Sam Fleischacker Responses to Comments on “Words of the Living God

The author responds to his critics. Also notes that his next book The Good and the Good Book: Revelation as a Guide to Life comes out July 2015.

Response to Comments on “Words of the Living God
Sam Fleischacker

Here are some responses to the comments and questions about “Words of the Living God” that have been posted on the blog or Facebook page. Thanks very much to everyone who has written in!

1) Pace YK, at no point do I deny that we can experience moments of great religious significance that transcend language. Many elements of our tradition suggest that we need to go beyond language in our relationship to God. “Silence is praise to You,” says Psalm 65, and the Rambam quotes this approvingly; it fits well, of course, with his view of the limitations of language as regards God (I’ll say a bit more about the Rambam below). Psalm 19 also implies that nature “speaks” without words. And hasidut, as several respondents have pointed out, is filled with parables emphasizing the importance of getting beyond language — of moving away from language, in our worship, towards music, dance, or internal, silent devotion — and of God’s presence in non-linguistic spaces.

The question I’m grappling with is just whether these non-linguistic moments should be the source of our religious commitments — as opposed to gaining religious significance only by way of a prior revelation. I certainly think we have and should value these sorts of moments. I had my breath taken away by the sublime and beautiful landscapes on the different sides of Indonesia’s Mount Bromo: and in response uttered, in accordance with our tradition, both the blessing “oseh ma’aseh b’reishit” and the blessing “shekacha loh b’olamo.” But I’m not sure what I gained cognitively from this experience, and I’m quite sure that I wouldn’t have taken it in a religious light at all had I not already been committed to the Torah. What wordless encounter theology does is however precisely to take these sorts of experiences as foundational to the religious life, and read the revelatory moments in the Torah as roughly capturing the wonder and awe they arouse. Giving the non-linguistic this sort of foundational importance — greater importance than the Torah itself — is something new, not a mere extension of the Baal ha-Tanya, and it is supposed to help resolve or side-step the problems we moderns have with the idea of a God who spoke on Sinai. My claim is that that the hopes it holds out in this regard are vain ones: that it does not resolve either the historical or the philosophical or the halachic problems that concern progressive Jews in the modern age. We may well have wordless encounters with God — if we have encounters with God at all, I am sure some of them are wordless — but they cannot be our prime source of revelation: not the source of the sort of revelation that Jews believe in, at least.

2) To YM and HH: As I’ve indicated, I think it’s a mistake to see everything in figures like Heschel as coming from hasidic sources rather than philosophical currents in the non-Jewish world. This is a mistake because it is absurd to suppose that any hasid would have denied the literal truth of the Torah — would have described it as wholly a “midrash,” and allowed that it might have been produced by (fallible, and politically motivated) writers other than Moses. It is also a mistake because Jewish philosophy always draws on a wider non-Jewish context — on Aristotle, or Kant, or Heidegger — and to present it as a hermetically sealed project, in which each contributor is responding only to endogenous Jewish sources, is to distort it. As a philosopher whose training and scholarship has been mostly focused on non-Jewish thinkers, what I can bring to Jewish theology is precisely an appreciation of its wider context. I don’t by that mean to deny that there is also great value in pointing out its endogenous roots. Certainly, the Baal ha-Tanya is very important to Heschel, and it would be wonderful to see the connections between the two laid out in detail. But that shouldn’t blind us to Heschel’s interest in making sense of the Jewish tradition in terms of early twentieth-century phenomenology, or fitting it in with the theology of such writers as Otto.

3) Several people were puzzled by objection (b), in the first part of the essay: that wordless encounter theology gravitates towards animism rather than monotheism.

In response, I’d first note that if my other objections, especially (c), are successful, it doesn’t much matter if one agrees with (b). If wordless encounter theology relies on an incoherent conception of language, then it is unacceptable, even if it does not stand in tension with monotheism.

But I expected that my suggestion that wordless encounter theology smacks of paganism would have seemed obvious, and resonated with the experience of most readers. I recall once participating in shacharit on a retreat in the woods of Maine led by a rabbi much influenced by this sort of theology. When we came to the Shema, he noted to the community that Jews usually cover their eyes when saying the Shema, to make clear that they are committed to a God who transcends their surroundings rather than worshipping some object they see before them. But here in the midst of the nature’s glories, he said, we should for once open our eyes while saying the Shema. “So here,” I thought, “where the danger of avodah zarah is greatest, we should indulge our temptation towards it …” I would be surprised if this is an unfamiliar experience to my readers — that they have not also heard, far more often than they would like to have heard, that the Grand Canyon or a glorious sunset is the real place to encounter God. Again, I don’t mean to deny the joy that comes of praying in beautiful natural surroundings, but the suggestion that this is where God is most to be found surely recalls the pagan investment of groves and springs with divinity more than it does the idea of a God who fills the universe. Among other things, it implies that God does not dwell in ugly office buildings, or depressing slums, or anything else that is humdrum or upsetting: a fall away from, or failure to grasp, the sublime, rigorously monotheistic, declaration of Isaiah, echoed in our liturgy, that God is the creator of both good and evil.

The deeper point to be made here is that the very notion of a “god,” let alone of the one God of monotheism, is an abstraction that we cannot achieve without language. An infant or non-human animal may sense something wonderful or awful about a certain event, even without language, but that is not yet to understand the event as pervaded or governed by a god. To arrive at the notion of a “god” we need first to separate intentional from unintentional agency, to conceive of intentional agents that are not human, and to see elements of nature as explicable only by way of a super-human intentional agent. These are complicated, highly linguistic thoughts — making use of the sorts of generalization and abstraction that only language can accomplish — and without them, there will be nothing in our reactions to experience that could reasonably be interpreted as belief in a god.

To get to belief in “God” full stop, moreover — the upper-case, singular God of monotheism — we need to make sense of and accept an argument to the effect that gods, because perfect, cannot differ among themselves in any significant respect: that if the universe bespeaks intelligent and good government or design at all, government or design worthy of our love and worship, it must bespeak a single governor or designer, who pulls the whole thing together and gives us a place in it that we can embrace. It is unimaginable that we could get to any of these thoughts without language. Hence a view of religion by which pre-linguistic and pre-conceptual experience is fundamental will inevitably be a view of religion that gravitates toward animism rather than monotheism — as wordless encounter theology in fact does.

4) I thought YM’s gesture toward the “skein in our tradition according to which God is both ineffable AND speaking” was terrific. As I indicate in response 2) above, I don’t think this is what the theologians I discuss have in mind, when they make revelation nonverbal, and I don’t think my critique of that theology rules out this interplay. And I suggest that the best way to understand what Yehudah has in mind is by way of a process that is inter-conceptual and inter-linguistic rather than pre-conceptual and pre-linguistic. What is ineffable about God is something we appreciate in the spaces between words, on this model — the ways in which they fail, or fall short — rather than in a space that is prior to language.

I’ve tried elsewhere to explain what this process might look like (see the account of Kant’s “harmony of the faculties” in my Third Concept of Liberty, chapter 2), but the simplest way to think of it — this would also go with the comment of  SR — might be to consider the way great poets move between invocations of the ineffable, the mysterious, etc. and limpid, vivid descriptions of concrete objects: as if to suggest that there is something ineffable within language and something proto-linguistic, something that signifies, in silence (in the silences of a language-user, at least).

Consider in this light R. Mendel of Rymanov’s famous suggestion that the Israelites at Sinai heard just the silent aleph at the beginning of the first word (anochi) of the Ten Commandments. This is often taken to mean that the Israelites heard nothing at Sinai, that they had the sort of non-linguistic mystical encounter I have been taking to task, as a foundation for religion. But that’s not exactly R. Mendel’s point. Even aleph is an element of language, after all, a letter: which is moreover used to abbreviate important Hebrew words (including anochi), has a numerical value that could hardly be irrelevant to a Jewish experience of God, and plays a deep role in Kabbalistic cosmology.

So “hearing the aleph” is by no means something non-linguistic: although it may well draw our attention to the silent spaces within language, the elusive and multi-valent symbols and terms and sentences that we do not quite grasp. But what we do with elusive and multi-valent symbols and terms and sentences is come up with an endless string of attempts to grasp them — endless interpretations, midrashim — rather than being struck dumb. So the silence of the aleph is an invitation to engage in a great deal of language, rather than to abjure language: and it is able to invite us to this because it is already situated within a linguistic system. That’s what I mean by an inter-linguistic rather than a pre-linguistic gesture toward the ineffable. And I suspect that hasidic texts are best read by making use of this inter-linguistic framework, rather than supposing that they long to get beyond words altogether.

5) I don’t see that anyone has mentioned the Rambam (although some may allude to him in his comment on “negative theology”), but one might object to my claim that wordlessness is unsuited to Judaism by pointing to his critique of language in the Guide, and intimation that we come closest to God in silence. It might help clarify my view to note that the Rambam’s silence is a form of philosophical contemplation rather than mystical encounter, and we get there only via a good deal of — wordy! — metaphysics and epistemology. We need first to recognize, by linguistic means, both what the word “God” points us to and the limitations of language in capturing that referent; only then can we transcend language in our love of God. Language is for Maimonides, very much as it is for the early Wittgenstein, a ladder we can throw away only once we reach its top.

This is a very different view than one that would make a pre-linguistic experience of God foundational to all language about God. The Rambam is thus not a wordless encounter theologian. (It is also inept, given the Rambam’s conception of God, to suppose that we “encounter” God. We have encounters with particulars, at particular times and places, but God is necessarily not a particular, for the Rambam, and not present at any particular time or place. All the figures I discuss, starting with Buber, are anti-Maimonidean in their talk of an “encounter” with God: that is meant precisely to undermine Maimonidean and other religious rationalism, to presuppose a personalist God rather than the abstraction that rationalists revere.)

6) To MK: No, I certainly do not want the Torah “to become Heidegger’s Being.” Affinities between the two are drawn out beautifully in Peter Gordon’s book on Heidegger and Rosenzweig, but my own view might better be put by saying that I’d like Heidegger’s Being to become more like the Torah’s God.
MK seems more generally uncomfortable about using Heidegger for Jewish thought, and I imagine other people will feel this way as well. I understand that discomfort, of course. Nevertheless, Heidegger provides very useful tools for thinking about language and revelation (although on language, it is at least equally important for modern Jewish theologians to absorb the crisper, more rigorous, and more thorough-going, investigations of meaning to be found in the so-called “analytic” tradition of philosophy: in Russell, Wittgenstein, Quine, Davidson, Dummett, Kripke, Putnam and Brandom, especially). We should never overlook Heidegger’s hostility to liberalism, which is deeply built into his thought (his anti-Semitism is I think less important: it depends on the misconception that all Jews are liberal cosmopolitans), but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to learn from him.

In a debate with Isaac Breuer, Yeshayahu Leibowitz once exclaimed, “Dr. Breuer, why should we deceive ourselves? You know as well as I that in our treatment of philosophical questions both of us — who consider ourselves believing Jews…— do not draw upon Jewish sources but upon the atheistic anti-Semite Kant. We cannot do otherwise!” Today Jews discussing philosophical questions might say the same about Heidegger. And while it is a bit unfair to call Kant an anti-Semite, it’s certainly not unfair to say that of Heidegger. So it’s a dark irony that Jews, including Levinas, have drawn so much on Heidegger. But this is an irony we need to live with. Once again, as in so many other respects, we can understand our own, specifically Jewish beliefs properly only when we recognize openly how much they depend on ideas we draw from a larger, non-Jewish — and yes, sometimes anti-Semitic — context.

2 responses to “Sam Fleischacker Responses to Comments on “Words of the Living God

  1. I have very much appreciated Prof. Fleischacker’s articles and the discussion generated around them. I would add one additional point to strengthen his comments regarding R’ Menachem Mendel of Rymanov. Moshe Idel has argued, quite convincingly in my opinion, against Scholem’s interpretation of the soundless Aleph reflecting the open-ended nature of revelation. Idel points out that really what R’ Menachem Mendel of Rymanov really said was that they heard the kamatz aleph which was supposed to evoke the image of a melamed teaching his students the Hebrew language for the first time. Here is the citation from Idel (Old Worlds, New Mirrors On jewish Mysticism and Twentieth Century Jewish Thought (p.123-124) )

    The phrase kamatz aleph, occurring in the formulations of the three Hasidic masters surveyed here, is constituted by two words by which every Eastern European Jewish male child started to learn Hebrew in Heder at the age of three. The sonorous ambiance that accompanies the childen’s collective recitation of those two words is, in my opinion, quintessential for understanding the underlying background of the Hasidic discussions of the revelation at Sinai. In my opinion, it was the heder setting, in which the teacher pronounced kamatz aleph and the small children repeated it loudly, that the Hasidic masters had in mind and transposed to Sinai. Instead of the solemn silence of the inchoate revelation, in fact some form of manifestation, as Scholem assumes, we have here the sonorous community of the teacher, the melamed, which is projected on high as G-d, and the Israelites in the role of children.

  2. My Litvak-Misnagdish side, my Ish HaHalakhah side, agrees with the critique of Fleischaker that:
    “We might want to endorse wordless encounter theology if we think it is coherent, spiritually attractive, and a helpful way of framing our Jewish commitments. It is none of these things, however. “

    I further generally agree with Fleischacker that even with regard to R. Mendel of Rymanov, in Fleischacker’s words,“it is absurd to suppose that any hasid would have denied the literal truth of the Torah — would have described it as wholly a ‘midrash.’” As Fleischacker points out, even a silent aleph is a letter, an element of a word. One could say it is a vowel, or indiscrete speech, or even a breath, but it is headed towards articulation. There is a movement towards expression, communication, articulation of an idea, a thought, not just wordless encounter. Zach Truboff’s mention of Idel’s interpretation is exactly correct on this point.

    “Wordless encounter theology” cannot serve as a basis for understanding the revelation of the normative law of a society, of halakhah.

    However, I’m not at all certain that there is no room for a kind of “wordless encounter theology” when it comes to the side of the “Ish HaDat.” Remember that, in Plato, the “Ideas” and “Virtues” and “Laws” serve as norms for the proper discipline and structuring of the society at large as well as for forming the character and soul of the individual. Similarly, the Torah in Philo Judaeus serves as Law for the society as well as instruction for the individual. In the Bible, the Torah of Moses is identified with the Musar avikha veTorat Immekha of Proverbs and the Wisdom literature, which gives instruction in Wisdom and knowledge of The Way for the individual and his soul, for the Torat HaAdam or for Torat HaNefesh.

    My problem, then, arises when explanations taken from the realm of Ish HaDat and Torat HaNefesh are used as a basis for normative halakhah, when halakhah gets “psychologized” so that psychological needs of the individual soul start determining halakhah for the society. This is quite a widespread problem today.

    Further, having read Part II as well as Fleischacker’s responses to comments, I don’t agree with Fleischacker’s “progressive and traditional” theology of the “Words of the Living God.” Believing that the Torah is somehow God’s Word but not in some sense a kind of “Eternal Truth” seems to me almost as problematic as some Purva Mimamsa Hindu philosophic traditions that believe in the sanctity of the Vedic texts and the practices and laws prescribed in them but are not theistic. In this case, Fleischacker believes in God and that the Torah is a sacred text, which contains, presumably, sacred truth, but he doesn’t want to say that that truth is unchanging or eternal in any way. I’d say, if Torah doesn’t contain eternal verities, it might as well be godless. Fleischacker actually mentions this possibility, belief in the Torah without belief in God, and dismisses it as not really making much sense, but I don’t see why what he proposes, a Torah which has language, “Divine” language, but is stripped of any unchanging core of meaning, is any better as an alternative. I understand why Fleischacker wants to say this: He wants to leave more room for interpretation, for a more fluid, modern, somewhat late-Heideggerian hermeneutic, which he wants to make equivalent to Midrash or allegory. He wants to make “truth” relative to the era in which we live through such interpretive/hermeneutical juggling. Further, Fleischacker would seem to want to change halakhah based upon such interpretation, unlike some in “Orthodox Jewish” or Hindu Purva Mimamsa-based communities who are more committed to maintaining a very strict and fairly unchanging “orthopraxis” without regard to what they believe. I just don’t think either one is very Jewish, either. Of course, Plato and Philo always felt that “truth” had to be unchanging and eternal. I’m not sure I can prove the same for Rabbinic thought, but even the term “Midrash” comes from “seeking,” engaging in dialectic to reveal some old truth that needed further revelation. There are “hiddushim” in Torah, but this comes from a Pi`el root which involves “renewing and making anew” something which was old and eternal.

    I prefer Platonic/Philonic thought, the basis, according to Harry Wolfson, for medieval philosophy, which believes in truths revealed in the Torah which are, in principle, unchanging and eternal. However, it is the abstract laws and ideas, the forms and concepts of the Torah, which are really eternal. These concepts are tied to the Sacred Words of Scripture. The actual texts, the words used, are very important: After all, according to Plato’s Cratylus (and quoted by Eusebius in interpretating Gen. 2:19), names and words are precisely suited to the forms and ideas which they convey. But ultimately, what we understand in our world are only “shadows on the wall” of the real “forms.” The Torah as the Logos, the Divine Word, reveals us the “True Forms” of things in a much clearer way than we could know them by ourselves, but they still need clarification through dialectical argument and homiletical as well as allegorical interpretation. “New” interpretations reveal sides of the forms and laws which weren’t visible earlier: Rabbi Akiva taught many laws which were unrecognizable to Moshe Rabbenu, but were inherent in the Torah taught to Moses at Sinai. And, of course, mystically, our Torah is derived from a Primordial Divine Wisdom/Logos, a “Torah Qedumah,” which pre-existed the Scriptural texts we have. But it must be “Qedumah,” primordial, because Truth must be, in some sense, eternal and unchanging. I’d argue that traditional Midrash, and our modern exegeses and adaptation of halakha, as well, have been based upon and should be based upon the adaptation and application of eternal verities, closer to Hellenistic allegorical interpretations to discover the eternal forms/ideas which were meant.

    I’d argue that even when it comes to the “truths” of the “Ish HaDat,” of the Torat HaNefesh, such truths must be at base unchanging. But from the point of view of the individual soul and its advancement, the communion with God, the experience of God’s Presence, may be as important as any verbal content of Revelation. Knowledge of God’s Word becomes, for the individual soul, Knowledge of God’s Love. And eventually, the Torat HaNefesh, the revelation of God found in one’s individual holy Soul, his Divine Breath or Divine Image, must be somehow squared with both the Law of Nature as well as with the Torat Moshe, the Holy Law for the Holy People, the Torah for Jewish society, the halakah.

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