Thursday, November 15, 2007

Aryeh Leibowitz - Response to Professor Menachem Kellner

Response to Professor Menachem Kellner
By Aryeh Leibowitz

To the editors of the Seforim blog:

In Professor Menachem Kellner’s spirited and scholarly post ("Who is the Person Whom Rambam Says Can be ‘Consecrated as the Holy of Holies’?") at the Seforim blog, he argues that my inclusion of Rambam’s hilkhot Shemittah ve-Yovel passage is “based on a demonstrable misunderstanding of the Rambam,” and that this passage, understood properly, is not germane to the issue I am addressing. In this short response, I would like to address the cogency of Kellner’s claim that my failure to including gentiles in the Rambam’s intent “weakens” my argument, and comment on Kellner’s reading of the Rambam passage under discussion.

Kellner claims that “Leibowitz weakens his own argument by apparently not realizing that Rambam in hilkhot Shemittah ve-Yovel (13:13) is not talking about Jews in particular, let alone talmidei hakhamim.” I fail to see how this is so. I contend that the passage in hilkhot Shemittah ve-Yovel is Rambam’s statement of the lot and expectations of an individual who dedicates himself to God, and more importantly, the spiritual and moral responsibilities of such a person. Even if Kellner is correct that Rambam in this statement is also addressing gentiles, it certainly addresses Jews as well. We can debate if these expectations and responsibilities of the one who is consecrated to God described by Rambam apply to righteous gentiles, but that Rambam does refer to righteous Jews is beyond debate.

If we are in agreement that the passage in hilkhot Shemittah ve-Yovel addresses a Jew (and perhaps a non-Jew) who dedicates himself to God,[1] why would the following conclusion in my article not be appropriate and forthcoming?
Maimonides endorses an individual dedicating himself to a life of Torah study and refraining from pursuing a profession, so long as such activity does not require burdening the general population. This is expressed in his famous comments at the end of Hilkhot Shemitta ve-Yovel (13:13)…Maimonides is not stating that this individual, who has dedicated his life to God, can rely on financial support from the community; rather Maimonides is stating that such an individual can also sustain himself on less and will reap the benefits of heightened spirituality and increased divine assistance.
The (disputable) fact that Rambam also includes gentiles in this statement does not exclude its relevance vis-à-vis Jews and their pursuit of a heightened spiritual existence. Had I written an article about a gentile who wished to live such a life, I would need to engage Professor Kellner’s suggestion regarding this passage.

In summation, I fail to understand why Kellner states regarding the passage in hilkhot Shemittah ve-Yovel that “Rambam here is talking about God's support of all human beings who consecrate themselves,” and yet maintains that this passage does not shed light on God’s support of Jews who consecrate themselves.[2]

In regards to Kellner’s actual reading of the Rambam, I tend to agree.[3] As he notes, the Rambam uses this term in multiple contexts as a reference to all of humanity. Moreover, in the literature of Hazal, this is a standard expression for all the nations of the world.[4] In fact, I’m not sure how else one could read the words kol ba’ei ha-olam.

My translation (actual Prof. Twersky’s), as he notes, reflects this, as it is not Jew-specific. “Not only the Tribe of Levi, but every single individual from among the world's inhabitants whose spirit moves him…” Indeed, an earlier draft of this article noted the universalistic tone of this passage in a footnote. However, I specifically removed it because I felt it was off topic, and not relevant to the discussion.

Lastly, I appreciate Prof. Kellner’s reference in his last footnote to Mordechai Friedman’s important article on this topic.[5] Unfortunately, my article was written and submitted early in 2005 and hence I did not have access to that article.

All in all, Prof. Kellner raises an important issue regarding how we Jews view the spiritual potential of our gentile neighbors, and is deserving of a fuller exploration within the religious thought of Rambam and other Jewish thinkers. However, it has no apparent bearing on the specific issue discussed in my article.

Aryeh Leibowitz
14 November, 2007

[1] Prof. Kellner seems to present a confusing image of the Rambam’s intent. He suggests that I missed a crucial point, yet he claims: “Rambam is not talking about Jews, be they talmidei hakhamim supported by the community or not. He is talking about (unconverted) Gentiles who, through their devotion to God, become ‘as consecrated as the Holy of Holies.’” It is hard to imagine the Rambam is only talking about gentiles! And indeed, in the next sentence Kellner himself admits “Rambam here is talking about God's support of all human beings who consecrate themselves…” (emphasis added).
[2] And that is why the commentators of Rambam that I quote indeed understand that this passage is relevant to Rambam’s comments in Pirkei Avot.
[3] It is crucial to note that the form of dedication to God that will be undertaken by a gentile will likely vary greatly from that of a Jew. See for example Rambam’s view regarding a gentile’s opportunities for Torah study and Sabbath observance in hilkhot Melakhim 10:9. This passage in Melakhim is also significant for our discussion as the end of the passage seems to bear a negative tone to the enterprise of an unconverted gentile seeking greater dedication to God through increased mitzvah observance.
[4] Besides the references made by Kellner, the Talmud Yerushalmi, and the “halakhic midrashim,” such as the Mekhilta, Sifra, and Sifre, all use this expression repeatedly to denote all of mankind.
[5] See Mordechai A. Friedman, “Rambam, Zuta, and the Muqaddams: A Story of Three Bans,” Zion 70 (2005): 473-528 (Hebrew).


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