Monthly Archives: July 2013

The new Haredi Hasidism – Zilberstein, Erlanger, Morgenstern, Kluger, and Schwartz

I was recently asked by a YU person about how the sharp rise of Hassidus at YU in the last eight years relates to American Neo-Hasidism of Reb Zalman, Art Green, Boteach, and the Kabbalah Center (the inclusion of the latter two shows how clueless he was), which he assumed must obviously be closely related. I said that it was not related in any significant way. The YU Hasidic Hevra all admit to reading the Neo-Hasidic works at some point but their connection to hasidus came from trips to Tzfat, to Chabad, to Meron and most importantly regular connection to the five major Hasidic thinkers, all in their 40’s or 50’s, Rabbis Zilberstein, Erlanger, Morgenstern, Kluger, and Schwartz- who are galvanizing a new generation.

This is essential for grasping the direction that YU’s new Mashgiah Ruhani- who is himself influenced by these figures-will lead the institution. In another few years, the rigorous halakhic parents of Bergenfield may find their children looking at them as religiously marginal because they lack the requisite Hasidic piety.

In the course of trying to explain the current scene, I found an article by Yoni Garb that addresses this new phenomenon for those not in the loop. Here are some selections.
Jonathan Garb- MYSTICAL AND SPIRITUAL DISCOURSE IN THE CONTEMPORARY ASHKENAZI HAREDI WORLDS Journal of Modern Jewish Studies Vol 9, No. 1 March 2010, pp. 17–36

The intensification of mystical and spiritual discourse amongst the Haredim has been largely overlooked by the emerging field of research on contemporary Kabbalah. the main schools of contemporary haredi mysticism are described, focusing on three Ashkenazi worlds in Israel: Hasidism, “Lithuanians”, and trans-haredi figures. New networks of younger leaders are identified as directing their followers away from standardized forms of generic haredi identity and towards inner-directed spirituality, which enables forms of mystical specialization. This plurality, resulting from dramatic demographic expansion, justifies the claim that scholars should move towards speaking of haredi “worlds”. The new leaders, openly addressing the unique needs of this generation, subtly critique accepted mores, as well as phenomena that most Haredim regard as signs of success.

Hasidic Networks

R. Tzevi Maier Zilberberg, head of the Nahalat Ya‘aqov fellowship in Jerusalem. Zilberberg is a prime example of an emerging Hasidic form of leadership, which breaks from dynastic and sectarian patterns to establish a trans- Hasidic world.Born into a Ger Hasidic family in the United States, Zilberberg has become one of the most influential contemporary Hasidic leaders or mashpi‘im (“influencers”).
Although he himself does not function as rebbe in the technical sense (as in accepting kvitlach or written supplications), Zilberberg nonetheless enjoys a following far wider than that of many rebbes.

The heart of his influence lies in the talks given before and after (and significantly extending) the Sabbath. These are attended by hundreds of listeners from virtually all Hasidic sects, as well as Lithuanian scholars, a scattering of Religious Zionists, and newly observant adherents.
The talks have been published in two media: one is the series of seven volumes published anonymously as Divrei Hizuk [words of strengthening]. These include five volumes, written in a mixture of Hebrew and Yiddish, on the weekly Torah portions. The second medium, which is quantitatively more significant, is a vast and ever-increasing series of MP tracks, which includes numerous talks (including talks in English) delivered by Zilberberg over the last decade in other locations, including many yeshivot in the United States, where he is in great demand as a speaker. It further undercuts the utility of the classical book-centred approach for the study of contemporary Kabbalah in general.

Zilberberg’s teaching is not kabbalistic in the classical or technical senses. He does not extensively quote from the classical writings of Jewish mysticism, and usually prefaces such quotes with the assertion that he is not aspiring to deal with mysteries, which “are beyond us”,

The collection of talks published as Sihot Hithazkut: Be‘Inyanei Diyun Lekaf Zekhut addresses the imperative of favourably judging others, whether individuals or collectives. Against the background of the fragmented and often harshly polemical nature of haredi public life, one can discern here a subtle critique of prevailing socio-political trends, which further accounts for Zilberberg’s harmonizing function as a trans-Hasidic figure.

“Once a Jew merits growth, he understands that one cannot interpret a Jew by his Study Hall or by his clothing or by a certain custom, as all this is only externality and this is a great foolishness and emptiness.”
“When one defines another Jew only through externals such as where he learnt or to which Zaddik he goes or what hat he wears… this becomes his reality and then my reality is also transformed into these things and the internal is lost.”

The second trope in Zilberberg’s addresses is expressed in a recent volume dedicated to the weeks of shovavim, six weeks which classical kabbalistic sources already set aside as a period of repentance.
The other is the application of these earlier statements to the specific and mostly psychological challenges of our generation, which is often described as exceptionally shvach, or weak and thus requiring special strengthening. Indeed, a useful starting point for understanding contemporary Hasidic discourse, as part of the history of the present, is to examine its various descriptions of the present, usually conceived in terms of “the last generation”.

R. Yitzhaq Moshe Erlanger is more of a classical kabbalist than Zilberberg, as he studied for an extensive period in the major Ashkenazi kabbalistic Yeshiva, Sha‘ar Hashamayyim, which can be seen as a major hub for twentieth-century haredi networks. Erlanger…presents kabbalistic digressions in a smaller and special font, together with the injunction that these passages are not intended for the general reader. Erlanger creates a two-tiered text, which demonstrates the known dialectic of esotericism, as it simultaneously contains and invites curiosity. Erlanger’s works are nonetheless similar to Zilberberg’s, both in their focus on the festivals, to which he dedicates two volumes in this series, and also in repeated discussions of the special needs of the current generation. As opposed to Zilberberg’s diagnosis, Erlanger writes of the positive opportunities of this generation, as follows: “most certainly there are also tremendous powers that only our generation can attain”. Another is the development of an independent youth culture, itself a result of the demographic explosion in the haredi world. However, one should bear in mind that the advisors that Erlanger is referring to, starting with himself, are actually quite young for a society accustomed to leaders in their nineties (such as the above-mentioned R. Elyashiv).

One of the youngest of these is the 43-year-old [now, 47] R. Yitzhaq Maier Morgenstern, head of the kabbalistic yeshiva Torat Hakham. Like the previously mentioned figures, Morgenstern conducts his classes in the new centre of haredi life in Jerusalem, the Tel Araza neighborhood. Morgenstern, who grew up and acquired his initial Jewish education in England, studied for several years with Erlanger at Sha‘ar Hashamayyim (thus demonstrating the general sociological pattern of formation of networks preceding the outward success of their members) and is in close contact with Zilberberg. He is the most kabbalistic of these figures, as is apparent both in his voluminous (and anonymously published) yearbook, Yam Hahokhma, as well as his slightly more popular D’ei Hokhma Lenafshekha (distributed in Hebrew, English, Yiddish, and French). These demonstrate a truly impressive synthesis of classical and often technical kabbalistic sources. On the scholastic level, Morgenstern’s main innovation is a kabbalistic reinterpretation of talmudic and halakhic texts, the most ambitious project of this nature ever essayed. Similarly to Milikowsky (AB- known as the Amshinover), Morgenstern is renowned for his lengthy prayers. These include a unique mix of kabbalistic techniques (kavvanot and yihudim), and the slightly audacious device of halting for Hasidic melodies (nigunim) at key points in the liturgy.

This delicate combination of the conservative and the radically hypernomian is also apparent in his resistance to the growing presence of alternative medicine and Far Eastern meditation techniques in the spiritual landscape of many haredi worlds, especially amongst the newly observant, as well as women, who turn to these fields as a new avenue for financially supporting their husband’s career of full-time learning. Despite his official position, in which one can discern subtle shifts, Morgenstern himself writes quite openly of what can be described as meditation, trance, and breath control, and as a result he has magnetized haredi counsellors with a background in alternative methods.

A final member of this network is a disciple of Morgenstern R. Avraham Tzevi Kluger, of the new haredi centre in Beit Shemesh…Kluger has anonymously published two specialized volumes, Nezer David, similar to Morgenstern’s writings in style and structure. However, he has published a collection of popular essays, entitled Divrei Hakhamim Benahat, which originally appeared in the mass-circulation haredi daily Hamodi‘a (which some say were edited by a student named Barukh Lev). Kluger’s main contribution is a strong espousal of inner-directed spirituality, accompanied by a critique of achievement-oriented study and practice.

Indeed, in an intriguing historiosophical move, he writes that the original Hasidic teachings were revealed prophetically, with the needs of the current generation in mind! Like Erlanger, Kluger emphasizes the positive qualities of this generation, which he describes in rather kabbalistic terms as “souls of inner quality”. In a very subtle manner, Kluger links this bold claim to his critique of the standard haredi comportment and to the positive effect of the addition of the newly observant to this world.

We have here not merely a challenge to standardized observance and learning, afforded by the fresh perspective of voluntary adherence. Rather, it is a generational critique of the senior scholars and leaders, on the part of a member of the emerging network of Morgenstern and Zilberberg, all currently in their 40s. At the same time, Kluger reflects the seeping in of contemporary and global spiritual influences in the direction of inner-directed spirituality, through the mediation of the newly observant.

Although in general I focus here on the developments in Israel, which are the most vibrant, one should mention some figures in the American Hasidic world, such as R. Moses Wolfson of Boro Park and the late R. Samuel Kraus, author of Siftei Hen, a popular interpretation of kabbalistic concepts in the light of Hasidic inner work.

Trans-haredi networks
Beyond the Hasidic and Lithuanian networks, one can observe the emergence of transharedi figures, whose influence extends beyond any specific centre or circle, as well as basing their ideas on a variety of sources, rather than any specific tradition.

R. Itamar Schwartz of the elitist and fast-growing haredi town of Kiryat Sefer (Modi‘in ‘Ilit) near Jerusalem. Although Schwartz was initially trained in the Lithuanian world, at an early age he went on his own path, and began anonymously publishing a series of original works on the ways of the worship of God, which acquired the title Bilvavi Mishkan Evne (“In my heart I will build a sanctuary”, based on a poem by the sixteenth-century pietist R. Eliezer Azikri). The first volumes were an unique development of the methods and ideas of the musar movement and received approbations from several leading Lithuanian and Hasidic figures, including kabbalists from the Sha‘ar Hashamayyim yeshiva. However, one of these letters, by the young Hasidic rebbe R. Yitzhaq Menachem Weinberg of Tolne, an intriguing figure in his own right, criticized the glaring absence of Hasidic sources. As a result, Schwartz expanded his repertoire to include Hasidic and later Sephardic sources.

One expression of his success is the adoption of his methods by spiritual directors in several yeshivot, in Israel and in the United States. Another is his enthusiastic reception in the world of the newly observant, as expressed in psychological books of his directed at the secular world, a popular website, and a book on the process of return to Judaism written by a student.

The key to the progressive spiritual path that he maps out is a transformation of self-awareness and identity, in which one comes to perceive oneself primarily as a soul, experienced as a concrete reality. Schwartz describes spiritual guidance as a process that helps the seeker to “reach” his soul, as “whoever has not tasted the feeling of his soul has never tasted the true taste of life”. Elsewhere, he describes this self-revelation of the depth of the soul as the revelation of the personal Messiah. Schwartz closely relates his other major theme— the purification of the heart—to this shift. The heart is purified through revealing one’s true will and desire, which is that of the soul. Schwartz bases the detailed spiritual practice, which he recommends, on the formative decision to set aside a daily period for deep contemplation (indeed, his website includes a poll asking the surfers if they do so).

He stresses that this choice must be taken in face of the culture of speed and haste, which for him is the “greatest problem” of the generation. The centrality of individual psychic life necessitates an individualistic structuring of spiritual guidance. Some souls require the more intellectualistic Lithuanian approach, whilst others are of the “soul root” of Hasidism.In other words, one’s spiritual nourishment is dictated not by familial or social identity, but by individual psychological inclinations.

The key to the progressive spiritual path that he maps out is a transformation of self-awareness and identity, in which one comes to perceive oneself primarily as a soul, experienced as a concrete reality. Schwartz describes spiritual guidance as a process that helps the seeker to “reach” his soul, as “whoever has not tasted the feeling of his soul has never tasted the true taste of life”.Elsewhere, he describes this self-revelation of the depth of the soul as the revelation of the personal Messiah.Schwartz closely relates his other major theme— the purification of the heart—to this shift. The heart is purified through revealing one’s true will and desire, which is that of the soul.Schwartz bases the detailed spiritual practice, which he recommends, on the formative decision to set aside a daily period for deep contemplation (indeed, his website includes a poll asking the surfers if they do so). He stresses that this choice must be taken in face of the culture of speed and haste, which for him is the “greatest problem” of the generation.

The centrality of individual psychic life necessitates an individualistic structuring of spiritual guidance. Some souls require the more intellectualistic Lithuanian approach, whilst others are of the “soul root” of Hasidism. In other words, one’s spiritual nourishment is dictated not by familial or social identity, but by individual psychological inclinations.

Under the tutelage of figures such as the above-mentioned Shach (1898–2001) and Alter’s successor, R. Yisra’el (1894–1977), the haredi world focused on ideological and halakhic uniformity, rather than on individual creativity. These forms were both expressed and enhanced by the emergence of the figures described here, who do not aspire to any political or institutional sway (indeed, some of them, most notably Morgenstern, have joined the growing movement to boycott Israeli political life).

Maimonides on Mosaic Revelation-Prof. Lawrence J. Kaplan

Prof. Lawrence Kaplan–who was part of the distinguished group that meet at Yarnton Manor, Oxford to discuss current theological issues–put forth his view of Maimonides on Mosaic Revelation, as expressed in prior articles that he had written. One can use Prof. Kaplan’s presentation to help in the current discussions of the origin of the Bible.

Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed dealt with the question of anthropomorphisms. In the first chapters, the great eagle taught that all emotions and all physical movement when applied to God are not to be taken literally. God’s foot, hand, and finger are anthropomorphic; God’s anger, regret, and pleasure are anthropomorphic; and even God’s sitting, rising, looking, hearing are anthropomorphic. The second part of the Guide applies this approach to the big theological issues of creation and prophecy, how we can understand these in a non-anthropomorphic way. What does it mean to say that God spoke at Sinai?

Maimonides on Mosaic Revelation-Prof. Lawrence J. Kaplan

Before I specifically discuss Mosaic revelation, let me make very briefly a more general point about prophecy in general. Maimonides sought a naturalistic explanation for theological events, including prophecy. When he wrote “Know that the true reality and quiddity of prophecy consists in its being an overflow overflowing from God, may He be cherished and honored, through the intermediation of the active intellect onto the rational faculty in the first place and then onto the imaginative faculty” (G 2.36, P 369), the whole first part of this definition “an overflow overflowing from God, … through the intermediation of the active intellect” is window dressing, since it elides the fact that, for Maimonides, everything that happens in the world, for example the fact that a plant grows, is owing to an overflow overflowing from God through the intermediation of the active intellect. Thus, Maimonides in Guide 2:12 draws an explicit analogy between God’s overflow being responsible for everything that comes into existence in time and God’s overflow of wisdom onto the prophets.

What is important is what the overflow perfects. The key part of the definition of prophecy then is its conclusion: “onto the rational faculty in the first place and then onto the imaginative faculty.” True, some have argued that only ordinary, non-Mosaic prophecy is naturalistic, while Mosaic prophecy is miraculous, but there does not appear to be any basis for their view. Now to Mosaic revelation.

In two of my articles I have argued that Maimonides’ true esoteric position, as hinted at in the Guide of the Perplexed, regarding the origin of the Torah, the divine Law differs from his exoteric position, as set forth in the Introduction to Helek: Thirteen Principles of Faith, Eighth Principle. In the Introduction to Helek Maimonides states that Moses received the entire contents of the Torah word for word from God like a scribe taking down dictation, in the Guide he suggests, though does not state explicitly, that Moses should viewed as the author of the Torah.

Briefly, Maimonides’ view, as it emerges from the Guide, is as follows.
Maimonides in Guide 1:54, equates Moses’ apprehension of the attributes of action with his cognition of the cosmos. More specifically, Moses apprehended “the nature [of all existing things] and the way they are mutually connected so that he [Moses] [knew] how He [God] governs them in general and detail.” This apprehension on the part of Moses was a purely intellectual grasp of God’s governance as manifested in the scientific order of the cosmos, that is to say, to use terminology suggested by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, of the ontological law. The revealed law for Maimonides, I would suggest, emerged out of Moses’ purely intellectual grasp of the ontological law. How so? To answer this let us look at the continuation of Maimonides’ discussion.

Maimonides goes on to say “Scripture has restricted itself to mentioning only the thirteen characteristics although Moses apprehended … all His actions because these [thirteen characteristics] are the actions proceeding from Him …in respect to giving existence to human beings and governing them. This was Moses’ ultimate object in his demand [“Show me Thy ways”], the conclusion of what he says being `that I may know Thee … and consider that this nation is Thy people’ (Exod.33: 13)—that is, a people for the government of which I need to perform actions that I must seek to make similar to Thy actions in governing them.” Thus though Moses attained intellectual knowledge of the totality of the cosmic order (“all His actions,” “all existing things”), he was particularly concerned with the actions of the cosmic order as they impinged upon man. For Moses’ goal was to imitate the actions whereby God governed man, i.e., the thirteen characteristics, by performing actions similar to God’s and thereby governing the people. In a word, Moses’ political governance of Israel was an imitation of the divine cosmic governance of mankind.

But what were the actions that Moses performed, actions that were similar to, that imitated the divine actions? Maimonides does not tell us. I maintain that, for Maimonides, the actions that Moses had to perform in governing the people similar to God’s actions in governing mankind, or to put the matter another way, Moses’ act of Imitatio Dei, par excellence, was the formulation, the legislation, of the revealed Law. That is, Moses, through an act of pure intellectual cognition, grasped the scientific functioning of the cosmos, the ontological law; he apprehended God‘s governance of all things and man in particular. Then, in a second act, Moses, using his imagination, translated that intellectual apprehension of the ideal divine pattern of governance, of the perfect ontological law of the cosmos, into ethico-political categories and produced the revealed Law. The revealed Law is thus distinct from though intimately related to the ontological law, for the revealed law is a perfect imitation in ethico-political terms of the ideal ontological law.

My position was independently arrived at as well by the distinguished Maimonidean scholar Howard Kreisel, who in his book Maimonides’ Political Thought (Albany, New York, 1999), p. 15, states, referring to Guide 1:54, “In this passage … Maimonides alludes the view that the legislation of the law is the product of Moses’ `translation’ of the theoretical knowledge of all existence into a system of ideal rule in the human context.”

Despite the striking differences between Maimonides’ exoteric and esoteric positions regarding the origin of the Torah, what they have in common is the claim that “the Law is replete with wisdom in all its parts.”

My full argument on behalf of my position can be found in Lawrence Kaplan “`I Sleep, but My Heart Waketh: Maimonides’ Conception of Human Perfection,” The Thought of Moses Maimonides, edited by I. Robinson, L. Kaplan and J. Bauer (Lewiston, Maine, 1991), pp. 137-145, and idem, “Maimonides and Soloveitchik on the Knowledge and Imitation of God,’’ Moses Maimonides (1138-1204): His Religious, Scientific, and Philosophical Wirkungsgeschichte in Different Cultural Contexts, eds. Gorg Hasselhoff and Otfried Fraise (Ergon Verlag, 2004), pp. 491-523.

240px-Guide_for_the_Perplexed_by_Maimonides

For those who want some more on the general process of prophecy in Maimonides and the influence of Farbi, here is are sections from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

4.5 Prophecy: Overflow, Actualization, Fitness, and the Naturalized Divine

The active intellect is a divine intermediary. Not only is it a cosmic overflow whose ultimate source is God Himself, and not only does it stands as governor of sublunar existence and key illuminating source in all human intellection, but active intellect is additionally identified as the divine intermediary for prophecy. As Maimonides notes,

Know that the true reality and quiddity of prophecy consists in its being an overflow overflowing from God, may He be cherished and honored, through the intermediation of the active intellect… (G 2.36, P 369)
And, drawing upon the epistemological ideas found in his Islamic philosophical milieu, he describes this process further in terms of active intellect’s causing the human intellect to “pass from potentiality to actuality ” (G 2.38, P 377).

At the heart of this epistemology and its notion of human receptivity (the human must receive an overflow of intelligibles from active intellect) there emerges additionally a notion of human fitness: human happiness is, as al-Farabi says, “given to the possible beings capable of receiving it” (PR, N1 35). For al-Farabi, human beings possess different natural dispositions, leaving some of them unable—by their very nature—to ever rise to the level of human perfection:

Prophecy is a natural phenomenon, stemming precisely from the cosmological structure of reality and the epistemological/psychological structure of human minds. The prophet is, in this context, the person whose ability to receive the overflow from active intellect is especially superb. And, following on this naturalized tradition of prophecy, there will be different levels of prophecy—as well as different levels of providence—corresponding to different levels of engagement with the overflow from active intellect.[32]

Following this naturalizing tendency further, we might note the fluid back and forth between natural and supernatural descriptions of the active intellect and other cosmic processes: In this context, the angels (the divine emissaries, as it were) are identified with the separate intellects, and active intellect in particular emerges as the bearer—or even, messenger—of prophecy to the human intellect. In this spirit, we find in Maimonides and in his Islamic predecessors descriptions of the active intellect in divine terms. For example, returning to the context in which Maimonides explains the Biblical notion (Genesis 1:26-27) of man’s being created in the image of God in terms of man’s possession of an intellectual faculty, we find the description of the active intellect—whence man’s own intellect receives its power—as a “divine intellect”:

…It was because of this something, I mean because of the divine intellect (al-‘aql al-ilâhî) (Munk 1931, 15) conjoined (al-muttasil) (Munk 1931, 15) with man, that it is said of the latter that he is in the image of God and in His likeness…[33]

It is in this spirit that we can approach Maimonides’ own account of active intellect as a divine overflow responsible for prophecy. Following al-Farabi’s idea above, Maimonides speaks of the perfected human as being as having his intellect in most full contact with the active intellect, speaking in terms of “the intellect that God made overflow (afâda) (Munk 1931, P 16) unto man” (G 1.2, P 24). And with al-Farabi, Maimonides too identifies this most perfected human intellectual state as the state of prophecy. Speaking of prophecy as active intellects’ mediation of divine overflow onto man, Maimonides adds,
…This is the highest degree of man and the ultimate term of perfection that can exist for his species… (G 2.36, P 369)

While the mechanics of active intellect point to a naturalizing tendency in Maimonides’ philosophical treatment of prophecy, we must not lose sight of what at least prima facie appears in 2.32 to be a more robust role for God in this story. “The opinions of people concerning prophecy are like their opinion concerning the eternity of the world or its creation in time…” (G 2.32, P 361) After addressing two other views of prophecy (one of which is described as the completely naturalized view held by the philosophers), Maimonides goes on to recount the “opinion of our Law,” which he contrasts from the completely naturalized view as follows:

Maimonides’ view on the exact mechanics of prophecy—and the precise role, if any, of God in that mechanics—is open to scholarly debate.[36] It is in part difficult to know for certain what Maimonides has in mind here since, as above in the case of creation, there are arguably different ways—some more naturalized than others—that one might understand Maimonides’ notion of “divine Will,” and hence, arguably different ways that one might understand the import of the above claim from 2.32.

Responses to Comments –Kenneth Hart Green

(AB- We have three responses here, a fascinating old-time modern Orthodox discussion of truth, faith, Biblical criticism, tolerating heretics, along with the need for serious Maimonidean investigation, a discussion of Maimonides in the Nineteenth century, and finally the nature of Straussianism and Orthodoxy. This post continues from Interview Part II here and assumes Prof. Green’s books Leo Strauss on Maimonides: The Complete Writings , and Leo Strauss and the Rediscovery of Maimonides.)

Reply to Saul Shajnfeld:
He wants to know: What would Maimonides have thought of us? And how would he have responded to our dilemmas? He seems to ask these questions with the aim of wondering whether Rambam did not hold a position which is altogether deficient for dealing with our modern situation and dilemmas.

It seems to me Saul asks two fundamental questions, (1) on the basis of Rambam’s position, are we not required to ostracize kofrim [heretics] in the sense of the ḥerem? (2) Is faith a sufficient basis on which to sustain modern Judaism?

(1) True, the challenges raised by the Higher Criticism (putting to one side the unprecedented discoveries of modern science about nature) are severe. This remains a problematic issue that it is not so simple to just deny, although denial probably is the most favored escape by some traditionalists. And if, as I tend to agree with him, the attempts so far made to salvage the idea of the divine Torah by those who accept the Higher Criticism are highly questionable at best, it seems we will have to continue to struggle with this challenge (whether or not we admit we are doing so). Maimonides would have been in favor of intellectual honesty, which excellence of mind dedicated to truth requires. However, he also believed we need to maintain certain doctrinal positions, and we also need to be able to rationally criticize the claims of reason.

However much we may want to disagree with the results of the Higher Criticism, we cannot close our minds to serious challenges, which this remains, and we cannot shirk the responsibility to think. (Even so, it is a question that it is still not disreputable to raise: whether the Higher Criticism is quite as solid as a science, which problem pertains to any sort of historical knowledge, and hence what its cognitive status truly is.)

Besides this, Maimonides would also seem to teach that the absolute duty to search cannot lead us to abandon the belief in the divine character of the Torah, in the sense of its being “Torah min ha-Shamayim.” So we are fully entitled to continue to doubt the veracity of the Higher Criticism as science (which serious scholars like Umberto Cassuto did); but even so, we are also not entitled as honest thinkers to ignore it as a challenge, or to pretend that history is something completely fictional, partisan, or polemical.

This is a dilemma and challenge which cannot be escaped, however much we may wish to bury our heads in the sand of dogma. We must consider the works of those who struggle with it, and respect their efforts, even if we cannot accept their results. We are intellectually protected for the moment, as a sort of extenuating ground for our persisting with legitimate doubts about it, by the continued hypothetical character of much of what presents itself as the Higher Criticism, however historically probable its advocates might legitimately claim it to be. (It’s not called the “Documentary Hypothesis” for nothing. The defenders of the Higher Criticism show it remains hypothetical by the nature of their defenses, which I can only urge readers to consider open-mindedly and honestly, but also critically.)

I can’t offer a definitive solution on a blog to this or any other problem (e.g., the age of the universe, the historicity of the flood, etc.), but I can only suggest a tentative “Maimonidean” approach to them: it is one which refuses to surrender our belief and which continues to press our doubts about the solidity of the results of modern science and historical scholarship; but it is also one in which we must open our minds carefully and critically to different and new ways of interpreting the texts which are not excessively literalistic, as Maimonides urged, if we are to penetrate what I called, in one of my nine points about why Maimonides matters, the “hidden depths” of the Torah.

Saul obviously carries much weight on his shoulders. As for whether Genesis 1-11 is myth, I do not believe Orthodoxy can say that, whatever the rabbi to whom he refers may say about this. Our difficulties with the Higher Criticism are precisely because as Jews we must take history seriously and cannot avoid it, since history is a crucial given basis of our faith and tradition. For a wonderful attempt to show how a modern rational (Maimonidean) approach to Genesis is possible, I recommend again Strauss’s article (as I already mentioned in part 1 of my post), “On the Interpretation of Genesis.” It’s a sort of intensive exegesis of the first three chapters of Bereshit, in the manner of our medieval sages, which they did so well, and which Strauss shows can still be done today.

I cannot claim to know what Rambam would do or say were he alive today, but I can perhaps say what I believe he would have done: he would have worked to save the tradition by rethinking it in light of the current state of knowledge, in terms which are consistent with fidelity to tradition, with intellectual honesty, and with spiritual excellence. (This is the venerable effort of rethinking that that I can’t dismiss, as Saul did, as mere “retrenching.”) I’m sure Maimonides would have been happy to teach at MIT or Harvard, but even if he were to have done so—with his deeply-held and deeply-grounded convictions about the search for truth in human life and about the perennial wisdom of Judaism with respect to human nature—it would not have allowed him to surrender to a radical secular modernism, which claims to have surpassed the truth of religion, since nothing shows the truth of religion to have been “refuted” by modern science or philosophy.

2. Yes, Rambam affirms that emunah in Hashem is essential, but as he also simultaneously affirms, this is not the same thing as emes—the truth. Truth, for Maimonides, is highest, but faith is an aid in our struggle toward it, points us in the right direction, and morally sustains us along the way, besides being necessary to make human society possible and decent.

I call it in the last chapter of my book (in the spirit of Strauss): “the Maimonidean revolution: Western tradition as reason and revelation.”

Such a life dwelling in spiritual tension is too difficult perhaps for most people, but this doesn’t make it less Maimonidean for that reason, at least for those who are capable of it. Their numbers are much greater in our time than could have been possible in his time, because education is much broader: at least the possibilities of enlightenment are much broader, if one has a soul which is equipped for it. More is expected of those who possess the intellectual resources, the quality of soul, the native ability, and the right circumstances to search and to struggle toward the goal. His addressee in the Guide is his student, Rabbi Joseph; and Maimonides urges us toward him as a model (if limited) student-searcher. He seems to be saying to his readers: you should imitate him; and like him ultimately you should transcend yourself and your own limits, and so following Maimonides as our highest model of the searcher.

Yes, as Saul claims, perhaps it’s “easier . . . for a thoughtful, educated Jew today to be a heretic that to be a believer”—but according to Strauss’s Maimonides (and Strauss himself, I would add), it’s not “more rational,” as Saul would also like to claim. “Easier” is one thing; “more rational” is something else entirely. In fact, Rambam’s challenge to us is to never take the easy way, but to pursue the truth, which is hard, since it is not given to us in textbooks or simple articles of faith as dogma. He demands of those who can, to ever keep in the mind the almost exclusive way to God, which is through knowledge of the truth, and which is the high road of intellectual excellence.

As Maimonideans in the modern world (which world I am confident he would’ve embraced), I believe that for him he would have made it an imperative for authentic Jewish teachers and leaders not to ostracize kofrim, neither for the “crime” of exercising their intelligence, nor for the “crime” of doubting or lacking emunah. I cannot promise that this modern Maimonidean imperative of decency toward honest searchers is or will be always obeyed, because not all Jewish teachers and leaders are “authentically Jewish” as he understood those terms. Even in the medieval period, Maimonides didn’t believe in being harsh toward the Karaites, although he clearly diverged from them on what Judaism is.

The function of his “13 roots” today is to be a guide to Jewish faith, rather than a rigid straightjacket, since we cannot prudently judge our situation to be in an essential way the same as his, and he would have called us to judge prudentially. But if Maimonides were to appear in modern guise, I believe he would instead call those of us who can, to lead the difficult life of walking the tightrope between faith and doubt, always open to the truth from whatever source it derives, but also willing to doubt whether what seems to be (secular) “truth” is actually so, and so calling for fidelity to the Jewish tradition.

The authentic Jewish faith, as Maimonides understood it (beyond the “13 roots”), is never the same thing as denying the most serious questions or avoiding the deeper problems.

Response to Prof Kohler and Prof. Kaplan

Professor Kohler rehearses in public a debate we’ve already conducted in private. So I hope it will not be amiss if I repeat how I ventured to reply to him on a previous occasion

If you read my book, I think you will see that I was aware (as Strauss was aware) of the revived interest in Maimonides among 19th century Wissenschaft des Judentums scholars. If nothing else, it reached a high point with Salomon Munk. Yet Strauss was also highly critical of Munk’s Maimonides, never mind of those who even less adequately preceded and followed, since they were much too ensconced in and dependent on modern thought in their approaches to Maimonides. Munk’s misstep was “historicism” (based on the modern belief in progress), which closed him to the unique nature of Maimonides’ thought.

As you say, these 19th century scholars (of which Munk was only one) “had good reasons to emphasize the Guide’s relevance for their own agenda.” More to the point here in response to your comment, precisely because they “used” Maimonides “for their own agenda,” as you so well put it, according to Strauss they did not see Maimonides as he actually was, and they did not understand him as he understood himself. This means that he would have only partly supported their agenda; the other part also would have criticized their agenda. To see this would have required them to see Maimonides whole, and at a deeper level. Strauss, if I may so put it, conceived of himself as more closely conforming with Maimonides’ own agenda in presenting his thought.

Strauss also was interested in Maimonides as a philosopher, i.e., as an original thinker, whom he believes no one really took seriously perhaps until Hermann Cohen, as Spinoza had made sure was the case by his harsh attack, since he was trying to bury Maimonides. (To be sure, Strauss was well aware of Salomon Maimon, who had not been blinded by Spinoza.) He thought Cohen understood Maimonides better than anyone since Spinoza, but Cohen did so by putting Maimonides in his own shadow, and hence used him highly selectively, if he did not badly distort him, while claiming to revere him. Those other 19th century scholars who “used Maimonides for their own agenda,” made had him perhaps a little more palatable to moderns than Spinoza had made him, but not much. The point of my Rediscovery is to show how the real

Maimonides helped Strauss, precisely as a philosopher. This is the point at which I think we diverge (and here I’m presenting Strauss’s view): not that anyone read Maimonides, but that no one read him seriously as a thinker, so as to allow him to judge modern thought, rather than act as past authority for modern changes.
As for Professor Kaplan’s comment, we could together write a tremendously long list of leading modern Jewish thinkers who sincerely claimed a deep affinity with Maimonides.

By the way, this is a curious and noteworthy fact: in Judaism, the moderns claimed a medieval as their model. It is dramatically different from modern Western philosophic thought rooted in Christian tradition: not one modern Western philosopher I can think of (who was not already a Thomist), would have claimed the medieval Thomas Aquinas’s legacy as the basis for his specifically modern philosophic thought. It is in this sense alone that Professors Kohler and Kaplan are right: modern Jewish thinkers often set the medieval thinker Maimonides as their ideal—which shows a unique of modern Jewish history, and makes it completely different.

However, my chief point—and for this one will have to consult my two new books—is absolutely not the same as theirs. My chief point is that Leo Strauss was radically different from any of these modern Jewish thinkers, because his approach to reading Maimonides was closely based on Maimonides’ own writings as well as on his modus operandi.

By the way, one subsidiary but still remarkable difference between Strauss and all the others was his eagerness to use the great medieval meforshim [commentators] on Maimonides, not as a mere footnote (as was the case with almost all the other modern Jewish thinkers), but as essential guides to the Rambam’s true teaching and often hidden meaning. Professor Kaplan recognizes this in a certain measure by admitting that Strauss hit the target in his critique of Cohen’s Maimonides, since Cohen made his impressive attempt to use Maimonides for a modern agenda only by disregarding Maimonides’ medieval context.

My leading view is that Leo Strauss (unlike anyone else) used Maimonides not to advance the cause of the moderns (as did everyone else), but he recurred to Maimonides for the purpose of standing in judgment on the cause of the moderns and of calling them to account, as well as of drawing on Maimonides for aid to help in the correction of the misdirections of the moderns. Strauss neither employed Maimonides as an ostensible authority for modern change, nor did he wield him as a battering ram against “fundamentalists” (if I may utilize an anachronistic term).

Reply to Rabbi Ira Rohde.

Rabbi Rohde asks why I didn’t discuss in greater detail what Maimonidean esotericism means for Strauss. The talk, on which blog post is based, was a popular talk. I didn’t feel it was the right context in which to discuss the sort of issues Rabbi Rohde raises, and I still don’t think so. I thought it would be less obscure and more helpful for most people to present the broader picture of Maimonides as seems to be implied by Strauss’s pioneering approach, as the right way to first make contact with the deeper issues, and I still do.

Certainly Strauss gives a very different account of Maimonides than that presented by David Hartman, and this difference revolves around how seriously to take the esoteric dimension and what its implications are. (As Eric rightly notes in a subsequent comment on Ira’s remarks, Hartman in 2009 admitted his true opponent all those years was not the Straussian reading of Maimonides, which is plausible and worth arguing about, but rather Prof. Yeshayahu Leibovitz’s approach, which is diametrically opposed to Hartman’s own. Leibovitz rejects the view of the Torah as based on an intellectual content, and hence he also rejects the exegetical search for contemporary meaning in halakha, since simple obedience to the law should be quite sufficient. Fackenheim once described Leibovitz’s view to me as “Prussian Judaism.”)

Rabbi Rohde makes an interesting statement of a plausible account of what Strauss means by Maimonidean esotericism, and he bases it on Allan Bloom’s approach. What he has expressed might be the basis for further, stimulating discussion in a different context, in which complexities and subtleties are better dealt with.

Jewish Orthodoxy for Strauss probably meant something like how Maimonides defined it—but since Maimonides was medieval and we’re modern, it can’t be precisely for us as he defined it (as Strauss recognized about Maimonides). Indeed, no version of Orthodoxy today is Maimonidean pure and simple: too much has happened in the subsequent centuries for anyone to follow him on every point.

In a previous reply to a comment, I mentioned that although Strauss couldn’t observe Orthodoxy, he defended the notion that Modern Orthodoxy in the form of Religious Zionism is the Jewish position with the most integrity today. (See his Hillel lecture, “Why We Remain Jews” [1962], in Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity.) This is not to say or to imply that he dismissed or diminished the other forms of Judaism (religious and secular), each of which I believe he thought may play an essential role in the dialectics of Jewish life today. But in his view, none in this array of significant forces in the life of contemporary Judaism possess the same potential level of integrity—perhaps because they do not cling to both sides of the dialectic as vigorously as it does.

Why Maimonides Matters —Kenneth Hart Green-Part II

This post continues from Part I here. The post is a continuation of the nine points that Prof Green emphasizes in Maimonides. Here are the concluding four points as well as four great replies to comments, including replies to Micha, Moti, and Maimonides on prophecy. This is a very long post with the best at the replies, so print it out and enjoy.

By now you should have all bought for yourselves or your synagogues his books, one volume of Strauss essays and one volume of Green’s analysis to guide us. The former book is Leo Strauss on Maimonides: The Complete Writings , the latter is Leo Strauss and the Rediscovery of Maimonides.

KenGreen-Strauss

[6] Balance: According to the Maimonidean world-view, religion itself is in need of balance, in need of a moderate attitude. It has a tendency to lean toward extremism in the service of God. Now, someone may contend: surely God demands an absolute totality of surrender of the mind and will by each person. Not according to Maimonides: he’s the classic advocate for “the golden mean,” for not losing one’s sense of a complete and balanced perspective on life, which religion requires as much as anything else, and which keeps things in equipoise or well balanced. We live in a time in which extremist positions are considered more authentic, in which certain forces on the right and on the left like to push things to an extreme, both in the religious community, and in general secular society. Maimonides represents a wisdom which rejects both religious extremism and radical secularism.

[7] Moral Ideals Maimonides unconditionally rejects moral relativism (which he knew and encountered in a rudimentary form in his society), and he confirms the core moral ideals and teachings which are essential to Jewish religion as being of an absolute character. The dominance of moral relativism in the contemporary West is one of the most serious challenges facing anyone who wishes to adhere to Jewish law and moral teachings.
The Guide defines man in certain terms, beginning with the first chapter (1.1). Man is the being who is created in the image of God (as the very first chapter of the Torah states unambiguously), a key element which makes moral imperatives to be of an absolute character, since they follow from the “divine image.” Man is also the being whose intellect is the most God-like aspect of his being. It sets the standard for everything else, and everything is ranked in terms of it, which also tends toward an absolute goal and which defines man by its perfection.
But in order to achieve excellence of the mind, the character and soul must be properly trained in the right way, so as not to be sent on the wrong course (see Guide 1.34 and 2.23); the telos of human perfection requires certain ways toward it, which the Torah carefully defines and helps us to achieve, if we grasp what it is aiming for. These things are of a fixed character, and we must follow the rules which help us to become what we are meant to be according to the Torah.

It’s often difficult to withstand the arguments and allure of contemporary culture, which Judaism often must stand in judgment of—although prudently and with reason. Maimonides would likely say that these core ideals and basic teachings are as wise today as they were in the past, although this is not to deny that some of them may have to be adapted to so as to be in accord with the better modern realities. Of course, Maimonides insisted in his time, and he presumably would have expected it of us in our time, that such adaptations must be done with the greatest caution, care, and reserve, so that these adaptations do not lose or compromise those core values and meanings which the Jewish tradition has managed to preserve through the centuries.
The temptation to reject university philosophy or academia as wholly sunk in relativism is a powerful temptation for the religious Jew. But relativism has not pervaded all aspects of the contemporary university, or even contemporary philosophy—they are not of its essence. There are still many good and sound people teaching.

The fact remains: the university is the main repository of knowledge, and so we must utilize it if we are to perfect our minds and to encompass its knowledge in ourselves, as Maimonides directed us to do. Perhaps we must use it carefully, but use it we must. But this must be regarded as a challenge to us, and not a reason to hide from the academic world.
We are commanded to make the world better; we can do so only by teaching our children well and arming them spiritually against relativism, and by ourselves helping to fight the relativist faith, which will be antithetical to us, if we allow the world to surrender to it. We should not capitulate, but enter the university world, or the world of philosophy, ready to present our case confidently and articulately. We must grasp the good and leave the bad; we cannot pretend that this relativistic attitude will not infect us, if we do not work actively to excise it by studying the good.

[8] Politics: Maimonides asserted the value, meaning, and even imperative character of political wisdom, for Jews as well as for everyone else. Jews are not exempt from politics, even if in his day they did not possess political power. Whatever their circumstances, they must engage with the world, and must not withdraw from the world, and if possible, they must participate in the political order. One of the ways is to make themselves aware of and to study the political wisdom of the ancients as worthwhile for, and not opposed to, their Judaism. They must see it as a basic element that complements and/or challenges the teachings of the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, for Maimonides, Jewish life and Jewish teachings demand, for those capable of it, an understanding of the political, and for those free to do so it requires their participation in the political order, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. Politics is capable of being an ennobling pursuit or calling, and it is a requisite element in any decent human life, which is an idea that is fully accepted and endorsed by the Torah.

Thus, in his “Letter on Astrology,” which he wrote to the Jews of Marseilles, Maimonides faults the ancient Jews of the Second Temple era for turning to astrology, which he regarded as a kind of idolatry, instead of “learning the arts of war and conquest.” (I so confidently draw this conclusion about Maimonides’ view of politics from these remarks because he regarded the military arts as a subsection of the political arts and sciences.)

Sinat ḥinam [groundless hatred (among ourselves)], i.e., the traditional explanation for our defeat, seems to have been a smaller sub-cause for Maimonides, encompassed in the larger error of turning to magic or astrology, rather than rational interpretation as the best way to analyze our historical situation, ourselves, and our enemies. In Maimonides’ view, a high degree of political realism and prudence is imperative, as commanded by the Torah itself, if for no other higher reason than for the practical survival of the Jews and Judaism.

I don’t think in one’s wildest imagination that Maimonides could be accused of militarism, or could be accused of asking the Jews to cultivate militarism. This is to completely misread him, although I suppose I can perceive how he could be so misread. First of all, to repeat what I already said, military matters are always subordinate to political matters for Maimonides, and politics should be geared toward the pursuit of justice, peace, freedom, and wisdom, which prevents militarism however defined. One need only read “Sefer Shoftim” at the end of the Mishneh Torah to know that this is true for Maimonides. However, based on the centuries of galut, in which Jews tended to regard the very idea of concern with an army as entirely foreign to them, hence they also tended to despise military matters as goyishe sachen.

Maimonides made a very simple point, in his day and for the future (whatever one may make of his historical judgment about the Second Temple period): if the Jews are to be free, which is what the Messiah promises, and if freedom is to lead to the higher spiritual perfection for which it is ultimately aimed, it can only happen if we ever keep in mind that this freedom needs to be preserved and protected, and we are the only ones who can do the preserving and protecting if it is to be our freedom as a people. The Messiah will lead an army, and it will be an army of Jews, not mercenaries or gentiles. He will bring about the messianic state by conquering the enemies of the Jews. Is that militarism? I don’t think so.

But permit me to make one purely personal comment that readers can disregard if they do not wish to consider my own personal opinion about contemporary life: the state of Israel is a Jewish society in the full and proper sense that it has never become militaristic, whatever its hostile critics or enemies, both within the Jewish people and without, have accused it of. It has acted in the spirit of Maimonides. And yet it has never forsaken and despised or ignored the duty to “learn the arts of war” as a moral necessity of a free society if it is to survive.

[9] Zionism: I will venture to say that Maimonides anticipated Zionism, and pronounced a blessing on it in advance. Look at the last couple of chapters of the last book of the Mishneh Torah, in “Sefer Shoftim,” where the messianic age represents simply the return of the Jews to their own land, the land of Israel, by the hand of a great leader inspired by God. This leader will bring them back not by miracles, but by military conquest, will liberate the Jews from their oppression in exile, and will establish a free Jewish state. (To be sure, in its perfected and ultimate form, the Anointed one will also rebuild the Jerusalem temple and restore the Davidic kingship.) In other words, the legitimate end of a return of the Jews to their land, which is what the Messiah is for, will come about by human effort, and by natural means, and by Jewish historical and political participation in the process.

To be sure, Maimonides would surely not have declared the state of Israel a messianic state in any perfected and ultimate sense (as no one else I know of would declare), since no Messiah brought it about, and the other things I mentioned have not followed. But he would surely not have been bothered by a return to the land of Israel by human hands (albeit aided by devotion to God’s unchanged promises), since he could have viewed this as the first step in a historical process, which is entirely legitimate in terms of the classical Jewish sources

For the first five points- see part I here.

Four Multi-part Questions from the Comments

1] Answers to Comments of Moti:
First, of course Strauss didn’t invent the esoteric reading of the Guide; he never claimed he did. Yes, it began during Maimonides’ own life, and especially with his contemporary and Hebrew translator, Shmuel ibn Tibbon, and continued as the dominant reading for about six centuries. Strauss not only never claimed otherwise, but instead what he claimed was to revive a way of reading the Guide which had been forgotten, ignored, or even denied by modern scholars and thinkers. Solomon Maimon in the mid-18th century was probably the last modern to know about it or even to acknowledge it, even though he didn’t carry it very far.

Strauss thought it was worth paying most careful attention to how Maimonides had expressed himself in his book about what he was doing, how he was doing it, and why he was doing it. Thus, Strauss focused laser-like on Maimonides’ claim to be writing with utmost, meticulous care for each minute point, each word, and even each silence (not to mention employing deliberate contradictions), which though Maiminides declared these things, most modern scholars had chosen to regard them as irrelevant, or at best as some sort of medieval peccadillo or perversity of Maimonides, which should be passed over with an embarrassed silence. Strauss rejected this as an approach that could not do even the most elementary justice to “the great eagle.” So I also can’t accept that the issue of whether anyone has “has proved Strauss wrong about Maimonides’ esotericism” is a “straw man” argument.

Second, did Strauss turn off, or turn on, more readers to the Guide? I must say (even with the complexities of his prose), I’ve got no doubt that he turned on many, many more than he may have turned off. But Strauss also knew this act of seriously reading Maimonides’ book is a big commitment for anyone, as Maimonides intended it to be: he was unusual for concerning himself mainly with the “exceptions” (i.e., the few genuinely “perplexed”), who normally have to fend for themselves—the one in ten-thousand as he puts it. In other words, the reader of the Guide desired by Maimonides must be serious about thinking, about careful reading, and about dedication to or persistence in the search for truth.

Thus I would say those who were turned off were probably so affected as much, if not much more, because of the deliberate difficulty of Maimonides’ own book as by any difficulty of Strauss’s writings. But Masimonides aimed ultimately for an elite only, i.e., for those elevated suffering souls—educated, deeply confused, and yet capable of deep thought and potentially leaders of the Jews—whom he hoped to cure, to guide, and to “perfect.”

I believe the evidence supports the fact of Strauss being single-handedly responsible for reviving interest in Maimonides as a serious and perennial thinker of profundity, and in the Guide as a book of serious and perennial thought, which he claimed to be of utmost relevance to modern people, both religious and secular—a very, very unusual claim.

Third- Were the products of Strauss’s reading, i.e., the proportions as he divided them between exotericism and esotericism in approaching the Guide, appropriate and accurate? This is the great issue that remains unresolved and continues to provoke discussion as well as argument. I repeat again here what I have concluded in LS and the Rediscovery of Maimonides, although in gist, I try to make the case that Strauss’s Maimonides remains of the utmost and even urgent usefulness to contemporary Jewish and philosophic thought. True, it is two separate topics which I have combined, and which I never denied: “why Maimonides matters” and “why Leo Strauss matters.” I’ve presented the former as seen in light of the latter: Strauss matters if for no other reason because he helps us to perceive why Maimonides matters. But this is also because I believe that no one else makes Maimonides matter as much as does Strauss.

On the simplest level, what am I saying? What we can do now, if we remain genuinely open-minded—beyond controversial assertions, and beyond dogmatic acceptance by one side, or dogmatic rejection by the other—is to continue studying Maimonides’ Guide together with Strauss’s commentary, and try to answer the question about Strauss’s reading as each one of us must do for ourselves.

2] Answer to Comemnts of Micha: Micha brings three issues to light, each of which requires a separate response: the Rorschach test; science; Aristotle.

To say Strauss utilized the esoteric so as to turn the Moreh into a Rorschach test is to say that he did with this book whatever his unconscious mind told him to do, or whatever he thought our unconscious minds would do with it. As a result, only a psychoanalyst or perhaps a political psychologist can make sense of his reading: it was a projection of his own thought, if not of his own personality, or even of his own neuroses; or it allowed each of us to project what we want or need on it as a blank screen.

I just don’t think it’s adequate to deal with a serious thinker and scholar like Strauss, or with any other serious thinker and scholar, as tends to happen if what they say is portrayed as an expression of their unconscious mind or motives, or of his readers’ unconscious mind or motives, perhaps as manipulated or controlled by the analyst: it’s too reductionist, it’s too dismissive, and it conveniently alleviates us of the difficult task of the labor of thinking, which requires us to make sense of, to probe, and to penetrate by great efforts what a serious thinker may have to teach us, and how we may be helped in our thinking by his thinking.

As for science, Maimonides believed in it as passionately as did any of the moderns. To call it mere “natural philosophy” and so to dismiss it as somehow unlike what we do as “genuine” science (although admittedly modern and premodern science operate differently) is only a fragmentary solution to a deeper problem, a sort of Karl Popper-like escape from the challenges of philosophy, to which science will always remain beholden.

And it also has not dealt with or confronted the radical criticism of modern science, which is known by the name of “Nietzsche,” and which continues to plague modern scientists who think about the grounds for what they do, and the comprehension of nature and human reason which it implies. (Consider Thomas Nagel’s recent Mind and Cosmos, which argues for some sort of notion of teleology [!] as requisite in order to make sense of biology, even or especially of the biology based on Darwin. If plausible, Aristotle may not be quite so totally obsolete as modern science wished to pretend.) So it seems we haven’t escaped Greek as well as medieval thought so completely, even with all of the wonderful developments of modern science in all of its manifold stages.

Some ideas seem to be perennial even about nature, and “progress” is not the complete truth. The most plausible solution to the problem seems to be the need to rethink what science is, and why we pursue it. To say: “Aristotelian thought barely advanced in the 1,500 years” prior to the Rambam is to know too little about the history of science following Aristotle.

Modern science no doubt stresses evidence-based conclusions, and a spirit of progress, among other things, as primary methodical factors; but Maimonides (scientifically) challenged the medieval Aristotelians precisely on the basis of the visible evidence (i.e., the movements of the heavens); and he acknowledged the progress of science in the past, as much as he hoped for its likely progress in the future. (As he put it, someone else may in future show rationally how to escape from the impasse which the conflict between Ptolemaic astronomy and Aristotelian physics had made a scandal of medieval science, for he could not resolve it; however, he believed he did better than his predecessors, precisely because he based his criticism of the Aristotelians on what is observed, like any modern: see Guide 2.24.)

The challenge which faces us isn’t, fundamentally speaking, so very different from the challenge which faced Rambam—although this is not to forget the point I already acknowledged, that some of Rambam’s science undoubtedly is or will have to be obsolete for us. But I don’t believe that Maimonides would’ve been bothered by this in the slightest. In fact, Rambam was not in any sense averse to the progress of science, and he urged it on, accepting whatever it produced—so long as it is genuinely knowable as science.

This matter of Aristotle is a major issue, not as to science alone, but rather as to theology. Micha has isolated a serious obstacle to a modern appreciation of Rambam; but this is not because Maimonides was quite the orthodox Aristotelian that Micha seems to think he was. Strauss was certainly much concerned with showing how Maimonides’ thought was quintessentially linked with Plato’s thought (through Farabi), which helped to ground his world-view; his point was that this Platonism had not been sufficiently appreciated, because everyone tends to automatically view Aristotle as the thinker who exercised the deepest influence on him.

But the truest or deepest issue, as Micha recognizes, is: what is the relation between philosophic theology and biblical theology in Maimonides’ thought? By the way, contra Micha, Maimonides did not think it was a matter of how much thought counts; he believed thought was the characteristic of biblical theology or faith as much as it was of philosophic theology or science. We need rigorous thought to reach God; he only wondered how far thought could carry us in knowing God, irrespective of whether the thought is grounded in philosophy or the thought is grounded in Tanakh (i.e., prophecy) as well as our Sages.

To be sure, Maimonides neither diminished ethics and morality, nor did he forget the element of will (or “personality”) in God; but though he accepted these points, even so he viewed intellectual excellence as man’s supreme perfection, together with other factors (as characterizes the prophet). In other words, this makes it his view that ethics and Divine will must be seen in the light of what rigorous thought can comprehend of them. Modern philosophy has trouble with this notion of the supremacy of thought, since it regards the passions as supreme—which is not necessarily a reason to reject Maimonides, since as Strauss argues, he may be better able to deal deeply and comprehensively with our spiritual dilemmas and so to help us with them, than any available modern alternative. This is something to which we should give serious consideration, especially if one takes the full measure of our spiritual dilemmas, as Strauss tried to do, that being the key point of departure at which we should begin our reflections on Maimonides.

3] A Facebook query- “I wonder how this differs from Conservative Judaism, which had the guts years ago to recognize all the problems in OJ, and start out on a different path.
But if it evolves, then what we have received is not what Moshe was taught, as it’s been revised in response to changing times and new discoveries. How then is it anything but an evolved religion based on ancient myth and lore, and, if so, how can it demand our adherence and allegiance?”

Answer to Query #3- No doubt Conservative Judaism has done better than most modern Jewish religious movements in theologically confronting the problem of history. Yet in doing so, it has also often allowed itself to be swallowed by history, or it has succumbed to historicism, being unable to defend clearly those fundamental truths which transcend history for Judaism. Even so, the issue which you raise is not just an issue for Conservative Judaism alone. History and historical study is based on facts and has discovered facts, even if some Orthodox thinkers believe that they can avoid the consequences of this issue by resorting to dogmatic assertions, which do not establish themselves as facts by being frequently repeated, or by being enforced as law. The attempt to deny facts is not a sound approach for any version of Judaism; besides everything else, it’s self-defeating. And Maimonides surely would have thought so. The matter only concerns whether the facts discovered (or claimed) by history are genuine facts, or only so-called facts, i.e., hypotheses, speculations, or constructions. Historical-factual change as “progress” is only a certain way of construing such change or those facts. Strauss writes with much subtlety on the complex issue of “progress” in Maimonidean thought in his “Introductory Essay” to the Guide.

You ask about what to do with “an allegedly continuous mesorah . . . [which nevertheless] evolves. But if it evolves, what we have received is not what Moshe was taught,” since to revise, to respond to change, and to admit discoveries is apparently to abandon what Moses taught—if, it seems, we make the change by disregarding what Moses taught. Jewish tradition always construed legitimate change as continuous with what Moshe taught. To be sure, these are complex issues, but they do not need to defeat a philosophically serious Orthodoxy. Every Orthodox thinker who is honest knows about “change” in the tradition; as everyone admits (other than Karaites), we don’t do everything which is in the written Torah, because we also have an oral Torah. So change is not the issue (it’s almost a non sequitur); the tradition has always changed; the issue is, whether it’s good or bad change, change for the better or for the worse.

Much depends on what the basis for the change is, as to whether it’s for the better or for the worse in terms of the truths that are at the source of tradition in the Torah—and we need great thinkers (like Maimonides) to tell us this. The matter might also be summarized as: “legitimate” change vs. “illegitimate” change; lawful change vs. change which breaks or diminishes the law. But we all know that this too can be disregarded in emergency spiritual-historical situations (as Maimonides states at the beginning of the Guide, and as Judah ha-Nasi claims in the Mishnah). This too is not simple, because that fact about the past cannot be used to justify whatever change we today may happen to want or to think justified.

For they were extraordinary men; our difficulty is that this way of construing our situation, of framing our choice—“to progress toward the good,” or “to save the authentic, unchanged tradition,” which results in “progressives” (those who wish to change the tradition in a certain direction construed as “progress”) arrayed against “fundamentalists” (those who wish to unconditionally defend the tradition against any change whatsoever however slight)—is just too crude a formulation of thought, in view of what the Jewish tradition is and has been, to deal with the complexities of our situation, as Maimonides teaches us.

Query #4 What is Mosaic prophecy for Maimonides? In the Guide, Maimonides asserts that the greatest prophet, Moshe, is a humanly perfected, divinely guided human individual who receives the communication of truths and of laws from God through the human mind, which through this perfected prophetic capacity is immediately translated into imaginative language for non-prophetic human beings. The source is God.

Prophecy is, I believe, still a useful element of Maimonidean thought for us today, because it points us to how we should try to comprehend the phenomenon of prophets and prophecy in the context of human nature and the human mind. For prophets and prophecy are still something most of us want to make sense of, in terms which we can accept as cognitively compelling. We want to know how it corresponds with human nature and the human mind while not abandoning its connection with transcendent forces, with Divine aid.

But you may ask: how should we make sense of the “active intellect” if we not do adhere to Rambam’s science. This is a difficulty of some profundity; I certainly don’t believe that we can subscribe to the literal concept of the “active intellect” as linked with a celestial sphere, which is obviously as he believed in it. But what is most to be noticed is: he insisted prophecy is in accord with nature, which God created; God expresses His will via nature. Thus, even if we do not follow Maimonides on his precise notion of the “active intellect,” something of it is still relevant in our world. What? We still wonder, how do we make sense of great geniuses (an Einstein or a Newton or even a Shakespeare) and great leaders (a Churchill or a Lincoln or even a Ben-Gurion)? (I raise this not unreasonable parallel, even if I acknowledge that geniuses and great leaders are not quite the same thing as prophets.) Great truths do seem still to somehow “descend on us from on high,” as it were, from some mysterious beyond, even if only occurring “in” the human mind, which however much we investigate we still cannot explain.

Our current neuroscience as tends toward materialist reductionism seems evidently deficient at this point; we too are still in search of the non-material factor that makes sense of the human mind and how it works, never mind which interprets genius and the like for us. One solution to what was Maimonides’ problem as much as it is ours, is to resort to the simple element of faith in prophets, which is traditional. But even if we continue to hold to the value amd meaning of science in comprehending God’s world and His truths, we are entitled to maintain our doubts about any materialist reductionism as current science might seem to proclaim; and we may hope the search for the transcendent or non-material factor will be uncovered in the mere comprehension of what the mind is. And since we do not yet know better (in the spirit of Maimonides’ argument for creation), we are entitled to call (in anticipation) the non-material thing which would seem to be required to make sense of the mind—and which may also help us to comprehend how great truths are conveyed to us—“divine.”

According to Maimonides we must allow ourselves to be aided by science if we are to properly and truthfully elucidate what the Torah means by the word “prophet.” This is the only way, according to Maimonides, that we are able to maintain our intellectual integrity and honesty, which for him are the conditions of religious exceptionality as much as they are of natural human excellence. In other words, what Maimoinides’ account of prophecy might still be able to show us is not precisely what we should understand by prophecy as he literally understood it, but rather how we should understand it, in the sense of the form of thinking about the world and God which we require to preserve theological honesty and integrity.

For part I of this interview- see here.

Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber on Faith and Biblical History

Very few rabbis have both a PhD in humanities and also functioned as a Dayyan (Isidor Grunfled, Herzog, Bleich). Zev Farber has a PhD in Biblical history and yadin yadin. He just published a manifesto of his beliefs on faith and criticism. It is a well thought out position paper of what he believes. Here are some excerpts totaling about a third of the essay. This is the time to compare his position to that of Kugel, Ross, Berman, and the others. The discussion here is to be about the theological and philosophic issues, not the denominational ones. I placed his concluding section first, then followed the order of the essay.

AVRAHAM AVINU IS MY FATHER:THOUGHTS ON TORAH, HISTORY, AND JUDAISM– Rabbi Zev Farber

Beyond strict adherence to halakha, part of being a Torah observant—or Orthodox—Jew is believing in the divinity of the Torah, that the Torah is devar Hashem, the word of God. In this essay I have tried to describe how this is possible while still embracing the findings and methods of modern academic scholarship which appear to me to be convincing. What is “the sum of the matter”? Here are my beliefs in short.

I believe in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim, that the Torah is from heaven, and that the entirety of the book is nevua (prophecy) and represents the encounter between God and the people of Israel.
I believe in Torah mi-Sinai, meaning the uniqueness of the Torah as being of a higher order than any other work in its level of divine encounter. The story of the revelation at Sinai in the Torah I understand as a narrative depiction of a deeper truth—the Torah is God’s book and the divine blueprint for Israel and Jewish life.

I believe that the Torah is meant to be as it is today and that all of its verses, from “Timnah was a concubine” (Gen. 36:12) to “I am the Lord your God,” are holy.
I believe that halakha and Jewish theology must develop organically from Torah interpretation and not by excising or ignoring any part of the Torah or Chazal’s interpretation.

The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Every generation has its challenges, both intellectual and social. As committed observant Jews, it is our job to keep the tradition alive by adapting the message of God to respond to these challenges, without fear and without apology, but with intellectual honesty, ethical sensitivity, and spiritual integrity. We must always be ready to face our Creator and our Torah with open minds and open hearts. Only in this way will we succeed in facilitating the growth of Torah observance in our day and allow the Torah and its message to flourish.

THE PARADIGM SHIFT

Our engagement with Torah cannot remain stagnant as the world continues to turn. Our Torah has proven to be timeless, but this doesn’t mean that it remains the same. Chazal call the Torah a torat chayim, a living Torah. Living implies growing; living implies continued vibrance.

As has happened many times in human history, the world is going through a Kuhnian paradigm shift in its understanding of its past and the foundations of its religious identity.What was once thought to be history may, in the light of developing understanding about history, science and society, now be understood as mnemohistory, a technical term which means the study of constructed memory.

This shift goes deeper than questioning miracles or allegorically interpreting tales such as the Garden of Eden with its talking snake. It runs deeper than the realization that the Torah contains difficult and seemingly contradictory accounts of certain events. Over the past few decades, much of the narrative of ancient Israel’s origins, from the patriarchs to the conquest, including the Exodus, the wilderness experience and Sinai, have proven problematic to reconstruct as historical. Certain accounts have been subject to re-characterization as legend or constructed memory, and not necessarily historical fact.

Fundamentalist objections to this paradigm shift include those who cast aspersions on historians or professors of religion, those who espouse conspiracy theories about a war on God, and those who intimate that the so-called objective scientific approach is anything but.

Nevertheless, many traditionally-observant Jews wish for an engagement with Torah free of apologetics and irrational claims. Can our religious way of life and our faith that we are part of some larger divine plan survive the loss of its “historical” underpinnings, now relegated to the status of legend or narrative allegory by the vast majority of academic historians? I believe the answer to this question is a resounding yes!

ENCOUNTERS WITH ACADEMIC STUDIES
Since my teenage years, I have been aware of the tension between academic biblical studies and Torah mi-Sinai as presented by some of my teachers. For years, as I was mastering my yeshiva studies, I put these concerns aside with the implicit understanding that I would return to them when I became more grounded in traditional learning. Eventually, in my mid-twenties, I signed up to study biblical history at Hebrew University.

As I began my studies, I started to learn Tanakh with the historical-critical approach. As I deepened my facility with this methodology, I realized that I was constantly engaged in apologetics with myself, subscribing to readings of texts and theories that I would not be included to subscribe to if it were any other subject and if my beliefs were not at stake. This was intolerable to me since if I could not be honest with myself, I was lost before I started.

Over these years, I became proficient in the nuts and bolts of ancient history and academic biblical interpretation, learning Sumerian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Egyptian, Greek and Latin so that I could read important material in the original.6 I learned about source criticism, redaction criticism, form criticism, literary theory, and a variety of other tools that academic biblical scholars use when studying the text.7 As I became more adept at this, I began to notice a myriad of problems. I will offer here some illustrative examples.

TAKING STOCK
So where does this inquiry leave me? First, it appears that the Torah is a layered document. While I am not convinced of the documentary hypothesis (JEPD) per se, it seems that the Torah has evident signs of being an edited work which makes use of multiple sources and contains layers of redaction. The Torah contains inconsistencies both in its laws as well as its narratives and lists. At first I toyed with the possibility that these might be literary devices, but this only works for some of the examples (and not for many of them).

Second, religious practices as well as aspects of the Jewish belief system have changed and developed over the generations. The Oral Torah explanation proffered by the rabbis, i.e. that all of the practices not found in the Bible were either told to Moses directly at Sinai or are derived from midrashic reading of text, does not even begin to realistically address the religious changes Judaism has gone through in a believable way.

THE MISTAKE OF BINARY THINKING
Faced with this awareness, I turned back to my religious self (which I had kept on hold for a few years) and asked whether this new perspective should change anything about my lifestyle and commitments.

I realized that some Jewish thinkers are caught in a binary system: either every word of the Torah was literally dictated by God to Moses, hence perfect, or the Torah was written by people, hence flawed. I wish to abandon the binary system and offer something else: a faith-position of sorts.

In my world-view, humans have the capacity to function in more than one mode. There is a mode where the person is totally on his or her own, and there is a mode where the person encounters the divine and channels it in some way. I understand this mode to be related to the traditional concepts of nevua (prophecy) and ruah ha-kodesh (holy spirit). I will call it prophetic mode. These different modes themselves are probably not binary; I imagine that a person can be in prophetic mode to a greater or lesser degree, depending on his or her level of inspiration and spiritual sensitivity.

The same is true of the Torah, I believe, which is the prophetic mode at its most sublime. If there are contradictions which cannot be answered by literary readings, this is because they reflect the respective understandings of different prophets channeling the divine message in their own way; each divine encounter refracts the light of Torah from the same prism but in a distinct way. To adapt an idea I heard from a wise mentor, if the Borei Olam (Creator) can fashion a universe in which pond-scum can eventually evolve into Rabbi Akiva, then how much more so can God create a mesorah in which distinct documents, traditions, redactional comments, and other sources can evolve into the Torat Hashem (God’s Torah).

THE WAVE THEORY
Revelation derives from the channeling of divine through human conduits. Although I consider nothing in the Torah to be specious, the insights of the Torah must be framed in a way sensitive to the context specific nature of revelation. If one wishes to uncover its message, the Torah must be studied in depth and in relation to the historical reality of the ancient world in which it formed.

I believe that people over the years, through some sort of divine encounter, have been given insight into God’s plan for Israel / the Jews and that these things were put into writing by the various prophets who experienced them and their disciples. Over time these revelations are synthesized and reframed. In the beginning this was how the Torah and the other books of Tanach were compiled. Over time the process moved on to the creation of other works, including the core works of Oral Torah like the Mishna and the Talmud.

In my view, Judaism is essentially a wave that eternally sends the messages of God. However, in order to understand how to apply these messages we must understand how any given halacha or ideal functioned in any given society, particularly the original society, ancient Israel. When we understand this, we can “subtract” the societal elements to see the ideas in their relative purity and reapply them to our times. Waves, however, require continuity. For this reason, it is vital to understand how the Torah functioned in every generation since Moshe in order to do this right. This requires serious study and thought.

MNEMOHISTORY VERSUS HISTORY
Once upon a time, history and lore were closely intertwined. Legends and myths, blended with nuggets of cultural memory, explained the distant past.

But matters did not—could not—stop there. The Torah traces the lineage of Israel’s first founding father, Abraham, back to Noah. But if Noah is not a historical character, what about Abraham? Additionally, it is hard to ignore the symbolic elements of many of the Abraham stories. Many of his sons—if not all of them—founded their own nations. Scholars began to realize that the family history being offered in the Torah was really a schematic attempt—the technical term is etiological narrative—of the Israelite writers or story tellers to explain the relationships between themselves and their neighbors.

The same holds true of the description of the development of Israel. The idea that the twelve tribes of Israel were formed by the twelve sons of Jacob has all the appearances of a schematic attempt of Israelites to explain themselves to themselves: “We are all one family because we are all children of the same father.” These Torah stories are not history, the recording of past events, they are mnemohistory, the construction of shared cultural-memory through narratives about the past.

Given the data to which modern historians have access, it is impossible to regard the accounts of mass Exodus from Egypt, the wilderness experience or the coordinated, swift and complete conquest of the entire land of Canaan under Joshua as historical. At what point biblical historiography and ancient history begin to overlap in significant ways remains highly contested—some would say with the accounts of the United Monarchy (the period of Saul, David and Solomon) others with the account of the Northern king, Omri (beginning in the late tenth century). However, even when historiography and biblical history overlap, they are hardly one and the same.

CRITIQUE OF THE STANDARD REACTION
The stories of the Torah have meaning and significance irrespective of their historicity. The Torah has holiness as the Israelite and Jewish encounter with God even after one realizes that the idea of God dictating it entirely and word-for-word to Moses on Mount Sinai is troublesome.

This vision of Torah may appeal to some but, ironically, I find it both unappealing and even sacrilegious. The Sages tell us that the Torah predates creation—although I understand this as a non-literal claim, it implies that the Torah had no choice but to turn out the way it did. The stories were destined to be told, irrespective of the historicity of its characters and their actions.

MNEMOHISTORY: TORAH AS SACRED LORE
Many may feel a pang of fear when sacred stories of the past are referred to as lore—when mnemohistory is understood as something different than factual history. However, the most powerful force in most societies is not history. Societies are driven by their lore—their legends and their stories.

The same is true for biblical stories and characters. The stories of the Torah reflect the ways the prophets of old refracted their encounters with divine wisdom through the prism of mnemohistorical narrative. Adam is the story about why humans are here, and Noah is the story about the precariousness of our position and the existential need to be good people in order for our existence to have meaning. The stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are about who we (Israel/Jews) are as a people and how we found God/God found us; the Exodus and Conquest tell us about Israel’s mission as a nation and our covenantal relationship with God. (Read the Full Version-Here)

Why Maimonides Matters – Kenneth Hart Green- Part I

Have you ever wanted to truly understand the esotericism of the Guide of the Perplexed? Are you having difficulties pinning down the positions of Leo Strauss. Now, we have the recently published works of Kenneth Hart Green, one volume of texts and one volume of analysis to guide us. The former book is Leo Strauss on Maimonides: The Complete Writings , the latter is Leo Strauss and the Rediscovery of Maimonides. The volume of texts is invaluable and includes newly transcribed and newly translated works of Strauss as well as collecting all his essays on Maimonides. The volume of analysis offer a cogent and clear presentation of both Maimonides and Strauss. The books are both a labor of love and are serious pieces of scholarship that deserve a serious reading. To launch his new book, Green gave a talk at Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation 27 June 2013. I divided his talk into two parts and added a few queries, which Green graciously answered. (Part II- is here.)

“Why Maimonides Matters.”
Maimonides should very much matter to us. Appreciating this is something which has been aided, in both its Jewish and its universal dimensions, particularly by the modern Jewish thinker Leo Strauss.

Prior to Strauss, Maimonides was viewed as an antiquated medieval figure—though revered by a select group of scholars for his achievements which occurred in the distant past—but nevertheless not particularly relevant to modern Judaism, never mind to modern people in general. However, Strauss refused to accept this judgment about Maimonides and instead presented arguments for the contemporary and enduring worth of Maimonides as a Jewish thinker.

Learned Jews always took Maimonides seriously, and never ceased studying his works. But this was a rarefied interest. Leo Strauss changed all of that. Strauss did what he could to put Maimonides in the very center of contemporary Jewish and philosophical discussion, and made him a thinker of the utmost relevance to modern Judaism, as well as to modern thought in general. He argued that his essential thought is most timely because it is most timeless.

In the years 1928-30 in Germany, Strauss established himself as a modern Jewish scholar by writing and publishing his first book, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion. However, it is not a typical modern book on Spinoza. Strauss disagreed with most Jewish thinkers of his day who believed that the revolutionary ideas of Spinoza had demonstrated religion to be wrong or false, and by implication proved Maimonides to be no longer relevant. In fact, Strauss showed in his book that Spinoza had not refuted religion or Maimonides. Indeed, this further led him to prove that Maimonides’ essential position had basically (although not in every respect) managed to withstand the storms of Spinoza’s modern criticisms. His next book, Philosophy and Law: Contributions to the Understanding of Maimonides and His Predecessors, (Schocken Press: 1935) presented his unique reading of Maimonides, claiming the immediate relevance of Maimonides’ medieval thought to modern Jews.

At a later time in the USA, Strauss’s teaching and writing exercised an influence on the nascent movement known as neo-conservatism, which is known in US political circles primarily for its pro-Americanism, its pro-Zionism, and its general opposition to moral relativism. However, Strauss never saw himself as a “conservative” per se, and always considered himself a “classical liberal”; he did not involve himself in politics, or express his opinions in what could be called a political tract, but kept them private.

I should also mention that, pretty much single-handedly, Strauss was responsible for bringing together the parties who produced the famous English translation of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed [Moreh ha-Nevukhim in Hebrew]. Strauss made sure that the translation was done by his old friend Shlomo Pines, a great linguist of Hebrew and Arabic who was a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and who shared Strauss’s admiration for Maimonides’ great book. Strauss also wrote a long and elaborate introduction to the translation. It was published in 1963, making this year, 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of its publication,

So following Leo Strauss’s rediscovery, what is it about Maimonides that makes him so timeless? I have organized my answer to this question into a number of points, nine to be exact: (AB- Five of the nine are below, the next four will be posted after the weekend.)

[1] Science and Religion: Maimonides dedicated himself to the heroic effort to reconcile or harmonize science and religion, faith and philosophy. In fact, one could say that he is still the model for anyone today who takes these issues seriously, not necessarily for the content of what he did, but for how he did it. The main point is: he considered both science and religion to convey elements of truth, which means they each need one another if they are to grasp the entirety of truth. It’s not so much God that is the issue; for him, the true philosopher also recognizes God; this conflict is focused mainly on what sort of God they believe in: a God who creates, i.e., the God of the Bible, or a God who rules through nature, i.e., the God to whom the philosopher or the scientist subscribes.

Science and religion may on occasion contradict one another, and then we have to consider the issues very carefully; there is no formula for simple reconciliation: each issue of conflict needs separate reflection, not automatic acceptance or knee-jerk rejection. Contrary to what some may think, however, Maimonidean thinking is based on a kind of open-mindedness, which for him is as absolutely crucial to the religious attitude as it is to the scientific or secular attitude. In other words, one might say that Maimonides is the father of “Torah uMadda” and “Torah ve-Hokhmah” (“Torah and wisdom”). So in this sense, Maimonideanism is very much alive, if constantly threatened from two sides.

–Question: Can you say a bit more about a God of nature and the process of reconciliation.

–Answer: Maimonides is not unsympathetic to the God of nature, and (Aristotelian) science as he knew it seems to virtually assume such a God; it is the highest inference about things, drawn from what causes or is responsible for what is in our world, as the highest ordering Principle, which is essential to make full sense of nature. But as he admits, the God of the reconciliation is not the God whose will also operates, or at an even higher level, whose true and full Being is a mystery to human beings.

The reconciliation occurs not by denying the causal system, which evidently operates in nature, but by positing a first cause beyond the natural causal system, i.e., the universe, which created it or set it in motion. Creation cannot be “proven,” according to Maimonides’ great intellectual honesty, which makes it a belief; however, neither can the (Aristotelian) so-called scientific belief in eternity of the universe be philosophically or scientifically demonstrated.In fact, Maimonides offers a very subtle view of miracles, which he conceives to have been built, as it were, by God into the created order.

While most of what Maimonides says about God has to be put in terms of attributes which are negated, the mysterious God who encompasses but also transcends and somehow is responsible for nature is a reasonable conception to believe, if we consider an exemplary human being like Moses (among the prophets, but the highest of them), who testifies to His existence by his excellence and by what he is able to be and to become, and to do for his fellow human beings, i.e., bringing them a supreme law to help them perfect themselves.

[2] Hidden Depths: Maimonides held a view of the Torah, of Judaism, that it contains hidden depths and concealed wisdom, and as a result that it can provide us with new insights and ideas in response to the exigencies of contemporary life, whatever they may be. These hidden depths offer the resources to respond to the most current philosophic, scientific, moral, religious, and political challenges. This is something that Strauss helps us to perceive, because he rediscovered what Maimonides called the “esoteric” dimension of the Torah, i.e., things lie beneath the surface. Through it, the Torah, Judaism, although to be cherished for its old wisdom, is also a sort of “renewable resource” for the Jewish people. But this is because some of its deepest thoughts are deliberately hidden, and must wait for the right moment to emerge.

Maimonides considered the hidden depths to subsist in the Torah not because he was a mystic. We find them if we seek for them by the proper methods: the evidence and human reasoning supports it (although of course these cannot be said to prove it definitively). Some believe that this is to compromise the historical character of the Torah. And no doubt it is a belief. But for Maimonides this hidden depth is the most reasonable thing to believe, if we base ourselves on evidence. Why? The Torah has shown itself capable of being receptive to scientific truth, however great may be the changes to scientific truth.
Leo Strauss has written an insightful article on how, by a close exegesis of the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis, one may discover a credible modern philosophical perspective, which is certainly close to a Maimonidean perspective. (Strauss’s lecture, “On the Interpretation of Genesis,” appears in Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity, pp. 359-76.)

Despite popular and scholarly critics, no one has “proved Strauss wrong” about Maimonides’ esotericism. In fact, no one has even gotten rid of the manifest and most obvious textual evidence which he used to ground his position. To be sure, he has had numerous critics, on the left and on the right; but I challenge anyone to show that Strauss’s position has been demonstrated to be a simple “error,” whatever difficulties may ensue from this position. He’s still closer to Maimonides’ text, to what Rambam says he will do and how he will write in the Guide/Moreh, than his critics have been willing to honestly acknowledge.

[3] Intelligence: Drawing on the last point, Maimonides emphasizes that in order to penetrate those depths, the Jews must cultivate intelligence, education, perfection of the intellect, and pursuit of knowledge, which encompasses everything in the world that it is worthwhile to know. This is not a guarantee that intelligence will be used well, but there is no hope of achieving wisdom without it, and religion can help to morally guide knowledge in the right direction. In Maimonides’ view, these things of the mind elevate people toward God, and therefore he maintains that they are very much not inimical to religion. In fact, for him the path of knowledge and intelligence is the high road to God.

Certainly one of the chief ways of reaching excellence of the intellect, as religious Jews, is mastery of the traditional texts, devoted learning, and deep knowledge of our classical sources. But it is also the case that this cultivation of the mind will have to occur on several levels, if human intelligence is to be fully and properly cultivated, i.e., in the university classroom, in the scientific laboratory, in reading seriously on our own, and in discussing ideas and exploration for the comprehensive truth with others who are engaged in the same spiritual search.

[4] Law: Maimonides makes the unqualified affirmation that Jewish law—and, truth to be told, law in general (in the spirit of the seventh Noaḥide Laws)—is required for leading a good life, not only for the Jews, but also for people in general. The wiser the law, and how it is applied, the better for the people which allows itself to be guided by it. Law is one of the most humanizing and civilizing forces in the world. He is not saying that law is everything; he would say that Judaism as a religion is something greater than law; but to get to that “something greater,” to that higher end—which higher end, in his opinion about the educational function of the Torah, is to make better and more perfect human beings—law is one of the best means available, and Jews are blessed to possess a law which is quintessentially wise.

Maimonides thought Biblical-Talmudic law is better than any alternative because it is humanly wiser, but this is not to say that other laws cannot reach a respectable level of humane exegesis if interpreted wisely.

My main point was to highlight Maimonides’ defense of the idea of law, which makes him relevant to us because we moderns occasionally imagine various utopian schemes and scenarios either in which man and human society can function well in the absence of law, or in which we can use law to achieve or legislate utopia that then tempts us to either overestimate or underestimate law. This defense of the idea of law, if properly comprehended and implemented, is the case for Maimonides even though he is conscious of the fact that there are better and worse legal systems. He is also keenly aware of some of the problems or limits of law (e.g., Guide 3.34), i.e., the need to adapt law properly; the question of how to carefully and conservatively change it so as not to subvert it; what to do if law is not good for the individual, since it always designed mainly for a collective, etc., etc.

[5] Popular Religion: One of the strongest attributes of Maimonides was his skepticism (to put it mildly) about folk beliefs and about superstitious customs, rituals, and traditions, which he viewed as a form of idolatry. These are strong words! He was not willing to tolerate such practices and beliefs as harmlessly naïve and foolish notions of ignorant or simple-minded people, and hence to be indulgent toward them, but rather he viewed them as potential threats to the core teachings of the Torah. This is because he believed that these are vestiges or relics of ancient idolatry that had clung to the Jews due to their intellectual and moral weakness, as well as to the failures of their leaders and teachers. He believed the Torah had been given to the Jews to abolish such bogus folk beliefs and superstitious customs, rituals, and traditions, which are not less dangerous than false theological beliefs to which Judaism is opposed, since they are part and parcel of the same falsehoods.

Today we have amulets, red strings, horoscopes, fortune-tellers (dare I say, even going to holy men for braches?). Maimonides would have regarded such things as part of the superstitious weaknesses of all human beings that must be resisted especially by Jews, and that Judaism exists to help cure the world of them, rather than succumbing to its temptations. By the way, he had good grounds in the Torah itself for the rejection of witchcraft, magic, etc. (See Menachem Kellner’s recent book, Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism.)

KenGreenbook

Question: Was Strauss an atheist as portrayed in some of the popular articles?
Answer: Absolutely not, as I understand him. (He was an intelligent critic of atheism, which he regarded as a dogmatic belief based on exaggerated criticisms of religion.) Nevertheless this accusation has been leveled at Strauss by some of his critics or opponents, and it has been echoed—though in a quite different sense—by some of his friends and students. I’m not sure on what basis Suzanne Klingenstein made such a charge, other than as she may have repeated what she heard someone else say about Strauss. (By the way, Rabbi Dr. Israel Drazin has already responded very wisely and articulately to a charge leveled against Strauss by Suzanne Klingenstein, which distorts his words about Maimonides.)

Nevertheless, this issue has divided the Straussians themselves, which is quite different from what his critics and opponents may say about him. Professor Harry V. Jaffa describes the divide as between two camps, “West Coast” and “East Coast” Straussians. The former say Strauss affirmed the truth of religion; and the latter say Strauss denied the truth of religion, but he did defend it as politically essential and requisite to any healthy society—which in itself is a far cry from any of the current atheisms known today. I’m rather dubious about whether it’s really a geographical issue; but if we leave the terms as Jaffa puts them, I’m “West Coast” (even though I’ve lived my entire life on the eastern side of North America—and even there never quite on the “Coast.”)

One may refer fruitfully to several of the essays in the 95-year-old Jaffa’s most recent book: Crisis of the Strauss Divided: Essays on Leo Strauss and Straussianism, East and West. I wrote an earlier book, Jew and Philosopher: The Return to Maimonides in the Jewish Thought of Leo Strauss (SUNY Press, 1993), in which I analyzed Strauss’s thought on this matter, and concluded there that he’s what I called a “cognitive theist”; I stand by that analysis and designation twenty years later (pp. 26-27; 167 note 27; 237 note 1; 239 note 2). This makes Strauss certain about a belief in God, which is perhaps closer to what Strauss himself calls the “rational or natural theology of Maimonides”; but nevertheless it also leaves him fully open to the truth of revelation, to the God who performs miracles, which open-mindedness he considers essential to anyone who knows what truth is. As he might have put it: nothing has ever refuted God the Creator.

In the “Introduction to Maimonides’ The Guide of the Perplexed,” which is a University of Chicago lecture Strauss gave in 1960, and which I transcribed for the first time for the new book (Leo Strauss on Maimonides: The Complete Writings), he is much bolder in confessing his own position, for he says there (p. 420):

Fundamentally our problem is still the same as his [i.e., Maimonides’]. [That is to say, our as well as his fundamental problem remains the same, which is] to see how we can live as thinking Jews, how we can reconcile reason or science with the Jewish faith, which we affirm in one way or another by the very fact that we are Jews.

On this basis we are entitled to learn the utmost from Maimonides, whether or not we can agree with him on everything (which as reasonable people obviously we can’t do, whether we‘re talking about his physics as it is stated in the first four chapters of the “Sefer ha-Madda” in the Mishneh Torah, or to his medicine and medical advice, which is no doubt dated).

Strauss remained a fully committed Jew all of his life (even though not necessarily a fully observant Jew, although he was raised Orthodox); and he avows here in this passage that I just quoted that this means he affirmed the Jewish faith, “in one way or another.” If some people might be inclined to set up a Jewish inquisition, and suspect every Jewish thinker or even every Jewish person, and to examine or interrogate them for how much, or how precisely, they believed in every article of the faith as defined by Maimonides, I can’t vouch for what the exact result would have been in the case of Leo Strauss. But I also don’t think that this is a very Jewish thing to do. Rather, we should judge Strauss by his actions; and in terms of these, we would see that he was a profoundly loyal Jew during his entire life.

The talk and discussion is continued in Part II available here.

Robert Wuthnow, The God Problem

There is a new book by Robert Wuthnow, from Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, one of America’s leading sociologists of religion, called The God Problem: Expressing Faith and Being Reasonable. Wuthnow observes that while the United States is one of the most highly educated societies on earth, it is also one of the most religious. This one is an empirical study of how Americans can be both believers and rationalists at the same time. But the book is also a theological work of how “cultural theology” works.

From the blurbs:

America is a nation with both unusually high levels of educational attainment and unusually high levels of religious belief and behavior. The God Problem considers religion as people experience it, relying heavily on common threads from 165 interviews conducted in 2006-2007 that show how “well-educated, thoughtful Americans have found a way of having their cake and eating it too: affirming their faith while also maintaining their belief in reason” (p.3).

Wuthnow’s approach relies on the earlier work done by many scholars and through popular surveys to measure religion, while also seeking to move toward new clarity through analysis of how people use language to overcome that which he terms the God problem – a seemingly paradoxical relationship between faith and reason. For example, in a chapter on prayer Wuthnow explains how six language devices – schema alignment, ontological assertion, contingency referents, domain juxtaposition, code switching, and performative competence – enable thoughtful people to pray without being drawn into deep theological considerations about the nature of the divine.

Rather than attempting to construct philosophically sound and/or theological deep answers to the problem of theodicy (why a good and powerful God allows bad things to happen to good people) most people simply deny that the divine is involved in planning events humans consider to be big scary catastrophes, and functions more like a “CEO who keeps the universe under control but lets people make their own decisions for good or for ill” (p.143). In a similar manner, most religious people believe that heaven exists and is a wonderful place yet limit any attempts to further explain that reality by using provisional language that often relies heavily on biblical authority and through appropriate expressions of doubt and uncertainty.

Wuthnow think the problem of how Americans can have dogmatic beliefs and at the same time be rational lies in language. For him, “the secret does not lie in mental compartmentalism, as critics of American culture sometimes argue, or in a failure of the educations system.” Nor does he think that the combination of faith and reason is wishful thinking, bad logic, or mindless intuitive yearning. His study shows that believers who use God language people do have serious doubts. So believers have two goals to maintain their devout belief and at the same time not sounding like an untutored bigot. Wuthnow places the line between Evangelicals and other true believers from Fundamentalist on whether one is willing to sound like an untutored bigot or idiot.

Criticism that religion is irrational have been voiced by the new atheists, but it appears the American middle class has managed to forge a path between fanaticism and atheism. They know, as Wuthnow claims, that while belief in God is often associated with irrational, uninformed, undemocratic, destructive, and fraudulent behavior, one shouldn’t assume that nonbelief is free from such ills. He gives the reader greater insight into how the average educated middle-class American thinks about religion. According to Wuthnow, the antagonism of academics toward religion isn’t representative of the general public. Generally speaking, the American middle class exhibits a laissez-faire attitude that is more conducive to frank discussions about faith.

The recent critics of religion are correct – there is a God problem. How can people accept God without being an idiot. So God is quite problematic, intellectually, morally- God is not the nice guy, religion is un-provable. So how do believing Americans seen well-informed, reasonable, and democratic

The recent dogmatic religion may be well versed in own religion but usually nothing else. They have shut out the last 200 years of the critiques of religion, the existence of other faiths, or even the challenge of art, music or science. They are not open to new ideas, do not advocate free inquiry, or pursuit of ideals. In general, they defend at all costs wisdom from the past. Religious believers who are conservative are by nature anti-democratic because democracy needs people to defend their faith through rational means. But in their case, they preach dogma that cannot be questioned based on Divine authority.

It is not impossible to be religious persona and well informed – think of Sir Isaac Newton but the approach of synthesis is not the current era.

Wuthnow also points out and should be noted that college does not make American’s more skeptical or losing faith. In the 1970’s when believers were first generation college it lead to a secularization but now in 2013, where students are second and third generation college – combining their faith and professional education is the norm.

So how do Americans believe?

First, religion gets watered down and shallow.-God is considered as a buddy and the Bible as instruction manual for a happy life. Believers in the US consider their conservative views as a form of positive thinking and popular psychology. When they say “we want a miracle” think of it as spoken by a football coach, it’s a pep talk. (think of all the Orthodox popular psych and tips for living)

Second, they do not really understand their religion. They have little knowledge of philosophy, theology, or the meaning of their words outside their utilitarian usage. And there is no incentive to be more thoughtful. America’s middle class are void of thoughtful reflection, oblivious to sound theological instruction, or simply lack good answers to the bigger questions that have no utilitarian relation to everyday life. (anyone teaching Albo or even Berkovits anymore?)

Wuthnow turns to linguistics and cultural sociology. He shows that everyday religious language is not set apart, we engage in multiple circles and have a heteroglossia of combining household language, science and religion in the same conversation. Wuthnow points to six phenomena that allow belief. (1)schema alignment- when asked to explain a concept it will always correspond to the givens of science. God healing or helping is always through the natural order.
(2)ontological assertion- we say we don’t understand God or no one really knows what these theological things mean.
(3) contingency referents- we did not do our part or other events interfered
(4) domain juxtaposition –prayer and science as two realms; or one is giving a halakhic shiur without reference to the outside world
(5) code switching- I take the religious language as a different code such as from my interior life or my spirituality.
(6) performative competence- the religious act was an end in itself.

Are Americans who pray about ending hurricanes nuts? No. They treat it as either ending through natural means, or we don’t understand but we are commanded to do it, we need to do our part to help and prayer reminds us, or the prayer serve to maintain a spiritual sense of providence. In sum, ”Middle class Americans have found a way to pray that neither violates their basic intellectual integrity nor threatens to be in any way socially disruptive . There is an implicit uncertainty.”
The key is to imagine God as a powerful and beneficent other without turning God into a magical image that insults an educated person’s intelligence. Not for a miracle but to give people strength, psychological not mechanical. Today’s believers are highly self-aware that anthropomorphic conversation with God is different than science.

To talk reasonably about God, Americans find ways to affirm that they believe in God’s existence, but at the same time steer clear of assertions that claim too much knowledge of God, or that make God too much like a human person, or that too dramatically contravene standard ways of thinking about the natural world and human behavior. (299)

Returning to the discussions of the importance of popular culture for those committed to faith, Wuthnow found that shifts in the discussion of religion often involve injecting humor to “break the spell.” They introduce something completely out of context, betraying ambivalence, discomfort, or uncertainty regarding a topic. Wuthnow’s study reveals a certain ambiguity about the faith that is more shaped by the shared vocabulary of popular culture than by Orthodox beliefs.

The “God problem,” as it were, is that affirming faith seemingly requires us to find ways to make clear that we aren’t bigoted, dogmatic, stupid, thoughtless, and heartless. In other words, one needs to find a middle path between dogmatism and atheism in order to be considered reasonable in American culture. According to Wuthnow, it seems that thoughtful, well-educated persons have figured out a way to be informed and devout by relying on multivocality—using the rhetoric of society’s pluralistic speech community—when discussing issues of faith.

From Peter Berger’s review:
Peter Berger- Why Americans Don’t Think God Talk is Weird

Robert Wuthnow says modern believers maintain a creative tension between the worldviews of naturalism and religion.

There are two polemical edges to the book. Less central, and mainly of interest to other social scientists, is Wuthnow’s suspicion of survey methods in the area of religion. Surveys rely on structure questionnaires; much of the time we don’t understand what the answers mean unless we actually talk to the people who gave them. (By the way, I share the suspicion—without denying that surveys, if used judiciously, can indeed disclose some religious realities.) Wuthnow uses a very sophisticated methodology of so-called “discourse analysis”—semi-structured interviews, followed by a careful examination of the language used by the interviewees. Essentially, this is the sort of approach used by anthropologists, leading to what Clifford Geertz (another Princeton social scientist) called “thick description.”

Faith in America (and by implication in any modern society) occurs in a context of culturally instituted “norms of reasonableness.” These norms are expressed in a discourse which does not presuppose supernatural interventions. Religious people do assume such interventions—indeed, they regularly pray for them—but they try to speak about them in terms compatible with the naturalist norms. While many people say that, in principle, they believe that God can perform miracles, they do not usually assume that he does so apart from natural processes. For example, religious people often pray for healing, and they believe that God may answer such prayers—but not usually by a miracle, but rather through natural processes of remission, or by the skill of a surgeon, or the efficacy of medication. Thus there occurs a “mingling of languages.” Needless to say, there are some religious people in America who refuse this mingling of discourses and militantly reject the naturalist one. But they are a minority, and even they will revert to the naturalist discourse if they find themselves in the emergency room of a hospital.

In other words, most people want to be “reasonable”—the opposite of being “wacko” or “weird.” As an example of something widely perceived as not being reasonable, Wuthnow discussed an incident that happened in 1985: The famous evangelist Pat Robertson claimed that his prayer caused a hurricane to alter its course away from his headquarters in Virginia. Andy Rooney, as a televised representative of the “norms of reasonableness,” called Robertson “wacky” and “crazy as bedbugs.” Another way of putting this is to say that Americans are religious without believing in magic.

Wuthnow makes an important point: While the schema of faith can persist and co-exist in the same mind with the schema of natural reason, it is the latter which is taken for granted in most of ordinary life. Wuthnow calls it the “default condition”—that is, one has recourse to it automatically and one falls back to it unless one can explain (to oneself as much as to others) why the religious discourse also applies. “Default” means that it does not have to be explained, it is simply given; it is the deviations from it that must be explained. If one cannot do this, one risks being seen as “wacko” or “weird” by others .