Professor Paul Morris
Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
Professor, Rabbi, Dr Louis Jacobs contended that a Jewish theologian must develop his theology ‘without subterfuge’ and with ‘intellectual honesty’.(1) Intellectual honesty entailed a rejection of what psychologists call ‘compartmentalization’, that is, of the separation of the religious from the reasondriven, intellectual dimensions of life; and ‘without subterfuge’ meant that while apologetics was integral to the theological enterprise, this had to be transparent and fully acknowledged. Jacobs was in particular concerned that the twin notions of the new science of critical history and the unbridled use of enlightenment reason had created the ‘new truth’ that, in Leo Strauss’s words, Jews ‘must assimilate to’.(2) For Jacobs the truth was manifest as the ‘myth’ of Sinai, as the ‘divine dictation’ of the Torah, generating an urgent need for a new basis, or theology, for the Mitzvot, and for Jewish life and thought, as an alternative to the no longer credible or tenable ‘medieval Judaism’ of his day. Drawing on the Breslau legacy of Jüdische Wissenschaft, Jacobs developed his own theological position on revelation, which he later called ‘liberal supernaturalism’, liberal in relation to biblical criticism, supernaturalist in terms of the reality of God.(3) This allowed him to carefully distinguish ‘revelation’ from the ‘record of revelation’. The former was an existential encounter with a personal deity while the latter was a later interpretation of the revelatory event, often as divine commandment. This gap between revelation and commandment occupied much of his subsequent theological reflection. Jacobs’s analysis still seems apposite, although his neither-fishnor- fowl solution was less satisfactory and although he came to understand the human history of the interpretation of Halakhah as its very paradigm, he also recognized the weakness of the detachment of commandment from God and invoked ‘tradition’ and the distinctive Jewish ‘way of life’ as authorizations for religious practice. His reconnecting of commandment to a particular community over time giving historical authority to practice, was something akin to what Michel Foucault called ‘bio-power’.
Does it matter if you observe the Mitzvot but subscribe to an untenable and incredible account of revelation? Jacobs was certain that it did. Emmanuel Levinas, on the other hand, argued that ‘the people of Israel’ have a ‘unique’ relationship to ‘revelation’ but asks, in the modern world ‘how it is thinkable?’ In relation to this uniqueness, he writes, ‘Even their land rests on the Revelation’. For most Jews their understanding of revelation is the ‘most obvious interpretation of the Biblical accounts’. ‘Orthodox Jews,’ he reports, ‘individually or in communities, untouched by the doubts of the modern age even though they sometimes participate, in their professional lives, in the feverish world of industry, remain – despite the simplicity of the metaphysics involved – spiritually attuned to the highest virtues and most mysterious secretsof God’s proximity.’ This contrasts with the ‘modern Jews, however – and they are the majority – whose concern with the intellectual destiny of the West and its triumphs and crises is not simply borrowed, the problem of the Revelation remains pressing, and demands the elaboration of new modes of thought’.(4)
Although Levinas distinguished between those contemporary Jews who need a new theological account of revelation and those who do not, he insisted that the non-philosophers are not spiritually disadvantaged. He continues: These questions are indeed urgent ones for us today, and they confront anyone who may still be responsive to these truths and signs but who is troubled to some degree – as a modern person – by the news of the end of metaphysics, by the triumphs of psychoanalysis, sociology and political economy; someone who has learnt from linguistics that meaning is produced by signs without signifieds and who, confronted with all these intellectual splendours – or shadows – sometimes wonders if he is not witnessing the magnificent funeral celebrations held in honour of a dead god. The ontological status or regime of the Revelation is therefore a primordial concern for Jewish thought, posing a problem which should take precedence over any attempt to present the contents of that Revelation.
Levinas thus maintained that we have to begin with the question of revelation before we can even address issues of its contents. The ‘dead God’ is the God of medieval theology and modern science. It is this ‘dead god’ that links Levinas’s reconceptualization of revelation in terms of the primordial ethical demands of the other to the movement known as radical theology. Radical theology, a movement largely consisting of Christian theologians but also a number of Jewish thinkers, profoundly engages in the attempt to think about God after the Holocaust. Modern theology can be seen as beginning with the articulation of God within the new framework of Newtonian physics, and radical theology is a challenge to that re-visioning in terms of a new notion of universal history. Radical theology with its rejection of the ‘now dead’ metaphysical deity of the theology of the Middle Ages and early modern Europe, in favour of this Hegelian supersessionist idea of history, provides a fascinating foil for the explication and examination of twentiethcentury Jewish theologies. The stark contrasts between Jewish and Christian radical theologies highlight the specificities of the creative responses of Jewish thinkers to modern and contemporary histories and the very different demands of a Jewish theology that arises from both different resources and experiences. Hegelian history presents Jewish thinkers with an especial challenge, and a number of them, including Fackenheim and Rosenzweig, have consciously considered this. These and other Jewish post-Hegelians have been influential across a range of Jewish religious thinking. The Jewish embracing of Kant likewise raises particular concerns of a Judaism ‘within the bounds of mere reason’ that then has to interpret ‘moral duty’ as ‘divine commandment’. Radical Jewish Theologies is the working title for the research for my current monograph. The project traces modern Jewish theologies after the Shoah and the establishment of the State of Israel in what is intended to be novel ways. By Jewish theologies, I am referring to authoritative articulations of God, explicit and implicit, as known through revelation and commandment, and while the focus is on Orthodox theologies, non-Orthodox theologies also feature in the analysis. Jewish encounters with modernity have included a series of highly traumatic events, often interpreted as unprecedented, that have dramatically impacted on modern Jewish theological reflection. These Jewish experiences have been theologically framed in terms of Auschwitz theodicies, Medinat Yisrael, and diverse forms of Judaism, contained, and constrained, within the spaces allotted to religion in modern nation-states. These post-Holocaust theologies reflect a new questioning and increasing scepticism about the implicit metaphysical underpinnings of the dominant historical modes of Jewish theology: Jewish scholasticism, and Kabbalistic and Hasidic religious thinking. Contemporary thought sensitizes us to the specific theological and metaphorical uses of language, and challenges both the outdated medieval ontologies of divine being and those of enlightenment science, in favour of an imminent deity, between and among us. While it becomes clear that Jewish theologies cannot be radical in quite the same way as radical Christian theology, it becomes equally evident that major strands in modern Jewish theology are just as, if not more, radical, than their Christian counterparts. God plays a most discrete, often hidden, and even absent role in much of modern Jewish theology, and yet a new reading of Jewish theology from a radical viewpoint reveals a persistent concern to rethink God and revelation as a primordial call to individual and communal ethical life, in the light of nation-state sovereignty after the horrors of the Shoah. Radical Jewish theologies offer a myriad of original insights that draw on Jewish traditions, as Jewish thinking engages with the dynamic realities of Jewish life within and beyond the Jewish State, as interpreted in terms of new understandings of revelation and its revealer.
The first section of the monograph, the focus during my Oxford fellowship, explores changing Jewish understandings of revelation, which have traditionally been understood in very different ways from the hyper-literality of Midrash and Kabbalah to the hyper-rationalism of medieval Jewish philosophers. The long elite tradition of non-literal appreciations of Torah Mi-Sinai from Maimonides and Cordovero through to Levinas and current thinkers has existed alongside more literal readings. The Levinasian construction of God, again influential on Orthodox and non-Orthodox theologians, offers a model of an imminent deity, albeit one that perhaps leaves too little room for any account of the biblical God, and one that is perhaps still too bound to the Heideggerian philosophical framework that it inverted. However, when elucidated from a radical perspective it may offer a more viable Jewish theology. Louis Jacobs’s theology of revelation served as the platform for an exploration of the meaning of theology by Jewish thinkers from the seventeenth century to the present and the significant communal contexts of their debates and discussions about revelation. His clarity and originality and the requirement to provide a new ground for religious law was the base for a discussion of this pivotal concern in the works of Soloveitchik, Buber, Rosenzweig, Kook, Heschel, Hartmann, Plascow, Greenberg, Borowitz, Rubenstein, Krochmal, Steinheim, Kaplan, Breuer, Miller, Leibowitz, Kavka and Green. The importance of philosophy and theology from outside of the Jewish tradition was stressed in terms of Leo Strauss’s trenchant critique of the inadequate appreciation by many Jewish Kantians and Hegelians of the philosophical traditions that they utilize to present their Jewish theologies. This lamentably continues to be the case for many Jewish post-modernists, analytical philosophers and liberal thinkers who fail to grasp that they re-render their faith in vessels that all too often deny the very claims they seek to establish.
The second part of the monograph explores the new materialism as an opportunity for Jewish theologians to liberate themselves from medieval ontologies and Newtonian physics in favour of the foundation of a more sophisticated and dynamic view of material life. The increasing understanding that matter and force are more intimately related than mandated by Newtonian physics is suggestive of a new materialist theology where order is implicit within subtle matter and where the deity does not merely act upon a separate creation but is integral to it. Re-reading Jewish sources about God in this light offers new understandings of God in relation to creation and humanity. This complex materialism resonates with a God unable to be pinned down to either substance or relational force, a view that also provides a lens to re-view the Jewish traditions of ritual and reflective practice. This radical way of rethinking is read alongside modern theologies of Halakhah in developing a new materialist theology of Jewish religious practice that locates us more evidently within nature.
The third part of the book links revelation to community and develops a radical Jewish political theology. The democracy of modern Jewish learning reflecting a wider democratization of the acquisition and use of knowledge challenges traditional rabbinic elitism. The ethical challenges of feminist thinking too require a new knowledge equity within communities. The new materialism fosters a new view of Jewish community, more inclusive, based on a material field rather than on more constructivist accounts. The final section promotes a radical new materialist view of Jewish sovereignty in Israel and beyond.
- Louis Jacobs, A Jewish Theology (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1973) 4.
- Leo Strauss, ‘Why We Remain Jews, or Can Jewish Faith Still Speak to Us?’ , in Leo Strauss, Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997) 311–56, reference to 312.
- Louis Jacobs, Beyond Reasonable Doubt (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1999) 31ff.
- Emmanuel Levinas, ‘Revelation in the Jewish Tradition’, in Se.n Hand (ed.) The Levinas Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989) 190–210. Quotations from 191–3.