The Ralbag is not the only “radical” in your book. The Rambam also comes across as something of a “radical,” especially regarding his views on prophecy and Olam HaBa.
Let’s begin with prophecy. The Rambam presents three opinions, and the interesting thing is that the opinion he dismisses as that of “ignoramuses” is probably the opinion one would form from a straightforward reading of Tanach. That opinion holds that God chooses certain people to be prophets. It’s simply a miracle; God can choose anyone He wishes to become a prophet.
However, Maimonides attributes that view to the pagan multitudes and contrasts it with the view of philosophers. According to philosophers, prophecy is basically a kind of natural achievement. If a person is morally perfect and reaches a level of intellectual perfection (and for Maimonides you also have to have a certain kind of perfection of the faculty he calls the imagination) you will become a prophet. It’s something that can be achieved rather than something that God miraculously creates in a person. Rambam advocates this view but adds that God can prevent somebody who would naturally become a prophet from becoming one.
Now that’s a surprising view because it implies that all the people in Tanach who speak to God are basically brilliant Aristotelian philosophers who achieved some grand intellectual perfection that yielded truths about the universe and God. But that’s not the impression people get of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – let alone Moses.
The Rambam also maintains that people must achieve a certain measure of intellectual perfection to enter Olam HaBa. Correct?
Absolutely. According to the Rambam, what is it about us that’s immortal? It’s our intellect.
So the Rambam believes that an extremely kind, pious Jew who remains ignorant of certain philosophical truths does not enter Olam HaBa?
Correct, which is obviously problematic given a more mainstream, traditional understanding of Olam HaBa.
What is one supposed to make of all these “untraditional” views?
Well, it’s a good question. I don’t want to give the impression that medieval times were incredibly tolerant. They most certainly weren’t. But it does seem to me that at a theological level we may have become a little less tolerant and a little less thoughtful.
Should we consider these positions legitimate Jewish views nowadays?
If they’re views held by the Rambam or the Ralbag, I would imagine people would hesitate before saying they’re not legitimate Jewish views. People nowadays who may say they’re not legitimate views might be blissfully unaware that those were views taken by people they hold in great esteem.
What is your next book about?
Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of religion. Nietzsche criticizes religious existence for being life-denying, psychologically destructive and symptomatic of a “sickness of the soul.” I’m currently working on a book with a British colleague, Rabbi Dr. Michael Harris, which will be investigating possible theological constructions that can be built from within the tradition in order to bring a “Nietzschean sensibility” to Judaism.