Sunday 14 January 2024

457) “Religion – the greatest cause of wars” (Gersonides)


Torat haMelech published in 2009


This article based extensively on the research by Professor Menachem Kellner[1] dating back to 2014 examines some extremist contemporary approaches to modern Jewish messianism. Kellner argues, instead, for a more rationalist approach to messianism, along the lines of Maimonides’ natural Messiah and his unusual vision of a non-supernatural messianic era and eschatology. 

If Gersonides[2] is correct in his assertion that religion is the greatest cause of wars, then various forms of messianism and eschatology must surely be a significant component thereof. 

Expectation vs reality of religion

Kellner begins by stating that one would have expected that the basic religious principle of one G-d, coupled with a general universalistic ethic, would lead to the belief that ultimately all people were (at least) more or less equal under G-d. Certainly, in the eschatological formulation of such principles, all people should (at least) be more or less beloved by G-d in the afterlife or in the messianic era. 

However, the basic principles often get somewhat reworked by the adherents of many religions who claim that if indeed there is only one G-d, then there must be only one ‘approved’ way of serving that G-d, and therefore: 

“[a]nyone who seeks to approach God in any other way is often seen as being excluded from communion with God and even as less than fully human” (Kellner 2014:108). 

Rapid departure from the early biblical human created in the image of G-d

According to one of the earliest verses in the Torah, humans were created in the image of G-d. This conception, however, did not last very long because later in the Torah there does seem to be a move towards a certain exclusivity among humans. 

Yehuda haLevi (1075-1141)

Yehuda haLevi attempted “to draw the universalist sting of the biblical teaching that all humanity is created in the image of God” (Kellner 2014:108). Yehuda haLevi taught that despite all people being created in the image of G-d, Israel is still compared to the heart, while all other people are the limbs of the body of humanity. 


Following a similar thought process, the Zohar (published around 1290) sees Jewish and Gentile souls as deriving from different sources in the order of mystical Sefirot or mystical spheres. There are views that the Zohar may have been influenced by certain writings of Yehuda haLevi [See Kotzk Blog: 430) Did Yehuda Halevi contribute to the theurgy of Kabbalah?].

For these reasons, both Yehuda haLevi and the Zohar view conversion to Judaism as a problem whereas for Maimonides, as we see in his letter to Ovadia the Ger/Convert, conversion is an opportunity. 

Maharal of Prague (c.1520-1609)

The post-biblical positions of Yehuda haLevi and the Zohar were yet later elaborated upon by figures like the Maharal of Prague who taught that, after Sinai, the original notion of all people being created in the image of G-d was reduced and, therefore, no longer applicable. 

R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812)

The biblical universal image of all humans created in the image of G-d was still later adapted by R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, who, in his Tanya, ascribes different origins for the souls of Jews and Gentiles, which explains why non-Jews can never reach the holiness of Jews.

"For in the case of Israel, this soul of the kelipah is derived from kelipat nogah, which also contains good, as it originates in the esoteric 'Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.' The souls of the nations of the world, however, emanate from the other, unclean kelipot which contain no good whatever..."[3] 

Torat haMelech (2009)

Taking these theological developments to an extreme and practical level that none of the previous authors would have imagined, a recent work, Torat haMelech framed as a Halachic compendium, by Yizhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur of Yeshivat Od Yosef Chai deals with the question of permissibility to kill Gentiles. Torat haMelech, or Law of the King, is a veiled reference to the King Messiah and the laws pertaining to the messianic era, which many believe has already begun. 

A disturbing example from this book is the permissibility or obligation under certain conditions to kill children “if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us.” The book goes on to inform its readers that any Gentile who is not a “ger toshav” (a resident alien) “has no legitimacy”  and today, no Gentiles can qualify for that status (p. 43). Jews and Gentiles have absolutely nothing in common and represent different orders of reality (p. 45). Any Gentile who violates one of the seven Noachide commandments (even stealing something of slight value or, in the eyes of the authors of the book, undermining Jewish sovereignty over any part of the Land of Israel) is to be executed without advance warning, and the Jew who witnesses the act can serve as judge and executioner (p. 49–51) (Kellner 2014:132). 

The book received the Haskamot (approbations) of four rabbis, Yizhak Ginzburg, Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg, Yakov Yosef, son of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (former Israeli Chief Rabbi) and Dov Lior. They pointed out that the topics covered by Torat haMelech, are specifically relevant and appropriate to our times. 

Kellner notes that these ideas are given further impetus due to the messianic triggers so inherent in the work. But it is not just in books like Torat haMelech because much of contemporary religious society across the spectrum is also under the spell of the belief that they are living in times of immanent messianic redemption: 

“[m]essianism can be an extremely potent brew—often, as we see here, a very dangerous one… It is the conviction that the reverberations of the footsteps of the Messiah are getting ever louder that allows people to express themselves with no concern for mah yomru ha-goyyim (what will the Gentiles say?) since, in the time of redemption, when the whole world will acknowledge the truth of Judaism and the superiority of Jews, who could possibly worry about what the Gentiles think?” (Kellner 2014:111). 

This, of course, should not detract from the general and legitimate belief in a Messiah which has long been part of authentic Jewish thought. In this vein, Kellner argues for a return to a type of rabbinic messianism that does not and cannot lead to fundamentalism or extremism. This is the natural form of messianism as espoused by Maimonides (1135-1204) and Kellner describes it in his title as the “Maimonidean Corrective” to “Twisted Messianic Visions. 

A return to Maimonidean messianism

Maimonides emphasises that the Torah and rabbinic texts leave no clear guidelines about how to run a state or what will happen with the Messiah comes. Kellner (writing ten years ago in 2014) points out that even secular Zionists look directly to the Bible for some of their policies: 

“One also gets the sense that because the rabbinic tradition is so underdeveloped in these areas, many Jews suddenly become Karaites, or Protestants, reading the Bible directly, without the restraint imposed by the rabbinic tradition…The Bible, when unmediated through the rabbinic tradition, can be a ferocious book” (Kellner 2014:112; 113). 

However, reading the Bible unmitigated by classical rabbinic tradition, can lead to some interesting observations even regarding G-d’s relationship to His own ‘chosen’ people: 

“Thus, in Numbers 14, God seeks to wipe out the Jewish people (as in Exodus 32—in both cases God wanted to wipe out the Israelites and begin the whole story anew with the descendants of Moses); in Numbers 17, over fourteen thousand complaining Jews are killed in a plague; in Numbers 21, a great multitude are killed by venomous snakes sent by God; twenty-four thousand more die in the plague following the whoring after the Midianites in Numbers 25 (and the leaders of the sinning were apparently killed by exposure, thus condemned to a slow and miserable death). In Numbers 31, Moses waxes wroth with the Israelite army for failing to kill all the Midianite men, women who were not virgins, and all male children; and Numbers repeatedly promises extermination of the Canaanite nations, a promise made throughout the Pentateuch” (Kellner 2014:114). 

Quoting unmitigated chapters and verses from the Torah is a dangerous exercise because it can also provide material to support the annihilation of Jews by Jews. 

For Maimonides, the messianic era was not a time of wonders and miracles but a gradual natural process of refining and perfecting human relationships. Maimonides writes: 

“The days of the Messiah were not desired so that grain and money be increased, nor so that we ride on horses, nor drink at musical parties as those with confused minds think. Rather…that they would be characterized by perfected society, excellent governance, wisdom, the righteousness of the king” (Maimonides: Perek Chelek). 

Maimonides completely rejects the popular conception of a supernatural messianic event:

“Do not think that King Messiah will have to perform signs and wonders, bring anything new into being, revive the dead, or do similar things that the fools talk about. It is not so.” 

Maimonides teaches that: 

“a sudden transition from one opposite to another is impossible. And therefore man, according to his nature, is not capable of abandoning suddenly all to which he was accustomed” (Maimonides, Moreh Nevuchim, 3.32). 

Kellner describes in colloquial language how rationally and naturally Maimonides views history in general and messianism in particular: 

“The messianic universalism sketched out here is an outgrowth of Maimonides’s understanding of world history. It was not God’s original intention to choose the Jews, contrary to Halevi and most other Jewish thinkers—or for God to choose any national group, for that matter. Abraham chose God, not the other way round.[4] If the first individual to discover God through rational means after humanity had degenerated into paganism had been a Navajo philosopher, then the Torah would have been written in the Navajo language, its narratives would have reflected the history of the Navajo people, and its commandments would have sought to purify, sanctify, and exalt the Navajo way of life. But the Torah in its innermost essence would not be different; it would teach the same truths it teaches today, only clothed differently. Indeed, Abraham sought to create a universal religion, not one connected to a particular lineage, but this experiment failed. Moses sought to create a religion of reason, not one of cultic ritual, but this experiment also failed. By envisioning a universal religion at the end of days, Maimonides is consistent with his understanding of how history should have worked itself out, had humanity initially been up to the task” (Kellner 2014:129). 

Maimonides’ messianism is a stark counterweight to the popular perception of messianism. His messianism is so rational and natural that it almost seems devoid of spiritual content. Maimonides has been criticised for this so many times over the past eight centuries. Some maintain that Maimonides never believed that the messianic era needed the actual personification of a Messiah. Others (like Hermann Cohen and Yeshayahu Leibowitz) maintain that Maimonides believed we would get ever closer to the messianic era but never actually reach it (Kellner, interestingly, points out that he has no opinion on this matter). 

Either way, however one chooses to read Maimonides, his model of natural, fair and gradual progress leading towards a hopeful and ultimate non-miraculous messianic perfection of humanity, is probably the safest, kindest and most inclusive compared to some of the other options.


Further Reading


Kotzk Blog: 395) The Alter Rebbe’s great-grandson who became a proto-Zionist and developed a form of 'natural' messianism. 

Kotzk Blog: 377) Early Jewish Messiahs and their movements 

Kotzk Blog: 366) Changing perceptions of the “other”

[1] Kellner, M., 2014, ‘And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight: Twisted Messianic Visions – A Maimonidean Corrective’, in Michael Morgan and Steven Weitzman, eds., Rethinking the Messianic Idea: New Perspectives on Jewish Messianism, Indiana University Press, Indianapolis, 108-140.

[2] Ralbag, R. Levi ben Gershon (1288-1344) Commentary on the Torah 248b.

[3] R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya (Likutei Amarim), 1.1.

[4] Maimonides writes in his Guide of the Perplexed, II:39 (Shlomo Pines Edition, p.379): “But he (Abraham) never said: God has sent me to you and has given me commandments and prohibitions…” This underscores Maimonides' notion hat G-d did not chooses Abraham, rather, Abraham chose G-d.

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