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Reviewed by:
  • Must a Jew Believe Anything?
  • Peter Haas
Must a Jew Believe Anything? by Menachem Kellner. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Studies, 1999. 182 pp. $19.95.

This book is Menahem Kellner’s entry into the growing discussion of Jewish unity. It is meant to explore, in particular, the possibilities for theological tolerance among Orthodox Jews toward non-Orthodox Judaisms. The essential problem, as Kellner sees it, is rooted in Moses Maimonides’ redefinition of a Jew not as a member of a particular people defined by birth, but as a person who affirms certain theological beliefs and certain forms of behavior. This definition, Kellner argues, means that Orthodox Jews have come to use a “theological” litmus test to determine who is a Jew and who is not; and since the elements of this test are fairly clearly defined by Maimonides, it is not a big jump to declare non-Orthodox Jews as heretics and therefore outside the fold. It is this implication of Maimonides’ thought that Kellner is arguing against in this book. In Kellner’s words, “I will argue here that Maimonides was right in rejecting the essentialist view of the Jewish people, but wrong in replacing it with a definition of the Jew [End Page 178] as a person who adheres to a strictly defined set of dogmas” (Introduction, p. 7). While this sounds like an important move in the current debate, Kellner fails to get even close, as we shall see in a moment.

The argument for the above proposition is made in the first six of the book’s seven chapters. The argument in rough outline runs as follows. Chapter One affirms that “the Torah” teaches us to believe in God and have faith in divine providence; it does not teach us specific beliefs about God. A review of major Jewish life cycle events in Chapter Two shows that the rhetoric in classical rabbinic literature is aimed constantly to lead Jews to a particular kind of life, not to the affirmation of particular beliefs. With this background in mind, Chapter Three turns our attention to the question as to why a “theological” Judaism developed at all, submitting that it developed in reaction to the competition offered in the Middle Ages by Christianity and Islam. This leads into the discussion of Chapter Four, which focuses on Maimonides’ effort to set Judaism on a new course, one defined by a systematic theology and so, ultimately, a “doctrinal” orthodoxy. This move, Kellner claims in Chapter Five, did in fact spark some opposition at the time and among subsequent commentators. Nonetheless, Maimonides’ “theologization” of Judaism (Chapter Six) came to dominate and in recent times has been the basis for Orthodox, theological tests as to what is and is not true Judaism. Matters have gone to such an extent down this road that J. David Bleich could argue that “matters of belief are inherently matters of halakha” (quoted in Kellner, p. 96). Thus we come to the current situation in which Orthodox Jews treat non-Orthodox Jews not as mistaken, but as heretical, illegitimate, and lacking spiritual dignity (p. 108).

We are now ready for Kellner’s description of his counter-Orthodoxy. This is taken up in Chapter Seven, and is addressed to Kellner’s Orthodox readers. Herein lies the major disappointment of the book. Kellner begins, auspiciously enough, with the proposition that foundational to all Judaism is the concept of a shared peoplehood (as opposed to a shared theology). But then we are told that even if this means that Ortho dox Jews can legitimately accept non-Orthodox Jews as Jews, it does not mean that they have to accept all these Jews as “good” Jews. After all, Kellner avers, “(t)he position advanced in this chapter is that Judaism teaches truth, and that Orthodoxy understands that truth more completely than competing versions of Judaism. Those competing versions are wrong, and mistaken. . . .” One cannot help but wonder at this point how after such a statement this book advances the situation at all. The answer, in all its full modesty, is contained in the next clause: “. . . calling them heretical is simply not helpful and is, furthermore, foreign to the historical...

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pp. 178-180
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