As a liberally-educated, non-believing Jew, I always find it both intimidating and obnoxious when religious folk seek to stake an exclusive claim on reasonableness. It’s intimidating because those who mix religion and rationalism are some very educated and convinced people—only a heretic with degrees in Bible, Talmud, and symbolic logic (I have none of these) should expect to challenge them successfully. It’s obnoxious because, well, any person making an exclusive claim on reasonableness speaks as if they have completely rid themselves of the irrational—and frankly, this illusion of pure intellect makes them pretty pretentious.
It was with these mixed emotions that I read Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim’s (founder of www.mesora.org) epic Judaism: Religion of Reason. This book is a compilation of ten years of articles and sermons, organized into sections like “False Notions,” “Human Nature,” and “Mitzvah and Perfection.” As each chapter was written independently of the others, I recommend that the reader not attempt to read this book cover-to-cover, but rather, pick out chapters that have interesting titles, and seek out relevant chapters for the weekly Torah portion (Tip to the Rabbi: a second edition of this book should include an index by Torah portion). The author has some fascinating and surprising readings that will make for lively conversation at your Shabbat lunches throughout the year. For those who find biblical accounts of the sacrifices and Tabernacle (think Leviticus and Numbers) boring, Rabbi Ben-Chaim offers extensive metaphors that turn repetitive descriptions of ritual fabric and sacred interior design into symbols of God’s hiddenness and the appropriate attitude of man towards God.
The tone of the articles ranges from love of the Torah and tradition to concerned polemic against two groups: non-believers and over-believers. As a non-believer I felt alienated by many chapters, especially those in which the Rabbi portrays liberal Judaism from the Orthodox perspective. The Rabbi has no respect for non-traditional readings of scripture; see my review of this book on Jewschool for my full response as an non-believer. Of course, as I am a liberally-educated Jew, the Rabbi has many explanations for why I will not be truly reasonable until further appropriate education.
On the other hand, I find his attacks on over-believers delightful. I made up this term “over-believer” to describe adherents of pop kabbalah (think Madonna, red-string bracelets, holy bottled water, etc.), superstitious Hasidim (think throwing prayers into the graves of righteous Rebbes, amulets against the evil eye, etc.), and general dupes (think astrology). Most of the Rabbi’s polemical articles are directed at these people. His main weapon is distinguishing between literal and metaphorical readings of scripture, and he uses this weapon to show how superstitious practices are out of touch with both reality and God’s Torah. Exercising our human ability to reason (within the confines of traditional interpretations of the Torah, of course) should protect us from such nonsense. Although the Rabbi fights these superstitions in the name of God, I felt comfortable cheering him on in the name of science.
As a polemic against magical thinking that extends beyond the traditional supernaturalism of Judaism, I recommend this book. I appreciate his mission against magical thinking, especially insofar as mystical quacks use it to take advantage of fearful, un-cynical people. And while I find some of his interpretations of the Torah astounding (the original Ten Commandment text occurred naturally in the tablets?!), they are certainly interesting, and do much to convey the Rabbi’s deep love of Torah and tradition. But if you are reading as a liberal or secular Jew, expect to be insulted a few times—what else can you expect from an Orthodox author’s “Religion of Reason”?
P.S. If you want to see a liberal, Jewish, “neo-Kantian” attempt at the exact same theme, check out Hermann Cohen’s 1919 classic Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism.
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