By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
One of the most interesting young thinkers in Israel today is Dr Micha Goodman. His books (in Hebrew) on Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed and, recently, on Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari – the two most important Jewish philosophic works of the Middle Ages, perhaps of all time – are still on the bestseller list in Israel. I’ve read them; the one on Kuzari I just finished and it’s this that prompts the brief reflections below.
Unlike Maimonides, who puts the intellect at the centre of divine work and human endeavor, Halevi concentrates on experience. He doesn’t reject the rational but refuses to allow it to overshadow the emotional. Whereas Maimonides is more interested in rational humanity as a collective, Halevi writes about the emotional individual, almost as an existentialist. The two approaches have remained central to Judaism to this very day.
It’s not unreasonable to speculate that both thinkers would have affirmed the creation of the State of Israel had they lived today. Maimonides would probably do so on political grounds, because he believed that Jews as a persecuted minority could not fulfill themselves, perhaps not even survive, in the Diaspora. Halevi wouldn’t deny the perils of persecution but he’d insist that the Jewish people – not just Jews as individuals – needs to return to the land of Israel because the land itself makes for sanctity and fulfillment of Jewish ideals. Halevi’s attachment to the land is for reasons of geography, not politics.
Whether they know it or not, today more Israelis are the disciples of Halevi than of Maiminides. Though one of the great popular exponents of Orthodox anti-political rationalism, Yeshayahu Leibovitch, continues to be an influence on Israeli intellectual life years after his death, those who claim to be the adherents of the particularist-nationalist approach are more numerous, more influential and more vociferous.
This is very discernable in the current political debate. Thus if you’re a universalist you’re likely to wish to affirm equal rights for all, including Palestinians. But if you are a particularist, you’ll want to claim special rights for Jews. As your universalist rationalism will strive for a political solution to Israel’s problems, you’re probably a peacenik who advocates the establishment of a Palestinian state.
If, on the other hand, you’re closer to emotional nationalism, your emphasis will be not politics but geography. Therefore, a two-state solution that would result in ceding parts of what you consider to be the sacred ground ofIsraeland the dismantling of settlements sacrilege. You may argue security but mean God’s will.
There’s very much more to the internal debate in Israel than sketched above, but not less. Even this sketch points to irreconcilable differences between the two. At present, the stress on emotion and geography has come to dominate. Settlers and their supporters, many or most of them religious, view the settlements in the West Bank in the same way as the secular pioneers once saw their establishing communities that are now an integral part of Israel. The strong move to the right in Israeli politics, including the ascendance of Naftali Bennet’s Habayit Hayehudi, is one of countless, to me troubling, symptoms.
Goodman deals fairly and sympathetically with both approaches. I think I understand him but that doesn’t stop me from finding myself in the camp of Maimonides. That’s consistent with my religious commitment, my liberal politics and my love of Israel- the faith, the people and the land. I know I’m in the minority. So what’s new?