dinsdag 22 maart 2016

How Jewish is Maimonides?

Recently, I followed an interesting course on Maimonides, in which his life, acts and  work were discussed. While being confronted with all of that, you can not fail being impressed again by this giant.

Nevertheless I am left with a serious question, especially in reaction to the book The Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides. The teacher of the course told that the rabbi/philosopher wrote that book for the enlightened Jewish minds of his time who had come into contact with Aristotle’s rationalism. Maimonides wanted to show that the same Greek wisdom was to be found also in Judaism and that therefore the Jewish intellectual elite did not have to go looking elsewhere, where according to him they would easily get lost.

However, that Jewish equivalent of Greek wisdom should be available only for the initiated, and had to remain secret for ordinary people because they were too stupid to understand the doctrine. The initiate elite could then make sure the uninitiated people receive the pieces secret doctrine at the time they were, in the opinion of the elite, ready for it.

This fact of a secret doctrine for initiates with a corresponding social hierarchy strikes  me as contrarious to the direction of the rabbis from the beginning of the era. In rabbinical writings, I believe to hear arguments for study of Torah as something that preferably as many as possible should be able to participate in throughout their lives. “Go and learn”, Hillel said, and in saying so he did not address specifically the smarter people. And what they had to learn was nothing secret, on the contrary, it belonged to Revelation.

That is not to say that in the Jewish tradition exclusion did not occur. There were at various times in various places aristocracies of rabbinical dynasties who divided leading positions among themselves and didn’t let in outsiders. But – and this is my point – that practice was not supported by an ideology that wants to keep a priori certain knowledge limited to a group of initiates.

Therefore, in my view it’s very logical and understandable that internal Jewish opposition came against Maimonides. Which led to the so-called ‘Maimonidean controversies’ that regularly flared up from the 12th to the 16th century. Among others, the philosopher Chasdai Crescas manifested himself as opponent of Maimonides.

For him and other opponents in the controversies something big was at stake, namely the following. Through his avid embrace of universalizing reason Maimonides takes leave, according to them, of the kind of rationality which is employed by Tanakh and Talmud. The latter is a rationality that allows for plurality of different logics, for inconsistencies and for the tragedy of conflicting logics that nonetheless are legitimate.

That appeals to me. A danger may be that with that thought you end up in romantic or mystical atmospheres. The opposition of Crescas against Maimonides has been interpreted along those lines, but that’s not what I aim at. What I am looking for is, right on the level of rationality, an approach that precisely in its way of dealing with reason – or reasons – may be called more Jewish than that of Maimonides.

I think that can be found in Levinas is because he, without being romantic, for all thinking “presupposes a specific political community”. These last words are from the philosopher Dennis Baert, and if you say “I do not understand”, then I agree. But those words in any case point to something different from what is universally valid. It’s primarily my intuition which says that this has something to do with the previous. But I’ll have to study on that further.

Also see Wittgenstein as Talmudist