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January 28, 2015 / 8 Shevat, 5775
 
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‘We Desperately Need To Get Back To Theology’: An Interview with Rabbi Chaim Miller


I’m not saying there’s a consensus in everything. For instance, one of the selichos has a prayer which invokes the angels, which [seems to violate] the fifth principle of faith. I don’t think there’s a consensus in that area.

You write in the appendix of your new book that “[t]oday we understand that [Ma'aseh Merkavah and Ma'aseh Bereishis] refer to Kabalistic teachings about creation and G-d.” However, Rambam clearly writes that Ma’aseh Merkavah refers to Aristotelian metaphysics. How can you state categorically that we now know it refers to kabbalistic doctrines?

I was writing from a historical perspective. The Rambam was operating in the absence of information. He didn’t have access to the kabbalistic tradition which he thought had been lost.

I’m convinced that if the Rambam would have known about the kabbalistic tradition, he wouldn’t have said that Ma’aseh Merkavah refers to [Aristotelian metaphysics].

But why are you assuming that he would have embraced Kabbalah had he known about it? Great rabbis, Rav Yaakov Emden for example, famously rejected parts of the Kabbalah.

True, Rav Yaakov Emden challenged the authenticity of the Zohar. But again, although the academic world holds that the Zohar was authored by Moshe de Leon in the 13th century, I think it’s universally accepted in the Orthodox world today that Rav Shimon bar Yochai wrote it. If you stood up in a yeshiva anywhere in the world and said the Zohar is a 13th century text, I think they’d kick you out.

You also write in the book that the Guide to the Perplexed is a “highly apologetic” work. Why assume it to be an apologetic work and not a reflection of what the Rambam actually believed?

There are contradictions between the Guide and his other writings. For instance, the Rambam famously says in the Guide that the scientific views espoused by Chazal are not Torah. They are just the science of the time, which is now outdated and you don’t have to accept. That seems to be clearly at odds with his statement in Perek Chelek that denying any part of Chazal is heresy.

Maybe the Rambam meant that one must accept the halachic traditions of Chazal as well as certain key, widely acknowledged aggadic traditions, but that one is free to reject aggadic statements made by individual amoraim as well as the scientific portions of the Talmud. Many Orthodox Jews, certainly in the Modern Orthodox community, believe this.

Maybe in the Modern Orthodox community. To their credit, they’re the only ones who are really thrashing out these issues, trying to get to the bottom of them.

The traditional Orthodox community I think has always shied from theology, which could be partially due to the influence of gedolei yisrael who said you shouldn’t study the Moreh or get too philosophically inclined because you might become a heretic. But while that might’ve worked in the ghettos, I think nowadays we’re involved in the world and if you don’t have a sophisticated understanding of Judaism, and you do have a sophisticated understanding of the world, there’s going to be a tremendous imbalance. I think we desperately need to get back to theology.

Young kids in our communities all over the world are getting disenchanted because Judaism is just a lifeless dogma for them, enforced by social pressure. Social pressure is not enough. We’ve got to have a vibrant Yiddishkeit, and it is vibrant in the books. It’s fascinating, it’s compelling, and it’s what drew me in from a secular background. I think we need to overcome this fear of indulging in theology.

About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).


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