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Maimonides, Spinoza and Us: Toward an Intellectually Vibrant Judaism, by Marc D. Angel. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009. 197 pp. $24.99.
When Yeshiva University granted an honorary doctorate to Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz, he gave a public lecture on “Torah and Science” (Torah u-Madda being the motto of YU). He began by remarking that when people find conflicts between Torah and science, the problems are usually the result of “popular Torah” or “popular science” (or both). The more serious and broad-minded a scholar is, said Rabbi Steinzaltz, the less he will find substance in many such apparent contradictions. Nevertheless, there still remain some deeper and more nuanced problems that are far more difficult to deal with, and may never have satisfactory solutions.
Rabbi Marc Angel’s new book on Maimonides, Spinoza and Us takes the reader on an intellectual journey in Rabbi Steinzaltz’s direction, by promoting balanced models of faith and reason that can co-exist and mutually enrich each other. Maimonides (or Rambam) is Rabbi Angel’s role-model for how to seek a careful, nuanced, and rational understand of what the Torah says and demands, while Spinoza is the ultimate representative of the challenge that reason and science pose to traditional religious views. Rabbi Angel eloquently argues that both Torah and science would each be enriched by respectfully engaging with the other: On the one hand a Jew learns to understand the Torah more deeply by confronting Spinoza’s challenge, and on the other hand human reason itself benefits from this process by learning its own limitations, and by abandoning its more extravagant claims about what it is capable of accomplishing or proving.
None of these ideas are new, but they are certainly refreshing in today’s Jewish world. Indeed, the most surprising thing about this wonderful little book is that it was written at all. In this day and age, for the rabbi of an Orthodox community to unabashedly choose Maimonides as his religious role model is uncommon enough. But for that same rabbi to devote his weekly Sunday community study sessions to a sympathetic comparison of Maimonides and Spinoza is virtually unheard of. This book was the outgrowth of exactly such study by a rabbi with his congregants.
Rabbi Angel begins by calling his book “an attempt to reclaim the narrow path of Torah” which lies between the two dangerous extremes of “fire and ice”: This path eschews “religious zeal that has lost control of itself” on the one hand, and “scepticism, rationalism run amok” on the other. And it is here that the two heroes of the book are presented: While Maimonides “lays the foundation for an intellectually sound Judaism” by challenging each Jew to probe the Torah with his mind, Spinoza’s honest and direct criticism of Maimonides’ approach is a healthy challenge to modern Jews to once again re-think the tension between faith, tradition, and reason.
The narrow middle path, however, lies between the extremes on two sides. If Spinoza is the “ice” challenge to Maimonides, then it is “anti-Maimonidean” Judaism that wages war on his approach as “fire.” This religious world lacks a clear persona in the book, and no specific name is attached to it (at least not until Judah Halevi makes his appearance in Chapter Seven on “Israel and Humanity”). But it is very important for balance within the book, especially in the chapter on “Religion and Superstition” and in the various sections that discuss religious authoritarianism: “Judaism does not—and according to Rambam cannot—demand that we turn off our brains” at the behest of Torah scholars “whose very worldview precludes an open intellectually sound approach to the attainment of knowledge” (p. 165). Since this is such a passionate book, written from the heart in a personal way about two very human heroes, in the future Rabbi Angel or others might want take this Maimonides/Spinoza approach a step further and strengthen it by adding a personal and sympathetic face to the “fire” side as well to the “ice.”
The book begins with two chapters on faith and reason and on God and nature. It is here, as well as at the book’s conclusion, that Rabbi Angel remarks upon how much has changed since Maimonides and Spinoza: Maimonides’ medieval science has long since been replaced (a vivid example of how science is always a work in progress), while Spinoza’s boundless faith in the power of reason to explain everything from the workings of the cosmos to the inner depths of human beings is no longer compelling. Both Maimonides and Spinoza strove for a single, ultimate Truth with a capital T, and both chose reason as their guide. But is reason sufficient to explain the love between two people, or the love between God and Israel?
At the core of the book are three chapters on the divinity of the Torah and divine Providence (Chapters 3–5). The “Oral Torah” chapter stands out for its presentation of Spinoza in his context as the child of conversos, living in a quasi-Karaitic environment. Regarding the written Torah, Rabbi Angel shows how the traditional Jewish sources reveal a variety of opinions about how the Torah was written and transmitted (which runs contrary to Maimonides’ black-and-white presentation of the topic, possibly as a polemical response to Islamic attempts to undermine the validity of the biblical tradition). But it is here that Spinoza’s greatest challenge to all religions based on the Bible is central: Spinoza forcefully claimed that no open-minded reader of the Torah with a modicum of common sense could possibly claim that it is the work of one author, much less that it tells the will of God. And quite a few talented readers since the seventeenth century have agreed with him. What was once the ultimate heresy in traditional Judaism (as well as in Maimonides’ stated views), namely that the Torah is by Moses but “Moses said it himself” (in whole or in part), is ironically today the ultimate heresy in academic biblical studies. And that ironic change began with Spinoza himself.
At first it seems surprising that Rabbi Angel doesn’t suggest any concrete solution to this problem (though he does mention it), but on second thought it makes perfect sense: The point of this book is not to solve any actual problems, but rather to suggest a healthy, balanced program of thought and action for confronting them. Maimonides teaches us that we may not suspend our reason when we read the Bible, and to this Spinoza would agree. But he also teaches us not to read the Bible like any other book, and on this point history may arguably point in Maimonides’ direction rather than Spinoza’s. Is it history that caused so many people to sanctify the Bible, as Spinoza would have it, or did its sanctity give rise to its subsequent history? For this question and many others, Rabbi Angel counsels us to keep our minds “turned on” while at the same time knowing the limits of our reason.
The book might be summed up with the thought that derekh eretz, or decency, is not just a matter of interpersonal relationships but also a matter of the mind. Rabbi Angel’s book is a passionate argument that only with intellectual derekh eretz can the Torah be studied and lived in a healthy way.
University of Haifa