Such autonomy was made possible by God’s readiness to limit His say in human decision making and to grant the Jewish community the right to decide for itself how it should understand the commandments that it had received from Him in the Torah. Human reason, employed in clarifying and elaborating the halakhah, was seen as sufficient for that, without any need for divine intervention. Human responsibility for the conditions of life, moreover, was not confined to the religious sphere in the narrow sense, but included mastering the sciences and establishing institutional frameworks for alleviating disease, poverty, illiteracy, and other social evils.
-Rabbi David Hartman
Chapter 10, “Two Competing Covenantal Paradigms”
A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism
This may not seem like a typical description of a religious framework if you’re an atheist or an agnostic. Most atheists I interact with seem to believe that religion and science are mutually exclusive terms. Some atheists also seem to think that religion and the moral responsibility to alleviate “disease, poverty, illiteracy, and other social evils” are also incompatible concepts and practices.
If you’re a Christian, you may also take some exception to Rabbi Hartman, since he appears to be advocating for the idea that God gave human beings the ability to decide just how to apply the Word and Will of the Creator in the world. I mean, wasn’t all this stuff made absolute and set in granite the second God caused Moses to create the Pentateuch (Torah) and the other authors to write the rest of the Bible?
I ask that last question ironically.
I can’t even say what Rabbi Hartman is proposing represents the entirety of Jewish thought since, as we’ll see, there are differing opinions in Judaism on just about everything. That, by the way, is the point for today’s mediation, but we’ll get to it all by the by.
In this chapter of Rabbi Hartman’s book, he compares and contrasts the viewpoints of two of the great Jewish sages: Maimonides and Nahmanides. You can learn more about these two Jewish philosophical luminaries by clicking the links I’ve provided, but certainly studying the wisdom and writings of both of these gentlemen would not be a waste of your time or effort.
I won’t go into too many of the details Rabbi Hartman presents, but I do want to draw attention to one critical area of disagreement between Maimonides and Nahmanides that should resonate with some Christians:
Messianism in Maimonides is therefore simultaneously a heroic and a realistic principle of hope anchored in the eternal covenant of Sinai. It is important for him because it does not allow Judaism to become merely a private existential experience. Messianism counteracts the heresy of turning Judaism into a faith for isolated human individuals. It springs from the essential concern of Judaism with the sociopolitical drama of the community. It also expresses the dimension of Judaism that goes beyond the tribal and national framework, since it makes the Jewish community aware that Judaism’s fullest expression requires a changed world order if there is to be a reign of peace.
Nachmanides, on the other hand, uncompromisingly embraced the assumption that Maimonides resolutely sought to eliminate: in the messianic era human nature will be changed. It will be redeemed such that human freedom will no longer lead to sin…
Clearly for him, the messianic age will be characterized by a fundamental transformation of human nature. The problematics of human freedom will be overcome, as all will then yearn to live always in accordance with the will of God.
In reading this chapter from Rabbi Hartman’s book, I immediately found the perspective of Nahmanides very familiar because it seemed to echo the viewpoint of Christianity (and I’m sure Nahmanides never intended such a linkage). As least as I recall my own early days in the church, I was taught that in the Messianic Age, we would lose all desire to sin and would only long to please Jesus in a complete and perfect manner.
Maimonides, by comparison (at least as Rabbi Hartman presents him) believed that the Messianic era will be a time of social and political change. Israel will be the head of the nations and the Messiah will rule “with a rod of iron” such that the other nations of the world will obey his laws. Man will still have the ability to sin and perhaps even the desire, but the rule of King Messiah in Israel will be obeyed as God establishes His kingdom on Earth. Certainly Maimonides does not deny a supernatural reality, but understands that it works in concert with the natural mechanics of humanity and politics. For Nahmanides, the supernatural power of God simply overwhelms mankind and our very natures are changed such that it is His miraculous power alone that brings about His rule with no intervention by human institutions.
Why do I bring this up?
To throw a monkey wrench into the machine.
More accurately, to present the idea which may not occur to some Christians (or for that matter, atheists and everyone else), that there is more than one way Jews look at God, faith, Torah, halakhah, and the Messiah. Rabbi Hartman even confirms this:
To prevent misunderstandings, I must emphasize again that I am not claiming that Maimonides provides the only possible way whereby an observant Jew can participate in a return of the Jewish people to history such as has occurred in modern Israel.
Rabbi Hartman was talking specifically about the establishment of the modern state of Israel as part of the Messianic plan and the rather troublesome divide in Judaism as to whether Israel should even exist before his arrival (return) or not. I’m not competent to answer that question and, as I said before, my main point here is just to point out that Judaism isn’t a single, cohesive idea, concept, or religious movement. There are different focuses and perspectives in larger observant Judaism, many that contradict each other and occasionally seem wholly at war (sounds sort of like how different Christian denominations treat each other, don’t you think?).
Even though I am married to a Jewish wife, I am an outsider looking in. But if I can say that and live with a Jew every day, I can only imagine what it must be like for the traditional Christian with little knowledge of Judaism and Jews, beyond what is preached from the pulpit, to try to understand what it’s like on the other side of the fence. I think, as Christians, it’s important for us to make that attempt, though. We often “demonize” that which we don’t understand, and history has shown us that such “demonization” of the Jewish people has led to pogroms, exile, torture, and death.
I want to present this tiny slice of Judaism as an example that Jews are not a “type” or a “thing” or an object of any kind. They are a people. They are dynamic. Religious Judaism has many shades and colors and textures. It is even possible for Judaism to teach us a thing or two about our own Christianity. But in order for that to happen, we have to be willing to let ourselves become uncomfortable and to explore new territory.
I’m not talking about walking out of the church, far from it. I’m only suggesting that the next time you look at a Jewish person, try to see a person, a human being. If they are a religious Jewish person, try to see their faith, their relationship with God, their desire to serve Him, not just a collection of “dead” rules and regulations.
Judaism is alive. Jews are alive. It’s kind of cool, actually. It shows the rest of us that in spite of thousands of years of enmity between Jews and the rest of the world that ultimately led to the murder of six million Jewish souls, God kept His promise that the descendants of Jacob would always be a people before Him.
Jews will always be a people in the world and among us, the Gentile nations. If you love and laugh and hurt, so do they. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). Perhaps we should learn to do so with all of our neighbors, including our Jewish neighbors because of the ways of peace. If all people, religious and otherwise, could put that into practice as well, it would certainly be a plus.
Oh, I’m sure people who are more informed about the history of religious Judaism may point out my mistakes. But remember, I sometimes stick my neck out to try and make a point, and I don’t know everything (alas).