Interview with Menachem Kellner

Last month, I posted an interview with Daniel Boyarin. To which, I received an email from Kellner shocked that I would interview a non-Zionist who supports enemies of Israel and whose rhetoric was putting his family in danger (see below). To which I answered, that Boyarin is currently the doktorvater of several of my most academically successful students. But, how about an interview for your many readers? He agreed.

Menachem Kellner, Professor of Jewish Thought at the University of Haifa, and Senior Fellow at Merkaz Shalem in Jerusalem, studied philosophy and Jewish philosophy at Washington University (St. Louis) in 1973. Kellner’s Ph.D. dissertation, written under the direction of the late Steven S. Schwarzschild, was on ” Civil Disobedience in Democracy: A Philosophical Justification.” He also studied at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, IL and at Yeshivat Merkaz Ha-Rav Kook in Jerusalem in the early 60’s.

Kellner’s works include Maimonides’ Confrontation With Mysticism. (London: 2006 Revised paperback edition: 2010.) Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought (Oxford 1986; Hebrew translation, Jerusalem, 1991), Maimonides on Human Perfection (Atlanta, 1990), Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People (Albany, 1992; Serbian translation, Belgrade, 2000), Maimonides on the “Decline of the Generations” and the Nature of Rabbinic Authority (Albany, 1996), Must A Jew Believe Anything? (London, 1999 — a Koret Jewish Book Award finalist; 2nd, expanded edition, 2006); the editor of Contemporary Jewish Ethics (New York, 1978), The Pursuit of the Ideal: Jewish Writings of Steven Schwarzschild (Albany, 1990).

Much of the debate around Kellner’s work focuses on his mistitled Must a Jew Believe Anything? It seems from the interview and the new Afterword that the goal of the book was to create greater acceptance of the non-orthodox by removing dogma from the equation. But I am not sure that the strategy worked. Kellner’s response to Daniel Statman in the Afterword shows that the book he wanted to write would have looked like this.

1. Commitment to the peoplehood of Israel (klal yisrael), strong enough to overlook differences.
2. A theory of non- Orthodox peoplehood to account for the traditional mesorati, the masses, and the populous. It would have looked to formulate a democratic Judaism like Rabbi Hirchenson or a view like Rav Amsalam.
3. A vision of peoplehood without ontic status or metaphysical difference, one that can connect with the Jewish past and future.
4. Keeping mizvot as the basis of peoplehood to follow God’s command, and produce a stable and structured society. Mizvot without preconditions of belief or authority. “If they were to forsake me, I should forgive them, for they may yet keep my Torah. For if they should forsake me but keep my Torah, the leaven that is in the Torah will bring them close to me.”
5. Kellner wants a Jewish peoplehood stronger than Torah, personal religious experience, or individual fulfillment. He would have to deflect the claims of those who do not put peoplehood before Torah or individual commitment such as Rav Soloveitchk, Levinas, Rav Nahman, or the Kotzker.
6. For Kellner, Modern Jewry is fractured due to challenge of modernity. The Orthodox leadership has been poor and allowed and encouraged the fracture.
7. Therefore, the use of the Mishnah of Sanhedrin to exclude those who don’t believe is unwise and self-destructive to Jewish peoplehood, even though our modern leaders used it. We should not use categories created to combat against Karaites and Sadducees today to combat Reform and Conservative Jews. We need to reject Rabbinic sectarian thinking.
8. Finally, he has to convince his readers that pluralism is wrong and relativistic. And that his standard is not patronizing to Reform, Conservative, Renewal, traditional, non-zionist, and other Jews who favor pluralism.

It seems that Kellner was motivated by points 1, 6, and 7— and that he thought that if he removed dogma then we have enough to substantiate 2, 4, 5, and 7. Statman pinned it down.

Menachem comments: To reply to these points would involve rewriting the book; it is easily available for people to read and judge for themselves.

If Kellner’s motivation was to stop exclusion of Reform and Conservative Jews, then he seems to have bypassed the actual texts that create the exclusions. All the documents were legal and not dogmatic: from the Hatam Sofer calling Reformers Karaites to Rav Moshe Feinstein calling them minim, halakhic sectarians to Rav Soloveitchik saying that they are outside the halakhic legal tradition.The Hazon Ish was speaking about their lacks of halakhic observance not their lack of dogma. In each case it is the halakhah that decides. If Kellner wanted to be inclusive, then say “God or Torah accepts the mizvot of all Jews.” In email correspondence with Kellner, he stated that all of these cases were motivated by dogma, it was the heresy of Reform or Conservative, not the halakhah. Since the halakhic authors all relied on the precedents against Sadducees and Karaites then they are about dogma. I double checked Rav Moshe for a start and read it as legal not dogmatic. For Kellner, since an ordinary Jew who drives to shul can get an aliyah but a Reform Rabbi cannot makes it about dogma.

My own personal opinion is to side with Saadyah and Bahye on the existence of Duties of the Heart and beyond that my views can be can be gleaned from my long questions such as numbers three, four, six, seven, eight and eleven. I also do find disputes over dogma in Judaism. A social historian may reduce them to politics, paedeia, purity, and power, but that would work just as well regarding Christian heresy hunting. And the leading copied book of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologia was “the book of sales and acquisitions.” I would also recommend historic discussions of what was a sectarian such as Aharon Shemesh. Maimonides has kalam, falasifa, and sufi arguments about dogma which were blurred.

I do not find that belief and dogma were sufficiently defined. I could exclude most Christian texts. And all the followers of “dogmatists” such as Karl Rahner or even Avery Dulles would find the rigid definition foreign. Most academics who follow in the lines of Bourdieu, or Certeau follow Pascal’s statement as understood by Althusser: “kneel and pray, and then you will believe”. For Althusser, beliefs and ideas are the products of social practices, not the reverse. What is ultimately important for Althusser are not the subjective beliefs held in the “minds” of human individuals, but rather the material institutions, rituals, and discourses that produce these beliefs. More importantly, today I was reading a volume about the transition from Evangelicals to Emergents and the author stressed, seriously stressed, that it is invalid to ask “What do Evangelicals Believe? And that the only valid question is: :”What beliefs and practices are the focus of Evangelical interest, whether they agree or not.” Belief or not – you are still of the same discussion.

Finally, Kellner thinks that Boyarin has written himself out of the Jewish community by giving sympathy to the Palestinian cause and drawing an analogy in the loss of faith between the Holocaust and the Occupation. Much as some Christians said that their religion died at Auschwitz, Boyarin fears that “Judaism may be dying at Nablus.” Steven S. Schwarzschild, Kellner adviser was a liberal anti-Zionist of the Reform- ethical variety. However, Kellner rejects Boyarin for, in his words, going beyond mere anti-Zionism by twisting facts, supporting murders and those driven to destroy Israel, as well as his rejection of attacking Hamas. “Daniel Boyarin and the Herd of Independent Minds,” in Edward Alexander and Paul Bogdanor (eds.), The Jewish Divide Over Israel: Accusers and Defenders (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2006): 167-176.) and here are some online links of Kellner’s politics:
“Israel Reverses Gravity,”; “The War in Lebanon: A View from Haifa,”; “Resisting Falsehood and Protecting Integrity” (Reply to Omar Barghouti, “Resisting Israeli Apartheid: Why the Academic and Cultural Boycott?”); “Israel’s Gaza War: Five Asymmetries.”

1. Your dissertation was on ethics and human rights, what happened to that early interest and writings? Do you recognize the immense role your volume on Jewish ethics had in shifting the field to halakhic ethics?

My dissertation, completed in 1973, was on “Civil Disobedience in Democracy – A Philosophical Justification,” written under the direction of the late Steven S. Schwarzschild at Washington University in St Louis, MO (one of three major influences on my life, the other two being my father, Rabbi Abraham Kellner, z”l, u-tibbadel le-hayyim arukhim ve-tovim, my wife, Jolene S. Kellner). The book you mention, Contemporary Jewish Ethics, grew out of my interest in ethical matters (don’t forget, I am a child of the sixties), out of my teaching religious ethics at the University of Virginia and in consultation with my friend, David M L Olivestone, then editor of the Hebrew Publishing Company. I had no idea that the book had any role, let alone an “immense” one, in shifting the field to halakhic ethics, but I will be sure to tell my wife.

2. What motivated you to write Must a Jew Believe Anything?

Actually, to the best of my recollection, it was
(a) annoyance with the ads the Chief Rabbinate would put in newspapers here in Israel every year before the yamim noraim, warning people not to attend services in Conservative or Reform synagogues. It seemed to me then (and seems to me now) that the Rabbinate would prefer to see secular Israelis spend Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur at the beach or on picnics than in non-Orthodox synagogues.
(b) growing concern over the way in which Orthodoxy, by drawing ever sharper lines of demarcation, pushes Jews away from Torah instead of bringing them closer.
(c) a number of experiences made me realize that the “tinok she-nishba” solution, while well-meaning is deeply patronizing, as well as making very little sense in today’s world.

3. Solomon Schechter and others wrote that Judaism does indeed have theology and dogmas but we have no Council of Nicea for fixed dogma, no dogmatic works, and no inquisition or magisterium. But we do have doctrine. In your afterword, in replying to your critics, you seem to have the same position as Schechter but you label it as “We don’t have to believe rather than “we have dogmas without dogmatisim” Why?

Dogma is a device for determining who is “out”. I think that the demand of the hour is finding ways of keeping Jews “in”.

4. You Maimonides is not Ibn Sina and al Farabi. You seen not to use the intellectualist Neo-Platonism of the Guide of the Perplexed. And both Halevi and Maimonides are reliant on al-Ghazzali and ibn Sina. You seem to have a philosopher’s typology of rational and irrational, natural and supernatural, action or belief that does not correspond to the complexity of the historical data. Are you reading Maimonides thought through the dogmatic lenses of your early work in dogmas in the 14th and 15th century?

Look, you may be right, but you must admit that Rambam invites us to read him in that way. Let me rephrase that. I am writing a book in Hebrew right now, proving (to my complete satisfaction, and, I hope, the satisfaction of my readers) that for Rambam there is no metaphysical, ontological, upfront, innate, etc. difference between Jew and Gentile (as my friend Danny Lasker likes to say, the difference for Rambam is all in the software, not in the hardware). I have been publishing on this for many years; in this new book I address the issue through a very close reading the first, middle, and last halakhot of the Mishneh Torah. The first sentence of the book is: “Maimonides did not know that he was a universalist.” It is obviously the case that we ask questions of Rambam that he may not have asked himself, and we try to follow the implications of his thought to places he may have had no need or interest in getting to (for example: his “proto-feminism”). We are not living in the twelfth century.

5. Does everything boil down to “mymonides” and “yourmonides?”

Hardly; some interpretations make more sense that others, and some are simply ridiculous (for an example, see the discussion in Hakirah 11). I am quite taken with a method proposed by the philosopher Susan Haack (in the context of an argument against epistemological relativism); I see Maimonides’ writings as a kind of crossword puzzle. At any given point in filling out a crossword puzzle, a number of different solutions might satisfy any given hint. But that does not make all solutions equally reasonable. As Haack notes, “How reasonable a crossword entry is depends on how well it is supported by its clue and any already completed entries; how reasonable these other entries are, independent of the entry in question; and how much of the crossword has been completed.” Reading Maimonides as a particularist, for example, demands the revision of a great many already completed entries in the Maimonidean crossword.

6. Rabbinic texts are filled with theological material as read by Schechter, Heschel, and Idel, and the texts of Tanhuma, Pesikta, and Kallir are filled with theological statements. It seems that you are using a 20th century halakhic definition of the rabbis.

Of course there is theological MATERIAL in rabbinic literature ( how could there not be?), but there is no SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY in two sense of the term: (a) an attempt to get clear on the meaning of theological terms (such as “soul”; “free will”; “creation”; “reward and punishment”; “election”) and
(b) there is no attempt to put these (largely inchoate) ideas into any relationship with each other, thus allowing for out and out contradictions, which bother no one. In sum, theology is an answer to questions which did not trouble Hazal one bit.

7. You seem to accept the Buberian distinction between belief and trust and his rejection of dogma, even though you protest that you are not. You accept the rejection of the medieval tradition. I cannot find significant differences between your position and Buber except for the halakhah. Furthermore, you repeat your heavy dependence on Buber in the Irreconcilable Differences? volume, in that case distorting Christianity.

My understanding is that Buber’s distinction is too sharp: Christians also prize trust in God, and Jews do not adopt an “anything goes approach” in matters of belief. But, overall, he is right: emunah means “trust” more than it means “intellectual acquiescence”.

8. You seem heavily dependent on the historical premise that the pressures of modernity causes an intolerance, yet there are lots of 13-18 centuries debates and exclusions over dogma. There were two centuries of Maimonidean debates and then recurrences in 16th- 18th centuries in Poland and Italy. For example, the Gra excommunicated Hasidim because of theology and successfully kept them out of Lita!

It is simply not the case that there “are lots of 13-18 century debates and exclusions over dogma.” As I point out in my book on dogma, Rambam “published” his principles in roughly in 1168 and before 1391 there were next to no “debates and exclusions over dogma.” So, it is hardly surprising that I asked myself why this was the case. Ditto for the lack of “debates and exclusions over dogma” between 1492 and the beginning of the 19th century. As to the Gr”a, you know better than me, but was theology really the main issue between him and the Ba’al ha-Tanya?

9. Are there any orthodox leaders, writers, or thinkers who you follow or inspire you?

Rabbis Marc Angel, Yehudah Amital (z”l), Haim Amsalem, David Bigman, Yuval Cherlow, Edward M. Davis, Ronen Lubitch, Haim Navon, Jonathan Sacks and many others. I am sure that there are others and apologize to those whom I have inadvertently left out.

10. Why have you taken up the case against Torat Hamelekh?

(a) it is a disgusting book
(b) it adds insult to injury by implying that Rambam would agree with them
(c) it is dangerous, giving rabbinic imprimatur to murderous tendencies

11. It seems that you want your cake and to eat it too, you want to be a universalist but through particularistic texts. You avoid pluralism or non- Jewish texts about universalism for a Jewish universalism in which non-Jews will eventually see their universalism through Judaism. You seem to have a very particularistic universalism?

The following is not a direct answer to your question, but it is a good way to end anyway. It is the closing paragraph of an article of mine in a festschrift coming out in honor of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:

While not giving up on the idea that revelation (be it Jewish, Christian, or Muslim) teaches truth in some hard, exclusivist sense, putative addressees of revelation ought to be modest about how much of it they understand, and restrained in the claims they make on behalf of revelation and about adherents of other religions.

Admittedly, it may be easier for a Jew to advance this position than for a Christian or a Muslim. This is so for several reasons. First, until the Middle Ages, at least, Jews sought to understand how God instructs them to inject sanctity into their lives, and paid very little attention to the question of how God expects them to think. Given the notion that the Torah contains many level of meanings, and the profound differences among Jewish thinkers about the nature and content of those meanings, a stance of theological modesty ought to be easier for Jews to maintain than for adherents of more clearly theologically based religions.

Second, given the nature of Jewish-Gentile relations over the last two millennia, Jews had very little reason to look to Gentiles for spiritual enrichment. We, however, live in a different world, and I thank God for that.

Last, Jews, not thinking that one must be Jewish in order to achieve a share in the world to come, have traditionally paid little attention to the beliefs and practices of others. But, having left the ghetto and the mellah, we live in a world very different from that of our forbears and, looking around, discover admirable Gentiles from whom we can learn much. We are no longer alone.

The Lord of all the Universe is not too great to have revealed the Torah to us, but is certainly too great to be captured by our puny understanding of Torah. To claim otherwise is to be guilty of cosmic hubris, and to close ourselves off to the possibility of being enlarged by meetings with others who also seek God and whom God does not ignore.

11 responses to “Interview with Menachem Kellner

  1. I’m appalled that the mere existence of anti-Zionists is a bane for Prof. Kellener, and that being an anti-Zionist disqualifies a person from having anything worthwhile to say about his academic field (in which, I might add, he is quite distinguished).
    I’m not surprised, though. As a member of the Shalem center, a right-wing think tank, Kellner is using the scare tactics of Im Tirzu to instigate a transatlantic witch-hunt against anti-Zionists everywhere.
    Zionism is a political position and there’s nothing wrong with saying that perhaps the “Jewish problem” will not be solved (=has not been solved) by yet another nation state. It’s a valid position, a legal one, and one held by members of Israel’s governing coalition. I don’t see why not let Prof. Boyarin voice his opinions on that and other matters. It’s definitely no less respectable than being a fellow of the Shalem center.

  2. For the sake of throwing if just a little clarity re: Boyarin’s position re: Zionism, let me requote from Alan’s interview with Boyarin the following snippet: “I don’t want to get into a political discussion here but, for me, as hinted below, Zionism does not seem like a traditional or historically orthodox solution to the problems of the Jews (although I will grant that it may have been necessary in some sense as well).”
    In the spirit of Kellner’s work, Boyarin’s statement would seem not to reflect a “dogmatic” form of anti-Zionism.

  3. To take this in a different direction:
    Prof. Kellner,

    Would you mind commenting on the evolution of your work? Meaning, you started out in Jewish ethics and proceeded to Maimonides’ mysticism and issues of dogma. Do you see a common thread linking your work? Is lack of dogma and rationalism, for instance, necessary for an ethical Judaism?

  4. “Zionism is a political position and there’s nothing wrong with saying that perhaps the “Jewish problem” will not be solved (=has not been solved) by yet another nation state.”

    When opposing Zionism means supporting those who openly call for genocide (or denying Israel’s right to use effective military means against them), there is quite a big problem indeed!

    This immense problem is not one of ideology, politics, or dogma, but of basic morality. I.e. of the derekh eretz that comes before Torah. Kellner is absolutely right.

  5. Prof. Kellner,

    I thoroughly enjoy your work, especially “Maimonides Confrontation With Mysticism”. Although the final chapter on angels felt a bit lacking. Would you mind commenting on how you understand Maimonides understanding of Angels. In particular I am curious what you think Rambam would say today when we have done away with Aristotelean physics. What would he write in Chapter 2 of the MT if he were writing it today? Is there definitive evidence that Maimonides rejected the Lurianic notion that each action we do creates angels in the netherworld? And what are we to make of the implicit encounters between angels and people made in Tanach? Any further illumination or elucidation on the subject would be much appreciated.

  6. “For Kellner, since an ordinary Jew who drives to shul can get an aliyah but a Reform Rabbi cannot makes it about dogma.”

    Does a woman count as an “ordinary Jew” as long as she’s not a Reform Rabbi?

  7. from Prof. Kellner:
    thanks for your query about angels…I do not have much to add to what I wrote in the book; Rambam’s strict monotheism outlaws angels as intermediaries, his attachment to what later came to be called Ockham’s Razor outlaws their very existence, his opposition to all forms of astrological and magical thinking made them amanthema to him, etc. You can find more on the subject in the following:
    Diamond, James. Converts, Heretics, and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.
    ———. Maimonides and the Hermeneutics of Concealment: Deciphering Scripture and Midrash in the Guide of the Perplexed. Albany: SUNY Press, 2002.
    Goodman, Lenn. “Maimonidean Naturalism.” In Neoplatonism and Jewish Thought, edited by Lenn Goodman, 157-94. Albany: SUNY Press, 1992.
    Kasher, Hannah. “The Dual Nature of the Biblical Angel in the Philosophy of Maimonides.” In Philosophers and the Jewish Bible, edited by Charles Manekin and Robert Eisen, 41-60. College Park: University of Maryland Press, 2008.
    Kreisel, Howard. Prophecy: The History of an Idea in Medieval Jewish Philosophy. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2001.
    Shapiro, Marc. The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised. London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004.

    as to your query concerning Rambam and modern science, I tried to address that in the attached. Several of these article are easily found in my book, SCIENCE IN THE BET MIDRASH: STUDIES IN MAIMONIDES

  8. Someone asked me:Why did Kellner seem to have both harder and a greater questions than other interviews? Answer: I send everyone the same number of questions but some people answer fewer questions or they only go for the easier questions and ignore the hardball questions. Prof Kellner was open enough to answer more questions and harder ones. Same thing applies to the introductions, the more email banter between me and the interviewee before an interview gets posted the longer and more critical the introduction. The introductions are vetted by the interviewee and I remove what I am asked to remove.

  9. Shalom,
    Just to put things into perspective and to keep the record straight: Prof. Menachem Kellner has balanced his unsurpassed intellectual rigor and vast Jewish knowledge with something else too. Over the course of his life and career, Kellner has devoted a portion of his time and energy to making sure that Israel, Judaism and the Jews, remain focused upon, and associated with the highest standards of human ethical behavior in thought, word and deed. He has seen too much and knows too much to accept the narratives that portray Israel, Judaism or the Jewish people negatively and without sufficient understanding of the reality and context of the issues involved. And he knows too much to accept the trends within Judaism and Israel that portray thoughts, dogmas and deeds that deviate from the highest ethical standards of respect for human beings as fundamental to the core of Jewish tradition. One can find virtually (and perhaps literally) everything and anything within the corpus of Jewish thought and writing. Being able to quote something from a Jewish source does not necessarily make it “Jewish.” To understand the context and centrality of those texts and quotations, we need honest and unbiased scholars. Menachem Kellner is such a scholar. The fact that he is a mentsch is no less important.
    Simon Shimshon Rubin

  10. — Keeping mizvot as the basis of peoplehood to follow God’s command, and produce a stable and structured society. Mizvot without preconditions of belief or authority. —

    I’m confused. How does focusing on peoplehood and praxis, whilst moving away from dogma and dogmatism, solve the problems that divide the religious right and left of Judaism? It seems to me that praxis is exactly what divides us, not theology. Or more precisely, what divides us are differences in the ways we reason about praxis and incorporate secular philosophy into our dialog with source texts .

  11. walter benjamin

    I think the simple point here is that one is permitted to harbor whatever opinions he wishes to harbor but to publicly voice them and consider himself a Jew is a ‘sensationalist’ act for bringing attention to himself.

    edited by site owner

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