1, Issue 1 (November2006 / Cheshvan 5767)
Disenchantment and Reenchantment in Modern Judaism
By Menachem Kellner
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
Maimonides expressed a vision of Judaism as a remarkably naturalist
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.
a deeper view of contemporary Jewish life, especially within
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.
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
despite these achievements, his overall reform cannot be considered
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
mobilizes his or her forces in the face of an inconsequential threat.
Maimonides was not construed as an inconsequential threat.
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
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.
traditionally oriented Jews, an important religious issue rests
upon a bibliographical
question: who wrote the Zohar?
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
the Zohar, on the other hand, is the brilliant work of the Spanish
Moses de Leon (c. 1240--1305) and
if the anonymous mystical work Sefer bahir, attributed
to first century sage Nehunya Ben Ha-Kanah, is in fact a clumsy
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.
Halakhah and "Jewish Politics"
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.
agree that this phenomenon is gaining strength with each passing
year. There must therefore be strong
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.
elements in what is often called Modern Orthodoxy that seek to
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.
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
Immanence, Prophecy, and Politics
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.
Halevi, fulfilling the commandments actually does something in
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.
and why does this work? For Halevi, the commandments of the Torah
an antecedent reality, a kind of parallel
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.
Maimonides saw the commandments of the Torah as creating a social
not as reflecting anything actually
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.
halakhah reflects an antecedent reality, a reality which cannot
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.
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.
doctrine of da'at torah is thus
clearly Halevian and not Maimonidean. For Halevi, in order properly
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.
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.
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.
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
Power and Disenchantment
of holiness and ritual purity relate to the kind of world in
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.
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.
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.
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