I think Steven is right that making a definitive statement like “Social Justice is the soul of Judaism,” is probably misleading. BUT I think that creating a more moral and more just society is a signficant thread in Judaism and that it is a thread that we should pursue. I appreciate Steven’s journalistic rigor and his interest in not being dishonest about what our sources say, but ultimately, theology — meta-narratives — are played out using our imagination, not just our rational minds.
Had Maimonides used only Steven’s methods, would he have developed his complex, Aristotelian view of Judaism’s meaning and purpose? Was he being dishonest by reading Judaism through Aristotle, by saying that the “soul of Judaism” is intellectual perfection? I don’t think so. I think he was doing his best to imagine a Judaism — and a theological/philosophical framework — that took Judaism’s past and current context into consideration.
Now, that’s the argument Sieradski should have used: to create a hermeneutical approach consistent with hermeneutical approaches of the past, as opposed to trying to apply contextualized values.
Now, as far as Maimonides and intellectual perfection goes, I think he was doing something very different, that isn’t easily applied here.
Firstly, and most easily, Maimonides didn’t create an idea of a “soul” of Judaism, no matter how much he did emphasize intellectual perfection as an ultimate value.
Second, his emphasis on intellectual perfection, no matter how much it relied on Aristotelian notions, was still an example of working off of a Jewish tradition that very much valued such a thing, even if no one had developed a vocabulary for it — like Maimonides eventually did by borrowing from the philosophers of other traditions; the thing that made Maimonides different in this regard was his philosophical approach, not his upholding intellectual perfection as an ultimate value (in doing so, of course, he was aligning himself with certain figures over others, but that’s not new). There’s no similar parallel for social justice, if one’s going to take a traditional/Orthodox reading of the tradition, like Maimonides did and Daniel Sieradski wants to. Septimus is right that Maimonides “imagine[d]” a “theological/philosophical” framework, but that’s just because he was really the first to do philosophy to the Jewish tradition; it’s not some kind of right-brain/left-brain divide, as it appears Septimus wants to make it out to be.
Now, Septimus continues:
Which doesn’t mean that all theologies are created equal. Jewish tradition and sources lend themselves to some theological narratives more than others. “The goal of Judaism is the perfection of the world with all the social healing that this implies” is a story that can find plenty of support in the sources.
Yeah, that’s Judaism’s goal, but Judaism sets that out as a goal to be reached on Judaism’s terms, which aren’t coherent in virtually any respect with contemporary liberal/left/”social justice crowd” values.
Now, it might be the easiest thing in the world to take every statement about treating fellow Jews a certain way — love your fellow as yourself, various commercial and communal rules — apply them all to how Jews should treat non-Jews, and end up with a Jewish community that fundamentally looks outward with great care (it still wouldn’t be satisfactory to a social justice crowd, but it’d certainly be a lot closer). However, at no point in Jewish history, as far as my search for this has shown, did any figure ever make that broader application.
ALSO: Septimus wants to start a discussion of my statement in one of the e-mails that, “What this all boils down to is that the Jewish tradition is a set of rules.” I’ve been trying my best to retreat from that poor choice of words since it got published, in comments on Jewcy, here, and everywhere. I definitely didn’t write what I intended to say there. A better way of putting it would be that “the Jewish tradition has its own set of rules.”