Knowing Ourselves, Knowing God, Knowing Maimonides

Part 2 book review


In part 1 Jonathan Gill introduced a profound debate on Orthodox Thinkers on authentic belief in a modern world, in his review of the recently published essays in Strauss, Spinoza, and Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith.

Difference between knowing and believing

The much contested problem of the difference between knowing and believing, or, if we prefer, between philosophy and rationality on the one hand and religious faith and belief on the other, is central to the efforts of a number of contributors to this volume, among them Jack Abramowitz and Ari Kahn, who lead the reader through a thicket of linguistic problems when it comes to defining these terms.

Reason and knowledge

The Hebrew versions, yediah and emunah, seem at some points interchangeable in Maimonides, which makes sense if we consider that the distinction between them is itself a modern gesture. Then there is da’at, which Maimonides also uses to refer to what we can logically know and reason from. But is that the same as knowledge?

It reminds one of the old joke in which a rabbi hearing a dispute says the accuser is right, and then that the accused is right; when both complain that both can’t be right, he finds that’s right too!

Maimonides, whose entire project was to bring to bear classical forms of rationality on matters of religious faith, attempted to make Judaism into a philosophy that could be defended on logical grounds as easily as science. Not for him was the Talmudic parable warning in Bava Kamma 83a against the heresy of “Greek knowledge.”  Far from falling short of satisfying us intellectually, revelation was for Maimonides the highest form of reason, a mental construct that went beyond reason. In the second volume of Guide for the Perplexed, he admits that we simply cannot know for certain whether the world was created at a certain moment in time or whether it had always existed. Belief in either can be logically defended. In other words, where knowledge ends, belief begins.

Prisms and Mirrors

Overturning the Classical prism through which Western philosophy views Judaism and replacing it with much older Middle Eastern models, which is Jeremy Kagan’s goal in this volume, may seem to some less convincing, because it takes as its premise the notion that human consciousness itself was different in ancient times, so different as to be unrecognizable to us today.

For Kagan, the horizon for Jewish identity is priesthood, or holiness, whereas for ancient Greek and Enlightenment thinkers it was philosophy. It is the difference between knowing the truth and being the truth. Kagan seeks to historicize what were to Kant and Spinoza self-evident but regrettable premises, so the idea that we engage with life on the basis of materiality, as opposed to transcendance, is for Kagan a tragic impoverishment.  The only way to understand the non-naturalistic status of miracles is to adopt non-naturalistic–i.e. non-rational–ways of thinking, according to Paul French.

In a related way, Shalom Carmy emphasizes that the Enlightenment was by definition unable to treat those parts of our world–it may be most of our worlds–that are so often the bailiwick of religion, which  is obviously much more comfortable with “a mysterious, unpredictable, and ultimately untamable reality.” But are we dealing with a mere set of independent, non-overlapping domains, two languages that are describing two entirely different worlds? Or might we see reason and revelation as interdependent and mutually necessary ways of making and recognizing sense in the world. Sam Lebens goes even further, arguing that mysticism is necessary in the face of the inadequacy of logic and of language itself.

Alec Goldstein takes a rather different perspective from most of the contributors, who are primarily concerned with trying to defend the individual experience of religion. In contrast, Goldstein claims that while personal religious experiences must be seen as self-verifying, we must never forget the reality of collective religious experience, hence his focus on the primacy of the revelation of the law to the entire people at Sinai.

Questions and Problems

Admirably, these 17 essays in this volume are drawn from a diverse set of mostly non-scholarly perspectives–well, not that diverse, since only one is female and none seem to represent the Sephardic perspective. Moreover, the writers in this volume are, understandably, so invested in looking at the central tension between Athens and Jerusalem that what they have to say simply doesn’t apply to Christians or Muslims struggling to reconcile modernity with tradition. And for a book that is so interested in the Enlightenment, there’s precious little on the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah, which for better or worse succeeded in remaking Jerusalem in the image of Athens. 

Science of Judaism, and the Reform movement

Though this volume explicitly seeks not merely to give Orthodoxy a stake in the game, but to make them the players, there’s no mention of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, the Science of Judaism, which following Spinoza and preceding the Reform movement saw worldly and divine knowledge as separate realms that posed no danger to each other.

The missing figure here is of course Moses Mendelssohn, the ‘German Socrates’

For this movement, Spinoza’s Jewishness was more a matter of biographical drama than philosophical value. The missing figure here is of course Moses Mendelssohn, the ‘German Socrates,’ who in his time was too secular for the Talmudists and too Jewish for the philosophers, but who nonetheless was able to build a bridge between them, a bridge that remains seldom traveled.

Mendelssohn might also have provided a corrective to the individualistic emphasis that this volume, explicitly or implicitly, mostly insists on. For Mendelssohn, the emancipation of the Jews was not simply a matter of changing their private thoughts and habits but their status in German society.

In this way of thinking, assimilation and secularization weren’t regrettable inevitabilities but welcome evidence of the victory of Spinoza in keeping reason and ritual mutually exclusive, even mutually irrelevant. 

We might not know what’s true, but we can know what is worth knowing.

Those who would blame the victim, much in the manner of the religious figures who blamed the destruction of the Temple, both times, on the Jews themselves, might see the entry of Jews into German culture as a foretaste of the Holocaust. But they might as easily say that was because the assimilation and secularization didn’t go far enough. Einstein of course admitted that God doesn’t play dice with the universe, but as the old joke goes, he’s not averse to a coin toss. We might not know what’s true, but we can know what is worth knowing.

Be silent in the face of what we cannot know?

Wittgenstein’s famous coda to his Tractatus logico-philosophicus, a text all of us depend on, though few of us have read it – which puts it in the same family as most of the works of Spinoza and Maimonides, and Strauss as well – asserts that we must be silent in the face of what we cannot know.

But it is precisely in the face of what we cannot know that we ought not, must not remain silent – the stakes are simply too high.

Perhaps in the end, we ought to be less interested in how what we know offers moral guidance, and be more interested in how what we will not or cannot know can show us how to live.

boekomslag Strauss-Spinoza-Sinai

Strauss, Spinoza, and Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith. 
Edited by Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein, and Gil Student.
Kodesh Press, 2023.

cover illustration Talma Joachimsthal

Over Jonathan Gill 12 Artikelen
Jonathan Gill received his PhD from Columbia University in American literature and has taught literature, history, and writing at Columbia University, Barnard College, the Manhattan School of Music, Fordham University, the City College of New York, and Amsterdam University College. He specialises in post-World War II art, film and literature, African-American history and culture, experimental and vernacular musics, the counterculture of the 1960s, the literature of immigration and the cultures of intolerance. He has also taught Yiddish at the University of Amsterdam, and has written and lectured widely on Judaism and Jewish culture. His book "Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History, From Dutch Village to Capital of Black America" (Grove/Atlantic 2011), has been a New York Times best-seller. In 2020 he published "Hollywood Double Agent" (Abrams, hardcover 9781419740091) on espionage in Hollywood during the Cold War.

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