Monthly Archives: February 2016

Interview with Rabbi Michael Harris – Faith Without Fear

What does Modern Orthodoxy look like across the pond over in London? How would the Torah uMadda Journal or Orthodox Forum sound outside of the original American context? One can get a sense from reading the new book by Rabbi Dr. Michael J Harris Faith Without Fear: Unresolved Issues in Modern Orthodoxy (hc available pb due in May). Faith without Fear vividly conveys the important religious issues that are on the mind of Michael Harris, a leading Modern Orthodox pulpit rabbi and Cambridge don. Harris presents an overview of contemporary debates within Modern Orthodoxy and then offers his own perspective, one man’s Judaism.

harris cover

Rabbi Dr Michael Harris studied at Ma’ale Adumim, Machon Harry Fischel and Yeshivat HaMivtar in Efrat. He holds rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel;  his first degree in philosophy from Cambridge University, Masters from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem., and Ph.D in philosophy from the University of London. Rabbi Harris became Rabbi of the Hampstead Synagogue in 1995.(The historic synagogue is located in bastion of downtown wealthy liberalism and its past rabbis included Raymond Apple and Norman Solomon.)  He is an Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge.  And as his bio notes: “When unable to find sufficient aggravation within the Anglo-Jewish community, Rabbi Harris seeks it in his capacity as a proud, card-carrying member of Chelsea Football Club.”

His father was Cyril K. Harris, Chief Rabbi of The Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa from 1987 to 2004, before that he held pulpits in London for 30 years.  His son, Michael grew up as part of the old-time United Synagogue.  He is still an advocate of a broad tent synagogue and a Rabbi needing a doctorate in philosophy as essential for a sophisticated rabbinate.

Harris thinks that Modern Orthodoxy must have the courage to be modern and to be secure enough to not submit to the rival Haredi world. Hence Harris addresses issues with Orthodoxy that he feels others are afraid to publicly tackle from a modern perspective. The work is a summary and evaluation of current answers written for a British community and will not be new for an American audience. His six topics for a modern Orthodoxy are (1)A need to reject the encroachment of Haredi views (2) a support for increasing women’s roles (3)superstition and kabbalah (4)Torah mi Sinai (5) messianism and messianic politics, and (6) other religions.

British modern Orthodoxy is currently converging in certain aspects with United States modern Orthodoxy. Originally, a hundred years ago they were quite different.   American modern Orthodoxy tended to be low-church and led by the recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. In contrast, the British United Synagogue was high church movement funded by the wealthy to have  Victorian Anglican Catholic sensibilities.  The seminary that they established- Jews College-  was modeled in its curriculum on Western European model seminaries and structured by Rabbi Hertz to follow his alma mater JTS of America and over the decades it was staffed by graduates of both JTS of Breslau and Berlin Hildesheimer.  They originally did not have Eastern European attitudes or patterns of study.

On the other hand, they also lacked the immense influence of Mordechai Kaplan on modern Orthodoxy in that their synagogues remained high church rather than a community center with a pool, men’s and women’s club, social hall, and suburban values. They avoided the divide between Orthodoxy and Conservative that defined the American landscape.  The majority of congregants in United Synagogue congregations defined themselves as traditional.   Imagine, if the majority of traditional and right wing Conservative congregations of the 20th century remained in the Orthodox rubric.

I have blogged in the past about Herbert Loewe, Abraham Cohen and Isidore Epstein who operated using the Victorian model, It was  Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits who sought to bring the United Synagogue more into line with Modern Orthodoxy.

However, currently, according to the  2015 United Synagogue Strategic Review, their own self-study, they are losing 1000 members a year of their meager 80, 000 members since the old-time traditionalists Jews are increasingly moving to define themselves as just Jewish. Of United Synagogue members,  23% keep Shabbat and 73% separate meat and milk at home and only 36% avoid non- kosher meat when eating out, in addition 60 % of the congregations are in areas of declining Jewish  population. (The report also noted that Kiruv organization rabbis make more money than synagogue rabbis.)

The report encourages synagogues to become community oriented focusing on families and children, become warmer, more outreach, to become welcoming and more inclusive, reach out to former members, and to have more cultural events.

At the same time, there is within congregations a tension between those who want to continue the broad tent model and those who advocate making the synagogue focused more only on the Orthodox (which over time would shrink the membership  to a mere fraction of its current numbers.)

Rabbi Michael Harris was one of the few Orthodox rabbi who has attended Limmud and has attended since  1994. His view is for stronger Orthodox rabbinic participation at Limmud with  Orthodox rabbis at Limmud in larger numbers. He has written against those who think Limmud as a “rejection of all that is precious to Orthodox Judaism.” Harris  has also written concerning those who ban Limmud: “ I struggle to understand how rabbonim, however senior and respected, can claim to know the mind of HaShem concerning Limmud – a claim that could legitimately be made only by a prophet…  I struggle to understand a simplistic Manichean view of the world in which haredi Orthodoxy is the sole, direct and simple continuation of Torah miSinai and every other contemporary form of Judaism is deluded. “ Hence Harris’s book is offering a British alternative to those “rabbis who deliberately live lives totally secluded from the mainstream British Jewish community. One doubts whether they understand that community, let alone Limmud.”

Harris’ view may have already been stated in the United States- it almost reads like a series of EDAH  (a”h) lectures-  but he is writing for his British audience.  He also has taken pen in reaction to rabbis who in submission to the Beth Din has stopped allowing women to carry a Sefer Torah.  For Harris, “if rabbis are not permitted to rule on such issues in their own synagogues, we risk – as I have said in previous such instances – the infantilisation of the United Synagogue rabbinate. “

He has also been outspoken on women’s roles in the synagogue. In Harris’ opinion, “the momentum towards greater empowerment of women in our religious and communal life is unstoppable. That is the good news. The bad news is that US  [United Synagogue] members who would like to see principled movement and development in this area will likely have to go outside the United Synagogue to find it. “

And they have found it by starting a branch of JOFA in the UK and Rabbi Harris invited a Maharat student studying in the Maharat program in NY  to give lectures and has appointed her as Scholar-In Residence.  This was condemned obliquely by the current Chief Rabbi Mirvis  as a call not to invite “inappropriate speakers” but the newspaper wrote “Michael Harris, of course, has long been the flagbearer for modern Orthodoxy within the United Synagogue…” We have come full circle with an apparent convergence of modern Orthodoxy between the two countries on selected issues. This book points out those issues.


  1. Why should Modern Orthodoxy have faith without Fear? Why is there so much fear in Modern Orthodoxy?

Modern Orthodoxy should have faith without fear because the challenges confronting Orthodoxy in modernity, such as the welcome revolution in the status of women in society and our knowledge of the Ancient Near East, have to be met and not avoided if we are to have an Orthodox Judaism that is intellectually and morally compelling. We also need faith without fear in privileging certain strands of our tradition over others – for example Maimonidean universalism over kabbalistic essentialism and noble messianic visions over vengeful ones.

Further, Modern Orthodoxy has no reason not to be self-confident rather than diffident vis-a-vis Haredi Orthodoxy. There is no such thing as a contemporary form of Judaism which constitutes a seamless continuation of pre-modern Jewish tradition. The changes brought about by modernity have made that impossible. What can be done is to try and continue pre-modern traditional Judaism as faithfully as possible in the modern world, and Modern Orthodoxy has at least as much claim to be doing that as Haredi Orthodoxy, which in some respects, perhaps most obviously the doctrine of “da’as Torah”, has introduced phenomena which were not a feature of historical Jewish tradition.

I think that much of the fear in Modern Orthodoxy comes from an inferiority complex and the unspoken feeling that Charedi Orthodoxy is somehow more authentic. That inferiority complex is, as I have tried to explain above, misguided, but it is unhelpfully bolstered by what seems to be the sociological fact that more Jews who identify with Modern Orthodoxy are lax about mitzvah observance in some areas than are haredi Jews. There ought of course to be no difference between Haredi and Modern Orthodox Jews on e.g. the details of Shabbat, kashrut or taharat hamishpacha observance. There may be ideological difference over some chumrot, but when it comes to punctiliousness in observing Halakhah, there is no ideological difference and ought to be no sociological difference.

It is crucial to note that perceived ‘leniency’ for ideological reasons is no less ‘frum’ than Haredi stringency. As the Seridei Eish points out in his famous responsum on Bat Mitzvah, those who are in favour of celebrating Bat Mitzvah are no less concerned about the continuity of Jewish faith and tradition than those who oppose such celebration.

2) How does British United Synagogue differ from American Modern and Centrist Orthodoxy?

The lay membership of the British United Synagogue is much more varied. Its synagogues contain haredi Jews (although not a large number, and by no means in every Shul), Jews who are Modern Orthodox in the American sense, Jews who are not and would not claim to be fully Shabbat– or kashrut-observant but who are strongly traditional, and a large proportion of non-observant Jews who just want to belong to an Orthodox Shul for their own lifecycle events and for the High Holydays. My impression is that American Modern Orthodox communities, certainly in the greater New York area, are much more homogeneous in profile, religious observance and ideology.  The rabbinate of the United Synagogue also seems to be more diverse than that of American Modern Orthodoxy, comprising haredi (with a particularly marked Chabad presence) and Modern Orthodox, with the haredi rabbis probably in the majority. The ideology of the United Synagogue is also deliberately not specifically Modern Orthodox despite the organisation containing several Modern Orthodox rabbis and many Modern Orthodox congregants.

3) What is the divide between Haredi  and Modern Orthodoxy? Why should Modern Orthodoxy resist Haredi influence?

There is a deep divide of mindset and Weltanschauung. Modern Orthodoxy’s mindset is much more rationalist (as opposed to mystical) and scientific than that of Haredi Orthodoxy. Moreover, Modern Orthodoxy views the modern world as something to be engaged with, albeit critically, rather than as something to be shut out, in most respects, as far as possible.

At the level of specific though major issues there are of course further important divides. These issues include the religious significance of the State of Israel (as opposed to the religious significance of Eretz Yisrael which is agreed by both camps), the role and status of women in Judaism, secular studies, particularly the humanities and philosophy, modern scientific understandings of the universe, rabbinic authority versus personal autonomy, and universalistic versus particularistic emphases.

Modern Orthodoxy should resist Haredi influence at the ideological level because its own ideology is (at the least) every bit as legitimate as Haredi ideology as a faithful attempt to continue millennial Jewish tradition in the modern world, and from a Modern Orthodox perspective, many fundamental Haredi positions are deeply mistaken – for example, its failure to appreciate the religious significance of Zionism and the State of Israel. Haredi influence towards punctiliousness (though not necessarily stringencies), intensity and enthusiasm in the observance of mitzvot is however salutary, and I think that both communities would actually benefit from more dialogue and interaction.

4) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward the role of women and toward feminism?

Modern Orthodoxy should view feminism as an essentially positive phenomenon. Beneath all its varieties and manifestations, the core values of feminism are values that Modern Orthodoxy views or should view as being at the heart of Judaism – the fundamental equality of men and women, justice and human dignity. This is what some Orthodox critics of feminism miss when they talk of feminism as alien to traditional Judaism or as a passing fad.

Modern Orthodoxy should work towards enhancing the role of women in Jewish religious and communal life. There is still much work to be done and we should not take refuge in the apologetic idea that men and women already have equal though different roles. Expanding the role of women should be done in a way which is halakhically rigorous and faithful to traditional halakhic texts and methodology, and at a pace which allows the global Modern Orthodox community to sense continuity with rather than a radical break from previous generations of halakhically observant Jews. But I think that within those parameters, much positive development is possible  – witness, to take just one obvious and central example, the wonderful growth, both quantitative and qualitative, of  women’s Torah study (in parts of the haredi world as well as the Modern Orthodox world) in recent decades. This phenomenon has greatly strengthened rather than weakened Orthodoxy.

Similar developments are possible in many other areas once we accept the insight of gedolim such as the Chafetz Chaim and the Seridei Eish who taught us that sometimes the ‘frumest’ response is not ‘no change, ever’ but rather recognising radically altered social circumstances and accommodating them in a responsible halakhic way.

5) How can you go against the chief rabbi on women’s issues? Why did you invite a Maharat?

I do not ‘go against the Chief Rabbi’ on women’s issues. I have expressed disagreement with some initiatives in some shuls being stopped when I believed they should not have been stopped.  That is healthy debate. It is perfectly possible to accept the Chief Rabbi’s authority while expressing polite disagreement.

Dina Brawer, who is a student at Yeshivat Maharat, is Scholar in Residence for the current Jewish/academic year at our Shul, where she continues to deliver superb shiurim and attract large audiences from both our own and neighbouring communities. The aim is to have a different woman scholar in residence at our Shul every year in order to further encourage women’s Torah scholarship. Dina is a local and fine scholar and was an obvious choice, and there was no opposition whatsoever to her appointment in our Shul. The onus is on those outside our Shul who unsuccessfully opposed the appointment to explain why an Orthodox woman scholar with whom some may disagree on particular issues should have been denied a platform to give valuable shiurim on non-contentious topics. To my mind, their position reflects a lack of intellectual and religious self-confidence.

6) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward Kabbalah, mysticism, and magic?

Jewish mystical traditions pose a fascinating challenge for Modern Orthodoxy. The Modern Orthodox mindset is rationalistic as opposed to mystical and so mysticism tends to be marginalised or ignored. But there is much in our mystical traditions that can enrich the spiritual world of the Modern Orthodox Jew – prayers, Torah commentaries, practices such as meditation. Rav Kook is fascinating here because he holds out the intriguing possibility that distinctively Modern Orthodox positions like a positive attitude to Zionism or evolution can actually be grounded in our best-known mystical tradition, Kabbalah.

At the same time, some aspects of Kabbalah, in particular, present severe difficulties for Modern Orthodox Jews. Essentialism, whether applied to men and women or Jews and non-Jews – the idea of deep, intrinsic differences which make one sex or one group radically superior to a (sometimes literally demonised) other – has to be jettisoned by any plausible Modern Orthodox ethics. One strategy here is, as consistently advocated by Menachem Kellner, to take Maimonides as our guide in rejecting essentialism and to privilege his deep universalism.

Regarding magic, we should follow Me’iri in adopting naturalistic interpretations.

7) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward Biblical criticism?

The first thing is to be prepared to face the challenges posed by Biblical criticism and, more broadly, academic biblical scholarship and not simply to try and hide from them, as most of the haredi world and much of our own Modern Orthodox world tends to do. The conclusions of Biblical criticism are easily available on the internet, encountered by many of our kids at college, and familiar to many educated people in our community. It is not possible to ignore them, and much more importantly it is intellectually dishonest to do so. The Maharal’s beautiful passage at the end of Be’er Hagolah about the courage to take on intellectual challenges to our faith and strengthen and refine our faith through our encounter with them is the only feasible model for Modern Orthodoxy in the area of Biblical criticism as in other areas.

The next step is to analyse academic biblical studies into its relevant component parts and to respond appropriately. Lower Biblical Criticism is unproblematic and even religiously salutary, as argued by Rav Chaim Hirschensohn and others. Regarding Higher Criticism or the Documentary Hypotheses, my view is that Modern Orthodoxy does not need to and should not follow the approach of (for example) Rabbis Louis Jacobs and accept the view of the Torah as a composite document. The underlying assumptions of the Documentary Hypothesis and its many contemporary versions can be coherently questioned.

To my mind, the most serious challenge to Orthodoxy from contemporary academic biblical scholarship comes from our modern knowledge of the Ancient Near East. In particular, close similarities to the wording of verses of the Torah in texts such as the Code of Hammurabi and the Code of Eshnunna, which predate the traditional date of the Giving of the Torah, need to be explained.

I suggest that a way of addressing this issue is to draw on the Byzantine midrashic tradition highlighted by Rav Amnon Bazak in his book Ad Hayom Hazeh but not applied by him to this challenge. This tradition posits an alternative to the model of the Torah as totally ‘dictated’ word-for-word by God to Moses and allows Moses a greater role in the formulation of some verses in the Torah. It seems to make more sense that Moses might draw on existing legal texts in faithfully formulating in words the Divine content of certain laws than to say that God ‘dictated’ to Moses using almost the precise language of other ancient Near Eastern law codes. This proposal may be unconventional, but I believe it is fully compatible with Orthodox belief in the Divinity of the Torah. It may have sounded very strange to many people in previous generations, but they simply did not have the knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern texts that is easily available to us today.

8) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward Messianism?

Messianic hopes are of course an important part of traditional Jewish belief and very much reflected in our liturgy. But Modern Orthodoxy needs in my view to think more about the nature of the Messianic era that we pray for and not restrict its interest in messianism to debates about whether the religious significance of the State of Israel should be construed in messianic or non-messianic categories. There are radically differing conceptions of the messianic era in our sources and in particular in our medieval rabbinic literature. Maimonides’ conception, for example, is very naturalistic: the messianic world will resemble the present world in many respects. A good representative of the other major medieval trend is Abarbanel, whose messianism is apocalyptic, viewing the messianic world as essentially a miraculous new world built on the ruins of this one.

I don’t think that Modern Orthodoxy necessarily need privilege the naturalistic over the apocalyptic vision in all respects. What is wrong with a world in which wolves literally live peacefully with lambs, even though Maimonides sees this as only a metaphor? But where Modern Orthodoxy does have to choose which messianic vision to endorse is when it comes to the ethical arena. Medieval apocalyptic messianism sometimes went with anticipation of the humiliation or even annihilation of the non-Jewish world. Modern Orthodoxy’s messianic vision needs to privilege those strands in our tradition which look forward to a messianic future of universal peace, justice and harmony.

9) What should be the Modern Orthodox attitude toward Other Faiths?

I believe that Modern Orthodoxy should resist a strong pluralism which views Judaism and other faiths as equally true, so that, for example, Judaism is true for Jews, Christianity for Christians and Islam for Muslims. There is a more moderate but still valuable kind of pluralism suggested by Me’iri according to which we validate the self-understanding of other religions as religions without accepting all their truth-claims as being on a par with our own.  Believing in the truth of the core claims of our own faith is also perfectly compatible with a positive attitude towards other faiths.

As a religious Jew who believes that Judaism is right and Christianity (for example) wrong on the messianism of Jesus and the relative status of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, I can still and should still accept that Christianity teaches a great deal of moral truth, that it brings blessing to the lives of many individuals and communities who adhere to it, and indeed that it strengthens the moral fabric of many contemporary societies, including the Western ones in which we live. We should also be open to what other faiths and their literatures can teach us – for example, as Jerome Gellman suggests, by their ability to convey shared truths in a particularly powerful way.

10) Was it OK to have mixed choirs in United Synagogue synagogues?  

No, it was not OK, mostly in my view because it involved men and women sitting together in services. My Shul, Hampstead, famously had a mixed choir for longer than most other synagogues (it disbanded many years before I became the rabbi, I hasten to add). [They removed the mixed choir in 1987]  Mixed choirs in United Synagogues were a reflection (though by no means the most serious) of precisely the somewhat lax attitude to some areas of Halakhah that does Modern Orthodoxy no favours and has nothing to do with its ideology.

11) Do major rabbis need a PhD? Why is it important? How has a PhD helped in the Rabbinate?

I think that rabbis of major congregations need to be at least as well secularly educated as their congregants. A PhD isn’t the only way of trying to achieve this goal but it is one way of helping to attain it. Having a PhD and more importantly having ongoing academic interests has been invaluable to me in the rabbinate because the teaching side of the rabbinic role, and the academic research and teaching, feed off each other and are mutually enriching in ways which are productive not just for me but I hope for my congregants as well. To give just one example, working recently on an academic paper on aspects of the interface between treatments of the problem of evil in Chazal and in contemporary philosophy of religion at the same time as teaching an adult education course on the same topic in my shul enhanced both projects. Among other things, the academic project lent another dimension to what I could present to my congregants and forced me to do this in a way that was hopefully clear and accessible to non-specialists, while my congregants’ questions and discussion sharpened my thinking on the academic project.

12) What should the criteria for membership in an Orthodox synagogue?

I have had various ideological battles with colleagues in the United Synagogue over the years. But for me the United Synagogue has got something right that is absolutely fundamental. It is this: although its shuls are Orthodox, with Orthodox rabbis, mechitzot and davening, the only criterion for membership is that one is halakhically Jewish. It upsets me to hear of shuls where one has to be shomer mitzvoth in order to be a member. What is the point, in the contemporary Jewish world where so many Jews need encouragement and support in their Jewish lives, of shomrei mitzvot setting up their own homogeneous shuls and just looking after themselves? Yet this seems to be such a widespread phenomenon in the Orthodox community globally – homogeneous Shuls, even homogeneous yishuvim or neighbourhoods in Israel. The most noble way of running an Orthodox shul is to open it to every Jew. With all the difficulties it entails, that is the best way of fulfilling our responsibilities to the Jewish people as a whole.

Interview with Menachem Kellner- They Too are Called Human: Gentiles in the Eyes of Maimonides

The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) teaches the universal doctrine that God began humanity by creating an individual human being, Adam, “to teach that if anyone destroy a single soul from humankind, Scripture charges him as though he had destroyed a whole world, and whoever saves a single soul from humankind, Scripture credits him as though he had saved a whole world.” However, at a later date, the text of this Mishnah was revised to be particularistic, so that many editions currently read that Adam was created alone “to teach that if anyone destroy a single soul from Israel… and whoever saves a single soul from Israel…” A universal teaching has thus been transformed to a particularist view valuing Jewish life, rather than the value of all human life.

Kellner cover again

Menachem Kellner has devoted the last decades to writing a series of books defending the universal voice in Judaism. Kellner currently teaches Jewish philosophy at Shalem College, integrating Western and Jewish texts, after having spent thirty years teaching at the University of Haifa, where he held the Sir Isaac and Lady Edith Wolfson Chair of Jewish Religious Thought. For more information, I interviewed him in the past on his views of belief and his friend Prof. James Diamond wrote a  detailed  laudatory intellectual biography of Kellner. 

Kellner has authored nineteen books most of them devoted to his project of advocating that Maimonides’ rationalist universalism should serve as the ideal for contemporary modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionist life.

Recently, he has written They Too are Called Human: Gentiles in the Eyes of Maimonides [In Hebrew] arguing that Maimonides was convinced that Jewish doctrine teaches that there is no essential difference between Israel and the other nations of the world. For Kellner, the distortion of Maimonides by later Rabbis is a tragic distortion, the differences between the nations and Israel, are solely at the level of laws, of history, of destiny. The work is a presentation of the universalism on Maimonides showing the reader the proof texts for such a thesis and answering those who read the texts in different way focusing on three texts in the Mishnah Torah, Foundation of the Torah 1:1-6, Sabbatical Year 13:12-13; Kings 12:5.   Much of this discussion has already appeared in his articles and has been debated  in the field. See  Table of Contents in English here.  The work was published by Bar Ilan Press as part of very good series on Jewish thought.

Orthodox Jewish universalism is not new. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and his son Dr. Mendel Hirsch advocated a Romantic brotherhood of mankind, (see the  volume  Humanism and Judaism by Mendel Hirsch), but the Hirschian approach is not followed anymore. Moshe Unna (1902–1989) brought a universal position to the Mizrachi Worker’s party and the Mafdal, arguing for liberal democracy as a pillar of Jewish humanism, but that too has been eclipsed (see the fine article by Moshe Hellinger and this book).

Orthodox Maimonidean scholars such as Isadore Twersky already pointed out how Maimonides was always careful to distinguish the universal elements in philosophy and religion from the particular legal aspect. Hence, there is an Aristotelian ethic of the wise available to all to follow the ethical mean and the particular Jewish ethic for select Jews of the saint to go to an extreme against anger or pride. Or that the Mishnah Torah distinguishes between the universal knowledge of a first cause divinity and the specifics of accepting the prophecy of Moses. Yet, Maimonides wrote in his letter to R. Samuel ibn Tibbon, that Aristotle had reached the highest level of perfection available to human beings short of prophecy, placing the philosopher above almost all Jews.

Even the Yemenite rationalist scholar Rabbi Yosef Qafiḥ (Kapach) (1917 –2000) made these distinctions in his fine editions of the medieval Jewish rational classics. But a serious reading of these essential works in their philosophic context has been obscured by contemporary Rabbis in their misquotations of Maimonides.

This latter point motivated Kellner, who is upset by the turn among religious Jews towards particularism with its concurrent preaching of irrationality, essentialism, and dogmatism. Hence, as expressed in his preface, his works are an explicit polemic against these positions and the rabbis who hold them, in that, he considers these particularistic thoughts, to capture his rather colloquial style, fakrimt, farfallen, farblonjet, farfoilt, farshlugginner, as well as dangerous.

In prior works, Kellner directly condemned the rabbis who are anti-science and in favor of superstition by showing that Maimonides advocated science and condemned superstition. When rabbis speak of the essentialist metaphysical nature of ritual, land, Torah, and Jews, Kellner responds by showing that Maimonides treated all these as instrumental, sociological, and based their value toward human perfection.

To emphasize his point for the contemporary reader, Kellner even creates an ahistoric dichotomy of mystic irrational essentialists and anti-mystical universal rationalists. Out of bounds of the discussion would be the Universalism of mystic essentialism of Rav Kook who wrote, “The love for Israel entails a love for all humankind” since he would fall into the wrong side of the dichotomy.

On the other hand, when Maimonides seemingly supports a dogmatic or doctrinal position, Kellner sharply rejects Maimonides claiming that Maimonides view of belief was an alien import. In many other cases, Kellner rejects Maimonidean intellectualism favoring Buber’s definition of faith, Hermann Cohen’s ethics, a greater role for the emotional, and a defense of the secular defenders of the State of Israel.

Kellner is highly selective in his reading of Maimonides avoiding the mystical, illuminationist, and pietistic elements of the great rationalist’s thought. He also generally avoids the skeptical aspects of Maimonides’ thought especially where he points out the limits of knowledge and the naturalistic Maimonides who follows Farabi. The Islamic naturalists Farabi, ibn Sina and  ibn Bajjah all have universalist conceptions in which the contemplative of any faith community is higher than the law abiding practitioners of specific faiths. Kellner does not explain why Maimonides reveals his similar position only in Guide III:51.

One of Menachem Kellner’s model for a Jewish Universalism, he even organized a conference to honor him, is Leon Roth, the first Chair in Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1928).  Roth also spent many years uncovering their universal significance for human life. He constantly accentuates the basic features of equality stating: “The children of earth are envisaged as one family. There is by nature no such thing as caste or class, no differentiation by blood or descent. Human equality is thus a primary fact”.  For Roth, Judaism must remain true to its universalistic origins.

Yet, for Roth universalism required one to not forget the universalism in the practical realm. Therefore, Roth resigned his position in 1948 and returned to Britain because of the wanton killing of civilians and by the treatment of refugees following the fighting in 1947-8 along with the lack of condemnation among the general Israeli population. Roth’s reading of the Jewish texts led him to advocate the establishment of a bi-national political entity with complete equality of rights between Jews and Palestinians. Kellner, however, is firmly committed to his own form of particularism, the moral superiority of Judaism in fulfilling universal values, albeit, without the essentialism. He seeks to correct false opinions, but is not concerned with creating imperatives or calls to action.

Michael Waltzer, in a very perceptive article on Jewish universalism, with a greater sense of the complexity of the tradition, wrote:

Orthodox Jews (not all of them, but many) uphold what they take to be the true understanding of divine election and halakhic [Jewish law] order against the ever-encroaching forces of Western culture. They are resolutely opposed to universalism, at least in its secular philosophical and political versions. They have little use for the idea of human rights or for the claims that are made in its name

Kellner seeks to correct this problem of Orthodoxy with his defense of universalism in Orthodoxy but he does not offer ethical demands and moral vistas like Unna, or Emmanuel Levinas. Confirming Walzer’s analysis that the “universalism from within traditional Judaism ” does not attempt a grand philosophic universalism, rather it only yields “what might be called a “low-flying” universalism; that is, one worked out in close contact with the political landscape. Its crucial moral perception is the existence of other nations as moral and legal agents.” For Walzer, “this acknowledgement of the others derives from Jewish particularism; it is, so to speak, the turning outward of a particularist perspective.”

In many ways, it is precisely Kellner’s commitment to changing a particular moral landscape using particularistic texts in order to find a greater space for non-Jews as moral and intellectual agents within a specific Orthodox context that makes him the philosopher of universalism and rationality who feels responsible to write his very readable and erudite books, especial his most recent They Too Are called Human: Gentiles in the Eyes of Maimonides, in order to change the agenda from within.

Kellner headshot

  1. What is the thesis of your book?

Simply put: Judaism is both universalist and particularist and Maimonides was a universalist in the sense that he thought that all human beings are equally made in the image of God and that there is no essential difference between Jews as such and non-Jews as such. When I was working on the book a close and beloved relative asked me what I was working on. When I told him, he asked, in obvious amazement: “Do you really believe that?!”

2) According to Maimonides, what is Image of God (Tzelem Elokim)?

Maimonides thinks it is human intellectual abilities. The image of God is that which distinguishes human beings from animals (but not Jews from non-Jews!). I personally do not think that the Torah means only intellect, although I certainly think that intellect is part of the mix.

All humans can show holiness by reaching out to God intellectually (largely by studying God’s creation after having achieved a high level of moral perfection). Mizvot are a God-given tool to achieve that moral perfection, but, like all tools, are not irreplaceable. Otherwise, Maimonides could never have said, as he did in his letter to R. Samuel ibn Tibbon, that Aristotle had reached the highest level of perfection available to human beings short of prophecy.

3) How do the presentations of  pollution, evil inclination, and snake (zuhama, yetzer hara and nahash) show that Maimonides does not maintain that there is an essential difference between Jews and non-Jews?

We find in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 22b) a statement to the effect that all human beings were polluted by the snake which had sex with Eve. That “original sin ” pollution was removed from Israel at Sinai. One could, of course, read this to teach that by accepting the Torah the Jewish people were made different from and superior to other nations, Maharal does assume this.

But it makes as much sense to read it as teaching that the Torah removes the pollution.  Jews are not better than non-Jews per se, but we were expected to behave better. That, in effect, is how Maimonides reads the passage in the Guide (II.30), that correct thinking removes the pollution.

The snake in the Garden of Eden story symbolizes the very active imagination with which human beings are endowed; this imagination often leads us astray. This tendency to allow the imagination to confuse us is symbolized by the “pollution.” The Torah helps us to avoid the mistakes to which we are otherwise prone. By the way, Maimonides finds the simple sense of this passage in Avodah Zarah to be “abhorrent” (Guide, II.30).

4)  What is the pillar of wisdom (hokhmah) and why is it important if it does not lead to conjunction, overflow, or union?

Maimonides opens his Mishneh Torah  by stating: yesod ha-yesodot ve-amud ha-hokhmot leyda she-yesh sham matzui rishon. Following R. Isaac Abravanel, I translate that as follows: “The foundation of all [religious] foundations is the axiom on which all the sciences are based, to wit:  to know that there is a Prime Existent.”

I spend 4 chapters of my new book explaining the sentence, but perhaps it would be sufficient here to cite Abravanel’s complaint about it:

Why in the Sefer ha-Madda did Maimonides write of the first principle that it was ‘the foundation of all foundations and the pillar of the sciences’ when he should have said, ‘one of the foundations’, not ‘the foundation of all foundations’? Of what concern is it of ours whether or not this foundation is the pillar of gentile sciences, which are not of the Children of Israel (1 Kings 9:20)?” [Abravanel, Rosh Amanah, ch. 5]

Abravanel correctly understood Maimonides to be here importing [“Gentile”] science into the very heart of Torah. Maimonides did this in the context of a particular philosophical understanding of the nature of human intellect and its crucial role in achieving and maintaining contact with God. Abrabanel noticed that Maimonides claims that the “secrets” of the Torah, is a science open in principle to all human beings, study of which is a positive commandment.

While no one today accepts the philosophical underpinnings of Maimonides’ system, we should still ask ourselves: should we not seek to emphasize the sapiens part of our being homo sapiens? Should we not take advantage of one of the important parts of our makeup that distinguishes us from other animals? Indeed, since Maimonidean orthodoxy can never be simply orthopraxy, or social orthodoxy, not to examine the theological underpinnings of our behavior is, in effect, to behave like a robot.

5) Should we be as intellectually elitist as Maimonides? Are the mentally challenged like simians, as stated by medieval rationalists, and therefore will not get the world to come? Is stupid Judaism without wisdom not Judaism?

Let me make one thing clear. Once my wife complained about Maimonides’ elitism, blaming me for it. It did no good to explain that I was simply teaching what he said, without agreeing with it. In order to preserve shalom bayit (peace in the home) I hung a list of Maimonides’ mistakes on the door to our fridge. The first of those related to his intellectual elitism.

Since no one knows what it actually means to earn a share in the world to come, I am not about to express an opinion about who gets in and who does not. One thing, however, is clear: stupid Judaism, contra Maimonides, is still Judaism. Were that not the case, we would have to exclude a huge number of Jews (some of them quite prominent) from Judaism.

6) How did Rav Elchanan Wasserman get Maimonides incorrect?

In one of the chapters of my book I criticize  the way in which Reb Elhanan Wasserman, hy”d, presented Maimonides. Once, when I was much youngerI got into a lot of trouble by telling someone near and dear to me (who then practiced and still now practices a religion which I consider to be close to Judaism) that Reb Elhanan was an unsophisticated philosopher. My interlocutor replied by chasing me with a baseball bat around the yeshiva building in which this conversation took place. One can hardly blame Reb Elhanan for reading Maimonides as if he were a Yiddish-speaking yeshiva-head – otherwise, how could he take him seriously?

But, to judge him more charitably, it may be that Reb Elhanan, who was at one and the same time a very smart and obviously leaned man and also extremely intolerant of modernity and of Zionism, understood what Maimonides actually taught, but wanted to save him from himself as it were, or, at the very least, make sure that those raised to see Maimonides as a paragon of Jewish learning and of Jewish thought were not damaged by exposure to his actual ideas.

Reb Elhanan read Maimonides as if Maimonides had not read and been influenced by Aristotle and al-Farabi, among many others. This was not the way in which the RaN and Hasdai Crescas read Maimonides; they were unflummoxed by the fact that Maimonides got many important things wrong about Judaism (according to them), but it is the way in which much of the “yeshiva world” reads him to this day. BTW, were Maimonides to address us today, my best guess is that he would not tell us to read contemporary philosophers, but to study physics.

7) What is the problem with those who see an essential difference between Jews and Non-Jews?

What is the problem with those who see an essential difference between Jews and non-Jews? In the preface to my new book I discuss three examples of Judaic particularism: the disgusting, insane views put forward by the authors of the infamous Sefer Torah Ha-Melekh, the more moderate view of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, and the even more moderate view of Rabbi Herschel Schachter.

In contrast to Maimonides,  Rabbi Aviner follows Judah Halevi in claiming that the Jews are the chosen people because only they could have become the chosen people: Israel received the Torah at Sinai because no other nation could have received it. R. Aviner adds to this Halevi base ideas culled from Kabbalistic sources. Channeling, as it were, the Or ha-Hayyim ha-Kadosh (on Lev 20:26), for example, he writes (in a work addressed to IDF recruits!) that the difference between a dead gentile and a live gentile is not as great as the difference between a dead Jew and a live Jew. One would think that rabbis would have learned a certain measure of restraint in light of all that has transpired here in Israel over the last 20 years (since the assassination of Yizhak Rabin, z”l), but it seems that rabbinic irresponsibility knows few bounds.

In a more moderate vein, Rabbi Herschel Schachter of YU seems to misinterpret Avot III.14 in order to maintain that while all humans are created in the image of God, Jews are more created in the image of God. I have no idea what that could possibly mean. This appears to be a theological novum in Judaism, designed to moderate the hard-edged particularism of earlier authorities so as to make it more acceptable to contemporary ears. It does not work.

There are several problems with these views. Anyone raised on the US Declaration of Independence will find them abhorrent, since they maintain that all humans are not created equal. Of course, that will not bother anyone who rejects the idea that “all humans are created equal.” Perhaps the fact that these views go against the peshat of the opening chapters of the Torah that, everyone is created in the image of God, might give some people a moment’s pause.

But since, as Maimonides said, “the gates of interpretation are never closed,” there are many ways that one can get around the fact that the views on this issue espoused by Rabbis Aviner and Schachter fly in the face of explicit teachings of the Torah.

There is also, of course, the slight problem that the idea that Jews are in some innate way superior to non-Jews is simply false. There is no evidence whatsoever to support the claim, and plenty of counter-examples. Just last week, Michal Fruman, who was wounded in an Arab knife attack, was quoted in the Makor Rishon newspaper as saying that the Arab ambulance driver who took her to the hospital was much more sensitive and caring than many Jews she knows.

I realize that the fact that I also find the view to be immoral is not likely to carry much weight.

8) If a Jew must not believe anything and there is not one Jewish opinion, then why pick your approach over essentialist approaches other than person taste or moral taste?

 My argument in Must a Jew Believe Anything? is not that Jews may believe anything they please, and that there is no such thing as incorrect Jewish beliefs. Rather, I argue that belief in Judaism is best construed as fidelity, faithfulness, loyalty, trustworthiness, etc., in short, belief in as opposed to belief that.

Obviously in order to be loyal to God in traditional Judaism one must hold certain statements to be true – that God exists and knows us, that the Jews are God’s chosen people, that the mizvot are obligatory, etc.- but until the Middle Ages no one tried to get clear on what precisely those statements actually mean, and no one used the category of heresy in that context.  Just think of what kofer ba-ikkar (denying the principle) means in the Passover Haggadah – not heresy, but distancing oneself from the Jewish people .

The Jewish tradition encompasses a wide variety of views on a bewildering array of issues. Simply put, Judaism is both universalist and particularist.  As much as I would personally prefer that the particularist views were not part of the Jewish tradition, I cannot wipe them away, as most of those whose Judaism is only particularist do with the views with which they disagree.

In a recent article (Hakirah vol. 16, pp. 47-76), Rabbi Hanan Balk critically analyzed views of rishonim and aharonim about non-Jews which I find both distressful and distasteful. As much as I would personally prefer that the views catalogued by Rabbi Hanan Balk were not part of the Jewish tradition, I cannot wipe them away, as most of those whose Judaism is only particularist do with the views with which they disagree. But in actual fact, the Jewish tradition encompasses a wide variety of views on a bewildering array of issues.

I do not have the hutzpah to say that essentialist rishonim and aharonim are heretics. Rather, such views represent a particular strand of Judaism which does exist even if I prefer that it did not. This strand, I am convinced, is a reaction to a long history of tribulations. The messianic dream of Judaism as found in Maimonides’ writings (and elsewhere) represents another strand, one, I hold, to be truer to the teachings of Torah and the Talmudic Rabbis..

 9) Is the revelation at Sinai just human knowledge from Moses’ intellect?

I am a conservative interpreter of Maimonides. Thus, I read him as teaching that the revelation at Sinai was more than Moses tapping into the wisdom of the cosmos, as it were, and translating what he understood in that fashion into the mythic, figurative language in which he wrote the Torah. (Compare this alternate approach.)

10) What will non-Jews believe in the world to come?

My current understanding  about what Maimonides thought about Gentiles in the messianic era is somewhat fluid. I am not sure that he himself knew. After all, questions of universalism and particularism are important to us, but probably aroused much less interest in the Middle Ages. It is even likely that Maimonides never asked himself if he was a universalist or a particularist. The language was not even available to him. Thus, for example, while the notion of divine providence is central to the Torah, there was no word in any Jewish language for that idea till ibn Tibbon made it up (hashgahah).

But, for whatever it is worth, I am convinced that for Maimonides the distinction between Jew and Gentile (if it remains) will be much less important in the messianic era than it is today. Perhaps he thought that all Gentiles would become Jewish, or perhaps he felt that all humans would become Abrahamic monotheists without mizvot (and before any reader has a heart attack allow me to point out that even Nahmanides thought that the Torah only applied during “zman Torah” -the era of Torah- which would end with the coming of the Messiah). I guess we will have to wait and see.

 11) How are you universalist? You  may reject essentialists but you give little guidance about contemporary non-Jews, current oppressed people, or interfaith and multi-culturalism?

I am a Maimonidean universalist (as I understand him) in the following way: I believe that what human beings share in common is more important than what divides us.  Unlike Maimonides I am not a rabbi and I do not pasken (decide) halakhah concerning other religions.

I am a proud Jewish nationalist and think that of all the world’s religions, Judaism is the least bizarre, knowing full well that if I had been born and raised a Hindu I would probably think that about Hinduism (if one is allowed to use that term). Basically, I would just like people to get along.

But, I also do not believe that there is any such thing as a human being without a culture – it will be a long time before nation-states wither away.  A propos Jewish nationalism, it is a category error to think that nationalism is inconsistent with universalism (especially as used in this discussion). Nationalism need not be chauvinism. Maimonides himself was very proud, not only of Torah, but also of the Jewish people. While I disagree with Jewish non-Zionists (such as my respected teacher, Steven Schwarzschild, z”l, or my many loved Haredi relatives), I do not think that their views are illegitimate, only wrong. This in contrast to Jewish supporters of BDS, who are either foolish, or evil, or both.

12) As an intellectual fan of Leon Roth’s universalism, what do you make of his universal concern for the mistreatment of Palestinian Arabs in 1947-1948?

Leon Roth was a thoroughly admirable human being, and certainly a man of principle. I agree with idealists that if we do not use the ideal in order to judge the real we will never advance to the ideal – how could I think otherwise, both as a Jew and as a student of the late (and deeply missed) Steven Schwarzschild?

But I am also enough of a realist to realize that in a world in which only one side of a conflict  seeks to realize the ideal, while the other side ignores it, the first side is likely to end up dead. Leon Roth and the other members of Brit Shalom represented the highest ideals of Judaism, but as has been demonstrated time and time again, they had next to no one to talk to on the other side. I personally would have preferred that he remain in Israel to fight the good fight, but can hardly judge him on that, and have no right to do so. I furthermore admire his apparent unwillingness to allow his critique of Israeli policy to  be used by enemies of Israel.

13) Is Israel is more moral than other nations? Is that universal?

I do not believe that Jews are more moral than Gentiles. I do believe that Torah is superior to other systems, and that people who actually live according to the dictates of Torah are more likely to be moral than those who do not. However, I have met far too many deeply moral Gentiles of many different persuasions (most emphatically including atheists) and too many immoral Jews (including many who think that they represent “Torah true” Judaism) to believe that Jews are more moral than Gentiles.

I certainly do not believe that mastery of Talmud makes one a better person. It is one of the myths I grew up with, and it took me a long time to realize that it is precisely that – a myth. There are simply too many blatant counter-examples. Stating the main point of my new book and of this discussion, I follow Maimonides in holding the Torah to be a challenge, not an endowment. “You should be Holy “ (Kedoshim tihiyu) is not a declaration or a promise, but a commandment.

If by “Israel” in your question you mean the State of Israel, then, while I have intense criticism of much of what we do here, I do indeed feel that we are more moral than other nations. Certainly, compared to the way in which the United States and its allies wage war we are remarkably restrained, and concerned to minimize “collateral damage” (despite what our enemies and fellow travelers maintain).

14)  Why be Jewish according to Maimonides or as a Maimonidean?

If one believes that God revealed the Torah to the Jewish people, then of course remaining Jewish fulfills God’s will. Maimonides thought that the choice of the Jews was God’s backup plan, after the original Abrahamic covenant proved itself to be incapable of maintaining ethical monotheism (and yes, I know where the term comes from) in the Egyptian environment.

There are other reasons why people might choose to remain Jewish, but, as I have pointed out on several occasions, the reasons must be serious: it turns out that the choice of European Jews in the Nineteenth Century to remain Jewish ended up condemning many, many of their descendents to death at the hands of Nazis. Given the truly frightening rise of anti-Semitism in our world,  and the way in which it infects those whom one would expect to know better, I think it is obvious that one should have a stronger reason than sentiment or stubbornness to remain Jewish.

15) Shouldn’t the Roshei Yeshiva decide what is Jewish thought?

A good friend of mine likes to say about a prominent Rosh Yeshiva, “he knows so much more than he understands.” Mastering huge swaths of Talmudic literature does not a theologian make. It is also a category mistake to think that one can “pasken” theology as one “paskens” halakhah

You can ask Maimonides about that – his oft-repeated criticism of his rabbinic colleagues for misunderstanding the basic teachings of the Torah is quite withering (introduction to Helek, beginning of Treatise on Resurrection, etc.).

As the late and deeply lamented Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein pointed out, most of today’s so-called gedolim cannot write a sentence in correct Hebrew, and I add, even understand the grammatical points made by Rashi in his commentary to the Torah.

16) What of Maimonides-Laws of Mourning 3: 3?

A clever reader pointed out that the title of my new book, They Too are Called Human is odd since Maimonides actually follows R. Shimon bar Yohai in deciding that the laws concerning ritual impurity in an enclosed space (tum’ah be-ohel) do not obtain with respect to the bodies of deceased non-Jews (“Laws Concerning Mourning,” III.3). While this is technically correct, it is beside the point, since Maimonides is careful not to cite R. Shimon bar Yohai’s reason for his decision (that non-Jews are not called human).

Let it be further noted that since the Middle Ages at least it has been suggested that R. Shimon himself may have only been making a technical point about the laws of ritual impurity, without making any claims about the humanity (or lack thereof) of non-Jews. However, if it was R. Shimon’s intention to deny the full humanity of non-Jews, then, as argued in my book in detail, Maimonides certainly did not agree with him. Nor did he think that tum’ah is an actual characteristic of impure entities. He goes to great trouble (in Guide III.47 and elsewhere) to argue that ritual purity and impurity are halakhic, institutional distinctions only.