The Orthodox Jew as Intellectual Crank- David Singer

The writings of Rabbi Isaac Breuer and his student Barukh Kurzweil bring to mind an interesting article from twenty years ago on the idea of someone formulating their Orthodoxy as simultaneously sectarian counter-society and at the same time an advocate for secular society. This approach avoids conjunctives and synthesis; it also avoids two complimentary but non-concordant realms. Those two options of synthesis or irreconcilable, we discussed in an earlier post. In this options one goes in both extremes on the same topic- secular literature is demonic but we devote ourselves to it as a religious quest, Zionism is forbidden but we must build up the material base of a Torah state. The article deals with both Kurzweil and Leibowitz, but I have culled out the discussion only about the former. There seem to be a variety of younger Orthodox rabbis who are cultivating forms of this positions.

The Orthodox Jew as Intellectual Crank- David Singer

First Things aug/Sept 1990

The question I want to raise is this: Is the crank element—what I shall hereafter refer to as “crankitude”—that manifests itself in the work of Kurzweil and Leibowitz merely a reflection of personal idiosyncrasy or does it point to something more significant?

At the same time, one cannot help but notice that being a crank helps them to function more effectively as Orthodox thinkers— crankitude provides them with nothing less than a full-fledged intellectual stance. In short, my thesis is that Kurzweil and Leibowitz have elevated personal idiosyncrasy into a stylized cultural response—a response that permits them, at once, to take modernity with full seriousness, but also to reject modernity in the name of Jewish faith.

To better appreciate the nature of the enterprise that Kurzweil and Leibowitz engage in as Orthodox intellectual cranks it would be useful to consider the categories employed by sociologist Peter Berger, the leading academic analyst of the modernization process. Berger argues that religious thinkers have available essentially three types of response to the challenge of modernity: “cognitive retrenchment,” “cognitive bargaining,” and “cognitive surrender.” Cognitive retrenchment is the sectarian option, calling for a conscious rejection of modernity as a dangerous heresy. The thinker taking this position in effect states, as Berger puts it: “The rest of you go climb a tree; we believe this, we know this, and we are going to stick to it. And if this is irrelevant to the rest of you, well, that is just too bad.” In cognitive bargaining, in contrast, “there are two conflicting views of the world and they start to negotiate with each other”; an “attempt is made to arrive at a cognitive compromise.” Finally, there is cognitive surrender, in which, in Berger’s terms, “one simply accepts the fact that the majority is right, then adapts oneself to that point of view.”

Most Orthodox thinkers operating in a modern framework have engaged in one form or another of cognitive bargaining. In sharp contrast, Kurzweil and Leibowitz offer us the model of Orthodox intellectuals managing to combine—in equal measure no less—cognitive surrender and cognitive retrenchment. This, to put it mildly, is an astonishing intellectual feat… at one and the same time, embrace and reject modernity.

On the bibliographical side, it is important to note that only a very small sampling of the writings of Kurzweil and Leibowitz are available outside the Hebrew language. This has begun to change, however, with the appearance of James Diamond’s very fine English-language study Baruch Kurzweil and Modern Hebrew Literature This fact underscores the point that the work of these two Orthodox thinkers, in its origin—though certainly not in its reach—is inseparable from the Israeli context.

Proposition 1: The Orthodox intellectual crank centers his work on a religious problematic defined in rigidly either/or terms.

In Kurzweil’s case, this problematic is the absolute gulf separating the world of pre-modern religious faith from the secular outlook of modernity. For Kurzweil, modern and secular are synonymous, and it is the rise of secularization that has made modernity an age of permanent crisis. The starting point of Kurzweil’s thinking is the assumption, as Diamond puts it, that the “only absolute in human life, human history, and human culture is faith in the living transcendent God.” In the absence of faith—which is what secular modernity has brought about—human existence loses its one sure anchor, opening itself to what Kurzweil variously calls the “void,” the “absurd,” and the “demonic.” (These are key terms in his lexicon.) The meaning of this change, as Kurzweil sees it, is described by Diamond in the following manner:

In this new setting man is thrust into a cosmos bereft of certainty. He lives now not in the presence of God but of the abyss, of Nothing. The individual ego becomes the center and gradually enlarges to fill the void. Man for the first time conceives of himself as an autonomous being who is self-sufficient. There is no transcendent source for values and morality, nothing to hold in check man’s instinctive capacity for self-aggrandizement, hubris, domination and destruction. . . . Now man is utterly alone, beyond all values and all relationships with society or his fellow-men—yet he is unsatisfied. He has lost his soul but failed to gain the world, for the demons are insatiable.

A key element in Kurzweil’s thinking is the notion of “late return,” which occurs when an individual, caught in the web of modernity, seeks to escape his situation by turning back to a life of pristine faith. It is just here, however, that the either/or element comes to the fore, in that Kurzweil takes it for granted that no such return is possible for the vast majority of moderns. Kurzweil is not an evangelist calling for the restoration of religious faith; rather, he is a diagnostician of secular unbelief, describing what he takes to be the permanent condition of modern man. If Kurzweil devoted his career to the study of modern literature, it was because he saw it as offering telling testimony to this very condition.

Kurzweil’s interpretation of modern Hebrew literature is clearly set forth in Our Modern Literature: Continuity or Revolt? In this work, now a classic in the field, he argues decisively for the latter position. The emphasis here is on radical discontinuity, on modern Hebrew literature as a product of secularization and the collapse of religious faith.

 Kurzweil mocks those who fail to see the “difference between the sacral world of traditional Judaism, in which the Divine Torah structures the totality of life activities, and a world which has become secularized in its totality but still preserves individual corners of interest in religious elements and subjects.” The former—the “sacral world of traditional Judaism”—is the domain of the “vision,” while the latter—a “world which has become secularized in its totality”—is the place of the “void.” Modern Hebrew writers, in Kurzweil’s view, sort themselves out most fundamentally by their varying responses to the confrontation with the “void.”

Proposition 2: The Orthodox intellectual crank displays radical openness to key aspects of the modern experience.

In Kurzweil’s case, this is the openness he shows to modern literary expression in all its forms. Far from spurning modern writing as the illicit fruit of the secularization process, Kurzweil lavishes endless attention on it, producing a body of literary criticism that is nothing short of massive. More importantly, it is also first-rate. Kurzweil’s critics are legion, but even the severest of them would have to admit that he was the very model of the engaged literary scholar.

Consider, then, the strange phenomenon of an Orthodox intellectual identifying the realm of heresy and then settling in for the lifelong study of it. A study, moreover, carried out in loving detail and with a considerable amount of imaginative sympathy for the heretics. That certainly is what Kurzweil offers us in his literary criticism, which yielded brilliant analyses of the work of, among others, Bialik, Brenner, Tchernichovsky, Greenberg, and, of course, Agnon. All that Kurzweil asks of his writers is that they testify honestly to the confrontation with the “void” and the “demonic”—wherever that takes them. What he could not abide, however, were attempts at evasion, such as he saw in the younger generation of Israeli writers. Kurzweil took it upon himself—as if. he needed any prodding!—to expose their “snobby immaturity and inflated nothingness.” With a straight face, he declared Amos Oz’s My Michael to be more dangerous to Israel as a nation than all the Arab armies.

Proposition 3: Despite his receptivity to key aspects of modernity, the Orthodox intellectual crank’s ultimate allegiance is to a version of Orthodox Judaism that negates the basic thrust of the modern experience.

In Kurzweil’s case, this is the meta-historical vision of Jewish history advanced by Samson Raphael Hirsch and his grandson Isaac Breuer. Kurzweil first befriended Breuer during his years in Frankfurt, when, in addition to attending the university there, he enrolled in the yeshivah that Hirsch had founded in the nineteenth century.

Breuer affirmed this model as well, but more importantly, he taught Kurzweil to oppose all attempts at the secularization of Jewish life. When Kurzweil argued that “Jewish existence without God is the Absurd with a capital ‘A,’“ he was directly echoing Breuer. More generally, Kurzweil followed the Hirsch-Breuer school in regarding Judaism and the Jewish people as meta-historical realities. In this view. Diamond explains, the Torah is “God-given, a timeless absolute that transcends the limitations of human history. The Jews, therefore, exist for the sake of Judaism; Judaism does not exist for the sake of the Jews.” “Kurzweil’s commitment to a meta-historical fideism,” Diamond rightly concludes, “is antipodal to the perspective [of] most Hebrew literature in the twentieth century.”

It is precisely here that Kurzweil’s famous attacks on Ahad Haam and Gershom Scholem come into the picture. Kurzweil saw these two “arch culprits” aiming at a secularization of Jewish life, an enterprise he saw as nothing short of “demonic.” To struggle within the world of the “void,” as did modern Hebrew writers, was one thing; to establish the “void” as the new foundation for a Jewish life, as did Ahad Haam and Scholem, quite another. Against this tendency, Kurzweil was unsparing in his criticism, referring to the “palpable absurdities of the Ahad Haamist philosophy.”

 This was child’s play, however, compared to his polemic against Scholem, whose sins, in Kurzweil’s view, were threefold. First, he employed historicism as a tool to relativize the Judaic absolute. Second, he assigned “demonic” mysticism a position of importance in the framework of normative Judaism. Third, and most important, he legitimated secular Zionism as an expression native to Jewish history. “There is no more penetrating proof of the absurdity of our time,” Kurzweil railed, “than the fact that Scholem is today the spokesman for Judaism.”

Proposition 4: Crankitude is a coping mechanism that enables the Orthodox intellectual crank to maintain a reasonable equilibrium in a situation of extreme stress.

From everything that I have said thus far about Kurzweil and Leibowitz it should be evident that theirs is not a placid synthesis of Orthodoxy and modernity à la Samson Raphael Hirsch.

 On the contrary, their encounter with modernity is characterized by sharply conflicted feelings, by powerful attraction on the one side and violent rejection on the other. The crucial factor here is the element of simultaneity—the fact that Kurzweil and Leibowitz feel drawn to and repulsed by modernity at one and the same time. It is no exaggeration at all to state that the measure of their attraction is the measure of their repulsion, and vice versa. It is precisely this tension that makes the work of these two Orthodox intellectuals so fascinating, and, I would contend, that accounts for their crankitude.

3 responses to “The Orthodox Jew as Intellectual Crank- David Singer

  1. Reading Singer’s piece in its entirety, I was left with 2 questions:

    1. Who in today’s pantheon of Orthodox intellectuals qualifies? [fow which you indicate you have some potential nominees]; and,
    2. With hindsight, who else in the late 20th century pantheon would we now discuss in these terms beyond Kurzweil and Leibowitz? Could anyone make a reasonable case the Rav, for example, fits Singer’s typology in this article?

  2. I have doubts that Singer presents a complete balanced description of the Kuzweil-Scholem exchanges. Based on readings many years ago and totally subject to the distortions of my memory and imagination , there were two inter-related fights, one as described, and a second where Scholem let loose on the Breuer kehila with the full force of his sarcasm and rhetorical power. Here Kurzweil responded and defended Breuer, but in a sweet and measured way. He spoke about the beauty of the service , the reassuring quality of the old minhagim, the nigunim of Askenazic Jewry that were preserved by the kehila, and so on in this vein. Why was Scholem so contemptuous of Frankfort? I am a little unclear but I’ll give it a try. He raged at the denial of the reality, how even as the dream of German-Jewish Orthodoxy was going up in flames they refused to admit any errors, nor acknowledge any of the Zionist achievements or predictions. Issac Breuer in fact doubled up on the fantasy, now dreaming of a Hirschian type Orthodox theocracy in Palestine. They were guilty of all the sins involved in what is now called the German-Jewish symbiosis, the one sided love affair between Jews and Germans. I believed the Frankfort austritt Orthodox were patriotic during WW1 and fought honorably in the German army, while Scholem though the war was idiotic and evaded the draft. Their identification with the Germany of Goethe and Schiller was already outdated when the kehila was founded, and in any event was always superficial. Their a- historicism was theological double talk, and unlike their nemesis the Hildersheimer academy in Berlin, was totally unscientific. They were petit bourgeois narrow people lacking in imagination.
    And that was for starters.LOL. Against such a background, Kurzweil was the sane traditionalist and Scholem a bit of a crank.

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