A Guide to Remaining Perplexed
BY: Reuven Rand
Certain conversations seem geared toward challenging our assumptions. A few years ago, I sat in a Bible class in which a student challenged the professor about the Hebrews’ culpability for the het ha-egel (the Sin of the Golden Calf). How, he asked, could we blame the Hebrews for building a golden intermediary between the people and God when God had not yet forbidden them to craft a graven image? I explained to the student after class that his version of the biblical narrative was incorrect; the Hebrews had heard the Ten Commandments before Moses had ascended the mountain to receive the luhot ha-edut (Tablets of the Testimony), which set the stage for the Hebrews’ transgression. Rather than accept his mistake, the questioner chose to challenge me on theological grounds: if God had already given the Ten Commandments, what further purpose could be achieved in acquiring two tablets? Could the tablets possibly have independent religious significance?[i] Does our belief system even have room for such a concept?
The assumptions inherent in such questions are both manifold and manifest. The first assumption is that we have some theology in common to discuss; otherwise, we cannot even begin this discussion. Another is that by means of a reductio ad absurdum from our philosophical notions we might rewrite a section of the Bible.[ii] However, I was most struck by his belief that our common theology is a rationalist one, predisposed to treat the concept of an inherently holy artifact as superstitious nonsense. For what in our religious corpus – our Bible of miracles, our Talmud of magic and demons and our halakhic literature that specifies evil spirit removing hand-washing procedures[iii] – hints to him that rationalism is normative?
The answer, of course, is that Maimonides was a rationalist, and though his Guide of the Perplexed rarely finds its way into any Jewish curriculum,[iv] he is imagined to be as authoritative a theologian as he is a halakhist. Of course, this fails to acknowledge that we do not serve God as Maimonideans, applying negative theology towards God’s possible attributes in order to understand Him by what He is not. Divine commandments take the prominent role in Orthodox Judaism, not philosophy. As Maimonides would put it, few of us have even seen the palace.[v]
Despite this, there is a prevalent urge to assume Maimonides, to adopt his conclusions piecemeal without using his approach to deriving them. Why is this? Another question may give us an answer: what Modern Orthodox Jew would take a kabbalistic approach to philosophy, in which sparks of holiness pervade nature waiting for us to release them, despite the outlandishness of the claim and its absence from our authoritative sources? The answer is a Jew devoted to Torah u-Madda who has found this approach in Dr. Norman Lamm’s book of the same name and has adopted it as a brilliant justification of his lifestyle. The Guide serves the same purpose, but where Lamm’s philosophy merely justifies action, Maimonides’ justifies an entire worldview. With a hat-tip to Maimonides, a Jew can renounce belief in a personal God,[vi] angels of fire,[vii] demons, talismans,[viii] and, presumably, a holy Ark of the Covenant.[ix] He can, in effect, become an Atheist Jew and thereby set himself apart from the ignorant, religious masses.[x] What scientific or rationalist Jew would not take the hand offered by Maimonides and thereby free himself to intellectually join society’s elite?
The very freedom granted by Maimonides causes him the most problems. In order to reconcile his rationalist worldview with his Judaism, Maimonides must justify the numerous commandments in the Torah and Talmud on the basis of their value to society alone.[xi] One who really accepts his principles, then, would be wise to reevaluate his observance of the precepts based on their actual benefits.[xii] For example, he might notice the crucial and advantageous roles played by the availability of loans and the setting of interest rates in modern economies. Hence he might rule that not only is interest permissible, it is virtuous because it adds to the well-being of society. In a simpler example, he might conduct a study as to the societal value of waving the four species on the Festival of Tabernacles. Finding no correlation between peace, prosperity and the brandishing of lemons, he might abandon the practice.
Judaism’s “lemons” form the basis for Maimonides’ other grand departure from both typical Jewish thought and plausibility. Maimonides begins the strangest of his explanations with his rationalization of sacrifices. He argues that the Temple services were a response to an ancient obsession with sacrifice; instead of slaughtering animals in the name of Ba’al, God commanded that the Hebrews channel their urges towards His worship instead. [xiii] In effect, Jewish sacrifices acted as a form of Nicorette, serving to wean the people off of their addiction. The Temple, he continues, existed to centralize this worship so that it not run rampant, like a meeting place for Alcoholics Anonymous. Tum’ah and tohorah (the laws of purity) serve to keep the Hebrews in awe of their meeting place by preventing them from visiting too often. And since the Kohanim must always be available to work in the Temple and cannot be granted an exemption from purity laws, they must remain tahor for their entire lives. Thereby, Maimonides builds his vast edifice upon a supposition of addiction, in order to account for a considerable percentage of the Torah’s esoteric laws.
The reasonable inferences and bizarre conclusions that emerge from Maimonidean philosophy fail to tell the whole story of why his philosophy cannot simply be assumed. We should shrink from accepting his conclusions because many rely on very weak premises. A major difficulty immediately springs to mind. Maimonides’ entire system revolves around the “Intelligences.”[xiv] Accepting Aristotle’s view of the universe, he believes that the Intelligences (which he equates with angels) power the ten spheres (which correspond to the planets) that make up the universe. God is the Intelligence behind the Intelligences, the force behind the outermost sphere. On the basis of this system, Maimonides concludes that God can be reached by the intelligence alone, specifically by concentrating our minds upon His own (or, more precisely, upon the Active Intellect nearest to us) and thereby effecting some form of fusion. By the time of Newton, however, we knew that this conception of the universe was wrong. Without a scientific backing, Maimonides loses much of his justification for imagining a chain of accessible Intelligences, and hence much of his justification for his Guide.
The whole of Maimonides’ conclusions in the Guide served to demonstrate a conception of Judaism dramatically different from that portrayed by the Bible or discussions in the Talmud. Maimonides’ God was not personal, He was an abstraction, capable of neither walking in a garden, nor burning with anger. He could not speak to anyone face to face because He possessed no face, nor could He bring down fire upon those who displeased Him. No sacrifice could bring a pleasant smell to His nostrils and, in fact, no good deed could bring one closer to Him. With such different purposes and different Gods (and here we may take notice of another radical departure in the Kabbalah and its arguably polytheistic Sefirot), it is little short of miraculous that the Maimonidean Controversies are not now known as the Maimonidean Schism.[xv] Nevertheless, as the big tent of Orthodoxy does not permit one to avoid taking a position on kitniyyot (legumes on Pesah), gebrokts (matsah soaked in water) or Yom Tov Sheni shel Galuyyot (the second day of a holiday in the Diaspora), it cannot sanction hiding from this most fundamental question of faith. So read up on the issues and talk to friends, rabbis, philosophers and theologians, but at the end of the day take me up on this challenge: pick a God, any God.
Reuven Rand is a senior at YC majoring in Mathematics and Computer Science.
[i] For those interested in the question, the Bible seems to respond with a resounding “yes.” The Tablets sit at the center of Israelite worship for generations, at least until the destruction of the first Temple. In Deuteronomy 10, God makes it clear that the Ark of the Testimony serves one purpose: the Ark is a chest, and the Tablets are its treasure. And when King David alights upon the idea of building a Temple, he calls over the prophet Nathan and exclaims, “I dwell in a house of cedars and the Ark of God dwells in a tent?” (II Samuel 7:2). From that point onwards, Hebrew worship revolves around a Temple built to house two graven stones in a golden box, which would make them significant indeed.
[ii] The misapplication of reductio ad absurdum appears to this author to be one of the greatest problems that has afflicted Judaism throughout its history. A common criticism of Talmudic methodologies ranging from the Tosafists’ dialectic to the modern “Brisker Derekh” is that both use apparent contradictions to radically reinterpret texts, rather than accept that the texts may be in conflict. For an excellent modern example of this problem, relating to Maimonides and the study of philosophy, see Kaplan and Berger’s famous response to R. Yehuda Parnes, in which they argue that due to contradictions between Mishnah Torah, Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 2:2-3, the Book of Job and Maimonides’ own Weltanschauung, we must radically reinterpret the said passage, rather than acknowledge that Maimonides’ approach may have been less than perfectly consistent. [“Of Freedom of Inquiry in the Rambam and Today,” The Torah u-Madda. Journal 1 (1990): 38.]
[iii] Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 4.
[iv] Here we must call out our own Yeshiva University, which requires serious students to devote five hours every morning to Talmud study, and eight courses to Hebrew, Jewish History and Bible, which allows courses in virtually every subject offered to count towards some graduation requirement, and has, to its everlasting shame, so utterly neglected Jewish philosophy that it cannot fill an Honors philosophy class with an enrollment cap of four.
[v] See Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed III:51.
[vi] See, for example, ibid. I:52.
[vii] Ibid. I:49.
[viii] Maimonides expresses contempt for superstition throughout the Guide, as in the following passage: “The book is full of the absurdities of idolatrous people, and with those things to which the minds of the multitude easily turn and adhere [perseveringly]; it speaks of talismans, the means of directing the influence [of the stars]: witchcraft, spirits, and demons that dwell in the wilderness.” Ibid. III:29 (Friedlander’s translation).
[ix] In ibid. I:45, Maimonides explains the purpose of the Ark: it is known that the heathens in those days built temples to stars and set up in those temples the image which they agreed upon to worship, because it was in some relation to a certain star or to a portion of one of the spheres. We were, therefore, commanded to build a temple to the name of God and to place therein the Ark with two tables of stone, on which were written the commandments “I am the Lord,” etc., and “Thou shalt have no other God before me,” etc.
[x] Note that I do not mean to pass judgment upon Maimonides here or make any claim regarding his philosophical outlook. There is a considerable debate whether Maimonides’ worldview is better reflected by the “Maimonides of the Yad” or the “Maimonides of the Guide,” upon which I will take no position in this essay. Fortunately, the outcome of this debate is irrelevant to my piece, since I wish to study merely the wisdom and consequences of adopting the Guide as written rather than analyze Maimonides himself.
[xi] “On the contrary, the sole object of the Law is to benefit us.” Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed III:31.
[xii] Obviously, Maimonides himself rejects this view, contending in III:34 that the divine commandments must be absolute and unchanging, seemingly in order that they retain their authority. Even if a philosophical Maimonidean accepted this position (though the rationale does not appear, to this author, to be that compelling), he could advocate abrogating God’s Law in one of two scenarios. In the simplest scenario, he could simply find himself in a position where no one perceives his actions; in the privacy of his own home he might enjoy a cheeseburger, knowing that it will injure neither himself nor the law’s authority. Alternatively, given the presence of a sufficiently authoritative legislature (say a sanhedrin or the U.S. Congress), Judaism could abrogate the Torah in favor of an alternative, equally beneficial legal system.
[xiii] Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed II:32. Maimonides expounds upon the Temple and purity in III:45-47, adding an element of throwing the practices of idolaters back in their faces.
[xiv] Ibid. II:2-5.
[xv] This should lead us to question the wisdom of our “official schisms” as well as the unceasing calls for schism over one minor doctrinal difference or another.