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Stemming The Muslim Tide: A Review of ‘Marked for Death’ by the Controversial Dutch Politician Geert Wilders

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Many conservative pundits write and lecture on the threat of radical Islam. Almost none, however, possess political power. Geert Wilders is an exception. Head of the Netherlands’ third largest political party – the Party for Freedom – Wilders is on a mission to halt Islam’s advance in the West.

In May, Wilders published his first book, Marked for Death: Islam’s War Against the West and Me (Regnery Publishing). In it, Wilders, as is his wont, ventures beyond the bounds of political correctness. For instance, unlike many other prominent politicians – including those on the Right – Wilders refuses to call Islam a “religion of peace.” In the book, he unabashedly writes:

• “Islam is the problem – and we should not be afraid to say so.”

• “[T]here are many moderate Muslims, but there is no moderate Islam.”

• “Islam…is a totalitarian system aiming for political domination of the world.”

• “[O]ur civilized Western culture is far superior to the barbaric culture of Islam.”

In short, Wilders is a breath of fresh air in a world that has gone mad in its attempts to reassure itself that 99.9 percent of Muslims are peace-loving citizens. As Wilders documents in the book, many Muslim immigrants yearn to impose Islamic culture and law on the West, yet the political class says virtually nothing. Those who do speak up are immediately tagged xenophobes and bigots.

As Mark Stein – possibly the greatest English satirist alive today – writes in his foreword to Wilders’ book: “[A]t election time in Europe, the average voter has a choice between a left-of-center party and an ever so mildly right-of-left-of-center party, and whichever he votes for, they’re generally in complete agreement on everything from mass immigration to unsustainable welfare programs to climate change. And they’re ruthless about delegitimizing anyone who wants a broader debate.”

Marked for Death is not a literary masterpiece. The writing is engaging enough, but thematically, the book seems a bit disjointed at times with Wilders liable to jump from Mohammed’s military conquests in the 7th century to the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim radical in 2004 to pedophilia in Islamic culture (it is apparently “widely condoned”).

Nonetheless, the book is important for three reasons. First, it contains a chock full of interesting information. Among many other items, Wilders writes about Mohammed’s marriage to Aisha (he was in his 50s, she was six); the Koran’s numerous anti-Semitic and violent verses; and Islam’s disturbing history of slavery (which amazingly continues to the present day).

Second, Wilders is great at finding little-known damning quotes about Islam. For example, Aldous Huxley wrote in 1925 (a tad too pessimistically), “In fifty years’ time, it seems to me, Europe can’t fail to be wiped out by these [Muslim] monsters.” A century earlier, John Quincy Adams predicted that the conflict between Christianity and Islam cannot “cease but by the extinction of that imposture [Islam], which has been permitted by Providence to prolong the degeneracy of man.”

Most importantly, though, the book is valuable because Wilders wrote it, and Wilders deserves every bit of support he can get. Thanks to his outspokenness against Islam, Wilders regularly receives death threats and was forced to flee his home in 2004. Today, he lives in a bullet-proof safe house under 24/7 armed guard. As Wilders writes, “I have not walked the streets on my own in more than seven years.” Perhaps that’s just as well since Muslim immigrants have overrun Wilders’ old neighborhood, Kanaleneiland, transforming it into a crime zone.

Wilders, however, is not backing down. In 2008, he produced “Fitna,” a 17-minute documentary on violence and the Koran, which generated enormous controversy. And in 2010, his Party for Freedom, which he founded four years earlier, won 16 percent of the vote, becoming the Netherland’s third largest party. Due to his influence, the government agreed to decrease immigration from Muslim countries (Wilders wants it abolished completely); increase pressure on immigrants to assimilate into Dutch culture; and reject elements of multi-culturalism, which Wilders blames for creating the Netherlands’s Muslim problem in the first place.

One need not agree with all of Wilders’ ideas. For example, some may reject his call to ban new mosques in the United States and Europe. Others may question the wisdom of banning the Koran in the Netherlands (Wilders argues that the Koran is no less dangerous than Hitler’s Mein Kampf which the Netherlands bans). Indeed, some of Wilders’ ideas landed him in court in 2009 for “incitement to hatred and discrimination” – a trial that Wilders says was a “farce” and “an anti-democratic exercise to suppress my freedom.” (He was acquitted in 2011.)

Humanity, Liberty, Rationality: A Review of the Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: Volume IX

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

Looking for inspiration? Read Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. This is my general rule of thumb, which is why I was thrilled when the ninth (and presumably last) volume of the Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Feldheim Publishers) came out a few weeks ago.

The two speeches that I had been told would appear in this new volume – one celebrating the 100th birthday of the German poet Friedrich Schiller and another glorifying the ideals of the French Revolution – did not disappoint. Indeed, they only reinforced my belief that Rav Hirsch is truly unique among the pantheon of rabbinic greats.

One of the themes in Rav Hirsch’s writings that has always struck me is his universalism – mainly because it runs so counter to the prevailing parochialism in many contemporary Orthodox communities. Take, for example, the recent open letter signed by a number of prominent rabbis in advance of the Internet Asifa. In it, they declare that the world revolves around the Jews and therefore theorize that the Internet only entered world history to test the Jewish people’s moral character. What about the rest of the world? Are these rabbis really suggesting that an Internet that affects billions of lives only appeared on planet earth as a moral test for one million Orthodox Jews? Apparently they are.

Rav Hirsch’s writings could not stand in greater contrast to this sentiment. “The God of Jewish Teaching is the universal God,” writes Rav Hirsch in an essay in this new volume. God’s covenant with our forefathers was “only for the benefit of all of mankind” (emphases in original). In The Nineteen Letters Rav Hirsch even argues that the “universal acceptance of the brotherhood of mankind [is the Jewish people’s] ultimate goal.”

Rav Hirsch’s ode to Friedrich Schiller is filled with the same universalistic spirit. “[E]nlightenment and…moral civilization,” he says, “are intended to be the heritage of all to whom God has given breath on earth. It is the seedling of this heritage that God has planted into the hearts of mortals, and the purpose of Judaism is to be the sunshine that will cause these seedlings to ripen.”

Rav Hirsch lauds Schiller, a “sublime flower enveloped in an earthly husk,” since his poetry contained ideas that “are now increasingly germinating in mankind’s breast, where they will eventually complete the enlightenment and ennoblement of all humanity.” According to Rav Hirsch,

anyone who emerges in the midst of mankind as a herald who knows how to employ the gift of poetry to inspire the human mind with enthusiasm for all that is pure and true and godly, anyone who knows how to make man proud to be human and to enable him to recognize his God in every breath of his existence, anyone who can snatch man from the dust to have him stand upright in all his dignity and nobility, is, in the view of Judaism, a messenger of God on earth….

I quote Rav Hirsch at such length not only because his rhetoric is so beautiful, but because the universalist strain running through these sentences is truly remarkable. Would that contemporary Orthodox Jews thought of non-Jews in such lofty terms!

Rav Hirsch’s glorification of liberty in another speech appearing in this new volume – delivered on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig – is no less amazing. Many contemporary Orthodox Jews speak fondly of the “good-old days” in Europe when Jews lived in shtetls and ghettos, shielded from the allures of the outside world. They believe freedom’s advance in Europe destroyed an idyllic ideal. They essentially share the perspective of the Baal HaTanya who prayed in 1812 that Czar Alexander I defeat Napoleon, fearing the freedom and concomitant spiritual dangers that a French victory would bring.

Once again, Rav Hirsch could not stand in greater contrast. To be sure, Rav Hirsch was not blind to freedom’s hazards and writes in The Nineteen Letters that he cannot welcome freedom if the abandonment of Judaism is its price.

Nonetheless, freedom, qua freedom, is an unmitigated blessing in Rav Hirsch’s view – “a triumph of Divine justice” – and the French Revolution, which unleashed liberty on Europe, “was one of those moments when God visibly entered history” (emphasis in original). In that year, 1789, “with a light that the world had not previously seen, and with a victorious power hitherto never experienced, the sense of justice triumphantly entered into the minds of men.”

Why Don’t Israelis Revolt?

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

The Middle East is ablaze with political revolution. Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Syria – the list of countries keeps growing. All is quiet, however, on the Israeli front. The question is: Why?

For 20 years, millions of Israelis have opposed “land for peace.” In 1996 they voted for Benjamin Netanyahu assuming he would abandon the policy; in 2001, they voted for Ariel Sharon for the same reason. But to no end. In the name of “peace,” one prime minister after another has continued shoving left-wing policies down the population’s collective throat.

And yet there is no peace. Terror? Yes. Shame? Yes. But certainly no peace.

Astonishingly, though, Israel’s leaders refuse to let go of their “land for peace” chimera. Netanyahu entrances many Jews with masterful speeches before Congress and the UN, but the fact is that he – just as much as President Obama – envisions a judenrein Palestinian state in most of the West Bank in the near future. This is the bitter truth and anyone who is honest with himself knows it.

Why, then, do Israelis tolerate it? What normal nation would continue to live under a government committed to surrendering the heartland of the country to its sworn enemy? What normal nation would continue to live under a government that has let 10,000 – 10,000! – rockets rain down on its cities in the past few years? What normal nation would sit passively as its government released 1,000 terrorists in exchange for one soldier?

Sure, Israelis protest. Some of them are currently protesting social and economic inequality, and for years some of them have protested ceding land to the Arabs. But peaceful protests in Israel generally accomplish nothing. Roughly three percent of Israel’s population – 200,000 Israelis – protested the Gaza Disengagement in 2005. Three percent of America’s population amounts to nine million people. Can you imagine what a nine-million man march on Washington would achieve? In Israel, its equivalent made no impression.

Despite their political failures, many right-wing Israelis declare, “It will be good,” and go on with their business. But as Rabbi Meir Kahane used to say, “It will not be good unless we make it good.”

Some Jews, based on their reading of certain biblical prophecies, believe Israel will survive forever – no matter what. But many Jews believed the Gaza Disengagement would never, for theological reasons, come to pass. Look where that belief got them.

Besides, is mere survival sufficient? Do Israelis really want to live in a country without the Temple Mount and the West Bank, which will almost certainly belong to the Arabs in a few decades’ time if current trends continue? Do they really want to live in a country where terrorism is accepted as an inevitable part of daily life – much like sunrise and sunset? Do they really want to live in a country that takes a structure like beautiful, modest Kever Rachel and converts it into a fortress?

Many Jews argue that revolt is unthinkable. But is it? Earlier this year, leftist columnist Merav Michaeli penned an article in Haaretz titled “Why There’s No Revolution in Israel” in which she argued that leftists are “yearning for a revolution.” Right-wing Israelis typically condemn radical leftists. But instead of denouncing them, why not appropriate their tactics and radicalism for their own ends?

When in Jewish history have Jews shied away from rising up in righteous wrath when the hour called for it? The Bible records many such incidents (see Joshua 22 and Judges 20 for just two examples), and the Chanukah saga began when Matityahu, the father of Judah the Maccabee, murdered a Jewish Hellenist in cold blood.

Orthodox Homosexuals And The Pursuit Of Self-Indulgence

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

Recently, while doing research for a news article I was writing for The Jewish Press, I found myself watching a YouTube clip concerning Jewish homosexuals. About two minutes into the clip, my heart suddenly dropped. There speaking on my computer screen was a young man I had once known as a sweet frum boy. Today – as I discovered from the YouTube video – he is an open homosexual.

I don’t know when this young man – I’ll call him Dovid – declared himself a homosexual. As I watched the clip, my mind wandered back to the summer I served as his waiter in camp; when I took him around an amusement park on the camp’s grand trip; when he looked to me as his anchor as he dared go on his first roller coaster.

Seeing him speak shamelessly as a homosexual on YouTube pained me. “Why?” I asked Dovid’s image on my computer screen, as if he could somehow hear me. “Why must you publicize your orientation for the whole world to know?”

Being attracted to other men while growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community must be difficult for any young male. And keeping one’s struggles private can be lonely and depressing. But are closeted homosexuals the only ones who struggle in solitude and silence? Don’t tens of thousands of Orthodox teenagers and young adults – to say nothing of older men and women who never married – struggle silently with their attraction to the opposite sex?

For so many issues, one can attend lectures that offer chizuk and advice. Hardly any for this issue. In so many areas of life one can discuss personal difficulties with friends. Not in this area. Some individuals hint at their struggles to a particular rebbe to whom they feel close, and here and there one may also encounter allusions to this topic in various sefarim. By and large, though, unmarried heterosexual Orthodox Jews suffer in solitude.

But do those Jews complain? Do Catholic priests, the overwhelming majority of whom remain celibate their entire lives, complain? No. They wage their internal battles quietly, recognizing that not every topic need be discussed openly and not every feeling need be publicized and validated.

Why, then, can’t Orthodox homosexuals do the same? Why can’t they struggle silently and heroically as do so many others?

Instead of complaining that no one understands them, why can’t they see their battle as an opportunity to reach unique levels of righteousness? Most contemporary Jewish thinkers view marital relations positively, but Judaism has always had an ascetic streak as well. The Rambam’s son, Rabbeinu Avraham, seems to extol the Talmudic sage Ben Azzai and the prophets Eliyahu and Elisha who never married (see chapters 10-12 in his Hamaspik L’Ovdei Hashem). Moshe Rabbeinu of course did marry, but according to the Talmud he never knew his wife intimately after spending 40 days and nights in communion with God. According to this line of thinking, those Jews who find it impossible to marry a woman can arguably reach levels of holiness unattainable by others.

But many Orthodox homosexuals seem uninterested in attaining spiritual greatness or in struggling with their feelings like so many of their brethren. Instead, they declare that we must recognize them. We must acknowledge their desires. We must affirm their feelings.

Why do they demand this recognition?

No single explanation provides a full answer, but contemporary culture deserves a large share of the blame. We live in a self-centered society where the only thing that matters is “me” and “my feelings.” Duty is passé. An emotionally stable life has replaced the well-lived life as man’s highest goal. As Federal Judge Janice Rogers Brown once said, “To be or not to be is no longer the question. The question is: How do you feel?”

And if subjective feelings rather than objective truth are of paramount importance, why shouldn’t homosexuals tell the whole world about their innermost desires? “Why should I hide a part of myself?” they ask. “It’s me. It’s who I am.”

Jewish thought teaches one to be embarrassed of one’s failings, to hide one’s flaws from man and God, to repress one’s base characteristics and desires. To be holy, according to many Jewish thinkers (see, for example, Rashi on Leviticus 19:2), is to avoid prohibited sexual thoughts and deeds. Not for naught did God seal His covenant with the Jewish people with the bris milah. “This is the summons the seal of Abraham brings to you – stifle animal desires at their outset, stifle them at their birth,” writes Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his Horeb. “To keep this seal of the covenant as something holy is fundamental to the eternity of [the Jewish] people.”

Is ‘Jewish’ Parenting Lax?

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Yale Professor Amy Chua – “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” – has inflamed passions across the country. The blogosphere is ablaze while The New York Times, Newsweek, Time and hundreds of other news outlets have run articles and often angry opinion pieces debating the wisdom of Chua’s authoritarian – some argue abusive – parenting tactics.

Excerpted from her new book, Battle Hymn to the Tiger Mother, the article argues that Western parents are far too indulgent of their children’s desires. Chua’s own children were not allowed to watch TV, play computer games, get anything other than an A in school, be anything other than the number-one student in every subject (except gym and drama), or play any instrument other than piano or violin – which they had to play whether they wanted to or not.

Chua ackowledges, “The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable – even legally actionable – to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, ‘Hey fatty – lose some weight.’ By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of ‘health’ and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image.”

According to Chua, “Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem. They worry about how their children will feel if they fail at something, and they constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test or at a recital. In other words, Western parents are concerned about their children’s psyches. Chinese parents aren’t. They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.”

Interestingly, amid all the debate regarding Chua’s parenting model, some have argued that people should look to the Jewish community for a paradigm of successful parenting that churns out successful and happy adults. How would one describe this model? Liberal and permissive, they claim.

“Do we [Jews] ascribe to more lax, permissive parenting that’s wrapped in Jewish-mom guilt?” asks Wendy Sachs on the Huffington Post in reaction to Chua’s article. “Without a doubt,” she answers, boasting that Jewish kids routinely talk back to their elders.

On another blog, George Mason law professor David Bernstein argues that “Jewish parents are known for their permissive parenting [a]nd Jewish kids seem to do alright.”

And in an article titled, “Why Chinese Mothers are not Superior,” entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky argues that Jewish parents “spoil” their children and if they “get a bad grade [their parents] go and fight it out with the teacher.”

I frankly was quite surprised to learn that people consider Jewish parenting to be lax and permissive. Certainly traditional Jewish teachings would not give one this impression. Proverbs, for instance, famously declares, “Spare the rod, hate the child” (13:24) and “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him” (22:15). Indeed, the sentiment expressed in these verses is so embedded in Judaism that Jewish law does not treat a father or teacher who accidentally kills his child or pupil while disciplining him as a murderer.

Nor do biblical heroes exhibit much in the way of permissive parenting. Sarah advices Abraham to banish his son Ishmael and God agrees with her. Jacob curses two of his children on his deathbed – hardly the act of a fawning parent. King David may be an exception, but not a laudatory one. Indeed, the book of I Kingsimplicitly blames David for Adonijah’s attempt to seize the throne. Why was he at fault? Because “[David] never distressed [his son Adonijah] by asking him, ‘Why have you have done such and such?’” In other words, he spoiled him.

Writing about parenting, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argues that if one wants one’s child to “subordinate his likes and dislikes to a higher authority” – the basis of all of Judaism – then one must start training him at an early age. Hence, Rav Hirsch exhorts parents:

Train your child, from the very first year of his life, to obey any reasonable order you may give him.

Gradually and firmly break him, as early as possible, of the habit of staging outbursts of impatience or temper tantrums in order to obtain something you have denied him because it would not be proper or good for him.

What Would Meir Kahane Do?

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

Although Israel’s economy stands strong amid a world recession, the political future of the Jewish state has perhaps never looked bleaker. Iran’s nuclear threat looms large, Israel’s West Bank settlements may soon become part of a Palestinian state, and Jerusalem stands threatened with division.

While Arab terrorists have only killed a handful of Jews in Israel this past year, true security still eludes most of the country as Katyusha rocket attacks, road ambushes, stabbings, kidnappings and random shootings continue to occur on at least a semi-regular basis.

This past week marked the 20th anniversary of Meir Kahane’s assassination. What would this man – the hero of so many Jews (and, admittedly, the villain of many others) – do if he were alive today?

First, he would rail against the status quo. The terrorizing and killing of Jews in the Jewish state was both a moral and religious abomination in his eyes. “For this we came home to Zion?” he asked sardonically.

As he wrote in his final book, Israel: Revolution or Referendum, “The bitter truth is that the Jew is afraid in larger and larger areas of his own state. And the bitterer truth is that the Arab is not. There is no area in the land, no part of Israel that Arabs avoid. They fear going nowhere – at any time, day or night.”

For Kahane, tolerating terror rather than crushing it and expelling nationalistic Arabs from the country was not only humiliating but suicidal. No matter how well Israel treats its Arab residents, Kahane predicted they would always be “barbs in your eyes and thorns in your side” (Numbers 33:55) and ultimately destroy the Jewish state. Neither Labor nor Likud, however, saw matters this way, and so Kahane resolved to become prime minister and bring peace to the Middle East in his own fashion.

But in 1988, Kahane’s increasingly popular Kach party was deemed racist and outlawed. To some, this development spelled the death sentence for the political advancement of Kahane’s ideas. Indeed, many of his followers and admirers today absent themselves from active politics. They sit on the sideline, bewailing Israel’s condition while hoping for a miracle.

But resignation was not in Kahane’s blood. Four months after his expulsion from the Knesset, Kahane had this to say to a reporter who asked him what his plans for the future were: “I’m trying to become prime minister. It’s that simple . I believe that the Jewish people has got to understand that if it doesn’t do the kinds of things that I say, that the state of Israel itself faces the absolute apex of tragedy and that is extinction.”

Many disagree with Kahane. Many believe Israel will escape its present mess by signing a peace deal that will mollify its enemies. Many people also assume that peace deal or not, Israel will survive long into the future.

But is a true peace deal really likely? And is Israel’s future really so certain? Can it continue to survive decade after decade with the likes of Olmert, Barak, Livni, and Netanyahu at the helm?

Kahane, for one, didn’t think so. In the last two years of his life he urged people to demand a referendum that would, in part, call for new elections in which Kach would be eligible to run. If the government refused to hold this referendum, Kahane predicted “rallies and demands and sit-downs and protests and riots.” A government, Kahane declared, that denies hundreds of thousands of voters a democratic voice is essentially bringing violence upon itself.

More important, Kahane questioned the very legitimacy of Israel’s government in light of its failure to protect Jews from Arab terror. Borrowing from the works of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau and others, Kahane repeatedly wrote in his last book (published several months before his assassination), “The most fundamental obligation of government – the source of its legitimacy and right to rule over people – is its responsibility to guarantee the lives and safety of its citizens. If it either cannot or will not fulfill that obligation, it faces the loss of its moral and legal right of authority.”

Writing at the height of the first Intifada, Kahane asked, “Is it not legitimate to challenge an Authority which is either unable or unwilling to put an end to a terror that takes the lives of its citizens and that threatens the very existence of the state?”

Did The Rambam Really Say That? – An Interview With Professor Daniel Rynhold

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Professor Daniel Rynhold may teach modern Jewish philosophy, but his recently published book is titled, An Introduction to Medieval Jewish Philosophy.

At the behest of the book’s publisher, Palgrave MacMillan, Rynhold authored a primer for laymen on some of the main issues discussed in such famous medieval Jewish philosophical works as Rav Sadia Gaon’s Emunot Vedeot, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s Kuzari, Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim, and Ralbag’s Milchamot Hashem.

A lecturer at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, Rynhold previously wrote Two Models of Jewish Philosophy: Justifying One’s Practices (Oxford University Press, 2005) and serves on the editorial boards of Le’ela and the Journal of the London School of Jewish Studies.

The Jewish Press recently spoke with him.

The Jewish Press: What’s your background? How did you wind up becoming a professor of Jewish philosophy?

Rynhold: Between high school and university I spent a year in Israel at a yeshiva called Hakibbutz Hadati, and there was a shiur there on the Kuzari. The person teaching it was a rationalist, so he was also teaching us, simultaneously, Maimonides’s problems with the Kuzari.

I had never before encountered Jewish philosophy, and I was fascinated by this shiur. It changed my career direction. I was holding a place at Cambridge to study natural sciences and, literally, as a result of this shiur, I decided I didn’t want to be a scientist. I wanted to study and teach Jewish philosophy. So I decided to pursue a philosophy degree at Cambridge.

In An Introduction to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, you discuss a lot of controversial issues. For instance, although almost every Jew assumes that creation ex nihilo (something from nothing) is a fundamental Jewish belief, the Ralbag, in fact, holds the Platonic view that God created the world from preexisting matter. You write that even the Rambam, who disagrees, maintains that one can be a believing Jew and reject ex nihilo.

It’s actually not a particularly radical view. There are midrashim that Maimonides mentions in the Guide to the Perplexed that look at the creation story this way.

What’s more interesting, but also more controversial, is the idea that Maimonides countenances the possibility of an eternal universe. The way Maimonides writes the Guide lends itself to varied interpretations [since Maimonides explicitly states that in "speaking about very obscure matters it is necessary to conceal some parts"]. And there are a number of respected scholars who argue that buried deeply beneath the surface, Maimonides is expressing the Aristotelian view that the world is eternal.

What is this preexisting matter that Plato and the Ralbag speak of?

It’s very difficult to say exactly, but just like a potter takes unformed clay and makes it into a pot, by analogy God took some unformed matter and formed it into the world.

In the book, you also write about Ralbag’s controversial view that God does not have detailed knowledge of events on Earth. Can you elaborate?

There’s a very well-known problem concerning the clash between God’s foreknowledge and human free will. If God genuinely knows and has known for all eternity everything that will occur, then the fact is that God knew for all eternity that at this point in time we would now be speaking. Therefore, come this point in time, however we might feel about it, there was no question we would end up speaking.

Now there are all sorts of attempts to squirm one’s way out of this dilemma, but evidently the Ralbag accepted it as a genuine dilemma and therefore something had to give. He could say, “Well, if God does genuinely know everything that will occur, then human beings don’t have free will as we ordinarily understand it.” The Ralbag, however, takes the other path, which is to deny that God knows that we are now talking. God does not actually have knowledge of particular things and particular events.

To some people this view sounds blasphemous.

Absolutely, and one shouldn’t pretend it didn’t sound blasphemous to certain people back then. Chasdai Crescas [14th century] attacks him for it in his work, Or Hashem. Crescas tries to squirm his way out of the dilemma by taking the alternative route, which is to deny the ordinary common sense understanding of free will.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/interviews-and-profiles/did-the-rambam-really-say-that/2009/11/11/

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