The term Rationalist Judaism has been clanking around the Internet and Orthodox Jewish conversation for a while now. It’s not quite a movement, but there are some very strong contemporary voices behind Rationalist Judaism. Many people think the term is an oxymoron. Others think it is intellectually dishonest. Yet others think it is heresy. But without a working definition or at least a framework to understand what we are talking about, any conversation about Rationalist Judaism will result in people talking past one another and miscommunication.
First, to address the complaint that calling one brand of Judaism “Rationalist” is insulting or offensive to everyone else. It sure seems like the term is implying that everyone else is irrational. This is not the correct implication. Rationalist Judaism is not to the exclusion of irrationality. Instead it is to exclusion of supernaturalism. That’s not to say that mysticism is inherently irrational either. Maybe it is for some. These are just the words that are used to describe two different approaches to God and Judaism. Words are often cumbersome and imprecise. That is the case here. We don’t mean to say Rationalist Judaism is rational and everyone else is irrational.
In general, rationalism literally means to use reason above all else. In this view, truth can be deduced and is not subject to fallacies like appeals to authority or argumentum ad populum. Obviously, a religious person maintains some belief in authority and relies on some subjective baseline truths that cannot be logically argued. But we are not talking about pure rationalism. We are talking about Rationalist Judaism.
I believe that term Rationalist Judaism was adapted from the term Theistic Rationalism. Both groups share some common principles. The basic idea of both groups is to release theology from supernaturalism and focus on morality. To the extent that supernaturalism can be justifiably removed from religion, Rationalist Judaism holds it should be removed. That is all Rationalist Judaism really means.
There are several heroes and champions of this concept, none greater than Rambam. In his halachic and philosophical works, Rambam sought to eliminate superstition, mysticism, and supernaturalism from Judaism to the greatest extent possible. One overriding theme of his works is that there is nothing supernatural other than God. Giving power to charms, incantations, or even angels is akin to idol worship. He held that belief in God was logical. He held that prophecy was a natural result of perfection. He held that God rarely intervenes with nature. He held that Mitzvos have material benefits for the person who performs the Mitzvah. He held that astrology was bunk. He held that God conformed the Torah to the needs of mankind. He held that Maaseh Breishis was science. He held that Maaseh Merkavah was metaphysics. There is not a single mystical idea mentioned in any of his books. It’s as if there is no such thing as mysticism in Rambam’s universe.
Some have tried to argue that Rambam was a mystic and obscured his true views. This has been thoroughly debunked by many great scholars and if you are of this mind, I direct you to this book: Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism
There are many other examples of great Torah authorities who used similar principles in their halachic, or philosophical, or exegetical works. R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote Horeb, a book of the philosophy of mitzvos without a single kabbalistic reference. The entire book makes sense of Torah Judaism and it all works even if one rejects mysticism.
Ralbag is another. His commentary on Chumash literally reinterprets examples of supernatural events into metaphors or visions instead of real life occurrences. His worldview fit this same broad category. To the extent that supernaturalism could be excised from Torah and Judaism, he saw to it that they were.
To me, this is the essence of Rationalist Judaism. It’s a tradition that has a long and powerful chain of great Torah luminaries who lived by this philosophy.
Another important element of Rationalist Judaism is that because God’s intervention and communication with man is so limited, the Mesorah and Holy texts of Judaism are more subject to error than one who believes that God ensures the truth of everything. In the opposing view, God’s essence permeates the writings of men like the great Talmudic scholars known as Chazal. Thus, their writings are presumed to be free of mistakes or misjudgments. Rationalist Judaism holds that the best efforts of man can still result in error. This is especially true in matters that are not Torah specific. We refer here to math, science, history, medicine, and other disciplines not directly related to Torah. However, even if Chazal were to err in issues of halacha or Torah specific interpretation, it would not matter as they have the authority to establish the laws for the Jewish people.
It’s true that this sort of thinking led many people to conclusions that we would reject today. Rambam himself was of the belief that God’s existence is provable. Rambam also thought Aristotelian philosophy and science were as true as God’s word in the Torah. We know that both of these are actually untrue. Does this mean that Rationalist Judaism is wrong? Of course not.
In fact, only someone whose paradigm is that Torah authorities are infallible would argue that by disproving Aristotle the entire worldview of Rambam is incorrect. But the paradigm of Rationalist Judaism does not allow for this sort of thinking. People do err, only God is infallible. So Rambam dealt with truth in the same way Chazal dealt with truth. That is, they were subject to the thinking and common beliefs of their time. We are also subject to the thinking and common beliefs of our time. Therefore, we are also supposed to look at Torah through the prism of modern thinking. No one actually pretends that Rambam was a Modern Orthodox Jew of 2013 America. But his worldview is one that allows, or even requires, using contemporary thinking to build one’s Jewish life. That’s what Chazal did and that is what Rambam did and that is what we are supposed to do.
Rambam is not making the claim that Chazal and the prophets before them lived and believed the same way he believed. Rather he is making the argument that with the same information available to Rambam they would have drawn the same conclusions as Rambam. Further, he demonstrates that so much of what they did say is compatible with his Aristotelian, Islamic influenced philosophy. However, even if they would have not reached the same conclusions, they would have used all the available information and evidence to formulate their views. That is what Rationalist Judaism attempts to do as it has always attempted to do.
But what’s the point of all this? Isn’t it obvious that there are supernatural forces and that Judaism believes in mysticism?
The answer to this very serious question is that Rambam held that these were all corruptions. In his view, true Judaism does not have any of the trappings of a supernaturalist cult. God is supernatural, a few miracles that were necessary for the birth of our nation occurred in Biblical times, but other than that, Judaism is a religion that is supposed to be hyper-focused on the practical matters of personal growth and emulating God in our lives.
Sure, many great people introduced mystical or supernatural elements into Judaism. Most people believe in them too. But in Rambam’s view, these are human additions and emendations. They are not integral to serving God, and may in fact harm our service of God.
For someone who believes in the supernatural and mystical this all sounds crazy. That’s fine. However, not everyone is predisposed to believing in things that they can’t see or prove. Those people may still be willing to suspend their disbelief or skepticism and believe in God or even in Divine Revelation. However, if they are not required to believe in mysticism and its trappings of Zoharic and Lurianic kabbalism, the ties to astrology, the use of charms and segulos, the existence of demons, the belief that human beings can be infallible, the idea that Chazal had access to modern science (but didn’t tell everyone about penicillin), that God still communicates with humans (but only to Orthodox Jews), and many other beliefs that require active supernaturalism and a healthy dose of non-skepticism, then why should they believe in those things? Further, if they were required to believe in these things, would it surprise us if they rejected the entire package? No, it would not. (See: Judaism of the Future: My Response to Klal Perspectives Spring 2012)
Rationalist Judaism is a real thing. It’s not a fantasy. It’s not a boogeyman that seeks to demonize those who believe in supernatural Judaism. It’s an alternative for people who are more skeptical. It’s a way of serving God without being forced to believe in an entire universe that stretches beyond what is acceptable in their view. There are other side benefits to this perspective. Some of them have already been discussed on this and other blogs. One of those benefits will be the subject of a future post.
The amazing thing is that one can practice Orthodox Judaism and love God and make a Kiddush Hashem without mysticism. It still works. Perhaps it even works better. But no matter how one practices their Judaism, it is wise to establish both views as viable options. In this way, we can ensure that the personality types that are drawn to mysticism and skepticism have a place in Orthodox Judaism.
What is Rationalist Judaism? http://t.co/y4TKyxSSEs
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) December 9, 2013