The Religion of Reason (but still a fair amount of Faith)

This guest post is by Matthew Arbeit Lowe. Matthew teaches theology and philosophy at Prozdor Hebrew High School. He is also the founder of the Moishe Kavod House “Fabrengen” club, an egalitarian monthly gathering for teaching, singing, and drinking. He blogs regularly at
Before critiquing Judaism: Religion of Reason by Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim, the founder of Mesorah Heritage Foundation (, I should say that I am unfit to write this review. Despite my various degrees in philosophy, Judaism, and religion, I’ll admit that my command of Hebrew (all kinds) and Aramaic is severely lacking, and so (by his own rules) I cannot “open a Talmud and explain Tosfos and Rashi.” (295) If I cannot read Tosfos and Rashi then I can’t read Talmud; and if I can’t read Talmud then I can’t read Torah; thus I have no traditionalist basis for critiquing Rabbi Ben-Chaim’s interpretations in the book. Similarly, some of my objections to his interpretations are based on my belief in science; but here too I must admit my inadequacy, since “we cannot talk about any science without years of study.” (256) With that warning out of the way, here I go…
The author wrote “Judaism: Religion of Reason” in order to demonstrate that

“Intelligence is the sole faculty that can enable an appreciation for the Written and Oral Torahs.” (8) As an Orthodox thinker in the rationalist tradition of Maimonides, Rabbi Ben-Chaim’s book targets two groups as ranking among the deluded un-intelligentsia: unbelievers, and those who subscribe to superstition/pop kabbalah. As I am a member of the first group and a scoffer of the second, my experience reading this sizable (435 pp.!) compilation of articles was mixed.

In the introduction, the author cites an anonymous “wise Rabbi” who defines idolatry as “assuming a causal relationship when it does not exist.” (14) Rabbi Ben-Chaim deftly wields this definition against the pop kabbalists, denouncing red-string bracelets, mezuzah blessing, blessings from “Rebbes,” paying for prayers at the Kotel, etc., as ignorant and pernicious, antithetical to the rational nature of Judaism and God’s Torah. Superstitious practices such as these are out of touch with reality, and exercising our human ability to reason protects us from such nonsense.
Of course, as an unbeliever, I was often tempted to accuse the author himself of such idolatry. As a Maimonidean, he asserts that prayer does not directly act upon God to produce results; rather, prayer provides an opportunity to introspect and align ourselves with Torah, and through repentance we become more subject to divine providence—that is, God involves Himself more directly with the Godly. While this explanation superficially abjures magical thinking, I do not find it persuasive, since “divine providence” does not hold any weight in the scientific community (the people I trust most to make claims of causality).
I will give one example that offended me both as a believer in modern science and as a feminist. In the chapter “Rabbis’ Blessings,” Rabbi Ben-Chaim explains that another person’s prayer cannot, no matter how righteous the person, induce God to act on your behalf. In actuality, only your own prayers, by helping you become a better person and thus meriting greater divine involvement in your affairs, can help. Case in point—Rachel asks Jacobs to pray for her on account of her infertility. Jacob refuses, and Rabbi Ben-Chaim explains why. So what can Rachel do to overcome her infertility? “She is the one from whom God has held back children, the one who can introspect, determine a flaw, improve… and thereby merit children.” (192) This is the kind of humiliating advice, ignoring all of medical science, that only a religious “rationalist” could give. I sincerely hope that no infertile individuals take this message to heart, blaming their spiritual states for their biological (possibly congenital) conditions.
Rabbi Ben-Chaim, drawing on Maimonides, teaches that there are three sources of knowledge: our senses, our intellect, and the Torah. As a philosopher reading this book, my biggest complaint is that he does not make clear the relative weights of these three sources. At times, he calls upon our intellect to overcome the temptation to read supernatural occurrences in the Torah and Talmud literally. At other times, he tells us that God’s Torah is the only basis for truth, especially in matters of morality. (336) As an unbeliever, I believe one could say that his first two sources (senses + intellect) may be considered to constitute the scientific method. While the Rabbi pays lip service to science, he clearly favors the Torah and Rabbinic modes of its interpretation, leading him to claim things like “it was the natural grain of sapphire in these two stone Tablets, which formed of the Ten Commandments,” (sic) meaning, the words on the tablets formed due to the natural properties of sapphire (and not by God’s ‘hand’)! This is reasonable religion?
Look—as a polemic against magical thinking that extends beyond the traditional supernaturalism of Judaism, I recommend this book. I appreciate his mission against magical thinking, especially insofar as mystical quacks use it to take advantage of fearful, un-cynical people. But if you are reading as a liberal or secular Jew, do not expect to be convinced. The rabbi has very strong opinions about who gets to interpret tradition and how, and absolutely no respect for Wissenschaft des Judentums (the 19th century “Science of Judaism” school) and its legacy. He favors oral tradition over material evidence, and only readers who find that kind of thinking reasonable will be convinced.
In the final analysis, however, don’t listen to me. I’m a heretic, and as the rabbi knows, there’s no use debating with a heretic because “most probably because they are more adept at perverting quoted texts.” (132) With my blind-ish faith in scientific method and my openness to non-rabbinic interpretation of Torah, we clearly hold different criteria for establishing truth. I would love to find room for dialogue, but our differing metaphysical commitments trouble that hope. I suppose I should not expect a response to this review; as the rabbi advises at the end of one chapter: “Know how to answer the heretic, but as the Talmud teaches, do not engage the Jewish heretic.” (135)
P.S. If you want to see the Reform Jewish attempt at the exact same theme, read Hermann Cohen’s 1919 classic “Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism.”

3 thoughts on “The Religion of Reason (but still a fair amount of Faith)

  1. Interesting that you seem to attribute the following to Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim:
    (i) belief in providence,
    (ii) belief in the causal isolation of individuals (vis a vis prayer and providence),
    (iii) belief in the causal isolation of the physical from the supernatural,
    Take those together, mix, and don’t forget the secret ingredient:
    (iv) pre-established harmony between individuals in the physical realm in accordance with providence. (NB: “harmony” is meant metaphorically so as to exclude causal relations.)
    What do you get? Leibniz for Jews! No wonder Rachel was infertile – she was a monad! Who knew? (I don’t mean to be silly… Wait… I do mean to be silly! Can’t help it.)

  2. Matt,
    I do believe I did clarify that we are not to “ignore all of medical science”. When hunted by his twin Esav, Jacob displayed reason with his gift to Esav (political acumen), his military preparations and his prayer. The Torah personality does not rely on miracles. Jacob didn’t simply pray. Our Rabbis actually teach this, “Ayn somchin al hanase; Do not rely on miracles.” An intelligent approach is that man accesses all in his knowledge and power when in need.
    You write that I “favor oral tradition over material evidence.” This goes back to our discussion of the lack of evidence of 2.5 million Jews wandering a desert for forty years. There, I said the “lack” of evidence cannot prove something, as proof requires a “positive” criteria, not the lack thereof. If however a proof exist for something, then I would accept that over oral tradition. Maimonides too claims that had there been proof of Aristotle’s theory of the eternity of the universe, that he would reinterpret the verses in Genesis. (“Guide for the Perplexed” by Friedlander, Dover ed. pg. 200) Torah follows reason.
    You wrote, “the Rabbi draw on Maimonides, teaching that there are three sources of knowledge: our senses, our intellect, and the Torah. As a philosopher reading this book, my biggest complaint is that the Rabbi does not make clear the relative weights of these three sources.”
    This deserves a response. Please consider the following:
    In the search for truth, there are 3 levels, one is closer to the truth than the next
    1) Experience
    This is “reality” — the very definition of “reality” is that which we experience: i.e., matter and events. There is nothing else. Thus, it is a “reality” that you are reading this email.
    2) Reason
    This is not experiential, but what we reason based on sense perception; our experiences.
    Thus, you reason that this email was written by a human.
    This is close to experience, but not quite, and still open to rejection, unlike experience, since the human mind is not flawless. And primarily, since reason is dependent on the very perception of which we reason, reason thereby bows to perception is the most primary source of reality.
    3) Communication from the Rabbis
    Here, the reasoned transmissions are open to human error, and distortion over time. Yet, God ensures the transmission of the Torah, and the honesty of the Rabbis is apparent, so we deem this trustworthy, but in no way impregnable to error.
    Thus, Radak says reason trumps authority, and experience trumps reason.
    But there might be cases where one’s reason will reject reality, but in such a case, like a magic trick, we know we have not accurately perceived reality, but sleight-of-hand fooled our senses.
    Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

  3. Rabbi,
    After reading Matt’s review and your response (I admit, I have not read the book yet) I still don’t understand how you weigh the three sources of evidence, particularly in terms of Torah. While you are clear that experience trumps reason, where does Torah play into this? It seems you are saying that Torah fills in the gaps — but what are those gaps and why do they matter? Perhaps you are referring to the many areas of Torah that refer to something unreasonable (as in the laws of kashrut vis a vis kashrut of certain animals). These chukim cannot be explained by reason and without the Torah we wouldn’t have them. I certainly appreciate this idea as a believer of Torah — following laws for the sake they are written in the Torah adds holiness to my life. But despite that value, there are many places in which Torah contradicts reason or experience. In those cases, are we supposed to say that reason/experience trumps Torah? Perhaps as you say “the honesty of the rabbis is apparent, so we deem this trustworthy.” In other words, when there is a contradiction, trust the rabbis to make sense of it. However, to be frank, I don’t always trust the rabbis (though I’m studying to become one), for the simple reason that they have an agenda to uphold — to uphold the perfection of the Torah. In other words, for the rabbis, Torah is always pre-eminent over reason and experience. If there is a problem with one or both, we will jump through hoops in order to find a way to explain it away. But let’s call a spade a spade — in Jewish rabbinic thinking, Torah is not based on reason and experience, reason and experience are based on Torah.
    — Ari S.

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