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Menachem Kellner on Maimonides and the Mystics

A very good review of:
Menachem Kellner, Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006), 343 pp.

Menachem Kellner on Maimonides and the Mystics: The Search for a Usable Theological Past

by Alan J. Yuter
Institute for Traditional Judaism, University of Mariland, Baltimore County

In this intellectual tour de force, Professor Menachem Kellner revives the medieval Hebrew literary tradition of articulating two messages in one composition. On one hand, Kellner, in a work of objective scholarship, insightfully decodes what he takes to be two opposing religions that have contended for recognition as the Orthodox expression of Judaism from ancient to modern times. On the other hand, Kellner, as an engaged modern Orthodox thinker who has a stake in this conflict, applies wide learning, critical skills, and expansive control of traditional Jewish sources, intellectual history, and analytic philosophical tools in a sustained argument. Although clearly an advocate of Maimonidean epistemology, Kellner sadly concedes that 1) Maimonidean Judaism is not the dominant version of Orthodoxy, and 2) Maimonides provides but a partial model for rationalist religionists in modernity.

Kellner claims that these two conflicting systems have been contending from of Israel’s very inception. He notes that the mystical ritualistic religion of ancient Israel, as understood by Professors Jacob Neusner and Baruch A. Levine, first appears in Leviticus and focuses upon the religion of the holy experience. This experiential religion reflects what Max Weber calls the “enchanted” world of pre-modern humankind.

In rabbinic times, Essene and Christian “Judaisms” inhabited an enchanted world while the Judaism of the Mishnah, theologically decoded by Neusner, did not. In Genesis through Numbers, where God is the speaker, reality is for the Torah-audience enchanted, while in Deuteronomy, where the narrator is the mortal Moses, the narrated world appears to be disenchanted. Moses’ book was called Mishneh Torah by the rabbis of the Judaism of the Dual (Neusner’s Oral and Written) Torah, probably because the religious systems presented in both Deuteronomy and the Mishnah are similarly disenchanted. Deuteronomy, Rabbinic Judaism, and Maimonides, with their Tradition of a disenchanted reality, provide a religious metaphor that for Kellner resonates to moderns.

Kellner’s discussion of biblical scholarship reflects Maimonides’ code [Repentance 3:7], according to which certain issues regarding revelation may not be articulated. This Maimonidean ruling forbids the articulation of comments that would seem to deny the divine origin of the Torah. While obviously aware of the findings of secular biblical scholarship and its conclusions, which do not conflict with Judaism as has been historically understood, Kellner carefully and cleverly remains ever faithful to the Maimonidean code as well as to his professed identity as an Orthodox as well as academic scholar. Thus, Kellner the professing Jew will not say/write in a way that would diminish the honor or sanctity of Israel’s sacred library, reflecting the Maimonidean model that he advocates.

Kellner’s own position is revealed in his sensitive yet nuanced discussion of Zoharic authorship. For the Jewish mystic, the Zohar’s authorship is ascribed to the validating hands of the canonical person, the tanna R. Yohanan b. Zakkai. Because this writer is identified as a member of the ancient community of canon composers, the Zohar must, to this view, be accepted as a canonical source of both sanctity and authority. Those academic scholars who believe that the Zohar was the product of Moses de Leon’s imaginative medieval mind seem to deny the Zohar’s sanctity and, as professionally committed academics, explicate all religious texts as cultural artifacts and not as normative canon. In a private communication, R. Adin Steinsalz, a professing Lubavitcher Chasid, described the Zohar as “the official theology of Judaism,” and the late Professor Arthur Hertzberg, also in a private communication, reported to me that R. Judah Krinsky of Lubavitch told him that R. Menachem Schneerson, the previous Rebbe, did not see himself as a Messiah but “as a tanna”! Now, if the Zohar is taken—or mistaken—to be an ancient, tannaitic source and is therefore canonical, the Kabbalah/Tradition that it advocates becomes a canonical moral component of the Dual Torah as well; but if the Zohar is not canonical, its claims may not necessarily be taken to be authentic Jewish theology. Thus when some rabbis refer to “the holy Zohar,” they without demonstration 1) proclaim that the canonicity of the mystical “Tradition” is axiomatic, 2) assert the rightful place of esoteric intuitions in determining authentic Jewish thought, and 3) declare the limited legitimacy of public, rational revealed Jewish Tradition and discourse of Israel’s official and public canonical library.

Perhaps Kellner’s most astute interpretive insight is his observation that the rabbinic sages required the public recitation of Targum Onqolos, reflecting a rabbinic opposition to anthropomorphism that predates Maimonides’ writings. For Kellner, the battle between Maimonides and the mystics was won by the latter, most notably Nahmanides and R. Judah ha-Levi. In this study we will first outline and evaluate Kellner’s description of these two Jewish religious phenomena, understanding this monograph first as a secondary source regarding medieval Judaism and, second, as a primary source of modern Orthodox Jewish theology.

Maimonides formulated prescriptive dogmas of Judaism that for Kellner are directed against the enchanted religion that Kellner believes to be proto-Kabbalah. (This idiom echoes what academic scholars of Christianity regard as the proto-Orthodox Christianity that won the day at Nicea 325 C.E., becoming the religion today associated with Roman Christianity.) Ironically, Maimonides’ codification of dogma is not necessarily consistent with his own dogmatics of codification: his Laws of Torah foundations (dogmatic theology) and Laws of Kings (eschatology) do not find many explicit precedents in explicit Dual (oral and written) Torah sources. Thus, Maimonides’ dogmas can hardly be deemed as “the” official Orthodox theological position, any more than the Zoharic claim to reflect God’s will. However, in the ArtScroll history of medieval rabbinic authorities, the mystically inclined Nahmanides is presented as the traditionalist, while Maimonides is presented as innovative and therefore less than fully normative. Yet significantly more than Maimonides, Nahmanides relies on intuition and religious speculation. For example, Nahmanides believes that observing the Torah’s commandments is necessary but not sufficient to attain holiness, while Maimonides disagrees. The legal Midrashim, which support Maimonides’s position, are ignored by Nahmanides, whose mystical intuition is sufficient to support his normative claim. (See Nahmanides to Leviticus 19:2.) Similarly, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, for all his reliance on Maimonides’ Code as a conceptual and educational resource, is actually a Nahmanidean who in practice does not necessarily defer to Maimonides’ Code. Specifically, R. Soloveitchik endorses the recitation of medieval piyyut in the liturgy, following the Asheri but rejecting Maimonides, and in the tradition of Nahmanidean intuitionalism, offered no reasoned explanation for his preference. Now, piyyut writings continue the anthropomorphic traditions of the Hechalot writings as demonstrated by Professor Rachel Elior. Talmudic Judaism tolerated this popular religion expression, as evidenced by the birchat levana, the new moon blessing, with pre-Zoharic idioms (ateret tiferet le-’amusei vaten), but in no way and in no canonical rabbinic document is this theosophic sensibility raised to halakhic dogma. Perhaps because this speculation was so widespread, it not outlawed by the rabbinic sages. But the rabbinic canon does not endorse theosophic writing and, as Kellner critically observes, Maimonides consistently campaigned against this version of Judaism. It should be noted that while R. Judah ha-Levi is taken to oppose Maimonides’ position, it is difficult to find even traces of Zoharic-like theosophy in his writings. But Nahmanides does indeed serve as the theological alternative to Maimonidean rationalism, as well demonstrated in the Nahmanidean critique to the Shorashim of Maimonides’ Book of the Commandments.

Kellner consistently demonstrates that for Maimonides, God alone is sacred and sanctity is attained only by obeying God’s commands. Nahmanides to Lev. 19:2 argues that holiness is an objective state for which commandment-observance serves as a moral minimum, as necessary but not sufficient for observing the religious life. In this passage, Nahmanides also endorses the efficacy of magic. This observation is actually corroborated by Num. 15:39–40, which reminds the Israelite that one becomes sanctified by observing the commandments after being reminded of the commandments by seeing the talit-tassels.

For Nahmanides, the Torah’s actual words do indeed possess mystical significance; for Maimonides, the Torah’s words reflect natural language and do not possess magical potency. The land of Israel for Nahmanides and ha-Levi possesses supernatural qualities, as does the people Israel. Ever the naturalist empiricist and anticipator of modernity, Maimonides sees Israel the land as a geographic platform where sanctifying commandments may be observed, but not because of the inherent metaphysical character of the actual land. Rather, the system of commandments legislates commandments that, when observed, transmit holiness. According to Nahmanides, the Hebrew language similarly possesses a natural sanctity; for Maimonides, Hebrew, at least in its canonical lexical trove, lacks words for matters sexual and excretional matters, which suggest a refined moral sensibility.

While Kellner finds in Maimonides a usable theological model for modern Jews, he does not endorse Maimonides’ approach without qualification. For Kellner, Maimonides maintains that universalism is appealing, but his esotericism violates the modernist egalitarian spirit. Kellner’s Maimonides maintains that without philosophical speculation regarding correct opinions regarding God, one cannot earn salvation. The fact that Maimonides wrote his epistles, responsa, and his encyclopedic code suggests that he was passionately committed to educating the Jewish proletariat. Given Maimonides’ Halakhic positivism, the observance of the commandments coupled with correct if unsophisticated beliefs should be sufficient for salvation. Since Maimonides restricts women from studying the oral law, he would be making the illogical claim that rabbinic law forbids women from doing what is necessary to earn eternal life (see however T. Ber. 2:12!).

Kellner challenges the popular Orthodox Judaism that is characterized by mysticism, chauvinism, intuitionalism, and parochialism, focusing instead upon the canonical library, positivist halakhic understanding, and a demystified world. A politically moderate and centrist Zionist, Kellner fears mystically motivated political discourse of our time as well as the failed and tragic revolt against Rome of 135–137 C.E. Kellner’s actual politics are pragmatic, non-messianic and, for Orthodoxy, on the Left of the political continuum.

Like Maimonides, Kellner strives to render Torah systematic and accessible, empowering his reader. In modern terms, “Talmud Torah” must be academic and subject to peer review and not be presented as mystical, intuitive, arbitrary, and therefore beyond peer review. Mystically inclined charismatic rabbis present themselves as without peer. For Kellner, this position is morally, intellectually, and religiously untenable. His academic Judaism provides an alternate reading and an alternative elite readership of the canon, which yields, in turn, a competing, rational, and peer reviewed reading of what Jewish tradition in modernity ought to be.

Since Deuteronomy, the Mishnah, and Maimonides all posit a Weberian disenchanted construction of reality, Kellner finds this model appropriate to the spiritual world that moderns happen to inhabit. Jewish law only creates social realities and does not reflect a supernal, supernatural, or spirit enchanted reality. Maimonides’ rational law finds Torah opinion [Daat Torah] in canonical documents, but not in the intuition of mystics and charismatic persons who claim to be endowed with enchanted powers unrecognized by the canon. Nahmanidean legal exegesis allows for an oracular reading of the canon, but neither the Maimonidean Mishnah Torah nor the canonical Mishnah provide for this authority to be invested in any individual’s intuition (see B. B.M. 59b). Maimonides and Kellner require maturity of Jewry, which is nothing less than an Heschelian acceptance of the insecurity of freedom. For Kellner, God is approachable but does not approach humans. This insight is actually corroborated by Scripture (e.g., Exod. 2:23, Is. 55:6, Pss. 145:18). Ever the religious as well as critical believer, Kellner still finds the beliefs of Kabbalism to be theologically untenable. On the other hand, he realizes that his reading offers little comfort to most Jews, even as he demands a great deal of integrity on the part of those who adopt his position. It may in fact be argued that Kellner, like Maimonides, actually took the masses seriously enough to educate and empower them with information and methodology, as witnessed by his Mishneh Torah and popular Maimonidean epistles. For Maimonides as well as Kellner, the “tradition” of Kabbalah that superseded the tradition of the canonical Oral Torah, its popularity notwithstanding, requires vigorous resistance.

Modernity’s egalitarianism is anticipated by Maimonides’ formulation of an exoteric law, an uncompromising sense of right ameliorated only by a sagacious sense of what reality presents as possible, and a keen intellect that probes, penetrates, and parses the world that God has made. Kellner here presents Maimonides not as an ideological panacea for pious moderns but as a model for appropriating a selectively usable past, some of which is appropriate to moderns and some of which is not. Maimonides did not require slavish obedience to this charismatic person or to that mental habit, but Maimonides did demand that we accept the truth from whomever the truth might issue, adopting the position that appears to our minds, as finitely frail they might be, that to be the position to which “reason tilts” (Introduction to the Code). Kellner’s monograph on Maimonides and the mystics presents a great deal of truth that makes a great deal of sense for this reader.

Like the medieval mystics who divine meanings into the canon with their charismatic intuition, contemporary elements within Orthodoxy privilege elites with the authority to rule from intuitions, which Maimonides, at least in theory, opposes. While Professor Dov Schwartz argues convincingly that R. Soloveitchik, the “man of law,” rejected the “enchanted Zoharic world,” R. Soloveitchik’s Nahmanidean reliance on a culture derived intuition remains. Similarly, the Haredi ArtScroll views Maimonides as in some way deviating from authentic Judaism. These two phenomena confirm Kellner’s prescient observation that the de jure and de facto versions of Judaism are indeed rather distinct. The Dual Torah Judaism of the Mishnah and the Mishnah Torah are professed and confessed; the intuitive, emotional, mystical folk religion lived in life is the Judaism that Orthodoxy enforces as normative. And Schwartz has shown that R. Soloveitchik’s halakhah is not the law of practice but the intuitive and creative formulations of Brisker sages, a position that fits well within the Nahmanidean intuitive scheme as formulated by Kellner.

Kellner shares the Maimonidean predilection for a justified law: Jewish law, to be morally convincing in a secular age, must be rational, ethical, and presented with an accessible and testable hermeneutic. In contemporary Nahmanidean Orthodox culture, Maimonides’ rational rulings are dismissed with the unreflective retort, “we do not rule according to Maimonides.” Reasoned rulings are not ultimately normative for this dialect of Orthodox culture. Never even suggested is 1) why the alternative reading to Maimonides is more convincing or 2) what method, hermeneutic, or legal theory is used in the drawing of conclusions, issuing of rulings, or the arbitrary exercise of power.

Kellner’s findings are corroborated by Bet Yosef to Hoshen Mishpat 25, where the issue of “an error in canon” is examined [to’eh bidvar mishpat]. For Bet Yosef Karo, “canon” refers to the Talmud, Judaism’s canonical text; for Raabad, Maimonides’ codal adversary, canon is not the canonical text but enchanted, personalized charisma of great men from “the previous generation.” For Maimonides, “tradition” is public, accessible, and canonized in a reference library called the Oral Torah; for Raabad, “tradition” is an inherited culture mediated by the right reverend rabbis. Professor Haym Soloveitchik has astutely observed that Raabad viewed his own intuition to possess greater canonicity than the Geonoic tradition that Maimonides had inherited. According to Maimonides, this second sense of Tradition, the religion of mimetic culture, may be a de facto social reality but may not be construed as de jure normative, theologically compelling, or covenentally consequential.

The present study must be understood in the context of Must a Jew Believe Anything (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006), pp. 106–107. Kellner there suggests that J. David Bleich’s raising of Maimonides’ principles into dogma was a project rejected in Maimonides’ time but is championed in modernity by those Orthodox thinkers who advance parochial culture and insist that their authority be recognized because they have the right to define dogma.

Kellner is here correct on two counts. The canonical library is not enchanted with dogma, a point demonstrated in Must a Jew Believe Anything. Now, if Maimonidean halakhah is not accepted by Bleich, why would Maimonidean theology be reified to the sanctity of covenant, especially since it was not reviewed by a Sanhedrin? And we do not find Bleich rejected the Gnostic/mystic/Hassidic Judaisms, which do violate Maimonidean principles.

Menachem Kellner’s study of Maimonides and the mystics will endure not because it explicates an antiquarian medieval debate; his study talks to moderns who struggle with ideas and ideals, who are both intellectually modern and Jewishly religious. Note well that Kellner is not buying into Maimonides’ medieval mind uncritically. Unlike J. David Bleich and conventional Orthodoxy, that reads the religious past through the filter of Haredi Orthodox sensibilities, Kellner asks how the ancient and medieval library might, after historical and philological analysis, be appropriate in the situation of modernity. By reading the canonical library historically, Kellner, carefully respectful but audaciously independent, implies that Judaism in modernity must be defined not by the right persons whose views are beyond review but by the best readings, regardless of the reader who articulates those readings.

He indeed has found a usable past that he has put to very good use.
Professor Menachem Kellner