Author Archives: Dr. Menachem Kellner

About Dr. Menachem Kellner

Dr. Menachem Kellner is Sir Isaac and Lady Edith Wolfson Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at the University of Haifa.

Emunah: Biblical Faith

In the following article, Kellner discusses the biblical value of emunah. Like Martin Buber before him, he convincingly shows that this word implies trust in God. However, Kellner’s conclusion that trust–loyalty–is the hallmark of Judaism, is more dubious. He deduces this from his analysis of the Bible, but in truth, biblical religion is not the same as Judaism, which incorporates rabbinic elaboration of the Bible as well. Excerpted and reprinted with the permission of The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization from Must a Jew Believe Anything?.

The term emunah, which is rendered in English as “faith” or “belief,” occurs for the first time in the Torah in connection with Abraham. 

After obeying God’s command to leave his family and home, Abraham is led to the land which God promises to give to his descendants. Famine forces him to sojourn in Egypt, where his wife Sarah’s beauty almost precipitates a tragedy. Back in the land promised by God, Abraham and his nephew Lot find that they cannot live together in peace, and each goes his own way. Lot is captured by enemies and then freed by Abraham.

Abraham Questions God

“After these things,” the Torah tells us, “the word of the Lord came unto Abram in a vision, saying: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am thy shield, thy reward shall be exceeding great.'” Now, for the first time, Abraham questions God: “O Lord God, what wilt Thou give me, seeing I go hence childless…to me thou hast given no seed.”

jewish bibleGod has repeatedly promised Abraham that the land to which he has been brought will be given to his descendants. But Abraham remains childless: what is the use of a “great reward” if there are no children to whom it can be bequeathed? In response, God brings Abraham outside, and says: “Look now towards heaven and count the stars, if thou be able to count them…so shall thy seed be.” What is Abraham’s response to this new promise? “Vehe’emin,and he believed in the Lord; and He counted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15: 1‑6).

What is the nature of Abraham’s belief which God counted as “righteousness”? It is quite clear that Abraham’s righteous belief was not a matter of his accepting God’s statements as true, or of having given explicit intellectual acquiescence to the truth of a series of propositions such as:

The Emergence of Jewish Dogma

In the following article, Menachem Kellner suggests that systematic theology was not important to the rabbis of the Talmud. While, strictly speaking, this is true–there are no self-conscious attempts to organize Judaism’s beliefs in the Talmud–some scholars, David Berger in particular, reject Kellner’s assertion that, in Talmudic Judaism, one’s beliefs had no affect on one’s Jewish identity or prospects for salvation. But that does not change the fact that the articulation of Jewish beliefs was a uniquely medieval phenomenon. This article is primarily concerned with determining the causes of this phenomenon. Finally, in his discussion of the Karaites, a medieval Jewish sect, Kellner suggests that their practices did not differ much from the mainstream Jewish tradition. In fact, however, the Karaites relied primarily on biblical law without its talmudic elaborations.  Reprinted with the permission of The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization from Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought.

Why are there no orderly attempts in the Talmud to expound the beliefs of Judaism? In a certain sense, the question is anachronistic. We raise the question, I think, more because Islam and Christianity are characterized by repeated attempts to expound their theologies systematically, than because such an approach to theology is intrinsic to monotheistic faith.


Talmudic Religion

Talmudic Judaism was a faith which neither lent itself easily to theological systematization nor needed such a theology. Let me explain the second point first.

Now, why might a religion need to expound its beliefs in an organized fashion? One reason might be that it held that adherence to those beliefs was a criterion for being accepted as an adherent of that religion or was a criterion for salvation however that religion understood the term.

Talmudic Judaism, however, did not define a Jew in terms of his beliefs: a Jew was a person born of a Jewish mother or a person converted to Judaism (which in effect meant that he was adopted by the Jewish people as one of its own). The laws of conversion, as enunciated in the Talmud, concern themselves with the observance of the commandments to the almost total exclusion of questions relating to the affirmation of beliefs.

Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought

Both early Islam and [the medieval sectarian movement] Karaite Judaism adopted the tools of Greek philosophy and logic, which defined belief (in Greek, pistis) in explicitly propositional terms. Such religious movements could not be ignored by the Judaism of that era, and in their attempt to expound and defend Judaism in this context, medieval Jewish thinkers began to conceive of the nature of belief in propositional terms. 

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the first systematic exposition of Jewish beliefs was undertaken by Saadiah Gaon, in light of his exposure to the latest currents of Moslem thought in tenth‑century Baghdad and his involvement in the struggle against Karaism.

Once the term belief was defined in terms of specific propositions to be accepted or rejected, as opposed to an attitude of trust and reliance upon God and acceptance of his Torah, it was only a question of time until an attempt would be made to codify in creedal fashion the most important beliefs of Judaism. That two hundred years were still to elapse between the provocations of Saadiah’s day and the enterprise of Maimonides is a tribute to the conservative nature of the Jewish tradition.

That Maimonides undertook the project at all is a tribute to his boldness.

Maimonides’ Revolution

In 1168 Maimonides completed his first major work, the commentary on the Mishnah. In the course of this work Maimonides commented on Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1, which reads as follows:

“All Israelites have a share in the world to come, as it is written, ‘Thy people also shall be all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever; the branch of my plant­ing, the work of my hands, wherein I glory’ (Isaiah 60:21). But the following do not have a share in the world to come: he who says that resurrection is not taught in the Torah, he who says that the Torah was not divinely revealed, and the epikoros…”

By way of interpreting this text, Maimonides composed a lengthy essay in which, among other things, he defines the various terms occurring in the mishnah under discussion. It was apparently by way of defining the term Israelites in this mishnah that Maimonides listed those thirteen beliefs that, in his estimation, every Jew qua Jew had to accept.

Jewish Ethics Confronts Modernity

Reprinted with permission of the author from Contemporary Jewish Ethics, ed. Menachem Marc Kellner (Sanhedrin Press, 1978). 

Contemporary Judaism is distinguished from medieval Judaism in that it is faced with an entirely new [set of issues] and in that it presents a multiplicity of answers to that complex of problems. With respect to the subject at hand, we may say that contemporary Jewish ethics is distinguished from medieval Jewish ethics[, which was concerned primarily with internal Jewish affairs and guided by traditional assumptions about the authority of the rabbinic tradition,] in that the problems it faces are largely those it shares with the surrounding culture (e.g., the problem of relating morality and religion, and specific questions like political obedience and medical ethics). In short, Jews and Judaism have become part of the modern world and, to a significant degree, the modern world has become a factor which cannot be ignored by both Jews and Judaism. 

Contemporary Jewish ethics is further distinguished from its medieval counterpart by the fact that it speaks with a divided voice. One must not ask today, “What is the Jewish position on such and such?” but rather, “What is the Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform interpretation of the Jewish position on such and such?” Although many writers persist in presenting the Jewish position on various subjects, it very often ought more correctly to be characterized as a Jewish position.

got ethics?In order to understand fully the differences between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism [and their approaches to contemporary ethics], one ought to examine them in terms of their historical development. For our purposes, however, it should be sufficient to sketch out their basic theological differences. This can be done conveniently by examining their varying conceptions of revelation. Briefly put, Orthodoxy follows the traditional rabbinic claim that the Torah represents the direct, conclusive revelation of God’s will. Halakhah, which derives directly from that revelation, is the will of God. It is normative for all Jews in all places and at all times. Although Orthodoxy recognizes the fact of halakhic change, it insists that such change has come about and may come about only within the context of well-recognized halakhic mechanisms. The basic Orthodox contention with respect to the halakhah is that it is a divine, not a human, system and that as such it is not subject, in essence, to the sort of historical development which is characteristic of human institutions.