Objective reason versus subjective experience: are they complementary or contradictory? What is more important: truth or morality? Can the Jewish tradition be read in a rational way? Should it be read that way? Or should it be read as a key to the secrets of God and the cosmos?
For the past thousand years, Jewish thought has been tied to an internal debate between tradition, rationalism, and mysticism (eventually known as "Kabbalah"). Indeed, Kabbalah first began to flower and flourish as a kind of vehement opposition to Jewish rationalism. On the one hand, Jewish philosophers made a profound effort to apply systematic, universal logic to the Torah of Israel. But on the other hand, there was a fierce and ongoing reaction to that effort all along, an opposition which led to the development of a rich mystical alternative. These two ways of understanding Judaism are at once exceedingly different and yet eerily reminiscent of one another. This course will examine a centuries-long debate about the core meaning of judaism from several different angles.
Our major focus will be on the deep tension between the philosophy of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) and that of the Zohar (the foundational text of Jewish mysticism). The vivid contrast between the two ways of thinking will provide us with paradigms that can help us to better understand Jewish thought and Jewish life from the Middle Ages to our own day and age.