Further observations on Rabbi Angel’s book:
There is no guarantee that the modern reader will be satisfied with the balance between faith and rationalism that the Rambam arrived at. Allowing that the “human mind must be given freedom to find its own way” (p. 4), there seems no way for Rabbi Angel to ensure or demand commitment to any dogma without being guilty of the same authoritarian tactics he condemns. Indeed, perhaps for this very reason Rabbi Angel is clearly not comfortable with the whole notion of cardinal principles of faith, echoing Prof. Menachem Kellner’s observation that the idea of dogma creates “serious problems regarding who is and who is not a true believer… Believers could separate themselves from non-believers, and even pursue heretics, with some degree of self-righteousness.” (p. 50) Yet, the Rambam himself was an authoritarian to some degree, having set out 13 inviolable ikkarim. What is one to do when ikkarim and reason collide?
The solution for Rabbi Angel is to blur the line between faith and apostasy, between what halacha demands and what is merely suggested but not required, and thereby create room for reason to extend its reach. To that end Rabbi Angel calls upon textual interpretation that I have no doubt would be met with incredulity had they been voiced by his opponents. For example, although the Rambam very clearly states that the entire Torah was given to Moshe at Sinai, Rabbi Angel gives credence to Dr. Marc Shapiro’s view that the Rambam said this because “it was necessary for the masses to affirm what, in reality, was not true.” (p. 44) This is like saying that the Declaration of Independence’s emphasis on “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was just a means to get people to buy into the revolution but has no real bearing on our national identity. Once words no longer are taken to mean what they say, there are no limits to what one may claim -- perhaps the Rambam was a secret anti-rationalist kabbalist and meant his entire corpus as a smoke screen for the misguided masses?
Rabbi Angel similarly takes issue with the Chazon Ish’s “maximalist” view that all the details of the Talmud were revealed at Sinai and tries again to muddle the waters so as to minimize the demands of dogma. One of his proofs comes from the story (Menachos 29) of Moshe Rabeinu hearing a lecture of Rabbi Akiva and not understanding its logic – surely if Moshe knew the law he would not have been baffled! Yet this "proof" can be answered quite simply by distinguishing between form and content; Moshe Rabeinu may have known the conclusions (content) of Talmudic law but not the process by which those laws were derived by later generations (form). It was the methodology of Rabbi Akiva that baffled Moshe Rabeinu. Th question raised by Rabbi Angel is coincidentally asked by the Ohr haChaim in Parshas Tazri'a (VaYikra 13:37), which we recently read. The question caught my eye at the time, and when I posed the problem at my Shabbos table, it took less than two minutes for someone to intuit the entirely reasonable answer. Surely dismissing the view of one of the leading Rabbinic minds of the past generation (which is rooted in the views of Rishonim and earlier Achronim) warrants better proof than a question so easily resolvable!
Rabbi Angel does not limit himself to the realm of philosophy, but applies his same approach to halacha. An example: the Rambam’s codifies the halacha prohibiting women from studying Talmud, which sits at odds with our modern notion of equality. Rabbi Angels explains, “The Modern Orthodox rabbinic leadership has essentially set aside Rambam’s statements on women and education, placing them into the category of outdated “advice” rather than accepting them as authoritative halakhic rulings.” (p. 172) Since there is no footnote, I have no clue who tese "rabbinic leaders" are; I am not aware that Rav Ahron Lichtenstein, Rav M. Willig, Rav Hershel Shachter, for example, would agree with this statement. I don't understand how it differs from the attemtps of Conservative or Reform “rabbis” who also relegate traditional laws to the category of mere “advice” that can be dispensed with at will.
Unlike Rav Soloveitchik, who advocated building a philosophy on the foundations of halakha (e.g. see Halakhic Mind, section 4), Rabbi Angel seemingly advocates molding halakha to meet secular philosophical, social, and ethical standards. Thus he frowns on the fact that “the prohibition against hearing a woman’s singing voice has been applied to synagogues and to Shabbat tables” (p. 170) but does not see fit to offer any explanation of how and why these domains should be excluded from from the issur of kol isha. It is reason, not halakhic analysis, that dictates what the proper conclusion is; the technical details of law can somehow be massaged into place after the fact, or perhaps the entire law can again be relegated to the bin of “advice” no longer needed. Rabbi Angel thus never faces the challenge of surrendering his reason to the higher dictates of halakhic authority, as halakhic conclusions can simply be adjusted and made to fit the desired reasoanble outcome. If one subscribes to the view, which Rabbi Angel himself espouses, that Torah has an eternal message, shouldn't it be halakha that molds our social and ethical sensibilities rather than the other way around?
Even in analyzing basic practices (and his chapter on conversion is worthy of discussion in its own right, but not for now), Rabbi Angel insists on foisting on halakha a very narrow interpretation that meets his agenda but which may not be true to the sources. For example, he dispenses entirely with the notion of ruah ra’ah as a reason for netilas yadayim, for what reasonable person believes in “supernatural evil spirits that cling to our hands when we sleep?” (p. 103) True, the Rambam does not give this reason for the law, but are we to simply overlook the vast body of literature of Rishonim, Achronim, and poskim who do treat this reason seriously? Are we to overlook or write off all that appears to be irrational and mystical in Jewish law? To do so is to strip halacha of views and practices that have centuries of precedent on their side. The very fact that page after page of the Shulchan Aruch gives weight to that which we cannot easily explain rationally suggests in fact that tradition has not accepted Rabbi Angel's approach as decisive.
This criticism cuts to the very heart of the weakness in Rabbi Angel’s argument. While the historical influence of rationalism certainly makes for interesting study, the approach of the Rambam is but one among many, and has waned in influence over time. It is not ignorance, obscurantism, authoritarianism, or fanaticism that leads so many down a different path than Rabbi Angel. It is a healthy respect for the wider array of tradition that our halakha and hashkafa embraces.