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Judaism Reclaimed: Philosophy and Theology in the Torah

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This heavy book (both in terms of its physical weight and the weighty nature of its discussions) calmly provides the reader with a rationalist view of the Torah’s attitude to such sensitive topics as homosexuality, polygamy, rape, eshet yefat toar (“comfort women” in war zones), and gender roles.. Photo Credit: Amazon

(Mosaica Press, 2019), by Shmuel Phillips
Reviewed by: Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

In this outstanding book, Shmuel Phillips examines various facets of Torah and Judaism from the so-called “rationalist” viewpoint. He puts that approach to Judaism in perspective by offering an uncensored presentation of Maimonides’ views without cherry-picking passages to match a certain preconceived notion of what Jewish rationalism ought to be. In doing so, Phillips offers a fair and open-minded analysis of Maimonidean thought.

Many critics of mainstream contemporary Judaism have misappropriated rationalism to support their own whims. As Rabbi Micha Berger so eloquently put it, “The mind is a wonderful organ for justifying decisions the heart already reached.” In his work, Shmuel Phillips shows that rationalism does not necessarily entail rejecting traditional Judaism and actually dovetails nicely with it. He demonstrates how even Maimonides—the hero of so-called “Rational Judaism”—did not endorse free-standing rationalism, but rather a rationalism grounded in certain immutable truths, which the mature scholar can only absorb through rigorous character development and the study of both the Written and Oral Torah.

This heavy book (both in terms of its physical weight and the weighty nature of its discussions) calmly provides the reader with a rationalist view of the Torah’s attitude to such sensitive topics as homosexuality, polygamy, rape, eshet yefat toar (“comfort women” in war zones), and gender roles.. He tackles raging controversial topics like slavery and genocide (i.e. wiping out Amalek) in the Torah, and the ubiquitous questions of objective morality and how to reconcile Torah and Science. Phillips also gives logical and rational justifications for such occurrences as halachic loopholes, ritual law, anti-Semitism, miracles, and prophecy.

Phillips takes on Biblical criticism by citing such scholars as Prof. Joshua Berman who explain away linguistic—and even thematic—similarities between the Bible and other ancient writings by invoking the notion that the Torah writes in the way that people spoke and could be most easily understood and internalized by its original audience. While following this approach, Phillips convincingly argues that this approach is entirely in line with Maimonidean thought. In doing so, Phillips’ tone remains authoritative and non-apologetic, and his arguments are conservative, yet cogent. Phillips invokes Rav Hirsch to quell the concerns of Bible Critics by characterizing the Written Torah as written in a sort of code that can only be deciphered through the Oral Torah. This, of course, accounts for all sorts of stylistic and thematic inconsistencies and redundancies.

Phillips also expounds on the Torah’s Universalist message by following Rav Hirsch in characterizing the struggle between Noah’s three sons as an allusion to the fight between unbridled violence (Ham), the culture of aesthetics (Japheth), and spiritual enlightenment through Godliness and morality (Shem). The ramifications of this three-way conflict continue to reverberate throughout the world as it stands as the basis for the contemporary clash of cultures.

This book also broaches the topic of how to view Aggadic Midrashim. More Kabbalistically-inclined authorities tend to take these aggadot at face value and understand them as the intended meaning of the texts which they interpret. However, rationalists in the mold of Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, and—to some extent—Radak beg to differ. They maintain that the tradition of aggadot ought to be treated separately from the texts upon which they nominally expound, and said texts should only be understood in their simplest, literal sense. While some have understood that the rationalists reject aggadot, Phillips demonstrates that they simply compartmentalize aggadot and create a clear barrier between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, without rejecting the latter. Moreover, Phillips demonstrates that even some of the Kabbalists, like Maharal and possibly Rashi, maintain that while all exegeses are connected to the Torah’s text (which must contain the totality of all truths), they can sometimes be interpreted as referring to the spiritual dynamics which underpin the plain meaning.

Each chapter takes the reader on a masterfully-written journey through the rationalistic perspective on a different topic. Truth is, you can probably write an entire book for each chapter, but given the framework, this exceptional work does an excellent job at concisely treating each issue with much erudition.

Phillips has a knack for “turning a phrase” in a way that clarifies complex ideas in just a few words. His skilled use of subtle humor and witty alliteration make the subtitles in each chapter almost as fun as reading the content itself. He is clearly a talented writer who has the ability to write up complicated philosophical/theological arguments in an easy-to-read English, without sacrificing accuracy or complexity.

This reviewer respectfully disagrees with Rabbi Dr. Lord Jonathan Sacks’ approbation which characterizes Philips’ book as providing “a remarkable new philosophical approach to Torah and Jewish faith…” In this reviewer’s opinion, Phillips has offered the reader nothing new other than an unbiased presentation of the theosophies of Rambam, R. Yehuda HaLevi, Rav Hirsch, and R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk—essentially allowing the timeless words of these great luminaries to speak for themselves. Phillip does update the presentation of those philosophies in order to express them in more contemporary terms, but he is certainly not offering anything radically new. He essentially presents the ideas behind the rationalist stream of traditional Judaism in a sophisticated and contemporary way, and for this alone he deserves to be commended.

Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein is the author of the book God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry and of the book Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew. He is a member of the RCA, and currently serves as an editor for the Veromemanu Foundation’s new edition of Machberes Menachem. He resides in Beitar Illit, Israel and can be reached via email at [email protected].

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