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  • Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism
  • Aryeh Botwinick
Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism. By Menachem Kellner. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006. Pp. 364. Hardcover. $49.50.

Menachem Kellner's interesting and important book, Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism, tries to situate Maimonides in his immediate Jewish environment, which Kellner characterizes as proto-kabbalistic. The dominant strains in the religious beliefs and practices of Maimonides' Jewish contemporaries were essentialist and realist. They invested Halakhah, holiness, the Hebrew language, and Jewish identity itself with palpably divine elements and connections that tore them out of a naturalistic context and reconfigured them on an almost literal level as being saturated with Divinity. Kellner argues that Maimonides' major writings—encompassing both the Mishneh Torah and The Guide of the Perplexed—were undertaken to dispel this faulty understanding of Judaism and to substitute for it a much more nominalistic and naturalistic account of the development and content of Judaism. According to Kellner (here following in the footsteps of Moshe Idel), the irony of Maimonides' project was that his rejection of proto-kabbalism served as a spur to "the younger generation of Maimonides' contemporaries" to create "the historical forms of kabbalism," which in one form or another continue to infiltrate and define the beliefs and practices of ordinary Jews down to the present day.

The central texts of the proto-kabbalah were the Sefer Yetsirah and the works that are grouped together under the rubric of the Heikhalot literature. In terms of more immediate predecessors, Judah Halevi's Sefer HaKuzari, with its realist vocabulary for singling out the special character of the Hebrew language and the Jewish people and their relationship to God, also reflects this sort of sensibility. Since religious orthodoxy had not yet been defined at the time that Maimonides was writing—its emergence had to await the hardening of ideological boundaries that were coextensive with the rise of modernity—the vast talmudic lore dealing with demons and angels could be lifted out wholesale as a religious substratum supporting the Jewish religious way of life. A popular mystical outlook rendering God intellectually accessible and emotionally close at hand constitutes the path of least resistance for masses of believers who cherish religion as a refuge from the exercise of a critical and utilitarian intelligence, mapping-out the only route to human salvation.

For Kellner, the crucial motivating factor driving Maimonides to do battle against the proto-kabbalism of his day as well as the decisive methodological tool enabling him to do so was his nominalism. He says that "Maimonides combines philosophical nominalism with religious nominalism" (p. 13). Maimonides not only wants to "depopulate the heavens" so that "there is God and nature and nothing else"; he transposes nominalistic modes of understanding from the broad metaphysical domain of denying reality to universals to how he construes the structure of Jewish religion in its more limited, technical regions. Halakhah, for example, does not inventory a preexisting Divine reality. It works rather to construct a particular social reality defined by its legal parameters and norms. Halakhah is much more appropriately [End Page 415] seen as a set of human responses to particular readings of texts both biblical and rabbinic in origin, rather than as a set of divine givens irrevocably fixing the reality of the Jewish community.

Kellner's book is extremely valuable in the way that it roots both Maimonides' legal code and his philosophy in the thought-world and social and religious practices of his own time, and dramatizes the ways in which some of his most characteristic formulations function as critical responses to what prevailed in his own culture and environment. In doing this, Kellner has, with very telling effect, transposed to Jewish textual materials the historical methodology that Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock have applied with successful results to the texts of Western political theory. However, I believe that there is another way of telling Idel's and Kellner's story that places the emergence of Kabbalah soon after the circulation of Maimonides' key texts in a different light. In this version, Kabbalah doesn't spell the renewed triumph of popular realist religiosity over elitist, more rational, more abstract religion. From the perspective...