Rabbi Marc Angel on Rational Judaism, a Lesson for the Thinking Jew: An Interpretation of a Great Lecture
[This lecture was originally published on December 25, 2007 at http://www.alfassa.com/blog/2007/12/rabbi-mark-angel-on-rambam-and.html, on Shelomo Alfassa's “The Sephardic Perspective: The source for original political, social and historical commentary and observations from a Jewish worldview.” However, this location is no longer available, so I have reposted this article here – Michael Makovi. All text in brackets are my own additions. Except for bracketed text, or unless otherwise noted, all text is Alfassa's.]
Introduction: The following text is not a transcript of a lecture. This is just one man's write up, an interpretation if you will, about an extraordinary lecture, given by Rabbi Dr. Mark [sic: Marc] D. Angel, Saturday December 22, 2007. Rabbi Angel's lecture took me five hours to digest and expand upon here, and any errors are my own. It was an incredible lecture, and I present a summary here for all Jews of all background to read. If you are going to listen/read one thing by a rabbi this year--this is it. This article addresses two major problems we have in the Jewish world today. The audio version of the full lecture will be online, contact me for the link shelomo(at)alfassa.com.
[The online URL for the original lecture is http://www.merkaz.com/lectures/RABBI%20ANGEL.mp3, hosted by Merkaz Moreshet Yisrael, http://www.merkaz.com/. - Michael Makovi.]
Rabbi Mark [sic: Marc] Angel's original title was: "Rambam and the Philosophers: What Reason Can and Cannot Attain." I think it should have been called, "Rational Judaism, a Lesson for the Thinking Jew."
I am one of "those" people who find it difficult to get inspired by most rabbis and their, frequent, dull lectures. Of late, I find too many rabbis repeating subjects of fundamental substance, often delivered and brought down to a level that is so simple, and so full of subjective emotion, that I am jaded within the first few moments. This didn't happen when I had the pleasure to attend several lectures by Rabbi Mark Angel, Rabbi emeritus of the Congregation Shearith Israel, the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York City. Rabbi Angel's congregation was founded in 1655 and is the oldest congregation in America. The rabbi was born in Seattle's Sephardic community, his ancestors came from Turkey and Rhodes and he grew up speaking Ladino at home.
Rabbi Angel had come to speak as the scholar-in-residence at Sephardic Institute, one of the main Syrian synagogues in the Brooklyn, New York Jewish community. The event was sponsored by Rabbi Ricky Hidary's Mercaz Moreshet Yisrael.
* * *
Rabbi Angel spoke on several different topics, including rationalism, ignorance, and power. He started the Saturday evening conversation by introducing Baruch Spinoza, a 17th century Jew from Holland who is remembered as a great philosopher. Spinoza's ancestors were Conversos who fled from Portugal to escape the Portuguese Inquisition and return to Judaism. Spinoza came from a traditional family and learned Torah from great rabbis. Yet, before he was 30, he was excommunicated and considered an outcast and heretic to his religion because of his questioning of religion and the Bible. Spinoza became cynical about his religion for many reasons including those attributed to these two stories:
Rabbi Angel told that a young Spinoza was sent to a pious Jewish woman's home to retrieve a debt for his father. When the boy went to pick up the money, the woman attempted to trick him and keep some of the funds for herself. However, Spinoza caught her, and asked her for the rest of the money. Once home with his father, Spinoza said, "father-this is our religion? A woman is so pious but she tried to cheat me?"
Another case unfolds when the young Spinoza was in class and a rabbi told him he was not allowed to ask certain questions. "We don't want to hear those questions, they will confuse the other students." I believe Rabbi Angel was bringing up a point, that if the rabbis would have entertained Spinoza's questions, and even sat and spoke with the young man, he may not have ran away or turned against his religion. Rabbi Angel told that Spinoza, a rationalist, thought the Almighty endowed humans with reason--and He would not have provided us with such a virtue unless He wanted us to use it.
The past two reasons are only two of what may be many more reasons that Spinoza became obviously jaded and cynical, something we can see happening to both young and old Jews today. Rabbi Angel communicated that while we would never want our Jewish children to be like Spinoza, we must recognize there is a world outside of the Jewish people, there is philosophy and that there is value in it. We should allow our children to be exposed to it, but we should protect them.
Rabbi Angel quoted Rabbi Prof. David Hartman of the Jerusalem based Shalom Hartman Institute. He related that Rabbi Hartman indicates there are four ways of trying to deal with the world of Torah and the world of philosophy.
The first is "the way of insulation…we have the truth, they don't!...anything the world has to say is not relevant to us." Rabbi Angel tells us through this approach, [one that is certainly taken by the haredim] children aren't exposed to anything outside of the closed community. Children that are raised this way today, are taught that others outside of the community are bad, reform, goyim, etc. The rabbi said that while there is some logic to it, it is not a proper answer to the problem.
The second is to compartmentalize. To be one way on the outside, and maybe, another way on the inside. He used an example, that if you "dress religious" and look the part, your children will see you and think you are doing everything right, and they will learn to do everything right themselves. Rabbi Angel infers that this is not a proper way to be, because there is definitely a disjoint between the way you think and the way you act in the society around you. He said that there is no harmony in this manner.
The third way is to go the way Spinoza chose, and that is rejection. The rejection process says that if you have both the Torah and philosophy, and that if you decide that the latter is the truth, then you simply put aside the Torah, eliminating it all together.
The forth way is integration. In this method, you integrate both the Torah and general wisdom. You study them both, rationally, and from that process you are going to be a better person, this is the approach of Maimonides (RaMBaM). If you use a mathematical equation as an example, you will find that it is much more significant to comprehend how to calculate an equation and come up with an answer, then just knowing the answer. It is the path of thinking which educates. Rabbi Angel mentioned that the RaMBaM said there were many people that are ignoramuses of the law, people that skip the steps, people that if they know the answer, say, "Why do I have to do the calculations for? Analogous to this, Rabbi Angel remarked, the purpose of the Torah is not to just do misvot, but to understand why we are doing misvot. He added, that we shouldn't be doing misvot just in form, but we should understand the substance behind them.
I believe Rabbi Angel was commenting that if we truly understand--why we do--what we do--then we will be able to (and desire to), do it with more meaning. He said that while we will never understand God's ultimate reason and wisdom for some misvot, there is no reason not to want to understand and thus become closer to God as best as we can. Among many benefits, Rabbi Angel said that the advantages to ‘doing the calculations' is that it teaches us to think.
The RaMBaM indicates there are different ways to understand these passages. One group are very foolish and cynical people, they say that the stories of the great rabbis [the Hakhamim, commonly called Sages], don't conform to reason, so this means the Sages were unreasonable, and thus we won't listen to them. This, Rabbi Angel said, was the way of rejection. [This is the way Spinoza took, this is a way that does and has led many educated people away from Judaism.]
The RaMBaM encouraged the use of intelligence and rationalization, he gave reason tremendous power. Yet, he felt that if rationalization became too common and people interpreted everything based on how they felt it should be translated, we would end up in disorder. Rabbi Angel said that if we all tried to translate and interpret everything ourselves, we would end up with a religion that is no longer a religion, with people all doing their own thing. To counter this, the RaMBaM thought there had to be authority, had to be boundaries to prevent people from reinterpreting the Torah, and as Rabbi Angel mentioned, becoming like a "Spinoza."
The RaMBaM said that Sages were highly intelligent, and that if they said something that sounded unintelligent or foolish, we should understand that the Sages were speaking poetically, in illusions, they were discussing things which had a deeper hidden meaning. Rabbi Angel said the RaMBaM indicated that once you understand why the Sages spoke in such language, you realize their words were not foolish--but were wise. Yet, sometimes the Sages had things wrong, and the RaMBaM admits it. He said the Sages sometimes admit this too, for example, the Sages admit the Greeks knew better on certain issues such as Science. Rabbi Angel held that on where the Sages give medical advice, we should not listen to them, we should go to a physician. To paraphrase Rabbi Angel, "The Sages believed in things which are not aspects of our faith, such as shadim [demons], and thus we are not bound to accept this concept." Throughout this discussion on the RaMBaM, Rabbi Angel is trying to demonstrate that being a literalist, someone that takes the statements of the Sages for their face value (as well as stories of the midrash), is not proper.
RaMBaM's approach tells us we should take misvot at face value when there is no question about them. But, when there is a question about a certain misva, we should use reason to understand it, but always follow tradition; we should follow the words of our Sages, from generation to generation. Rabbi Angel tells that the RaMBaM's approach is a very difficult approach, and it has confidence in people's ability to think-and-it demands that we think. He adds that if we don't think to the best of our ability, that we are not in fact being religious.
Speaking of superstition again, Rabbi Angel brought up the absurd practice of treating the mesuzah on the door as a magical charm. On how when people have a problem, they put their hands on the mesuzah, or how people feel that a mesuzah can provide protection to the house. "That is not religion...the RaMBaM was absolutely against such practices." The rabbi said the custom of "checking" the mesuzot when something bad happens, is not a religious practice. He spoke of how people take holy items and put them near crying babies, and how this is not part of Judaism. He said the RaMBaM called people like this both fools and kofrim, deniers of God. He said the RaMBaM says "Torah was not given for this purpose...it is a terrible misunderstanding of Torah."
Rabbi Angel said that the RaMBaM was so very strong about this topic, because he knew religion could slip into a magical formula for some. The RaMBaM didn't want people to see religion like the pagans did where there was a salvation if you construed the right formula or mouthed certain words. The rabbi said Judaism is a thinking person's religion and that it is not for people who want shortcuts or magic. He said we are not a religion where we should do things without thinking about why we do them.
It is my interpretation, that Rabbi Angel supposed that the RaMBaM's ways attempted to halt creating people like Spinoza, people who are easily turned away from the Torah because they see superstitious or other ideas and stories as just ridiculous. He said, "If I was Spinoza's rabbi, I would teach him more of the approach of the RaMBaM." Rabbi Angel added that this approach, a rational one based on the RaMBaM, should be taken with today's Jewish children.
Rabbi Angel then moved on, telling that another other type of Judaism is based upon authoritarianism, xenophobia, intellectual unsoundness, superstitiousness, and other characteristics. He gave some examples including how a certain Rosh Yeshiva speaking at the latest Rabbinical Council of America convention said that rabbis' jobs are to marry people, burry people, counsel people, lead them in prayers, make them feel happy, etc. The Rosh Yeshiva said, "when it comes to thinking…to serious questions…stay out of it—come to us and we will give you the answer." Rabbi Angel said this frustrated him, and what people like this are really saying is, "We do the thinking for the Jewish people--you are not authorized to think!" He said they are restricting people's right to decide and use their own brain to decide. As a further illustration, he mentioned how the National Council of Young Israel has now restricted which rabbis can be hired around the country. How only a few select people will have power over who gets hired. Rabbi Angel said this demonstrates how a small group is attempting to control the larger organization. He said, increasingly small groups of people who call themselves Gedolim, are telling the average person--you have no right to think, to come to conclusions, nor to decide anything. These self-proclaimed leaders are saying, "You have an Algebra problem and you have an answer--just take the answer, don't worry about understanding the calculation which brought you to the answer." The rabbi said that these people are really telling us, "We don't want you to think, we have the answer, and we will give it to you."
Rabbi Angel said once this type of philosophy becomes dominant [which has rapidly become the norm in the Ashkenazi world and is not encroaching in the Sephardic world], it is the first sign of death. The rabbi said we are already beginning a process of intellectual, spiritual and cultural strangulation.
Shockingly, Rabbi Angel told the audience, that in Israel, most food has a kashruth supervisory stamp from the "Badatz of the Edah Hareidit," and that when you buy any of these foods you are supporting them. He revealed that the Badatz are a group that shares a Satmar philosophy that is anti-Israel as well as, "anti-all of us that don't follow their ways, they have civil wars among themselves, they even called for one hassidic rebbe they didn't like to be killed by a hitman." Rabbi Angel said the Orthodox Union (OU), supports Badatz of the Edah Hareidit, and that the OU in Israel called the Badatz of the Edah Hareidit "the best" kashruth supervision. In a mostly serious manner, Rabbi Angel confirmed, "Edah Hareidit are religious, their frum, because they wear black hats they look very religious, but they are insidious destroyers of the people of Israel, even among themselves they are killing each other, literally, figuratively and spiritually."
"We have lost our balance as a people," declared Rabbi Angel, "we don't even know what is right or wrong anymore." He said the people who are ultimately in charge, the office of the chief rabbinate, allow the Badatz to function by giving them permission. Rabbi Angel told a story which most people in Brooklyn know, then when young people go to learn in Israel, the first thing they are taught [brain washed] is to only trust the kashruth supervision of the Badatz. The rabbi lamented, "We have entered a Twilight Zone where self-appointed individuals are saying ‘we know best for you.'" He added that while these people think they know what is best for the Jewish people, all the facts demonstrate otherwise. He added that what these people are doing is not good for any Jews, Orthodox or other.
Rabbi Angel then spoke on the topic of midrashim, and how too many people take these old Jewish stories literally, when they should not be. He mentioned that at a recent conference in the USA, he heard a rabbi [Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein], stand up and say that anyone who believes the world is older than 5768 years, is a heretic, the person is not a Jew, the person is not going to go to heaven, the person cannot be a rabbi, etc. He said Eisenstein indicated that believing the world is only 5768 years old is a principle of Judaism--but it is not! Rabbi Angel indicated there were many more people and rabbis greater than Eisenstein that assumed the world was billions of years old.
Rabbi Angel said that the RaMBaM would say, if science could show, in a reasonable way, that is the universe is billions of years old, then we should accept that it is billions of years old. "You don't have to teach people to be morons," he said. Calling it an outrage, he told how some haredi teachers today are telling Jewish children that dinosaurs never existed, and that fossils are only buried dog bones which were swollen with the waters of the flood of Noah.
The rabbi told how an American man opened a New York style pizza shop in Israel but had rocks thrown through the windows because he allowed boys and girls to both eat in the restaurant at the same time. He said the American had a sign with the Statue of Liberty on it for which the haredim also attacked him. They said "liberty is not a value among us…freedom is not the issue, following the rules is the issue." Eventually the pizza shop was boycotted, closed and relocated. Rabbi Angel's overall theme was that we have brains, and we should use them, and we should not feel that we shouldn't. He spoke on how self-proclaimed rabbis including rabbis such as Ovadia Yosef, are speaking up on behalf of Jews, when they don't represent all Jews.
Rabbi Angel indicated he was worried some young people would succumb to this type of lifestyle. He said there were those who want to think, but feel a "thought mafia" was controlling them. "They want to live responsible lives, but they feel they are being strangled," he said, "The people want to stay with in the boundaries of the Torah, but the Torah is not properly being presented to them."
He said, while we don't have the answers to everything, it is important to be allowed to ask and question, and certainly understand that we can do this in a framework of the Torah, and that we should never feel oppressed by Judaism. He said both rabbis and laymen should take more active responsibility in their communities and that we all can do something. He said we should never let self-appointed cowboys be the spokesmen for Judaism. Rabbi Angel said we should never say "how can we win when there are more of them and they control the mikvahs, the kashruth, etc." He said we should at least protest and have our voices heard. He said we should build up a resistance to this by speaking to friends, children and others.
Rabbi Angel's new institute, The Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, (www.jewishideas.org) plans to publish and distribute materials based on topics relating to this lecture and other topics. Rabbi Angel has a vision of Orthodox Judaism that is intellectually sound, spiritually compelling, and emotionally satisfying. It is based on an unwavering commitment to the Torah tradition and to the Jewish people, it fosters an appreciation of legitimate diversity within Orthodoxy.
[Thus concludes Shelomo Alfassa's own text. The following text is Michael Makovi's own addition.]
See also Rabbi Marc Angel's new book, Maimonides, Spinoza and Us: Toward an Intellectually Vibrant Judaism, Jewish Lights Publishing: 2009. According to the publisher (http://www.jewishlights.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=JL&Product_Code=978-1-58023-411-5&Category_Code=):
A challenging look at two great Jewish philosophers, and what their thinking means to our understanding of God, truth, revelation and reason.The reviews there say:
Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) is Jewish history’s greatest exponent of a rational, philosophically sound Judaism. He strove to reconcile the teachings of the Bible and rabbinic tradition with the principles of Aristotelian philosophy, arguing that religion and philosophy ultimately must arrive at the same truth.
Baruch Spinoza (1632–77) is Jewish history’s most illustrious “heretic.” He believed that truth could be attained through reason alone, and that philosophy and religion were separate domains that could not be reconciled. His critique of the Bible and its teachings caused an intellectual and spiritual upheaval whose effects are still felt today.
Rabbi Marc D. Angel discusses major themes in the writings of Maimonides and Spinoza to show us how modern people can deal with religion in an intellectually honest and meaningful way. From Maimonides, we gain insight on how to harmonize traditional religious belief with the dictates of reason. From Spinoza, we gain insight into the intellectual challenges which must be met by modern believers.
“Clever and insightful ... Sketches a Maimonidean approach to Judaism essential for Jews who are attracted to Torah but unwilling to turn off their brains. Based upon studious research and profound knowledge [yet] presented with a light hand and in an engaging manner.”
—Professor Menachem Kellner, Department of Jewish History and Thought, University of Haifa; author, Must a Jew Believe Anything? [and notably in connection with our present topic, also author of Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism – Michael Makovi]
“An intriguing and extended conversation between three voices: Maimonides, Spinoza, and Rabbi Marc Angel, an increasingly influential voice for openness and inclusivity in the contemporary Jewish community…. A fascinating attempt to bridge the centuries!”
—Rabbi Neil Gillman, PhD, emeritus professor of Jewish thought, The Jewish Theological Seminary; author, Doing Jewish Theology: God, Torah and Israel in Modern Judaism
“Makes the thought of Maimonides and Spinoza on vital topics of contemporary religious import accessible to readers with characteristic clarity and erudition. [Anyone] interested in achieving a mature and intellectually honest religious faith will be entranced and educated by the dialogue and concerns this uncharacteristically open Orthodox rabbi presents in this engaging book.”
—Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD, president, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion
“Boldly attempts to revive the Maimonidean tradition, arguing for a spiritually vibrant yet intellectually sophisticated Judaism.”
—Dr. Marc B. Shapiro, Weinberg Chair of Judaic Studies, University of Scranton
“Accessible … engages the thought of Maimonides and Spinoza on issues of both perennial Jewish and general importance. I applaud Rabbi Angel’s lovely book.”
—Heidi M. Ravven, PhD, professor of religious studies, Hamilton College; author, Themes in Spinoza’s Philosophy
Rabbi Marc Angel on Rational Judaism, a Lesson for the Thinking Jew: An Interpretation of a Great Lecture -...