Angel’s Maimonides – rationality and social order

Steve Nadler gives a favorable review to Marc Angel’s  Maimonides, Spinoza and Us: Toward an Intellectually Vibrant Judaism. Nadler, nevertheless places his critiques between the lines. Nadler supports Spinoza’s concept of rationality in which we live rational human beings.  Angel wants Judaism without superstition. But is a lack of superstition the same as rationality?

“Rambam and Spinoza both located superstition in the realm of ignorance and irrational fear…. Rational people will learn to overcome the tendency toward superstition and will root their lives in reason and in an intellectual love of God.”

On this I am overwhelmed by .the simplicity of the definition of rationality. Much of the philosophy of the 1970’s and 1980s discussed rationality. Winch said that it is all contextual, and after some great volumes by Bryan Wilson and then Hollis & Lucas we conclude with Taylor’s defense of universal rationality but as within a given system. In that middle period we had many such as Douglas and Turner who said that the term is only in reference to one’s system- it reveals how one defined one’s social order.

Treating Maimonides as rejecting superstition is following the minimal Maimonideans somewhere between the Rashba’s rejection of kaparot and the Meiri rejecting non- philosophic agadot. It is not the Maimonides of the philosophers- it is not Gersonides, Falquera, or Narboni. It is not even the Maimonideanism of Radak who discusses how he studies the natural order on Shabbat. Maiimonides is here for the broad community- no superstition but not the Maimonides of those who read.  There is no offering of a new Guide of the Perplexed that combines the philosophy of our age and Judaism .

Nadler concludes:

But the success of Angel’s project depends on how well he manages tensions that will be apparent to contemporary rationalist critics of religious belief. For example, while decrying attempts to import superstitious elements into Jewish practice (talismans, prayer for hire, etc.), he suggests that (according to Maimonides) the harm they bring includes the loss of one’s portion in the world to come. And Angel himself apparently believes in the efficacy of prayer, because “God is always present and listening everywhere.” These and other elements of even an “intellectually vibrant” Judaism will strike nonbelievers as no less superstitious than red strings and amulets.

Eliezer Goldman, following Weber, had already written that Maimonides is rational not in the modern sense but in the sense of having a fixed goal and system and then working within it. The rejection of superstition seems to define a current social order. Maimonides would actually reject  “God is always present and listening everywhere” in its modern American usage. In the Guide it is defined in more naturalistic terms.

We can use a good discussion of how these beliefs  connect to modern scientific worldview. The 1970’s rationality debate used as their example the Azande of Africa who followed the natural order but also resorted to witchcraft to provide meaning, telos, and remove contingency. The natural and the religious may be on two separate planes. In this case, Maimonides describes a theoretical sabian magic and then uses as a yardstick and rubric to explain how one should relate to the commandments without magical idolatry. In the modern case, we want a rational Orthodoxy, so we project  a lack of rationality onto others, henceforth called superstition, and if we don’t violate our own definition then willy-nilly, we are rational.

Maybe we can be more like the Azande and accept have both the natural order and witchcraft? or more like Spinoza and have rational educated lives and have religion as its own realm? or we can be like Maimonides himself who had an esoteric Torah for the philosophers and the fighting of superstition for the masses and that philosophy that should not be brought to the masses?. And what of symbolist approaches such as Ricoeur?

How can there be a faith-based sectarian religion that is informed by rational thinking, one that avoids the Scylla of irrational faith and the Charybdis of rational unbelief?

This seems like a false dichotomy and does not correspond to the fragmented, multiple realms of our lives.  Nor does it correspond to context of rationality. My question is: how does this dichotomy portray a very specific social order of what is in and what is out. Do we all really color just within the printed lines of a coloring book?

Maimonides believed the ancient prophets to be morally and intellectually gifted individuals — much like philosophers, except with greater imaginative powers.

Is this a potential definition of prophecy as a acquired perfection? Does this require a philosophic reading of the Bible? And wouldn’t this negate the vibrant literary reading that people are giving to the Bible? The Bible should only be understood by gifted individuals like the prophets. Should we create a prophetic Orthodoxy teaching people to attain these levels? And as Feyerabend ended his classic work Against Method – – If a non system allowed Rabbi Akiva to gain knowledge of the heikhalot- who  re we to try and impose a rational system?

2 responses to “Angel’s Maimonides – rationality and social order

  1. Marc Angel, following up on your earlier post, presumably prefers reading Jewish Studies rather than philosophy. Therefore, he is likely unaware of the problems with the term “rational”. Which makes his similar to most Rabbis who prefer reading Jewish studies volumes to philosophy, which is they construct theology based upon historical studies.

    If I can be a bit naive, Angel is probably promoting a reading of Maimonides following his introduction to Perek Cheilek. I do not know if the Guide really plays an important role in his theology.

    Symbolic interpretations of amulets and magic would be acceptable if they were acknowledged to be symbols or psychology and theurgy was explicitly denied when performing the magical or theurgic acts.

    His Baal Habatim probably buy into the magic and theurgy without symbolism or psychology.

    I personally don’t find visions of Judaism presented by Angel or the Chait-niks (of which I have friends) particularly compelling.

    My question for Rabbi Angel would be his understanding of having a personal relationship with God. I have not read his book, but I would be surprised if he went all the way and adopted a full Maimonidean conception of God and man’s relationship with him.

  2. Additionally, Prophecy and those who pursue it is anti-bourgeous. It rejects the status quo and encourages individuals to seek out the philosophical path against societies norms.

    One could argue that Maimonides’ education agenda helps promote prophecy by having even the Masses reject “superstition” and create a culture of “rationalism”.

    As Rabbi Angel is coming from and promoting a bourgeous Middle Class Judaism, having prophecy would undermine the culture that he is seeking to create.

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