Sunday 9 January 2022

366) Changing perceptions of the “other”


This manuscript is of the Hebrew translation from the original Arabic Guide of the Perplexed, translated by Samuel Ibn Tibbon (died c. 1230). It was produced in Spain, around 1350. 


This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Menachem Kellner[1], examines various perspectives of the “other” in the writings of Maimonides and traces how these teachings were sometimes changed by later editors who attempted to “correct” the original Maimonidean texts. Kellner (2007:1) explains that the reason why later editors and copyists were keen to change the original Maimonidean texts was “to pull the sting of their universalism and make them accord with more widely accepted notions of Jewish separateness and superiority”.

Maimonides’ universalism vs mystical particularism

Kellner (2007:3) defines Maimonides as one of the most “universalist” of all the rabbis. This means that his distinctions between Jews and gentiles are far more blurred and overlapping than most other rabbinic thinkers.[2] This is an interesting position because so many other writings, particularly mystical writings, take great pains to sharpen those distinctions and show the superiority of the Jew and the Jewish soul over the ”other”.

Kellner (2006:xi) emphasises how this approach is very different from that adopted by the mystics:

This point must be fleshed out. Thinkers like Judah Halevi, the authors of the Zohar, Maharal of Prague (c.1525–1609), Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady (1745–1813), and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935) were all convinced that Jews are distinguished from non-Jews by some essential characteristic which made them ontologically distinct and superior. This view has no source in the Hebrew Bible at all and very few clear-cut sources in rabbinic literature, but it came to dominate medieval and post-medieval Judaism.”

The enormity of this idea must not be lost (whether one agrees with it or not) because Maimonides dismisses out of hand defining notions that later went on to shape the contours of modern Jewish ideology - where it is often taken for granted that concepts such as the Jewish “noble soul” with its “closeness to God” or “der pintele yid” distinguishes Jew from non-Jew in a very real sense (Kellner 2007:3).

Many of Maimonides’ ideas and much of his thinking would surprise the average orthodox Jew today being brought up on a very different scale of ideological values. To highlight this, Kellner points out some of the following basic premises of Maimonidean universalism:

a) The function of Torah

There is essentially no difference between, Jew and non-Jew, and it follows that there is no superiority over the gentile either. The only difference is in the knowledge of Torah: “A Jew who observes the commandments thereby has an advantage over an ordinary gentile; but a moral and learned gentile certainly has an advantage over a coarse, ignorant Jew.”

In Maimonides’ system of thought, the best and easiest way to reach a state of moral perfection is indeed through observance of the Torah commandments, but “observance of the commandments is not the sole way to attain moral perfection, and one who does not observe them can still attain perfection as a creature made in God’s image”.

b) Israel’s “choseness”

Israel’s “choseness” is purely an accident of history and was not related in any way to its superiority. Instead of Abraham the Hebrew, it could just as easily have been a Navajo Indian, as it were, who discovered G-d - and that nation, or any other for that matter, would have become the chosen people. The Torah would have been given to that nation in the language of that nation and the early part of the Torah would have dealt with the history of that nation. And the chosen land would have been the land of that nation.[3]

c) Messianic times

Ultimately, according to Maimonides, in messianic times, all humanity will observe the Torah “as equals in all respects”. In the meantime, the Torah has been given to the Jews to observe, preserve and to act as its custodians.

d) Prophecy, providence and olam habah

Based on these universalist building blocks relating to all of humanity, Kellner (2007:4) reminds us that according to Maimonides:

The Jew per se, then, has no advantage over the gentile with respect to anything related to prophecy, providence, or achieving a share in the world to come.”

Were these Maimonidean innovations?

Kellner points out that although these seem like radical departures from classical, traditional and mainstream Jewish thought which always emphasised a worldview of Jewish choseness and superiority:

Maimonides saw himself as simply continuing on the path set in the Torah, and there is nothing to explain. All people were created—in principal—in the image of God.”

Kellner explains that the qualification “in principle” is important because in Maimonides’ view, “creation in G-d’s image” is not a given - instead it is a challenge (and predominantly an intellectual one at that) to all people. But not all people will attain that goal, because “not every person is born with the physical and mental qualities needed to attain intellectual fulfilment”.[4]

Universalist not egalitarianist

The reason why Maimonides placed such a premium on “sechel” or the intellect, was that for him, the essence of a human was reason. Kellner, however, makes a distinction between Maimonides’ view of universalism and what we today might call egalitarianism. Maimonides did not “profess egalitarianism; he was elitist to his core. But despite his disdain for the masses, he was patient with them; it may truly be said of him that he suffered fools gladly.

Opposition to universalism

Kellner (2007:5) explains why he believes that Jews today would have difficulty with Maimonides’ universalism:

Without doubt, many Jews have found it difficult to deal with Maimonides’ universalist positions. Reacting to a history suffused with destruction, persecution, pogroms, expulsions, and—worst of all—the Holocaust, Jewish tradition developed a range of defense mechanisms; among them was the claim that the Jew per se has greater spiritual and personal value than the non-Jew.”

Censorship and “correction” of Maimonidean texts

Besides Maimonidean texts being subjected to internal censorship, copyists sometimes “corrected” what they believed were certain “mistakes” in his writings, not believing that he could possibly have held such beliefs. 

“Jews” or “people” in the messianic era?

According to one version of Maimonides’ Hilchot Melachim (12:5) at the end of his Mishneh Torah; in messianic times:

the one preoccupation of the whole world will be to know the Lord. Hence Israelites will be very wise, they will know the things that are now concealed…”

But another version reads:

The one preoccupation of the whole world will be to know the Lord. Hence they will be very wise, they will know the things that are now concealed…”

The difference between the two versions has huge theological implications because according to the first, it is only the Jews who will possess the knowledge – while according to the second, it is all people (Jews and gentiles) who will possess that knowledge. Kellner (2007:8) observes that:

The copyist(s) could not believe that the master meant to conclude his halakhic magnum opus by teaching of a messianic era in which gentiles, no less than Jews, will be great sages…:

 A gentile being regarded as a disciple of Abraham

In the different contemporary Blau and Shilat versions of Maimonides’ Letter to Ovadiah the Convert, we see not only how the text was changed during the Middle Ages, but also how more recent editors similarly grappled with how they chose to present the original texts.

In one of a number of differences, between the Blau and the more conservative Shilat editions, the issue of a monotheistic gentile is dealt with.

According to the Blau edition, Maimonides writes:

whoever confesses the unity of the divine name, as it is written in the Torah—they are all disciples of Abraham…”

This version in Blau also corresponds to Maimonides’ position as expressed in Hilkhot Melachim, chapter 8. However, that version appears too universalistic for Shilat who references another version as well, and according to him Maimonides writes:

whoever adopts Judaism and confesses the unity of the divine name, as written in the Torah [var. adds: and all who enter into the religion of Moses our teacher, the religion of truth and righteousness]—they are disciples of Abraham…”

Shilat could not argue with the Blau version as it concurs with Hilkhot Melachim, chapter 8, so he had to add another variant of the text. In this case, it is only the gentile who formally goes through a process of conversion to “enter into the religion of Moses…the religion of truth and righteousness” who is considered one of the “disciples of Abraham”.

On this version of Shilat, Kellner comments:

It is inconceivable, in what appears to be his [Shilat’s][5] view, that a gentile who recognizes God and the Torah but still remains a gentile could be considered a disciple of Judaism’s founder and a member of his householdIt follows, according to this version, that there are no gentiles who are considered disciples of Abraham.”

Whoever saves one soul saves an entire universe

Moving away from Maimonides but remaining with the theme of manipulating universalist Jewish texts, we now turn to a well-known Mishna.

The oft quoted adage from Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5 lauds the person who save a single human being, for in so saving a single human being it is indeed as if an entire universe was saved.

This text, however, has an interesting history. Kellner (2012:78-9) draws our attention to the standard version of this famed Mishna Sanherdin 4:5 in printed versions:

לְפִיכָךְ נִבְרָא אָדָם יְחִידִי, לְלַמֶּדְךָ, שֶׁכָּל הַמְאַבֵּד נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ אִבֵּד עוֹלָם מָלֵא. וְכָל הַמְקַיֵּם נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ קִיֵּם עוֹלָם מָלֵא.

For this reason was man created alone, to teach you that whosoever destroys a single soul of Israel, Scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel, Scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world.”

However, this text too underwent its own form of “correction” so as to similarly silence its “dangerous” universalist message. The insertion of the subject “Israel” was a later interpolation[6]. Originally, the text was couched in purely universal terms, speaking only of saving a “human being”, any human being, not just a Jew.

Kellner points out that, of all the unlikely places, it is in Qur’an where Mohammed cites the original version of Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5. According the Qur’an, Sura 5.32:

For this reason did We prescribe to the children of Israel that whoever slays a soul, unless it be for manslaughter or for mischief in the land, it is as though he slew all men; and whoever keeps it alive, it is as though he kept alive all men; and certainly Our apostles came to them with clear arguments, but even after that many of them certainly act extravagantly in the land.”

Kellner (2012:80) writes:

The Qur’an reached its present, canonical state by the middle of the eighth century at the very latest. This Qur’an text turns out to be the earliest witness we have of…the correct text of our Mishnah, a universalist teaching of Judaic monotheism which some Jews sought to modify.”

Astoundingly, here in the Qur’an we have a preservation of an original Jewish text which proved to be too universal to the extent that Jews were later to restrict the saving of a “universe” to Jewish souls alone.

The other side of Maimonides’ universalism

One of the most difficult, if not disturbing, Maimonidean teachings I have ever come across is where Maimonides the universalist, does indeed not distinguish between Jew and non-Jew, but he does (surprisingly) distinguish between categories of “human beings”. Referring to the importance of sechel or intellect as the defining parameters of human beings, Maimonides writes:

 “You know that whoever is not endowed with this form [of the intellect]…is not a man, but an animal having the shape and configuration of man.”[7]

According to Maimonides, such ‘human-like animals’ can sometimes be very dangerous because they can use their intellect for evil, so much so that (even more surprisingly):

it is a light thing to kill them, and has even been enjoined because of its utility.”[8]

Maimonides continues to define these ‘lesser beings’ as entities that:

do not have the rank of men, but have among the beings a rank lower than the rank of man but higher than the rank of apes.”[9]

As Kellner (2012:81) explains:

Maimonides accepted the idea that all humans are created in the image of God, but he restricted the class of human beings to rational animals

This doctrine was strenuously criticized by Hasdai Crescas[10] who was particularly offended by the fact that on this doctrine little children, who had never sinned, but who had also never had the chance to develop their intellects, would have no share in the world to come.

Clearly, Maimonides was such a universalist that even in this unusual depiction of ‘lesser intelligent beings’ he remained steadfast in his insistence that it applied equally to Jews and non-Jews.

To be honest, I wanted to remove this last paragraph from this article because I am not sure how to deal with it - but if I did, I would be just as guilty as all those throughout history who sought to “correct” what they considered the sometimes-difficult writings of Maimonides.

[1] Kellner, M., 2007, “Farteitcht un Farbessert (On ‘Correcting’ Maimonides),” Me’orot [=Edah Journal], vol. 6, no. 2, 1-11.

Kellner, M., 2012, “Monotheism as a Continuing Ethical Challenge to Jews,” in Y. Tzvi Langermann, ed., Monotheism and Ethics: Historical and Contemporary Intersections among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Brill, Leiden, 75-86.

Kellner, M., 2006, Maimonides’ Confrontation With Mysticism, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, London.

[3] See Maimonides Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avodah Zarah, chapter 1, as well as Guide of the Perplexed II:39, III:24, and III:29. See The chosen people in Kotzk Blog: 252) HOW RASHI AND RAMBAM PART WAYS ON THE DEEPEST OF ISSUES:

[4] See Guide of the Perplexed I:34; Pines, 76-79.

[5] Parenthesis mine.

[6] Urbach, E., 1988, “‘Whoever Saves. . . .’—the History of a Recension,” Me-Olamam Shel Hakhamim: Kovez Mehkarim, Magnes, Jerusalem, 561–577; originally published in Tarbiz 40 (1971), 268–284 (Hebrew).

[7] Guide of the Perplexed, I.7.

[8] Guide of the Perplexed, III.18.

[9] Guide of the Perplexed, III.51.

[10] Or ha-Shem II.6.i. 


  1. Nice article BUT. at the beginning a picture and reference ot Obadiah the Norman proselyte. Maimonides never communicated with him. The Norman was born in 1070 and died in 1150.Maimonides was born in 1135 or 1138 and died in 1204. If you remove the figure and caption things will be O.K.

  2. Thank you Unknown. I have replaced the picture.

  3. Thank you Dr Zamick. Would you mind sending me your email address?

  4. Fascinating read. My apologies for commenting so late, but I have been combing the site, reading voraciously these last few weeks.

    It would seem to me that Prof. Kellner is rather rash in ascribing the "correct" version of the Mishnah to the Quran. It's rather doubtful that Mohammed or the later editors would have had access and understanding of the Talmud, but even if so, they would have their own motives for claiming that Jews should be Universalist, especially as it would come to taking/saving a life.