Monday, June 1, 2015

In Defense of a Maimonidean Judaism: A Response to Rabbi Ysoscher Katz

Dr. Alan Brill just published an intriguing guest post by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, who grew up in the Satmar community and now teaches at YCT. A running theme in much of Dr. Brill's work has been the presentation of different approaches to "Modern Orthodoxy," the attempt to formulate a Judaism that is faithful to halakha while maintaining an ability to engage modernity at either an intellectual or social fashion. Rabbi Katz offers an intellectualized Hasidic version of this project. (I would be curious as to how he sees himself in relationship to Rabbi Abraham Heschel.)

What particularly caught my attention were Rabbi Katz's comments regarding Maimonides. In middle of the post, Rabbi Katz declares his personal sense of betrayal by Maimonides:

I for many years was the object and fool of Maimonides “the seventh reason” as presented in his introduction to the Guide by not seeing his philosophic views.  In that passage, Maimonides condones misleading the masses for their greater good, even to the point of advocating contradictory ideas for different audiences and then obscuring those contradictions.

He ends the post, by arguing that Maimonides has led Modern Orthodoxy into a trap:

Contemporary Modern Orthodoxy is struggling; a significant number of its adherents are abandoning yiddishkeit and many who stay no longer find it meaningful; inertia has set in. I suspect that Modern Orthodoxy’s rationalist ethos is partially to blame. Current Modern Orthodox theology is Litvish and hyper-Maimonidean, it lacks a native spiritual core, and does not satisfy people’s search for meaning. 

There is an irony here in that much of my knowledge of the Guide comes from a class taught by Dr. Brill more than a decade ago back when I was a student at YU. This class profoundly affected me and helped make me the kind of "litvish hyper-Maimonidean" that Rabbi Katz criticizes. As such, I feel it is prudent to offer a response.

As with a number of self-described Maimonideans I have run into over the years, the main attraction of this path for me is that it allows me to actively engage academia without ever risking my commitment to halakha. I could read a book on biblical criticism at night and never worry about my decision to put on phylacteries in the morning. It is not that I am so smart that I will figure out a way to disprove what I have read. On the contrary, it might turn out that I agree with the author. The reason for this is that, as a Maimonidean, my understanding of things like God, prophecy and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai is so theoretical as to be impervious to modern scholarship. The price I pay is that I must tentatively accept their truth even before I have examined them.

Now one might accuse me of being a secularist, who enjoys Orthodox practice and does not want to upset my family and my Asperger equilibrium by stopping to be religious. My counter-punch is that being a Maimonidean has given me a positive spiritual program in recognizing the manifest law in the world. This is put into practice, at a personal level, through ritual observance and an active opposition to idolatry. It is not that, as a Maimonidean, I am as religious as other Orthodox Jews. On the contrary, I denounce the larger Orthodox community as idolaters. If you accept Kupat Ha'ir then you are an idolater. If you have any energy leftover from denouncing the Haredi leadership for their blatant idolatry (or you believe there is really a meaningful difference between them and King Ahab) to denounce more liberal movements over their acceptance of biblical criticism then you clearly lack appropriate zeal for monotheism and cannot be considered a true believer. This makes the confrontation with potentially "heretical" ideas in academia and their non-denunciation, a great spiritual act. It confirms my relationship with the One God I theorize about as I recognize how utterly I reject the idolatry of those who would denounce me as a heretic.

I think there are two major areas of agreement between Rabbi Katz and myself. First, we both dislike the label "Orthodox" as it implies schism and a rejection of the wider Jewish community. In its place, we want something that places the emphasis squarely on traditional observance. This leads to the second area in that Rabbi Katz wants to separate Judaism from theology in favor of a lived experience. As counter-intuitive as it might seem, Maimonideanism might be helpful in this regard. Judaism as ritual and community is distinct from Maimonidean theology. This is necessary considering all the idolatrous Jews out there.

This leaves plenty of room to allow Hasidism to influence Jewish society and the experience of ritual. My father likes to say about Torah Vodaas in his day that the learning was litvish, but the spirit was Hasidic. I am certainly open to the idea of a Modern Orthodoxy that is Maimonidean in theology, litvish in its learning and Hasidic in spirit.