A pluralist, demythologized and this-worldly halakhah

Jewish Religion after Theology by Avi Sagi Academic Studies Press 2009

Many of the works of Israeli thinkers of the last few decades are coming out in translation. Avi Sagi of Bar-Ilan and Shalom Hartman Institute seems to be collecting all his articles into books.

Sagi’s book is an attempt to use the answers to the questions of 1970’s to answer the questions of the 1990’s.If a generation ago we asked how can there be religion after analytic philosophy showed that there is no proof for God and the problems of science and evil for the religion, Sagi is now asking how can we create pluralism and liberalism from these same orthodox resources..

In short, he wants to use the thought of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Eliezer Goldman, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and David Hartman to create a this-worldly, pluralistic religion, without theology. In actuality, the book assumes the reader has read 2 or 3 works by Leibowitz already and the other thinkers are used to fill in gaps in Leibowitz.

He wants to expand Leibowitz’s Kantian certainties to now embrace the social, moral and intellectual pluralism of  the 1990’s, as defined by philosophers like John Kekes.

His answer is a form of treating halakhah as a fixed set of rules, a closed language similar to Wittgenstein. Personally, I have met many young rabbis who devote themselves to halakhah but have a smattering of philosophy, who take a similar Wittgenstein approach. Sagi works out many of the details.

He compares Leibowitz to the this-worldly approach of Camus, not to actually show parallels rather to show by theme and variations the possibility of using Leibowitz for a here-and-now religion.

The historical narratives are only needed as part of the rules of the game. As Leibowitz taught, Bible, Jewish History, and historical events are only important to the extent they play a role in halakhah. Translation of any religious term into external reality is a form of idolatry, directing one’s faith to an object instead of to God.

In fact, the whole purpose of faith for Leibowitz is to fight idolatry, against superstition, magical thinking, nationalism, and history. Our God is transcendent- any connection of the Jewish God to this world is seen as pagan or worse. Religion is to show obedience to the halakhah.

Sagi is most creative in moving Leibowitz from his Barthian treatments of halakhah as outside the natural order to a Rudolph Bultmann demytholization. Sagi is against the reification of Torah as myth and magic.

For Sagi, Goldman shows how to still work for bettering the world, Soloveitchik applies this to the question of theodicy, and Hartman to building a pluralistic society.

We have a pluralistic, demythologized, and this-worldly orthodoxy.

This work shows a side of Israeli Religious-Zionist thought as taught on Kibbutz Hadati or Bar Ilan that does not always get translated. Personally, it is not my cup of tea. I prefer high theology. But the book offers an American community a discussion of the role of belief, scientific truth, halakhah without theology, and pluralism that it currently lacks.

However, it assumes that one has basically found one’s answers in Leibowitz. On the more empirical note, to view Orthodoxy as a fight against magical thinking is a bit counter experience. In addition, there has been a turn to spirituality in these same institutions. Finally,  in a post Hermeneutic age – the abstractions of Kant, Camus, Barth, and Bultmann have given way to greater discussion of texts and culture. Since Sagi was recently made the chair of hermenutics and culture, we will see if his thought responds accordingly.

8 responses to “A pluralist, demythologized and this-worldly halakhah

  1. I need some help understanding this , since I have yet to read the book. Suppose torah does not appear on the surface as pluralist or democratic or non-mythical. Does the move consist of reading the mitzvah with no context or background in the most narrow way (Leibowitz) and then adding on the desired value. What are the constraints on what can be added on…why is mechiyas amalek narrowly construed plus pluralist democracy a better tziruf than the same plus fascist imperialism?

    • Sagi opens the book by stating that Torah is mostly not tolerant and pluralist. He even takes several statements often used to show tolerance and shows how weak they are and how they do not fit the modern meaning. He states that it might even be detrimental to adopt the pluralistic approach. But he concludes that for those who are already living in the post-modern world – pluralism is the challenge that needs to be met. His approach is about “could one” create a theory? Can one find a way to accept the post-modern condition? He does not deal with constraints.liberal ethics is assumed. He has another book carving out a place for natural rational ethics, which for Sagi in our age would be Rawls, Dworken, pluralism.

  2. The invocation of Wittgenstein to justify an incommensurable language game and thus legitimize diversity grates on our ears as 1980s clothing grates on our eyes. No one is really interested in such aporetic half conceptions at this stage in the game. For those of us who have returned to hermeneutics and believe in the inherent understandability of these propositions across artificial and weakly constructed lines: Is there anything here in Sagi which contributes to any dialog?

    • Nu, so give me 500 words or at least 500 words on what does in fact contribute to the dialog.
      Not a list of names or terms but an approach for a hermenutical age.

  3. My understanding is that Sagi is not primarily interested in doing philosophy or advancing philosophic discources, informed by Halakha, but is trying to create a model of Halakha for Israel or at least certain communities in Israel.

    As I am not a member of those communities, I do not know if I would find it meaningful or useful.

    I could see how many in America would like to participate in some form a Halakhic community, but one that is pluralistic, demythologized, and this-worldly, such as those who frequent independent “Minyanim”. Indeed this could be an opening for the leaders of the Minyanim movement to move beyond their local service into a genuine movement.

    I do not see how this “Halakha” could create a passionate Judaism that people would actively choose, but it could form the Wurtzberger-esque “Floor” upon which to construct one’s Judaism, which “chiyyus” would lie elsewhere.

  4. My understanding is that Sagi is not primarily interested in doing philosophy or advancing philosophic discources, informed by Halakha.

    Are you comparing him to Yaakov Nagan? Moshe Halbertal? Pulpit rabbis who call their homilies a philosophy constructed from halakhah?

  5. I think that he is most like Nagen of the ones you mentioned.

    From what you describe Sagi is trying to create something for the communities who keep Halakha. Not apologetics, like the pulpit Rabbis. But an alternative way of framing, talking about and living halakha.

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