Philosopher promotes Maimonides’ universalism

Review of 'Menachem Kellner:  Jewish Universalism', edited by Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Aaron Hughes, Brill.

In an effort to demonstrate the value of Jewish philosophy for modern Jews, Brill Press is publishing a “Library of Contemporary Jewish Philosophers,” a series of 12 volumes (so far), each highlighting one Jewish thinker. The books, available both in print and electronically, are most suitable for educational settings, but will also interest many laypeople.

Menachem Kellner, an American who moved to Israel and taught Jewish philosophy at Haifa University for over 30 years, is profiled in the latest volume, Menachem Kellner: Jewish Universalism. Kellner currently teaches at the Shalem College in Jerusalem, which calls itself Israel’s first liberal arts college. Appropriately for Kellner, his new institution integrates the study of western and Jewish texts.

The book is divided into four sections: (1) an insightful, laudatory intellectual portrait of Kellner by Canada’s own Prof. James Diamond; (2) four relatively short articles of a philosophical nature by Kellner, reprinted from journals and books; (3) a lively interview with Kellner conducted by Prof. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson from the United States; and (4) a select bibliography of 120 items written by the prolific Kellner.

For most people, the 68-page interview with Kellner is the best way to understand his worldview. Free of academic pomposity, Kellner has a light, self-deprecating touch. A modern Orthodox Jew, Kellner seeks to advance a liberal, universalistic understanding of Judaism. He is sharply opposed to those religious leaders in modern Israel who see Jews and non-Jews as intrinsically different. He acknowledges that support for their views can be found in the Jewish mystical tradition, but claims that mysticism is “used today to justify horrible Jewish chauvinism [and] totally magical thinking.” 

He prefers the medieval rationalism of Maimonides (1138-1204) and Gersonides (1288-1344), both of whom are central to his scholarship. “If you are a traditionally observant Jew, and politically centre-left, and a historian of Jewish philosophy, then the only person you have to talk to is Maimonides.”

In one of Kellner’s academic articles in the book, Maimonides’ “True Religion”: For Jews or All Humanity?, Kellner develops this theme, pointing out that some rabbis and scholars have argued that “even at the end of days, for Maimonides, the Jews will remain God’s Chosen People, especially beloved, and distinct from the mass of humanity.” Kellner disagrees, arguing that Maimonides’ consistent position is that in the fullness of time, “all human beings will worship God from a position of absolute spiritual equality” and “the distinction between Jew and gentile will disappear.”

Some of this claim is based on careful exegesis of Maimonides’ slightly obscure statement that, “in the days of the messiah,” the nations of the world “will adopt the true religion (dat ha-emet)” (Mishneh Torah, Melachim 12:1). But Kellner goes beyond that text, citing proofs from a range of Maimonides’ legal and philosophical works.

Always self-reflective, Kellner admits that he is attracted to liberal views because of his American upbringing and values, which he in no way rejected when he moved to Israel. He proudly quotes, with minor modernizing touches, the American Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all human beings are created equal, that each is endowed by her creator with certain inalienable rights.” He advocates total separation of “synagogue” and “state” in Israel. “In this regard, I’m a classic American liberal.” Mixing the two is “bad for the state and bad for religion.” 

He is a committed egalitarian on women’s issues, too. At one point, he jokingly suggests that soon, “the rabbis will define women as men, and the whole problem [of unequal rights for women in traditional Judaism] will go away.” He admits that what we need in order to make progress on this issue “is to have women rabbis [and thus] for the power to be shared. And that’s happening right now even within Orthodoxy.”

Kellner believes that the future of Jews and Judaism is in the State of Israel. He explains that he has recently started to write more in Hebrew, “even though English is so much easier for me… because I want to be part of the ongoing Jewish discussion which has been carried out over the centuries in Hebrew.” 

Just as “no one reads” the often valuable Jewish studies scholarship written in German in the 19th century, Kellner predicts that, in another hundred years, anyone who wants to read about Jewish tradition, thought, or philosophy will do so in Hebrew and not English.

Kellner impishly undermines the goal of the book series – promoting interest in philosophy. 

He claims, “I don’t think that philosophy is that important,” and denies that he is really a philosopher (“philosophers nowadays tend to be people employed only by departments of philosophy who only talk to other people employed by departments of philosophy”). 

He prefers to be seen as a historian of philosophy. In any case, as a thoughtful and committed Jewish thinker, he has a worthwhile message for us. 

As Diamond writes in his introductory essay, “Kellner’s ongoing project of fleshing out and promoting Maimonidean universalism addresses his greatest fears of a ‘super-chauvinism’ in Israel and of a ‘North American Jewry that refuses to take its Judaism seriously and immerses itself in a shallow, self-glorifying ethnicity.’” 

What an appropriate message at this time of year when we are challenged to commit more firmly to our Judaism, and at the same time, to think of Judaism’s universal message as expressed in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, that “all who come to earth pass before God” for judgment.

Shanah tovah!