Benjamin Lazier. God Interrupted: Heresy and the European Imagination between the World Wars

One of the most important books of Jewish thought in 2008 was Benjamin Lazier. God Interrupted: Heresy and the European Imagination between the World Wars. Princeton University Press, (I unfortunately have had it out from the library since early 2009 and they are finally recalling it. This core of this post was actually written ages ago). It deals with how three Jewish thinkers- Scholem, Jonas, Strauss- dealt with the loss of tradition. They wanted to avoid relativism and instead choose human value through pantheism, gnosticism, neo-platonism, and neo-aristotelianiism.

Why is this high brow book relevant? Why read this long blog post? The reason is the tension between physis and nomos and between relativism and ethical meaning. In 1975, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein wrote his classic “Is there an ethic outside of halakhah.” Many have not paid enough attention to the opening second paragraph where Lichtenstein reclaims the tradition by claiming that we care about nomos, not physis, law not the natural order. In turn, the Reform theologian Rabbi Eugene Borowitz complained about the counter-cultural centurions at the door and wrote that Reform needs its own ethical moment within nomos. Most of the recent discussions, therefore, in all three movements have been about nomos, for example medical ethics is done as a legal question.

Now, this year the hot book is Arthur Green’s Radical Judaism with its defense of pantheism. Most of the criticism of the book has been sociological or the invoking of nomos against Green’s physis. However, if there is going to be a serious response, then it must directly tackle the current quest for physis. The response must directly deal with the issues of those who feel that nomos is not the answer. One can either find a new defense of nomos for the next generation or find a more traditional form of physis. Saadyah, Bahye, Cordovero and Rav Kook among many others are all physis in that their Judaism is part of the natural order. Should one use one of those for a theology? Alternately, one of the followers of Hans Jonas is Jewish thinker Leon Kass, who rejects stem cell research as an affront to the natural order. Are people looking to become natural in that the law has turned out to not offer ethics? or should one respond to Green with Neo-Aristotelianism, or with Levinas? People want to look into their hearts, not to nomos, where the “deepest depths” are to be treated as the holiest.

I did not post Lazier to discuss the implications for Green, rather because it offers one of the best expositions and casuistry of the current issues about formulating theology today. My Catholic colleagues are all gaga about the work of the Notra Dame theologian Cyril O’ Regan, one of the leading theologians in the US today, who is writing a massive many volume exposition of modern gnosticism, heresy, and pantheism- in order to come out with a committed Catholic theology at the end. (I already have a draft of a future post on O’Regan.)Lazier’s book provides one of the basic interfaces between the Jewish heresies and the potential for a response.

The Paradoxes of Secular Heresy by Anna Yeatman
In this wonderful, erudite, and beautifully written book, Benjamin Lazier suggests that the legitimation problem of human artifice assumed a particular urgency and topography in the period between the world wars. His focus is especially on how three Jewish thinkers–Hans Jonas, Leo Strauss, and Gershom Scholem–responded to what their contemporary Arendt recognized as the context for Walter Benjamin’s work, the irreparable loss of authority for tradition, None of these thinkers wanted to reinstate orthodox Judaism; they could not avoid the modern freedom for human artifice, but they rejected a nihilist-existentialist celebration of the will–in the absence of God, the human subject is free to will its own being. They rejected this conclusion because it affirms an utter contingency or arbitrariness. Such freedom is without any normative orientation or restraint. It is as though the human subject arrogates to itself a divine creative power without the infinity or universality that is the divine.

In his own way, each of these thinkers insisted that it is vital that the human freedom for artifice not be mistaken as a freedom for self-creation. To make this insistence, each had to engage and learn from the two heresies of Gnosticism and pantheism that attend the development of the idea of a freedom for human artifice. These heresies are not new, but in the modern context they acquire the force of being the only possible intellectually cogent narratives of the divine. In Gnosticism, as already indicated, the divine is invoked in its absence from the world that humans have made, a world of destruction and sin. In pantheism, the divine is invoked as it inheres within worldly being. The problem with both heresies is that they are antagonistic to the world–Gnosticism by indicating the world as derelict in relation to the divine, and pantheism by conflating the divine with the world, thus robbing the world of its own distinctive being. Jonas offered a philosophical biology, a neo-Aristotelian account of the world as a living organism, as purposive nature. In so doing, he deliberately presented an alternative to the will to power, a normative reference point in ecology. Strauss offered a different conception of nature as a normative reference point for human artifice–this is a neo-Platonic conception of natural right, a conception of justice that precedes human artifice. Of the three, Scholem was most attracted to a nihilist celebration of a Jewish Zarathustra, a worldly messianism that, like pantheism, conflates human and divine creation.

However, he argued that “Nietzsche’s famous cry ‘God is dead,’ should have gone up first in a Kabbalistic text warning against the making of a Golem and linking the death of God to the realization of the idea of the Golem” (p. 194). The myth of the Golem, of course, is a story of the human arrogation of the divine power to create turning into a force for destruction of human beings and their world. Scholem recognized in Zionist messianism a contemporary Golem, and he argued against it, the tragedy as is now so clear of modern Israel.

For Lazier, God cannot disappear, for the modern sensibility continues to dwell with and in God, albeit heretically.
read the full version here.

Here is another great review

The Heretical Imperative by James Chappel

“Church Going,” a 1955 poem by Philip Larkin, describes the mix of awkwardness and reverence many of us feel when faced with the monuments of our religious past. The narrator, having removed his cycle clips to visit an old church, asks himself why he continues these debased pilgrimages, which “always end at a loss like this, wondering what to look for.” Larkin’s tourist is unwilling to embrace the rigidities of strict atheism or strict orthodoxy, and lives somewhere in the murky space between the two.

Perhaps the problem is the one diagnosed by Hannah Arendt: the collapse of orthodox religion has not caused us to turn towards the world with the piety and love once accorded God. Benjamin Lazier, in his inspiring and beautifully-written God, Interrupted: Heresy and the European Imagination Between the World Wars (Princeton, 2009), suggests that there can be no simple path between these two forms of reverence. A detour through the long tradition of heresy might be required in order to overcome religion without losing our faith. Through a study of the surprising influence of heretical thought on Hans Jonas, Leo Strauss, and Gershom Scholem—three of the most influential Jewish intellectuals of the twentieth century—Lazier attempts to resuscitate the lost art of heresy, with all its possibilities and danger.

Although European societies were obsessed for centuries with the identification and persecution of heretics, Gnosticism and pantheism refused to die (however many actual heretics were forced to)…In the tumult of interwar Europe, many attempted to reclaim this absent God through heresy: both Gnosticism and pantheism, the twin rivals of a discredited orthodoxy, reappeared and flourished. Jonas, Strauss, and Scholem, all of whom came to maturity in this postwar period, were indelibly marked by this revival.

Both Jonas and Strauss argued that the horrors of modernity stemmed from God’s disappearance. Against the Gnostics and pantheists, whom they relentlessly attacked, the two German Jews held that the world left behind could be reinvested with the transcendent value that used to be God’s alone. Modernity, in other words, could only be redeemed by filling the God-shaped hole in our society with nature. In Aristotelian terms, they see physis as an antidote to nomos. We need, that is, to understand nature differently: not merely as “that which surrounds us,” but as a metaphysical and ethical order that sets limits to human activity—limits that we are manifestly incapable of setting for ourselves.

For Jonas, the modern worldview was tainted with Gnosticism: we treat the earth, and one another, with such consummate lack of care because, in the absence of God, living things appear to us as mere matter to be used and abused at our convenience. Once we stop seeing nature as a stage for God’s creation, and God’s order, everything is permitted (to quote another famous heretic). From this insight he developed a robust philosophical biology and environmental ethics, premised on the final overcoming of the Gnostic heresy.

When we encounter the world, Scholem suggests, we are not faced with the bare nothing of the Gnostics or the flaccid everything of the pantheists; instead, we are faced with a unique something that is autonomous from God yet shot through with traces of its divine origin. Only a gap between God and world allows us the space to develop autonomously as ethical subjects, but this gap is not absolute: from our all-too-human standpoint, we can still sense God, and we can still glimpse redemption.

it shows us an alternative to strict orthodoxy that does not take the form of shrugging ecumenism. Lazier, it should be clear, is not attempting to found a new orthodoxy. Instead he is unearthing a style of thought and reasoning… This mode of engagement with the religious past replaces confused half-belief with exacting analysis, shaping the shards of exploded traditions into something new instead of leaving them in a mess on the floor. If the God of orthodoxy has lost his plausibility for many of us—for two-thirds of us, apparently—heretical reasoning allows us a path to piety that does not circle back to a bankrupted past.

To adopt Lazier’s title, the modern predicament is one in which God’s call is “interrupted.” The orthodox solution to this dilemma is to act as though she can still hear the word of God with complete clarity, while the atheist’s solution is to clap her ears against the ever-quieter echoes of past revelation. The Jewish intellectuals discussed by Lazier present us with a third option: to open our ears to nature, and to one another. The skeptic would argue that a circuitous route through heresy is hardly necessary to arrive at such a banal conclusion; in response, Lazier’s modern heretics would wonder why such a simple resolution was ignored in the tragedies of the twentieth century. As Scholem put it in a devastating formulation, whose simplicity belies the heretical complexity required to truly defend it: “Develop peacefully, and don’t destroy the world.” Read the rest here.

15 responses to “Benjamin Lazier. God Interrupted: Heresy and the European Imagination between the World Wars

  1. We want to reject variations of nihilism, philosophies where we can do as we please. So we need to maintain some standards of morality that do not require as a ground a revelation from God. Why call this Gnosticism? The world might be fallen or not, but why should the implausibility of invoking God as the legislator and judge require a story about the fallen nature of this world and the reason why evil exists. Second why must we find the content of our moral rules in nature or in our subjectivity? It seems to me murdering innocent people, torture, lying etc are wrong , and we are more certain they are wrong than any of the three theories you present.

    Scholem like many others wouldn’t approve occupation of the West Bank. If we can’t agree that Israel should obey international law or that ruling over a people that will soon be a majority in greater Israel is wrong, …if all such reasons fail to resolve the disagreement, then why should invoking the Golem, as a Faustian figure who arrogates divine power to create and turns it into a force for destruction, do much better?

    Here is a possible answer: There is an idealist premise in all these thinkers that requires a complete metaphysics, a complete philosophy, before we can justifiably form an opinion on any political or moral questions. On the surface this is quite implausible, but it is a thesis found everywhere in post Kantian philosophy, Why must moral or particular philosophical issues be answered only from within a total philosophy is taken up by the (Jewish) philosopher Paul Franks in his excellent book All or Nothing.

  2. The turn to mystical categories is not just for the spirituality function but the need to create a minimal theology resonates. Wiesel, Green, social critics use everything from Rav Nachman to Joan of Arc and Eckhart to present a God who is limited. More technical stuff such as Adorno and Kristeva each go in this direction.
    It seems that the 20th century left a legacy of the rupture of the older categories. When we read in class Hans Jonas’ essay on theology after the Holocaust, there is a gasp that people found what they were looking for. A non-Biblical God, tzimzum, immanence. The idealism of earlier optimistic ages seems foreign.
    The function of the gnosticism is that people are more comfortable that God is a tree or a silkworm than an omniscient patriarch.
    That is why O’Regan is so in now.
    On international law, people dont have the optimism of the 1950’s. See Tzvetan Todorov’s musings on the fragility of it goodness and its institutions. Todorov,had a great New Republic essay on the precariousness of international law.
    I am not sure if they are as totalizing as you make them. But I would not mind a guest post on Frank’s work for Judaism, or at least a longer exposition.
    To help you, here is a review of Franks.

  3. Rav Alan,

    I know this is off topic, but what is your opinion of Ish shalom’s book on Rav kook?

  4. The book was an 81 PHD and the Hebrew came out in 1990. I remember when in the 1980’s he was often on TV debating against the Rav Zvi Yehudah interpretation. It argued for a universal, ethical and mystical Rav Kook and de-emphasized the role of war, politics, and the nation. It was the start of looking at the editorial hand of a given passage.

    It was before the reception of the shemonah kevatzim and all the early writings. Now, readers find multiples messages and they look for development, and look to identify the restrictive turns taken by Rav Kook. For some of the current flood of scholarly debate, you may want to read Rosenak, Garb, Mirsky, and Gutel.
    And for a bit junior, Udi Avramovitch, Smadar Cherlow, Hannah Kehat, and Bitty Yehudah.
    If one leaves the library and goes to shul then compare Rav Cherlow to Rav Tau on Eyn Ayyah. The former uses Benny Ish Shalom as one of his building blocks.
    You should know that Yehudah Mirsky is working on an English volume about Rav Kook.

  5. We are talking at cross purposes. I thought the topic was how to avoid relativism and find consistent and plausible rules and principles to guide our behavior. The quest for such principles is indeed senseless if we accept a nihilist celebration of the will. So the plausible answer is, avoid nihilism. End of story. I asked why reject nihilism by relying on speculative metaphysical ideas like panentheism or Gnosticism. There is no one holding a gun to our head requiring us to act in evil ways. Why do we need any stories about the divine before we can decide that murder is a no no. I then tried to offer a background explanation.
    It turns out the topic is how to create a minimum theology when people no longer have vivid ideas about God. As such we have already decided we need some narrative about God appropriate for a secular age. Somehow we have religious sensibilities, but we’re out some coherent story. If that’s the topic my comment is irrelevant.

  6. The function of the gnosticism is that people are more comfortable with the starting point that God is a tree or a silkworm than an omniscient patriarch.

    Rabbi, do you really see it as being that simple? In making this statement, you’re dismissing a large part of the vast corpus of Indian philosophy as being primitive or childish – certainly inferior to Jewish theology.

    • I do not know what you mean. The silkworm image is page 15 of Zohar Bereshit. Scholem’s called these aspects of the kabbalah as gnosticism

      • It seems that you (and Scholem) are describing pantheism (or panentheism) rather than gnosticism, but, in any case, it’s reminiscent of the apologetic arguments of kiruv people or evangelicals – “They aren’t ready for pure monotheism” (my Chabadnik nephew utilizes that one), or “They don’t want to be held accountable by their creator”.

  7. I still dont get ya. Both Art Green and Jay Michaelson among others explain their turn away from the Biblical God to the what Scholem calls gnosticissm or Green calls pantheism. I am not advocating either the turn or the explanation.
    What I am advocating is that if one wants to seriously engage Green for a response, the process needs to start with the ground issues presented by Lazier and then analysed on the Catholic side by Cyril o’Regan.

  8. Perhaps I don’t get you. Is this:

    The function of the gnosticism is that people are more comfortable with the starting point that God is a tree or a silkworm than an omniscient patriarch.

    a summation of the views of one or more of these others, or your own opinion?

    • Summation of others and accepting their self-explanation.

      • I’ll have to take your word about Scholem, but I have trouble imagining Art Green saying that pantheism is some sort of first step toward patriarchy. To the contrary, his view has always seemed to be the reverse. I think it’s a foregone conclusion that Jay would say the same about his position.

      • Oh! I see your problem. I need to take out the words “starting point” Look at the sentence in 3 minutes.

  9. Well, that’s better, but it still seems condescending. I don’t know that Art would say he turned from the “Biblical God” to pantheism because it made him more comfortable. I think he’d say, rather, that he progressed from dualism to monism because it was where the process took him.

    I haven’t read Jay’s book, but I used to subscribe to Zeek and have read some of his articles, and I think he’d probably say the same.

  10. I do not think Lazier and O’Regan are the propaeduetic you are looking for.
    If you want an Intro to Gnosticism I would be looking at Baur, Jonas and Blumenberg on one side and Michael Allen William’s fine book on the historical phenomena on the other side. And I think you are missing the polyvalence of the term by using this restrictive idea of heresy or turn away from a biblical God. Gnosticism is an entire cultural diagnosis or red herring on one hand or a heresiological diagnosis or red herring on the other. I will refer you to the quote from Culiano featured so prominently in Lazier’s book.

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