David Shasha on Kellner, Idel, and Nationalism

David Shasha is a proponent of all things Sefardi and a radical follower of Jose Faur who envisions a Levantine synthesis of Jewish and Arabic humanism. Shasha offers a critique of Kellner, Idel and others as destroying the humanistic foundations of Judaism. He claims that they destroy the foundation of Maimonidean humanism even if they accept Maimonides. Kellner advocates for the rationalism of Maimonides but back-handedly considers the Maimonideans as too demanding for the common person, as rejecting folk religion, and as not the Jewish tradition. Shasha demands that Maimonides be considered the tradition or else Maimonideans would always be in a defensive position. If one does not live in a rational world then all the power is in the magical hand of the rabbis.

Shasha places blame at the feet of Moshe Idel who explores the magical, irrational, and mythic forces in Judaism but who also maintains that this theurgic world is the world of the Talmudic Rabbis. For Idel, the Rabbinic tradition is magical. Kabbalah is not a Gnostic intruder into Judaism but the very meaning of the commandments for the Rabbis. Once Jews studied Saadyah, Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Gersonides as the traditon, now they read Abulafia and Zohar. For Shasha, this is tantamount to a return to idolatry and the source of militant nationalism. Full Version here.

Shasha writes:
At the center of this controversy is the vexing question of Jewish authenticity.
In his 2006 study “Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism,” Menachem Kellner adopts an approach that has become standard in most Jewish circles, writing:

“The Jewish world in which Maimonides lived was uncongenial to the austere, abstract, demanding vision of Torah which he preached. Evidence from a wide variety of sources shows that Jews in Maimonides’ day – common folk and scholars alike – accepted astrology, the magical use of divine names, appeals to angels, etc.”

In a noble attempt to elevate the thinking of Maimonides, Kellner’s arguments bizarrely lend credence to the positions of the anti-Maimonideans.
In the book’s conclusion he states:

The world favored by Maimonides’ opponents, on the other hand, is an “enchanted” world. Many of Maimonides’ opponents, in his day and ours, do indeed accept the efficacy of charms and amulets, and fear the harm of demons and the evil eye. But it is not in that sense that I maintain that they live in an enchanted world. Theirs is not a world which can be explained in terms of the unvarying workings of divinely ordered laws of nature; it is not a world which can be rationally understood. It is a world in which the notion of miracle loses all meaning, since everything that happens is a miracle. In such a world instructions from God, and contact with the divine in general, must be mediated by a religious elite who alone can see the true reality masked by nature. This is the opposite of an empowering religion, since it takes their fate out of the hands of Jews, and, in effect, puts it into the hands of the rabbis.

We can see the tension at the heart of Kellner’s argument, a tension that forces his hand in accepting the absolute authenticity of the mystical-occult tradition of the Kabbalah and rejecting the Jewish validity of Maimonidean rationalism.

Kellner’s book contains a forward by Hebrew University professor Moshe Idel, perhaps the single most influential academic in the world of Judaica, a winner of the prestigious Israel Prize and a ubiquitous presence in the world of Jewish studies. Idel has relentlessly promoted the pro-magic, neo-pagan, anti-rational strain of Jewish tradition also called Kabbalah.

Idel’s scholarly project has been designed to affirm the authenticity of the mystical-occult Kabbalah and undermine the validity of the rational standards of Religious Humanism. As we see in a representative passage in his seminal 1988 work “Kabbalah: New Perspectives”:

Kabbalah can be viewed as part of a restructuring of those aspects of rabbinic thought that were denied authenticity by Maimonides’ system. Far from being a total innovation, historical Kabbalah represented an ongoing effort to systematize existing elements of Jewish theurgy, myth, and mysticism into a full-fledged response to the rationalistic challenge.
It is, however, possible to assume that, if the motifs transmitted in those unknown [Kabbalistic] circles formed part of an ancient weltanschauung, their affinities to the rabbinic mentality would be more organic and easily absorbed into the mystic cast of Judaism.
According to this hypothesis, we do not need to account for why ancient Jews took over Gnostic doctrines, why they transmitted them, and, finally, how this ‘Gnostic’ Judaism was revived in the Middle Ages by conservative Jewish authorities.

Shasha concludes:

This has led to the rejection of Sephardic Jewish Humanism as formulated by Maimonides and an affirmation of an ethnocentric Jewish chauvinism based on the magical mysticism of Kabbalistic theurgy. It is a Judaism that rejects the tenets of a critical reading of the Jewish past and has led us to the sort of ideological purity and militant nationalism that has become characteristic of the intractable impasse in the Middle East. Though this occult process has been secularized by Zionism, it is apparent that the ideological values of the mystical continue to animate the Jewish self-perception in a nationalistic sense.

10 responses to “David Shasha on Kellner, Idel, and Nationalism

  1. I find this a fascinating post based on my own involvement in Sephardic studies. Just a few comments:
    1) Jose Faur, coming from the Halabi-Sephardic tradition, sees Maimonides as a mystic with his own alternative to kabbala. Yet the citations from Shasha don’t deal with this possibility and seem to present this as a debate between rationalism and mysticism, rather than as a debate between two alternative systems of mysticism. It would be more worthwhile to explain how the Moreh can function as a source for an alternative mysticism in this age, and why he feels there is no possibility of a rational kabbala.
    2) Shasha feels that kabbala undermines Sephardic humanism, but the question is to what degree his ideas of Sephardic humanism are informed by contemporary, post-modern academic ideas. Faur locates the destruction of Spanish Jewry to the activities of Ashkenazi anti-Maimonidean kabbalists, but does the almost ubiquitous presence of kabbalah in Eastern Jewish halakhic culture before R. Ovadiah (and still in popular Mizrahi culture) mean that the tradition of Sephardic humanism does not exist except among the Spanish-Portuguese?! Or are all of the kabbalistic Sephardic traditions of the past 500 years out? Are there no universalistic, authentically Sephardic spokesmen of kabbala?
    3) His critique of nationalism/Zionism is interesting because Jose Faur is very critical of “oedipal Jews” (his words) who were and are opposed to the establishment of the State and the national elements of the tradition of Israel. Shasha’s critique is the standard post-modern trope that purposely disregards the many universalistic voices in Zionism as well as the rigid nationalist claims being made by Muslim/Arab activists who are opposed to compromise. Are national claims inherently problematic? Why can’t a case be made for the moral necessity of nationalism as a means of achieving the just claims of different peoples?

  2. Joseph- on the first point – he is careful to only critique Ashkenazi occultism and theosophy not mysticism.

  3. Thanks for the clarification.

  4. If I may be so brash as to make a request, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on Jose Faur’s homo mysticus in a future post.

    • Drew,
      Short answer – read the book – it is a good book.
      Longer answer- the are a lot of great ideas in the book but he does not engage the historic Maimonides who used mystical or meta-psychic elements from Ibn Sina, Ibn Bajjah, Ismaelis, and Sufis. Nor does Faur enter into dialogue with contemporary theories of mysticism. The book is both engaging and beautiful, yet at the same time it is hermetically sealed. It is good for opening up potential understandings overlooked by others.

  5. It’s more complicated than Shasha presents it. See Idel on Maimonides and the Kabbalah:

    • Avi,
      I have asked you before- reciting the name of an article is not a discussion.
      What does the article say? How is it more complicated than Shasha’s presentation?
      Is Idel correct in the article?

  6. Sasha posits a dichotomy between the ‘rational’ Maimonides and the ‘mythological’ Idel. In his article on Maimonides and the Kabbalah, Idel shows just how Maimonides’ prophetic platonic psychology expounded in the ‘Guide’ is absolutely critical for the great upsurge of Kabbalah immediately afterwards (both Abulafia and Moses de Leon began their careers with an intensive study of the ‘Guide’). While Maimonides deliberately avoids mentioning ‘Sefer Yetsira’, a careful reading of the Guide might indicate to a few the mystical inclinations of the Great Eagle, albeit ‘purified’ by the discipline of Philosophy.

    • The question remains if Idel is right about Maimonides- just because Idel writes it does not make it true. More importantly, Idel may still be mythological and magical even if he writes an article on Maimonides.
      Idel in one of his article distinguishes Maimonidean philosophy from literary uses or pseudo-scholastic readings. Idel himself acknowledges that Abulafia’s understanding of Maimonides to accommodate Ashkenaz theosophy is far from the readings of Radak, Falquera, ibn Tibbons, or Efodi. And culturally, these figures had a rationalism based on Saadyah, Ibn Ezra, and Maimonides. In contrast, de Leon and Abulafia are not living with a rational theology.

  7. Obviously, not having read much of his work this is speculative, but it strikes me that there is something bizarre going on when the academic study of the history of kabballah is attacked as bearing an inauthentic narrative that ramifies itself in all sorts of amazingly far-reaching ways. I had the same feeling when I read Schweid’s critique of Scholem.

    I would also question the supposed greater commitment to “humanism” (and I believe that Shasha could rightly be accused of equivocating on the meaning of the term in his essay) of a tradition that while perhaps rationalist, was committed to esotericism.

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