Reasons for the Commandments: Alexander Carlebach-Autonomy, Heteronomy, Theonomy

[Back to some of our regularly scheduled posts on modern Orthodoxy.]
The German neo-Orthodox tradition gave great attention to the topic of reasons for the commandments. They assumed that everyone was a theist and the need for Orthodoxy was to show why the commandments should be added to a theist life. In one of the first issues of the new modern Orthodox journal Tradition (Fall 1963) Alexander Carlebach gives an overview to the importance and history of this quest for the reasons for the commandments. As you read the essay notice the role he give Hellenistic Judaism, the role of medieval Jewish thought, his reading of Hirsch, and the value he finds in Rosenzweig. [The title is based on the language of Paul Tillich who said that there were three choices in theology Autonomy, Heteronomy, Theonomy. Both Rabbis Carlebach and Belkin choose the third.]

Carlebach opens his essay stating that Torah is sum total of divine revelation and belief in such a revelation as both possible and necessary, and moreover, as a historical fact.

Abraham Geiger, the leader of German Reform stated that considered blind obedience to Torah is dead like a cadaver, it is just canine obedience. This incensed Hirsh as blasphemy. Carlebach comes to defend the rejection of blind obedience as not as blasphemous as Hirsch thought

Dayan Grunfeld in his edition of Horeb responded to Geiger, writing that obedience is not dead but from the ardent desire of the Jew to understand God’s will and to make it his own. (The latter is not very far from Rav Lichtenstein) But Grunfeld states that the understanding cannot be just from our own reason and conscience because then it would be a form of rationalism and humanism rather than an acceptance of the heteronomy of revelation which would endanger our a-priori to the binding force of revealed religion. Carlebach’s essay was written to differentiate his position from Grunfeld’s. (For Grunfeld’s own position, see our earlier post here.)

Alexander Carlebach seeks a modern Orthodox position between the two extremes poles of Reform autonomy and Neo-Orthodoxy heteronomy in which there are intermediate degrees, compromise and harmony of the two poles. For him, that is why there is taamei mizvot – reasons for the commandments

For him this is one aspect of the need to have both revelation and reason – but there are many other aspects to these two poles. God speaks across this bridge of revelation and is met by man’s inner voice and conscious. It is a balance of the divine and the human. For Carlebach, reason is self-evident and sits in judgment on our thoughts and actions but revelation has authority and objectivity – the fate of our ethical-religious existence is decided on the battlefields of this clash. [Notice, that he does not think that we need to capitulate to revelation.]There is an eternal clash of the revelation of religion and human feeling, reason, and conscience- we are always located in the middle. This is not because of human frailty of inconvenience but from the start of our faith.

In the Bible, the demand for absolute obedience and servitude must be seen against the background of antiquity but it was balanced by charity, justice, purity, sanctity, peace. The judgments mishpatim are a form of general morality. And already in the Bible there is protest against sacrifice as obedience without the justice and loving-kindness that God wants.

The Rabbis gave us aggadah which was their form of philosophical speculation. Rabbis asked moral questions of biblical character so it shows that they trusted their own hearts and minds to question the Bible. The Rabbis never doubted that they have to conform to universal moral law despite being given a revelation.

They saw two types of mizvot, rational ones and hukkim. -Elazar ben Azariah said that the goal of obeying God against one’s better judgment or the need to fight one’s natural drive is only for the hukkim. But Hirsch thought even the hukim can be explained but not readily apparent . (This is unlike mizvot as a yoke as presented by Rashi-irrational or looking for an esoteric meaning like Maimonides.) But unlike Hirsch, tosafot has a concept of mezuveh veoseh– that one is commanded therefore one takes painstaking care .

Jewish-Hellenistic authors like Philo of Alexandria or Josephus showed that mizvot followed the moral and utilitarian demands of the natural law. Hellenistic Jews “may seem shadowy and diluted” before the Talmud. But we have to give due to those Hellenistic Jews who wrestled with keeping Jews loyal in the diaspora. We have much to learn from them and their episode in Jewish history.

From Saadyah to Abarbanel, “Jewish philosophy in the middle ages is even for us moderns an important laboratory of ideas” The Hellenistic era taught us how to confront popular culture and the medieval era taught us how to confront the philosophic and academic challenges.

Hirsch follows Saadiah viewing reason as a companion to religion. Bahye in his Duties of the Heart presented the commitment to reason and piety against mere legal and formal observance is another form of the tension of reason and revelation. In every generation there are those who are mistaken and see no need for philosophy and who are scared of heresy. It is not the great Jewish halakhic authorities to blame since the great halakhic authorities were not hostile to philosophy and science. Philosophy and science are blamed for lack of martyrdom in Spain by Graetz and Baer. After the philosophic era, then kabbalah took over in the 16-18th centuries.

Moses Mendelsohnn returned Judaism to science, reason, and humanism, he made Judaism catch up to society in the late 18th century. He is an outstanding symbol of reason and revelation. He is falsely maligned by orthodox who never read him- he accepted pure heteromomous legislation of revelation- the Torah tells us what to do not what to believe. He is the model of the Orthoprax Jew, since he keep his heteronomic practice separate from his autonomous reason. He was only a philosophy of transition and not the birth of modern Orthodox Judaism.

The true revolution of the modern age was the philosophy of Kant, who demonstrated the autonomy of ethics and that religion was to be identified with ethics. The Romantics made feeling, beyond ethics, the decider of religion. Reform Judaism is based on Kant, so it stresses ethics and not ritual. Mortiz Lazarus and Hermann Cohen combined Kant and Judaism. In Cohen’s later writings he started to recognize wonders and miracles

In contrast to the Reform position, Hirsch balances heteronomy that the Torah is from God without a denial of the inner autonomous revelation of the ethical self. [This is one of Carlebach’s major points that Hirsch did not advocate following revelation over reason, ethics, and humanism, rather he held onto both.] Hirsch created a fusion of all mizvot into a harmonious ethico-religious system. Hirsch’s emphasis on heteronomy and obedience is more apparent than real because of all the autonomous elements in his system– the role of humanism, the universal, his use of Saadiah, the role he gave to reason, and the inner voice. The rhetoric of obedience was because he was fighting Reform.

For Carlebach, Hirsch’s weak spot was the lack of historical thinking, all 3500 years of history are not the same. There was development and not everything was given at Sinai. Hirsch worked so hard to fight the Reform movement’s thinking that historical change meant the overcoming from mizvot, that he did away with any change. [This comes from Carlebach’s exposure to the Orthodox Wissenschaft curriculum at the Berlin Orthodox Seminary and at London’s Jews College. In general, it is important to note that the essay was based on Julius Guttman’s Philosophy of Judaism and Breslau seminary graduate turned Hirschian, Isaac Heinemann’s Taamei HaMizvot beSafrut Yisrael.]

Carlebach sees mizvot as a partnership of man and God, a dynamic Torah, and that the aggadah of reasons for the commandments and rationality make the heteromous position easier to bear. Reason and revelation, autonomy and heteromomy, obedience and philosophic creativity are not opposites, it is not an either/or choice.

Franz Rosenzweig, the great Jewish thinker advocated keeping mizvot based on the freedom of our existential decision; he also accepted a historic view of revelation as part of a chain of tradition. For Carlebach, Rosenzweig’s position is intensely individualistic and his entirely autonomous freedom of decision has many obvious objections from an Orthodox perspective but his approach remains a door open for many modern Jews to keep some attachment to Torah and mizvot without accepting an all or nothing approach.

The Modern age gave us a hard won inner freedom that we are not giving up.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s