Sunday, January 17, 2010

Gedolei haDor - Bereft of Knowledge

Rabbi Mark Angel, in Maimonides, Spinoza and Us: Toward an Intellectually Vibrant Judaism, pulls no punches in his disdain for how superstition and anti-intellectualism has permeated the Hareidi Orthodox world. Not even such gedolim as the Vilna Gaon (whose words are "shocking examples of a defective, superstitious world view") and the Hazon Ish (whose obscurantist geocentric belief was somewhat mitigated by his "liberal" outlook in which heliocentrists are not to be considered heretics) are immune from Angel's derision, since they were so influential in promulgating irrational beliefs that persist to this day.

Although Angel expresses admiration for Spinoza's faith in reason, he does question the philosopher's overall approach to religion since Spinoza rejects "divine revelation, miracles, and providence." This, to Angel, means that Spinoza cannot "give the Bible an objective reading"! Strange logic, no? I guess that similarly, Angel cannot give the "New Testament" an objective reading since he rejects the resurrection!

One could, of course, argue that Angel has inscribed the pentagram of reason around himself while casting out others who similarly rely on faith-based notions: after all, Angel obviously accepts "divine revelation, miracles, and providence" which many believe to be nothing more than superstition and fairy tales. Nor is it likely that he would honestly confront whether his fundamental beliefs are, in fact, ultimately based on myth. Probably he would rely on one of his axioms regarding the limits of human reason, such as this prize winning one of fuzzy logic: Spinoza's "trust in reason ultimately is itself based on 'faith' and not on reason". Unfortunately, this and similar statements (such as the superficial "there can be no proof that the laws of science are eternal") only serve to blur the boundaries of science from those of faith. And, ironically, are often relied upon by the very people who Angel is most at odds with both religiously and philosophically (k'vitel toting Kupat Hair-niks, young earth creationists, red-string Kabbalah devotees, Meshichist Rebbe worshipers...)

Regardless of the above criticism (and this is anything but a comprehensive book review!), the following quote was worth the price of admission:
How could any thinking person have respect for the opinions of "Gedolei haDor" who are not only bereft of scientific and philosophical knowledge, but whose very worldview precludes an open and intellectually sound approach to the attainment of knowledge?"


MKR said...

Thanks for the report on Rabbi Angel's book. I don't own it but have read bits of it in a book shop and it looks very interesting. I am curious to see what Angel makes of Spinoza. That a rabbi concerned to drive out superstition would take Maimonides as a tutelary figure is to be expected. That he would set Spinoza right alongside the Rambam, even if only in his title, is rather surprising.

I can't help suspecting that there is some incoherence in his project. Does his promotion of rational and scientifically informed thinking go all the way, or does it come to an arbitrary halt before certain dogmas? I don't think he could be an Orthodox rabbi if he did not take the second option.

Frum Heretic said...

I think you hit the nail on the head. Angel expresses admiration for Spinoza for his rationalistic outlook insofar as it has shaped the process of intellectual inquiry. He does go into length regarding Spinoza's challenges to religion but - as you say - there is that "arbitrary halt" when the fundamentals of Judaism are concerned.

Nevertheless, one has to give Angel credit for admitting that a heretic such as Spinoza has much to offer the modern, thinking person - even a modern, thinking Orthodox Jew! (And for his catchy title...)