What is Rationalist Judaism?

  • 0

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.

Thinking-Man-RodinFirst, 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.


  • IH

    This is my first cycle reading Daf Yomi, but starting with Br’achot 3a and as recently as Yoma 21a it is plainly evident that supernaturalism was part-and-parcel of Rabbinic Judaism from its beginnings and that Rambam’s philosophic approach was a Chiddush. As for Rambam, Prof. Kellner has the best line: “Maimonides did not expect to meet many of his rabbinic contemporaries in the world to come.”

    The problem with the debate from my perspective is that it has become tortured to the point of sillyness – by both sides – arguing that theirs is the authentic approach; rather than simply acknowledging that present-day modern Orthodoxy is a synthesis of both approaches with individuals clustering toward either the rationalist side or the mystical side.

    Finally, an observation I made on Harry Maryles’s blog last week:

    If you believe that God delegated authority to Chazal — something we believe only based on what Chazal self-referentially assert — is it really credible to have so many instances in which they erred on physical facts, thereby potentially putting their rulings in disrepute?

    ToShBa consists both of Aggada and Halacha. You can’t just accept the Halacha part without finding a way to live with the Aggada part. R. Meiselman appears to offer a fundamentalist methodology that responds to the issue, but I have not seen a coherent methodology from the self-declared Rationalists regarding how they decide what to accept from Chazal and what to discard.

    • The question is not whether the supernatural was part of Chazal’s existence. The question is why? Was it because it’s a necessary belief? Or was it just part of their general worldview? And Chazal is not a monolith. As you have seen some were more supernaturalist than others.

      This article does not argue that one side is authentic and the other is not. So that’s a red herring.

      The answer to your question on authority was obliquely answered in the article, but I will do a more comprehensive article on it in the future.

      • IH

        I was not implying you were arguing about authenticity; I was observing a further point on the debate you are discussing.

        The Talmud as a corpus is supernaturalist rather than rationalist. And I disagree about your question of “necessary belief”. Even if it is not a necessary belief (and I do not think it is), it is inherent in the decision making. The argument that they got to the right conclusion via a mistaken process is unconvincing to me.

        • I don’t see why you assume that I think they got to a right conclusion via a mistaken process.

        • JSF

          The idea that God intended for a specific Halachic ruling bothers me, somewhat. It seems contrary to the entire doctrine of “lo bashomayim hi,” especially as outlined in the Oven of Akhnai story. Rationalist Judaism as a system of Torah interpretation does not have as much of a problem with Chazal’s mysticism as you want to make it seem: Halacha is, like all other systems, a process of legal development. We adhere to judicial precedent because that’s part of how the system works. A law based on a mystical rationale is still the law; until a majority of Rabbinic scholars (or a Beit Din!) overrules it, then that decision is the Halacha.

          Most Orthodox authorities (Modern included) are loathe to simply overrule an old decision just because we’ve learned something new for a variety of reasons. The rationalist-legalistic one is simple: what if we discover something new and contrary to our currently held beliefs tomorrow, requiring additional legal revisions? The procedures for developing Halacha is intentionally slow and steady to ensure that we maintain consistency and continuity in the Law. And there is nothing wrong with that.

          This position will inevitably lead to a discussion about the Open Orthodox movement, which we can talk about if you want.

          • IH

            Your first paragraph cuts to the chase. The halachic rulings in ToShBa are human law (Lo Ba’Shamyim Hi) that we accept despite knowing that they are based on a worldview that is not “Rationalist”. Some argue that Rambam tried to supersede all the messiness of ToShBa with his Mishneh Torah, but we still study the Talmud – including the Aggadah that often informs the Halacha – and it is indisputably the basis of Rabbinic Judaism as we continue to practice it. So what is the methodology by which “Rationalist Judaism” decides how to cope with all that Aggadic messiness in the Talmud that includes both supernatural phenomena and bad science? Saying ~”yeah, it’s broken; but, that’s what we do anyway”~ may make people feel good, but it’s not very intellectually satisfying. Particularly with something as relatively innocuous as putting Worcestershire Sauce on a steak. It seems to me a gap worth exploring.

      • IH

        BTW, I agree with Dana Cohen on your FB discussion: “much of the hocus pocus stuff the daf yomi crowd just buzzes through are beautiful social political commentary of chazal that need to be deciphered.”

        But, that is neither Rambam’s approach nor the present-day Rationalists.

        • Actually it is Rambam’s approach. That’s the bulk of the Moreh.

  • Atheodox Jew

    >> But no matter how one practices their Judaism, it is wise to establish both views as viable options.

    Agreed – but I think it deserves mention that currently it’s only the rationalist approach which is being billed as nonviable (i.e. heretical) – by the Haredi Orthodox establishment. The mystical approach – while it may be derided by some – is under no similar systematic assault. And I also think R. Slifkin deserves a mention here – as well as kudos, since he’s placed himself on the front lines in the battle to maintain the viability of the rationalist approach.

    • I tried to do this without names because some people have visceral reactions to names and are incapable of hearing the substantive points. I also do not speak for him and do not know if he would agree with anything I have said here.

      • Atheodox Jew

        I hear that.

  • Shades of Gray

    “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.”

    Interestingly, RSRH used notes from the Zohar to prepare Horeb. From Rabbi Danziger’s review of Rabbi Elias’ “Nineteen Letters” in the Summer, 1996 Jewish Action:

    “Rav Hirsch’s critical attitude to kabbalah, or as Dayan Grunfeld prefers to term it, “this guarded attitude”(Introduction to Horeb), has in the interest of “ideological correctness” been reinterpreted apologetically by Jakob Rosenheim and Dayan Grunfeld, who are followed by Rabbi Elias. The apologia runs as follows:

    1. Rav Hirsch does, after all, acknowledge kabbalah as “an invaluable repository of the spirit of Tanach and Talmud.”

    2. We find in Rav Hirsch’s writings echoes of and parallels to ideas from kabbalistic literature.

    3. Preparatory notes for Horeb indicate that Rav Hirsch made use of the Zohar.

    4. It is said that his personal siddur contained marginal notes of a kabbalistic nature.

    Therefore, the explanation of Rav Hirsch’s attitudeis, in the words of Dayan Grunfeld (Introduction to Horeb), that “Hirsch was concerned with the ethical side of Jewish symbolism and not its mystical side … His ethical symbolism did not exclude the possibility of a mystical symbolism which holds that every mitzvah has also a cosmic significance and that the effect of a commandment observed reaches to the remotest ramifications of the universe.”

    …A non-apologetic reading of Rav Hirsch’s words in Letter Eighteen about kabbalah will indicate that Rav Hirsch is referring to two opposing, rather than complementary, approaches – the ethical, on the one hand, and the mystical, extramundane on the other. He is not complaining that the ethical does not complement the extramundane. His complaint is that the proper understanding of kabbalah should have been ethical, not extramundane. No amount of apologetics can get around the hard fact that Rav Hirsch calls the extramundane worlds of(what is in his opinion) “misconstrued” kabbalah “external dream-worlds.” ”

    See online articles:

    “Clarification of R. Hirsch’s Concepts – A Rejoinder ” by R. Shelomoh Eliezer Danziger in Tradition, 1964

    “Rabbi Danziger’s Review of Rabbi Elias’ 19 Letters” in Summer 1996 Jewish Action

    “Hirschians Debate the True Meaning of Hirsch” by R. Joseph Elias and R. Danziger in a follow up in the Jewish Action

    • The primary point here was that every single mitzvah in the Torah can be understood without kabbalah. On that point, RSRH was working within Rationalist Judaism.

  • Phil Silverman

    “Rambam also thought Aristotelian philosophy and science were as true as God’s word in the Torah.” — “As” true? But he spends some time refuting a few Aristotelian points here and there, but not time refuting any truth in the Torah.

    • To be more precise, everything that he couldn’t disprove, he held was truth.

  • Phil Silverman

    Thanks for the clarification, R’ Fink. On a different note: “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.” — You might be interested to read Rabbi Norman’s Lamm’s discussion of the term Modern, in Modern Orthodoxy. He dealt with similar objections.

  • John

    I’m a little confused. You said “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. ” If you are saying that God’s existence is not provable and that Rationalist thought tends to not believe in things supernatural that cannot be proven, shouldn’t Rationalist thought tend to not believe in God? Doesn’t it seem that the Rambam believed in God because he thought it was provable – implying he would not believe if it was not provable?

    One could say he believes anyway, but that wouldn’t be in the Rationalist derech anymore.

  • IH

    I hope you continue with this topic, but get past the dogmatic rhetoric of both sides. As the physicist Freeman Dyson has written in the NYRB:

    The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries. Wherever we go exploring in the world around us, we find mysteries. Our planet is covered by continents and oceans whose origin we cannot explain. Our atmosphere is constantly stirred by poorly understood disturbances that we call weather and climate. The visible matter in the universe is outweighed by a much larger quantity of dark invisible matter that we do not understand at all. The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness. We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions. Even physics, the most exact and most firmly established branch of science, is still full of mysteries.

    He also has another fascinating essay in which he recounts his friendship with Velikovsky, in which he writes:

    Why do I value so highly the memory of Eddington and Velikovsky, and why does Margaret Wertheim treasure the memory of William Thomson and Jim Carter? We honor them because science is only a small part of human capability. We gain knowledge of our place in the universe not only from science but also from history, art, and literature. Science is a creative interaction of observation with imagination. “Physics at the Fringe” is what happens when imagination loses touch with observation. Imagination by itself can still enlarge our vision when observation fails. The mythologies of Carter and Velikovsky fail to be science, but they are works of art and high imagining. As William Blake told us long ago, “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”

  • RAM

    Too often rationality means “what I find reasonable”. That keeps us from conceding points to those known for higher level knowledge whom we don’t understand.

    • yidl613

      That might be true for STAM rationality.
      “Rational Judaism” is something totally different. It means taking leave of all the fairy tales of old: shedim, talmudic refuos, geocentricity, lack of historicity & all the things which “must have a deeper meaning which we don’t understand now & we’ll NEVER grasp”.
      It is not that we became smarter. True, we became more knowledgeable.
      But the most important part is the following:
      After populating the minds of adults for many centuries, fairy tales just went out of style

  • Betzalel

    Perhaps a better description would be “matured Judaism”?