Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929), one of the most original Jewish thinkers of the modern period, writes in a 1927 letter about the need to be present, a form of “here I am” in the eternal “now” of one’s own individual standpoint, but the standpoint remains that of an individual human being. One does not transcend her individual, finite standpoint in order to attain a standpoint that would pretend to be Absolute. A person, according to Rosenzweig, does not “have to take out his own eyes in order to see right.” It is no doubt true that a person’s eyes limit his perspective, but it would be an act of idiocy to poke out one’s eyes in order to see properly.” How would this play out in halakhah? What would a halakhah of an individualized standpoint look like?
These are some of the questions that animate the writings of Leon Wiener Dow, a research fellow and member of the faculty at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He received his BA from Princeton University, his MA in Jewish thought from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, private rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Professor David Hartman, and a PhD in philosophy from Bar-Ilan University. Wiener Dow recently wrote two complimentary books. The first, based on his PhD thesis, U’vlekhtekha Va’derekh (Hebrew, Bar Ilan University Press, 2017) constructs an approach to halakha based on the thought of Franz Rosenzweig, then compares Rosenzweig to prior halakhic approaches and to Hasidut. His concurrent English book, The Going: A Meditation on Jewish Law (Palgrave Macmillan in 2017) is a personal meditation on living a life of seeing the halakhic life as an individualized path.
Rosenzweig wrote in a letter that he had intended to write a book on the halakhah, but his paralysis and early death kept him from the project. Leon Wiener Dow develops the statements in Rosenzweig’s earlier works upon which to construct a theory of halakha. For Wiener-Dow, the “now” is the lynchpin of the life of mitzvot. The Divine did not give us the Torah in the past; but rather gives us Torah: now, at this very moment, in the present. The aspiration of halakhah is to transform the laws into the performance of mizvot in the moment, where we hear the voice of the commander. The transition from the halakha to the mitzvah, from an institutionalized norm of the past to a commandment issuing forth right now, is dependent upon me, upon my ability to hear the command.
Torah is instruction, and is only wisdom if it is lived out. At the same time, the Torah is Torat hayim in the deeper sense of being connected to life, which means that it has at its base a resolute vitality. The ongoing development of halakha – which includes it reaching into new, previously-uninhabited places – is fundamentally an invitation to address ourselves to the Divine.
Our performative actions are not only testimony to the Divine, they are invocations, allowing the Divine to enter into our midst. For Wiener-Dow, if that’s not ultimately what the halakha is after, then it becomes nothing other than folklore. In addition, living a halakhic life requires anticipating how others will view my actions. I must assume full responsibility for by my actions and the community’s perception of them. Finally, with a nod to Polish Hasidut, he wants us to acknowledge the potentially positive role of sin in cleansing a religiosity of excessive certitude. If you hold open the possibility of error – and of learning from error as part of one’s service to the Divine, new religious possibilities abound.
Nevertheless, Wiener-Dow acknowledges that his thoughts are meditations on Rosenzweig and not the great German thinker himself. Rosenzweig’s journey was outside-in. He coupled passion with an unwavering commitment to honesty and authenticity. He showed the possibility of finding one’s way to the tradition in a manner that is spiritually rigorous without entailing compromise in one’s integrity. For Wiener-Dow, to those already in the center, he offers insights regarding the nature and telos of halakha that often someone who comes from outside the system is uniquely qualified to do.
Wiener- Dow’s books are part of a larger turn to Franz Rosenzweig within the Israeli Religious Zionist world. His works were available in Hebrew as part of heritage of the German- Jewish Neo-Orthodox educators who moved to Israel but eclipsed in recent decades. Rav Shagar in his own thought and in his students helped bring Rosenzweig in the Hesder yeshiva beit midrash. And recently, Mechon Herzog of Herzog College in Alon Shevut published a guide to Rosenzweig for yeshiva students: Omer ṿa-esh : sheʻarim le-haguto ule-ḥayaṿ shel Franz Rosenzweig = Utterance and fire : pathways to the thought and life of Franz Rosenzweig By Ehud Neeman, edited by Eitan Abromowitz (Mechon Herzog, 2016). These new Israeli readings emphasize the role of halakhah, minhag, love of God, prayer, and living a religious life. One should not confuse the American readings of Rosenzweig with this religious reading. These new works let us see Rosenzweig afresh as a religious thinker and a thinker offering an individualism outside of Hasidism, yet complementing it.
Wiener Dow’s The Going opens with a person narrative of his religious journey, letting us see his move from the synagogue based ritual world of American Conservative congregational life to the halakhic life of Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism. This journey to a progressive halakhic life serves well as a counter balance to those who journeyed to right-wing Orthodox positions. The book also has summary of main points at the end of each sections. The book consisting of a biographic narrative and a few short chapters with highlight boxes seemed more of a Jewish Lights publication than Palgrave-Macmillan, it is a slim volume, almost a very large article of an individual vision. Because his goal was personal, he intentionally was not directly engaged in historical analysis or history of ideas, at times, therefore, the volumes falter in these dichromic elements. But overall is this is a highly original theological work offering many new insights and potential for future avenues of halakhic thought. He is selling his books here.
1) Explain how and why you choose to focus on the path–the going, the life of Torah, the life of action in community?
Torah is instruction, and the minute that it loses that telos, it has become something else. It may be wisdom, but only of the applied kind, only if it is lived out. We cannot imagine someone who is גדול בתורה, gadol baTorah, but who fails to live according to its dictates. A great doctor may well smoke; someone great in Torah must be great in deed.
At the same time, the Torah is תורת חיים – Torat hayim not just in the sense of a Torah that needs to be lived out in life, but also in the deeper sense of being connected to life, which means that it has at its base a resolute vitality. It is attentive to, and nurtured by, time. We must understand the Torah’s ‘eternity’ – should we choose to embrace that concept – in a way that does not suggest immutability. Quite the opposite; it’s ‘eternity’ is the constancy of the flow of its relevance and applicability .
The halakha “speaks” in two senses: it allows the individual to express through outward action a divine truth that would otherwise remain sealed in the silent chamber of theological discourse; and it allows the formation of the community of individuals that gathers itself around, and devotes itself to, this commitment to the Divine.
2) How are we always addressing the divine in halakhah?
What does it mean to take seriously a (blessing) bracha, when we address the Divine as “you”? It can only mean that we are making an effort to bring the action that we are about to effectuate into the context of a life in which we place our actions in relationship to the Divine.
When the rabbis of the Talmud ask (Shabbat 23a), “Where did the Divine command us to light the Hannukah candles or to read the Purim Megilla?” – people often read that as an opening for discussing rabbinic authority. It is that, but it gets at something more fundamental. The real issue is their bold willingness to claim that they hear divine command.
Put otherwise, the rabbis are suggesting that the ongoing development of halakha – which includes it reaching into new, previously-uninhabited places – is fundamentally an invitation to address ourselves to the Divine.
3) If we cannot speak directly about the divine then how does halakhah as action help?
We can address the Divine directly but talking about the Divine we cannot do and is destined for failure. Action manages to express that which lies beyond words. We can articulate our beliefs verbally, but our lived lives give expression to our commitments in a more profound, precise, and convincing way than our mouths can articulate. If that is true in general, it is especially true in the realm of theology, where words prove so inadequate.
We sometimes forget this and fall into trying to talk about the Divine. But as Gabriel Marcel said, “When we speak of God, it is not of God we speak.” Maimonides’ negative theology grapples with the same challenge. And, I would submit, the very essence of the halakha as a form of religious praxis is predicated upon the same aspiration: to allow action to express and realize religious truth in a way that language cannot.
The halakha is deed, so it offers an avenue to respond to the Divine rather than to talk about it. That is the halakha’s fundamental, unspoken insight: the Torah may speak, but the halakha does, and through this doing it manages to express truths and commitments that escape that area enclosed by the word.
But there’s another important and related way in which the halakha allows us to do what words can’t say. Community is created not through shared belief, but through shared action. We become we by sharing praxis.
The formation of community is crucial to this discussion because one of the deepest insights of Jewish theology is that kedusha, holiness, is fundamentally a communal endeavor. The Torah is uninterested in the individual’s spiritual fulfillment, except and insofar as it is part of a communal aspiration.
So the halakha, by design, brings together these two areas where action does what words cannot: in responding to the Divine and in the creation of community.
4) How is Kiddush Hashem the pillar of halakhic endeavor?
The overarching and underlying injunction of the Torah is to live a life of kedusha, holiness; that is how we fulfill the commandment, repeated three times daily, to love the Divine. But how do we do that, asks the Talmud (BT Yoma 86a).
The answer it gives is as profound as it is theologically shocking. We love the Divine by acting in our daily lives in a way that is exemplary and inspirational to the people who see us. If our actions cause an observer to ask: “Where did that person learn Torah? Who were that person’s parents and teachers?” – then, according to this stunning passage, we have caused that person to love the Divine. This inspiration constitutes loving the Divine. According to this model, therefore, holiness is not some ontological entity that can be measured by an external standard; rather, it is a quality emergent from – and determined by – the way in which our behavior is evaluated by those who surround us.
So living a halakhic life is our effort to realize and make manifest the divine presence in the world, to testify to its presence. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai gives this idea radical expression in the Pesikta deRav Kahana (12 6): “If you are my witnesses, said God, then I am God, and if you are not my witnesses then it would seem [כביכול] that I am not God.” The models of binding law of halakhah have, at their very root, theological aspiration.
In that sense, our performative actions are not only testimony to the Divine, they are invocations, allowing the Divine to enter into our midst. If that’s not ultimately what the halakha is after, then it becomes nothing other than folklore.
5) How do we each have to write our own sefer Torah?
Taking the Torah seriously as a spiritual typology demands that we realize that it tells a Jewish story that begins with the first commandment to Abraham, “lekh lekha” – “Go forth!” or, put colloquially: “Get Going!” No less significantly, the Torah ends before the people of Israel enter the Land of Israel. I’m not talking politics. Rather, I’m suggesting that the ultimate meta-halakhic command is to be on the way. It is surely not coincidence that Jewish law is “halakha” – going.
The bookends of our journey are birth and death, and each of our actions is the Torah that we speak in the form of deed. We speak Torah to our children through our mouths, but the most effective speech we have, the most effective Torah we teach, is through our deeds.
The high holiday image of sefer haHayim, the Book of Life, is a once-a-year effort to push us to take seriously our deeds. But the rigor of the halakha demands that we live that once-a-year consciousness in our daily grind, week-in and week-out. The daily minutiae of the halakhic life, how we conduct ourselves when we walk on the streets and enter our workplaces, and leading all the way to the inner attitude with which we go to sleep: all of this affords opportunity – and demand – to live a life of holiness.
6) What is the role of the community and debate within the community in this endeavor?
One of the deepest impulses of the halakha is that kedusha, holiness, is fundamentally a communal endeavor. The halakha rebels against the mystical model of constructing a religious life by eloping with the Divine and, in essence, turning one’s back on the world. Devarim she-biKedusha – matters of holiness – are reserved for moments in which a quorum, or community, is present out of conviction that there are possibilities – and commands – of holiness that open up only in the context of community
But the halakhic community never achieves fruition, and this for two reasons.
First, there is never just one halakhic community: from the Mishna in Hagiga 2:2, we know that the halakha is predicated on maḥloket. When Menahem agrees with Hillel – they send out Menahem and bring in Shammai. This commitment to maḥloket is borne of a deep sense of how we get at truth, and how we live it out. Because Hillel and Shammai each has a following, a community of adherents who follow their leads, it is through the disparate interpretations and divergently-lived lives that the broader halakhic community is formed, but it is a community riddled with disagreement.
But there’s a second way, as well, in which “the” halakhic community never exists, at least not in some ideal or pristine version. Even within a given halakhic community, there exists an unresolvable tension between the individual and the community. There are moments of principled dissent; gaps between the community’s norm and the adherence (or lack thereof) of some of the individuals in that community; and struggles between the understanding of the posek (halakhic arbiter) and the practice of the community.
What’s remarkable is that the halakha views these disagreements – those within each halakhic community and, no less, those between halakhic communities – positively. Because we are trying to live out an infinite divine command in a partial, fractured world, any expression, every discrete action, will be partial. And yet, viewed expansively, the argument-in-deed expresses a higher unity, pointing to a divine oneness that lies beyond this world.
7) What is the role of maarit ayin (how an observance appears)?
Mar’it Ayin – what I call ocular community – gets a bad rap. With mar’it ayin, the question that concerns us is how our actions are perceived, how we are viewed by others. In its lower form, we’re submitted to a sense of unfair judgment by others, and, on our end, we are concerned only with what others think of us.
But at a deeper level, mar’it ayin comes to remind us that our actions have a presence in this world and an influence on it irrespective of our intention. Contra Kant, what is paramount is not our intention, but rather our discrete actions.
Mar’it Ayin is predicated on a deep understanding of community as local – both time-specific and place-specific. My actions will be judged not in some abstract, universal fashion – but by particular people who view it in a particular time and space. Here, too, the contrast to Kant is instructive: the halakha views actions not through a lens of universality but through a lens of specificity.
Living a halakhic life requires that I somehow internalize a third eye, anticipating how others will view my actions. I must assume full responsibility for by my actions and the community’s perception of them, for the communal norm is affected by my adherence or disobedience. Every action and every inaction somehow amalgamate to form communal norm and standard.
8) How is your approach different than Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man?
Let me begin by contrasting my approach to halakha with Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man. First, Soloveitchik posits a religious prototype, an almost mythical religious figure that the halakha forms. The first chapter of The Going describes my own journey to and within the halakha. That is a very important difference, and it’s not merely stylistic. A philosophical and theological ravine runs between the two works. I do not speak of an ideal “Halakhic Man” but rather of, and from within, my own experience of the halakha. I prefer to spend my efforts carving away at the human experience of the command.
Second, Soloveitchik views the halakha as a kind of principled, a priori phenomenon through which halakhic man approaches the manifest world. This is what allows halakhic man– upon seeing a beautiful sunset – to focus not on the sheer and awesome beauty of the moment but rather on the fact that he has yet to fulfill his obligation of the afternoon prayers. I find that passage – and indeed, the way in which Soloveitchik’s halakha wedges between the human being and the world – problematic. The halakha, as I understand it, is the way we live in this world, not an a priori yardstick with which we approach reality.
Third, and intimately related to the previous points, the halakha that Soloveitchik paints is a magnificently grand edifice, with mathematically-determined proportions and design. Soloveitchik has a strong affinity for math. I, by contrast, focus on – and hold in the highest regard – the halakha’s lack of unanimity; the existence of mahloket, disagreement, deep in the heart of the system; its markedly unsystematic nature; and the sprawling way in which the rabbis allow the halakha to ooze into and out of daily existence. He likes it neat; I like it messy. Here, too, what’s at stake is not a difference in taste or style, but a deep disagreement about the telos of the halakha.
9) How do your ideas relate to those of your teacher David Hartman?
There are, no doubt, certain affinities between my approach and that of my rabbi and teacher, David Hartman. Hartman would often point out that he titled his major work A Living Covenant, rather than The Living Covenant, for he wanted to acknowledge the possibility of other paths.
However, where we depart is in Hartman’s repeated insistence – odd as this may seem – to avoid theology. In a certain sense, he was a product of the American pragmatist tradition, so he was interested in staking out what he called a “covenantal anthropology,” avoiding metaphysics and ontology and sticking with a more measurable, empirical standard: what kind of person does this religious system fashion? That, for Hartman, was the touchstone of Torah and halakhic life: What kind of person does it breed?
For me, too, this is a question of paramount import: it touches upon what Rosenzweig called “verification” of our theological truth. But there is an undeniably theological moment that leads to our actions, and we do ourselves – and the halakha – a disservice by overlooking that moment. This experience of the Divine offers what Rosenzweig calls, referring to prayer, “orientation”: it grounds us and sets us on our way. Through our action we articulate our belief and our theological encounter. Halakhic commitment requires a willingness on our part to take drag our theological intimacy into the broad daylight of a lived life. But we have to be willing to acknowledge the centrality of that theological thrust – and to find some way, however inadequate, to articulate it.
10) What is your reading of Rosenzweig’s “Not yet” —“Edayin Lo”?
Anyone who knows something about Rosenzweig’s Jewish path is familiar with his statement that he does “not yet” don tefillin.
This is commonly understood to indicate that Rosenzweig was a typical ba’al teshuva who was on a steady path of incremental, increased observance, and that his answer of “not yet” indicates that it is only a matter of time before he will begin to lay tefillin. Yet there’s a depth to his use of the phrase “not yet” that usually goes unappreciated.
Rosenzweig isn’t merely saying that he’s on a path of becoming more observant, but that he has yet to begin donning tefillin because he’s been busy koshering his kitchen for the first time and has yet to make it to the sofer stam to buy his first set of tefillin. Rather, he’s demanding that all religious observance be actively, mindfully assumed. At that moment the halakha (Gesetz) becomes commandment (Gebot): I hear the divine command that, merely moments ago, lay quietly and unassumingly in the nexus of laws that were merely “on the books”.
One of the major claims that I make in my book U’velkhtekha Va’derekh – is that “not yet” plays a very significant role in Rosenzweig’s system of philosophy, which I will explain briefly here.
For the individual who encounters the Divine, only to discover his own need of the love of the Divine, the soul issues forth a “defiant ‘I am still here’” (das stolze Dennoch). Concerned lest she lose her individuality, she asserts her freedom with this defiance. The religious moment of standing in the presence of the Divine – what Levinas called, in referring to Judaism, “beyond freedom” – requires a relinquishing of this defiance. At one level, then, the “not yet” of tefillin is the “I’m still autonomous” of the undeveloped personality; he stands in stubborn refusal to live a life of heteronomy.
At a second level, the “not yet” refers to the world as a whole, for it has yet to be redeemed. The love of the Divine has yet to infuse every corner of creation – such that even if the world has redemptive moments, each of them has an edge which indicates that redemption has yet to come – it is “not yet” here. The “not yet” of tefillin connects to this deeper religious typology, as well, for it places my own process of being on the way to the world’s process.
Without going in too deep, it’s important to add two things. Rosenzweig claims that Christianity is about being eternally on the way, whereas Judaism has already achieved eternity and brings it into time. Thus when I suggest that the “not yet” points to the fact that the world has not yet achieved full redemption, we need to qualify that statement: Judaism (and the individual Jew) may have infused time with moments of redemption, but it has not spread to all of humanity and to the entire world.
Second, I need to add one important qualification about the “not yet” of tefillin. As my teacher Rabbi Professor Yehoyada Amir of Hebrew Union College pointed out to me, the “not yet” has another side. Had Rosenzweig regularly donned tefillin and been asked if he does so, he might respond by saying, “Yes, I still do.”
That is, the process could be reversed; taking time seriously entails taking seriously the possibility of change. That is – it would be a misunderstanding to think of observance – or indeed redemption itself – as a clear process of progression.
11) What was Rosenzweig’s attitude toward halakhah?
Upon the opening of the Lehrhaus in Frankfurt, Rosenzweig introduced an old-new form of Torah learning. “It is a learning in reverse order,” he wrote. “A learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life, but the other way around: from life, from a world that knows nothing of the Law, or pretends to know nothing, back to the Torah. That is the sign of the time. It is the sign of the time because it is the mark of the [people] of the time.”
The same is true with his journey to halakha: it was outside-in. But that should not be mistaken for ambivalence. He observed halakha the way he taught Torah: by coupling passion with an unwavering commitment to honesty and authenticity.
Might that weaken his standing as a teacher of Torah or halakha? I would argue the exact opposite: namely, that part of his greatness and much of his insight stem from his biography. His journey from the periphery to the center benefits both audiences, those on the periphery and those in the center. To those on the periphery, he testifies as to the possibility of finding one’s way to the tradition in a manner that is spiritually rigorous without entailing compromise in one’s integrity. To those in the center, he offers insights regarding the nature and telos of halakha that often someone who comes from outside the system is uniquely qualified to do.
12) Why is the letter to Dr. Joseph Prager so important for his view of halakha?
Rosenzweig’s letter to Joseph Prager in July 1925 manages to put in about ten lines some of the most significant things that can be said about tradition and authenticity in our context of living after modernity.
His basic claim is that the halakha does not need a Reform Movement in order to effectuate change because it has, built within, a self-corrective mechanism: the ability or inability of the constituent members of the halakhic community to observe its dictates. Classical Reform distills Judaism down to a number of sacred, prophetic, guiding principles, subsuming all halakha to these principle’s dictates. This top-down approach causes a naturally-sprawling, defiant Judaism to lose its inner power. Judaism becomes a pale version of the guiding moral commitments of the day.
So what is a Jew who cannot live an Orthodox, halakhic life to do? Rosenzweig suggests to Joseph Prager that he must “set up tent” outside of the building of halakha. The protection over her head will not be identical to the roof that the halakha provides, and yet, the placement of the tent across from the entry to the world of halakha indicates that this non-halakhic Jew continues to live her life in relationship to normative communal life. Over time, avers Rosenzweig, as more and more tents are erected on its front lawn, the building of halakha may well move. That is the self-reform that characterizes the halakha: it never fully excludes those Jews who live according to their own ability and who insist upon maintaining relationship with the communal norm.
13) What is the “now” in the life of mizvot according to Rosenzweig?
The “now” is the lynchpin of the life of mitzvot. It is the moment in which the halakhah (Gesetz) becomes mitzvah (Gebot), when the law assumes its lifeforce and becomes command. This happens in the present moment. The Divine did not give us the Torah in the past; but rather gives us Torah: now, at this very moment, in the present. So, too, in the life of mitzvot: the command isn’t a relic of the past, but rather it can be heard in the present.
In many ways, the highest aspiration of the halakha as a system and a way of life is to transform its laws into commandments – for in them, and only in them – can we decipher the voice of the commander, the presence of the Divine. To the extent that we are able to hear the commanding voice of the Divine, the halakha will become mitzva.
Note that the transition from the halakha to the mitzva, from an institutionalized norm of the past to a commandment issuing forth right now, is dependent upon me, upon my ability to hear the command. With religious sensitivity and with philosophical precision, Rosenzweig points to the irreducible centrality of the individual in the life of the halakha. Kabbalat ‘ol mitzvot, the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments, is a constant process that the individual must undergo; without it, there may be an issuing forth of command by the Divine, but there is no one on the receiving end.
It is important to add that Rosenzweig’s emphasis on the present moment in the life of mitzvot has a highly-esteemed lineage within the halakhic tradition. As I argue in my book U’velekhtekha VaDerekh, Hazal’s entire corpus is dependent upon this idea – namely, that the meaning of Torah continues to be revealed, today.
Rosenzweig couples the “here” and “now” in the spiritual life is more akin to hinenei – “Here I am,” spoken by Adam as well as by Abraham. It points to an attentiveness and alertness, as well as a willingness to respond to a call, resting upon the fulness of personality and experience.
As he writes in a letter in 1927, it is no doubt true that a person’s eyes limit his perspective, but it would be an act of idiocy to poke out one’s eyes in order to see properly. We have no vantage point other than our own.
This image of Rosenzweig’s echoes Rava’s famous dictum (BT Bava Batra 130b), “The judge has only what his eyes can see.” Rava is preparing his students for how to issue judgment after he dies, and he refuses adamantly to allow them to recycle his judgments. They need to make the judgments new, and they need to make them theirs, emergent from their vantage point.
14) What is the role of sin in the religious life?
Not all sins were created equal – let’s begin with that axiom. Some are so severe that we are commanded to die rather than commit them. But if we can limit this discussion to certain, less deleterious kinds of sin, I would say that sin can have a very positive role in the religious life.
As a parent and an educator, it’s clear to me that there is a uniquely powerful form of growth that takes place in overstepping a boundary and in making mistakes. It’s not exactly that I want my children to disregard me or slip up, but I do want them to benefit from that thick knowledge and understanding that only comes from misstep.
This is equally true for religious life. That’s why Reish Lakish suggests (BT Yoma 86b) that one’s intentional sins can become a source of merit! Rabbi Zadok of Lublin combines this teaching with another Talmudic teaching (BT Brakhot 34b) that the ba’al teshuva – the person who has committed a sin but undergone a process of reformation and transformation – arrives at a higher level than the tzaddik gamur, the righteous person who never sinned. R’ Zadok explains that the sin itself is transformed into a merit in that the ba’al teshuva has an option unavailable to the person who never sinned.
Not acknowledging this potentially positive role of sin fashions a religiosity of excessive certitude – about where the line lay, about what the is the right understanding of the divine command. If you hold open the possibility of error – and of learning from error as part of one’s service to the Divine, new religious possibilities abound.