Debating Social Justice, Pt. II

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Steven over at Canonist has written a thoughtful reply to yesterday’s posting about his debate with Dan Sieradski. I had raised Maimonides’ Jewish Aristotelianism as an analogue for Sieradski’s Jewish Social Justice — i.e. theological frameworks that may not be the actual essence of Judaism, but can be argued for using Jewish tradition.

To this, Steven replies:

Firstly, and most easily, Maimonides didn’t create an idea of a “soul” of Judaism, no matter how much he did emphasize intellectual perfection as an ultimate value.

Perhaps we do, indeed, need to think about what we mean (or what Jewcy meant) by “Is Social Justice the soul of Judaism?

I understood it as “Is Social Justice the point of Judaism?” i.e. is that what the game’s all about. Now if that is, indeed, what we mean, then I would continue (contra Steven) to assert that Maimonides considered “intellectual perfection” the soul of Judaism. For Maimonides, Judaism exists to facilitate intellectual perfection. It is the end game. Which I think is, basically, what Sieradski would say about Social Justice.

Steven continues:

Second, his emphasis on intellectual perfection, no matter how much it relied on Aristotelian notions, was still an example of working off of a Jewish tradition that very much valued such a thing, even if no one had developed a vocabulary for it — like Maimonides eventually did by borrowing from the philosophers of other traditions

I would entertain this possibility with further convincing, but I’d think one would have a much more difficult time showing that Maimonides’ Aristotelian world view has more precedent than Sieradski’s Social Justice. Steven’s right that the rabbis of the Talmud, for example, would have a hard time recognizing contemporary Social Justice values like gay rights, but they would likely feel an affinity with many (though not all) of the economic platforms.

In contrast, I don’t think they’d know what to do with Maimonides. In the Guide for the Perplexed III:27, Maimonides writes:

His [man's] ultimate perfection is to become rational in actu, I mean to have an intellect in actu; this would consist in his knowing everything concerning all the beings that it is within the capacity of man to know in accordance with his ultimate perfection.

What are these beings? They’re what Maimonides would call the “intelligibles,” beings whose DNA, in a sense, are comprised of levels of rationality higher than that of humans, i.e. angels and God.

As he writes in the Guide III:8:

He should take as his end that which is the end of man qua man: namely, solely the mental representation of the intelligibles, the most certain and noblest of which being the apprehension, in as far as this is possible, of the deity, of the angels, and of His other works.

Steven suggests that Maimonides’ “emphasis on intellectual perfection, no matter how much it relied on Aristotelian notions, was still an example of working off of a Jewish tradition that very much valued such a thing, even if no one had developed a vocabulary for it,” but given how radically new Maimonides’ vocabulary was (as the examples above show), I think this would be a very difficult argument to make.

Maimonides didn’t merely value intellectual activity. He valued a very specific form of rational perfection (apprehension of the intelligibles) that, I think, would have baffled the rabbis of the Talmud as much as it baffles us.

Posted on January 25, 2007

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2 thoughts on “Debating Social Justice, Pt. II


    Daniel – I don’t think Talmudic rabbis would find it all that baffling, or at least not all of them, and not for the same reasons they’d find Sieradski’s approaches baffling. Many provide statement after statement emphasizing the beauty and priority of learning and intellectual growth. It’s a culture that almost deified R’ Akiba, idealized Pardes, and continually endeavored toward additional knowledge.
    It’s no extreme break from the tradition to then apply some Aristotelian vocabulary to it.
    Yes, there’s R’ Shimon idealizing action over learning, but that just indicates there are two schools of thought (and perhaps some in the middle) here. And it’d be wrong to say that Maimonides doesn’t hold at least some appreciation for this school; he very much promotes praxis, even if it’s also just part of the means to that intellectual end (which is debatable).
    Of course, it’s also vital in understanding Maimonides to put these statements in the proper context of the rest of his work, which puts forward many other elements of reaching the ideal. But even putting that aside, Maimonides isn’t abrogating any Talmudic text, presenting a severely new reading of it, or somesuch. He’s filling in the gaps.
    As I said in my Canonist post, he was creating a philosophy anew, one that is rather tightly sourced not just to Aristotelian ideas, but to ones found in Jewish text when they’re available; it’s not for nothing that he’s said to have wedded the two.
    It’s impossible to apply some kind of test here to determine whether Maimonides was doing something that went against the Talmudic tradition or the Jewish textual tradition as a whole: find the parts of those previous texts that say you can’t make his moves. Over the centuries, I think we’ve pretty well shown that’s not the case.
    Sieradski’s not creating something new in Judaism’s silent spaces, nor is he tying into any previous hermeneutics. He’s taking a specific set of moral values and saying they’ve been Judaism’s all along, by claiming that certain attitudes in the Bible and other texts are more liberal than we’ve been led to believe in the past millenia. That’s not Maimonidean, it’s just reinterpretation of original intent, without anything more to go on than his personal feelings.

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