Tag Archives: idolatry

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Idolatry

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), the important German rabbi, during his time officiating as Chief Rabbi of Oldenberg he published Horeb in 1838, his catechism and definition of Judaism. Help me think through the quote below from Hirsch. Any Rabbinic sources come to mind? I know he wrote statements in Frankfort that differ with these views, but right now I want to help analyze this passage. Anything sound familiar? Anyone develop it further? Thoughts?

Rabbi Hirsch defines idolatry as considering the natural world as separate than God. The world is filled with natural forces and the forces within man, some seen some unseen. One should appreciate that there is a Divine law of nature and God’s providence for human destiny. Human’s are given moral freedom, which can triumph over the tyranny of ruthless power or the bondage to the passions. Your moral freedom as a gift of God and one must use to it to subordinate to God’s laws for humanity.

The quests for wealth, power, and knowledge are all forms of idolatry in that one does not subject one’s forces to a higher purpose. Idolatry, the treating of anything besides God as absolute, consists of a loss of human dignity not an intellectual mistake. One must beware the idolatrous human bondage of sensuality. Polytheism is thinking you do not have to follow God’s duty and instead one can follow the passions For Rabbi Hirsch, seeing the world as many forces or gods is polytheism, which is avodah zarah.

Elsewhere, Rabbi Hirsch portrays the idolatry of Egypt as sensuality, as slavery without freedom, and as the power of mammon and the state. Roman is portrayed as the idolatrous brutality of the state and militarism.

Originally, idolatry meant a false god or a representation of God or gods. From the 17th century onward idolatry moved from its original reference to icons to false attitudes toward life. Most of time, the major forms of polytheism were materialism, the world of commerce, and sexuality. Henry Moore, the Cambridge Neoplatonist defined idolatry as polytheism, the multiplicity of sensuality and materialism. According to Voltaire idolatry never happened but there is the polytheism of superstition.

In the 19th century Wiemar Classicism, polytheism was the worship of nature or man himself and not the higher duties. Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) warns against imagination and sensuality. Man should use his freedom and take charge of his destiny. Already in Schiller’s early Mission of Moses (1789) was “Reason’s victory over those coarser errors assured, and the ideas about the Supreme Being necessarily ennobled. The idea of a universal connection among things must lead necessarily to the conception of a single, Supreme Understanding.”

Here is the definition from Horeb.

Both minuth and zenuth lead to idolatry – riotous enjoyment leads to it directly; denial and misrepresentation of God usually over the bridge of pleasure.
And if then, in the embrace of sensuality, you have stripped yourself of everything spiritual, no longer retaining any feeling for the Divine, you will yourself become aware in your impulses of your feebleness, your instability, your inconstancy in pleasure, and you will fall prostrate before every creature that provides you with enjoyment and itself seems to you so noble and so everlasting in its enjoyment.
You can also reach idolatry, or rather polytheism, directly through the eye and the understanding of the senses, if Torah does not reveal to you the One and Only God; for with your physical eye and understanding you behold only particular beings and activities, but not the Invisible One with his dominating law. You see only gods, not God. This is avodah zarah.

You see on every side active forces and their carriers in Nature, elements and carriers of elements like the sun and the earth and the sea and the air; in the life of peoples, you see Nature, soil, rivers, mountains, and so forth; you see Nature, under the hands of man, raised to a power, and you see men with their wisdom and foolishness, power and weakness, passion and folly, fashioning, destroying and influencing the fate and the life of peoples; and an unseen force that holds sway over destiny and life. And in your own life you see the spiritual and the animal in you; you see yourself as a creative force, bestowing a blessing or a curse on everything around you.

But nothing of all this exists or acts by its own power or its own will. Nothing of all this is a god; all of it is created, the servant of the One all-ruling and omnipresent God. In Nature you see God’s law hold sway; in the life of peoples God’s providence supreme; in yourself a strength sent from God. You yourself, as far as your body in concerned, are subject to the laws of Nature. You enjoy your moral freedom only as a free and loving gift of the Omnipotent, and with that freedom of will you are called upon to subordinate yourself to the universal law as God’s first servant. That much you have learnt.

What you have learnt, however…you must recognize nothing as God apart from this universal sway of God: ‘you shall have nothing alongside his omnipresent and all-pervading dominion.’.

Beware lest, instead of building your material life of God alone, you base it on wealth or power or knowledge or cunning or the like. If you do any of these things, you sin against the law: ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.’

Nor is this idolatry merely an error, a mistaking of falsehood for truth. In that case, it would be simply an intellectual mistake, a delusion, deplorable indeed, but, even at the worst, not the worst that might happen….But this is not the case. As soon as you set anything else beside God as God, and still more as your God, forthwith human dignity, purity and uprightness fall to the ground, the fabric of your life goes to pieces.

The only people who still speak like this are those influenced by Marxism: Erich Fromm (he was also a Hirschian) Herbert Marcuse, or Cornell West. Old time Christian Fundamentalists and left wing Muslim Marxists also speak like Rabbi Hirsch. Centrist Orthodoxy seemingly accepts the many gods of mammon, hedonism, militarism, degrees, self-fulfillment, and the professional drive to succeed.

Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Haggadah

One of the most interesting commentaries on the haggadah of the last decade was the one by
Rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Haggadah: The Passover Story (Paperback)

Ouaknin, a follower of Levinas and Lacan who teaches at Bar Ilan, when he is not busy writing profitable coffee table books, does some serious engagement with contemporary French thought, especially in his The Burnt Book. For him, the Talmudic project of the Eastern European beit midrash has no closure, ever changing, ever forgetful and driven by desire. He freely mixes R. Hayyim of Volozhin, Rav Nahman, Reb Zadok with psychoanalysis, symbolist poetry, and semiotics. Ouaknin has a reading of Judaism as indeterminacy. “Man must reject the illusion of thinking that life is already written and the way is drawn.” He are various fragments from the web that give some indiation of his approach to the Passover haggadah.

My favorite section is his explanation of Yachatz, breaking the middle matzah, as the Lacanian Real sending us on our quest through the seder for our ever receding Real , creating a symbolic order in the Lacan sense. Breaking the matzah creates an open space for our symbolic registry to occur. We are throw in the seder just as we are thrown into our quest for the recovery of the real.

On the telling of the Passover story, he writes:
“The words of telling emerge from that break, from the empty place left between the two pieces of matzah.”
The act of telling the story of the Exodus occurs through an exchange of conversation and ideas. We take the one whole matzah and break it in half because discussion and conversation occur when there is a minimum of two — me and the other.

On opening the door for Elijah, Ouaknin quotes the story in which Elijah goes alone to a cave on Mount Horev in the desert. God brings a great wind, and then an earthquake, and then a fire—but God was not in any of these. Instead, after the fire, he finds God in ‘a still, small voice.’ (1 Kings 19:11-13) Ouaknin comments that one must reach the level of Elijah, self-forgetfulness in the desert.

One must have sharpened one’s hearing, to be led to the absolute level of attention, to become capable of perceiving such a tenuous breath. One must have sounded oneself, have explored oneself in the darkest places of consciousness, to the furthest of thoughts, to have made the circuit of one’s inner domain many times, in constantly growing but nevertheless tightening circles, so as to attain the intimate desert of self-forgetfulness, to be able to be stroked lightly, touched, visited by such an inaudible sigh.
The point of concluding the seder with opening the door for Elijah is to signify that this journey in ‘the intimate desert of self-forgetfulness’ is the ultimate intention of the seder. While we aim to find ourselves on seder night, to reconnect with the story of our people and see ourselves as having personally left Egypt, remembering who we are paradoxically requires losing ourselves at the same time.

For his approach to “my forefathers worshiped idols” he quotes J.L. Marion about idols as false forms that distort reality and fill in the gap between us and the divine.
What the idol tries to reduce is the gap and the withdrawal of the divine… Filling in for the absence of the divinity, the idol brings the divine within reach, ensures its presence, and, eventually, distorts it. Its completion finishes the divine off… The idol lacks the distance that identifies and authenticates the divine as such–as that which does not belong to us, but which happens to us. (Ouaknin, The Burnt Book, p. 65)

A pluralist, demythologized and this-worldly halakhah

Jewish Religion after Theology by Avi Sagi Academic Studies Press 2009

Many of the works of Israeli thinkers of the last few decades are coming out in translation. Avi Sagi of Bar-Ilan and Shalom Hartman Institute seems to be collecting all his articles into books.

Sagi’s book is an attempt to use the answers to the questions of 1970’s to answer the questions of the 1990’s.If a generation ago we asked how can there be religion after analytic philosophy showed that there is no proof for God and the problems of science and evil for the religion, Sagi is now asking how can we create pluralism and liberalism from these same orthodox resources..

In short, he wants to use the thought of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Eliezer Goldman, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and David Hartman to create a this-worldly, pluralistic religion, without theology. In actuality, the book assumes the reader has read 2 or 3 works by Leibowitz already and the other thinkers are used to fill in gaps in Leibowitz.

He wants to expand Leibowitz’s Kantian certainties to now embrace the social, moral and intellectual pluralism of  the 1990’s, as defined by philosophers like John Kekes.

His answer is a form of treating halakhah as a fixed set of rules, a closed language similar to Wittgenstein. Personally, I have met many young rabbis who devote themselves to halakhah but have a smattering of philosophy, who take a similar Wittgenstein approach. Sagi works out many of the details.

He compares Leibowitz to the this-worldly approach of Camus, not to actually show parallels rather to show by theme and variations the possibility of using Leibowitz for a here-and-now religion.

The historical narratives are only needed as part of the rules of the game. As Leibowitz taught, Bible, Jewish History, and historical events are only important to the extent they play a role in halakhah. Translation of any religious term into external reality is a form of idolatry, directing one’s faith to an object instead of to God.

In fact, the whole purpose of faith for Leibowitz is to fight idolatry, against superstition, magical thinking, nationalism, and history. Our God is transcendent- any connection of the Jewish God to this world is seen as pagan or worse. Religion is to show obedience to the halakhah.

Sagi is most creative in moving Leibowitz from his Barthian treatments of halakhah as outside the natural order to a Rudolph Bultmann demytholization. Sagi is against the reification of Torah as myth and magic.

For Sagi, Goldman shows how to still work for bettering the world, Soloveitchik applies this to the question of theodicy, and Hartman to building a pluralistic society.

We have a pluralistic, demythologized, and this-worldly orthodoxy.

This work shows a side of Israeli Religious-Zionist thought as taught on Kibbutz Hadati or Bar Ilan that does not always get translated. Personally, it is not my cup of tea. I prefer high theology. But the book offers an American community a discussion of the role of belief, scientific truth, halakhah without theology, and pluralism that it currently lacks.

However, it assumes that one has basically found one’s answers in Leibowitz. On the more empirical note, to view Orthodoxy as a fight against magical thinking is a bit counter experience. In addition, there has been a turn to spirituality in these same institutions. Finally,  in a post Hermeneutic age – the abstractions of Kant, Camus, Barth, and Bultmann have given way to greater discussion of texts and culture. Since Sagi was recently made the chair of hermenutics and culture, we will see if his thought responds accordingly.