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Moses and Monotheism: The rationalization of faith and theological divergence between Judaism and Christianity

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 5, 2019

The Problem Stated

This article “Moses and Monotheism” is intended as one contribution within what will hopefully be a series of articles on the original schism, from the first century CE onward, within the religion of the Bible, a schism which led to the development of two systems of religion, one called Christianity and the other called Judaism.   It will be taken as axiomatic that the religion of the apostles (including the apostle Paul) was one Jewish sect among many, and arguably the most promising at the time.  It is not important what we call this original, integral faith, as any number of names could be suggested, such as the “church of Yakob (brother of Jesus/Yeshua)”, the “Mother church of Jerusalem/Yerusalayim”, the “Ebionites” or whatever.   For a variety of reasons, from a very early point in the history of the Jesus movement, forces began to exert themselves pulling the faith in diametrically opposed directions.

Over the centuries the systems called Christianity and Judaism became increasingly distinct and alienated from one another.  This process of divergence continued until, as some would maintain, the time of the European enlightenment (17th, 18th centuries CE) after which some movements towards partial convergence began to appear.  Yet today the issues of “who owns the Bible” or rather, has a right to interpret it, remains tense and chaotic.  Obviously the question involves a vast array of issues which need to be separated and treated in detail.  Methodological materialists will maintain that the salient factors were invariably those concerned with politics and ethnicity.  I don’t deny that these factors were crucial in historical development, however these essays are intended to be contributions to the history of ideas.  What, we wonder, was the content of faith among the various groups claiming to be the people of God.  To the extent that these ideas were similar, we presume convergence, while to the extent the content of faith differed, we presume divergence among the different communities.  Ideas have consequences.

Although this author is not a supporter of the theory of evolution, evolutionary metaphor has become ubiquitous in our language, and can be used with advantage to describe the historical movement of religious thought and practice.  In evolutionary terms, I suggest that the Judaism/Christianity distinction did not result from a sudden discontinuous jump, or what scholars call a “saltation.”  In tacit testimony to the weakness of the original theory, many evolutionary biologists today endorse a theory of “saltations” or punctuated evolution in which new species appeared through sudden mutation and immediately flourished.  Analogously, the split between Judaism and Christianity is frequently described as issuing from a once and forever bill of divorce, although the timing of the split (was it at Pentacost, or the council of Jerusalem…or as late as Nicea?) depends on where each particular historian locates the “saltation.”

Conversely, the view of doctrinal divergence found here resembles the older theories of evolution, which depicted the gradual separation of species over vast periods of time.  Although different in both substance and time-scale, the gradual drifting apart of Christianity and Judaism can be described in similar evolutionary language.  Possession of common scriptures ensured that there would forever be some common denominator within the Judeo-Christian continuum.  However theological and intellectual developments (among others) tended to polarize and distance the core doctrines of the two systems.  Judaism and Christianity were further apart in the year 800 CE than they had been in 400 CE, and further apart in 1800 CE than in 1100 CE.  This pulling apart of a common Judeo-Christian heritage and identity was not necessarily the consequence of animus or ill-will on either side, although it was certainly set against a civilizational background of increasing animosity.  For here I am not speaking of polemics between Christians and Jews, but rather doctrinal disputes within each of the religious systems, in which the victorious opinion nearly always resulted in a consensus which was increasingly opposed to the parallel and ongoing consensus of the other religious system.  To give a significant example, we can imagine a world in which the iconoclasts (“icon breakers”) had carried the day in the 8th c. CE among orthodox Christians.  However it was their theological adversaries, the iconodules (“icon lovers”), who actually won.  The dispute had little to do with Jews or Judaism, however the victory of the iconodules removed Christian beliefs and practices even further from those of Judaism.

Rather than being a simple morality play starring theological villains, the gradual ripping apart of a Judeo-Christian theological consensus was frequently the result of well-intended attempts to purify doctrine either on the Jewish or the Christian side.  Working with significantly different initial premises, the substantial gap between Jewish and Christian religious thought was accentuated as religious thinking became more explicit.  Thus notions common to Christians and Jews, notions such as Creation, Sin, Redemption, and Messiah, which from the outsider standpoint of pagans, witnessed to such a strong family resemblance between the two faiths…these very notions, subject to doctrinal analysis and elaboration, became the most divisive issues  of all.

One final, and supremely important caveat is in order.  This is not an essay on soterology.  Religions may “evolve” but the choice to give one’s allegiance to a Messiah is an either/or choice.  The best analogy for this Messianic choice would be from secular politics, e.g., an individual choosing or rejecting a candidate for office in the voting booth, which is a demonstrated, instantaneous, choice.  Conversely, the discussion which follows, according to the political analogy, would resemble the ex post constitutional legitimation of a particular electoral result, which might entail a discussion of political norms as they developed through time.  Thus while these issues are intimately related, the one concerns a single, instantaneous act, while the other describes a process transpiring through an extended period.  Furthermore, the first concerns the actions of individuals, and the second the moral and doctrinal consensus of faith communities.  Hence from a soterological point of view, yes, there was an instantaneous split between Jews who accepted and Jews who rejected Yeshua ha-Mochiah in the First Century CE.  Here however we are talking about the evolution of Christianity and Judaism into two separate religions, something which required time.  Furthermore, in this essay, I will not be focusing on the initial estrangement, but on the work of one Jewish philosopher who at a much later period of time played  a major part in sealing the split and rendering it irreconcilable.

There was no Moses like Moses until Moses

For my own ideosyncratic reasons I am going to highlight Moses Maimonides who can be located well past the mid-way point in the divergence between Judaism and Christianity.  Maimonides was a polymath who wrote extensively on medicine, Jewish law, and philosophy.  Here we will be focusing on his philosophical and theological opinions, and in particular his critique of anthropomorphism.  I will be supporting the thesis that the Maimonidean critique of anthropomorphism, whether or not it was consciously aimed at Christianity, had the net effect of driving Judaism and Christianity further apart.  As a result of post-Maimonidean theology,  today we have alternate taxonomies of Judaism within the field of comparative religion.  According to one taxonomy, Judaism-Islam represent parallel continuations of the primitive Abrahamic faith.  In the alternative taxonomy, Judeo-Christian religion is seen as a continuum based on shared scriptures.  Arguably the first view has attained majority status.  For example, Gordon Melton’s encyclopedia of American faiths, after starting with “Roman Catholicism” as its initial entry, places “Judaism-Islam” in its own chapter, unrelated to any Christian sects.  Such a placement is jarring to students who are familiar with the use of “Judeo-Christian” in American political rhetoric, but justified according to the Maimonidean reform of Jewish theology which was initiated around the 12th century CE.

Why Maimonides?  Like most religions, Judaism denies that it has developed in principle, while maintaining a scrupulous record of its own development, even giving names to the successive generations of rabbis who have contributed to the refinement of law, doctrine, and custom.  However within this smooth arc of development, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204 CE) represents something of a discontinuity.  Although many factors contribute to his unique celebrity within the history of both orthodox and extra-orthodox Judaism, his status as the originator of “Jewish theology” is the salient factor within the context of the present discussion.  Here too, the title of “Father of Jewish Theology” would be misleading, since obviously Jews have been arguing about theological ideas since the revelation on Sinai.  What is unique to Maimonides, and which shaped philosophical and theological discussion in subsequent generations, was rendering hitherto tacit theological opinions explicit.  Prior to Maimonides there was no attempt to draw up a Jewish creed with the kind of unequivocal clarity which characterized the Nicean creed of trinitarian Christianity.   The creed of Maimonides was not only first, but set the standard for similar attempts by subsequent Jewish philosophers, none of which ever supplanted it in popularity among Jewish communities.  Likewise  The Guide for the Perplexed was his attempt to hammer out precise ideas on a variety of topics related to theology and philosophy.  Since it concerned a leading issue of the day, i.e., the relation of science (a.k.a., Aristotle) to religion, it became an instant classic.   Today it is more honored than read, yet the effect of the Guide on both Jewish and world thought is incalculable.

Of the various chapters in the Guide, none have been more celebrated among both Christians and Jews than those which focus on the issue of anthropomorphism. Always anxious to distance themselves from what were considered the “crudities” of the so-called “Old Testament”  the Scholastics of the the middle ages were happy to find a rabbi who endorsed the allegorical treatment of embarrassing passages within scripture.  In the Christian world Maimonides was well received qua philosopher, though of course not as a Jewish apologist.  Since church doctrine was divided between Theology and Christology, the Scholastics were able to appropriate the insights of Maimonides in the former field while ignoring their implications for the latter.  The high middle ages witnessed the heyday of “negative theology” and many thinkers of that time were convinced that it was both safer and truer to define God according to what He was not rather than making any positive attributions to the Godhead.  In this rarified atmosphere the anti-anthropomorphism of Maimonides found great favor.  However this appreciation fell short of genuine intellectual  convergence, which was rendered moot since Christian anthropomorphism had simply, and quite properly, migrated from the field of Theology (“What is God?”) to Christology (“Who is Christ?”).  The former question was thought to be resolvable by reflections on abstract philosophy and the laws of nature, (“realism” according to the nomenclature of the time) while the latter question was only resolvable according to direct experience of concrete things and events (again, according to the nomenclature of the time, this was called “nominalism.”  Parenthetically, the Protestantism of a later time would grow out of this “nominalism”).  Accordingly, the insights of Maimonides were utilized in the first field and ignored in the latter.

In contrast to this generally favorable appreciation of Maimonides among the Scholastics, his thought became an instant bone of contention among his fellow Jews, at least in so far as they had strong convictions in theology and philosophy.  While respected as a rabbi and physician, no sooner was the Guide published than the Jewish world became divided between Maimonideans and anti-Maimonideans.  This philosophical and theological division persists, albeit in a very low key manner, even today, in spite of a general desire to paper over the fine points and present Jewish, or at least orthodox, thought as an integral whole.

The older Jewish Theology (a.k.a., Kabbalah)

What was so objectionable to Maimonides, that the publication of his tome would spark a storm of criticism among his fellow rabbis?  The theological clarification which Maimonides sought to bestow on his faith community was viewed by many as an innovation, not as a restatement of tradition.  The tacit, and in part underground theology which had characterized Judaism up to Maimonides was more or less equivalent to what we would today call the speculative Kabbalah, albeit a Kabbalah prior to the publication of its standard text, the Zohar, not to mention much else of what is categorized as “Kabbalah” today.  Indeed, it is perilous to bring up a discussion of Kabbalah in the context of a discussion of theology, since the very term suggests dubious and irrelevant topics such as mysticism, magic, and even occultism.

What is salient in the context of the present discussion, is that the older Jewish theology (whether or not we call it “kabbalistic”) had a much more flexible conception of the Godhead than was latter allowed for in the exoteric, post-Maimonidean, discussions of Jewish theology.  The God of the earlier rabbis was a God capable of corporal interactions with human beings (or at least with prophets, patriarchs, and matriarchs).  With the rise of Aristotelian philosophy around the 12cCE, and its tendency to subject all truth claims to logical analysis, anthropomorphic depictions of the Godhead were placed under increasing scrutiny by the “enlighteners” of the age.  Indeed, a parallel might be drawn between the enlightenment of the high middle ages and that of the 18th century CE.  In both cases religious traditions came under scathing criticism.

None the less, there were major differences between the Aristotelian enlightenment of the 12th century and the secular Enlightenment of the 18th century.   Unlike the latter day European secularists, Western philosophers in the 12th century, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim were generally pious members of their respective faith communities, who earnestly sought a reconciliation between religion and reason.  In some cases (Aquinas, Maimonides) they seem to have been satisfied with the fruits of their reconciliation.   In other cases, notably among the Christian followers of Ibn Rushid (Averroes), they threw up their hands in resignation, allowing science and religion to proceed on parallel tracks.  However all the philosophers of that age seem to have earnestly desired to preserve the essence of faith from groundless attacks of reason, or at least “reason” as defined by Aristotelian philosophy.

Naturally the advocates of the older theologies preferred a wholesale rejection of Aristotelian thought to a reconciliation.  In their view, the knowledge of God among the faithful was being threatened by  the incursion of a barbaric and simplistic rationalism.  No where was this reaction more bitter than in those Jewish communities which rejected the philosophical works of Maimonides.  While the followers of Maimonides fought under the banner of a consistent and philosophically purified monotheism, their adversaries held out for a literal, indeed super-literal, interpretation of scripture, according to “drash” i.e., flexible interpolation of additional information into scripture using a literalist method of extracting more data from the text itself.    Over the centuries this method had gradually built up a body of theological ideas, although these ideas were held only tacitly among the Jewish community at large, being handed down explicitly among a restricted group of tradition-transmitters (i.e., a secret, or crypto-theology, in other words, a “kabbalah”).

Much of this crypto-theology was couched in blatantly anthropomorphic terms, which bordered on the fantastic.  God not only had a body, but that body was said to be half again the size of the universe.  To give another charming anthropomorphism various aspects of the universe were explained as emanations from the hairs of God’s beard.  For all the differences between Jews and Christians, it is interesting to note that their respective theologians both agreed that God had a beard.  For the Kabbalists it was the cosmic beard of Adam Kadmon, the archetypal emanation of humanity out of the Divine Essence.  Likewise, for the Church Fathers it was the beard on the face of the Second Adam, appearing in history as Jesus of Nazareth.  Whatever else might have been at issue, up until the time of Maimonides, anthropomorphism remained a point of contact within the Judeo-Christian continuum.  However, it was only a point of contact, not a point of convergence.  Jewish crypto-theology (whether we call it “kabbalah” or something else) was profoundly synthetic, incorporating as much as possible within the Godhead.  In contrast, the Christian theologies were analytic, observing the aforesaid distinctions between Theology and Christology, eternity and history, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the nominal.

Yet for all their differences in both method and substance, Christian and Jewish thought retained strong family resemblances.  Compared to philosophy, or even the simplicity of Islam, this family resemblance might be summed up, for want of a more dignified word, as “messiness.”  The messiness of both Christianity and Judaism, with their logical perplexities and multi-layered messages, can only be justified on the grounds that we live in a messy universe with messy problems, and perhaps the answers to these problems require more than an elegant rationalism or the judicious application of Occam’s razor.  Furthermore, at the very heart of this messiness lies anthropomorphism.  Thus throughout the Judeo-Christian scriptures we find the overlapping and intermingling of the divine presence and human existence, often both depicted in corporal form.  Indeed, the Bible may be viewed as a textual tableaux suggestive of the soft, flowing figures in a Chagal canvass.  Moderns repulsed by Biblical messiness, like Spinoza, have tended to forsake the church and the synagogue, and hence proceeding to write their own bibles, philosophical manifestos which reconstructed the universe according to principles of geometrical clarity, lucid but dead.

In spite of some novel opinions voiced in recent times by a school of obtuse commentators, I don’t think the latter-day infidelity of the moderns can be laid at the doorstep of Maimonides.  He was an “enlightener” in the 12th, not the 18th century sense of the word.  Accordingly, his intent in the Guide was to purify monotheism, not abolish it.  His linguistic and logical critique of anthropomorphism is both elegant and convincing, and provides an excellent “donkey bridge” for the safe passage of erstwhile atheists into faith, especially those who are apt to be offended by the concreteness and particularity of the Bible.

However in spite of the brilliance of the Guide, like the noontime brilliance which can either illuminate or bring on sunstroke, the work had both positive and negative effects.  The rejection of anthropomorphism, by necessity, tended to distance God from intimacy with his creations, at least his human creations.  Of course Maimonides was aware of this, and in the context of his thought the intimacy of the Divine-human nexus was retained through an intensified emphasis on the prophets and prophecy.  Here we are not critiquing the philosophy of Maimonides per se or inquiring whether this theory of prophecy was an adequate replacement for anthropomorphism.  Rather, we are looking at the effect of the Maimonides-inspired Aristotelian turn in Jewish theology, and to what extent it further distanced Judaism from Christianity.

The elephant in the living room, so to speak, is that this turn towards rationalism empowered Jewish philosophers to present their doctrine as the purest form of monotheism among the three competing Abrahamic faiths.  (N.B., Maimonides had very different objections to Islamic theology, which are only indirectly relevant to the issues considered here.)  Conversely, this implied that Christian trinitarian theology was either borderline or outright tri-theism.  Without taking sides on this issue one way or the other (after all, there seem to have been some actual tri-theists in the history of Christian theology) clearly this newly rationalized Judaism found itself at an even further remove from its Christian cousin.  A clear cut monotheism now confronted the “messy” or at least difficult to comprehend, trinitarian doctrine of the Christian theologians.

In retrospect, how different this was from times when the various schools teaching a speculative Kabbala dominated the heart of the Jewish world view.  That was a world-view in which God could still be manifest through various faces (partsufim) according to the aspect of the world addressed by the Creator.  It differed from Christianity in one essential respect, none of the faces bore the name of Yeshua-ha-Mochiach.  As long as the old theology prevailed the issue between Judaism and Christianity remained a kind of judicial proceeding which the issue of contention was the identity of the Messiah.  After Maimonides this became less of a judicial than a metaphysical contention, thus raising the doctrinal tension between Christianity and Judaism to a higher level.

The motivations of Moses Maimonides

To settle the matter in a morally satisfying way, we need to conclude by asking ourselves whether this further distancing of Judaism from Christianity in and after the 12cCE was an unintentional effect of rationalized faith, or whether it was the intended result of a project initiated by Maimonides himself.  According to my present understanding, it was indeed an unintentional effect, and not a deliberate aim.  If we can fathom the motives of Maimonides in sharpening and deepening the philosophical understanding of Jewish monotheism, then we ought to be able to glean some support for this opinion.  Therefore lets look at some possible motivations.

First one must consider whether this distancing from Christian theology was motivated by the low esteem in which Maimonides held the “founder of the Christian religion.”  It is no secret that Maimonides held Jesus, or “Yeshu” responsible for setting in motion forces which led to the destruction of the Second Temple forty years after his ministry.  Maimonides “Yeshu” who is portrayed as a hasty and ill-informed zelot, is in some sense (at least to this writer) a more interesting figure than the effeminate and defeatist “Jesus” whom people sometimes misapprehend from church teachings.  Both are misrepresentations of the actual Yeshua-ha-Moshiach a.k.a., Jesus of Nazareth, who is testified to in the gospels.  However we can hardly imagine that Maimonides constructed his theology in reaction to a person for who he had so little regard or interest in.  Those particular individuals whom Maimonides felt either to be, or not to be the Messiah, is an irrelevancy here.  One of his primary objectives was to remove the issue of “Messiah” from the sphere of metaphysical speculation and make it a purely historical question.  In this sense, yes, he distanced Jewish theology further from Christianity, but in a broader sense he also contradicted the speculative ideas about the Messiah found throughout the older “kabbalistic” theology, and thus modified the criteria for not just for Yeshua, but for rival candidates throughout history, many of whom (contrary to Maimonides) viewed the office of Messiah as having supernatural as well as secular significance.

A second and related possibility is that Maimonides sought to distance his philosophy from Christian speculation since he disdained the Christian world as barbaric in contrast to Judeo-Moslem civilization of Spain and the southern Mediterranean.  This is suggested by the equivalence monotheists=civilization, polytheists=barbarism, where alleged tri-theism places the Christian religion into the unenviable category of polytheism.   Indeed, this was the consequence of Maimonides’ philosophy, both in what we would today call “comparative religion” as well as within subsequent Rabbinical law (hallacha) in so far as it followed his teaching.  However a consequence does not prove a motive.  While Maimonides viewed, correctly, European technology, science, and hygiene as inferior to that of the Islamic world of the 12th century, there is no evidence that his thought was primarily motivated by an attempt to refute or react to contemporary Christian teaching.  Oddly, one Christian thinker whom he engaged in a constructive way was John Philoponus, a theologian who actually pushed the boundaries of trinitarian thought in a tri-theistic direction.

The third possibility is in some sense an inversion of the second.  Plausibly, Maimonides was motivated in his philosophy to approach and apply the stringent Islamic standards of monotheism.  Indeed, the Guide treats extensively of Islamic philosophers and theologians.  However it is important to make a distinction here.  In so far as the muslim thinkers he references were philosophers in the strict sense (Aristotelians) he engages them in an appreciative, indeed an appropriating way.  However Maimonides’ treatment of muslim theologians is consistently critical.  While detailed treatment of this criticism would take us far from the topic of our discussion, suffice to say that Maimonides had no interest in simply appropriating muslim monotheism and applying it to Jewish theology.

What, then, motivated Maimonides to reject the older “proto-kabbalistic” Jewish theology in favor of a more stringent monotheism?  Fortunately there is a plausible and obvious answer to this question.  A stricter monotheism was mandated by philosophy itself, or at least “philosophy” as it was universally understood at the time of Maimonides.  It must be understood that this so-called “Aristotelian” philosophy was actually a synthesis of Neo-Platonism with the Aristotelian cannon.  Neo-Platonism offered not just a system of idealism, but a strongly unified world view, in which the cosmos was understood as emanating out of a singularity, a transcendent One.

Hence, out of a desire to unify philosophy and theology, Maimonides instituted a more stringently monotheistic doctrine.  Jewish thinking had always been monotheistic, with its ultimate root in the Shema itself, the “Hear Israel…” and its ensuing profession of the unity of God.  However the word for oneness ehad is generally understood to indicate a composite oneness, i.e., a unification of parts.  Authorized by this “liberal” understanding of the Shema, not to mention many other passages of the Torah, the older Jewish doctrine of God felt comfortable describing various faces and attributes of Deity, almost as if they were distinct parts, albeit combined.  Under the influence of Neo-Platonic philosophy, Maimonides posited the oneness of God as a singularity, an absolute unity that is impossible to analyze.  Indeed, a unity so absolute that it rendered it impossible to talk about God, except in negative language as “Not many” or “Not having a body” etc..

Within the confines of this essay I am not taking sides with either the older Jewish theology or the post-Maimonidean rationalism which partially replaced it in the 12th and subsequent centuries CE.  However I trust that it has been made clear how the older theology was much more compatible with its Christian counterpart.  Even today, superficial encounters between mainstream Jewish and Christian thinkers are initially framed in terms of the strict monotheism of the former and the loose anthropomorphism of the latter.  However when one penetrates beyond the outer “Maimonidean” layer of religious doctrine, the differences are no longer so clear cut.  Naturally, there are disincentives to immersing one’s thought in these deeper Kabbalistic levels of thought, in so far as deceptive systems of magic and occultism have been grafted onto the Kabbalistic synthesis.  However at the core of the Kabbalah is a soft, or “liberal” monotheism, a monotheism which allows for the incorporation of both unity and particularity into the Godhead.  Arguably, the remains of this pre-Maimonidean doctrine points back to a primitive theology antecedent to the split between Judaism and Christianity.  In that sense the Maimonidean reform, however well intended,  has for eight centuries blocked the way back to an integral  Judeo-Christian restoration.

Maimonides in retrospect

Since one consequence of his system was a further separation of Judaism and Christianity, Maimonides would be worthy of a critical reading on that ground alone.  However there are many reasons for giving Maimonides a respectful reading, readings which are not necessarily restricted to historical or critical treatments.  Ironically, the same philosopher who contributed to the estrangement of the two religious systems, may also be a rabbi instrumental in their convergence.  Maimonides was also an innovator in the field of law, being among first and most significant thinker to depart from purely formal transmission of ordinances (hachallot) in preference to their logical/moral foundations.  This foundational approach to Torah, which abjures thoughtless repetition of form for an appropriation of genuine meaning an understanding, is suggestive of the kind of innovation necessary to the restoration of an integral Judeo-Christianity.  Such a restored Judeo-Christianity is likely to take its stand in a space somewhere between the hyperformalism of Jewish orthodoxy and antinomianism which is rampant due to abuse of grace in the church.  If so, the influence of Maimonides, hitherto a force for divergence, may be a future source of convergence.




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