Maimonides, Spinoza and Us
Toward an Intellectually Vibrant Judaism
By Rabbi Marc D. Angel, PhD
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009, 197 pages
ISBN 13: 978-1-58023-411-5
ISBN 10: 1-58023-411-9
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - November 20, 2009
This is an important book for people who want to understand the truth of Judaism, rather than the obscurantist notion that Jews must accept the views of authorities without asking questions.
Marc D. Angel is one of the leading American Orthodox rabbis. He is the founder and director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals and rabbi emeritus of the well-known Congregation Shearith Israel of New York City. He devotes himself to teaching a view of Judaism that is based on reason. He shows how Jews can observe the mandates of Torah in an intelligent and meaningful manner. He demonstrates that this is the view of the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138-1204).
Angel states that Maimonides asserted that there are three ways to determine if something is true: (1) It can be proved by human reason, (2) It is perceived with certainty by one of the five senses. (3) It is a Torah teaching as explained by the sages. However, if the Torah statement "contradicts verified truth, then the Torah must be interpreted to conform to established truth." The statement should be read metaphorically or allegorically.
It is this last statement that bothers many people. They ask, "Where do we draw the line? If we allow people to disagree with the literal biblical statements and interpret them rationally, these interpreters will do away with the Torah!" They, like the Church of the Dark Ages, insist that everyone accept the Bible literally, and consent to the words of clergy without question. Angel rejects this approach. He recognizes that the solution of these obscurantists is: Insist that they accept untruths, so that they do not stray.
Angel points out that while Maimonides and Spinoza stress the use of reason, the two differ. Maimonides accepted the traditional ideas and believed that God is involved with the world, revealed the Torah containing truths, He watches over people, rewards and punishes them, performs miracles, and prayers work. When a biblical statement contradicted reason, Maimonides read it as a metaphor or allegory; it is the word of God, but it did not literally mean what it said. Torah, Maimonides taught, must be read intelligently. In fact, Maimonides felt, Torah cannot be understood without knowing the universal secular wisdom of physics and the other sciences.
Spinoza rejected these ideas. He felt that the Bible is a work that describes human longings to understand the world and God, and that it must be read as a human document, as it is written, and that it is out of date.
Many Maimonides scholars contend that Maimonides would agree with Spinoza on many if not all these ideas, but Angel insists that these scholars are wrong. In any event, what is significant is that both Maimonides and Spinoza emphasized the need for people to use their minds.
The problem with religion, what makes it wrong, is that people toss reason aside and accept everything that they read or hear from "scholars" and "authorities." These unthinking people believe that these "sages," although secluded from daily human activities and usually insufficiently educated in secular studies, men who refuse to consider non-Jewish teachings, have a unique ability, an endowment of divine inspiration, to understand what Torah means and what it requires of human beings. They accept the misguided notions of these "sages" without realizing that this behavior – a practice that is no more than about two hundred years old - is akin to the notion of papal infallibility, and that they have surrendered their lives and the lives of their families to a fundamentalist anti-rational obscurantist mindset.
As a result, they live a life of corrupted Judaism. They treat biblical verses as if they are magical formulas that can effect a cure. They use religious objects such as Torah scrolls and mezuzot as charms that have protective powers. They recite incantations and magical formulas and seek blessings from "sages" believing superstitiously that these objects and people have supernatural powers. They accept the notion that the world is filled with demons and go through foolhardy ceremonies for protection. They are convinced that the "sages" can perform miracles for them, cure them, get them money, marry off their daughters, find them a job.
They wear red strings on their wrists, mezuzot around their necks, and drink and eat foods blessed by holy men; men, not women, God forbid! They imagine that they must say a kaddish for their deceased relatives, not to remember them, but to assure that "their souls rise heavenward." They fail to realize that it is absurd to think that their parent’s afterlife depends on their yearly recitation of a formula. They put kvitels, notes to God, in cracks of the Western Wall, without realizing that they are insulting God; for they are saying that God is only capable of hearing prayers if they are written and placed in the outside walls of the destroyed ancient Temple.
Readers will find that Rabbi Angel addresses many other questions. What are other examples of superstitions that should be avoided? What is the status of proselytes? Why is the current procedure for conversion contrary to Jewish tradition? What is the status of women in Judaism?
This is a significant book. Whether one agrees with everything that Rabbi Angel writes is insignificant. What is important is that the book will make people think. Who can ask for anything more!