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Must a Jew Believe Anything?
A review of Menachem Kellner's Must A Jew Believe Anything? Second edition, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization 2006
Over the last few years, an increasing number of people have been approaching me with crises of faith. One of the resources to which I direct them is Menachem Kellner's book Must a Jew Believe Anything?. It is, I believe, an outstanding work, and an absolutely essential read for anyone who is interested in the topics discussed in this blog, but I do have certain reservations about it.
The book can be divided into two parts. The first six chapters, along with the appendix (freely available at this link), explore the role of faith in classical Judaism and compare it to the role of faith in Maimonidean thought, and is the part which I cannot recommend highly enough. The final chapter contains Professor Kellner's own view of how the previous discussion can be used to change the way that Orthodox Jews relate to non-Orthodox Jews, and is the part about which I have severe reservations.
In the first chapters, Kellner begins by discussing the role of faith in the Torah and Talmud. He demonstrates that the Torah is more concerned with faith in God rather than in faith that particular propositions are true. With regard to the Talmud, Kellner makes several fascinating arguments to demonstrate that the Sages of the Talmud were far more concerned with people's actions than with their beliefs (which does not mean that they did not care at all about what people believed). There are tractates on every topic from berachos to uktzin (the impurity of vegetable stems), and yet, amazingly, there is no tractate dedicated to the topic of required beliefs. The only Mishnah which deals at all with beliefs is in the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin, and yet it is clearly not presenting a systematic theology - it makes no mention of beliefs regarding God, mentions only beliefs that are not acceptable (and only two of those), and is very unclear with regard to the halachic consequences of incorrect beliefs. Kellner argues that this Mishnah is best understood as aiming to prevent people aligning themselves with the Sadducees.
Kellner then proceeds to discuss Rambam's view of the role of belief in Judaism and how it differs from the normative view. For Rambam, influenced as he was by Greco-Muslim philosophy, perfecting the intellect (which requires correct beliefs) is the goal of Judaism. Thus, those who believe in a corporeal God have utterly failed as Jews, no matter how many mitzvos they perform; whereas Ra'avad, reflecting the normative position, considered such people to be fine Jews, some of them even greater than Rambam (albeit mistaken).
The most striking example of the difference between Rambam's view and that of classical Judaism emerges from comparing the Talmud's discussion of conversion to Judaism with that of Rambam. Here is what the Gemara has to say about conversion:
The Rabbis taught: If someone comes to convert, we say to him: “Why do you see fit to convert? Do you not know that today, the Jewish People are afflicted, oppressed, downtrodden, harassed, and frequently subject to hardship?” If he says, “I know, and I am unworthy,” we accept him immediately. We inform him of a few light mitzvot and a few serious mitzvot… we do not overwhelm him, and we are not exacting with him… (Yevamos 47a)
And here is how Rambam paraphrases it:
How do we accept righteous converts? When a gentile comes to convert, and investigation shows no ulterior motive, we say to him, “Why do you see fit to convert? Do you not know that today, the Jewish People are afflicted, oppressed, downtrodden, harassed, and frequently subject to hardship?” If he says, “I know, and I am unworthy,” we accept him immediately. And we inform him of the fundamentals of religion, which are the unity of God and the prohibition of idolatry, and we dwell upon this at length. And we inform him of a few light mitzvot and a few serious mitzvot, but we do not dwell upon this at length… (Hilchos Issurei Biyah 14:1-2)
Look at the sentence that Rambam inserted! One might quibble with the degree to which Kellner sets Chazal and Rambam at odds with each other, but there can be no denying that there was a tremendous gulf between them (although, of course, there are nevertheless some people who do deny it).
Kellner explains why Rambam's list of dogmas, despite being a foreign aberration that initially made little impact, eventually won widespread support centuries later. It was not the conceptual foundation for these required beliefs that won support; rather, it was the fact that this list of dogmas became a useful tool to distinguish between loyal Jews and those who were breaking away from tradition, and to fight against the watering-down of Judaism.
This is just a taste of the first six chapters of Must a Jew Believe Anything? In the next post, I will continue my review with a critique of the second and very different part of the book - the seventh chapter.