M. Kellner, Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism  (Oxford, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization: 2006) pp. xix + 343. *


Every book is written as an answer to a question; what, then, was the question to which the oeuvre of Maimonides was the answer? It has been customary to think that Maimonides wrote in response to neoaristotelian philosophy. Menachem Kellner, his new book, proposes that Maimonides’ real opponent was the popular-mystical-superstitious Judaism which preceded him and endured into his  time (see below). In doing this, Kellner has refocused Maimonidean studies in a new way. In addition, he has done so in a very learned manner: His footnotes cover a vast area of Jewish scholarship; his summaries of scholarship are very concise (e.g., for Sefer Yetsirah, 20); and his bibliography is very full. Since this book will be the subject of lively scholarly debate, I shall summarize its two main points and then offer my own critique.[1]

               (1) In discussing which attributes can be properly ascribed to God and, again, in dealing with the purpose of the commandments, Maimonides takes a firm nominalist and instrumentalist position: all language about God is metaphor and all commands from God are for the purpose of allowing humans to improve themselves. Kellner follows this position and applies the same nominalist and instrumentalist approach to Jewish law / halakhah (ch. 2); to the idea of holiness as applied to God, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel (ch.3); to the concepts of purity and impurity (ch. 4); to the Hebrew language (ch. 5); to terms that describe God’s physical presence such as Kavod and Shekhinah (ch. 6); to the distinction between Jew and non-Jew (ch. 7); and to the term “angels” (ch. 8).

Thus, on the subject of Jewish law, Kellner writes: “[H]alakhah may be understood … as constituting or creating a social reality in the world in which humans live and interact. Understood in this fashion, halakhah is nothing other than an expression of God’s will, which could in principle have been differently expressed” (36) and “Had Abraham, for example, been a Navajo and not a Hebrew, the Torah would have been written in the Navajo language and the specific histories, laws, customs, and ceremonials would have reflected Navajo, not Hebrew, realities” (41-42). And, on the subject of holiness, Kellner writes: “Given Maimonides’ nominalism and his insistence upon the absolute transcendence of God, he could not attribute extra-mental existence to a general term like ‘sanctity,’ and he could not have held that there is any property shared by God and humans…. [P]eople, places, times, objects are sacred ‘only’ in an institutional sense” (89).

(2) Kellner very consistently contrasts Maimonides’ nominalist and instrumentalist view of the Jewish sources with the ontological, essentialist view of other Jewish thinkers. In this view, holiness, purity, etc. reside ontologically in the universe, and institutions like law, the Jewish people, ritual rules, and so on are but manifestations of that inherent holiness. Also, in this view, observing the commandments is beneficial to the soul of the person doing the commandment and, according to some, even to the universe, and disobeying the commandments actually causes harm to the soul and, according to some, to the universe itself. The ontological, essentialist position allows for “the multifarious denizens of the universe so beloved of ancient Jewish mysticism: angels and demons, forces, powers, occult properties, all those aspects of the cosmos which we today would lump together under the rubric ‘supernatural’” (12). It also allows for  “the manipulation of God’s name and the use of amulets and charms” (22) and astrology, as well as the physical manifestations of the Divine: the Kavod, the Shekhinah, and the Created Light. In this view, these entities are real; that is, they have extramental existence.

Kellner consistently identifies the ontological, essentialist tradition as the view of the Heikhalot literature, Sefer Yetsirah,  Sefer HaRazim, Halevi, Nahmanides, the Zohar, and Lubavitch hasidism as well as that of “his rabbinic colleagues in North Africa and the Middle East” (29). Insofar as this view precedes Maimonides, Kellner labels it “proto-kabbalah” (18-30 and elsewhere). It was against this stream of proto-kabbalah that Maimonides fought. It was this ontological essentialism that Maimonides struggled to eradicate (5-11, 287). He did this, not by frontal attack, but by “ignor[ing] the opposition wherever he can, stating, or at least, hinting at the truth as he sees it” (4); by “offer[ing] an alternative, carefully presented so as to arouse the least possible opposition and resentment” (17). The refocusing of the Maimonidean oeuvre on the proto-kabbalists is Kellner’s chief contribution to Maimonidean studies in this book.

Four objections. First, I am not convinced that Maimonides is as much of a nominalist and instrumentalist as Kellner claims. Emanation generates the divine Intelligences and these entities do not have intramental existence but exist extramentally in the universe. The Intelligences, thus, are not just names for things; they are real. In general, intellect (mind, Ar. `aql, Heb. de`ah) is not just nominal; it is not a concept. Rather, intellect is real, extramentally existent in the universe. It even can be “acquired,” a process which generates immortality. Both the Intelligences and the intellect are, to be sure, contingent; that is, their existence is in no way independent of God and they can never be worshiped, but they do exist and they are not only concepts, ideas in the mind of God and humanity. The position expounded by Kellner seems to me to be a “hyper-nominalist” position, not dissimilar to the “hyper-realist” position that he ascribes to Maimonides’ nemeses.

Second, in his rush to turn Maimonides into a hyper-rationalist, Kellner has missed addressing the religious, spiritual dimension of Maimonides’ worldview. What does a person who is rationalist enough to deny the use of human language to describe God do for a religious life? He might say that prayer is just a ritual commanded by God to allow humans to attain moral perfection. But, he might also say that intellect / intelligence is fundamental to the universe; hence, religious experience (“worship”) must be intellectualist and an end in itself, not just instrumental to some other goal. In my view, this is indeed the position of Maimonides: that even someone very well trained in neoaristotelian metaphysics can achieve a state of intellectualist bliss which the metaphors of the Song of Songs describe and which the image of death-by-a-kiss expresses. I have been writing on this for some time and a collection of essays entitled, Philosophic Mysticism: Essays in Rational Religion,[2] will appear shortly. Kellner should have addressed this possibility, even if only to offer a critique of it.

Third, following Graetz and the Wissenschaft des Judentums as well as the Lithuanian school of rabbinic thought, Kellner has divided Jewish intellectual life into the proto-kabbalists and kabbalists who admit “the multifarious denizens of the universe…(12),” on the one hand, and the rational rabbis and philosophers who were “those editors of the normative rabbinic writings who kept the Heikhalot texts and allied literature out of the canon of Judaism” (287), on the other. Thus, for Kellner, Maimonides “captured what might be called (in Jewish, not historical terms) the essential thrust of normative rabbinic teaching” (287, n. 7). This position contains a remarkably unnuanced view of the Jewish mystical tradition that actually contains many diverse streams -- some ecstatic, some magical, some theosophic, and so on. It also includes what Kadushin, in The Rabbinic Mind,[3] called “normal mysticism”; that is, the experience of the ordinary praying rabbinic Jew who actually speaks to God in praise and petition, who concentrates on (has kavvana for) the holy Presence of God. It also might include the Jew for whom the prayer is just rote ritual. “Proto-kabbalistic” is too loose a term. 

Finally, Kellner’s treatment of proto-kabbalism unjustly favors rationalist Judaism with the encomium of “normative.” The contrary seems to me to be true: the anthropopathic language of the prayerbook is normative; the persistence of petitionary prayer is normative; the belief in the efficacy of ritual is normative; and so on. Put differently, Keller is not correct that the “widespread acceptance of the Zohar … doomed this millennium-long attempt [to suppress mystical literature] to failure” (287, emphasis added); rather, the widespread acceptance of the Zohar constituted a return to the deeply spiritual roots of Judaism. Indeed, mystical Judaism was, and is, normative. Rational Judaism, too, was, and is, normative, as Kellner maintains, especially in its legal dimension. However, as Heschel showed in Heavenly Torah as Refracted through the Generations[4], both mystical and rational Judaism were normative forms within the rabbinic aggadic and halakhic worldview already in early rabbinic times.  Both have clearly continued, side by side, even if sometimes in tension. Neither, then, can be favored in a historical or in an ideological sense though each person makes his or her choice, or her or his balance, between these approaches. Jewish religion has not lived, and cannot live, without this co-existence.

I appreciate deeply Kellner’s willingness in the Afterword to take a firm stance in favor of rationalism even as he admits that it is not a terribly attractive worldview in which to live. However, I think this grows out of his hyper-rationalist reading of Maimonides that, itself, did not convince me.

All that having been said, Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism is a very important book. It formulates clearly and comprehensively the hyper-rationalist reading of Maimonides which is widely held by scholars of Jewish philosophy. It also offers a new proposal on the subject of the opponents against whom Maimonides wrote. Kellner’s erudition has made this so, and his willingness to engage the present and the future have projected the issue beyond medieval philosophy.


David R. Blumenthal

Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies

Emory University

[*] This review appeared in Reviews in Religion and Theology, 14:2 (2007) 253-57.

[1] By way of complete disclosure, I acknowledge that I have known Menachem as a younger colleague for many years and have even spoken, at his invitation, at Haifa University; I trust that that will not influence our honest differences.

[2] Ramat Gan, Bar Ilan University Press: 2006.

[3] New York, Jewish Theological Seminary of America: 1952; reprinted often.

[4] Ed. and translated by G. Tucker, New York, Continuum: 2005; reviewed by me in Reviews in Theology and Religion, 13:1 (Feb. 2006) 136-41.