Most people fail to understand religion. Their assumption is that religion compels a person to believe in the irrational. Faith opposes reason. Religion ignores or, worse, rejects science. Hence, a religious person is akin to some medieval obscurantist who accepts as magic as truth. This mischaracterization of religion is false. And the error is easily exposed by the commentary of one of the most celebrated rationalist Jewish philosophers, Maimonides.

 

Maimonides (1135-1204) is lionized as one of the greatest religious authorities in all of Jewish history. Yet he was also a physician and philosopher who relied on science. In a letter (Treatise on Resurrection) he describes his method: “We make every effort to unite religious teaching and reason.” He mentions that he will advance the view of any thinker whose words would advance understanding since “one should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds.” Maimonides argues that: “the account in creation given in scripture is not, as generally believed, intended to be literal in all its parts” (Guide of the Perplexed, Book 2, Chapter 29). He is hardly an obscurantist.

 

So it should come as no surprise that in his Book of Commandments (No. 96) he explains the verse in Leviticus (6:6) that reads: “Fire shall remain burning on the altar continuously; it shall not go out” in a rational way. “This was only possible,” he writes, “ by carrying out the order to add wood every morning and evening. The Rabbis said, although the fire came down from heaven, it was to arranged by mortals.” Noting that the altar was initially lit by heavenly fire – as implied by scripture (Lev. 6:2) and thus undeniable – the subsequent maintenance of the fire was given over to human beings. Accordingly, the people had to stoke the fire with fuel and not rely on God for either the wood or any re-ignition. It would be irrational to think that the same miracle would recur daily. And it would be unreasonable for people to rely on miracles, despite the fact that miracles do occur. Such was the experience of the Israelites in Egypt.  As the Rabbis put it: ein somkhin al ha-nes. Miracles do occur but it would be unreasonable to expect them.

 

For Maimonides, religion requires making certain assumptions, as does any system of thought. But having accepted those assumptions religion proceeds in accordance with reason. Further, this commentary shows how Maimonides held that religion and reason were not incompatible; they are complementary.