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Volume 1, Issue 1 (November2006 / Cheshvan 5767)
Article 9/9

Maimonides Agonist:
Disenchantment and Reenchantment in Modern Judaism

By Menachem Kellner


The popular conception of modern Judaism ascribes a central place to Maimonides. The apotheosis of the putative 'Golden Age' of Spain, Maimonides the physician, the commentator, the rationalist, towers as the model of medieval learning. A Galenic physician and paragon of Jewish learning he is also, by implication, a model for the present, a foreshadowing of the balances inherent in modernity.

Moses Maimonides expressed a vision of Judaism as a remarkably naturalist religion of radical responsibility. His Judaism is a religion in which concrete behavior serves the needs of abstract thought; abstract thought is the deepest layer of the Torah and, at least in Maimonides' day, could be most clearly and accurately expressed in the vocabulary of the Neoplatonized Aristotelianism that Maimonides accepted as one of the highest expressions of the human spirit. This Judaism was simultaneously deeply elitist and profoundly universalist. Maimonides crystallized and expressed his vision of Judaism because the Jewish world in his day was, in his view, debased and paganized.

But a deeper view of contemporary Jewish life, especially within Orthodoxy, shows that Maimonidean reforms have failed to take hold. Maimonides sought to transform the Judaism of his day, most notably the nature of halakhah, its distinctions between holy and profane, ritually pure and ritually impure, the character of the Hebrew language, the notion of "created light," the distinction between Jew and non-Jew, and the existence of angels as popularly understood, and to reform the curriculum of Jewish learning. In each of these areas Judaism continued to develop as if Maimonides had never existed and never written. The implications for modern Judaism are vast, yet hidden from view. Orthodoxy today is a Maimonidean antithesis, an enchanted world whose spirit guides provide indispensable intercession, rabbis as prophets and magicians. In short, it is a kabbalistic world.

There are indeed areas where Maimonides' influence has been decisive. Maimonides succeeded in convincing almost all Jews that the God of Judaism is entirely incorporeal. Given the dramatic anthropomorphism of the Bible and rabbinic literature this was no mean feat. The project of creating comprehensive and logically organized codes of law, culminating in the publication of the Shulhan arukh, must also be seen as at least a partial success of Maimonides.

However, despite these achievements, his overall reform cannot be considered a success. Maimonides' attempted reform boomeranged badly: his attempt to "demythologize" post-talmudic Judaism, to bring about the "fall of myth in ritual," in the perceptive words of Josef Stern, led to the enthusiastic "remythologization" of Judaism through kabbalah. Whether or not the need to counter Maimonides was indeed a catalyst for the composition and publication of kabbalistic literature, there can be no doubt that its acceptance as normative by the rabbinic elite and by the rank and file of the Jewish people sounded the death knell for Maimonides' projected reforms. Of course, if Maimonides did indeed "create an opposition" that might be construed as a form of success, since only a foolish general mobilizes his or her forces in the face of an inconsequential threat. Maimonides was not construed as an inconsequential threat.

An awareness of Maimonides' failures brings into focus what is at stake for modern Judaism, determining the fundamental substance of the Jewish tradition, defining the essence of a Jew's relationship to God, and finally, understanding the nature of God.

The Triumph of the Zohar

Many of Maimonides' writings are best understood not only as an attempt to harmonize Torah and what he considered to be science, but also as an attempt to counteract the influence of what I have called "proto-kabbalistic" elements in pre-Maimonidean Judaism. In this, I believe (but cannot prove), Maimonides followed in the footsteps of those editors of the normative rabbinic writings who kept certain texts and allied literature out of the canon of Judaism. But the widespread acceptance of the Zohar as the work of the second-century CE Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai doomed this millennium-long attempt limiting the mystical elements of Judaism to failure. The Zohar is the central problem.

For traditionally oriented Jews, an important religious issue rests upon a bibliographical question: who wrote the Zohar? If the Zohar represents the work of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai and a circle of colleagues and students, then the teachings of the Zohar must be seen as part of the body of normative rabbinic Judaism, carrying at least as much authority as other midrashic compilations such as the Mishna and the Talmud. No Jew today, believer or scholar, would think of claiming that the ideas and values of, say, midrashic compilations do not represent ideas and values at the heart of rabbinic Judaism. There may be questions about how to express these ideas and values in a modern idiom, how to understand them, and, for the most traditional, how to apply them, but there can be no doubt that they constitute an integral part of "classical Judaism."

If the Zohar, on the other hand, is the brilliant work of the Spanish kabbalist Moses de Leon (c. 1240--1305) and his friends, if the anonymous mystical work Sefer bahir, attributed to first century sage Nehunya Ben Ha-Kanah, is in fact a clumsy forgery, then the ideas and values embodied in these works have much less normative import for subsequent Judaism. Moses de Leon did indeed live during the period of the "rishonim" (early authorities), but had no particular credentials as halakhist or exegete that we know of.

So, putting the question rather tendentiously, is Judaism the sort of religion found in the Bible, Mishna, Talmud, and Maimonides, or is Judaism the sort of religion found in the Bible, Mishna, Talmud, and Zohar? These are very different sorts of religions and the answer to the question depends on the answers to the question, who wrote the Zohar and when?

To all intents and purposes the question has been settled in Jewish history if not by Jewish scholarship. Scholars such as Gershon Scholem accept that these works are the invention of Moses de Leon, but in Orthodox circles, the Zohar is almost universally seen as the work of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, with all that implies. That being the case, it is no surprise that what might be called, anachronistically, Maimonides' anti-Zoharic reform had little chance of success. In the rest of this paper I want to indicate how very little of Maimonidean Judaism can be found in the contemporary Orthodox world.

Zohar, Halakhah and "Jewish Politics"

If one follows "Jewish politics," both in Israel and abroad, it is easy to come to the conclusion that Orthodox Judaism recognizes the authority of rabbis as such to make policy determinations. It is a staple of haredi politics in Israel that rabbinic leaders decide all matters. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of haredi parties is that each has a council of sages that determines all matters of policy for the party's representatives in the Knesset and government. Until recently, it was this reliance upon the da'at torah or Torah wisdom of prominent rabbis that distinguished haredi from Zionist Orthodox politics. In the old Mizrahi movement, and to an ever-diminishing extent in its offshoot, the religious Zionist party Mafdal, rabbis were respected and occasionally consulted, but on matters of policy the party leadership made its own decisions. In the 1970s, young Turks in the party took advantage of the prominence of the late Rabbi Shlomo Goren (and of his own apparent desire for power and prestige) to involve rabbinic authorities in internal political disputes. Debates within the religious Zionist community over the Oslo peace process were often phrased in terms of acceptance or rejection of this or that da'at torah.

All observers agree that this phenomenon is gaining strength with each passing year. There must therefore be strong forces within Jewish Orthodoxy pushing in this direction. After all, an objective examination of the actual political record of rabbis is hardly encouraging. From the first rabbi whom we know to have actively involved himself in politics (Rabbi Akiva vis-à-vis Bar Kokhba) to the rabbis who counseled Jews not to flee Europe before the Holocaust, prominent rabbis as a class do not appear to have distinguished themselves by their political acumen.

Those elements in what is often called Modern Orthodoxy that seek to resist what they see as the "creeping haredization" of Orthodoxy regard this issue as crucial. It is often phrased in terms of whether what haredi Orthodoxy calls da'at torah is a modern innovation or a venerable tradition. For years I have been convinced that the notion of da'at torah was a haredi innovation, a politically expedient if Jewishly questionable response to the challenges of modernity. However, I have been forced to change some of my cherished opinions. While it is clear that the term da'at torah is a late nineteenth-century innovation, the notion actually reflects forces that existed earlier in Judaism.

Elsewhere I have analyzed two opposed philosophies of halakhah, that of Judah Halevi and his successors, which tends towards the expansion of rabbinic authority into political spheres, and that of Maimonides, which tends to limit the authority of rabbis to what may be called technical matters of halakhah. In its narrowest form, the debate revolves around the question: what role do prophets as such have in the halakhic process? This issue has been studied at length, both within the tradition and by academic scholarship. But this debate reflects a much deeper and more profound difference of opinion. For religious thinkers like Halevi, the issue is not only that prophets have a role to play in the halakhic process, but that the very nature of halakhah makes it necessary that prophecy play a role in its determination. For religious thinkers like Maimonides, on the other hand, the nature of halakhah is such that prophets as prophets are irrelevant to the process.

This debate itself reflects an even deeper one, about the nature of God's relationship to the created cosmos. In many ways, the God of Halevi is more present in the world as we know it than is the God of Maimonides. The immanent God of Halevi, omnipresent if invisible, acts more directly on the world than does the transcendent and somewhat aloof God of Maimonides. Moreover, the immanent God is acted upon by inhabitants of that world in ways that would have scandalized Maimonides.

Immanence, Prophecy, and Politics

Can and ought there to be a "separation of powers" in Judaism? Are there areas of life that are by definition outside the reach of rabbinic authority? Few questions have greater significance in contemporary Jewish life and politics, especially in Israel.

For Halevi, fulfilling the commandments actually does something in the world and accomplishes something which cannot be accomplished in any other fashion. I do not want to get into the question of whether or not Halevi's position constitutes full-blown theurgy, beneficent magic, as found in kabbalah. For our purposes it is enough to note that, for Halevi, proper fulfillment of the commandments has actual consequences: when sacrifices are brought in the proper manner, the person bringing the sacrifice is brought closer to God. A sacrifice improperly brought brings no religious benefit to the person bringing the sacrifices.

How and why does this work? For Halevi, the commandments of the Torah reflect an antecedent reality, a kind of parallel universe of godliness and holiness accessible only to a holy few. Halakhic distinctions for Halevi reflect a reality which is really "out there," an actual facet of the cosmos, even if it is a reality not accessible to our senses. Holiness, for example, is something that actually inheres in holy places, objects, people, and times. Were we able to invent a "holiness counter" it would click every time its wand came near something holy, just as a Geiger counter clicks in the presence of radioactivity. Radioactivity, of course, is present in the physical universe, while holiness is present only in the metaphysical universe, as it were. But just as radioactivity can have effects, even though it is not apprehended by the senses, so also holiness can have effects, even though it cannot be apprehended by the senses--there really is something there, but not on the plane of existence accessible to people who lack contact with the inyan ha'elohi, the divine influence.

But Maimonides saw the commandments of the Torah as creating a social reality, not as reflecting anything actually existing in the universe. Maimonides, as opposed to Halevi (and Nahmanides), sees halakhah as constituting institutional, social reality, not as reflecting an antecedent ontological reality. In further opposition to Halevi and Nahmanides, he distinguishes between mistakes in halakhic contexts, which have relatively modest consequences, and errors in scientific and dogmatic contexts, which have profound consequences. This reflects his perception of halakhah as a system of rules imposed upon reality. In further opposition to what I have been calling the Halevi--Nahmanides stance, Maimonides maintains that ritual purity and impurity are not states of objects in the "real world," but descriptions of legal status only.

If halakhah reflects an antecedent reality, a reality which cannot be apprehended through normal tools of apprehension but only through an "inner eye," enriched in some fashion by contact with the divine in some fashion, then people who can properly make halakhic decisions are people endowed with a power of apprehension which rises above the natural. That being the case, it makes sense to accept their leadership even in matters which many might think lie outside the four cubits of the law. Halevi's insistence on blurring the boundaries between halakhah and prophecy is thus seen as an outgrowth of his philosophy of halakhah. Deciding halakhic matters is not simply a matter of erudition, training, insight, and skill; it demands the ability to see things invisible to others.

Maimonides, on the other hand, sees halakhah as a social institution, ordained by God, of course, but an institution that creates social reality, not one that reflects antecedent metaphysical reality. Since he holds that so much of halakhah is historically contingent (i.e. it could have been otherwise), he could not have held otherwise. For Maimonides, halakhah does not "work" in the way in which it "works" for Halevi. Obedience to the commandments for Maimonides is immensely important on all sorts of levels--personal, educational, moral, social--but accomplishes nothing outside the psychosocial realm of identity and community.

A good way to see the difference between Halevi and Maimonides is to focus on the following question. Can a non-Jew (or, for that matter, a future computer) determine halakhah? For Halevi the question is ridiculous. In order to determine the law a person must be a Jew who has perfected his contact with the inyan ha'elohi to the greatest extent possible. For Maimonides, the question is not ridiculous. I assume that for many reasons he would not want to see the halakhic decision of a non-Jew as authoritative but he would have to invoke arguments which do not reject the theoretical possibility of a non-Jew achieving sufficient familiarity with halakhic texts and canons of reasoning to formulate decisions which stand up to the most rigorous halakhic examination.

The modern doctrine of da'at torah is thus clearly Halevian and not Maimonidean. For Halevi, in order properly to determine halakhah one must tap into a kind of quasi-prophecy; for Maimonides, one must learn how to handle halakhic texts and procedures properly. If halakhah creates institutional reality, then, beyond technical competence (and, one hopes, personal integrity), the charismatic or other qualities of the individual halakhist are irrelevant to questions of authority; if, on the other hand, halakhah reflects antecedent ontological reality, then the only competent halakhist is the one who can tap into that reality, a function of divine inspiration, not personal ability or institutional standing.

No observer familiar with Jewish Orthodoxy today can doubt that Halevi's view of halakhah is paramount. It was adopted by the Zohar and its related literature and spread from there into almost every nook and cranny of halakhic thinking. Maimonides' attempt to move halakhah from the realm of prophetic inspiration to the realm of institutions has not yet succeeded.

There is another point to be made here. Maimonides tells us what a law is, and how one determines what a law is. There is a real sense in which he wants to "rationalize" the whole process, excluding from it appeals to seyata deshemayah ("help of heaven") or to ruah hakodesh ("holy spirit"). This, of course, is threatening to people whose authority rests upon their access to such sources. I do not mean to accuse anti-Maimonideans of playing Machiavellian power politics, but it would be naïve to ignore this aspect of the matter.

Issues of sanctity and of ritual purity and impurity obviously relate to halakhah, but also, at least in the eyes of Maimonides' opponents, to the nature of the universe itself. Much of the discourse in contemporary Orthodoxy (both Zionist and haredi) about the Land of Israel relates to its ontological status as a land significantly unlike all other lands. I literally have no idea how Maimonides, were he to walk among us today, would react to the State of Israel, and to questions concerning territorial compromise. But I am certain that he would not phrase the question in terms of the ontological status of the Land of Israel.

With respect to the issue of ritual purity and impurity, one example taken from contemporary discourse will show how far Maimonides is from being representative today. Newly observant Jews in the haredi world invariably marry other newly observant Jews. One of the reasons for this is that such people were born to unobservant parents. That means that at the moment of conception their mothers were tainted by menstrual impurity, so that their offspring are in some sense also tainted. This taint in no way impinges upon their character, their chances for a share in the world to come, or the esteem in which they are held. But it is a taint nonetheless, a defect in yihus, or lineage. This whole approach is dramatically anti-Maimonidean.

Power and Disenchantment

Matters of holiness and ritual purity relate to the kind of world in which Maimonides wants us to live. It is a "disenchanted" world, a world that can be understood and, so to speak, applied. It is a world which demands maturity of those who live in it, since nothing, not their humanity, not their Jewishness, is presented to them on a silver platter; everything must be earned. It is a world in which Jews are called upon to fulfill the commandments, not because failure to do so is metaphysically harmful, but because fulfilling them is the right thing to do. By making demands, imposing challenges, Maimonidean Judaism empowers Jews. Their fate is in their own hands, not in the hands of semi-divine intermediaries or in the hands of a rabbinic elite.

The world favored by Maimonides' opponents, on the other hand, is an "enchanted" world. Many of Maimonides' opponents, in his day and ours, do indeed accept the efficacy of charms and amulets, and fear the harm of demons and the evil eye. But it is not in that sense alone that I maintain that they live in an enchanted world. Theirs is not a world that can be explained in terms of the unvarying workings of divinely ordained laws of nature; it is not a world that can be rationally understood. It is a world in which the notion of miracle loses all meaning, since everything that happens is a miracle. In such a world instructions from God, and contact with the divine in general, must be mediated by a religious elite who alone can see the true reality masked by nature. This is the opposite of an empowering religion, since it takes their fate out of the hands of Jews, and, in effect, puts it into the hands of rabbis. This is, in effect, the Jewish world we live in.

However, and this must be admitted, a disenchanted world may be empowering, but it is also frightening; in such a world, God can be approached, but rarely approaches. It is a world fit for a philosopher like Maimonides, but hard on a frightened person, who does not want the challenge of living by her wits (literally), but the comfort of God's love and the instructions of God's agents. We may admire those who think for themselves, but many are just as happy to have their thinking done for them. An enchanted world has many attractions! This indeed may be one of the reasons why Maimonides' attempted reforms aroused so much opposition.

Maimonides' Judaism demands much, and offers little. More precisely, it offers much, but few can take advantage of it. Even more precisely, Maimonides' Judaism offers much, but few can take advantage of it in the pre-messianic age. Seeking to help the few who could immediately benefit from his teachings and to minimize the damage to those who could not, he presented his views gingerly. The rage provoked by these views when they were understood proves the wisdom of his approach. Those, like me, who find in his views a vision of Judaism which is both attractive in its own right and true to Torah, can only regret that he has as yet not succeeded in winning over the vast bulk of Jews who study his writings with much devotion but little conviction. But, with Maimonides, I am optimistic that the day will come when "the earth will be full with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isa. 11: 9).

About the Author
Menachem Kellner is Professor of Jewish Thought at the University of Haifa. Born in the United States and educated at Washington University in St. Louis, his many publications include Must a Jew Believe Anything? (1999) and Maimonides' Confrontation With Mysticism (2006), from which this piece is drawn, and critical editions works by of Isaac Abravanel and Gersonides.

© Covenant - Global Jewish Magazine 2006

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