In his new book We Are Not Alone, the Israeli-American philosopher Menachem Kellner seeks, through a study of Jewish theological texts, to resolve a tension between two competing inclinations: “I want to claim,” he writes, “that Judaism . . . is true but I do not want to claim that other religions are false.” At the heart of his book is a debate between two of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages, both born in Spain: Judah Halevi and Moses Maimonides. Shai Held observes in his review:
As Kellner has put it elsewhere, Halevi sees Jewishness as a matter of hardware; Maimonides insists that it’s software. As Kellner presents this issue, Jews who want to affirm the idea of chosenness are forced to choose between Maimonides and Halevi. For a serious reader of the Bible, however, these are not the only options; indeed, neither option is biblical.
According to the book of Deuteronomy, the Jews were chosen because God fell in love with them. Deuteronomy goes to great lengths to emphasize that the setting of God’s heart on Israel was not a consequence of this Israelite quality or that; there was nothing about the Jews that made them uniquely lovable. To put the matter in [Christian] theological terms, God’s choice of the Jews was an act of pure grace, and we cannot learn anything about Israelite superiority from the choice.
A genuinely biblical view of election would embrace Halevi’s insistence that it was God who chose Abraham, but it would endorse Maimonides’ view that there was nothing inherent in the Jews, and surely nothing biological, that made God’s choice somehow necessary or inevitable. Kellner is a thoroughgoing rationalist, so he may find the biblical idea of a God who “set His heart” (the Hebrew word ḥashak has distinctly erotic connotations) upon a particular people both implausible and unpalatable, a troubling image calling for ingenious interpretation. But it’s worth remembering that both Maimonides and Halevi evade the unique vision that the Bible itself offers.