Jewish Philosophy of Religion

Tsimtsum In Life Of Pi, Part 4 (Daniel Reiser)

The following is the last of a four-part series. The first can be found herethe second here, the third here.

Is what Martel presents his readers only a pragmatic approach which demonstrates the utilitarian value of religion? Is religion “false” but nevertheless worth adopting because it provides a better (story) way of life?[1] Is God just another item on the long list of human survival skills? The answer, I believe, is no.

Martel is not presenting only a pragmatic approach, but rather a distinct religious principle, a fundamental experience of placing oneself outside of the center. Pi learns the hard way that one does not have complete control over life. This is no mere insight, but a fundamental experience which lies at the foundation of religiosity.

This existential position places a person under the watch of, but not watching over, the sublime; listening but asking no questions. “What is the difference between wonder and astonishment?” asked Hillel Zeitlin. “Wonder asks all sorts of questions. Astonishment asks nothing. It is like ‘the one who does not know how to ask.’ It stands confounded, amazed, blown away, transported. Wonder indeed gave birth to inquiry and all its branches—philosophy and science. Astonishment births religion and its sisters—poetry and music.”[2]

While Pi does not lose his faith in God, he does lose his faith in man. Reflecting on his despair of being found by a ship, he remarks, “In time I gave up entirely on being saved by a ship. […] No, humanity and its unreliable ways could not be counted upon.” (199) Materialist human society provides every material good, yet “the abundance of all things” (Deut. 28:47) might yet bring about a person’s downfall.

The “floating island” which gave Pi life by day (algae and meerkats for food) turned into a murderous isle by night. (chapter 92) Over and again, Pi stresses that for all the freedom proclaimed by Western society it trumpets an illusory power. Martel, in his book, critiques the secular standpoint which seeks, in the name of freedom, to shake off religious duty yet realizes no freedom:

Well-meaning but misinformed people think animals in the wild are “happy” because they are “free”. […] This is not the way it is.

Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low […] What is the meaning of freedom in such a context? Animals in the wild are, in practice, free neither in space nor in time. (15-16)

I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both. (19)[3]

Martel’s biting criticism of secular society, it seems to me, demonstrates that he does not view religion as only having pragmatic value as a proper way of life and no more. The affront to man’s place in the center constitutes the religious core of Life of Pi. The religious individual is driven by humility to leave room for wonder and mystery. Life of Pi is a statement in defense of the phenomenon of the religious person, not a metaphysical defense of God. This exoneration rests, to no small extent, on a critique of “secular man.”[4]

The modern secularism which emerged from the school of Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche did not seek to discard the outdated hypothesis of God, but rather to transform man into God, to deify humanity. When man becomes God, standing in the center, he may, like a sovereign, alter the basic conditions of the universe and man within it. This outlook is the origin of political movements such as Nazism, communism, and fascism, from here they derive their murderousness.

The excessive empowerment of humanity and the romantic glorification of “mankind” border on true danger. The island which gives off blessings “by day,” when life is bountiful and unmarked by tension, may, in an instant, turn into a murderous isle during times of “night,” or crisis. A morality derived from human reason alone may prove successful in times of economic growth and security, yet when tensions arise—even just an economic downturn—the beast within emerges and the corrupt ways of humanity are revealed.[5]

The decision to believe in the sublime, then—whether transcendental (a personal or impersonal God) or immanent (the Divine within man or any other understanding)—is no mere pragmatic choice, but rather an authentic inner expression of submission, modesty, appreciation, and an openness towards the wondrous. This is a resolution to overcome the mundane and transform wonder and amazement into the everyday. “I have survived so far, miraculously,” Pi exclaims, “Now I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day. I will put in all the hard work necessary.” (148) As observant Jews recite in their thrice-daily prayers, “We thank you, O Lord […] for your miracles which accompany us every day.”[6]

Modern man relies wholly on reason, he has lost his ability to be amazed, even by the great mystery which we call “reason.” “Modern man fell into the trap of believing that everything can be explained,” Abraham Joshua Heschel observed, “The most incomprehensible fact is the fact that we comprehend at all.”[7] “Alas! Alas!” R. Nahman of Bratslav cried out, “The world is filled with amazing and awesome wonders and lights. But the small hand stands in front of the eyes and prevents them from seeing great lights.”[8]

Postmodern Tsimtsum

Despite all that we have said above, we cannot entirely dodge the troublesome question of “what to believe,” of what the “true” religion is. Pi appears to shy away from seeking the absolute “truth.” He has no stomach for the exclusivist claims of the monotheistic religions who present themselves as possessing a monopoly on truth, “But the moment the girls become possessive,” he tells us, “the moment each one imagines that Krishna is her partner alone, he vanishes.

So it is that we should not be jealous with God.” (49) Pi believes that God belongs to every person, not to particular zealous groups who view themselves as the sole possessors of truth to the exclusion of all others. This approach, it appears, emerges from a postmodernist position that views all “truth” as cultural constructs produced by human social conditioning.

Postmodernism is a philosophical, social, and cultural state characterized by a loss of faith in the great narratives, metaphysical goals, and sweeping depictions which distinguished modernity.[9] One of the features, or causes, of postmodernism is the sense that many of the atrocities which marked the twentieth century (carried out by movements such as fascism, Nazism, and communism) were the products of excessive devotion and enthusiasm for a single all-encompassing theory or idealistic principle. Millions were thus slaughtered in the name of the “correct ideal.” The postmodernist response is an aversion to universal ideals and quests for “truth.”

Martel, on the one hand, like many postmodernist thinkers, views every system of belief as a human product and projection; each religion “invents” a narrative, that is, a story. Yet this, for him, is not a negative phenomenon. He stresses over and again the importance of imagination in the formation of human identity and the close link between religion and imagination.[10] On the other hand, the preference given to the first story over the second is not quite postmodernist.

The first account related in Life of Pi is metaphorical, a “religious story;” the book as a whole, points to the importance of imagination in human life. Note that Pi not only claims that the first story is preferable, but that it is truly “the better story.” (63, 64) Martel’s criticism of Western society and man, moreover, is by no means postmodernist. Where, then, does Martel stand, and, more importantly, what message does his book impart concerning “what to believe?”

Postmodernism may easily lead, no doubt, to contempt for values and social conventions, extreme relativism, and even ethical nihilism. Yet scholars distinguish between “hard” and “soft” postmodernism.[11] Unlike hard postmodernism, soft postmodern does not deny the existence of truth and falsehood, or good and evil. Rather, it claims, “truth” or “good” are determined by human beings and do not constitute absolute values. Put crudely, we might say that per hard postmodernism there is no truth, while in soft postmodernism, by contrast, there are many truths.

A person in a culture of soft postmodernism may live their truth, operate according to its tenets, and even fight on its behalf, all while accepting the existence of other clashing truths. R. Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar) (1949-2007), an Israeli rosh yeshiva, was a pioneer within his Religious-Zionist community who engaged with questions of postmodernism and faith. R. Shagar accepted the principles of soft postmodernism, claiming that its point of view embodies “the perspective of the divine infinitude, which can contain all opinions.”[12]

With that, he is well-aware of the problems which arise if all “truths” are viewed as equals—how do we act in a collective space without infringing on the truth of the other? How do we allow ourselves to imprison, or even execute (in certain countries) an individual who has carried out an “honor killing.” Such a person could claim in his defense that he acted in accordance with the imperatives of his culture and religion; to not kill in his case would, according to his culture, be immoral. To answer this question, Rav Shagar turns to the notion of tsimtsum as taught by R. Nahman:

How can the two points of view coexist? How am I to harmonize my acknowledgement of the relativity of my truth with the clear conviction that I will not compromise on that truth?

These conundrums have no solutions, and Rabbi Nahman proposes silence as an alternative. […] The fact that we cannot substantiate our own values, and will always doubt their truth, must not prevent us from continuing to believe in them.[13]

R. Shagar, then, utilizes R. Nahman’s teaching of tsimtsum to present a faith compatible with the postmodern age. He claims, moreover, that it is paradoxically easier to maintain a religious atmosphere in a postmodern environment. While modernity was characterized by its criticism of religion and faith, postmodern skepticism views religious belief as an option no less valid than others.[14]

Martel was raised in a secular household, and it was this very postmodern context of many truths which enabled him to choose the religious story (following his exposure to India). The selection of the religious tale is not only an adoption of values and morals; the silence, surrender, hope, and gratitude which define Pi in the first story transcend any particular ethical message. These qualities engage, rather, with human existence in its entirety:

One can extend Rabbi Nahman’s approach beyond questions of ethics and apply it to the human condition as a whole. Many people ask themselves whether their lives have value, even when they are fully aware that their very existence benefits another—supporting a dependent, educating someone, bettering the world, and so on. In the end, we all die, as do those whom we helped and who depend on us, and nothing remains. Yet we believe our actions carry eternal value. They are our actions, our faith, our truth, and their eternality is embodied in their very presence in the here and now.

Like the postmodernist, Rabbi Nahman knows that the ultimate metaphysical questions transcend language and logic. But unlike the postmodernist, who deduces that these questions are thus meaningless, Rabbi Nahman uses this knowledge to open up the possibility of faith. Like many other religious thinkers long before him, he knows that absolute statements overstep the range of possible language games, and that silence is no less human—and no less meaningful—than speech.[15]

Like soft postmodernism, Life of Pi presents us with two equally valid “truths.” Martel no doubt identifies with the truth of the first story without negating that of the second. Moreover, he challenges western readers to adopt the first story and the ensuing possibility of religion, this despite the ease (and even “naturalness”) of choosing the second story. We may live unsubstantiated religious lives. It will always be possible to doubt, much like the agents of the Japanese Ministry of Transport question the first story, yet, as R. Shagar tells us, these doubts “must not prevent us from continuing to believe in them.”

The first story, from the point of view of the religious individual, is not only better but more truthful. Yet this does not come at the expense of the validity of the second story. The divine command continues to ring in the ear of the believer, “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” (Deut. 30:19)

A Concluding Note on Judaism and Truth

Postmodernism is not without its critics, whether philosophical or ethical.[16] The traditional Jew, distant from the postmodern mindset, may yet identify with the message conveyed by Life of Pi. Judaism, unlike other monotheistic religions (or, more precisely, the other Abrahamic faiths), possesses two unique notions of “truth” and “virtue.” The first is conveyed by the particularistic aspect of Judaism, while the second emerges in the performative realm.

Let’s begin with the first element. The general thrust of Jewish Halakhic tradition, surprisingly, does not claim to speak in the name of an absolute or ultimate truth.[17] The Torah forbids the consumption of pork for the Jewish people, but not as a universal prohibition. In other words, eating pork cannot be construed as an unethical or wicked act. This is a tradition practiced by a particular subset of people who have no interest in imposing it on others. A non-Jew may eat pork in the home of a Jew, while a Jew may even prepare a gourmet treif meal for the former.[18]

One of the most stringent prohibitions of the Torah, likewise, is for a Jew to eat or possess leaven on Passover, yet a non-Jewish guest on Passover may consume their own leaven at the Jew’s table.[19] Religions which believe themselves to possess the “absolute truth” oftentimes seek to impose this truth on the entire world. Halakhic Judaism, on the other hand, is not interested in forcing its “truth” on others, nor, in fact, does it always look kindly on non-Jews who seek to convert to Judaism.[20]

A particularistic religion such as Judaism does not, by definition, sing the praises of a universal or ultimate truth. In religious disputes during the Middle Ages, Judaism was painted as irrelevant due to its lack of universal message, its religious laws seen as applying only to a closed group. This accusation was no doubt directed at the particularistic character of Judaism.[21]

While this characterization is by no means accurate,[22] it nonetheless presents a subjective and communal truth which leads to tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion of the other. Per the halakhic tradition, the belief in one God does not imply only one mode of worship. The priest is bound by commandments which do not extend to the Levite or Israelite. A non-Jew, likewise, may worship God in numerous ways.[23] R. Jonathan Sacks, in his seminal work Dignity of Difference, claims that Judaism is the only monotheistic religion to not claim a monopoly over religion, and was consequently the first to fall victim to universal cultures and religions:

Western civilization has known five universalist cultures: ancient Greece, ancient Rome, medieval Christianity and Islam, and the Enlightenment. Three were secular, two religious. They brought inestimable gifts to the world, but they also brought great suffering, most notably though not exclusively to Jews. Like a tidal wave they swept away local customs, ancient traditions and different ways of doing things. They were to cultural diversity what industrialization is to biodiversity. They extinguished weaker forms of life. They diminished difference.[24]

Western cultures, both religious and secular alike, are founded on the Platonic notion of a universal eternal truth. “There is something seductive about this idea,” Sacks writes, “and it has held many minds captive. […] The result is inevitable and tragic. If all truth—religious as well as scientific—is the same for everyone at all times, then if I am right, you are wrong. […] From this flowed some of the great crimes of history and much human blood.”[25] “Hebrew thinking,” however, claims Heschel, “operates within categories different from those of Plato or Aristotle.”[26]

The particularistic outlook of Judaism, the religion of the “chosen people,” paradoxically allows for difference. This construct, which has been subject to much criticism, does not imply a racial or discriminatory preference.[27] The person who elects to marry the love of his life does not claim, in doing so, that other women are less intelligent, beautiful, or inferior in some other way. Countless others share, or even exceed, her particular qualities. One’s spouse is not superior to others, yet she is “chosen,” bound together by an intimate tie.

The Jewish people relate to their religion and tradition in much the same way. The Sabbath, for instance, is viewed as an intimate bond between God and the Jewish people. The Torah declares that “[the Sabbath] will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever,” (Exodus 31:17) implying that those outside of the collective category of Israel are not obligated in its observance. This model leads to the formation of Jewish values and truths which the rest of humanity are not obligated to accept, and Judaism does not impose its intimate practices on others. This is the secret of difference:

The Jew sanctifies Saturday, the Muslim Friday, and the Christian Sunday, and the Jewish people do not seek to impose their lifestyle on others in the name of any “truth.” Particularism, which certain modern European outlooks transformed into a violent nationalism, originated in Judaism as a value of tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion.

The second element to characterize traditional Halakhic Judaism is the performative aspect. Scholars and thinkers have noted that Judaism, unlike the other Abrahamic faiths, is not rooted in a system of dogmas and axioms; it has, in fact, no distinct religious tenets.[28] While Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith are well-known, [29] most authorities argue that Jews are judged by their deeds, not by their beliefs.[30]

Every religion, of course, contains practices, rituals, and commandments. Yet in the case of Judaism, these are the quintessence of the religion—it is a distinctly performative religion. Every rabbinic law, Moshe Idel argues, is predicated on this notion. “In the rabbinic world, in my opinion, the performative aspect of religion is of greater importance than the interpretive […] The belief is that action, or the performance of a commandment, is the essence of religion […] The primary question is not, ‘Why must we perform these commandments?’ but rather, ‘How are they to do be done?’”[31]

This is not to claim that biblical and rabbinic literature are devoid of theology,[32] but rather that the theological notions which appear in these corpora may only be understood within the living context in which they were formed. The performative dimension, more than ideology or theology, shaped the Jewish way of life; theological sources must therefore be studied in light of this fabric of life, and not the opposite.

I wish to clarify that I am not presenting an Orthoprax position which views Judaism as a religion of laws but not beliefs, as argued by Spinoza.[33] I likewise do not wish to side with what is today termed “social orthodoxy,”[34] or, previously, “religious behaviorism.”[35] The commandments are not barren laws demanding compliance, nor is their sole purpose to provide individual, social, or political guidance or rehabilitation.

Aside from these aspects, the commandments constitute a performative system that leads to the formation of a relationship, as “the hearts follow after the actions.”[36] The performance of the commandments brings about the development of an inner awareness; this is the religious characterization we discussed above. We are trained in maintaining our sense of wonder by uttering a prayer before the enjoyment of food,” Heschel writes, “This is one of the goals of the Jewish way of living: to experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to feel the hidden love and wisdom in all things.”[37] This notion is best expressed by Menachem Kellner:

My argument here rests on the notion that emunah, faith, in Judaism is first and foremost a relationship with God, and not something defined by specific beliefs (Rambam, of course, to the contrary). Biblical and Talmudic Judaism were uninterested in theology per se, and also preferred practice for the wrong reason (she-lo lishmah), but only because it would lead to practice for the right reason (li-shmah) and this right reason certainly involved trust in God.

Ruth said to Naomi: “your people are my people” but did not leave it at that; she immediately added: “your God is my God.” To all intents and purposes, Maimonides sought to change Judaism from a community, in effect a family, defined by shared history, shared hopes for the future, and a never clearly defined faith/trust in God, into a community of true believers. In other words, Maimonides reversed Ruth’s statement and in so doing created Jewish orthodoxy. For the past 800 years this innovation has been both accepted and resisted. Accepted, at least pro forma, by all those Jews who think that Maimonides’ “Thirteen Principles” define Judaism; resisted, by all those Jews who refuse in practice to accept the consequences of this definition of Judaism, finding all sorts of excuses not to persecute (unto death) heretics.[38]

When Pi claims that “religion is more than rite and ritual,” (48) he does not mean to disparage ritual or seek to form a New-Age religion free from any practices or obligations. He understands that performance does not exist for its own sake. Rituals, practices, and performances can form a hidden “conjugal relationship” of sorts, if only we might search for it—“This house is more than a box full of icons. I start noticing small signs of conjugal existence. They were there all along, but I hadn’t seen them because I wasn’t looking for them.” (80)

The connection between man and God, much like interpersonal relationships, is constructed and reinforced through actions. Yet actions may become routine, banal, and exhausting. In order to truly form a “relationship,” these actions must be done with intention, attention, and a sense of appreciation.

Pi Patel offers two ways of grappling with suffering, derived from the dual interpretations of the doctrine of tsimtsum. Pi, over the course of 227 days, peers into the empty space, yet he manages to emerge intact and recover due to his choice of the first story, the choice to be an “Ivri” in the broader sense, beyond that of R. Nahman. Pi chooses the religious story despite not viewing it as an absolute truth. Pi, it seems, in a certain sense is also Jewish.

Daniel Reiser is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Jewish Thought at Herzog College in Israel. His dissertation at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was entitled “To Fly like Angels: Imagery or Waking Dream Techniques in Hassidic Mysticism in the First Half of the Twentieth Century.”


[1] R. Judah Halevi, in the introduction his Kuzari attributes this utilitarian approach to Greek philosophy. In his words, “author for yourself a religion.”

[2] Zeitlin, Hasidic Spirituality for a New Era, 131.

[3] That is to say, religious practice is compared to a zoo cage. On the one hand, it is restrictive while, on the other hand, it provides tranquility and security. The unleashed and undefined life, by contrast, is ostensibly free, yet Pi brings two argument against this freedom: (1) This is an illusory freedom as frameworks of social hierarchy continue to bind the person, who will never be truly free; (2) This freedom withholds from a person calm and security in both time and space, negating any freedom. This approach finds expression in a poem of R. Judah Halevi, “Servants of Time”: “Servants of time are servants of servants / Only God’s servant is free / Therefore, when every human being requests their portion / my heart says: May God Himself be my share.” (Franz Rosenzweig, Ninety-Two Poems and Hymns of Yehuda Halevi, trans. Thomas Kovach, Eva Jospe, and Gilya Gerda Schmidt [Albany: SUNY Press, 2000], 124). Dostoevsky takes the question of freedom and religious framework to an extreme. In a phenomenological account, he describes how the church executed Jesus because the latter’s call for freedom posed a danger to humanity. See Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The Grand Inquisitor,” in idem., The Brothers Karamozov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York and Toronto: Everyman’s Library, 1992), 246-264.

[4] Such statements of defense are found in Jewish philosophy of the twentieth century (for good reason! For they are responding to the criticism of religion and secularism that spouted during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, not to classic criticisms of religion), primarily in the writings of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, such as his Halakhic Man, and Abraham Joshua Heschel in his God in Search of Man. R. Soloveitchik writes, at the beginning of Halakhic Man, that “It is not the plan of this essay to discuss the millennium-old problem of faith and reason. Theory is not my concern at the moment. I want instead to focus attention on a human life situation in which the man of faith as an individual concrete being, with his cares and hopes, concerns and needs, joys and sad moments, is entangled.” This is not a book concerned with theological axioms. It is interested, rather, in the character of religion in the deepest sense. It commends the “religious man,” with his humility, modesty, etc., in contrast to the “secular man,” while demonstrating they both dwell together in dialectical tension within the human soul. Heschel’s book, meanwhile, takes a different approach in its condemnation of secular man who has forsaken the sense of amazement and attentiveness to the mystery and wonder of the world.

[5] It is common to blame religion for the largest incidents of mass-murder throughout history, yet the twentieth century—the most violent century in the annals of mankind—has demonstrated that the replacement of God with humanity not only fails to moderate violence but in fact leads to its intensification. See the remarks of Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, 141n4 (penned in 1944): “The entire Romantic aspiration […] which has found its expression in the biologistic philosophies of Bergson, Nietzsche, Spengler, Klages, and their followers and in the phenomenological, existential, and anti-scientific school of Heidegger and his coterie, and from the midst of which there arose in various forms the sanctification of vitality and intuition, the veneration of instinct, the desire for power […] have brought complete chaos and human depravity to the world.” For understanding Life of Pi as profoundly anti-Nietzschean in a different way see Karam Ally, “Which Story Do You Prefer,” 92-93.

[6] Shemoneh Esrei prayer.

[7] Heschel, God in Search of Man, 43,

[8] R. Nahman of Bratslav, Likkutei Moharan, vol. 1, §133.

[9] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MI: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxiii-xxv; Eliezer Schweid, New Gordonian Essays: Globalization, Post-Modernism, Post-Humanism and the Jewish People (Tel Aviv, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2005), 11-16 [Hebrew]. Adi Ophir formulates nine negative defining characteristics of postmodernism: (1) There is no transcendental viewpoint; (2) There is no valid process of a priori judgement; (3) There is no ultimate meaning, etc., Adi Ophir, “Postmodernism: Emdah Filosofit,” in Ilav Gur-Ze’ev (ed.), Education in the Era of Postmodern Discourse (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1996), 135-163 [Hebrew].

[10] See above, -.

[11] See Ilan Gur-Ze’ev, Toward a Diaspora Education: Multi-Culturalism, Post-Colonialism and Counter-Education in a Post-Modern Era (Tel Aviv: Resling, 2004), 16-20 [Hebrew]; Rabbi Shagar [Shimon Gershon Rosenberg], Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age, trans. Elie Leshem (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2017), 97-99.

[12] Ibid., 111. Regarding postmodern trends in Judaism including in R. Shagar’s and Tamar Ross’s theology see, Miriam Kaye, Jewish theology for a Postmodern Age (London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in association with Liverpool University Press, 2019); Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Aaron W. Hughes (eds.), Tamar Ross: Constructing Faith (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2016).

[13] Shagar, Faith Shattered and Restored, 112-113.

[14] Ibid., xviii-xix.

[15] Ibid., 114-115

[italics in original]


[16] See, for instance, Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, Why Truth Matters (London: Continuum, 2006).

[17] There are of course particularistic trends in Judaism that consider it a higher truth and Jews ontologically superior, such as R. Judah Halevi and R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, who are mentioned throughout this paper. Therefore it must be noted that I am referring to “traditional Halakhic Judaism,” namely rabbinic Judaism as it has developed from the time of the Rabbis (Hazal, 250 BCE – 625 CE) to the halakhic decisors of our present day.   

[18] R. Shmuel Eliezer Eidels, Hidushei Maharsh”a, vol. 1 on b.Hulin 106a; R. Menahem Meiri (on b.Hulin 13 s.v. “ha-Mishna ha-Shishit”) states: “You learn [from here] that it is permitted at the outset to cook, on behalf of a gentile, a meal of pork prepared in milk.”; R. Shimon ben Tsemah, Shu”t ha-Tashbe”ts, vol. 3, §294; R. Yehudah Asad, Shu”t Yehudah Ya’aleh, Yorah De’ah § 148; R. Aryeh Leibush Balhuver, Shem Aryeh, Yorah De’ah § 26; R. Yo’av Yehoshua Weingarten, Helkat Yo’av, Yorah De’ah § 18.

[19] R. Joseph Karo, Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim §440, section 3. See the gloss of the Mishna Berurah, ibid., as well. A Jew is all the more so permitted to serve a non-Jew leaven in the latter’s house. See R. Joseph Molkho, Shulhan Gavo’ah, Orah Hayyim §440, section 11.

[20] A sentiment expressed by the Talmudic aphorism (b.Yevamot 47b), “Proselytes are as difficult to Israel as a boil.”

[21] It was in response to this accusation that R. Judah Halevi authored his The Book of Proof and Evidence in Support of the Abased Religion, known as the Kuzari. Not only does this work not refute the allegation of Judaism’s particularistic nature, the book’s first treatise transforms this “shortcoming” into an advantage by claiming that only a particularistic revelation—such as God’s revelation at Mount Sinai to the entire Jewish people—may be verified by reason.

[22] On the universal aspects of Judaism, see Jacob Neusner, Recovering Judaism: The Universal Dimension of Judaism (Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2001); Leo Schaya, Universal Aspects of the Kabbalah and Judaism (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2014); Elisabeth Goldwyn, “The Universal Mission of the Jewish People in the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas,” Iyunim: Multidisciplinary Studies in Israeli and Modern Jewish Society 18 (2008): 79-98 [Hebrew]. See below, in the following note.

[23] Judaism identifies the covenant of Noah as a link between God and humanity, while the Jewish people are bound by the covenant of Abraham. The Noahide code consists of seven universal laws which enable each community to develop its own legal system and mode of worship. See Elijah Benamozegh, Israel and Humanity, trans. Maxwell Luria (Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, 1995), 253-284; Novak, David, The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism: A Historical and Constructive Study of the Noahide Laws (New York: E. Mellen Press, 1983); idem., Natural Law in Judaism (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[24] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London and New York: Continuum, 2002), 20.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Heschel, God in Search of Man, 15.

[27] See Eliezer Schweid, Homeland and a Land of Promise (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1979), 59-60 [Hebrew].

[28] Isaac Abarbanel, Rosh Amanah, chapter 23; R. David ben Zimra, Shu”t ha-Radba”z, vols. 1-3, §344; Moses Mendelssohn, Jerusalem: Or on Religious Power and Judaism, trans. Allan Arkush (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 1983), 100-101; R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters, trans. Karin Paritsky (New York: Feldheim Publishers, 1995), 200-207; Menachem Kellner, Must a Jew Believe Anything?, 2nd edition (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006); Leora Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

[29] Maimonides’ thirteen principles, laid out in his commentary to the Mishnah, are rendered into English in J. Abelson, “Maimonides on the Jewish Creed,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 19, no. 1 (Oct., 1906): 24-58. For the Islamic influence on Maimonides, see Sarah Stroumsa, Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 24-83, esp. 68-71; idem., “Was Maimonides an Almohad Thinker,” in Daniel Lasker and Haggai Ben-Shammai (eds.), Alei Asor: Proceedings of the Tenth Conference of the Society for Judaeo-Arabic Studies (Beer-Sheva: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Press, 2008), 151-171 [Hebrew]; George F. Hourani, “Maimonides and Islam,” in William M. Brinner and Stephen D. Ricks (eds.), Studies in Islamic and Judaic Traditions: Papers Presented at the Institute for Islamic-Judaic Studies, University of Denver (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986), 153-166.

[30] See above, note 105.

[31] Moshe Idel, “On Three Models of Faith in Judaism,” Identities 2 (2013): 15-16 [Hebrew].

[32] The classic work on biblical theology is Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel: From its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile, trans. Moshe Greenberg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960). For rabbinic theology, see Efraim Elimelech Urbach, The Sages, Their Concepts and Beliefs, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1975).

[33] “The aim of scripture is simply to teach obedience,” Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, trans. Samuel Shirley (Leiden: Brill. 1989), 221.

[34] See Jay Lefkowitz, “The Rise of Social Orthodoxy: A Personal Account,” Commentary Magazine, April 1, 2014 (

[35] See Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, 77-139; Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State, trans. Eliezer Goldman and Yoram Navo (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 3-29. “[…] the institutions of Judaism are constitutive. Apart from them Judaism does not exist.” (ibid., 14). For a stinging criticism of religious behaviorism, see Heschel, God in Search of Man, 320-335.

[36] Sefer ha-Hinukh, Positive Commandment 16; Judah Halevi, Kuzari, Treatise 3, §30.

[37] Heschel, God in Search of Man, 49.

[38] Menachem Kellner, “Truth – or Consequences?” Jewish Ideas, accessed 27 January 2020,

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