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

Russia Has No Interest in Curbing Iran in Syria—Despite Putin’s Assurances

July 20 2018

In his joint press conference on Monday with Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump stated that in their meeting he had brought up U.S. concerns about the Islamic Republic’s malign influence in the Middle East, and that he’d “made clear [to Putin] that the United States will not allow Iran to benefit from [America’s] successful campaign against Islamic State.” It does not appear, however, that any concrete agreements were reached. To Alexandra Gutowski and Caleb Weiss, it’s clear that agreements will do little, since Putin can’t be trusted to keep his word:

In late June, Russia began to unleash hundreds of airstrikes on [the southwestern Syrian province of] Deraa, in flagrant violation of the U.S.-Russian cease-fire agreement that Trump and Putin personally endorsed last November. While Russia struck from the air, forces nominally under the control of Damascus conducted a major ground offensive.

Closer examination shows that the dividing line between Assad’s military and Iranian-aligned forces has become ever blurrier. Before the offensive began, Lebanese Hizballah and other Iranian-backed militias staged apparent withdrawals from the region, only to return after donning [Assad]-regime uniforms and hiding their banners and insignia. Tehran is also directly involved. On July 2, a senior commander of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) died in Deir al-Adas, a village in northern Deraa province along the strategic M5 highway. Persian sources describe him as the commander for the province. [In fact], forces nominally under the control of Damascus are permeated with troops that are at least as close to Tehran. . . .

It’s also becoming clear that Russian aircraft are supporting the efforts of Iranian-backed units nominally under the control of Damascus. . . . Russia has also now deployed military police to hold terrain captured by Iranian-aligned forces, demonstrating a level of coordination as well as Russia’s unwillingness to use its forces for more dangerous offensive operations. These terrain-holding forces free up Iran-aligned actors to continue undertaking offensives toward the Golan.

Reported meetings between militia commanders and Russian officers suggest these operations are coordinated. But even without formal coordination, Russian air cover and Iranian ground offensives are mutually dependent and reinforcing. Iran can’t be in the sky, and Russia refuses to put significant forces on the ground, lest too many return home in body bags. Thus, Putin requires Iran’s forces on the ground to secure his ambitions in Syria.

President Trump should remain highly skeptical of Putin’s interest in serving as a partner in Syria and his ability to do so. The humanitarian relief Putin proposes [for postwar reconstruction] is designed to fortify the regime, not to rehabilitate children brutalized by Assad. Putin also has limited interest in curtailing Iran’s deployment. Russia itself admits that Iran’s withdrawal is “absolutely unrealistic.” Trump should not concede American positions, notably the strategic base at Tanf which blocks Iran’s path to the Mediterranean, for empty promises from Russia. Putin can afford to lie to America, but he can’t afford to control Syria without Iranian support.

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More about: Donald Trump, Iran, Politics & Current Affairs, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy, Vladimir Putin