It was another ordinary COVID-19 Shabbat of eating, praying, reading and sleeping. However, there was also quite a lot of agitated thoughts about religion. I was thinking a lot about a few things, most notably Rambam’s (Moses Maimonides’) thirteen principles of faith and his understanding of reward and punishment. These thoughts came from a number of things I’ve been reading recently, most notably Rabbi Joshua Berman’s Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith and debates on the Rationalist Judaism blog about whether God can be meaningfully said to have “caused” COVID-19, which led me to re-read the appendix on Rambam’s view of reward and punishment at the back of Menachem Kellner’s Must a Jew Believe Anything?
Rabbi Berman’s book has left me wondering whether I really believe in Rambam’s thirteen principles in a way he (Rambam), and other Orthodox rabbis, would accept as truly Orthodox, mostly because lately I find myself drawn to some Medieval rabbis who believed that certain apparently anachronistic phrases and short passages in the Torah (e.g. the long list of Edomite kings which seems to cover more people than can easily fit in the gap from Esav’s (Esau’s) birth to the giving of the Torah) can be explained by saying that they were inserted by a later prophet or by Ezra the Scribe as an explanatory gloss, similar to a modern editorial footnote. This seems logical, and more traditional than the answers proposed by modern biblical criticism, which see whole chunks of text as later insertions by otherwise unknown “redactors” (as this version is limited to just a few verses and still assumes some kind of prophetic source). However, Rambam said Jews have to believe in the unchangeability of the Torah‘s text for reasons that Rabbi Berman ascribes to the influence Islamic polemics (basically, Muslims said that Jews had edited the Torah to remove references to Mohammed being the greatest prophet, so defending the integrity of the text became of paramount importance).
On the other hand, the more I think about Rambam’s view of reward and punishment, at least as explained by Kellner, the harder it is for me to see it as (a) authentically Jewish, (b) coherent in a world that no longer accepts Aristotlean metaphysics and (c) morally and emotionally viable, especially post-Holocaust. As I understand it, Rambam’s view of the afterlife is based on Aristotle’s idea of the “acquired intellect”. According to Rambam, the more we learn about God in this world (partly through Talmud study, but mostly through studying Greek philosophy, which he believed contained universal truths lost from Judaism in the exile), the more we perfect our intellects and join them to God’s intellect in the next world, which is the only true happiness or reward. There is no get out clause for people who can’t do this for some external reason such as mental impairment or dying in infancy. There is no mechanism whereby God can miraculously extend them reward. So Rambam would say that there is no reward for the million children murdered by the Nazis. He doesn’t believe in next-worldly punishment either, so at least they don’t go to Gehennom/Hell… but then neither does Hitler, whose only punishment was to live long enough to see his Thousand Year Reich destroyed by the Allies, which does not really seem enough. It’s a hugely austere and elitist approach to life that in some ways I admire for its bravery and unwillingness to offer cheap comfort, but really it does nothing for me either religiously or emotionally.
As for why this upset me, well, there are two slightly different reasons, or rather the same reason in two slightly different ways. I’m rejecting a belief, which of course leads to the fear that I may be making a mistake and rejecting true dogma and condemning myself to eternal non-existence, but I’m also rejecting communities. Although both sets of opinions I’m rejecting were proposed by the same Jewish thinker, I’m actually rejecting two very different communities.
The first one is the mainstream Orthodox community, where Rambam’s thirteen principles are seen as the definitive Orthodox dogma. In the Modern Orthodox community there is some debate about how they became accepted and what to do with the opinions of those rabbis who disagreed with them (and a lot did disagree – see Rabbi Marc Shapiro’s The Limits of Orthodox Theology (I haven’t read the book, but I have heard him lecture on when people stopped believing it was OK to say that God has a body (corporealism)). Likewise, there is some acknowledgement in the Modern Orthodox world that there is no one perfect Torah text; there are minor variants out there and a history of rabbinic debate about how to preserve the text from corruption and deal with mistakes in copying. But in the more Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world there is no legitimate academic historical interpretation in the sense that Rabbis Berman and Shapiro are engaged in, attempting to ask how beliefs became accepted and to what extent they were seen as binding at different times as well as placing them in their historical contest.
The second community is the one at the Rationalist Judaism blog. There was a time when I felt very much a rationalist Orthodox Jew as opposed to a mystic, but over time I’ve moved on. I’ve learnt that there are ways of understanding mysticism and myth that don’t involve anti-scientific beliefs about the world (as I explained a bit in this essay I wrote for Hevria) and I’ve moved towards a much more “religious existentialist” understanding of the world that has room for doubt, uncertainty and feelings of distance from God.
Still, it does feel a bit like I’m burning bridges in a way, because the idea of rationalism, at least in the rather simplified version discourse on the blog where it’s a shorthand for accepting evolution and an old universe and being opposed to the Haredi kollel system, was important to me once. And Rambam is such a huge, towering figure in Jewish thought and Jewish history, sometimes seen as the most significant post-Biblical figure: jurist and legal scholar, philosopher, theologian, prolific author… There’s even a saying that “From Moses to Moses [Maimonides] there was no one like Moses” – it’s just a huge thing to say that I disagree with his principles, even in a very small and non-committal way, given that I was brought up to see them as the essence of Orthodoxy (and despite Rabbi Berman’s arguing at length that Rambam himself walked back most of his principles in his later work, especially the one I’m most concerned about, the unchangeability of the Torah).
I haven’t felt like a member of the Rationalist Judaism blog community for a long time. I was never a prolific commenter there and I have walked away from it at times from boredom, as it turned primarily into a prolonged attack on the Haredi world rather than a real examination of rationalist Judaism. Still, I feel like I’m walking away on my own, trying to find where I fit.
Beyond that, there is, of course, a fear of what will happen to me after death, but I can’t pretend to believe something I don’t believe, even if I don’t at this stage accept the “prophets adding to the Torah” hypothesis either, I just find it hard to fully dismiss. It just fits in with other worries I’ve had over time, wondering what will happen to less religious/outright atheist friends and family after death. I believe that God is loving and just and I don’t believe that good people lose out on reward. I also don’t believe that belief is everything. I hope that that means some kind of eternal reward in the next world, given that good people often seem not to be rewarded in this world.
The reality is, of course, that whether or not there is an afterlife, and who gets to go to it, is nothing to do with me. Still, reading these writers and other Jewish thinkers and historians makes me realises how small a place faith (in the Christian doctrinal sense) really has in Judaism, how much more focused on good deeds it is, and how present-focused it is. There is almost no discussion of the afterlife in the Torah, while the Talmud contains three stories (Avodah Zarah 17a and 18a; I can’t find the third story, I think it may be in the Talmud Yerushalmi Ta’anit) about people who have led reprehensible lives managing to attain Olam HaBa (The Next World) with a single good deed or moment of repentance, leading Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (the editor of the Mishnah, the oldest layer of the Talmud) that some people can acquire Olam HaBa only after many years of toil, while others can acquire it in an instant (I think I’m in the many years of toil category). Belief seems to play very little role in these stories, which are focused on kindness and repentance. I view them through a religious existentialist lens, seeing them as being about repentance, encounters with other people and perhaps with God (which is not the same as straightforward faith) and personal authenticity (an extended analysis of one of these stories can be found here and here).
I thought about these thoughts a lot over Shabbat, sometimes in a rather agitated way. Still, I don’t know if it qualifies as religious OCD. I felt that it just wasn’t as powerful and obsessive as my religious OCD thoughts usually are.
Still, I feel exhausted now. I meant to write this blog entry quickly and go and read, but I got involved, said a lot more than I intended and it has taken nearly two hours. These thoughts have been brewing inside me for weeks, though, so perhaps it is just as well that I got them out of my system.