Reinventing Maimonides in Contemporary Jewish Thought

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
James A. Diamond, Menachem Kellner
The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization
  • Liverpool, England: 
    Liverpool University Press
    , April
     2019.
     248 pages.
     $44.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781906764951.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Reinventing Maimonides in Contemporary Jewish Thought, James A. Diamond and Menachem Kellner are not afraid to tangle with the heart of Jewish tradition and ask provocative questions to frame their project that highlights the importance and applicability of Maimonides to the modern world. This book is a collection of essays written by Diamond and Kellner organized to analyze each selected philosopher’s application of Maimonides. The book starts with looking at the influence and relationship that Maimonides had on Netsiv of Volozhin and ends with analyzing Rabbis Joseph Kafih and Shlomo Aviner in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Diamond and Kellner ask questions which strike at the core of the Jewish canon. The three that stuck with me are: (1) “Had Maimonides not defined Judaism as a belief system, would it be possible to speak of Jewish orthodoxy in any technical sense?” (2) “Would the Zohar, the kabbalistic tradition, and ultimately hasidut have been possible without . . . Maimonides’ rationalism?” and (3) “Had Maimonides not created the first systematic and comprehensive code of Jewish law (Mishneh Torah) . . . might Judaism still be a religion of law without a legal code?” ( 4). These questions serve an important role in reminding the reader of Maimonides’ influence and importance to the Jewish story.

One conversation that I hoped would be in this book is the idea of Maimonides trying to rationalize Jewish law in accordance with Aristotelian philosophy. This plays out in a subsection of chapter 1, written solely by Diamond, entitled “Reasoned Commandments versus Commandments that Transcend Reason” (16). The described approach that Nestiv of Volozhin takes in contradicting Maimonides was fascinating to read about.

This conversation surrounding Maimonidean rationalism in regard to the implementation of Aristotelian philosophy was a common goal for medieval religious philosophers from Abrahamic traditions. Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd and Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas had similar goals. Maimonides famously ventured into controversial territory with the release of The Guide for the Perplexed, which dealt with many Aristotelian concepts that were considered heretical for some within Judaism at the time. Diamond elaborates more on this strain when discussing Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s defense of Maimonides. Diamond writes “Shortly before [Kook’s] death in 1935, Rabbi Kook published a vigorous [defense] of Maimonides against an Orthodox assault by Zev Yavetz. . . . Rabbi Kook argued that Maimonides’ philosophical oeuvre is at its core grounded in consummately Jewish conceptions of prophecy, creation, ethics, and providence” (60–61). This defense of Maimonides from Kook, centuries after Maimonides’ death, illustrates how much of an influence the medieval Jewish philosopher had on the Jewish canon as a whole.

The concept of “identity” becomes a main focus in the penultimate chapter entitled “What, Not Who, Is a Jew: Halevi-Maimonides in Those Days, Rabbi Aviner and Rabbi Kafih in Our Day.” This chapter is written by Kellner who presents Rabbi Shlomo Aviner as a controversial figure in comparison to Rabbi Joseph Kafih, while then comparing this contemporary pair of rabbis with Judah Halevi and Maimonides. Kellner argues Aviner falls under the influence of Halevi, while Kafih is more under the influence of Maimonides. As a patrilineal Jew, I was especially interested in reading this section regarding identity, as some people do not consider solely patrilineal Jews as authentically Jewish. Kellner does deep analysis between Aviner and Kafih’s conception of identity and relationship to Torah. Kellner describes Aviner’s conception of Jewish identity in this way: “his self-confessed racism is not biological—Jews come in all skin shades. No, his racism is spiritual. Jews are indeed superior to other nations, but their superiority is connected to their unique Jewish souls” (178–179).

According to Kellner, Kafih argues a “radically different” view (180). Kellner contends: “Kafih takes with ultimate seriousness the biblical claim that all human beings are created in the image of [G-d] and that we are all equally descendants of Adam (and Eve), of Noah (and Mrs. Noah)”(180). Kellner makes the point to illustrate both Aviner and Kafih are Orthodox Zionists. This shows how complicated philosophical identity within Judaism is. Both of these rabbis who belong to the same subset of Judaism have radically different opinions regarding identity.

Diamond and Kellner do an excellent job of executing their goal of analyzing selected Orthodox rabbis’ writings, and seeing how well they tangle with Maimonides and how their arguments fit into Jewish philosophy as a whole. The two highlights of this book for me were the introduction cowritten by Diamond and Kellner and the penultimate chapter, penned by Kellner, regarding Jewish identity and what identity means in regard to broader Judaism and Jewish interpretation.          

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ethan Prager is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
July 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James A. Diamond is Joseph & Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo, Ontario.

Menachem Kellner is Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Jewish Thought, Shalem College, Jerusalem and Wolfson Professor Emeritus of Jewish Thought, University of Haifa.

Comments

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.