I dug into the copy of Maimondides, Spinoza, and Us – Toward and Intellectually Vibrant Judaism by Rabbi Marc Angel, PhD that I picked up from the library on my train ride today. The good: if you know nothing about the Rambam or Spinoza, this may not be a bad place to start. The bad: Rabbi Angel’s polemical attacks against those whom he takes issue with. It starts from the preface, where Rabbi Angel refers to “thousands of people [who] suspend their reason in order to follow the dictates of their “rebbes” or halakhic authorities,” and it gets progressively worse. Perhaps Rabbi Angel expects his congregants to simply follow their own sense of reason rather than seek his halakic guidance, but after hearing him out I am less than convinced of the correctness of such an approach.
The book's title is a misnomer for a number of reasons, the first of which is that it is less about Maimonides than a screed aimed at those who take issue with Rabbi Angel’s point of view. He describes his opponents as fundamentalists, obscurantists, authoritarian, and superstitious, while seldom offering quotes or examples that would support such claims. On the other hand, as I will explain next post, he lets pass without comment the most strained readings so long as they can be used in support of his own position. Not only is criticism aimed at those who clearly identify with the right-wing, but even the OU is chastised (p. 109) for the their setting up a service whereby people could request that Torah scholars recite psalms for them and insert a kvitel in the kosel on their behalf. Rabbi Angel questions, “Doesn’t Judaism believe that G-d is always present and listening everywhere?” I wonder what purpose Rabbi Angel’s synagogue serves when G-d could just as easily be approached in a public park on in the confines of one’s den. Not only are modern thinkers and organizations the subject of Rabbi Angel's ire, but even the words of the Gaon of Vilna are described as “shocking examples of a defective, superstition worldview.” (p. 101)
There are a number of flaws with Rabbi Angel’s approach.
The first question that we need to address is whether a philosophy of Judaism can be constructed based purely on rational metaphysics. To Rabbi Angel’s credit, he repeatedly concedes that the answer is a resounding No. For example, in describing how one gets from the philosophical G-d of first cause to the personal G-d of Judaism, Rabbi Angel explains that the “Rambam required us to make a ‘leap of faith.’” (p. 27) He further elaborates, “Although Rambam was a rationalistic philosopher, he understood that not all truth was attainable through the efforts of human reason.” (p. 31) Rabbi Angel coins the term “meta-reason” to describe these areas where we must fall back on sources other than our intellect. We know these areas of “meta-reason” to be true, “…because we have an authoritative tradition of revelation and because we personally experience it to be true.” (p. 34) Even with respect to proof of G-d’s existence, Rabbi Angel shies away from philosophical proofs and writes that, “We don’t need to prove G-d’s existence; we feel His presence and we know He is there.” (p. 37) On the role of tradition, Rabbi Angel notes that Rambam’s “…willingness to rely on faith in the biblical and rabbinic tradition need not be seen as a “compromise” with reason, but as an open-eyed admission of the limits of reason.” (p. 65)
Given this direction, one is left wondering why Rabbi Angel is so harshly dismissive of those with whom he disagrees. The Hareidi world does not reject the use of reason in toto, but instead simply takes a stronger position on its limits. Would Rabbi Angel describe the Vilna Gaon’s Judaism as lacking in “intellectual vibrancy,” the term he seems to reserve only for his own brand of Rambam-inspired rationalism? That such a description strikes us as absurd demonstrates the falsity of attempting to equate rejection of the Rambam with irrational extremism. Once one accepts that we are not dealing with a question of either/or, but rather of finding a proper balance between reason and "meta-reason", labeling those who take a different view than one's own as "fundamentalists" seems itself to be a critique grounded in personal opinion rather than intellectual substance.
The main thesis of the book is that Rambam's rationalism was tempered by tradition and therefore falls short of Spinoza's more extreme formulation. One cannot help but sense that his own thesis undercuts Rabbi Angel's own claims of following in the Rambam's footsteps. Might not his right wing opponents claim that it is they, in keeping to this spirit of moderation against the forces of pure reason, who are in fact the true heirs to the Rambam's legacy?
Rabbi Angel himself notes that “Rambam’s attempt to harmonize the Torah’s teaching with Aristotelian philosophy rings false – and unnecessary – to modern readers… We may be more skeptical about what is a ‘rationally proven truth’; various philosophical and scientific ‘truths’ of one generation have later been shown to be flawed and incorrect by subsequent generations.” (p. 50) One could not ask for a better explanation for the hesitancy to reinterpret Torah simply to fit what passes for intellectual fancy.
The elephant in the room that escapes notice entirely is the question of why Rabbi Angel is so enamored of the Rambam to the exclusion of so many other important views of Rishonim and Achronim. If the barometer of truth is not pure philosophy but rather, “authoritative tradition… and because we personally experience it to be true,” to quote Rabbi Angel himself, are not the views of the Gaon, the Ramban, the Ba’al Shem, or any others which have found a place in tradition and inspire far more significant numbers of Jews than the Guide equally important and meaningful?