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At the center of the universe : essays on western intellectual space

by Mordecai Plaut

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Reviewed by Rabbi Joseph Elias   (2011-06-28)


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by mplaut

At the Center of the Universe

by Mordecai Plaut

(New York: 1983.)
available through any bookstore by order, or from the author:
POB 18191, Jerusalem 91181 Israel

Reviewed by Rabbi Joseph Elias, Dean, Rika Breuer Teacher's Seminary, New York, N Y.

in The Jewish Observer

This is a remarkable book, both from the viewpoint of contents and presentation. Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel, in his ntroduction deservedly calls it "a breath of fresh air," and the thoughtful reader will indeed find that it effectively disposes of a great many cobwebs in the popular mind.

In our modern age, because of man's achievements in exploring and making over his world, he has fallen prey to an extraordinary arrogance - a conceit that the ideas developed by the secular liberal movements of the last few centuries are not only sufficient for man but that they are the only ones that can claim rationality and deserve our respect. In truth, this attitude characterizes in large measure the popularizers, the media, the followers and the disciples. Philosophers themselves know the limits to which human reason can penetrate; scientists are aware of the limits of the scientific method; and psychologists encounter the pitiful victims of a worldview which leaves man adrift and alienated. But the popular mind still pays strident homage to ideas whose validity is highly questionable. The last decades have seen the publication of writings that, in contrast, present our Torah value system and the concepts that should guide us and mold our lifestyle.

However, Rabbi Plaut's book is unique in that it takes direct issue with a number of the most cherished beliefs of our age - and does so in a manner that must command the respect of his antagonists. He examines the popular notions according to the strictest standards of scientific and philosophical method - and, lo and behold, arrives at conclusions that instill a healthy note of skepticism about those notions and, at the same time, renewed appreciation of our approach to these fundamental issues.

The author deals with some themes which are commonly recognized as fundamental - such as the age of the earth, or proofs of the existence of G-d - as well as with questions that we would not readily encounter. What are the philosophical and psychological consequences of the adoption of the Copernican system? Can order be the result of chaos, according to scientific logic? Can the Mesorah's teachings be shown philosophically to be authentic knowledge? The author's ideas are brilliantly presented, the analysis is always lucid, and the writing elegant. The book is not easy reading, but whatever difficulties it presents are inherent in the subject-matter and not the presentation - which is both clear and persuasive.

This reviewer must admit, though, that he was not persuaded by the author that the Thirteen Principles of the Rambam were meant to be "the blueprint for a sound mind and do not possess an "exclusive essentiality" - the Rambam's concluding words in his presentation of the Thirteen Principles in the Perush Hamishnayos would appear to indicate differently (pp. 139-147).

All in all, this is a volume that breaks new ground in applying searching philosophical examination to fundamental questions of human existence, and arriving at results that will make the reader see traditional Jewish teachings in a new light. It is to be hoped that it will find the wide circulation that it deserves, particularly among those involved in the intellectual ferment of our time.


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