Religion in the Public Sphere:
Lessons From Maimonides
On a recent visit, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, Co-Director of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, utilized the perspective of Maimonides to offer a contemporary view of the place of religion in the public sphere.
Controlling Religious Passion: Separation of Church and State
One of the ways modern society tries to control the passion of religion, he noted after some very energetic davening, is with the notion of separation of church and state. It’s an idea that grew out of having a multiplicity of religions and the desire to create a society in which people could live side by side.
Separation of church and state, however, raises questions, such as “Why should I keep my values out of the public space?” “Why should secular values be ‘kosher’ and religious values ‘traif’?” And “Why should religious values be kept out of the public space when the public sphere is supposed to be a sphere permeated by values?”
“I suggest we’re facing a difficult problem in both Israel and the U.S., and any attempt to protect ourselves through the idea of separation of church and state will fail,” offered Donniel. It’s easy to act as if a place like Mea Shearim is “contained”. Yet at some point, you find that what you thought was contained isn’t contained anymore.
The Real Question: What Does Religion Stand For?
Instead, said Donniel, we need to engage in the question of “what does religion stand for?” We have to elevate religion—and that is a more difficult task. It requires us to know things we don’t want to know. And it may call for a vehicle that is not necessarily the vehicle of separation of church and state, but something more complex.
“We have to make religion something that people are not fearful of”, Donniel said. “You can’t do that through separation—you have to do that by diving into the discussion: What is religion? Who controls it? What are its voices? If you don’t have the patience for that discussion, you are asking for your society to be a society in which religion is impoverished. Instead, if you see yourself as enlightened, then share that enlightenment, rather than trying to find a private space for yourself.”
The idea of religious coercion, he noted, is not what we are debating today. Instead, the question is “Whose values shape the public discourse?” This is a different question. “With separation you’re not creating a space where we can live together—you want a space where I am out,” he said.
“I don’t believe that religion is any more coercive than any other value system, especially in Israel,” Donniel added. “In Israel, secular institutions “fixed” hundreds of thousands of people of their religious beliefs.”
At any rate, what you don’t have is a solution called “the separation of church and state”. Not because separation of church and state “lost”, but because the notion of a publicly neutral space which protects you is less relevant than it used to be. It might become relevant again if religion comes and tries to coerce the individual, but right now that fight is yesterday’s war.
Winning in the Public Sphere: What are the Values Religion Brings to the Table?
“We’re going to win the public sphere, not by removing religion but by asking what the values are that religion brings to the table, “ said Donniel. “We win by asking what values shape the public discussion.”
Besides, whether a value is religious or secular is almost impossible to determine. “You believe and I believe—these are my values and I want them in the public sphere, the same way we want values such as kindness in the public sphere. Right now there is very little intellectual consistency and that is why the question is elusive,” he said.
The one person in our historical tradition most engaged in this fight, said Donniel, was Maimonides. The core of Maimonides’ work was to fight for the soul of religion.
Maimonides: Living with Religious Tradition
He was living in a time far darker than ours, Donniel said; yet “I want you to see the principles he felt were necessary for living with religious tradition so that it could be a force for good and not for evil.”
Maimonides lived in Spain and north of Egypt, in the 11th and 12th centuries. One of his books, the “Guide for the Perplexed”, was written ostensibly for one person. “I want to go into the religious consequences of some of his work,” said Donniel, noting that Steve Katz would be providing a more extensive context of Maimonides and his life.
Maimonides worked to reconcile Judaism with Greek philosophy.
One of the main tenets of Greek philosophy is that the world is eternal. In other words, “God created the world” would be a contradiction in terms for Greek philosophers–a deficiency instead of a value.
If God created the world, then that would mean that before the world, there was a deficiency. And a perfect being—God—can’t be involved in the physical universe. For the Greek philosophers, God is beyond the world and can’t care about it. Whoever created the world, is, by definition, not God.
So we have something—God’s involvement in the world—which in our tradition is a great thing, which can’t exist in the Greek tradition.
Maimonides introduces a model which has great implications for how we live with religion in modernity. Ultimately, he rejects the idea that the world is eternal, yet he does not do it through a literal contradiction with the Torah text. For Jewish scholarship, this is revolutionary—to reject something for a reason other than a literal reading of the Torah.
Maimonides notes that we have a few texts that talk about God creating the world in time. We also have far more numerous texts that tell us that God has a body. We could, says Maimonides, reject the notion that God created the world, the same as we reject the notion that God has a body.
Maimonides: Text as Metaphor
Yet when Maimonides confronts a religious text, he doesn’t feel confined by the literal meaning. He offers a principle called the “Gates of Figurative Interpretation”. In other words, he introduces the idea that some things are metaphors.
Maimonides spent his whole life interpreting Torah, noted Donniel, yet he wrote that the fact that something is written is only the beginning of the argument and may not, in fact, be that meaningful.
Donniel examined the foundation of Maimonides reasoning: If you have something that has been demonstrated, by definition, religion cannot contradict it.
So the fact that God doesn’t have a body has been proven because if he did it would mean God was deficient.
Maimonides said that when you come to scripture you don’t come as a “tabula rosa”—you come with certain knowledge that guides what you read, and as a religious person, the extent to which you make sure that your religion coincides with what you know to be true is a mark of the superiority of your religion.
Literal or Figurative Read Depends on Prior Knowledge
So you can’t accept that God has a body since you know that that is false. Therefore all texts that say that God has a body are not untrue—they are metaphors. The job of a religious person is to be a selective listener to scripture; knowing that it is literal or figurative, depending on the subject at hand and your prior knowledge of that subject. In Maimonides’ way of thinking, you are faithful to religion by being honest about what you know and don’t know.
For example, after the golden calf incident, Moses asks God to reveal himself. God tells Moses that seeing God’s face would be destructive—God can only show his back. For Maimonides this is a metaphor that says “You can know my teachings, but not my essence.” In other words, we can know God through God’s deeds, we don’t really know God.
Maimonides further says that metaphorical interpretation is not an abuse of scripture, but instead is reading scripture the way it was written. How does Maimonides know this? Because he comes with knowledge and that knowledge allows the discovery of what is figurative and what is literal.
Maimonides calls for a metaphorical read when there is a contradiction with what has already been proven. When something has not been proven, however, then there is a need to listen to scriptures.
True to the Story
This thinking influenced his dealing with the issue of whether God is eternal—a Greek idea which he rejected. It is one thing to look at the text that says that God has a body and to reject that, Donniel said. Jewish tradition continues without God having a body; it’s not a critical part of the story. If, on the other hand, you get rid of the idea that God is involved in the physical world, then Judaism changes. Taking the Greek idea, taking God out of history, is to write a new story.
Yet Maimonides was also frightened by a God that could be perceived to enter history at will. Through his writings, he kept ideas such as miracles and got rid of them at the same time.
Through various texts, we saw examples of Maimonides’ thinking:
Maimonides believed that God intervenes in history through the act of creation overall, not any specific act in time. His perspective on the laws of nature is to remove God as an everyday factor, saying, in essence ‘If I’m dealing with the world of nature and you’re dealing with the supernatural, then we can’t even talk.”
A Non-Supernatural Interpretation
Maimonides point was that life with God doesn’t require the supernatural—you can relate to God through the natural and feel closer to God by feeling closer to nature. For Maimonides, the concept of God talking to Moses is about Moses climbing the ladders of knowledge. It is precisely by implementing your free will that you are doing God’s work.
Maimonides saw no conflict between science and religion because religion is always scientific. In fact, Maimonides would be afraid of a God who transcends rationality—and his God does not. In fact, recognizing metaphor means that the message is always true. For Maimonides the word of God is not a reflection of the ideas people should live by but a compromise reflecting what people can do.
Maimonides said that loyalty to the text required two principles. The first is that loyalty is not to a piece of the text per se, but to the whole system. The second is that the text has to serve as truth and anytime it contradicts truth, you are not sanctifying the text by abiding by it, you are diminishing it. You would be saying that the tradition is inferior. And therefore the ability to see the text as figurative is what enables it to survive. This is how Maimonides lived with scripture and tried to ensure tradition.
Interpretation is Key
Maimonides’ call for metaphorical explanation opens the realm of interpretation of text, which brings us back to today’s tensions between “fundamental” and less fundamental readings of religion in the public space. Does interpretation have a place? “As long as interpretation is possible, I can argue with you—there is a fundamental premise under which we can have a discussion,” said Donniel. “I can say I hear you and I disagree. If you say it is “written” we have no way to talk.”
Maimonides said that religion has figurative texts and parts of religion appeal to different types of people. The need, Donniel said, is to transcend your circle of believers. Religion is filled with complexity, yet it has to be transparent, he noted. Everyone has to be able to see the depth of your tradition. You have to go beyond, to the extent that the “other” sees you as having something valuable.
So the discussion we need to have, Donniel said, is not one in which my job is to protect myself from you and keep us both out of the public sphere. We’ve seen the result of this—each group has grown more literal in its privacy. What we need to do is have the discussion in which the purpose is the other.
So we won’t have people denying dinosaurs or Darwin—we will get people saying “How do I elevate my religious tradition to accommodate the other?” The more we expand the significant otherness of each other, the more interpretation comes in.
One of the reasons Judaism is a religion with so much interpretation and dance is that we’ve always lived among other people, Donniel noted. When you have to compete in the public sphere, you have to compete in the dance of interpretation.