Does Judaism Condone Violence?

Holiness and Ethics in the Jewish Tradition

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Alan L. Mittleman
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , August
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Does Judaism Condone Violence? is a carefully and lucidly argued book about the relationship between violence, holiness, and Judaism. Alan Mittelman makes clear that his approach is “normative and constructive,” arguing that within Judaism, there is a “concept of holiness . . . that is not simply reducible to moral categories but that is nonetheless allied with morality” (2).

An introduction outlines the aims of the book, while the first chapter proposes an understanding of holiness from texts within the Jewish tradition. The second chapter takes up this conception of holiness and proposes a way to understand its relation to morality. The final chapter argues for how this notion of holiness ought to be severed from violence. Much in the book is illuminating, and there is much to recommend to both specialists and generalists. I have some thoughts about the first two chapters, and after reviewing them, I want to raise a central question for the book as a whole in light of the third chapter.

The first chapter hinges on a conception of the holy (kodesh in biblical Hebrew) that avoids presenting the world as somehow bifurcated into the holy and the profane (26-28). Mittelman instead carefully shows how the biblical conception of holiness is opposed to the “unclean” (tamé), which is a temporary condition and not one that somehow marks everything that is not holy. Through the sources of Judaism, Mittelman opens a path to a much more complex understanding of the ontological makeup of the world, and he proceeds to sketch two broad conceptions of holiness.

On one hand, we might see holiness akin to the way in which we view, say, money in the world, that is, as “a social or institutional fact, not a natural or brute one” (39). On the other hand, Mittelman is anxious about such a view because it appears too conventionalist—isn’t it possible that holiness reflects something in the world? As Mittelman puts it, “holiness orients us to transcendence; it draws us to what makes human beings wonder and feel gratitude for the strange fact that they exist” (88).

Furthermore, he notes that “there is a dimension of holiness that outstrips its obvious social and institutional uses” (88). In short, he notes that he wants “to return to the idea of holiness as a property, a real aspect of things . . . [this] theory uses the stance in philosophical ethics known as moral realism” (88). Is it the case, however, that a recourse to sociality and institutions necessitates that categories like transcendence and wonder are foreclosed? When these categories are understood as themselves having historical, social, and institutional bases, do we necessarily lose a (phenomenological) sense of holiness as a property? (One way to think about this question is to compare Mittelman’s stance to Kevin Hector’s Theology without Metaphysics, Cambridge University Press, 2011).

The second chapter presents an understanding of holiness as a value property, moving through an immense and extremely complex range of sources and arguments, from Philippa Foot to Iris Murdoch to Moses Maimonides to Robert Adams. It is not possible to summarize compactly how much is going on in this chapter. To give the reader a sense, let me quote Mittelman:



I take from Murdoch that our full engagement as human persons with art and morality inspires us to believe in a transcendent Good. We can’t easily dismiss or deride the initial feeling or the tentative belief. Neither should we rush to give it finality and solidity. I take from Adams that the good and the holy are entangled with each other—that sorting them, such that the holy has alien dimensions, is tempting but fraught. Adams himself, no less than [Rudolf] Otto, has trouble sustaining that move. That leads back to the coeval nature of the good and the holy. . . . Unlike them [Murdoch and Adams], I think that naturalism and the theism of rational mysticism or contemplative piety can hold together; we should let the naturalist story take us as far as it can. I find that harmonizing, integrating strategy descriptive of Maimonides (151).



Mittelman suggests that what he takes from Maimonides is “the view that cosmos per se radiates goodness” (151), but that we can only take so much of that goodness, doing so through “disciplined inquiry and the attainment of knowledge” (151). The world is such that it outstrips our capacities for complete intelligibility at any particular moment, but its quality is such that what we can continue to explore, especially since “our intuitions of value are pointers toward an unknowable source that, all things considered, acts for the good” (151).

The last chapter builds on the sort of “promiscuity” (my term) towards beings in the world evidenced throughout, arguing that “coercive and reductive identification is a seedbed of violence,” and that “respect for the holiness of persons requires great sensitivity to the ascriptions of identity that we make” (188). Mittelman’s idea is that the “harshness of God, as depicted in the Bible, especially with respect to the herem [divine war], is a poetic way of capturing the imperative of justice. Justice need not be harsh, but depicting it as implacable underscores its centrality . . . holiness reminds us of what’s at stake” (191). This is a noble way of minimizing the violent ways to which such concepts could otherwise be put.

My sense is that this chapter could have benefitted from recent work in “theistic naturalism,” most prominently in the work of Fiona Ellis. In God, Value, and Nature (Oxford University Press, 2014), Ellis draws on the work of John McDowell and David Wiggins (two figures essentially absent from Mittelman’s book—McDowell is mentioned once). She argues for conclusions that are similar to Mittelman’s, but—through the work of figures like McDowell and Emmanuel Levinas—she is led to explore our relations to others as a rich phenomenological resource. I mention this to note that Mittelman’s reprioritization of holiness is compelling but appears to end its inquiry just at the moment at which all the serious questions arise: for after all, perhaps, as thinkers like Levinas have noted, the possibility of violence is also an expression of our primordial relationship to the other, and thereby to a reality that exceeds our current capacities for (fully) understanding it.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Martin Shuster is Associate Professor of Philosophy and holds the Professorship of Judaics and Justice at Goucher College.

Date of Review: 
July 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alan L. Mittleman is Aaron Rabinowitz and Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His books include Human Nature & Jewish Thought (Princeton, 2015).



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