Thursday, May 19, 2011

Daniel Lasker - Two Models of Jewish Thought: Rabbi Judah Halevi and Maimonides

Dr. Daniel Lasker gave a second lecture, while he was in Columbus, comparing Rabbi Judah Halevi to Maimondes. Here are my notes; as always, all mistakes are mine.


There is a trend in academia to make everything applied that one should not just be sitting in an ivory tower. This is difficult for Jewish thought. Perhaps we can create nano Jewish thinkers. The purpose of this lecture is to present two Jewish thinkers and consider how they can be applied.

Judah Halevi was born somewhere in Spain around 1075. He left Spain at an advanced age for Israel. We are not certain if he ever made it. According to the legend he was run over by an Arab horseman. There are lots of problems with this story. We do not hear about it until several centuries later. Also Israel was under Christian rule during this time. Halevi wrote poems, but also a work of philosophy, the Kuzari. This is a fictional account about the conversion of the Khazars, a group of people living around Azerbaijan, who converted around the eight century. Maimonides also was born in Spain. He fled the Almohads and ended up in Fez where he may have lived for a time as a Muslim. He traveled to Israel, but was unable to make it there so he moved to Egypt where he worked as a doctor.

In looking at these two models of thought, we tend to see them as opposed to each other. Maimonides was the super rationalist and Halevi was the anti-rationalist. Setting them up as two separate models is unfair as they both came from similar assumptions. They were both concerned with reconciling religion with philosophy. For Halevi, religion of Judaism was an empirical truth. If philosophy contradicts it then we require a new philosophy. For Maimonides, philosophy has to agree to the truth of Judaism but not literally. One should reinterpret Judaism in light of philosophy. An example of this is anthropomorphism. Maimonides was successful in changing Judaism to reject the notion that God has a body, regardless of what the Bible says, because it is a philosophically untenable position. Maimonides also insisted that Hosea did not literally marry a prostitute, because that would be dishonorable for a prophet. Where one draws the line is open ended and depends on one’s allegiance to philosophy and the literal text of the Bible.

Why is Judaism a divine religion? According to Halevi, the real proof for Judaism comes from history as opposed to a simple rational religion. R. Abraham Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on the Ten Commandments, notes that Halevi asked him why the Ten Commandments begin with referring to the exodus and not creation. Ibn Ezra gives a difference explanation than Halevi. For Halevi Judaism is true because 600,000 men saw the revelation at Sinai. For Maimonides prophecy is a natural process to pick up the divine message which is constantly broadcasted. God does not change; how one receives it depends on the person. God does not choose people to be prophets. Prophets provide a framework for human society. Humans require such a framework because humans vary in their behavior in ways unlike animals. Thus all law systems ultimately come from God. The laws of the bible are different from the bylaws of Columbus in that the Bible helps one refine the intellect and obtain immortality.

What is the nature of God and how does one come to know God? For Halevi the God of Abraham is experienced while the God of Aristotle is understood. One might die for the God of Abraham, not the God of Aristotle. One can only love the God of Abraham. For Maimonides, the God of Abraham is the God of Aristotle. The beginning of Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah is a description of God based on Aristotle. Then Maimonides immediately goes to talking about sanctifying God’s name.

Halevi believed that Jews were intrinsically different from gentiles. This is based on the hierarchy of nature. He did this because he needed to explain why only Jews are prophets. Halevi went so far as to argue that even converts cannot be prophets. Maimonides believed that Jews were different because they observed the Torah. This gives them a better ability to understand the divine realm. Halevi saw Jews as having different hardware. For Maimonides it is a matter of the software.

Today we have this struggle between science and religion. Maimonides teaches that one follows science wherever it leads. Halevi stressed more the actual text even if it has to be taken allegorically. There is also the question of how one argues for religion. Maimonides' attempt to prove Judaism from the content would have a greater chance of success than a simple historical argument. One last thing is Jewish ethnocentricity. Halevi faced dominant Christian and Muslim religion, which argued for their strength. Halevi needed to therefore argue from Jewish weaknesses and Jewish willingness to sacrifice for their faith. Nowadays we are operating from more of a position of strength it may be time to move away from this point of view toward a more Maimonidean view.

1 comment:

no one said...

I just don't know how to comment on this. I just don't hold from the anti Rambam movement at all and I consider the type of anti rational Judaism they were advocating as illegitimate.
I don't even consider most members of that movement to have even been talmidei chachamim (scholars) at all besides with the two exceptions of the Raavad and the Ramban. I don't see how someone copying over the notebooks of Tosphot with a couple of added comments that were written a hundred years before him in France can make someone out to be a rishon. not everyone that exited then was a Rishon.And even the Rambam and Raavad I just don't see were anywhere near the intellectual level or achievement of the Rambam. Let me see fist if either were capable of writing anything even a billion light years close to the Mishna Torah.
And then for Chasidim to go on to accuse the Rambam of not understanding Torah very well to have written something like the Guide For The Perplexed seems to me to be tragic stupidity. Who in the world do they think they are to even be on a level to complement the Rambam? much less level aspersions against him?