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.
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.
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.