Hardware, Software—or Love?

Near the end of We Are Not Alone, Menachem Kellner states his goal clearly: “I want to claim that Judaism . . . is true but I do not want to claim that other religions are false.” In addition, he says, the belief that one God created all of humanity along with the heavens and the earth ought to lead to a universalistic ethic. It is critical to Kellner to affirm that “all human beings are actually and fully created in the image of God” and thus that they all truly matter.

As he has in many earlier works, Kellner builds on a dichotomy between Moses Maimonides, his philosophical hero, and Judah Halevi, his foil. Where chosenness is concerned, the divide between these two medieval thinkers could not be starker. Whereas for Halevi, God chose the Jews because they, and they alone, had a unique capacity to receive prophecy, for Maimonides, God didn’t really choose the Jews. The plain sense of Genesis notwithstanding, it was Abraham, the first Jew, who discovered God, and not the other way around. For Halevi, Jews are distinct because of their essence; for Maimonides, Jews are special because of what they believe in. As Kellner has put it elsewhere, Halevi sees Jewishness as a matter of hardware; Maimonides insists that it’s software.

As Kellner presents this issue, Jews who want to affirm the idea of chosenness are forced to choose between Maimonides and Halevi. For a serious reader of the Bible, however, these are not the only options; indeed, neither option is biblical. According to the book of Deuteronomy, the Jews were chosen because God fell in love with them. Deuteronomy goes to great lengths to emphasize that the setting of God’s heart on Israel was not a consequence of this Israelite quality or that; there was nothing about the Jews that made them uniquely lovable. To put the matter in theological terms, God’s choice of the Jews was an act of pure grace, and we cannot learn anything about Israelite superiority from the choice. As Moses tells the assembled people:

For you are a people consecrated to the LORD your God: of all the peoples on earth the LORD your God chose you to be his treasured people. It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you—indeed you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because the LORD favored you and kept the oath he made to your fathers. (Deuteronomy 7:6–8)

Genesis implicitly makes the same point. In contrast to Maimonides’s portrayal of Abraham as a natural philosopher, the biblical Abraham seemingly does nothing at all to earn God’s election; God’s promises to him come, as Jon Levenson has put it, like “a bolt from the blue.”

Portrait of Yehudah Halevi by Tom Block.

Maimonides’s approach to the chosenness of the Jews is emphatically nonbiblical. In the bible, it is God, and not Abraham, who does the discovering and the choosing. But before we embrace Halevi in the name of fidelity to scripture, we ought to recall that there is nothing in the Bible—nothing at all—that suggests an ontological or biological distinction between Jews and non-Jews (an idea I am not sure the Bible would even understand, let alone endorse). On the contrary, the Genesis creation story culminates in the creation of Adam, not Abraham, thus establishing, to quote Levenson again, “the universal horizon of biblical particularism.” All human beings, and not just Jews (or Israelites), are equally created in the image of God.

A genuinely biblical view of election would embrace Halevi’s insistence that it was God who chose Abraham, but it would endorse Maimonides’s view that there was nothing inherent in the Jews, and surely nothing biological, that made God’s choice somehow necessary or inevitable. Kellner is a thoroughgoing rationalist, so he may find the biblical idea of a God who “set his heart” (the Hebrew word hashak has distinctly erotic connotations) upon a particular people both implausible and unpalatable, a troubling image calling for ingenious interpretation. But it’s worth remembering that both Maimonides and Halevi evade the unique vision that the Bible itself offers.

In thinking about the truth claims of Judaism and other religions, Kellner wants to steer a course between relativism on the one hand and absolutism on the other. In other words, Kellner wants to affirm the robust nature of truth without pretending to have total or exclusive possession of it.

Here, too, Kellner turns to Maimonides for inspiration, specifically to his portrayal of the biblical Moses. In laying out the seventh of his famed (and endlessly controversial) thirteen principles of faith, Maimonides sings Moses’s praises. Moses was, he says, “the father of all of the prophets—of those who came before him and of those who came after him,” and his understanding of God far exceeded theirs; indeed, he “comprehended more of God . . . than any man who existed or will exist, ever comprehended or will comprehend.” In some sense, Maimonides writes, Moses rose to the status of angel. “There remained,” he adds, “no veil which he did not pierce.” And yet, all of this notwithstanding, there was much about God that Moses could not possibly comprehend. He was, when all is said and done, a human being, and there are limits to what human beings, even the most exalted ones, can know about God. For Kellner, this last point is ultimately the crucial one. If even Moses, the greatest and most elevated prophet of all time, could not know the whole truth about God, then neither, obviously, can we.

What Kellner advocates for, then, is not relativism or pluralism but humility. Although there is a real, objective truth, we do not grasp it—cannot possibly grasp it—in all its fullness. As Kellner writes, “The Lord of all the Universe is not too great to have revealed the Torah, but is certainly too great to be captured by our puny understanding of Torah.” To be overconfident in our knowledge of God, and of God’s will, “is to be guilty,” he says, “of cosmic hubris, and to close ourselves off to the possibility of being enlarged by meetings with others, individuals who also seek God and whom God does not ignore.”

On Kellner’s account, such humility ought to lead to tolerance. “The strong form of tolerance that I seek,” Kellner writes, involves “acknowledging that other religions (not just Christianity and Islam) have a singular role in their respective cultures and inherent religious worth.” In making this claim, he not only rejects relativism, which, he writes, “makes a mockery of truth and of the possibility of actual communication,” but also pluralism, which he treats essentially as dressed-up relativism.

Here one wishes Kellner had slowed down and dug deeper into the philosophical and theological questions his argument raises. Why can’t one claim, for example, that there is an objective truth, but that because none of our traditions fully grasps it, we ought to humbly refrain from claiming that one is more true than the others? As it happens, this is not a possibility that I particularly wish to endorse, but it’s one I wish Kellner had considered, even if only to refute it.

According to Maimonides, in the messianic era the nations of the earth will all accept “the true religion” (dat ha-emet). Picking up on an important strand in rabbinic thinking, Maimonides and, following him, Kellner believe that the Torah is ultimately intended for all of humanity. As Kellner writes: “Since the Torah is true, and since all humans are essentially the same, there is no reason why all humanity will not someday accept the Torah.” This is, Kellner argues, an essential component of Maimonides’s messianic universalism, which he endorses.

Precisely how Maimonides envisions the messianic future is a matter of scholarly debate. In earlier works, Kellner has taken him to mean that all non-Jews will convert to Judaism; others, such as Gerald Blidstein, insist that the distinction between Jews and non-Jews will simply fade into insignificance.

As Kellner sees it, there are two mistakes to avoid here. First, one should avoid interpreting Maimonides in a highly particularistic fashion, according to which Jews will always remain God’s chosen people and thus be uniquely beloved and distinct from the rest of humanity. But, second, one should avoid the temptation to (mis)read Maimonides as a pluralist, according to whom “in the messianic era many different paths will lead equally to God.” Maimonides is—and by extension, I suppose, so is Kellner—a “messianic exclusivist,” meaning that he has “no room for non-Jewish religions in his messianic world.”

It’s worth staying with this last point and understanding what’s at stake. Kellner is concerned, he tells us, to avoid excessively “othering the other.” Because there is no essential difference between Jews and non-Jews, there will ultimately be no difference in our worship either—that’s precisely where religious universalism ultimately leads. But if “othering the other” too much is a problem, so is effacing the other’s otherness: insisting that they become like us. Indeed, universalists often dream, and sometimes actively work, to erase human difference (think of how hard it has been historically for Christians to accept the idea that non-Christians can be saved).

Now, Kellner might respond that on this side of the messianic era, neither he nor Maimonides is calling for the world to convert to Judaism or for all religious differences to fade away. After all, Jewish theology readily accepts that there is salvation outside the synagogue. And in any case, Kellner’s prescription of humility means that we ought to respect religious diversity in the present era and for the foreseeable future. But here again I find myself wanting Kellner to say more. What is gained and what is lost in embracing the messianic dream of a homogenous universal religion? How do such visions intersect with contemporary struggles to affirm the otherness of others, even if not to excess? All of which is to say that as a reader I wished We Are Not Alone had been longer. I wished Kellner had delved deeper into the many philosophical and theological questions he raises either implicitly or explicitly.

Nonetheless, Menachem Kellner has made yet another important contribution to Jewish thought not just in terms of content but also in terms of method. He readily acknowledges that the Jewish tradition speaks with many voices. He recognizes that ample precedent can be found both for the universalism he champions, on the one hand, and for more particularistic (sometimes hyperparticularist and even racist) readings of the tradition, on the other. To his credit, Kellner is aware that constructing a worldview out of the sources of Judaism (or of any other religious tradition) inevitably involves some picking and choosing. This has always been the case, but modernity invites us to be self-conscious about it—Kellner accepts that invitation.


  1. Rabbi Jonathan H. Gerard

    Rabbi Held is one of the greatest teachers of our generation. If he grew a long gray beard, unruly hair, and prayed with his feet (for, say, women’s reproductive rights, the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, and for some kind of solution to Israel/Palestine) I say he’s the heir to AJH. But he is still young yet has accomplished more than most in a life of Torah. Support and join Hadar!

  2. Phil Cohen

    There is another angle that Held and probably Kellner don't discuss, that that's the view that there is nothing. That's where my troubles lie: How to get to a world with God in it that refuses the Halevy school admission and also provides a reasonable means to think about God in the world. Much of Kellner's work is the attempt to, as it were, make room for a reasonable God. Kellner and his publisher will be happy to know that I've purchased the book on the strength of this review.

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