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Killing off Rational Judaism: The Maimonidean Controversy

If Humanism is to be restored to Judaism, the Maimonidean Controversy must be addressed and resolved in a definitive manner.
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We are often led to believe that the application of personal emotion to religious faith is a good thing. But, contrary to popular opinion, religious faith is distorted by our subjective dictates. In this vein, Daniel J. Elazar taught that there was a contrast between the Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions. He called the Sephardi culture "Classical Judaism" while the Ashkenazi variant was marked "Romantic."

This dichotomy is significant when we attempt to understand the failure of Maimonides and Religious Humanism; his synthesis of rationalism and religious ceremonial. The failure of Maimonides is not something readily apparent, as many Jewish factions have reframed the Maimonidean worldview to suit their own purposes. But for those of us who see things in liberal and progressive terms, it is necessary to come to an understanding of perhaps the most significant religious schism in the history of Judaism: the Maimonidean Controversy.

The Controversy emerged in the Franco-German Rhineland in the 13th century and spread to Northern Spain. Maimonides' philosophical worldview, which permeated his legal and ethical system, was absorbed from the Arabo-Islamic civilization that adapted the Greco-Roman inheritance in a monotheistic context. Living in a Europe wedded to a violent and fanatical version of Christianity that took the form of a Crusade against the Arab-Muslim world, the Ashkenazim were antagonistic to the new learning.

In his article "The Legal Thinking of the Tosafot," Jose Faur examines the religious understanding of the most important rabbinic school in the Ashkenazi world. In his analysis he discusses the impact of Christian thinking on the Jews:

Aristotelian thought and philosophical speculations reached France from Moslem Spain. This type of speculation provoked very strong opposition. Undoubtedly, some of the opposition was grounded on the fact that this branch of rationalism came from Islam. However, the roots of this form of anti-rationalism were deeply entrenched in the institutional values of France. Theologians in France and Teutonic lands were deeply divided as to whether or not one may rationalize the content of the faith...

Maimonides' rational principles were deployed in parsing and formulating the Jewish law. It was not a purely rational and scientific faith; it was an application of rational principles to the massive and diffuse Talmudic edifice. It espoused a critical attitude in terms of its understanding of language and reality.

Maimonides composed an encyclopedic code of law entitled the Mishneh Torah; a 14-volume opus whose opening book, the Book of Knowledge, situated Jewish ethics in a rational, Aristotelian framework. The rest of the Code offered, in digest form, a complete recounting of the entire Jewish law. The Code lacked a critical apparatus and any overt citation of its Talmudic sources.

The Ashkenazi school, cognizant of Maimonides' use of science and philosophy, rejected not only his philosophical opus, the Guide of the Perplexed, which was banned in many rabbinical schools in Spain and Europe, but placed the entire Code under a harsh examination.

The Code sought to undermine the casuistry, Pilpul, of the Ashkenazi rabbinical tradition. This casuistry was a form of rabbinic rhetoric that asserted the prerogative of the interpreter to make his legal rulings subjectively.

Faur states that

it is assumed that the purpose of pilpul is to discover the objective meaning of the text; examined in this light it may be considered to be a faulty method of text analysis ... we wish to consider the functional aspect of the pilpul of the Tosafot school, as a means of accommodating Talmudic law to the realities of the Jewish community.

The impasse from which the Tosafot took its departure was: How to maintain the Talmudic tradition in a different social and historical context. The Tosafot analyzed the Talmud in a manner that would reflect the mores, ideology, economics and social situation of the Jewish communities in France and Teutonic lands. Seen from this perspective, the Tosafot school appears deeply concerned, on the one hand, with the preservation and maintenance of rabbinic authority, and well aware, on the other, of the historical changes that had taken place in Judaism since the compilation of the Talmud.

Contrary to the Maimonidean system, the anti-rational, anti-scientific Pilpul method, as Faur emphasizes, gives great power to the interpreter and to the rabbinical class generally. Individual opinion based on rational-critical examination of the legal texts would be eliminated. Authoritarian rabbinical authority would emerge as the central factor in Jewish life.

The paradox of this struggle between Maimonidean rationalism and Ashkenazi casuistry is that the more formal of the two systems, Maimonides' classicism, would in the long run be the more flexible.

Throughout Jewish history, it was the Sephardic rabbis who were consistently able to navigate new trends and scientific advances. Framing the law in an objective manner, Maimonidean Judaism was successful in balancing tradition with the needs of the present. Ashkenazi rabbis were consistently behind the curve as they continually rejected scientific progress in the name of the absolute authority of the past over the present.

This casuistry led to an intolerant Judaism. Factionalism and reform movements increased in the modern period as rabbis could not find common ground in the welter of their different rulings. Competing groups from all viewpoints would adopt extremist positions and do battle with one another.

Maimonides permitted Jews to interpret tradition with a more critical flexibility. Ashkenazi rabbis who rejected rationalism were left with a purely subjective Jewish tradition that elevated rabbinical authority leading to what we now know as Jewish fundamentalism.

Maimonides' works were given by the Ashkenazi rabbis to the Dominican friars. In 1232 the friars burned the contentious texts. As the German Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz writes in his History of the Jews:

With these murderers [the Dominicans], Rabbi Solomon, the upholder of the Talmud and of the literal interpretation of the Holy Writ, associated himself. He and his disciple Jonah said to the Dominicans: "You burn your heretics, persecute ours also. The majority of Jews of Provence are perverted by the heretical writings of Maimuni. If you cause these writings to be publicly and solemnly burnt, your action will have the effect of frightening the Jews away from them."

This strategy was a very dangerous one. Some ten years after the burning of Maimonides' books, the Inquisition burned the Talmud. Heresy-mongering is often a toxic by-product of subjective emotion.

Today we see the results of the victory of the anti-Maimonidean forces. The spread of a popular New-Age version of Jewish Kabbalah has brought political and religious extremism to the larger religious world in the guise of an Ayn Rand-style self-help philosophy. Most Sephardim have abandoned the classic Maimonidean tradition under the weight of Ashkenazi hegemony in Israel and are frequently seen there at the forefront of political controversy and religious fundamentalism. Settler messianism permeates Jewish nationalism.

Never in Jewish history has rabbinical authority been so decisive and corrosive a factor in our lives.

The restoration of the Maimonidean model remains an important desideratum. Its fusion of classical Arab civilization with Judaism provides people with a way to maintain religious tradition without having to bypass the dictates of science and reason. If Humanism is to be restored to Judaism, the Maimonidean Controversy must be addressed and resolved in a definitive manner.

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