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.

One response to “Responses to Comments –Kenneth Hart Green

  1. I heartily and respectfully thank Professor Green and Eric for their replies, as well as the “admission” by R. David Hartman, z”l, which I am still trying to digest. My gut, though, seems still on fire; I find it difficult to accept either the admission of David Hartman or the reply of Professor Green. If Prof. Green wants only to take up issues of contemporary relevance, David Hartman’s scholarly philosophical work on Maimonides was key to his politics of religion. His Jewish political influence suffuses the major Jewish newspaper of New York and Jewish Federation politics.
    Of course, Yeshaya Leibovitz actually belonged to the religious Zionist camp, but Hartman somewhat plausibly used him as a foil to represent everyone from the most extreme camps in Mosad HaRav to the Litvish yeshivaleit, who historically inherit from the Vilna Gaon views akin to Leibovitz. (By the way, Leibovitz’ views are akin, also, to Al-Ghazali, with whom Maimonides must have been intimately familiar).

    However, R. Hartman attacked the Centrist Orthodoxy in which his education culminated for at its core being inauthentic. “The God Who Hates Lies,” he called one of his books, after all. Now it is true, a lot of Hartman’s disagreement elsewhere was against his teacher, Rav Soloveichik, z”l. But the Rav would have approved and encouraged Hartman’s attack upon both Strauss and Leibovitz. Showing how Maimonidean thought in the Guide was to be found “integrated” throughout all the exoteric ouvre, contra Strauss, would have been right up the Rav’s alley and would have probably received great encouragement, from what I know of the Rav’s thought. So the attack was still on Strauss. Hartman spearheaded efforts, with several other religious leaders in halakhic Judaism collaborating, and with the collusion of most of the Jewish psychology and social work establishment, to “reform” the halakhically-observant world in the name of “authenticity.”

    Przysucha Hasidism, the nearest historical precedent for such a revolution, pales by comparison, since the whole of modern life has been affected by the psychological revolution of the society at large. And the brunt of the damage wrought by this revolution has been borne by Centrist, Classical Orthodoxy, I’m convinced. Hartman’s extreme modernist faction of the halakhically-observant will eventually, I think, be absorbed gradually into liberal Judaism, as A.J. Heschel and his updated Kotzker thought has been. Those who think halakhic thought must be reduced to Leibovitz’ pure gezerot or Divine decrees/fiats, will remain and not budge noticeably; perhaps they may be joined by a remnant of refugees from Hartman’s onslaught. Devastated are or will shortly be all who represent Centrist, Classical Orthodoxy, as a segment of Centrist, Classical Western culture, a devastation which Allan Bloom decried and predicted in the general Western world, and which has long been happening in our Jewish world, as well. We Classical Centrists, well, like Strauss, our positions are just much more nuanced, more dialectical. We dare not reveal all sides of the dialectic.
    We cannot comply with the incessant demand our society makes for complete disclosure of everything about our innermost thoughts at every turn, or be dismissed as “inauthentic” We feel there is benefit in playing traditional roles at the expense of compromising our authenticity, although we aren’t oblivious to authenticity’s loss and its consequences, and thus we Centrists cannot glibly “sell” our Judaism with smooth talk the way the black-hat kiruv people can do. It’s nice of R. Hartman z”l to have admitted so much later, but before his death, that we esotericist “dualists” had a point, after all – after he’s destroyed us.
    As for Professor Green’s feeling that justifying esotericism, justifying not being “out there on Facebook” with every consideration in your world-view would just be to hard to do and would be poorly understood at a general public gathering, well, isn’t that part of the problem? Doesn’t the public desperately need to understand the world of an esotericist, a world where there are several different ways truth is to be evaluated in dialectical tension, and why this position is not necessarily “inauthentic” and subject to the ridicule of modern social science?

    The cri de coeur of Allan Bloom’s books about the modern loss of classical dialectic, classical balance in weighing words, and classical religion, resonates for me greatly in the Jewish world, including the Orthodox one, today. Hopefully, although you declined to discuss the inner dilemmas of us classical esotericists in public (a decision which, I have to admit, makes a lot of sense, since it is esoteric, although that never stopped Allan Bloom nor Gershom Scholem, for that matter, from writing a best-seller, nor did it stop many other Straussians from assuming very public personae), I will find out much more about the inner struggles and dilemmas of esotericists (as well as very public figures, in their own rights) such as Strauss and Maimonides in your books.

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