Monthly Archives: July 2021

Interview with James Diamond- Jewish Theology Unbound

Existential questions are the big questions about the human condition: love, death, freedom, evil, suffering, and suicide. These questions were treated by existentialists as an end unto themselves.  As Paul Tillich write: “only the philosophical question is perennial, not the answers” (The Dynamics of Faith, 94). In a similar vein, Elie Wiesel wrote “every question possessed a power that did not lie in the answer.” (Night). James Diamond in his new book seeks to create a Jewish theology of questions from the text of Maimonides.

James A. Diamond holds the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo. He earned an LLB from Osgoode Hall Law School; an LLM in International Legal Studies at New York University School of Law, and, while practicing civil litigation, an M.A. and Ph.D. in Medieval Jewish Thought from the University of Toronto.  He is a known historian of Maimonides’ ideas, having penned three books about Maimonides: Maimonides and the Hermeneutics of Concealment, and Converts, Heretics, and Lepers: Maimonides and the Outsider, Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon and a fourth Reinventing Maimonides in Contemporary Jewish Thought (together with Menachem Kellner). In his recent monograph, Jewish Theology Unbound (Oxford University Press, 2018), Diamond turns from his training as a scholar of medieval thought to attempt to write his own theology. (The volume was reviewed elsewhere by Sam Brody in greater detail).

Diamond comes out swinging, knocking down his envisioned opposition of a Christian theology with its detrimental systematic skill in defining doctrines, creating precise categories, sharpening the mind, and tied to the doctrine of the church. In contrast, Diamond considers Jewish theology as unbound, free to engage in modern existential rabbinic midrash in which modern Jewish existentialists as Diamond can use Rabbinic midrash as a model for vital and creative thought based on a weave of ciphers and cross-references to its biblical antecedents. He boldly declares to his envisioned opponent that Judaism is not just rigid halakhah, rather unbound midrashic thinking.

Diamond, declares that the Aristotelian student begins in wonder at the order and purposefulness of nature, while the Jewish midrashic approach is about the goodness and justice of the world from the imbalance of their own personal suffering. The true path of an existential theology of questioning is through Jewish texts. Wonder motivates philosophical questioning in Athens and “pain, despair, anxiety, and frustration” motivates Hebraic theology.  

Diamond writing style is to continue to write scholastic monograph chapters about Maimonides thought. However, rather than sticking to the historical reading of Maimonides, he argues that the core of Maimonides’s thought is not his Aristotelian or scholastic thought. Rather, Maimonides at core is his biblical and midrashic horizons of asking the existential questions, by reinterpreting the Bible and midrash in new philosophic ways, innovating while remaining anchored in tradition. Maimonides is reread as an existentialist akin to the thought of Buber, Rosenzweig, Heschel, and Fackenheim.

Most notably, Diamond returns the understanding of God to its midrashic roots, as a Being in flux that is growing, learning, and craving relationships with human beings. Akin to Heschel’s Most Moved Mover, Diamond argues for a dynamic God that is the foundation of a moral human life. Diamond does all this while ostensibly still writing what seems a Maimonidean monograph.

For Diamond, God as a Being in flux is in fact is the exemplar of questioning, challenging human beings to think more deeply and ethically. Adam’s primal sin was failing to question. The existential nature of the Biblical narrative is shown in Rebecca questioning her existence during the pain of her pregnancy; Isaac questioning why Jacob is disguised as Esau; Jacob questioning why he was deceived by Laban; Joseph questioning what is the true cause of his journey to Egypt; Moses’s question about being a leader; and Job questioning why he was born, given all the suffering he experienced. These readings open up a realm for asking a kashya (a question) and finding a teretz (a homiletic answer) in the conversation of the tradition texts.

Diamond uses Maimonides as scaffolding on which to rework the foundation of the building through citation of dozens of Biblical verses and selected midrashim showing a dynamic ethical divine. In each case, gutting the Aristotelian scholastic Maimonides and offering the gentrified renovations of Rashi, Zohar, Nahmanides, Netziv, Meshekh Hokhmah, or Malbim. He then installs in the structure the modern Jewish existentialists as truer to this midrashic worldview. In many cases, his relationship to older rationalist ideas were like repainting without stripping; the original ideas still texture his new readings.

For example, the chapter on angels is a response to the modern Orthodox critiques of angels is  tour de force of demythologization showing that angels are a way of expressing human freedom and ethical perfection. Biblical angels to represent a higher moral truth standing in opposition to the character’s personal agenda. Yet, he remains on his Maimonidean base.

Diamond uses the Maimonides scaffold to discuss many issues including suicide, martyrdom, and slavery. He examines each occurrence of the word “slave,” in the Bible arguing that a close analysis of the development of the term in the Bible highlights that “the very first norm of Judaism, or what has become caricaturized as the religion of law, is itself the mandate to liberate” (p. 197). He claims that Judaism is about existential freedom, hence it cannot sanction slavery  even if it seems to mandate it. God even intends for human beings to experience freedom from God as a form of imitatio dei. A biblical legacy of freedom as human empowerment.

In his analysis of Midrashic material, Diamond builds on the work of his teacher, Emil Fackenheim, whom he cites as describing midrash as “for all its deceptively simple story form, [a] profound and sophisticated theology.” He speaks of midrash without considering Boyarin, Kugel, David Stern, Halbertal, Fishbane or Dov Weiss. Midrash in the volume is the demythologized text freely draped in the hands of the existential interpreter.

The heavy reliance on Emil Fackenheim is taken as a given in the book, as if most of his readers understand midrash, philosophy, or the meaning of the land of Israel primarily through Fackenheim. For me, it seriously got in the way of appreciating Diamond. Of the dozens of books on Jewish theology that I have discussed on this blog, not one made Fackenheim a primary datum of contemporary thinking. And certainly, Fackenheim’s post-Holocaust categorical of collective response and his romanticism of rebirth is foreign to the broad spectrum of Israeli thinkers.

The final chapter on the Holocaust looks at the Esh Kodesh of Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira (1889-1943), his sermons written in the very midst of the Warsaw Ghetto. Diamond finds Shapira exemplifying the midrashic existential method, and how he foreshadows Fackenheim’s response to the Holocaust by defiantly recording his sermons for posterity as flying in the face of logic. Shapira here “prospectively adumbrates Fackenheim’s own post-Holocaust views on Israel and Zionism,” since the establishment of the modern Jewish state, too, flies in the face of all logic and inspires a miraculous sense of astonishment.

I asked Jim Diamond: what is your next book going to be? He replied: Something along the lines of  A Loving, Angry, Regretful GodTaking Divine Emotions Seriously. From my perspective, as someone with a tireless interest in Jewish theology. I recommend jettisoning the academic Maimonidean monograph scaffolding. Either write a popular book on the divine emotions using personal readings of midrash & traditional exegetes for Maggid/Koren Press or write a theology book looks at antecedents in Heschel, Wyschogrod, Hartshorne, Jurgen Moltmann and others. Interrogate the ideas of divine passability, dipolar divine affect, and embodied emotions. Define ideas, creating precise categories, and ask how your ideas relate to the body of Jewish texts and its doctrines.

In sum, Jewish Theology Unbound was a interesting and creative work, worth reading and discussing. I enjoyed reading the volume because it provided much food for thought and exceptionally good material for homiletics. Diamond warns us of the “ethical gravity of avoiding reflection.” I am always in favor of reflection, and the creation of good Jewish theology. I especially look forward to the follow-up volume and development of these ideas.

  1. How are you “unbinding” Jewish thinking?

Jewish theology is unbound compared to the doctrinal and systematic approach to theology largely identified with Christianity. For example, Paul Tillich, in his classic work on Systematic Theology, understands theology as driven by an overarching doctrinal norm that has both a formal and material component—the formal is the authorized teachings of the Church and the material is Jesus as the Christ.

Rabbinic Judaism, in contrast, lacks the formal component and has lacked it for its entire duration since the destruction of the Temple in the first century. Considering that the introduction of doctrine was as late as the twelfth century by Maimonides, it lacks the material component as well. The voluminous corpus of the rabbinic genre known as midrash and aggadah involves not just halakhah, but also a prolific repository of unrefined philosophical theology encompassing narrative, allegory, and a deeply intimate exegetical engagement with every syllable of the biblical text. Though unbounded the philosophical theology that inheres in rabbinic midrash is at the very least, of equal profundity and complexity of bound doctrinal theology. One needs only to be attuned to its manner and style of communication, consisting of an unrelenting intricate weave of ciphers and cross-references to its biblical antecedents, to hear a literal barrage of philosophical theology.

In a sense, what this book traces is one strong dimension of Jewish theology that paradoxically grants, even demands, freedom from God. I stress that my book is only one dimension, being fully cognizant of others. Jewish “unbounded” theology conveys a sense of vitality and creativity in the practice of theology that is anything but passive, slavish, and legalistic.

The classical rabbis of the first centuries of the Common Era appropriated for themselves extensive liberty in interpreting God’s revelatory word as expressed in the Hebrew Bible. The interpretative strategies they applied to the imposing Voice of revelation, paradoxically carved out an independent space for human freedom while, at the same time, constituted a supreme mode of fealty to God. Human beings, adept at listening to God’s recorded words, can exercise their own freedom to determine the precise contours of thaose original words. God Himself, in rabbinic theology, cedes His supreme binding authority to the unbounded realm of reasoned debate within the rabbinic academy.

2. How were you influenced by Emil Fackenheim?

Fackenheim was and remains a major influence for me first and foremost because I was privileged to have been introduced by him to the world of philosophy in general and Jewish philosophy in particular when I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto many years ago. It was Fackenheim as well who first familiarized me with those major Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century including Buber, Heschel, Rosenzweig, Soloveitchik, and Cohen, the other philosophers/theologians who would dominate my thinking. He constructed a seductive bridge between general philosophy and Jewish thought- the titles of his chapters in his book Encounters Between Judaism and Modern Philosophy, say it all: Moses and the Hegelians, Abraham and the Kantians, Elijah and the Empiricists.

It is ironic that, coming from the yeshiva world, it was a Reform Rabbi teaching in a secular university philosophy department who familiarized  me with a  multi-dimensional Rambam, not only  of the pioneering legal code, Mishneh Torah, but  also Maimonides of the Guide of the Perplexed.

I then began to revere Maimonides as the model for authentic Jewish thought which is not exhausted by law alone or theology alone, but rather best formulated as an amalgam of the two. Particularly formative in the endeavor of philosophical theology is Fackenheim’s assertion about midrash: “for all its deceptively simple story form, it is profound and sophisticated theology.”  Most importantly is his very potent notion of “mad midrash” which is formative for me and all those who wish to take midrash seriously especially in a post Holocaust age. The following encapsulates what he means by that: “Midrashic madness is the Word spoken in the anti-world which ought not to be but is. The existence points to acts to restore a world which ought to be but is not…Without this madness a Jew cannot do—with God or without him—what a Voice from Sinai bids him to do: choose life.” (The Jewish Return into History: Reflections in the Age of Auschwitz and A New Jerusalem, p.269).

Fackenheim should draw far more attention than he does firstly because he notably mounted one of the most serious responses to the shattering philosophical challenges posed by the Holocaust for Jewish thought, and indeed for thought in general. His famous understanding of it as a kind of new revelation, a “commanding Voice of Auschwitz,” promulgating a 614th commandment which translates into the negative commandment not to allow the Nazis a “posthumous victory” is an assertion buttressed by profound philosophical deliberations (Kenneth Green’s latest book on Fackenheim clearly argues this).  And secondly, he demonstrated how the rabbinic tradition offers philosophically sophisticated responses to what he considered formidable challenges to Jewish religious existence posed by modern philosophy. His thought offers one of the most sophisticated rebuttals to Hegel’s relegation of Judaism to a curious anachronism and to Kant’s recommendation of expediting Judaism’s demise by euthanasia.  

3. Which other theologians influenced you?

Those other philosopher/theologians such as Buber, Rosenzweig, and Heschel that I mentioned, have also influenced my thought primarily in the way they understood God in terms of relationship and encounters in one form or another.

For example, I have moved away from understanding biblical anthropomorphisms metaphorically or allegorically that drain them of any characteristic we would consider alive in the Maimonidean sense, toward what Franz Rosenzweig considered the function of all biblical anthropomorphisms as “assertions about meetings between God and man.”

That is augmented by Heschel who considers biblical reports of divine responses, as disclosures not of His Being but of relationship between God and humanity. I follow this line of thinking through Jewish Theology Unbound, especially the very suggestive corollary of this approach which views encounters between human beings and God as shot through with reciprocity, as indeed any relationship must be in order to qualify as such. Accordingly, there is a mutuality in all encounters where, as Heschel states, “an intention of man toward God produces a counteracting intention of God toward man.”

4. Why is questioning important? How do we know?

To be human is to be an inquiring and inquisitive being. Adam’s non-response to God’s primary question sets the stage, not only for the moral failures to which humankind is prone, but for the monumental recurring failure of human beings to reflect, investigate, and search for meaning. The case of Adam is a primary example of my approach toward questioning who is the subject of  the very first question posed by God to human beings, when God searching for Adam after his disobedient eating of the tree of good and bad, asks “Where are you?” (ayekah) I cannot accept this confrontation as a simple game of hide and seek where God has counted blindfolded up to ten and then looks for Adam’s hideout. If that is truly the case, this narrative, along with many others read along the same lines, from a philosophical perspective, or indeed from any serious literary perspective,  might as well be excised and trashed.  

Aristotle famously asserted, “It is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize, wondering in the first place at obvious perplexities, and then by gradual progression raising question about the greater matters too, for example, about the origin of the universe.” Wondering and perplexity always engender questions which provoke reasoned thought.

I view much of the Bible as serious thought wrapped in myth, narrative, and law. One literary dimension that reflects this is questions raised by both human beings and God.  I thus examine a series of critical   questions in the Bible as expressions of  Aristotle’s ‘wonder’ that act as precipitators of philosophical theology. In fact many of those questions already anticipate positions formulated in modern Jewish thought. Why not go to the source, the very foundational canon of Jewish thought, to see what these questions address and how they were answered?

Returning to Adam,  there is also a layer of Rabbinic midrash that can never be ignored when probing the Bible on the meaning of questions, and indeed  for Jewish thought altogether. It suggests a new vocalization of the one-word question “a’yekah?” to read “eichah?” The midrash transforms the word that indicates God’s search for humanity’s whereabouts (“a’yekah”) into the first word of the Book of Lamentations, eichah, translated as “alas.”

Adam’s primeval sin portends the destruction of the Temple, and the alienation of heaven from earth, since the nexus that bound them was destroyed.  It suggestively evokes  lament, sorrowfulness, and a disappointment with Adam’s attempt to hide from God’s presence. The question in its original context of “where” is meant to provoke the very first serious human consideration regarding the existential consequences of choices made. Its treatment in midrash expresses the damage that has been inflicted on the relationship between Adam and God intended to further motivate a serious response that might reconcile them.

The very enterprise of responding, of Adam contemplating his place in the world, would have, at the same time, been a source of comfort for God. Even answering God’s question with another question would have qualified as an earnest response and would have also expressed relationship.

Adam fails existentially. First, he hides and avoids encounter, shirking his ethical responsibility of meeting the Other—in this instance literally the face of God. Secondly, he circumvents the question philosophically. By hiding, but then responding from a place of hiddenness, the Bible intimates that one can avoid the divine presence, but cannot ignore the question, cannot escape reflection, and still maintain one’s humanity. It is the oral equivalent of his hiding and compounds the transgression with the failure to take responsibility for it.

5. How is God a Being in flux? A God of Becoming?

This question is truly foundational and I examine it through the most important dialogue between God and Moses, in his request for a disclosure of God’s name and God’s response of ehyeh asher ehyeh  in Exodus 3. What kind of Being does God self-identify with this “name”?

Here I veer away from Maimonides’ rationalism of an immutable and unresponsive being that transcends time and place  toward what I believe is a more viable Jewish  philosophical theology for the modern age and one more in sync with the  vast swath of biblical and rabbinic thought including the kabbalistic tradition.  

  YHWH, the name based on “ehyeh asher ehyeh”, the root of which is simply “to be”, conveys a relational being, a “God of becoming,” an elusive being, continually shaped and reshaped by the respective partners with whom it establishes relationship. In fact, a partial appearance of YHVH, such as YH, indicates for the Rabbis a “partial” God whose imperfect state of brokenness, alienation, and even exile, especially in the face of substantive evil in the world, can only be remedied by the restorative acts of human beings.

Many  in the English-speaking world might be superficially familiar with this existential notion of God as a result of Rabbi J.H. Hertz’s commentary on Exod. 3:14, which until recently, was the standard edition of the Pentateuch used in most traditional and Modern Orthodox congregations. Hertz states that the name “must not be understood in the philosophical sense of mere ‘being’, but as active manifestation of the Divine existence.”

A major traditional commentator of the modern period who preserves both dimensions of God, of  a rationalist truth of ‘being” and  of a relational existence of “becoming” is the 19th century exegete, Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser (d. 1879), known as Malbim. He offers an astute explanation of God’s declaration about his name’s temporal permanence by  dividing the verse integral to the disclosure of ehyeh as a name, “This is my name for all time (le’olam) And this is my memorial for successive generations (le’dor dor)” (3:15), into two distinct ways of perceiving historical time: “‘le’olam’ expresses time that is continuous and indivisible, while ‘dor dor’ expresses time that is periodic, segmented according to each generation.” 

Malbim reinterprets what is ostensibly an emphatic avowal of divine durability as a proclamation of two different dimensions to the human encounter with God.  Each result in different human perceptions of God. By distinguishing between the two different senses of temporality conveyed by the terms “forever (le’olam)” and “every generation (dor dor),” the phrase conveys two facets of God’s being, one immutable and permanent and the other relational and persistently in flux. Although he then relates each temporal plane to the names Elohim and YHVH respectively, his core argument is exquisitely apropos the thrust of my account of YHWH.   It connotes the Being of becoming on the one hand, while  satisfying the theological need of the people for a more stable concept of God tied to a transmitted tradition on the other which could also accommodate a rationalist Maimonidean constructed God.

Thus I lean toward Rashi’s understanding for whom the divine name reflects what we all detect in names we are familiar with- “’I will be with them during this period of suffering as “I will be’ with them in future times of oppression.” . It characterizes a God that is relational, responsive, interventionist, and capable of being affected by human beings. The encounter and dialogue, between Moses and God, out of which the name emerges is the moment that transformatively envisages all future divine-human encounters.

In sum, I follow this understanding of the name echoed in modern Jewish thought by Buber, Rosenzweig and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel captured this nicely when he admonished  a conference of Jewish educators ,those most responsible for the perpetuation of Jewish thought to the next generation of potential scholars, theologians, philosophers, and halakhic authorities: “the God of Israel is a name, not a notion…don’t teach notions of God, teach the name of God.”  

6. How do we use God’s name for the mundane?

Once again, when addressing Jewish theology, as opposed to purely biblical, there must be a turn to the rabbinic tradition, in this case the halakhic one.

The final Mishnah of the first tractate called “Blessings”, takes strident liberties with the ultimate religious taboo of pronouncing the sacred Divine name. That Mishnah explains as follows: “They made an enactment that people should greet each other with the Name [of God]” This rabbinic enactment released God’s Name  from the  very strictest of constraints that normally kept it off limits in order to facilitate human dialogue and, in another rabbinic source, is a rabbinic initiative to which God Himself assents! 

A rabbinic enactment mandating the use of Gods’ ineffable name for the ‘mundane’ is a daring desacralization of Judaism’s most sacred object. It is an instance where theology assumes a concrete expression in halakhah, in an extreme formulation of the rabbinic legislative authority, or freedom I mentioned earlier,  that extends beyond that of the divine Lawgiver Himself.

The name YHVH, as I explained previously in this interview, represents a God of true relationship grounded in reciprocity and mutuality. In this relationship, each partner in it is open, not simply to the love of the other, but to the shaping, perfecting, and knowledge of the other. The classical Rabbis then appropriated the name YHVH to form an integral part of the common salutation, a mundane act, though one which grounds all authentic relationships between human beings, whose crux is dialogue and reciprocity.

Thus, God assents to the rabbinic enactment, because it is a concretization of the priority of the horizontal (between human beings, ben adam le’havero) over the vertical (between human beings and God, ben adam le’maqom) relationship, one of the core principles of Jewish law.  Thus God approves His sacred name’s exploitation for advancing the ethical principles and the humanness it represents. The Name informs human relationships in their incipient stage of the everyday salutation.

The classic mishnaic commentator, Obadiah Bartenura (15th century Italy), anticipating people’s unease with this ruling, rationalizes the enactment precisely by elevating relationship and common human decency to a cardinal value, since “pronouncing the Name for the sake of human dignity does not offend God’s honor.”

7. How is Maimonides’s philosophic biblical and midrashic hermeneutic the core of his theology?

This relates also to the book I collaborated on with Menachem Kellner. What Maimonides does that is pioneering is to structure his thought along an inextricable link between philosophy, law, and narrative.

The Mishneh Torah’s structure from start to finish shows this. The work commences with the “foundation of all foundations and the pillar of all sciences,” which is to know that there is a Prime Existent. Embedded within those first four Hebrew words that launch the Code’s substantive law, by applying the rabbinic wordplay strategy of “notarikon,” is the Tetragrammaton, YHVH, a divine epithet that captures the divine essence “clearly and unequivocally.” The Mishneh Torah concludes with a utopian vision when the entire world will participate in this foundational activity to know God, a uniquely Maimonidean construct of the messianic period.

Thus, the Mishneh Torah, and all its legal minutiae, is bracketed by an ideal that anchors its presentation of law in a narrative that maps the course of human history all the way to its definitive unfolding. All law looks back at its origins in knowledge, is grounded in it, and promotes it, while at the same time looking forward to a future when, as a carrier of this knowledge, a global community of knowers will crystallize, where the ultimate object of that knowing is whatever the divine cognomen YHVH signifies.

Correspondingly, the philosophical discourse of the Guide begins with a close reading of a biblical narrative that launches human history. Adam’s disobedience to a commandment, consists of an intellectual decline and distraction away from truth or God, the ultimate object of knowledge, and concludes with a way of life that is informed by the attainment of all that can be known of that object, by “assimilation to His actions.” The result is a thoroughly pious and moral life that “always has in view loving kindness, righteousness, and judgment,” thereby conjuring up the Jewish life of law and mitzvot.

8. What do angels mean?

 What can mythic creatures, whose very mention causes the modern intellectual sensibility to cringe, teach us in the twenty-first century?

In response, I draw on the idea of angels as bridging the human and divine realms, straddling both. Their role is to offer human beings a glimpse, however partial, of what God sees.

I combine critical insights from both Maimonides  and his theological opponent, Nahmanides, to assign angels a sublime role within a coherent philosophical theology.

Nahmanides considers divine “seeing”, repeatedly recorded during the first week of creation, as what establishes creation’s permanence, a stabilizing facet identified by the “good” (tov) that He daily views in that primordial week.

Maimonides, on the other hand, considers that “good” to signify the inherent cohesiveness of all of creation as an integrated whole composed of parts that are mutually connected. Each angelic encounter then is an epistemological & revelatory moment that resonates with these metaphysical aspects of the divine vantage point, reminding humanity that its knowledge is always partial and deceptive.

9. Can you apply this a specific case such as the book of Joshua?

Since what I believe I do best is the actual practice of philosophical theology here is an example of what I mean.

Immediately preceding Israel’s first major battle for the settlement of Canaan, Joshua experiences a cryptic encounter with an angel. Joshua “lifts his eyes” and sees a being “with a drawn sword in his hand” (Josh. 5:13), a posture whose intent he cannot quite gauge as one of either hostility or friendly alliance. Joshua’s query, therefore, addresses this ambiguity, wondering whether “you belong to us or to our enemies,” (Josh.  5:13). The response from this angelic being is simply, “No, I am the captain of the Lord’s host; now I have come” (Josh _5:14), which seems to reject both alternatives posed by Joshua, while offering a third not contemplated by his original inquiry. When observed from a stance of pure self-interest, which assesses everything in utilitarian terms of loss or gain, the sight of an armed and battle-ready “man” allows for only two possibilities. Either that “man” is ready to advance in aid of or, alternatively, impede one’s strategic interests.

Joshua’s question belies a third alternative to which he is apparently oblivious, and of which he is apprised by the angel. The angel’s response, identifying itself as allied neither with Joshua nor his enemies, but as a representative of God, is followed by a directive to Joshua to remove his shoes, “for the place where you stand is holy” (Josh. 5:15).

It is no wonder as well that the angel here echoes the precise instruction addressed to Moses at the burning bush, to remove his shoes, which launches Moses’ political career. Moses’ journey, charted along a Maimonidean trajectory, is both a philosophical and political one, inaugurated at the bush, and culminating in his vision of God’s goodness.

The angel’s stance thus is a universal one, protective of the creation as a whole, or that which transcends the narrow human interests of gain or loss and demands its consideration when confronting any challenge. This angelic encounter is intended to inform the military campaign that Joshua is about to embark on with the ethics of interconnectedness that complements, or, at times, overrides, any purely geopolitical agenda, by metaphysical and ethical considerations. Joshua’s own leadership, then, must also be grounded in what has been transformed for him from a simple battlefield to “holy” ground.

And, as always with Jewish theology, the picture is never even close to complete without its rabbinic overlay. The angel attunes Joshua to more fluid notions of temporality, which both collapse and transcend linear time, pointing toward a metaphysical plane that lies beyond the apparent. The midrashic catapulting of Joshua beyond historical time accentuates the metaphysics of perception already latent in the biblical narrative. This new cognition now accompanies Joshua, particularly when facing Israel’s most challenging existential struggle to ensure its future survival as a sovereign nation. How exquisitely philosophical does an angelic encounter become!

10. What is new in your Holocaust theology that was not already said by Fackenheim or the literature about the Piaseczna Rebbe?

In this book what I try to do to is to deepen our appreciation of both Fackenheim and R. Shapira, the Piaseczna Rebbe, by placing them in a kind of dialogue with each other. Some four decades after the end of the Shoah, toward the end of Fackenheim’s struggle to offer a semblance of coherence in an age when some claimed the Shoah marked the death of civilization, he expressed the impossibility of completing his own philosophical project without R. Shapira’s sermons.  

Thus, Fackenheim’s ‘caesura’ or rupture the Shoah causes to philosophical thought I claim must forever be understood in the shadow of R. Shapira’s own crisis where the long continuum of rabbinic thought seemed to have been shattered as well.

R. Shapira struggled with his own and his nation’s suffering, as his appended letter to his sermons that were buried in the Ghetto attests, engulfed by misery “as deep as the great abyss (tehom) and as high as the heaven of heavens.” The agony these sermons “bleed” forms  the meeting ground of the unbridgeable distance between a divine vista and a human void.

Adumbrating Fackenheim, the suffering of the Shoah, presents a novum for Shapira. Though he perseveres, at times there are glimpses of his exhaustion when he cannot find the language within his vast rabbinic repository adequate enough to meet the crisis at hand. At a certain point he himself lapsed into silence and could no longer offer his community any response that might comfort or alleviate its pain.

Shapira’s ongoing delivery of these sermons must also be acknowledged as a form of resistance equally as powerful as the armed uprising. The sermons are a testament to what Fackenheim terms, “the humanly impossible” resistance that “mends” the philosophical “paralysis” posed by the inconceivable proportions of the crime perpetrated. 

 Shapira’s resistance in both his life and thought, undertaken at the mind’s and body’s excruciating limits, provides a modicum of “philosophically intelligiblity,” to the radical evil posed by the Shoah  since “no deeper or more ultimate grasp is possible for philosophical thought that comes, or ever will come, after the event.”

Shapira’s resistance rises to an “ontological ultimacy,” whose legacy “for our thought now is an ontological category.” If the “unprecedented, abiding horror” of the novum of Nazi logic is opposed by the novum of the equally “unprecedented, abiding wonder,” of resistance to it, then Shapira’s sermons exquisitely capture that wonder. If philosophical theology begins in wonder and the Hebrew scripture, as I explained earlier on the issue of questioning, also begins in wonder then, after the Shoah, it must aldso begin in R. Shapira’s sermons from the years of rage.

11. What is the relationship of Rabbi Kalonomous Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczna Rebbe and Maimonides? Are you giving a post-Shoah reading to Maimonides?

What I present is not a ‘post-Shoah’ reading of Maimonides. In fact, it is not my reading of Maimonides at all but rather a reading of an extraordinary rabbinic appropriation of Maimonides’ thought to deal with the evils of the Shoah.

Nevertheless, it is a significant question indeed since Maimonides is not just another influence but rather is the influence who  looms over all Jewish thought in all its forms as a canonical figure, as I tried to demonstrate in my book Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon, and my collaborative book with Menachem Kellner.

However, what is particularly significant in R. Shapira’s case is that Maimonides is not simply an influence, but provides a supremely Aristotelian notion which R. Shapira, a Hasidic Rebbe, radically adapts in the struggle with the challenges posed by radical evil and suffering to traditional tenets of divine justice and providence.

Maimonides shows up shockingly then, not simply in theoretical places where by all reasoned accounts he should not, but also the concrete historical place and time, in this case the Shoah and the Ghetto, where one would have thought the due date on Maimonidean philosophy, and particularly his rationalization of evil in the world along with his one to one ratio between providence and intellect, had long expired.

In short, R. Shapira enlists what has usually been considered a supremely rationalist conception of God and man, namely Maimonides’ Aristotelian conception of God as thought thinking itself to somehow wrest spiritual meaning from the experience of extreme and incomprehensible suffering. According to R. Shapira for divine knowledge to enter and suffuse the world, human thought must abandon its own self. Suffering provokes an epistemological rupture, which vacates the human mind of its usual modes of knowing, leading to a paradigm shift which allows God to merge with the human mind unimpeded by the ego that obstructs it. The human intellect, and its confidence in its own ability to make sense of the world, must in fact be abandoned, to gain access to the divine mind, in order to make sense of what is an insurmountably senseless world.! Paradoxically, the very constriction of knowledge by the despotic subjection of Israel to suffering contributes to the redemption of knowledge by its very inhibition of the normal modes of reason.

There are far broader ramifications to this epistemological shift that extends beyond the individual to the world as a whole.

There is also a radical transformation of Maimonidean epistemology to a Hasidic one. R. Shapira sees the steady cumulative merging of individual consciousness with divine consciousness as progressively leading toward the messianic age. At that point all minds will meld globally with the divine, as envisioned by Isaiah’when the whole world will be replete with knowledge of God’ (11:9). That same verse typifies Maimonides’ messianic vision. However, for Maimonides, it is God as an object of intellectual quest and contemplation that Isaiah anticipates will be the shared enterprise of all humanity. R. Shapira thus desperately attempts to wrest meaning from what by all accounts seems senseless suffering by viewing it as an instrument of messianic achievement, gradually chipping away the normal instruments of human cognition to make way for the divine mind to suffuse the world.