Kellner on Micah Goodman’s Maimonides

Menachem Kellner has a negative review on H-Net of the Maimonides interpretation by Michah Goodman of Ein Prat in his Sodotav shel Moreh ha-Nevukhim (Secrets of the Guide of the Perplexed) (Or Yehuda: Dvir, 2010). And speculates from his very outside perspective why this may appeal to an Israeli generation looking for spirituality. The first half of the review is an irrelevant chatty view of the diversity of approaches to the Rambam.

Who is the Maimonides presented by Goodman? He is a Maimonides who has no “grand narrative,” a Maimonides for whom God is the greatest threat to religion, a Jewish thinker for whom the Torah comes to serve as therapy–the main aim of the Torah according to Goodman’s Maimonides is to heal human beings, not to grant them philosophic certainty, since there can be no certainty about the central doctrines of religion (the nature or even existence of God, creation, providence and human suffering, among others). For Goodman’s Maimonides the Torah is only divine in the sense that Moses understood the nature of reality better than any previous human. For the Midrash, God looked into the Torah in order to create the world, while for Goodman Moses, as it were, looked into the mind of God in order to write the Torah.

The upshot of all this is to place human beings firmly at the center of philosophic attention (the culmination of a process which began with Descartes’ cogito–which is one of the many reasons I have trouble reading Maimonides in the same way that Goodman does). Goodman’s Maimonidean hero inherits all the roles traditionally ascribed to God, designing his/her own life, world, and consciousness. This heroic (Nietszchian?) human also takes control of the Torah, the text of which is no longer authoritative, since the interpreter takes control of the text. For Goodman, Maimonides no longer guides the reader out of perplexity; rather, he accompanies the reader on the route to perplexity (since only the philosophically unsophisticated individual can confront God and the cosmos without perplexity). Only the self-deluded think they have achieved certainty, and self-delusion is the greatest sin; hence, one assumes, for Goodman’s Maimonides–and quite clearly for Goodman himself–enlightenment of a certain type (acknowledging what Albert Camus would have called the absurd nature of the universe) is the highest virtue. Maimonides, who single-handedly created Jewish dogmatics, is presented as the greatest opponent of what Goodman calls the “dogmatic trap” (thinking you know what you cannot know).

Throughout this stimulating book Goodman uses language which, I fear, misleads many of his readers. He uses terms such as eros, sod, pardes, maskil, and expressions, such as the “redemptive character of knowledge,” and “spiritual journeys,” all of which mean very specific (and limited) things in a Maimonidean context, but which to a contemporary reader carry with them heavy overtones of Kabbalah. I am confident that Goodman does not mean to mislead, and equally confident that that is precisely what happens–and reading Maimonides in this mildly Kabbalistic key may be part of the explanation for the book’s success.

So, what sort of Maimonides does Goodman present to his reader? Simply put, a postmodernist, anti-Leibowitzian Maimonides (it is only after two-thirds of the book have passed that Goodman lets this cat explicitly out of the bag, insisting that his book is meant to save the true Maimonides from what one might call the hypermodernist reading of Yeshayahu Leibowitz). Leibowitz (1903-94), Israel’s most prominent pubic intellectual during the last third of the twentieth century, attributed to Maimonides (with some degree of justification) a Judaism in which God is entirely at the center, the Torah does not at all serve the needs of human beings (since it fundamentally involves a demand to live a holy, God-centered life, and has no binding theology). In Goodman’s presentation, we have a Maimonides for whom “the quest for certainty”–which, according to Abraham Joshua Heschel, motivated R. Sa’adia Gaon and subsequent medieval Jewish philosophers (emphatically including Maimonides)–is replaced with a quest for perplexity. In reading Maimonides in this fashion Goodman understands and presents him in terms appropriate to much of the contemporary weltanschauung. This is certainly one of the reasons for the book’s great success.

But there is more going on here than this. Sitting in shul this week I noticed a young man, recently married (and who has chosen to defer army service to spend more time in yeshiva), reciting the amidah prayer with his tallit over his head (rare in our circles) and with every indication of profound involvement in his prayer. Looking up from reading Micah Goodman’s book during the recitation of An’im Zemirot, one of the most “spiritual” passages in the liturgy, I noticed that this young man was also reading–a volume of Talmud. It struck me that standard Israeli Orthodoxy has no answer for a person seeking spiritual fulfillment: it is not that Orthodox Jews are necessarily spiritually unfulfilled, but that the spiritual fulfillment they find would be unrecognizable to anyone who looks for sublimity in mystically inspired poems like An’im Zemirot, rather than in abstruse Talmudic discussions.

Anyone familiar with Israel today is struck by the huge variety of alternative “spiritualities” on offer. These reflect a deep yearning for meaning on the part of many Israelis. Some satisfy this need by dropping out in Southeast Asia; others through adoption of Jewish Orthodoxy, including the eccentricity of Bratzlav; and yet others through the many varieties of non-standard religions which now dot the Israeli landscape. Indeed, my own university (Haifa) is running a huge conference (for the third year in a row) on new religious phenomena in Israel. Goodman’s Maimonides–skeptical, almost agnostic, latudinarian in consequence if not in intent, and therapeutic–taps into this yearning. Micah Goodman’s Maimonides is not my Maimonides, but his Maimonides certainly demonstrates the perennial significance of the Great Eagle for Jews (and perhaps, for Judaism). Read the Rest here.

2 responses to “Kellner on Micah Goodman’s Maimonides

  1. It’s not readily obvious that the review is negative. You have to read between the lines.

  2. It is the 4th, and not 3rd, Israeli Conference for the Study of Contemporary Spiritualities (ICSCS) at the University of Haifa (March 20th, 2012), and it is on contemporary spiritualities and not “new religious phenomena in Israel”.

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