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Magical vs Rational: Maimonides, Help Us Out!Commentary on Tanakh Discussion March 8, 2021

Don Perlmutter

This week, we resumed our exploration of why we believe what we do by considering mystical beliefs with an able assist from Maimonides, the ultimate rational thinker. To probe this, Rabbi Edery posed the question: “Should we value the opinion of a layman as equal to that of an educated expert?” While the answer seems obvious to most, the reality is that many do distrust authority and prefer to believe random uninformed opinions (even conspiracies), particularly if they conform to their preconceived notions. 

In the beginning...
Psychologists and anthropologists tell us that we have an innate desire to create order out of chaos. Therefore, in prehistoric times, when scientific knowledge of the natural world was limited, supernatural theories were offered to make sense of the world. The shaman was the authority figure, and lives were ruled by magic. Because natural forces were unseen, they inspired wonder and fear. Emotion was the driving force behind decision-making. These emotionally laden beliefs are tightly held and do not easily give way to rational thinking. 

The Age of Reason
As scientific investigation and mathematics progressed, the theories and informed opinions that were generated collided with prevailing magical beliefs often cloaked in religion. Noted scientists who confronted irrational thinking include Galileo, Darwin, and Freud. They all proposed theories based on scientific study that challenged man’s preeminent position, bestowed by God, as the center of the universe and apart from and above the rest of the animal kingdom. 

Fact or Fantasy
Astrology, Scientology, and Intelligent Design are pseudoscientific belief systems that satisfy a need to appear rational by wearing a scientific veneer but are based on unscientific assumptions. They may seem harmless, but if people fail to differentiate them from reality and make decisions based on misinformation, much damage can occur. If Intelligent Design had been adopted as a valid alternative to Darwin’s Origin of the Species, the basic science leading to modern medical innovation might have been thwarted. 

What Maimonides Had to Say
Maimonides had clear ideas regarding the rational approach to questions of what to believe. With regards to the status of Jews as “the chosen people,” he would rather consider us to be the “choosing people” because of our decisions on how to follow God and Torah. This contrasts the mystical belief that Jews were charged by God to be different and lead the nations.        

Resurrection is another example, in which the mystics hold that we will all arise with bodies restored, while rational thinkers would argue that all that will live after death is our accomplishments and the memory others have of us. 

What's in a Word?
How one interprets the written word can determine whether a magical or a rational approach is employed. The magical thinker would likely take the words of Torah literally and accept the stories of Exodus (snakes, parting of the Red Sea), for instance, as fundamental truths. The rational thinker would assume them to be parables useful for teaching. 

Maimonides along with Carl Sagan believed that the natural world is sufficiently awe-inspiring without resorting to magic.       

Wed, July 17 2024 11 Tammuz 5784