God and Idolatry

Saving  God:  Religion  after  Idolatry
by  Mark  Johnston
Princeton University Press,  248 pp.,  $24.95

Notwithstanding Johnston’s pose of equal disdain for all three Western monotheisms, it turns out that he assumes the truth of the Christian idea that human beings are “fallen.” Original sin for Johnston is nothing as simple-minded as flouting God’s command and eating a piece of fruit (with or without a blessing). It is, rather, the “condition that comes with being human [which] is … not just the self-will that resists the other-regarding demands built into one’s internalized conception of the good. It is self-will combined with a covetous and violent protection of the compromised fruit we have plucked from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” The all-encompassing nature of this condition necessitates a dramatic cure and (a philosophically reconfigured) Christ eventually enters the picture. Thus, despite Johnston’s apparent intentions, the book turns out to propound and defend a sort of post-Christian Christianity.

In what way is Saving God Maimonidean? Maimonides’ God is of very little use or comfort for most Jews. As the late Israeli gadfly Yeshayahu Leibowitz never tired of insisting, for Maimonides, humans are meant to serve God, not the other way round. (Leibowitz was not always wrong in his interpretations of Maimonides, only most of the time.) It is not the point of Judaism thus configured to see God as existing to serve our needs, answer our prayers, or comfort us. According to Maimonides, when Job realized this, he achieved enlightenment.

For Maimonides, worshipping any entity other than God is literally avoda zara, foreign worship, or idolatry. A Jew who worships a God with any corporeal qualities or a God with any human characteristics (such as anger, love, or mercy) is no less an idolater in Maimonides’ eyes than a Catholic genuflecting before an image of Jesus or a Hindu making offerings in a Temple filled with idols. Maimonides may or may not have believed in an after-life in any recognizable sense (the debate has been going on for over 800 years), but if he did, he certainly did not expect to find the next world a very crowded place. And of those who did make it in, far more would be physicists and philosophers than rabbis. In short, Maimonides was an intellectual elitist of the strictest sort—and so is Mark Johnston, though he is unequivocal in his rejection of an afterlife, even for metaphysicians.

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About the Author

Menachem Kellner is professor of Jewish Thought at the University of Haifa and Senior Fellow at The Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His most recent book is Science in the Bet Midrash: Studies in Maimonides.


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