Where Is the Maimonides of Our Age?

Those involved in the debate on Open Orthodoxy need to adopt a philosophical eye.

Dr Samuel Lebens / Jewish World blogger
Dr. Samuel Lebens
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Dr Samuel Lebens / Jewish World blogger
Dr. Samuel Lebens

Recent weeks have seen a flurry of articles about the rise and nature of something called “Open Orthodoxy.” According to many in the ultra-Orthodox camp, Open Orthodoxy, whatever it may be, certainly isn’t Orthodox; in fact, it’s just Conservative Judaism in new packaging. Some Conservative rabbis agree.

Open Orthodoxy has ruffled more than a few feathers even within the center and right of Modern Orthodoxy itself, what with its perceived receptive attitude toward contemporary Biblical source criticism, female ordination, more egalitarian prayer services, and the list goes on.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the Rabbinical seminary most associated with Open Orthodoxy, has defended his movement and opposed the notion of doctrinal witch-hunts.

The debates over “What is Open Orthodoxy” and “is it really Orthodox” range over a wide array of topics: the nature of Jewish law, the nature of revelation and, thus, the nature of God as he relates to his creation. We’re talking about some pretty tough philosophy! My intention is not to take sides with anyone, but rather to ask a question: Where are the Jewish philosophers of our generation?

I’m sure that any one of the rabbis whose articles I’ve linked to could cite sources to back up their claims until they’re blue in the face. But while that level of erudition is important, to be able to quote a million sources isn’t to be a philosopher.

In the Catholic tradition, it is compulsory for trainee priests to formally study philosophy. This doesn’t just mean learning the Catholic philosophical tradition by reading up on their Aquinas. It means learning contemporary metaphysics, epistemology, logic, philosophy of science, and more.

Training in philosophy is essential if we want to attain more clarity and self-understanding in the philosophical debates that we wage. Where the average Catholic priest comes to the table familiar with the history of Western Philosophy up until this day, the average Orthodox (and non-Orthodox) rabbi comes to the table without any such education. They can often quote lots of sources, and they very often possess a razor sharp naked intelligence. But, naked intelligence isn’t always enough. Training is required too.

Maimonides is often banded about in contemporary Orthodox debates. Is Open Orthodoxy true to his 13 principles of faith? Who can really say that they understand their Maimonides? Maimonides predicates authentic Judaism upon belief in God’s authorship of the Pentateuch, but he also developed a radical philosophy of religious language according to which it was impossible to say very much about God at all, including what it might mean for him to have had a hand in the authorship of a book.

Of course, I’m presenting Maimonides crudely, but my point is this: we, in the Orthodox camp, can all agree that the doctrine of Divine authorship is axiomatic, and we can all agree that the binding nature of Jewish law is non-negotiable, but do we actually have the first clue what these claims mean? We band them about as if we do. But there is very little serious work being doing today in the philosophy of Judaism.

In the university, Jewish thought is taught in Jewish Studies departments that too often treat Jewish thinkers as Museum Exhibits rather than as spokespeople for living systems of thought. They are studied from a sociological or historical point of view. In rabbinical seminaries, very little time is given over to the formal study of Jewish philosophy, or to the sorts of skills that students are going to need in order to make philosophical strides on their own.

That is why I am so proud of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism, and all of the work that it is doing to promote this otherwise floundering research project. It is an association that is trying to get people who know their Jewish sources to pay more attention to the analytic tools of contemporary philosophy, and to encourage academic philosophers to engage more seriously with Judaism. A new generation of Jewish philosophers won’t solve any of the debates on Open Orthodoxy (since when did philosophers solve anything?!), but it will give the arguing sides much more clarity in what it is they’re really fighting for and disagreeing about.

Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame.

Students at the Hevron Yeshiva in Jerusalem, 2012.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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