Disputed Origins of Idolatry: Pre-modern Views (Part 1)

The origin of idolatry is a fascinating study in and of itself. Maimonides traced the origin of idolatry to  the pre-Diluvial era of Enosh. Maimonides writes:

During the days of Enosh, humankind made a serious mistake, and the wise men of that generation gave foolish advise. Enosh himself was one of those who erred. Here is what developed: They said for as much that God created the stars and the celestial planets with which to control the world. He placed them on high and treated them with honor, making them servants who minister before Him. Therefore, it is only fitting to praise and glorify them and to accord them with honor. The ancients perceived this to be the will of the Blessed Holy One, that they aggrandize  and give homage to those whom He magnified and honored. Just as a king desires to be honored by the servants  who stand before him. Indeed by doing so, they thought they were in fact honoring the King.  After considering this notion, they began to construct temples to the stars and offered sacrifices to them. The ancients would praise and glorify the heavenly hosts with words while prostrating themselves before them, because by doing so, they thought they would be fulfilling God’s will. This was the essence of idolatry, and the  justification given by  those who worshiped them.  Originally, the ancients did not say there is any other god except for this star. . . .[1]

Maimonides contends that  the ancients eventually forgot about the one true God. It was far easier for them to believe in what was visible rather someone or something that was invisible.  They assumed that all the celestial powers were vested in whatever representation they chose to worship.

Some theories dating back to the ancient Greeks proposed an equally intriguing theory about the origin of religion. The founder of atomism,  Democritus (ca. 460?-370? BCE), was among the first thinkers to suggest that the gods were nothing more than physical phenomena that appear to mankind, and only  “appeared” to speak. This belief arouse from early man’s terror of the solar eclipse, thunder, and so on.  The belief in these “deities” made it necessary for the ignorant, ethically stunted to refrain from wrongdoing only through the fear of punishment, and not because they regarded morality as essential for their happiness.

In some of Plato’s writings, the famed philosopher felt that the belief in gods were necessary, in order to curb human wickedness and corruption. The belief in gods presupposed there is an order to the universe, and if there were indeed no gods, then the order of the heavens must be an accident. [2]  Several other Greek and Roman thinkers saw a kinship between superstition and religion. In its earliest Latin literary usage by Plautus and Ennius, superstitio was already a negative term describing divination, magic, and “bad religion” in general. Cicero gives a concrete example, explaining that “those who spent whole days in prayer and offered sacrifices, that their children might outlive them, are called superstitious” [3].

For classical Roman observers like Seneca, Lucretius, and Cicero, and Livy superstition meant erroneous, false, or excessive religious behaviors stemming from ignorance of philosophical and scientific truths about the laws of nature.  Such ignorance was associated with the common people (vulgus) and with the countryside (pagus), so that superstitious behavior as practiced by simple old men and women.

In Cicero’s On Divination, the philosopher concludes that religion was useful because it helped to control human behavior and could be used as a tool for public policy; and in this context divination could be useful too (as when an unwise political decision was prevented by the announcement that the omens were unfavorable). To many of these thinkers, the ancients “invented” the belief in gods as “a noble lie,” a necessary crutch (or as an “illusion” as formulated by Freud) or simple and ignorant people to believe that these deities have the means for securing blessing and avoiding disaster. Continue reading “Disputed Origins of Idolatry: Pre-modern Views (Part 1)”

Thou Shalt Not Covet: Can a Feeling be Legislated?

Continuing the theme of desire that we introduced in the last posting, Judaic commentaries have often wondered about the famous proscription of the Decalogue: “You shall not covet” (Exod. 20:17). What exactly is Moses speaking about? This question has led many great rabbinic scholars to conclude that the Torah is not legislating a mere feeling; it is actually more concerned about action. Like many fleeting thoughts that come to our conscious mind in the course of a day, coveting is merely one feeling that our unconscious produces. Maimonides spells this point out:

“Anyone who covets a servant, a maidservant, a house or utensils that belong to a colleague, or any other article that he can purchase from him and pressures him with friends and requests until he agrees to sell it to him, violates a negative commandment, even though he pays much money for it, the Torah states,  “Do not covet” (Exod. 20:14). This is not the kind of commandment that would be subject to corporal punishment, for the thought of coveting does not involve a deed. However, once a person takes possession of the article he covets, “Do not covet the gold and silver on these statues and take it for yourself” (Deut. 7:25), then he has transformed the thought of coveting into a deed . . .

Anyone desiring a home, a wife, utensils, or anything that belongs to another that he can acquire from him, is guilty of violating the biblical proscription regarding coveting–-from the time he thinks in his heart, “How is it possible to acquire this from him?” and his heart is aroused by this matter, as the Torah states “Do not desire” – “desire “ is directed only within the human heart.”

Thus according to Maimonides, there are two prohibitions: the covetous desire and the act that is involved in obtaining his neighbor’s property. Some rabbinic scholars differ. [2]

Maimonides adds, “The moment one entertains the thought how to obtain a neighbor’s possessions, e.g., a  home, a wife, utensils, he violates the injunction against coveting, for the Torah makes it clear: “Do not desire….”  (Deut. 5:18), for desire belongs to feelings of the heart and nothing else. Coveting is so serious because it leads to  robbery. Should an owner refuse to part with his property, the one who covets may act upon his desire and decide to rob his neighbor of his belongings, as it is written, “They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and they take them; They cheat an owner of his house, a man of his inheritance” (Micah 2:2). In the event the victim stands up and attempts to rescue his property, the covetous man may decide to murder his victim, as we see in the story of Ahab and Naboth in  1 Kings 21:1-29.” [3]

On the other hand, Ibn Ezra asks a famous question: How can the Torah forbid a person to covet? Actions are surely easier to control, but how can one control a feeling? If one has a desire for something that another person has, is it reasonable to expect him to banish that desire? Continue reading “Thou Shalt Not Covet: Can a Feeling be Legislated?”

Rabbinic Altered States of Consciousness?

The subject of demonology has fascinated me ever since I first began reading scary stories as a child. In our culture today, the belief in demonic spirits continues to play a role in literature, movies, and religion. The recent stories about Rabbi Batzri and his exorcisms show that in Haredi and Hassidic communities, the belief in demonic possession is still very much alive and well–irregardless whether such malevolent entities exist or not.

In the world of the psyche, the imagination runs amok in our unconscious and conscious minds. Our dreams bear witness to this mysterious reality where the line between the real and the unreal seem to conflate. The Talmud actually has a pretty sophisticated treatment of demons. In one of the more remarkable passages of the Talmud, we find:

Abba Benjamin says, If the eye had the power to see them, no creature could endure the Mazikin [the “damagers”]

Abaye says: They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like the ridge round a field.

R. Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left and ten thousand on his right (Psalm 91:7).

Raba says: The crushing in the Kallah lectures comes from them.  Fatigue in the knees comes from them. The wearing out of the clothes of the scholars is due to their rubbing against them. The bruising of the feet comes from them. If one wants to discover them,  let him take sifted ashes and sprinkle around his bed, and in the morning he will see something like the footprints of a rooster. If one wishes to see them, let him take the placenta of a black she-cat that is the offspring of a black she-cat that is the first-born of a first-born, let him roast it the placenta in fire and grind it to powder, and then let him put some into his eye, and he will see them. Let him also pour it into an iron tube and seal it with an iron signet that they the demons should not steal it from him. Let him also close his mouth, lest he come to harm.

R. Bibi b. Abaye did so,  saw them and came to harm. The scholars, however, prayed for him and he recovered.[1]

Most of you reading this probably think some of the rabbis may have been taking hallucinatory drugs. This is one interpretation we cannot rule out. As we suggested above, the rabbis might have been describing frightening dreams or nightmares they experienced. We do not really know the original context that fueled these interesting discussions. In the spirit of open-minded discussion, it pays not to rush and invalidate points of view that we make find disagreeable.  Continue reading “Rabbinic Altered States of Consciousness?”

Con-Versing with Jewish Mysticism: Maimonides’ Understanding of the Mezuzah’s Purpose

Philosopher Moses Maimonides believed that superstition undermines Judaism as a rational belief system.  For him, the purpose of mezuzah has nothing to do with protection, but rather, serves as a didactic device that teaches us about the importance of making ethical monotheism a part of our daily lives. There can be no doubt that Maimonides would have considered the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s mitzvah campaign of promoting the mezuzah as well-meaning, but theologically foolish–and perhaps even pagan-esque, since it devalues the purpose of God’s commandments.

The Psychology of Amulets

Maimonides contrasts religion and superstition in his discussion about using incantations to heal a wound:

“Anyone who whispers a incantation over a wound and reads a verse from the Torah, or one who recites a biblical verse over a child so he won’t be frightened, or one who places a Torah scroll or tefillin over an infant to enable him to sleep, are not only included in the category of sorcerers and charmers, but are included among those who repudiate the Torah. They use the words of the Torah as a physical cure, whereas they are exclusively a cure for the soul, as it is written, ‘they will be life to your soul.’ On the other hand, one who is enjoying good health is permitted to recite biblical verses, or a psalm, that he may be shielded and saved from affliction and damage by virtue of the reading.” [1]

He further states:  The ancient Sages said, “Whoever has tefillin on his head and arm, tsitsit on his garment, and a mezuzah on his door can rest assure that he will not sin,” for he has many reminders, and these are the “angels” who will save him from sinning, as it is said, “The angel of the LORD, who encamps with them, delivers all who fear God” [Ps. 34:8].” For Maimonides, the rituals of Judaism serve one purpose only: to teach the worshiper how to become mindful of God’s commandments. [2]

For Maimonides, the power of the mezuzah, tefillin (phylacteries), or other ritual items rests in their ability to convey the meaning of faith to its faith community. They are not magical amulets, nor do they have holiness in and by themselves.  Maimonides took a dim view of men who, in his generation, claimed to use God’s Names for theurgical (magical) purposes. In referring to the writers and hucksters  of magical healing amulets, he writes: “Do not let occur to your mind the vain imaginings of the writers of amulets or names you may hear from them or what you may find in their stupid books, names they have invented and… they think work miracles. All these are stories that it is not seemly for a perfect man to listen to, much less to believe.” [3]

Much in the same spirit as Maimonides, Josephus, (c. 37-100 C.E.) also attests to antiquity of the mezuzah,  and speaks of it as well-established custom. Inscribed with passages of the Torah which emphasize the unity of God, His providence, and the resulting duty of man toward Him, the mezuzah is an emblematic representation of Israel’s belief and practice. Thus Josephus says in speaking of the mezuzah (l.c.): “The greatest benefits of God are to be written on the doors . . . in order that His benevolent providence may be made known everywhere” [4].

The Nature of a Fetish

There is an interesting anthropological term that may shed some light on our discussion–the fetish. According to the ethnology of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the term “fetishism” was used to describe the veneration of certain objects (rocks, trees, teeth, and so on ) that were thought to possess spirits or to have special powers. Such veneration is said to be one of the defining qualities of the so-called tribal societies.

Other thinkers argue that the “fetish,” refers to  “irrational” modes of conduct in our own society. Thus, for example, I. Kant (1724–1804) said that a fetish is any form of worship that consists essentially not of moral principles but of mere rules of faith. We might add that any faith can become a fetish when its participants merely follow the rituals without ever contemplating the deeper meaning of what they are doing.

Even the Tablets Can Become a Fetish

Like Maimonides before him, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (ca. early 20th century) recognized the dangers in transforming Jewish ritual objects into a fetish.  The writer raises an important question: How could Moses destroy  the Ten Commandments? Surely if one destroyed a Torah scroll, such an act would be considered sacrilege; how much more so with the Tablets, since the Tablets were written by God Himself!?  Rabbi Meir Simcha explains in his Torah Commentary:

“Torah and faith are the main aspects of the Jewish faith and all its sanctities, e.g., Eretz Yisrael (“the Land of Israel”), Jerusalem—are  only a means to an end, not ends in and of themselves. Do not think that the sanctuary and the Temple are holy objects in their own right. Far be it! God dwells among His people and if they were like Adam who violated the covenant, all their sanctity is removed and they become as profane objects. . . . Moreover, even the Tablets which were written by God Himself, are not holy per se, but are so only because of you–if you observe them. When the Israelites acted disgracefully under the bridal canopy by consorting with the Golden Calf,  the Tablets became as mere pottery. By themselves, they have no sanctity. The Tablets become holy only if it inspires a religious life suffused with ethical behavior.  There is nothing in this world that is holy except for God. Nothing in Creation is holy in itself; through Torah, Creation becomes sanctified and made holy. I wish these words would be written on the walls of every synagogue!” [5] Continue reading “Con-Versing with Jewish Mysticism: Maimonides’ Understanding of the Mezuzah’s Purpose”

Rabbi Ben Tsion Uziel’s Compassionate but Pragmatic Approach to Halacha

There is a tendency among most Jews to think that Halacha by definition must always lean toward conservatism. However, the historical facts do not support this hypothesis.

Modern Halacha examines an interesting question: Should we go out of our way to attract potential conversions?  There are serious circumstances where we should openly encourage conversion whenever possible– specifically when we have an intermarried couple. There is every valid Halachic reason to go out of our way to welcome the non-Jewish spouse and their offspring to Judaism. We have already examined Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman’s attitude and he certainly was not alone (see the previous thread for examples). Another great rabbinic scholar reflecting this liberal approach comes from Rabbi Ben Tsion Meir Hai Uziel, who later became the Chief Sephardic Rabbi Of Israel.

In 1943, the following case came before him requiring an important Halachic decision. The Chief Rabbi of Istanbul once wrote to Rabbi Ben Tsion Meir Hai Uziel, who was at that time the Rav of Rishon LeTzion. The Chief Rabbi asked Rav Uziel whether conversion for the sake of marriage is valid. Rav Uziel opened his Responsa with a citation from the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 268: 12) which states we must examine a potential convert to see whether his motives for accepting Judaism are sincere. Obviously, it would be wonderful that the potential convert for purely sincere reasons and certainly, the ideal is not to convert those who are insincere. Rav Uziel then goes on to state how intermarriages are common in the civil courts, and that we ought to convert the non-Jewish partner in order to free the Jewish partner from the problem of intermarriage. We should also do so that their children should not be lost to the Jewish fold.

But what do we do when the situation is less than ideal?

If we are faced with de facto case of mixed marriage, we are permitted to convert the non-Jewish spouse and the children whenever possible. If this is true when the couple is already married, it is certainly true before they have begun their forbidden marriage! Such a conversion could prevent future transgressions and religious difficulties. Continue reading “Rabbi Ben Tsion Uziel’s Compassionate but Pragmatic Approach to Halacha”

Did Maimonides convert to Islam during his youth?

Here’s the background information that should help clarify our original question.

Maimonides’ famous Iggerot Hashmad (“A  Letter Concerning Apostasy”) was written in the year 1160 during a time when the Almohades Muslims [1] forced people everywhere to recite the Muslim Creed. Failure to comply meant execution.

One Moroccan rabbinical scholar in Fez exclaimed that any Jew who publicly uttered the Muslim confession–-regardless whether they in truth practiced Judaism incognito—could no longer be considered a Jew. Outraged by this rabbi’s insensitive rabbinical response, Maimonides wrote a letter, where he demonstrates why this Moroccan rabbi  was seriously mistaken.

Maimonides considered the Halachic position as an austere  misrepresentation of Judaism‑‑and feared that it could only push Jews away from Judaism. The mere utterance of a meaningless formula could NEVER render a Jew an apostate. In addition, the Talmud mentions how even some of its greatest Sages–Rabbis Meir and Eliezer (cf. Avodah Zara 18a)–feigned apostasy in order to save their lives.

“Even heretics,” Maimonides argues, “were worthy of reward for a single act of piety. Those who practice the mitzvot secretly are even more worthy of reward despite the circumstances of their forced conversion.” In summary, Maimonides succeeded in saving an entire Jewish population by keeping the door to their faith open for them to return.

In contrast, the Tosafists (a school of medieval French commentators to the Talmud who were descended from Rashi’s grandchildren and students) refused to follow such a halachic interpretation. They held that in the case of idolatry one should be slain and not transgress, “even in the presence of one person.”

Maimonides’ maintained an optimistic and hopeful attitude:  so long as a person is alive and breathing, there is always hope that an ember of faith, if aroused, will rekindle into a mighty flame!

A Controversial Subtext to Maimonides Epistle

Maimonides’ liberal attitude toward the Jew who was forcibly converted to Islam may have an interesting subtext. Some Jewish and Muslim scholars (see the Islamic Encyclopedia for the bibliography) think that Maimonides was forced to convert to Islam as a child. However, at the first opportunity to return to his faith, and returned he did.

The source for this claim derives from an accusation a Muslim visitor to Cairo from Fez, who allegedly remembered Maimonides as a Muslim when he lived in Morocco. Thirty years later, the Muslim acquaintance was traveling through Egypt and was surprised to discover that Maimonides had become Egypt’s most distinguished rabbi. Outraged, the Muslim denounced him to the authorities as an apostate.

However philosopher and historian Allan Nadler observes:

“Maimonides practiced the time-honored medieval Islamic tradition of Taqiyya, or prudent dissimulation, by dressing and behaving like a Muslim publicly, perhaps occasionally presenting himself at a mosque, while remaining an observant Jew during the darkest period of Almohad persecution, which forced Jews to dress in hideous costumes and resulted in thousands of forced apostasies and deaths. There is simply no credible evidence that Maimonides converted, let alone that he was a “practicing Muslim.”

==============

Notes:

[1] The Almohades Muslims were originally a group of puritanical Muslims, originally Berbers, founded  by the Berber prophet Muhammad ibn Tumart (c. 1080–1130), whose followers arose in S Morocco in the 12th century as a reaction against the corrupt Almoravides. They ruled Spain and all Maghrib from about 1147 to after 1213;  they later took the area that today forms Algeria and Tunis. Their policy of religious ‘purity’ involved the forced conversion and massacre of the Jewish population of Spain. The Almohads were themselves defeated by the Christian kings of Spain in 1212, and in Morocco in 1269.

Maimonides’ Exposition on the Road Less Traveled

Commenting on the verse, “Now, when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the Philistines’ land, though this was the nearest; for he thought, should the people see that they would have to fight, they might change their minds and return to Egypt” (Exod. 13:17).

This passage has always bothered me. The rational given by the biblical narrator  is irrelevant. Had God led the Israelites directly to the Promised Land, there would never have been a revelation at Mt. Sinai!

Despite the obvious problems with the text,  Maimonides’  exposition is still spiritually suggestive and most relevant for those of us who find ourselves traveling upon the road less traveled. Maimonides writes extensively about the nature of tribulations within the greater scheme of an individual’s personal evolution. According to Maimonides, man is a pilgrim on a special soulful journey. Human evolution is slow and painstaking. God often leads a person (or a people) along an indirect route. As it turns out in the drama of the Exodus, the seemingly indirect path is essential to transform them from slavery into freedom. Rather than forcing us to change abruptly, God works within the constraints of our nature and situation while gradually shepherding and prodding us along the spiritual path leading to Him. [1]

Israel’s earliest experiences in the Sinai wilderness foreshadow the difficulties to come in their forty year journey. An easy and comfortable exodus would not provide the fortitude necessary to persevere through the enormous adversity ahead. Israel’ first post-Exodus ordeal thus serves not only to temper their faith, but also to strengthen their collective character. For Israel to recognize that she is wholly dependent upon God’s tender mercies for survival is the important cornerstone upon which her future builds. It is no wonder that the miracle at the Red Sea becomes a paradigm for all future acts of Divine rescue.

The timing of the Red Sea miracle is exquisite. If the Israelites take any other route, the splitting of the Red Sea is impossible within natural law. As with all the previous plagues, Divine power prefers to operate within the bounds of nature. The chapter shows once again how God utilizes Pharaoh’s stubborn disposition and weakness of will to ultimately glorify Himself before the Israelites and the Egyptians. Pharaoh and the imperial Egyptian army are destroyed, thus bringing closure to the saga of the Exodus.

Modern biblical scholarship views the text as a tapestry of traditions interwoven together. This view suggests that originally, the escape from Egypt and the sea crossing were originally independent traditions that were brought together later to form the present text. Regardless how the text came to assume its present form, the present narrative shaped the collective psyche as to how Israel would perceive God manifests His Presence in the subsequent history of Israel. The narrative teaches two other important lessons (1) God protects His people in times of crisis (2) God ultimately holds wicked leaders and their  governments accountable and responsible for their crimes; there is a just order that exists within the world, and ultimately it is Providence that prevails.

The Theology of the Carrot and the Stick

Step aside Pat Robertson! You are not alone. You have Jewish friends who think just like you do! Rabbi Avi Shafran, no stranger to controversy, blames the Haitian earthquake on Eli Valley’s comic  that appeared in the Forward newspaper.[1] Writing for the Aggudat Israel, America’s premiere Haredi organization, Rabbi Shafran comments about the Japanese earthquake that leveled Tokyo and its suburbs on September 1, 1923. This earthquake killed over 100,000 people. So famous was this disaster, news about its destruction reached even the small Polish town of Radin, home of one the most pious rabbis of his era–Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, better known as the “Hafetz Hayim.” This rabbi was famous for his ethical tracts on the laws of gossip.  Now, according to Rabbi Kagan, this earthquake struck Japan because of the sin of gossip–plain and simple.

Like the saintly rabbi of the past, Shafran goes on to explain that whenever a natural catastrophe like an earthquake destroys human life, God is summoning His people to repent before it is too late. In fact, Shafran stresses that such  “Acts of G-d” always have a spiritual cause–and in this case are directly related to the sin of gossip.

Illustrating his point, Shafran unabashedly writes, “The very week of the recent catastrophe in Haiti, a national Jewish newspaper published a comic strip featuring grotesque depictions of religious Jews and aimed at disparaging Jewish outreach to other Jews. Those are examples of anti- Orthodox invective. But ill will and its expression, tragically, know no communal bounds – in fact, the offensive comic strip seized upon intemperate statements made by Orthodox Jews about others . . . Had we only eyes like the Chofetz Chaim’s, we would discern that hatred and the misuse of the holy power of speech are not small evils. We would understand that they shake the very earth under our feet.”

As we mentioned in previous posts, fundamentalists of several leading faiths often share a similar myopic perspective on how God interacts with the world.  Is it any small wonder why so many Jews across all denominations find it hard to relate to such a vindictive image of God? As mentioned earlier, Judaism teaches us to believe in a God of life and should not be confused with the Greek daemon Θάνατος (Thanatos, the personification of death). The God of retribution may inspire fear, but such an Imago Dei cannot inspire a sense of security and healthy relatedness.

Consider what Michael Shevack and Rabbi Jack Bemporad cleverly and comically dubbed this theological view of God as the “Marquis de God.” Wanted: Dominant deity for submissive person—must be into pain and bondage. Willing to inflict human suffering in pursuit of satisfaction—humiliation technique is a plus. Sense of humor not required. Inquire P.O. Box G.O.D . . .

Get out the whips, the chains, the earthquakes and pestilence. It’s time for some good old-fashioned fun with a good old-fashioned God. Yes, this is the proverbial God of wrath—the Marquis de God—ready to show you how much he cares by punishing you, for the Marquis de God is simply a god who hates. This is a deity who despises sins and sinners with such a passion that he’ll murder in order to exterminate them. He forces his noblest creation to dance like a trained poodle on the brink of annihilation.[2]

In summary, metaphors of God may inspire relatedness and love of God; or they may cripple or even destroy a life of faith by depicting the Creator in cruel and sadistic terms. Indeed, the metaphors we use to illustrate our relationship with the Divine are of crucial importance. The time has come for Jewish leaders to make a concerted effort in purging these dysfunctional images from our collective psyches. A God Who creates the cosmos out of love does not get pleasure from  seeing His Creation writhe in pain.


[1] http://www.forward.com/articles/123374

[2] Michael Shevack & Jack Bemporad, Stupid Ways, Smart Ways to Think About God. (St. Louis, MO: Liguori, 1993), p 18.

Is God punishing the Hatians for its sins?

Is nature or God punishing the Haitians for its national sins? It all depends who one asks. Pat Robertson blames the Haiti earthquake on a pact the Haitians made with the devil sometime in the early 19th century:

Pat Robertson, the evangelical Christian who once suggested God was punishing Americans with Hurricane Katrina, says a “pact to the devil” brought on the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Robertson said on his “700 Club,” and that “They got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story.  And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ ” Native Haitians defeated French colonists in 1804 and declared independence. “You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”

How accurate is Robertson’s theory? Well, the Haitians did not rebel against Napoleon I, but actually rebelled against his nephew Napoleon III, whose reign didn’t start until 1852. The story is a total fiction. Moreover, if God has such a short fuse, why didn’t the Creator bring on an earthquake immediately after the Haitians  made this alleged “pact” with the Devil?

Of course, if such a God is determined to expunge sin and sinners, why doesn’t God go after bigger fish to fry, e.g., Iran or North Korea? Robertson’s penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time is hardly Christ-like, but instead reflects a hardness of heart worthy of Pharaoh; how can one witness so much human misery on such a mass scale and blame an impoverished nation for bringing upon itself the judgment of the Almighty? If the crime of blasphemy has any spiritual significance today, one could argue that Pat Robertson’s ill-timed remark may qualify because he sullies the Name of his Creator by portraying God as such a ruthless power.

Now, the members of the 700 Club aren’t the only ones coming out with such pronouncements of prophetic doom and gloom. Earlier this morning, I read an article that appeared in the Washington Post, where a Vodou priest named André Pierre, blames the earthquake on the Haitians lack of reverence and mistreatment of  Mother Nature. Pierre explains:

“The first magician is God who created people with his own hands from the dust of the earth. No one lives of the flesh. Everyone lives of the spirit.” We humans live in the material world, and other spirits–called lwa, or mystères, “mysteries”–dwell in the unseen realm. God created the spirits to help govern humanity and the natural world. The ancestors and the recently dead are with them. Unfortunately, there are far too many recently dead crossing over to join the spirits this week. When you cut a tree, in Vodou, you are supposed to ask the tree first, and leave a small payment for the spirit of the tree. For years nobody has asked, or listened, or paid the land when making policies or laws in Haiti. Farmers have given up since imported rice undercut their local prices. Whole villages left the provinces, and migrated to the capital, leaving the land behind and swelling the capital city to bursting. The people running the country–from within and from without–have abused Our Mother. She is doing what is natural, like a horse throwing a rough rider.”

Similar to Robertson, Pierre believes that the Nature (instead of the biblical God) is punishing its inhabitants for a variety of environmental sins. Frankly, both approaches seem to overlook the fact that God does not control everything that happens in this world. Natural law operates in a capricious manner, but God does expect us to ethically act on behalf of those who suffer.  In a world that often experiences brokenness on a global scale, we are each responsible for the welfare of our neighbor. The old KJV translation of the Bible still says it best:

“The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29). In other words, human beings are better off focusing on what is directly in front of them; speculating about hidden matters is not something anybody should engage in.  The ancient Judaic philosopher Ben Sira (ca. 2200 B.C.E.) offers prudent advice to those who think they understand the mind of God:

“What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength search not. What is committed to you, attend to; for what is hidden is not your concern. With what is too much for you meddle not, when shown things beyond human understanding. Their own opinion has misled many, and false reasoning unbalanced their judgment. Where the pupil of the eye is missing, there can be no light; and where there is no knowledge, there is no wisdom” (Sirach 3:19-24).

Did Maimonides really believe in a physical resurrection or not?

Maimonides’ position on the soul is very complex and this subject remains of the more controversial topics of Jewish intellectual history. Certainly in his commentary to the Mishnah, Maimonides includes the belief in bodily resurrection among the basic tenants of faith listed in his famous Thirteen Articles of Belief.

However, in Maimonides’ most mature work, the philosophical tract known as “The Guide to the Perplexed,” the great philosopher stresses the belief in the soul’s immortality and says nothing about physical resurrection.

One might wonder: How consistent is Maimonides? Actually, one could answer that it all depends upon the specific target audience he was trying to educate. For traditionalists, Maimonides endorses the standard orthodox beliefs that everyone knew. This point is visibly clear in his famous essay on Resurrection where he defends himself against the accusation he “denied the existence of physical resurrection.”

Many scholars doubt whether Maimonides was really being truthful when he composed his letter; others think the text may have been a forgery. On the other hand, Maimonides sometimes expresses sentiments that he would never publicly endorse;  the belief in resurrection could be one such example.

Maimonides reveals his most personal theological views regarding resurrection in his Guide to the Perplexed–not so much by what he says, but by what he does not say! If I understand Maimonides correctly, I think he never really denies resurrection; rather, he gives it a new understanding. Resurrection simply means that the soul is reborn into the world of Eternity after the body perishes in this world.

Maimonides’ sophisticated grasp of anthropomorphism and his rejection of scriptural literalism strongly indicates that the greatest Jewish philosopher of the medieval era also viewed resurrection as a metaphorical truth. One must remember that Maimonides was the first Jewish thinkers to engage in a process of de-mythologizing Scriptures, which often speaks in mytho-poetic language that can best be understood as metaphor.

If this conjecture is correct, Maimonides’ view certainly fits a more modern way of viewing faith;  briefly stated, resurrection does not suspend the laws of nature, rather, it refers to a metaphysical  journey where the soul returns to its original state of being. Physical death does not have the final word on the soul’s existence.  By the same token, Maimonides (and especially Gersonides after him) generally interprets supernatural miracles of the Bible in naturalistic terms. Natural law within the universe remains inviolate. Continue reading “Did Maimonides really believe in a physical resurrection or not?”