Maimonides and the Global Democratic Revolution: a guide for the perplexed
Maimonides (pronounced: my-MON-i-deez). Perhaps the greatest Jewish rabbi of all time (1135-1204). Known affectionately to later rabbis as Rambam.
No, no, no, no--not Rambo, Rambam. But if you think of him as the Sly Stallone of rabbis, covered in a coat of intellectual muscles--well, you won't be too far wrong.
So what's Rambam got to do with the price of matzah?
Everything. Maimonides was a key leader in the Aristotelian revolution of the medieval period. Muslims such as Avicenna (980-1037) made Aristotle a philosophical cornerstone of the Islamic mind. For the Catholic Thomas Aquinas (1224/25-1274), Aristotle was "The Philosopher". So the brilliance of Aristotle as a philosopher was a point of unity between three very different religious traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
That's important at a time when we see democracy sweeping the globe--but little consensus on what democracy is or what its foundations are.
The postmodern option says that democracy has no foundations, and has no reasons. Since everything is relative, democracy presumes that there are no fixed moral values. But if there are no fixed moral values, what we reasons can we give for why Nazi Germany was wrong? The postmodernist answers: we can't give any reasons. Then how would you deal with Hitler? Answer: "Try to josh him out of it." Hence the very strong belief among many philosophers that postmodernism undermines democracy itself.
The basic alternative to postmodernism is the option of the Founding Fathers: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". Human rights are said to derive directly from the fact that we owe our existence to a Creator. The founding fathers do not appeal to the bible or the Koran for proof of this: this truth is "self-evident", that is to say, derived from philosophy.
It is here that we confront the grand canyon that separates the Founding Fathers from postmodern relativism: for a postmodernist, the notion that philosophy bears witness to the existence of God is simply laughable. Hence any reference to God can only be based on "faith" or "theology". And since democracy cannot impose religious belief, it follows that any reference to God in public life is a form of intolerance, a prelude to theocracy, an attempt to force faith down other people's throats.
By contrast the Founding Fathers stood strongly in the classical tradition of Western philosophy: the existence of a supreme God who reigned over the universe was not an article of faith but a philosophical fact amply attested by over two thousand years of the greatest minds in Western philosophy. God's existence was a truth of reason, fully open to any critical inquiring mind. Denying his existence was both bad philosophy, and ultimately a threat to public morals.
Hence the distinction drawn by the Founders: God was a fact; but "religion", or how we worship this God, was a matter of faith, and to be left to private judgment. This meant that Thomas Jefferson could say both that the Constitution established separation of Church and State AND write a Declaration of Independence that openly declares God to be the source of human liberty.
But if the God made know to human reason is the basis of democracy, then we need some sound philosophical basis for understanding that God. And it is here that Maimonides plays a key role. He and his colleagues of divergent faiths showed how it was possible for quite different religions to nonetheless reach agreement of key aspects of the God who rules the universe.
As the philosophical contradictions of postmodernism become ever more glaring, citizens in democracies everywhere need a way to understand God that is rooted in reason, and available in principle to thoughtful democrats across the globe. The thesis here is that the 21st century is destined to be the age of Aristotle, a renewal of the philosophical conviction that there is one God who rules the universe, and that this God can be approached on the basis of reason.
For this sabbath night, Maimonides is a good place for the road to begin.