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By Daniel C. Houston
The Honors Residential College brought a Jewish scholar to campus Wednesday to give a lecture on how the 12th-century philosopher Maimonides helped incorporate philosophy into the Jewish theological tradition.
The speaker, Dr. Joshua Parens, professor of philosophy at the University of Dallas, highlighted how Maimonides codified an enormous body of Talmudic law and introduced 13 principles of Jewish faith that were controversial at the time but have become foundational for the Jewish tradition in the centuries since.
Among the most significant of these principles, Maimonides wrote that God was a spiritual being, rather than one with a body, a belief that was not universally accepted before his time.
“This, in the end, is the moment where we start to see what is truly revolutionary about Maimonides: that he affirmed the Jews must believe that God is incorporeal,” Parens said. “Now, this will strike most of you, as Christians, as a little bit strange. After all, you have been raised with the notion that there is another life, and that other life is wholly incorporeal and spiritual.”
Before Maimonides, Parens said, the Jewish community had little interest in engaging in religious philosophy.
Maimonides, however, changed that by introducing the 13 principles and stressing the incorporeality of God and his existence as an eternal being, which Parens argued opened the door for philosophy in the Jewish life.
“In short, then, in Maimonides’ time, theology was nothing but defense of the faith against philosophy,” Parens said. “Consequently, what Maimonides then does by making a kind of home for philosophy within Judaism is incredibly radical and shocking.”
Parens also contrasted Maimonides’ contribution to Jewish theology with that of the 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose religious philosophy was far less particular to the Jewish scriptures than that of Maimonides and the orthodox Jewish community.
Dr. Todd Buras, professor of philosophy and faculty master of the Honors Residential College, said he thought the event was well-attended and the subject discussed was relevant for Christians, as well as the Jewish community.
“The importance that a talk like this has for Christianity,” Buras said, “is to be able to compare the way [the Jewish community] put it all together — philosophy and the Bible — with the way other traditions have.”
Several Jewish Baylor faculty members and other members of the Waco Jewish community were in attendance for the lecture including Stanley Hersh, president of the Jewish Community Council of Waco, and Rabbi Gordon Fuller of the Congregation Agudath Jacob in Waco.
They said they were pleased that Baylor, as a Christian institution, offered this forum and were also pleased at the turnout, which was standing-room-only by the time the lecture began in Memorial Hall Drawing Room and consisted mostly of students.