Maimonides, the Temple, and Isaac Newton

July 12 2018

In the 1930s, the economist John Maynard Keynes began studying the religious writings of Isaac Newton, many of which the great physicist had kept secret, and which had sat unread for over 200 years. Keynes would later proclaim Newton “the last of the magicians” because of his interest in alchemy, astrology, theology, and even mysticism. In his recent Priest of Nature, Rob Illife presents a comprehensive of view of Newton’s religious thought, based on careful reading of his nonscientific manuscripts, many of which were inaccessible to Keynes. Matt Goldish writes in his review:

[Newton] was a radical Christian who acknowledged Jesus as the son of God. He just insisted that the son could not be conflated with the father. In fact, he thought Jesus had been sent into the world to cleanse it of precisely such idolatrous suggestions, and he turned to the Hebrew Bible and Jewish sources to reconstruct the original monotheism of Noah and the Israelite religion that succeeded it—and to understand the conceptual errors of idolatry.

Newton’s obsession with the corruption of the early church by pagan metaphysics led him inexorably to the historical question of the origin of idolatry. Here it was Maimonides’ “Laws of Idolatry,” [a section of his monumental code of Jewish law], in the 1641 translation [into Latin] of Dionysius Vossius, that provided Newton and many others with a useful historical schema. Maimonides famously described how early people slipped from worship of the one true God to worship of His retinue—the sun, the moon, and stars—which led to the occlusion of the divine and the corruption of worship. . . .

Newton held that before the corruption of the original pristine religion, a scientific priesthood maintained both theological and natural truths, though these were largely hidden from the masses. In particular, the priests knew the sun and not the earth was the center of the universe; hence ancient temples from Stonehenge to the Temple in Jerusalem were organized around perpetual fires that represented the sun. The Temples stood for the solar system, a kind of “symbol of the world.” . . .

The tabernacle and the two Jerusalem Temples were of deep interest to Newton for another reason. He read the mysterious Revelation of St. John as being physically set in the Temple precinct. . . . He left several drawings of the Temple (with his own idiosyncratic Newtonian layout) as well as numerous written passages about its importance. Indeed, despite Keynes’s clever hunch [that Newton was a “Judaic monotheist of the school of Maimonides”], Newton’s notes on Maimonides mainly concern the laws of the Temple [in Maimonides’ code] rather than theology—he didn’t even own a Latin translation of [the theological magnum opus] the Guide of the Perplexed. [But] the Mishnah, Josephus, and Maimonides . . . were all grist for the mill of his unique Temple researches.

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More about: Christian Hebraists, Idolatry, Moses Maimonides, Science and Religion, Scientific Revolution, Temple

Zionists Can, and Do, Criticize Israel. Are Anti-Zionists Capable of Criticizing Anti-Semitism?

Dec. 12 2018

Last week, the New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg defended the newly elected anti-Israel congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, ostensibly arguing that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism aren’t identical. Abe Greenwald comments:

Tlaib . . . has tweeted and retweeted her enthusiasm for terrorists such as Rasmea Odeh, who murdered two American students in a Jerusalem supermarket in 1969. If Tlaib’s anti-Zionism is of the Jew-loving kind, she has a funny way of showing it.

Ilhan Omar, for her part, once tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” And wouldn’t you know it, just because she believes that Zionist hypnotists have cast global spells masking Israeli evil, some people think she’s anti-Semitic! Go figure! . . .

Goldberg spends the bulk of her column trying very hard to uncouple American Jewishness from Israel. To do that, she enumerates Israel’s sins, as she sees them. . . . [But] her basic premise is at odds with reality. Zionists aren’t afraid of finding fault with Israel and don’t need to embrace anti-Zionism in order to [do so]. A poll conducted in October by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that a majority of Americans Jews have no problem both supporting Israel and criticizing it. And unlike Goldberg, they have no problem criticizing anti-Semitism, either.

Goldberg gives the game away entirely when she discusses the discomfort that liberal American Jews have felt in “defending multi-ethnic pluralism here, where they’re in the minority, while treating it as unspeakable in Israel, where Jews are the majority.” She adds: “American white nationalists, some of whom liken their project to Zionism, love to poke at this contradiction.” Read that again. She thinks the white nationalists have a point. Because, really, what anti-Semite doesn’t?

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Israel & Zionism, New York Times