forms & combinations.

A prophet must be able
to actively think,
& then to rationally convey
& defend his experience.

Prophecy is not learning.
It breaks on you like a lightning storm.
It is like the weather.
The wisest man can go through life
and never experience the whirlwind.


My whole life I have tried
to be a guide to the perplexed.

 You have doubtless heard about the controversies I have had,
against those who come before me with my tongue,
against those who attack from afar with my pen.
There was a time I would obtain satisfaction for myself
with my tongue and quill
even against the great & the wise
when they polemicized against me.
But now I know that pride & anger are very ugly qualities.

Then, if someone said I am neither pious nor religious,
it would infuriate me. Now, I would not resent it-on the contrary
I would speak good gentle words to them, or hold my
tongue, depending on the circumstances. I seek no victory
for the honor of my soul; character
consists in deviating
from the paths of fools,
not in conquering them.
 If a man wanted to wax wroth
about the ignorance of men, he would never stop
being angry, & would lead a life of grief & affliction.


Know then,
I have set myself the goal of behaving humbly
in every action, even though it damages me
in the eyes of the world.
If someone wishes to flaunt his own excellence
by demonstrating my failings, then I forgive him,
though he may be one of the most insignificant students.
Our leaders along the paths of good have said:
If one is to help both a friend and an enemy,
then one is required to help the enemy first
in order to subdue and to tame passions.
Anyone who wishes to be a human being
should work toward perfecting his character
& acquiring knowledge, he should not occupy his mind
with stupidities.

Remember, the necessary things are few in number.
while the superfluous things are unlimited.


Thoughtfulness outlives each & all.

Born in New York City on July 28, 1945, Michael Castro moved to St. Louis in his twenties to do graduate work at Washington University. In the late sixties, he became active as a performance artist. Along with readings and performances, he gradually began publishing his work in literary magazines and books. He has published six small books of poems and his work has appeared in some fifty magazines and anthologies, including Voices from the Interior: The Missouri Poets; Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets; The Second Set: The Jazz Poetry Anthology, Long Shot: It's the Jews!: The U.S. Latino Review and Sephardic American Voices: 200 Years of a Literary Legacy. He is also the author of Interpreting the Indian: Twentieth Century Poets and the Native American, a study of Native American cultures' influence on modern American poets. In 1975 he co-founded the literary organization River Styx, which has, ever since, continuously sponsored readings and mixed media events, while publishing River Styx Magazine. Michael Castro's most recent book is The Man Who Looked Into Coltrane's Horn (Caliban Press 1998). Castro has a Ph.D. in American Literature from Washington University, is a Fullbright Scholar, and teaches at Lindenwood University.

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