Judaism and its Others: A Review Essay

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Menachem Kellner


Review of Alon Goshen-Gottstein (ed.), Judaism’s Challenge: Election, Divine Love, and Human Enmity (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2020)

With the creation and flourishing of the State of Israel, the question of theological tolerance of other religions by Jews has become a live and pressing matter. Recent elections in Israel have placed the issue at the forefront of contemporary discussion.

The book here under review faces the challenge of how religious Jews should confront non-Jewish religions head-on. Before looking at the dozen essays out of which the book is constructed, I would like to take a look at the title. What is Judaism’s challenge? Many would naturally assume that it refers to the challenge of observing the Torah and remaining faithful to it in a world full of historical and contemporary enemies, a world also full of temptations. But that is not the meaning of the challenge in this book. The authors in this book find themselves challenged by the doctrine of election, a doctrine that professes that God chose (and chooses) the Jewish people as a special treasure. Borrowing a term from Christian thought, we might say the authors of this book are challenged by “the scandal of particularity” (how can the Lord of the cosmos choose a miniscule sliver of humanity―the least of all nations, as Deuteronomy 7:7 has it―as an object of particular love?). Non-Maimonidean versions of Judaism (those, for example, of Judah Halevi, Zohar, Hasidut) often see nothing “scandalous” about the notion of the election of Israel and would not understand the purpose of this book.

Understanding the main title of the book in this fashion, the subtitle becomes clearer―once the Jewish people are held to be chosen as the objects of divine love, we are further challenged to understand the extent of that love. From the perspective of many of the authors of our volume, the more pressing question is: does God’s love extend to non-Jews? For some Jews I have observed, the question becomes: does God’s love extend to non-observant Jews? For those who think that God’s love extends only to Jews, the question arises: does God ignore or even hate those whom God does not love, and, if so, should Jews hate them (or, as is often the case for such Jews, only disdain them)? I am reminded of an anecdote related to me by an Orthodox rabbi. He called three members of the Talmud faculty at a leading Modern Orthodox institution and asked if God pays attention to the prayers of non-Jews. One answered, “Of course”; the second answered, “Of course not”; the third answered that he did not know or care. The last two of these three leaders of Modern Orthodoxy give voice to the problematics addressed by the book under review.

Before addressing the questions raised in this book, let us see who the authors included in this collection are. It is edited by Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein. Goshen-Gottstein is not only an ordained Orthodox rabbi (he served in the IDF reserves as a rabbi for many years) and a respected scholar of rabbinics; he is also the creator of and continuing force behind the “Elijah Interfaith Institute”―based in Jerusalem, but with a worldwide reach. On its website, the Institute describes itself in the following terms:

The spirit of Elijah is wisdom, inspiration, friendship and hope across religious traditions. Elijah deepens understanding among religions. Elijah’s mission is to foster unity in diversity, creating a harmonious world. Elijah’s message: The world’s great religions radiate wisdom that can heal the world. Deep level spiritual conversation across interreligious lines enriches our inner lives, enhances our prayer and opens our hearts. Discover unity and embrace diversity. We are many and we are one.

The project behind our book now comes into clearer focus. It is obvious that the question of how we as Jews ought to relate to others has not really confronted us―at the very least―since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. To be troubled by the question of tolerance, one must be in a position to tolerate. A weak and persecuted community does not have to worry about tolerating others; it is too busy, as it were, trying to be tolerated by those others. However, now that the State of Israel exists, the question of theological tolerance of other religions by Jews has become a live and pressing matter.

Most contemporary discussions of tolerance in Jewish contexts relate to intra-Jewish tolerance: can one group of Jews accept other groups as―in some sense―Jewishly legitimate?

Judaism’s Challenge is not interested in how Jews relate to each other, but in how Jews do and should relate to non-Jews. Let us continue to frame the question in terms of tolerance. Tolerance comes in many flavors. There is a weak version, typical of Judaism over the generations, of not being interested in other religions―as long as the Jews were left alone.

The authors in Judaism’s Challenge all reject the stance of weak tolerance and total disinterest in non-Jews and their religious beliefs. In line with the work of scholars such as Alan Brill and Goshen-Gottstein himself, our authors seek to contribute to the creation of a Jewish theology of non-Judaisms. Perhaps the last attempt to do this was in the mishnaic tractate Avodah Zarah. Quite a lot of water has flowed down the Jordan, Euphrates, Main, and Hudson Rivers since.

Of the book’s twelve chapters, three are written by the editor himself. Their titles speak for themselves: “Israel and the Call of Love to Humanity”; “A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation”; and “Conclusion: Judaism’s Challenge—Being Israel in Changing Circumstances.” The last of these three titles clearly elucidates the motivation behind this book. It is not the content of the chapter itself which largely summarizes the earlier chapters in the book; it is, rather, formulating a theological response to changing circumstances. What are the changing circumstances in which Israel finds itself after two millennia of Western history?

  • Israel is no longer only the name of the Jewish people as a collective, but it is the name of a nation state, brought into existence by the people of Israel as a collective.
  • After two millennia of Christian enmity toward Israel as a collective and toward Jews as individuals, we Jews are now faced with a Catholic Church seeking to officially make amends for its treatment of the Jews as well as some Protestant denominations which profess great love for Israel the state and Israel the people.
  • At the same time, Israel the state has become the focus of a unique hatred, a hatred which denies that it is motivated by antipathy toward Jews.

Changing circumstances, indeed!

Who are the other authors in the book? Six of them are observant Jews, committed to halakhic observance and equally committed to the idea that all human beings are indeed created in the divine image. It should be noted that almost all of the authors are (or were) Americans.

The other three authors appear from their bios to be Orthodox or at the very least what I would call “Orthodox adjacent.” We have before us, therefore, a book of necessary reading for contemporary Modern Orthodox Jews of a universalist bent. It will also, I am sure, interest sociologists of contemporary Jewry. Will it speak to Jews of a more particularist bent? I wish it would, but I doubt it.

What is in this book?

The Hebrew University’s Israel Knohl uses the ambiguous status of the biblical ger (alien resident) to consider the biblical view of the other, the unelected (“The Election and Sanctity of Israel in the Hebrew Bible”). “The unelected may be the enemy, the strong other, or a more neutral other, simply one who has not been elected. In the case of the ger we encounter a third possibility—someone who is partially a member of the community, but not fully” (11). It is on this basis that Knohl challenges Israeli Jews to come to terms with the anomalous status of thousands of Israelis who are not halakhically Jewish, but are certainly not gentiles either. Knohl’s essay coheres with Joel S. Kaminsky’s important book, Yet I Loved Jacob: Reclaiming the Biblical Concept of Election (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2007). That a scholar of Knohl’s eminence is apparently unaware of Kaminsky’s book speaks volumes about the unfortunate lack of mutual enrichment between Israeli and American scholarship.

Goshen-Gottstein, in “Israel and the Call to Love Humanity,” and Eugene Korn in “Israel as Blessing: Theological Horizons,” turn from Knohl’s concern with the internal other in the State of Israel, to a consideration of the non-Jewish other. Goshen-Gottstein begins with the Bible through contemporary thinkers, using the notion of Israel as a holy nation, a kingdom of priests as justification for seeing the “mission” of Judaism as a teacher of humanity. Korn examines the consequences of God’s promise to Abraham that the nations of the world will bless themselves by Israel. The responsibilities of Israel as a teacher and as a source of blessing are the burden of these two analytic surveys of centuries of Jewish teachings. Both of these challenging essays could have been enriched had they taken advantage of the findings of Menachem Hirshman in Torah Le-Khol Ba’ei Olam (1999).

In “Aleinu—a Prayer Common to Jews and Gentile God-Fearers,” Menachem Katz suggests that the “us” in Aleinu refers not to “us Jews” alone, but to Jews and those whom we might call “fellow travelers.” In this view, Aleinu contrasts Jews, and non-Jews who accept God, with pagans who do not.

Two of the essays in the collection deal head-on with the challenge of enmity toward non-Jews in Hasidic texts: “Images of the Non-Jew in the Kedushat Levi: A Textual and Theological Exploration” by Or Rose, and “From Enmity to Unity—Recovering the Ba’al Shem Tov’s Teachings on Non-Jews” by Menachem Kallus. Facing—without flinching—the hatred for non-Jews found in the writings of beloved Hasidic master R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, Rose is forced into an apologetic stance (explaining that gentile hatred of the Jews in the world in which R. Levi Yitzhak lived and wrote explained his objectionable views—rendering them perhaps more understandable if not more admirable). This allows Rose to affirm that we do not live in R. Levi Yitzhak’s world and should judge him by the standards of his world, not ours. In effect, he adopts R. Meir’s approach to his teacher Elisha ben Avuyah: eating the fruit, while discarding the rind (Hagigah 15b). Rose ends his essay on a higher note—a call for what I have elsewhere characterized as a stance of “epistemological humility.” Menachem Kallus (“From Enmity to Unity—Recovering the Ba’al Shem Tov’s Teachings on Non-Jews”), like Or Rose, does not pretend that hateful Hasidic teachings do not exist. Rather, he uses other Hasidic teachings to challenge contemporary readers of Hasidic texts to consider alternatives to standard readings. Rose and Kallus both seek to rescue beloved teachers from their own words.

Another author in the collection, Yehudah (Jerome) Gellman, honestly faced the issue of the hatred for gentiles found in many Kabbalistic/Hasidic texts in an important article published over a decade ago (“Jewish Mysticism and Morality: Kabbalah and Its Ontological Dualities,” Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 9 [2008]: 23-35). In the book under review, Gellman presents a “contemporary approach” to Jewish chosenness. In three books published over recent years by Academic Studies Press—God’s Kindness has Overwhelmed Us: A Contemporary Doctrine of the Jews as the Chosen People (2012); This Was from God: A Contemporary Theology of Torah and History (2016); and Perfect Goodness and the God of the Jews: A Contemporary Jewish Theology (2019)—Gellman has presented a new Jewish theology, using insights found in Kabbalah and Hasidut. This theology understands that there is an infinite reality expressing itself in the created cosmos. That reality is filtered through the human condition—in effect, the Torah speaks in human language. To put Gellman’s point in traditional language, we cannot hope to see the Torah clearly, but only through a clouded mirror (aspaklaria she-einah me’irah). Specifically about chosenness, Gellman affirms that Jews should realize that “God… speaks to all peoples” through the Jews who “serve as God’s witness to humanity that God desires the hearts of all peoples. God’s love of the Israelites serves as a sign of God’s love for all humanity” (79). Jews are indeed chosen, but they are not in any sense superior as such to non-Jews.

Rose, Kallus, and Gellman all find truth, beauty, and religious insight in Hasidic teachings. They foreground those teachings and allow the hyper-particularism of these texts to recede into the background. I do not say this by way of criticism. Kabbalah has never been my particular field of interest. I find truth, beauty, and religious insight in Rambam. Nevertheless, I too allow repugnant aspects of his thought (what today must be called misogyny, extreme intellectual elitism, the creation of religious orthodoxy which leads to heresy-hunting and halakhic chauvinism, among others) to recede into the background.

Relying upon Yiddish and Hebrew sources written by rabbis during or immediately after the Holocaust, Gershon Greenberg insightfully and bravely analyzes “Israel’s Election and the Suffering of the Holocaust.” The variety of opinions he discusses reflects deeply painful and very different attempts to come to grips with the inexplicable.

Stanislaw Krajewski utilizes insights gathered from Rav Soloveitchik, Rabbi Sacks, and contemporary social psychology to discuss “Two Dimensions of Jewish Identity,” positive and negative. He clearly prefers the former to the latter.

I have chosen to end this survey with Reuven Kimelman’s detailed and extensive account of attempts to come to grips with “Israel’s Election and the Moral Dilemma of Amalek and the Seven Nations of Canaan.” This essay, among the longest in the book, is the one from which I personally learned the most. Kimelman takes up the challenge of biblically ordained genocide through a focus on Amalek. Through a sophisticated reading of a large number of texts, Kimelman convincingly shows that the Jewish tradition seeks in the final analysis to construe Amalek in moral, not ethnic terms. His concluding sentence demonstrates his sensitivity in balancing conflicting issues: “Obviously, to be a light unto the nations requires first to be a nation. Nonetheless, as important as it is to sustain nationhood, so is it important to keep the light on” (173). This sentence also allows me to segue to a few concluding thoughts about the book as a whole.

“How odd of God / To choose the Jews….” This oddity has challenged Jews and gentiles for literally thousands of years. There are probably as many explanations as there are Jews (and gentiles). One explanation was, in effect, given by Rambam: “It’s not so odd, / The Jews chose God.” For Rambam, the election of Israel is a function of the historically contingent fact that Abraham discovered God. A different answer was given by R. Judah Halevi: it is not that God chose the Jews (by choosing them from among other candidates for election) but that God created the cosmos such that only one group among the descendants of Adam and Eve could receive the Torah.[1] For Rambam, it was having been offered (as a reward to the patriarchs) and accepting the Torah which made the Jews the chosen people. For Halevi, it was the chosen nature of Israel (and only of Israel) which made receipt of the Torah possible. In general, it is clear that Halevi’s view, especially as enlarged by many Zoharic texts, dominates contemporary Orthodoxy.

The “oddity” at issue here has become sharper since the discovery of the vastness of the cosmos, brought dramatically to our attention recently by the photos from NASA’s James Webb telescope. We are challenged to believe that this vast cosmos has a Creator and that this Creator is particularly interested in and even especially loves a tiny sliver of humanity.

Once we accept that God created the vast cosmos, those of us in one extremely tiny corner of the cosmos—who hold ourselves to be the objects of God’s special love—are faced with the apparent oddness of the Master of the Universe choosing any subset of humanity as a special treasure. Coming to grips with that apparent oddity is indeed Judaism’s Challenge.

The French Revolution confronted Jews (and Judaism) with unprecedented challenges, chief among them: (a) whether or not to accept the invitation to become full citizens or remain only (often at best, merely tolerated) subjects and (b) if that invitation is accepted, how to preserve important elements of Judaism and Jewishness in this new and extraordinary reality. Libraries are full of books written about attempts by Jews as individuals and Jewry as a corporate entity to come to grips with the challenges of modernity. On the evidence of the book before us, more such libraries are going to be written. And in them, Judaism’s Challenge will have a prominent place.

[1] See Menachem Kellner, We Are Not Alone: A Maimonidean Theology of the Other (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2021), chap. 3.

Menachem Kellner teaches at Shalem College and is a professor emeritus at University of Haifa (emeritus). His most recent book is We Are Not Alone: A Maimonidean Theology of the Other (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2021), soon to appear in Hebrew translation.