The Far LWMO in Israel – An Introduction

The following is a translation of a review in Hazofe a”h of a book published by the Hartman institute and HaKibbutz HaMeuchad. It is a critical discussion of the main ideas of the reductionist/post-modernist modes of thought that are prevalent in the far LWMO/non-denominational intelligentsia in these parts. Now, if only I could get paid for doing this instead of giving you guys freebies :). Once again, all translation or grammatical errors are mine alone. Enjoy, AIWAC


Illusion Without Religion

By Dr. Baruch Cahana

An entire revolutionary Jewish school of thought has taken shape over the past couple of decades. It has its own founding fathers as well as students and students of students. Once we deluded ourselves that it was only represented by Leibowitz, even though we knew of the great influence he had on an entire generation of academic philosophers. It turns out that we are dealing with a full and variegated Beit Midrash which has succeeded to create a unique type of discourse. “Religion Without Illusion”, the new book of Gili Zivan excels at describing this new school of thought from the point of view of an admiring student of the thinkers of whom she writes. Four of the fathers of this school are brought in for discussion: Rav Soloveitchik, Yishayahu Leibowitz, Eliezer Goldman and David Hartman. At least with regard to the last three, she proves that their methods served as a served in many ways as an early harbinger of current post-modern ideas (I have serious doubts regarding the inclusion of Rav Soloveitchik in this group, and even the author herself admits that he is the odd man out among these thinkers. She nevertheless sees in him a thinker who is close to the others mentioned, dismissing contrary evidence as his own inconsistency, or perhaps lack of courage. In any event, the foregoing does not refer to him in any way).

Thus, for instance, the three thinkers discussed here reject any attempt to propose any kind of “direction” for history (for Goldman, for instance, it would be pretentious and religious chutzpa to claim knowledge of the “divine plan” (p. 107)), or any method of predicting its course. All of them emphatically reject any attempt to find metaphysical justification for suffering (Hartman: “Blameless suffering is a permanent possibility, in the present reality of life. As it is ‘noheg kiminhago‘, the world works according to its own patterns, which are morally neutral…not everything that happens in human history and in nature is an expression of the moral judgement of a personal God” (p. 118)). In general, goes this school, reality has no religious meaning, as Goldman makes clear: “The world and Man, as they are in and of themselves, have been emptied of any religious meaning…from experiencing the world and observing it, it is impossible to arrive logically to the idea of a Creator, an idea which does not fit at all in the system of categories which we use to perceive nature. In the end, the position of the religious person is dependent on a voluntary act of faith” (p. 105)).

We have before us a classic post-modern motif: reality has no objective meaning which he can discover through his intellect, or in post-modern terms: there is no meta-narrative, there is no over-arching story in which all individuals must place themselves. All of us can build a story of their own (narrative) in which he organizes the details of reality, grants them meaning and interprets them in a manner which suits him. If there is no general story which can lay claim to being “objective truth” (meta-narrative) then there is no logical basis for preferring one story over the other. As Rorty, one of Zivan’s favorite post-modern thinkers, writes: “An argument is real if it is good for me, or for my peers, to believe in it” (p. 49)). In any case there are no universal values which can be common to everyone. This doesn’t mean that people are supposed to live without any values, or even values which they consider to be absolute. They can only do this, however, on condition that they do not argue that those values obligate others. Again, Goldman’s formulation is clear and concise: “My values for me are absolute! What I object to is the idea of the universality of values. There is no universal value but there are people whose values are absolute. In other words, for those values they are willing to kill and be killed and are not allowed justification to hold other values even though they know that their values are not universal but theirs alone” (p. 173). One could ask where a person could find the courage to negate the values of others if he is aware that his own values are not universal, but one cannot mistake the clear post-modern motif in Goldman’s words. This is Zivan’s argument.

Except that matters are more complicated. For one thing, it is an anachronism. Leibowitz, for instance, lived most of his life before post-modernism existed. The same is true of Goldman, who wrote as much to Zivan: “I will explain the reasons for my reservations regarding post-modernism…a check of the dates in which my most relevant articles appeared will show that they came out in the 60s, some of them in the early 60s, Foucalt’s books only started to come out. I only began reading them in the 80s” (p. 297). Goldman does not favor post-modernism, and explains that his thought developed without even reading the first works belonging to the post-modern world. No doubt he and his friends see themselves as belonging to the world of rational science and are convinced that “there is no justification for the anti-rationalism of many post-modern thinkers”. Yet still, it is hard to ignore the stunning similarity (between Goldman and PM thinkers) which Zivan uncovers in her study. What is the source of this similarity?

I believe that Avi Sagi explained the root of the matter best in article quoted in the book. In order to enable a pluralistic religious Jewish position, Sagi writes, we need to assume the following arguments: “A. The Jewish religion is a system of values which does not make factual claims about the world or God, but establishes a value system. B. The meaning of this value system is internal in the sense that it is not contingent on facts outside of it…C. A person’s commitment to religion reflects his autonomous decision in choosing to fulfill this religious-value world” (p. 169).

Sagi, one of the most important authors of the school under discussion, is making arguments which seem close to post-modernism: there is no truth, there is no reason to choose this or that value system (in his words: the decision between value systems is entirely autonomous), every system of thought is relevant only to those who choose it, and there is no point in asking why someone chose to play backgammon instead of checkers, for instance. The decisive difference between Sagi’s arguments and those of post-modernism is the motive. Post-modernism is a clearly western philosophical movement, rooted in the despair felt by philosophers during the frustrating search for a general philosophical theory, which could explain the entire world. This despair gave birth to a very cynical attitude to any big “truth”, and any human pretension to offer an overall explanation for the reality in which we live. Sagi, on the other hand, is seeking to develop a pluralistic Jewish position. In the quote above he does not deny the possibility of making objective arguments regarding reality, only the ability of Judaism to do so.

The same is true of the thinkers under discussion. It is not the relinquishing of modernist arrogance that motivates them, but rather the complete confidence in the truth of this position, alongside a principled refusal to relinquish their Judaism. Goldman writes, for instance that “our physical sciences became possible when researchers overcame the tendency to see natural processes as being guided by purpose…from here we arrive at the conclusion that although the believer can continue to see God’s handiwork in natural reality, logically it is impossible to arrive at a recognition of him by recognition of nature”. (p. 148) Goldman’s conclusion is only valid if we agree that the picture of the universe given to us by the sciences constitutes the sole, total description of the world. In practice this is an application of the old tactic of “be a Man in the street and a Jew at home” (as Goldman states in a fascinating lecture brought in the book, p. 299). Post-modernism denies the very existence of an overall sphere of thought, while the thinkers discussed in this book recognize it and leave it to the care of classical Western thought, as long as they are left with their own private sphere (which they find in the punctilious adherence to the exact value-framework of halacha).

If so, what’s left of Judaism after it forfeited the right to make factual claims regarding reality? In the eyes of the aforesaid thinkers, the essence remains the same, since the essence of Judaism is – according to all opinions – worship of God. Leibowitz explains that “the entire essence of religious faith is nothing more than that the person accepts upon himself to worship God in the world as it is, which runs according to the natural custom which its Creator instilled” (p. 103). According to him, any attempt to expand the faith beyond it original confines is suspect of heresy: “God does not reveal Himself in natural reality, and seeing ‘the finger of God’ in anything which happens in nature – a whiff of pantheism or polytheism (explicit or implicit) stems from it” (ibid). Goldman is less strident, and he suffices by seeing those who attribute religious meaning to reality as being led by illusions: “Human reality must be accepted without any illusions that we could escape from it…from this reality and in this reality we must worship God because that is the entirety of Man” (p. 105). Ostensibly everything is OK, no? None of the thinkers under discussion casts open doubt that in practicing halacha he is worshipping his God, and that that worship is the essence of his world of values.

Still one does need to ask what meaning worship of God has in this framework of thought. The classical Jewish thinkers did not hesitate on the question: Worship of God is the fulfilling of commandments which I was commanded by the Creator of the World, at the historic event of His Revelation at Sinai. But what meaning does this concept (worship of God – AIWAC) have in a world where there is no Revelation in reality? What does it mean to one who argues that “In the sentence ‘God acts in time’ there is a logical contradiction…This statement which attributes ‘timeliness’ to the Creator logically contradicts the argument that the category of time does not apply to the Creator…” (Goldman, p. 106 of the book), and what does it mean to one who argues that Judaism does not make claims of truth regarding reality? If every choice of value is autonomous, in other words human, who does the chooser worship in this or that choice? Even if he argues ad infinitum that he is worshipping his Creator, he is really only worshipping his autonomous choice, in other words, himself!

It is worthwhile to pay attention to Zivan’s wording when she explains Goldman’s position, since it is astonishing in its vagueness: “The faith choice, which expresses an ambition to go beyond human reality, finds its confirmation in the practice of halacha” (p. 142). Halacha here becomes a realization of a human “ambition” and not a tool for a dialogue between Man and He who is indeed beyond human reality. “As it (halacha – AIWAC) was given to human beings to shape and adapt to a changing reality, it suffers from the same difficulties that are the lot of every human legal system” (ibid). Does Zivan recognize a supra-natural source which gave us, at least, the foundations of halacha? If so, how does this recognition fall in with the general trend of though presented in this book? If it doesn’t, what does it mean that it was “given”? Perhaps the wording was meant to hide the fact that we have before us a trend of thought which denies the possibility of dialogue with that which is “beyond”, or in other words, non-religious humanistic thought?

I assume that such a conclusion would not be to Zivan’s liking, since she declares the following about her religious outlook (in the context of her interpretation of Leibowitz’s thought): “At the foundations of this thought there is a deep-seated belief in the Divine “Is”, which exists outside of religious language, although it is not possible to conceive it or express it in words. This is because the faith decision is not based on factual or rational arguments. A faith which cannot be expressed in words – it is only possible “to be silent about it”, as Wittgenstein said…or express it in practice such as that expressed in fulfilling the commandments…” (p. 268). No-one would disagree with the statement that we have no dialogue with God himself, and that of his “being” we can only be silent. But Judaism throughout the generations also argued that even if we can’t speak of him, we can speak to him, and it is also possible to hear him speaking to us – once he spoke to us through his servants the prophets, and until today we hear his voice echoing in the Torah which was given to us, and given in the broadest possible sense. The life of a Jew became, as a result, a continuing dialogue with his Creator. It would seem that Zivan and her teachers wish to replace this dialogue with a monologue, or at most a dialogue between different human languages, one of which chooses, for some reason, to call itself “religious”.



Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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2 Responses to The Far LWMO in Israel – An Introduction

  1. Pingback: Double or Nothing? A Letter to Prof. Marc Shapiro | QED

  2. Pingback: Religious Maturity, Or The Atheist Avrech and You (Part Two) | QED

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