Category Archives: jewish thought

Novak- Social Contract Part II of III parts

Novak- Social Contract Part II of III parts

OK – I have learned that if I am out of town as a scholar in residence or at a conference, then I should put up a note. Well I am back from a combined Scholar-in residence gig and delivering a conference paper.

To continue with Novak-Social Contract from below.

11] Novak considers the Reform and Conservative movements as having applied Occam’s razor to Mendelssohn. Since Mendelssohn said that we need God and Torah to survive, they reduce  it down to the bare minimum needed. For Novak, Bible and Talmud as a cultural element is not enough. It has to be elective and mandate.

Novak says there are only four choices to Jewish identity in the modern era: conversion, secularism, antinomianism, or the natural law mandate.

He considers Conservative Judaism as antinomianism since it, according to Novak, it denies God, Torah and redemption. He states that since liberal Judaism forges- “no consistent connection to the historical Jewish traditions”- therefore they cannot make powerful claims on civil society. (But his treating shituf a social contract of trust, he considers as a strong connection to the Jewish tradition.)

For him, any connection to the land of Israel and the state of Israel only from a sense of the people chosen to bring the Noahide laws into the public sphere.
So any discussion of Israel without discussing the noahite laws is just tribalism

12] One of Nova k’s consistent themes is the need for a sense of Jewish election. A theological basis of election that is greater than the parochial interest in mizvot. Mendelssohn did not have a strong enough idea of election.
A similar idea to Novak’s was presented several decades ago by Arthur A Cohen, is his book Natural- Supernatural Jew, which was subjected to a critique by Walter Wurzburgerbecause one cannot have supernatural destiny without halakhah
But at least Arthur A Cohen left the idea of election as a positive metaphysical concept that said Jewish history is not just an aggregate of contingent events, there is a mystery that holds the Jewish people together. (In his later work, The Tremendum, it becomes a post-Holocaust negative identity.) But Novak makes it a zero-sum approach in which there has to be some special secret plan only done by the Jews and not those liberals.

13] Novak writes that our only friends on the social and political levels used to be the liberal Protestants so we did not support our natural theological allies, the conservative covenantal Christians. Jews have striking similarities to Christian political theology..

14] He wants Jewish identity to be their status as a chosen people, this should be considered before race, class, gender, democracy, liberalism, or politics. But he does not think this will lead to just provincialism and parochialism. He is against Rawls. We need to decide everything from within our Jewish condition

15] Novak considers that revelation is in the world but not of part of it. The revelation comes from the divine mandate.
In the case of the four dialectic thinkers discussed by Sagi, they each see a need to affirm the halakhah as the expression of faith and belief.
For Novak, the affirmed faith is the mandate for natural law and a sense of election.
But if it is natural law, then it is hard to claim that revelation is not part of the world. Let us see in his other book on Natural law if he resolves this.

16] Novak thinks that a Jew should be anti abortion as a value even if there are halakhic grounds to permit it. Meaning the halakhah is not what defines Judaism but the grundnorms on which it is bases. This seems to be Zechariah Frankel’s positive historical Judiasm but from a neo-con perspectives. There is an essence greater than the manifestation in the Oral Law.

17] Novak considers Judaism as a public language – not what does the tradition say but what does the Torah require us to do? It is not the texts but a an internalized sense that God wants you to change the public sphere. A mitzvah is the sense of God commanding what to do (cf. the ecstatic position his teacher Heschel who considers mizvot a connection to God; a prayer in the form of a deed, or the approach of Hirsch in which mizvot are uplifting in our own lives )
Novak wants to be able to speak in the first person about what Judaism requires and thinks that anyone who cannot speak for Judaism.in the first person has no business saying anything.

18] Novak criticizes Rabbi JD Bleich’s position on Noahite laws as halakhah to be decided by rabbis as irrational and undemocratic.Why would non-Jews want to come under Jewish scrutiny and Jewish moral authority as second class citizens?Novak finds the Orthodox version of social theory and bioethics- politically ineffectual and philosophic inadequate. No one is waiting to be declared a ger toshav- resident alien.
He also rejects Nathan Lewin’s sectarianism in always fighting only for particularistic self-interest.
He characterizes Orthodox provincialism and parochialism as the following (In sharp contrast to his own p & p) “People living in a democratic polity in such bad faith prevents them from exercising true moral influence on it, and thus makes them far more subject to the moral agendas of the enemies of Judaism.”
Any Jewish understanding of the Noahite laws has to come from our commitment to natural law. The Noahide laws are universal normative categories based on God given rationalism.

Avi Sagi, Tradition vs. Traditionalism

More on Avi Sagi,  Tradition vs. Traditionalism

This book presents his take on his four favored thinkers: Leibowitz, Soloveitchik, Goldman, and Hartman. I am not sure how much I agree with any of these readings.

Sagi likes Soloveitchik as confessional, existential, communication, and sensitive to the human plight,it makes for good “thematic halakhah.” but notes that Soloveitchik is not really existentialist and is more Kierkegaard where the natural order is one of alienation serves to drive us to religion. But in Sagi’s harsh reading of Solovetichik, religion is the only true, useful, and acceptable vision of man, a limited relationship to the modern world. Hence a retreat from the modern world, or a least a very rigid hierarchy. Modern man is characterized by alienation, boredom, frustration, and Soloveitchik cannot see the positive in modern secular man.  In Sagi’s opinion, there is openness to the human plight but closure to modern values. (American readers may not be familiar with this Israeli reading)

Sagi likes Leibowitz for his ability to compartmentalize religion from the modern world. For Leibowitz even the fear and trembling associated with relgion, as in Kierkeguard, are not religious but part of ones secular psychology, personal struggles, and inner self. Only faith is faith. He likes the valuing of the Oral Torah over the written Torah, since the written torah is from God and we cannot know its true meaning, but we do know the Oral law since we create it. And our following it for its own sake is faith. No realization of divine ideal through halakhah as in Soloveitchik but pure lishmah, pure obedience. Modern formulation allows the tradition to be kept.

Sagi’s hero is Eliezer Goldman, (student of Soloveitchik, and trained in American jurisprudence turned kibbutznik and Maimonidean- In my time his articles had a cult following). Goldman distinguishes between illusory and non-illusory faith, illusory faith seeks to remake the world according to ones yearnings. In contrast, non-illusory faith accepts the world as it is and there is no escape from reality. There is no certainty of any traditional metaphysical claims. Faith allows one to accept God and revelation; revelation is not a datum of experience but part of the worldview after faith. Revelation is the recognition of the halakhic realm as heteronomous. Commandments have meaning and value but not reasons, causes or factual referents.

All halakhah is grounded in meta-halakhah as its meaning. (Rabbi Wurzburger and Prof Twersky took the concept from Goldman.) Goldman rejects the legal formalism of Kelsen and Hart and stresses instead the worldview of the jurists, the need for juridical autonomy, and values. Values and principles do not rest on facts.  (Today this is closest to what is taught under the broad category of Dworken followers, and has elements of Isaiah Berlin.)  The law needs to be realistic and adapt to changing situations. And just like Maimonides poured “Old wine in new bottles” by reading Torah through Aristotle, we are self- conscious in our need for a new formulation. Like Maimonides, he rejects the view of the hamon am, the ordinary believer, as not true faith. (Somehow Sagi calls this Dwroken-Berlin approach post-modern.)

Sagi presents Hartman as a modernist in that he is in dialogue with the tradition and questions it.  He quotes Hartman as saying that Jewish thinkers know their period or text, while Jewish philosophers also seek to dialogue the Jewish thought with the present and other cultures. For Hartman, Maimonides as hero of integration and synthesis. Hartman chooses to develop his thought from Halakhah and Hazal over the Bible because the Bible is too theocentric. Halakhah is better for an anthropocentric philosophy. Hartman offers a Torah of pluralism of human construction, answers to human needs, a rejection of the theocentric,  and a rejection of terms like “alienation” as vestiges of older European thought. Hartman offers a halakhic hope for the state of Israel and the messiah, which is this-worldly, conservative and realistic—unlike the utopia, apocalyptic and unrealistic hope of others.

As a side story, Sagi has a great chapter of the coming to be of Leibowitz’s compartmentalized view. It all started with a forgotten 1952 article by Ernst Simon “Are we still Jews?”  The article discussed the views of his friends and colleagues in the “Bahad”- German religious kibbutz movement. He wrote that they are all Catholic in that they want an all encompassing view of Torah. Simon argued that a Protestant approach would allow for recognizing the secular state, and offers freedom for religious Jews to restore a meaningful existence for ourselves. In the article, he discusses his friend, the Bnai Akiva leader Leibowitz  who thought that we need to change the halakhah radically for the new state  to be all encompassing. Simon compares him to a reverse of Neturei Karta who want everything as it was. Leibowitz changes his view to agree with Simon and goes further using dialectic theology. The state and all of life is secular except for religion itself, all religion is a personal decision. Leibowitz even renames his  1943 essay from “Educating toward a Torah State” to “Education towards Torah in a Modern Society.”Rabbi Moshe Zvei Neriah also responded in 1952 to Simon and wrote that the secular state is a problem to our religious vision. Therefore must give religious meaning to the state

Gadamer on Orthodoxy: Tradition as self-identity

Avi Sagi,  Tradition vs. Traditionalism (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008) $69 short paperback!

The book deals with a pluralistic halakhic approach and was combined together in the Hebrew edition with the book that I discussed below.- here. In English, it is two separate books. I will comment on the book itself next week. However, the book has a short first chapter, newly written after the rest of the essays in the book, that approaches the question of pluralism from the perspective of Gadamer.

He asks: How can the modern Jew appropriate the tradition?

Sagi answers it using his new found readings in currently read books that are beyond his training in analytic philo and existentialism.

His basic answer is that now we can appropriate the tradition in an open ended way based on Gadamer, no more alienation from religion due to modernity or lack of freedom in halakhah. We just read it with open horizons.

I am not sure if he intends to be liberal or conservative and he certainly does not deal with questions of rabbinic and communal authority. It is an existential appropriation of the tradition. I am not sure what I gain here over Franz Rosenzweig.

On Tradition: He has a nice use of Zygmunt Bauman to show the paradox, in which once one speaks of a tradition then the speaker is no longer part of the tradition. Tradition lies in tacit acceptance without justification Bauman claims that the use of the concept tradition is more about the present and future than the past. Speaking of tradition is itself about renewal or the conscious identification with something and ascribing of new meaning. (As a side point, Bauman is essential for most topics these days- why is he taking so long to be integrated into American thought?)

Tradition has 4 parts according to John Thompson- hermeneutical, normative, legitimacy, and identity and all have been broken. (I am not so certain- most people have taken these upon themselves in his/her period of emergent adulthood. And in the post Evangelical age they have all returned.)

Sagi quotes Gadamer’s rejection of Schleiermacher approvingly that we cannot attain the original meaning, therefore it is personal appropriation as something new. Tradition is one of self identity through appropriating ones tradition as one’s own.

I don’t think Sagi gets the radical openness of Heidegger horizons (Compare Fishbane who does get Heidegger)nor the Ricoeur tensions of scholarship, personal, narrative, and revelation.)

Returning to his existentialist favorites, Sagi quotes Kierkegaard one can return on the personal level, to community and to one’s imagines inner home.  But, he writes that after Bauman and Gadamer- we don’t return to the actual past but stand in tradition.

He thinks that his approach overcomes the alienation that Peter Berger circa 1972 describes of having no return to the past after modernity. [Does Sagi know that by 1995 Berger rejected this sharp dichotomy and his students, like Christian Smith, are some of the leading researchers into Evangelicalism as a contemporary movement? What of Jose Casanova and Charles Taylor et al?]

Now that we have re-appropriated tradition, we can see that Traditions undergo change – even revolutionary ones.  [his proof is Halbertal on tannaic exegesis]. (Don’t I have this from the 1830’s already with Friedrich Carl von Savigny and Schleirmacher? Isn’t this just positive-historical without the philological certainty?

Sagi advocates a post-traditionalism in which tradition is dynamic and changes and is captured in dialogue. We enter into the tradition in dialogue with self, past, community, and a fusion of horizons. No return to the texts themselves. [He seems to conflate hermeneutics of retrieval of scholarship with hermeneutic of personal meaning]Modern Jews can return though a Gadamer tradition, which according to Sagi overcomes modern alienation, allows freedom, and creates choice—a Kierkegaardian freedom to recognize limits and given situation.

So bye bye Wittgenstein closed language- Hello Gadamer.

But wait, he concludes his essay with the question: Don’t religious and secular receive the tradition differently.  Are they even sharing the same tradition? Yes, there is a Wittgenstein family resemblance that holds it together. Therefore, we do nothave to worry about different horizons.

I must note that there are 6-7 of you out there that have been sending me  long comments and questions by email and not posting. If you want to discuss my rambling then post it.

Elie Wiesel’s Rashi

I used to receive many phone calls from people looking for the source of some of Elie Wiesel’s Hasidic stories. Usually the source was Dostoevsky, Camus or some other French existentialist authors. I was also asked: “where does the Baal Shem Tov tell us to always remember the past?” The answer is that the Besht said to “always remember God”, in all your ways think of God. This becomes shortened to “Always remember” and then translated as always remember the past. I am working on an academic article on the: topic.

But now we have a new book from Wiesel Rashi, basically on on how Rashi survived the Holocaust. The answer is that he provides memory, wrote literature, provided solidarity, and offered hope. Once again Camus is offered as the Jewish tradition. For some reason, it bothers me less when done to Hasidic tales than when done to Rashi.

Most mid twentieth century scholars wanting to fit the models of Henri Pirenne on medieval cities, and depicted Rashi’s life as building community and democracy through self reliance and pragmatism. Here for Wiesel, Rashi bleeds history and suffering. Rashi is celebration of commentary, a celebration of memory, and of brotherhood too

Memory in Rashi is usually that one has to keep a memory of ones sins before one memory is sin, or one has to remember the mighty hand of God. Wiesel offers us the memory of his own study of Rashi from his youth where there used to be solidarity in the heder.

In chapter one, we have stories of Rashi’s life interspersed with Wiesel’s nostalgia and memories of his own childhood.  We have legends and miracle tales of Rashi, with the message that the actual events do not matter, only the legends.

In Wiesels’ hands, Rashi, which was taught in cheder as reading the Rashi and then teitch into Yiddish, taught him how to craft literature.

He [Rashi] said to me, as if confidentially: look, my child; fear nothing, everything must be grasped and conveyed with simplicity. Strange words stand in the way like obstacles? Start all over again with me. It happened to me too. I started all over again. You just have to break through the shell of a word, a sentence, an expression. Everything is inside them. Everything is waiting for you.

Chapter 2 offers selections from Rashi’s Biblical commentary. In the chapter, we are told that he stove for truth and reaching for the exact meaning of the verse (I can except that), but also examples of where Rashi must have let his inability to face evil directly to overcome his approach.

Chapter 3 on Israel, the people and the land shows that Rashi’s moral dualism of Esau and goyim as bad and Jews as good shows that he understood Camus’ idea of solidarity.

Chapter 4  is on sadness and memory, where Rashi confronts the fear and hope of the Crusader period. It does not matter to Wiesel that almost all Rashi scholars do not see any influence of the crusades on his commentaries, only on his elegies.

To hedge his bets and to foreshadow contemporary politics of existential fear of Iran, we are reminded that when Rashi lived the crusaders were fighting the Shiites “where suicidal and murderous fanaticism is still alive today.”Crusaders and Shiites glorified death , while Rashi remains a celebration of human life. Or as Wiesel closed his recent speech at Buchenwald condemning Iran

A great man, Camus, wrote at the end of his marvelous novel, The Plague: “After all,” he said, “after the tragedy, never the rest…there is more in the human being to celebrate than to denigrate.”

As his own explanation of the volume: “This book, therefore, is a story for present and future exiles, but also a moving prayer in their memory to bring them closer to redemption.”

As the wrong complaint to end with, there is an old joke about two elderly Jews discussing a restaurant, one says “the food was terrible and OY! there was so little of it. The book is very short, at best the length of a single chapter in most of this other books. In seems he just added a little verbal padding to his Rashi chapter from a prior book to earn his Nextbook money.

So I will end with noting that the ever clueless Adam Kirsch used his review of Wiesel’s Rashi to discuss if Jews such as Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe are such good literary critics due to the culture of commentary created by Rashi.

(If any journal or newspaper wants an edited and more book review version of this, then let me know. I also have many more sedate paragraphs which I left out.)

Update The Forward also disliked the book: Rashi, Wiesel: Why, Why, Why?

Maharal at HUC and beyond

HUC-NY has an exhibit on Maharal.   exhibit

On September 7, 2009, the Jewish world commemorates the 400th anniversary of the death of Judah Loew ben Bezalel, commonly known as Maharal. MaHaRaL is the Hebrew acronym of Moreinu ha-Rav Loew, “Our Teacher the Rabbi Loew” Although best known now as the creator of the Golem, in his time he was known for his educational reforms.

It came to my attention becuase they link to my course on Maharal. But somehow they missed the major conference we had on  Maharal sponsored by Mechon Zalman Shazar/VanLeer from Aug 2009. The video was live during the conference and they seem to be about 2 months behind in posting the videos for posterity. Original video