Monday, December 26, 2005

Philosophical Evolution

I've been considering lately the ideas advanced by Jewish scholars like Maimonides and Isaac Albalag regarding the twofold truths of Judaism. They argue, in various ways, that there are distinct aspects included within the design of Judaism. One aspect is directed to the simple and common folk which is the simple religion and simple faith, while the other aspect is the higher, more abstract, more intellectual version designed for the philosophers of every generation.

An appealing view for skeptics, I think.

As anyone familiar with the likes of Maimonides' philosophy would know, his ideas were far off the popular bent. God was an unspeakable thing which could not be given any direct characteristics inasmuch that they would be a false understanding of God and an anthropomorphization or corporealization of His Being. Providence only applies inasmuch as God supplies humanity with the ability to protect and support itself. Prophecy only exists inasmuch as those with highly attuned minds can "tap into" the Active Intellect which exists throughout all of space. Even the afterlife only consists of those individuals who have properly processed their minds in such a way that the Active Intellect is capable of meshing with their individual intellect. The Mitzvot in themselves have no intrinsic value, but only insofar as they help man order his thinking to properly understand God and orient himself with the Active Intellect.

This was Maimonides' conception of what I'd call "higher Judaism." He also supported and argued for the idea of what he called "necessary beliefs," which were those beliefs which the general Jewish population had to hold in order for the religion to hold together and to allow for society to progress normally. Yet these "necessary beliefs" were not necessarily true or necessarily believed by Maimonides himself. Indeed, there are numerous scholars who demonstrate that he contradicts his own famous Principles of Faith. I think that the gamut of "necessary beliefs" are the way in which "lower Judaism" operates.

Lower Judaism has its purpose like all good religions do. To supply men with meaning, have them act morally, etc. Not all men have the capacity to reach the levels of Higher Judaism, but Lower Judaism is still true enough for the masses to live good meaningful lives. Lower Judaism also acts as a type of boundary weltanschauung with which the more curious or adept minds attempt to "escape" from as it just doesn't seem quite right. (See Matrix reference here.)

Now, I'm not arguing for the view that Judaism was actually designed with these two conceptions from the beginning, but perhaps it could be constructed. What Judaism needs to survive and from falling into the depths of Medieval-type dogmatism is a Higher form which theoretically supports much of traditional Judaism (for a philosophy without coherent practice is short lived) but is significantly different from the poor theologies of Orthodoxy. Maimonides' conceptions could have been it, but they don't seem very realistic either for the skeptical minded, though they are still more appealing than the alternative.

So the question is now, who will help create Higher Judaism?

23 comments:

B. Spinoza said...

I think that's also what the people at Atzor kan Choshvim have in mind.

what kind of philosophy did you have in mind? Modern philosophy doesn't really support Judaism because it does away with the concept of god. Are you thinking of using something like the concept of God as Spinoza defines it (existence), and building an ethics around that? I mean it has to fit with Lower Judaism, right? So you can't just get rid of the concept of God, which Lower Judaism depends on

>(for a philosophy without coherent practice is short lived)

By practice you mean the Halchic rituals? or good works?

If you mean halachic rituals then Christianity sort of proves this wrong. They do have some rituals but almost nothing compared to Judaism. You are considered a Christian as long as you believe in their essential dogma.

Jewish Atheist said...

He also supported and argued for the idea of what he called "necessary beliefs," which were those beliefs which the general Jewish population had to hold in order for the religion to hold together and to allow for society to progress normally.

"Necessary beliefs," or "lower" Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is probably the single most dangerous philosophy in the world. Religious leaders who should have known better let the laypeople believe all sorts of foolishness, thinking it necessary to maintain order. Truly a version of the noble lie.

The joke's on them, though, and on all of us, because the laiety have gained power and are turning all religion into "lower" religion. If Maimonedes were alive today, he wouldn't be able to get a job as a shul Rabbi -- they'd hire someone who shared their beliefs.

I blame all the otherwise brilliant, sophisticated theologians for the rise of fundamentalism. They should have known better, but they didn't prevent it.

The Jewish Freak said...

My understanding of Maimonides' thinking is apparently not the same as yours. Please correct me where you think I am wrong.
1. "Providence only applies inasmuch as G-d supplies humanity with the ability to protect and support itself". My understanding is that humans who attain a certain level of metaphysical knowledge will "merit" G-d's providence. There are obvious examples of this in the Tanach.
2.Maimonides did not believe in the "neccesary beliefs" - I have never seen any evidence that Maimonides did not practice what he preached.
3."mitzvot have no intrinsic value"- In the third book of the Moreh, he discusses the value of mitzvot on several different levels.
4.In my understanding of Maimonides' philosophy one of the
purposes of Judaism is to create as many of the "higher religion" people as possible, but that is dependant on individual free will. However it must be remembered that this is not a black or white proposition. A person's understanding of G-d is on a continuum. You don't just wake up one day and have the "higher religion". Also, according to Maimonides "lower Judaism" Jews are still on a higher level than most of their gentile counterparts as a result of the benefits of living the halachic life. - JF

Orthoprax said...

Spinoza,

"what kind of philosophy did you have in mind?"

I haven't really worked that part out very far. It's a work in progress.

"Modern philosophy doesn't really support Judaism because it does away with the concept of god."

Modern philosophy doesn't support _anything_. That was my point in a previous post. Modern philosophy supports randomness and meaninglessness.

"So you can't just get rid of the concept of God, which Lower Judaism depends on"

Perhaps not, but that remains to be seen. But even if a God figure is necessary, that doesn't mean it needs to be anything even remotely like typical theism.

"By practice you mean the Halchic rituals? or good works? If you mean halachic rituals then Christianity sort of proves this wrong."

I was talking about rituals and I think you're wrong and that Christianity actually helps prove my case. How many different sects of Christianity are there? Maybe just somewhere this side of a billion, right?

Yet, Catholicism, the "traditional" Christianity with its rigorous ritual behavior, still remains the largest, most powerful, and most well established sect.

It's true that the "central dogma" is largely retained, but you get much more riffraff when beliefs are the only important aspect of religion. That's why there are over a thousand (no exaggeration) Protestant sects.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

"Religious leaders who should have known better let the laypeople believe all sorts of foolishness, thinking it necessary to maintain order. Truly a version of the noble lie."

You may be right. But there is, of course, a balance. You can't strip people of all their cherished beliefs, that's almost cruel, but contrawise you shouldn't keep the curious minds from finding deeper meaning elsewhere.

Orthoprax said...

JF,

"My understanding is that humans who attain a certain level of metaphysical knowledge will "merit" G-d's providence."

No, it is that they gain a higher intellectual level and are then more adept in maneuvering through the world to get to their desired goals.

"Maimonides did not believe in the "neccesary beliefs" - I have never seen any evidence that Maimonides did not practice what he preached."

There are numerous scholars who say otherwise and point out specific instances where Maimonides contradicts himself. A famous one is that he really did not take a physical t'chiat hamaytim very seriously (#13).

"3."mitzvot have no intrinsic value"- In the third book of the Moreh, he discusses the value of mitzvot on several different levels."

Yes, but in all those levels the ultimate goal is still to train the mind, either through doing good works or to appreciate existence or through discipline or through reducing the physical urges or whatever, to gain wisdom and a truer understanding of God and to then "merit" an afterlife.

"However it must be remembered that this is not a black or white proposition. A person's understanding of G-d is on a continuum."

This is true. There is no strict demarcation. But there is still a scale.

"Also, according to Maimonides "lower Judaism" Jews are still on a higher level than most of their gentile counterparts as a result of the benefits of living the halachic life."

Also true, but only because they participate in a proven system, not because they are philosophically correct.

Jewish Atheist said...

Orthoprax,

"You can't strip people of all their cherished beliefs, that's almost cruel..."

Maybe if people were routinely stripped of their (false) cherished beliefs, the populace wouldn't be so ignorant today. It's more important to educate than to let people continue to believe in their silly fantasies. If you let someone believe that a red string is going to ward off evil, why shouldn't they believe that attacking Iraq will decrease terrorism? The second one is much more plausible.

David said...

>He also supported and argued for the idea of what he called "necessary beliefs," which were those beliefs which the general Jewish population had to hold in order for the religion to hold together and to allow for society to progress normally.

I think you have it backwards. The notion of two sets of Jewish ideologies is exactly what drives those hareidi rabbeim who privately struggle with theological dilemnas while encourage emunah peshutah in yeshivot. Jewish Atheist is right in blaming the great rabbis of the last century who confronted theology head-on while not encouraging their students to do the same.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

"Maybe if people were routinely stripped of their (false) cherished beliefs, the populace wouldn't be so ignorant today."

That's almost a tautology.

"It's more important to educate than to let people continue to believe in their silly fantasies."

I agree that the information should be freely available and that people can learn if they choose to, but I'm so sure that it should be forced on them if they are harming no one.

Orthoprax said...

David,

"I think you have it backwards. The notion of two sets of Jewish ideologies is exactly what drives those hareidi rabbeim who privately struggle with theological dilemnas while encourage emunah peshutah in yeshivot."

Are you sure those rabbeim struggle privately at all? I've usually gotten the impression that science is all kefira and even if you take some of it as fact, 'taiku' is a seriously given response.

Benjamin said...

"Modern philosophy supports _nothing_."
Well, the most popular modern philosophy I'm assuming existentialism and its numerous offspring) may not support a preordained purpose. Of course, this concept is a two-edged sword, but I personally find that a more liberating concept than frightening. But to counter your original supposition, there are many modern philosophies that seek to reconcile more classical modes of thinking with modernity. Three examples off the top of my head: Emmanuel Levinas, Franz Rosenzweig, and Kahlil Gibran. Of those three, I believe you mentioned having read rosenzweig, and would probably appreciate Levinas the most (not only modern philosopher, but devout Jew who even authored a treatise on Talmud). Gibran is more just fun, as he was neither Jewish nor supportive of the idea of a separation of philosophies. I can't give you any personal opinions on Levinas, but my attempt at Rosenzweig was hampered by perhaps the thickest prose I've ever encountered (with the possible exception of some arcane economics texts). Gibran is interesting, but, like Thoreau, his head is too far in the clouds for me. The only opinion I have of Levinas is that his argument against atheism was kind of weak (ontological), but I wouldn't necessarily discount the rest of his philosophy for that "shortcoming". Happy Chanukah.

Benjamin said...

I slightly misquoted you, Orthoprax. I meant to respond to your quote "Modern philosophy doesn't support _anything_" Of course, you probably noticed that...

Jewish Atheist said...

Orthoprax,

That's almost a tautology.

I didn't mean it as such. I meant that when you let people believe stupid things, they're more likely to believe other stupid things. When you teach people to think for themselves, you innoculate them against the YE creationists and the Sean Hannitys of the world.

I agree that the information should be freely available and that people can learn if they choose to, but I'm so sure that it should be forced on them if they are harming no one.

The Rabbis are responsible for the laiety. It's their job to teach, not to tell fairy tales. I'm not talking about strapping people into chairs until they renounce superstition, but no teacher should knowingly let his students believe in foolishness.

The real me said...

The fact that the Rambam holds that Olam Haba is a world without physical bodies, does not mean that (he holds)Tchiyat Hamatim will not happen.

A, All the people can come back alive in bodies, and then be elevated into just souls, and B, by Matim he could mean the souls that are in hell.

From what I see in reading the Rambam, he holds of prophecy just like everyone else. He just ads one more aspect to it, which is that there are a few levels to prophecy, as the AriZal explains. There is nevua that comes from a vision, and there is a nevua that comes from tapping into the godly intellect and seeing in advance.

There has always been the concept of the different levels in the torah, there was and is nigla and nistar, both are true and make up two sides of the same coin.

Orthoprax said...

Ben,

It's not "preordained purpose" that bothers me. What bothers me is that there doesn't seem to be any kind of guide in terms of how one should live life. What is a "good" life in terms of morality or in terms of worth?

As far as your name dropping goes, I may look into them when I get a chance.

JA,

"...but no teacher should knowingly let his students believe in foolishness."

Yes, generally I'd agree with you. But sometimes in metaphysics, one man's rational conclusions is another's foolishness.

The Real Me,

Of course you can wiggle around the possibilities of what the Rambam may have meant, but it seems awfully clear to me that the Rambam included a physical techiat hamaytim in his work just to please his dogmatic contemporaries.

It's place in his philosophy is perfunctory and redundant.

"From what I see in reading the Rambam, he holds of prophecy just like everyone else."

I disagree. Most other people see prophecy as a gift to a person chosen by God. Rambam largely sees it as merely a natural result of man reaching up to the higher intellectual universe. The cause of prophecy is totally upended with Rambam.

The real me said...

From all that I learnt I have never seen that god randomly selected people to be prophets. they were all people of high caliber.

Its not a gift from god, its a level of holiness, that comes to people who have worked on themselves.

Other then beilham, we don't really see anyone who had prophecy who was just a yokel.

And as for the rambam, it seems that you are wiggling, with one half baked proof to show for all your sages.

Orthoprax said...

RM,

"From all that I learnt I have never seen that god randomly selected people to be prophets. they were all people of high caliber."

That's not the point. Randomness is irrelevant. The point is that the power of prophecy is granted by God, not won by man. It turns "reward" into "natural development."

"Its not a gift from god, its a level of holiness, that comes to people who have worked on themselves."

OK, so you're arguing from the Rambam's view of things. That's not how the wide majority of rabbis understand it.

"And as for the rambam, it seems that you are wiggling, with one half baked proof to show for all your sages."

Whatever man. I don't feel the need to prove things that can be easily researched on one's own, especially to an individual as pleasant as yourself. I refer you to Menachem Kellner and Marc Shapiro.

Anonymous said...

Shall Judaism be defined by elitism?

Orthoprax said...

Anon,

I'm really not breaking any new ground here. Both the Rationalist and the Kabbalist masters approached Judaism where the highest concepts of the faith were meant only for those with the special capabilities or knowledge.

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