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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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?
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"
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.
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-a-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 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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 naive
to ignore this aspect of the matter.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
- Global Jewish Magazine 2006