by Charlotte Gordon
Who’s the better Jew? The Hassid who believes in the literal truth of the Bible, denies the findings of modern science and reprimands women who stray too far from the home or the Jew who goes to synagogue, observes the Sabbath, encourages his wife to get a PhD in astrophysics, and regards some of the Bible’s teachings as inapplicable to the modern world? If you said the Hassid, you are confusing literal-minded extremism with the true rabbinical tradition, writes modern orthodox Rabbi Marc D. Angel, Ph.D., in his courageous new book, Maimonides, Spinoza, and Us: Toward an Intellectually Vibrant Judaism (Jewish Lights: $24.99). Angel smokes Jewish fundamentalists out of their lair and systematically destroys their claims to authority with his brilliance and peerless scholarship.
Angel addresses many vital questions–the relationship between science and religion, the nature of God, tradition and change, faith and reason, and the “right” way to read the Torah. But perhaps the most disturbing issue he raises is the question of Jewish identity. Who is Jewish anyway? And who says so? The Israeli Chief Rabbinate refuses to acknowledge conversions performed by reform and conservative rabbis, as well as those orthodox rabbis who are not “orthodox” enough. According to Angel, many “Torah true” Jews support this stringent view of conversion because they believe the Jewish soul is intrinsically different from the non-Jewish soul. Pitting himself against this kind of xenophobic thinking, Angel urges readers toward greater inclusivity and openness.
To support his argument, Angel brings out heavy artillery, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the great medieval Bible scholar, also known as Maimonides or Rambam. A medical doctor, Rambam sought to rid Judaism of superstition and incorporate what he learned from studying Aristotle in his writings. According to Angel, “By revisiting the philosophical views of Maimonides, we can come to a deeper appreciation of the role of reason in Judaism.” In other words, being Jewish does not mean we have to turn off our brains. Indeed, reason is our best weapon against literal minded fundamentalists.
The dangers of extremist views are evident to most of us non-extremists, but in case we forget just how bad things can get, Angel relates a disturbing story about a religious teacher in New Jersey who told a student there were no such things as dinosaurs. When the boy asked about the dinosaur bones he’d seen in the Natural History Museum, the teacher told him these were swollen dog bones from Noah’s flood. This is the kind of absurd teaching that could destroy Judaism, Angel says. No religion should set itself up against the findings of science.
Based on his extensive knowledge of Jewish tradition, Angel argues that rabbinic Judaism has always valued reason and intellectual curiosity. Faith and observance of God’s commandments are important, but not at the expense of using one’s mind. He writes, “Religious extremism is a means of retreating from a secular technological world that seems to be out of control and without meaning or moral direction.” Observant Jews, Angel argues, do not need to insulate themselves from the world or reject the teachings of philosophy and science. Instead it is essential to educate oneself. When we read the Bible and “come upon statements that are philosophically or scientifically proven to be incorrect, we must not accept them literally but find other means of interpretation.” Only then can we make sense of otherwise archaic teachings. For instance, Torah’s treatment of women can be understood as “historically conditioned” but has little application today.
Embodying his own teachings, Angel brings the philosopher Spinoza into the mix. Even though Spinoza denied the validity of Biblical religion in general, and the Torah based teachings of Judaism in particular, Angel demonstrates how we can learn from those who disagree with us. Spinoza’s insistence on the primacy of reason, for instance, is an important challenge for those of us who value the role of faith in our spiritual lives.
But philosophy has its limitations. Angel cautions, “Reason, although vitally important in the quest for Truth, is insufficient to bring us to the ultimate destination.” Instead there is an important middle path when it comes to the way of the Torah: “If we hope to experience an intellectually vibrant and compelling Judaism,” Angel declares, “we will need to avoid the extreme fire of fundamentalism and the extreme ice of philosophical skepticism.”
Ultimately, Maimonides, Spinoza and Us is less a book about Maimonides and Spinoza than a book about “us.” By standing against those fundamentalists who set themselves up as the ultimate authorities on Torah, Angel leads the battle against a dangerous literalism that threatens to destroy the true tenets of Judaism. His intelligent, highly accessible book is a thorough defense of the role of moderate Judaism in today’s world. Those who are what Angel terms “thinking Jews of faith” will rejoice to have found a guide and spokesman in this rabbi. He has the clear and steady voice of a born teacher.
Charlotte Gordon’s most recent book is “The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths” (Little, Brown). She can be reached at her website: www.charlottegordonbooks.com.
from The Jewish Journal
The original text of the review may be found here.