On Good Friday I was a guest at an orthodox Seder evening in my local Synagogue, which is located somewhere at the far end of Germany between the three corners of Germany, Poland and Tchechia, where the echoes of the bygone era of communism won’t die. As everywhere in Germany these days this small Jewish community is dominated by Jewish refugees from Russia whose religious credentials and rituals where all but extinguished by Stalinism. By contrast the Rabbi got his orthodox training in Israel and works this bunch of secularized Jews, seemingly unable to remember any of the traditional cants, with utter devotion. This moving scene offered a lively demonstration of what it takes to get a civilization running. Jewish exceptionalism having survived over three thousand years nearly everywhere around the world has been utterly extinguished only in the Soviet Paradise of Russia. As sure as the German national socialist brand of secularism aimed at the physical termination of Jews the Russian international socialist brand aimed at the spiritual extinction of Judaism. In Germany today the remains of both secularizations are epitomized in a poem by Nobel Laureate Gunter Grass, who warns us of all nations about Israeli aggression threatening the rest of the world with annihilation.
Having been raised as a Lutheran Protestant, which I consider today sort of a tertiary copy or shall we say heresy of Judaism after Catholicism coming second, with some major modifications. With those I have been struggling most of my religious life, particularly with the figure of Jesus and his innocent sacrifice. It was only during my sabbatical sojourn in Jerusalem last year that I had the opportunity to get at the bottom of this issue, mostly thanks to the fabulous Library of the Hebrew University and the stimulating activities of the Shalem-Centre, located in the German Colony.
Jews in Jesus times were suspicious about his claim for prophecy and soon came to see him as a failed Messiah. Looked at this from the perspective of lifting humanity from its pagan roots to civilization through monotheism, Jesus has to be considered a setback. For Jewish religion had by his time already got rid not only of the sacrifice of humans. Soon afterward and as a result of Titus’ destruction of the second Temple in 66-70 C.E., animal sacrifices were also on the way out, eventually being replaced with the rabbinical services in the synagogue. Seen from this advanced point, as the late Jewish-French psychiatrist Henri Baruk has argued, the sacrifice of innocent Jesus for other guilty people was completely inacceptable to observing Jews (H. B., “Tsedek – Modern Science reviewed in the light of the Hebrew Civilization”, Swan House, New York 1972, p. 230). For the revolution of Abraham banning the sacrifice of humans reversed the barbaric trend of ancient paganism of sacrificing the innocent for the guilty. Whereas the Christian faith puts emphasis on symbolizing sacrifice with the concept of Jesus, Baruk maintained, the Jews had overcome it with the universal idea of justice. Baruk tells us on Jesus crucification:
Such an action would violate an essential principle, the core of Hebrew monotheism, the tsedek and the tsedakah, in other words the justice-charity which is based on the identification of man with his neighbor and which prescribes considering others as you consider yourself. This principle is the basis of a just world as opposed to a wicked world. (Baruk, ibid. p. 8).
This argument is enhanced by the concept of the Hebrew Bible as an unrelenting effort to reject idolatry or superstition which always creates scapegoats and as such is the eternal enemy of civilized society. When idolatry flooding Occident and Orient in the 13th century C.E. caused a serious crisis with all three monotheistic religions it was the Sephardim Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), who fought superstitious anthropomorphism within Judaism. With his Mishneh Torah, a condensation of the traditional oral Jewish teachings and especially with his Guide for the Perplexed Maimonides attempted to employ Greek philosophy to firmly establish a rational underpinning of Judaism. These influential writings have survived until today. However already during his lifetime Maimonides had triggered fierce opposition from a renaissance of gnostic Kabbalah which had in Jesus times accompanied nascent Christianity. The result was a culture war against supporters of Maimonides mainly in southern France and northern Spain, lasting over a hundred years (Fred Rosner: The Wars of the Lord, Haifa Israel 2001, p. 7). Maimonides won the argument and put rationality firmly at the center of Judaism. However the price for this, according to more recent criticism, was a Hellenization and intellectualization of Judaism, including even hidden Christian features of medieval philosophy.
Maimonides’ victory over idolatry and superstition was accomplished only by way of philosophical excellence. In his version of imitatio dei the perfection of our knowledge about the Almighty was the only way that could earn us redemption and immortality of the soul, to the extent that we didn’t have to wait for the Messiah or resurrection. This has convinced millions of enlightened Jews to this day and secured Maimonides a huge following - but not nearly enough to exempt Judaism from idolatry. For today the great majority of the Jewish diaspora prefers the easily accessible albeit more or less idolatrous versions of Judaism under the umbrella of Kabbalah. Only a small minority of Jews remain faithful to Maimonides’ or other brands of Orthodox Judaism. But it could be argued that this philosophical Judaism is also idolatrous, for it evident self-love lacks the humility and intellectual modesty required for devout reverence of the Almighty.
This is where the bombshell comes in. For the high percentage of followers of Kabbalah could change dramatically if another accessible and still high fidelity brand of Judaism would emerge in the diaspora. It seems to have unsettled the author of an equally anti-philosophical and anti-idolatrous Judaism, late Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993). As one of the most accomplished of American rabbinical scholars of the last century, he could still not bring himself to publish what appeared only posthumously under the title “The Emergence of Ethical Man” (Toras Horav and Ktav, 2005).
Amazingly it has taken the Jewish people over 2000 years, the survival of the Holocaust, the flourishing of an unprecedented diaspora culture in the Anglo sphere and the foundation of Israel to get there. Somehow it never before occurred to one of the academic giants of Judaism to eliminate all those false Hellenistic and Christian traits from the complexities of their heritage. That is why Yoram Hazony speaks of a bombshell exploded by the Rav - short for Soloveitchik by those who looked up to him in veneration. The story will be related in Hazony’s upcoming book “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture: An Introduction” (forthcoming with Cambridge University Press, September 2012).
Hazony goes on in his preliminary review: “Its contents are perhaps no surprise at all to those who were personally close to R. Soloveitchik and knew his worldview well. But for those who have known him principally from his writings, reading this work is likely to come as something of a shock. In particular, those who think that Orthodox Judaism—like Christianity—necessarily demands belief in a core set of propositions affirming God’s past and future supernatural action in the world, are going to find themselves scrambling to try to square this view with the things that one of the towering figures of Orthodox Jewry in the last century had to say (or at least, at one point considered saying) on such subjects such as miracles, prophecy, immortality, and salvation.”
At the time of R. Soloveitchik’s death, Harzony notes, the not yet published book consisted of “ten handwritten notebooks in an envelope held together with a rubber band, with the words “The Concept of Man” written on it. My college friend Michael Berger, now professor of religion at Emory University in Atlanta, edited the notebooks and oversaw their publication. Michael guesses they were written in the 1950s or early 1960s, which means they were probably in that envelope for over thirty years during which R. Soloveitchik chose not to take them out again and work on a second draft of these materials. Moreover, the manuscript is incomplete, breaking off in the middle of what was to have been a larger project.”
Soloveitchik, who spent most of his career teaching at New York’s Yeshiva University, is believed to have ordained more than two thousand Rabbis. The results of his studies, dedicated to recover the genuine Hebrew Bible of antiquity and to unhinge it completely form the supernatural could turn out as his prime legacy. The untoward hidden essence of his teachings is thus accessible for the first time and capable to relieve readers from qualms with any remnants of superstition. Soloveitchik’s naturalistic Judaism has no use for philosophical metaphysics and transcendence and dispenses of Jewish venerable tenets such as miracles, afterlife and resurrection of the dead. However the “immortal soul” is preserved in an enlightened form as trans generational traditionalism. Again, above all Rabbi Soloveitchik is concerned with the fight against idolatry, but contrary to Maimonides he is self-confident enough to shed any theological or philosophical concepts in this fight. In his recovery of ancient Judaism he concentrated mainly on the biblical narrative of Genesis and Exodus. So why might this unfinished convolute be considered a bombshell with the power of unraveling Jewish communities, academic religious history and perhaps also the epistemology of Western thought?
Hazony asks: “What did R. Soloveitchik have in mind when, at the end of his book The Halachic Mind (written in 1944, FH), he announced that: ‘Out of the sources of halacha [Jewish law], a new world view awaits formulation’. This is a famous riddle, and it has been much discussed… And yet R. Soloveitchik, sitting in his garrett as the inferno of the Holocaust burns, writes that it is Judaism that will provide humanity with the new worldview that idealism, neo-Kantianism, pragmatism, and Heidegger-style existentialism (all discussed at some length in Halachic Mind) had failed to provide—the new world view, in fact, that modern physical science had failed to provide”. Soloveitchik also disputes the authenticity of the present corpus of the Jewish heritage. He writes (quote taken from Hazony’s essay):
“[M]ost modern Jewish philosophers have adopted a very unique method. The source of knowledge, for them, is medieval Jewish philosophy…. [However,] we know that the most central concepts of medieval Jewish philosophy are rooted in ancient Greek and medieval Arabic thought and are not Jewish in origin at all. It is impossible to reconstruct a unique Jewish world perspective out of alien material.”
One last example of the inspiring way of thinking with Soloveitchik:
He argues that the attachment to the supernatural rests in a deterministic view of nature, where the possibility of a ‘violation’ of the natural order occurs only where one looks at the world “as a fixed, mechanical process.” And only then one is mistakenly lead to assume that nature must be a ‘causalistic, meaningless monotony’ and only then does something outstanding or amazing, as truly represented only in the Jewish word for miracle, come to be seen as a “supernatural transcendental phenomenon.” This is what a proper reading of the Hebrew Bible can unearth and clarify: no need for suspending the laws of nature, that all brands of Christian and post-enlightened European idealist philosophy presumed.
Accordingly Rav Soloveitchik defines a miracle as happenstance of combining the course of nature with human morality, reminding us of Aristotle’s teleology:
“What is a miracle in Judaism?... In what does the uniqueness of the miracle assert itself? [Answer]: In the correspondence of the natural and historical orders. The miracle does not destroy the objective scientific [character of the event] itself, it only combines natural dynamics and historical purposefulness. Had the plague of the firstborn, for instance, occurred a year before or after the exodus [of the Hebrews from Egypt], it would not have been [a miracle]. Why? God would have been instrumental in a natural children’s plague…. [But o]n the night of Passover he appeared… as acting along historical patterns…. Miracle is simply a natural event which causes a historical metamorphosis. Whenever history is transfigured under the impact of [natural] cosmic dynamics, we encounter a miracle…. Miracle expresses the idea that whenever the covenant comes to a crisis in its eternal struggle with the forces of indifference, the historical motives will overcome the opposition of a cruel reality. Historical motives will emerge victorious from the clash with actual forces, which during the interim seemed to run contrary to the vision of realization. This faith is rooted in our identification of both realms…. The great ideal is… the elevation of the natural level to the ethical one.”(Quote taken from Hazony)
Now, let me interrupt here in order to briefly discuss some implications of this amazing rabbinical project. First of all it suggests the quarrel about the weight of Athens versus Jerusalem or Rome in our Western heritage, or in other words about our indebtedness to Greek philosophy versus Hebrew civilization can be abandoned, if in the transmission process the true heritage of Judaism got lost completely. The same is true for the controversy as to who actually preserved this heritage of antiquity over the Dark Ages and preserved it for modernity. It does not matter anymore if our thanks go to Latin spoken Byzantine monks rather than to Arab-Muslim philosophers and their Jewish translators, as Fjordman suggested in a previous blog in November 17, 2009 at BJ.
One interesting issue here, I would suggest, is the transfer of Near East monotheistic concepts to northern Europe leading to simplifications such as the externalization of God. Thus the religious experience becomes lofty in the northern territories and gradually assumes the properties of a gift or even entitlement – such as the claim to priesthood by feminism, homosexuals and other emancipatory or hedonist cults. Could it be that a cargo mythos, reaching for the impossible such as a free lunch for all, has spoiled the transition of early Christianity to northern Europe? Clearly second or third hand heresies such as the host of protestant denominations vied between them to internalize God back into the human heart again. But since their inspiration, orthodox Catholicism was itself heretic these attempts were bound to fail. Protestantism descended to a sort of religious band aid with salvation coming as a gift from outside rather than emerging from sublimation form within, being wrought by the individual in his or her fight against evil inner instincts. This has meanwhile opened up a growing gap between the occidental arms of authentic oriental Semitic monotheism, which today tends to orthodox versions of Judaism and Islam. Both lately have been nudged in some metropolitan areas to join forces in defense of kosher or halal ritual slaughter or ritual circumcision.
Secondly, if Soloveitchik is right, fascinating consequences ensue with regard to the issue of a dislocation or cultural transplantation of genuine near Eastern religious experience to what the Greeks called the hyperborean north. Just think of the very different challenge for survival and the role of nature in the Mediterranean compared with say Scandinavia. The center of gravity for Christian thought moved from Augustine’s North African Hippo across the Mediterranean Sea not because it was terribly attracting to the northerners. Rather the inevitable or shall we say unrelenting expansion of Islam was driving it there.
More to the point, the ensuing dislocation of a heretic version of Judaism, morphing into Christianity under Roman rule, not only failed to save that Empire. More than that, the victory of the Roman Goliath over the Jewish David in three wars turned out to be of the kind of Pyrrhus: Rom won the military battle but lost the war of ideas. In short: the religion of the Jews was so powerful that even a mitigated brand of it was capable of sinking what remained of the Roman Empire. The British historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), who admired the civic values of the Roman Republic, nevertheless believed that they were undermined by Christianity and “that the last remains of the military spirit were buried in the cloister” (Gibbon: “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, quoted after Wordsworth Classics of World Literature, edited by Antony Lentin and Brian Norman, London 1998, p. XIII).
It is also worth noting that Edward Gibbons’ central concept of healthy barbarism might turn out to be biased in an enlightened, particularly rousseauean fashion even though the author seems to have disapproved of Rousseau. For Gibbon suggested that the repeated sacking of Rome by the wild German tribes was a blessing for Europa, since it invigorated the falling Roman Goliath with a shot of fresh blood, creating the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Not only that, for Gibbon the glorious German invaders “restored a manly spirit of freedom”.
This often overlooked bizarre Enlightenment narrative, hammered home by Gibbon, crediting barbarism for the invention of Western freedom would look rather untenable in light of Soloveitchik’s genealogy of ethical man. Rather freedom must be attributed to the emergence of the Hebrew civilization that started with the escape from slavery in Egypt. By contrast the liberal Enlightenment school of thinking, stemming from Rousseau’s rejection of bourgeois civilization, still holds that “barbaric vigor became the life-blood of modern Europe. Their tribal rivalries founded the independent, competitive states, coexisting in creative rivalry and from the primal instinct of the ‘barbarians’ for liberty originated the freedom, political and intellectual, which Gibbon prized so highly in the British civilization of his day.” (Lentin/Norman: “The Open University”, ibid, p. XV). Well, for writers such as Theodore Dalrymple and his scathing but timely depictions of the debauchery of modern Britain it would be hard to disagree. Gibbon admired the ethical framework of the New Testament too and was perfectly knowledgeable about the other religions including Islam. Now in the new light of Soloveitchik’s naturalistic Judaism, the Christian idealistic Judaic heresy that came to drive the rising German Giant was for principal reasons destined to eventually collapse into rousseauean Neo-Barbarism with important ramifications for the Western heritage.
Thirdly, the “mocking seriousness” of Gibbon and many other thinkers of the Enlightenment with regard to religion fully exposed the weakness of the progressive school of thinking if not their pedestrian attitude all together. Recent research, such as reported in Eric Nelson’s “The Hebrew Republic” (Harvard University Press, 2010) has unearthed the essential impact of genuine Jewish sources, going back to the Hebrew Bible, on the transformation of political thought in the European enlightenment. It was therefore not against the core tenets of the Jewish-Christian heritage but with mute acceptance of it, that the Enlightenment succeeded. Ironically their historians and polemicists such as Gibbon and Voltaire pummeled the hopelessly anthropomorphic or watered down version of the New Testament rather than the original Hebrew version. It was probably Leo Strauss who noted that the enlightenment thinkers, with the notable exception of Baruch Spinoza never really replaced mere mocking of religion with serious criticism of the complexities between revelation and reason. Soloveitchik’s recovery of biblical naturalism might bring those chickens back to rooster.
Finally this line of thought might enable us to address determinist Marxism (and perhaps Darwinism and Freudianism) more clearly as the fourth hand heresies of Judaism with the implication that at least Marxism is fully driven by the cargo myth (free lunch for all) and an obsession with abandoning any individual property. This would be the final nail in the coffin of the Enlightenment for it would be the irrefutable proof that it lost the competition with religion in its fight against superstition. Now, before we are getting carried away by this speculative current I should stop my occasional suggestions here as to where the “bombshell of the Rav” may lead us. They have of course no systematic bearings at all. However, the debate over the meaning and origin of human freedom of choice, that it will probably unleash, is very likely to inform the future of the European project. For it is the space between possibility and reality or with Aristotle between potentiality and actuality is where the range of our human freedom of choice matters and it tends to be cluttered by modern governments.