We Are Not Alone

Book Review: Maimonides the Universalist: The Ethical Horizons of the Mishneh Torah by Menachem Kellner and David Gillis (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization; 368 pages, $46.85)

Israel, the Jewish people, and Jewish thinkers have always been caught in the struggle between universalism and particularism. Theodore Herzl envisaged Jewish sovereignty as a way for Jews to become “normal”, allowing them to take a seat among the nations of the world. Yet many Zionists are more like Yeshayahu Leibovitz, who valued sovereignty simply because it freed him from subordination to goyim. Herzl wanted Jews to become part of the larger world; Leibovitz wanted to stay away. The Tanakh, too, suffers from this dialectic: Jews have a universal mission in the world “to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth” (Gen. 12:3), but also are “a people who dwells apart” (Numb. 23:9).

Rabbis and Jewish philosophers are similarly conflicted. Some believe that being a chosen and holy people means that Jews are intrinsically different, i.e., superior. Yehuda Halevi, kabbalists, and perhaps the majority of Zionist rabbis today believe that Jews have a unique spiritual soul that non-Jews lack. Yet rationalists like Sa’adyah Gaon and Maimonides insisted that Jews and gentiles are biologically and spiritually identical. We are not alone, and if Jews display different behavior and spiritual worldviews, it is not due to any special DNA, but only to the influence of the Torah. Prof. Daniel Lasker of Ben Gurion University put it best: The differences are in our software, not our hardware.

Today there is a widespread assumption that the more religious and authentic a Jew is, the more that person must believe that Jews are essentially different and separate from non-Jews. For many, this is near-dogma and stands in the center of their Jewish identity.

Menachem Kellner’s and David Gillis’ book, Maimonides the Universalist: The Ethical Horizons of the Mishneh Torah, belies this assumption, emphasizing just how dominant universalism is in Maimonides’ view of God and the Torah. Kellner is an internationally renowned Maimonides scholar who was the Wolfson Professor of Jewish Thought at the University of Haifa and now chairs the Department of Jewish Thought and Philosophy at Jerusalem’s Shalem College. Gillis earned a doctorate in Maimonides’ thought under Kellner’s supervision. Together they carefully demonstrate how universalism shows up in both Rambam’s philosophy and his conception of Halakhah when lived correctly.

While Kellner and Gillis occasionally digress into erudite excursions regarding The Guide of the Perplexed, the book reads easily, making it accessible to laypersons. And the book’s extensive cross-references to Rambam’s works are sources of delight to the conscientious scholar.

The authors analyze the closing sections of each of the fourteen books of Rambam’s magisterial code, Mishneh Torah, bringing out the undeniable universal and ethical dimensions of those texts. These passages do not dwell on the prosaic details of individual halakhot, but frequently take flight as inspirational messages about spirituality and the central place that moral values have in God’s plan for Jews.

These closing statements are what Maimonides wants the reader to remember when he or she finishes studying each book. And since Rambam wrote them in a halakhic treatise meant for Jews, it is hard to minimize them as mere apologetics meant for gentile eyes.

Mishneh Torah’s third book, The Book of Festivals, deals with uniquely Jewish holidays—primarily Purim and Hanukah. While both are associated with Jewish-gentile warfare, Kellner and Gillis point out how Maimonides’ deft hand makes their underlying message initially peace between a husband and his wife, then peace between human beings, and ultimately the messianic age characterized by peace among all nations.

In the Book of Agriculture (Book Seven) Rambam announces that holiness is not confined to Levites, nor even to Jews. He insists that each and every human being (“all who come into the world”) is capable of attaining a high degree of holiness and become, in effect, his own ‘Holy of Holies.’

The Book of Acquisition ends with the laws of slavery. In the final Halakhah, Maimonides stresses that ideal behavior is ethical action that transcends formal law. While not legally required, Jews must treat gentile servants with dignity because all people are created by God in the very same way. (“Are we not all made in the same womb?”) Hence showering all persons with compassion (hesed) is the true defining characteristic of God-centered Jews.

Maimonides ends his code with The Book of Judges (Book Fourteen). Here he describes his stunning vision of the messianic era—i.e., the goal of all Torah and Halakhah, and the fulfillment of the Jewish people’s religious mission. In this messianic world, all peoples realize Abraham’s faith by living the moral life, by not subjugating others, and by coming to know God. Scholars have noted that some particularistic Jews were scandalized by Rambam’s universal vision. One even tried to “improve” the text by doctoring it and inserting the word “Israel” into Maimonides’ claim that at that time “(different kinds of) people will achieve a great knowledge of God”. Paradoxically, in trying to particularize Maimonides they succeeded in emphasizing his universalism.

One element beyond the book’s purview is the undeniably particularistic elements scattered throughout Mishneh Torah, such as the difference between the value of Jewish life and non-Jewish life. Ultimately, any compelling understanding of Maimonides qua universalist must confront these problematic cases.

Today when religious practice has become increasingly parochial, ritualistic, and in our COVID era sometimes willfully oblivious to scientific truth, Kellner’s and Gillis’ study fulfills a critical function. It reminds us that the greatest rabbi and master of Halakhah in all Jewish history insisted that Jews are not meant to be a ghetto people. For Maimonides, correct belief in God demands that Jews see the Torah in universal categories and that the halakhic life is an educational process designed to help Jews become rational, ethically sensitive, and positive forces upon all human history.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn is the former Academic Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding in Jerusalem, and senior research fellow at Bet Morasha of Jerusalem’s Institute for Religion and Society. His forthcoming book, "To Be a Holy People: Jewish Tradition and Ethical Values" will appear in 2021.
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