Jewish Ethics for the Twenty-First Century – Syracuse University Press
To my esteemed. colleague Rabbi Doctor Louis Jacobs of London, I am profoundly indebted for his thoughtful and thought-provoking foreword to this volume. For over thirty years, I have continued to learn from him, mostly through reading his erudite and stimulating works. For this reason, I consider him one of my most formative and formidable teachers.
Foreword by LOUIS JACOBS
IN A TALMUDIC LEGEND, King Manasseh accuses the prophet Isaiah of contradicting the words of Moses: “Your teacher Moses said: ‘For men shall not see me and live’ (Exod. 33: 20) and yet you [i.e. Isaiah] said: ‘I saw the Lord sitting on a throne’ (Isa. 6: 1).” The Talmud proceeds to resolve the contradiction. Moses’ prophetic vision was through a clear glass (aspaklaria ha-me’irah) whereas Isaiah’s vision was “through a glass darkly” (aspaklaria she-einah me’irah). As Rashi penetratingly explains it, Moses had clear vision – knew that no human being can really see God. It was only in Isaiah’s dimmed vision that he imagined he could see God (Rashi to Yev. 49b).
Since in the Talmud a sage is compared to a prophet (BB, 12a), it is not too far-fetched to detect the insight derived from each among Jewish theologians throughout the ages; though these latter have never claimed to be prophets, with the possible exception of Maimonides, if Heschel is right (see Heschel 1996b, 69-126). The more the theologian knows, the greater his or her degree of clarity, the more he or she becomes aware of the mystery; the more intense the illumination, the more opaque “the cloud of unknowing”.
A striking feature of Byron Sherwin’s thought lies precisely in the ability of his powerful mind and gifted pen to explore with great clarity that which can be known while acknowledging the existence of those mysterious realms impenetrable to the human mind. Sherwin repeatedly calls to our attention the theological dilemma: to say too much is to invite ridicule, to say too little can all too easily result in a vague agnosticism of no avail to the questing religious soul. Sherwin knows full well the complexities of human existence, that easy solutions are bogus solutions. For the world, he tells us, is both a terrible and a wonderful place and the struggle between good and evil is all too real. As Sherwin, in his magnum opus on Judah Low of Prague (Maharal) – Mystical Theology and Social Dissent (1982) – describes the Maharal’s thought:
“Everything, except God, exists in a condition of dialectical opposition. Only God is truly one. Everything else exists in a stage of fragmented disunity. While God transcends all disunity, He is both the source and the resolution of all disunity and all fragmentation” (1982, 70).
Sherwin’s dialectic is pervasive in all his work. For him, Judaism is not to be perceived chiefly in terms of either/or but of both this and that. For Sherwin, the Jew can both be secure in his religion and have a questing spirit. He or she can be a universalist while remaining a proud and committed Jew. Responsibilities to society need not compromise individuality. One can be both a liberal and a traditionalist, who sees no contradiction in an attitude of “progressive conservatism,” a term used in the early twentieth century by Dr. Joseph H. Hertz to describe the religious position of the United Synagogue in Great Britain. In what follows, I want to examine how this dialectic operates in some of Sherwin’s many publications, including the present one. If, here and there, I am critical of some of the positions he takes, he is too honest a thinker not to welcome it.
In Partnership with God, the title of one of Sherwin’s books (1990), is a recurring theme in his work. For example, in one of his essays Sherwin draws on the midrashic parable of the world as a palace that is on fire; a world from which a retreat into utopianism is for pitiful dreamers lacking the courage to enter the flaming palace in order to help God restore it (see ch. 7 below).
In a neat pun, Sherwin sees Judaism as teaching that our world is not a redeemed messianic but an unredeemed and messy world and he warns against the entertainment of any ideas of realized eschatology. Even our best social, religious, educational and political institutions represent the commingling of good and evil. Sherwin quotes Ecclesiastes (7: 20): “for there is not a righteous man upon this earth that does good and sins not.” Like his teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel, Sherwin is fond of quoting the Kotzker Rebbe, who similarly interpreted the verse in Leviticus (7: 1), “This is the law of the guilt offering; it is most holy,” to mean: Where is guilt to be found? In the most holy. And, taking issue with Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith”, he remarks that it is more prudent to look before one leaps; rushing ahead toward utopia can only lead to ultimate despair and to eventual inaction (1995b, 150-1). But Kierkegaard, whether one agrees with him or not, is certainly not thinking of a leap into a utopian vision. On the contrary, this religious existentialist would agree with Sherwin’s thesis that we are living in an unredeemed world, though Kierkegaard is primarily concerned with the individual and may be far less concerned with the improvement of society than Sherwin.
In a famous illustration of Kierkegaard, when the sea is calm, the sun is shining, and the captain sober, and you have faith that the ship will reach its destination, that is not faith. When the seas are raging, the ship floundering, and the captain drunk, however, and you still have faith that the ship will reach its destination, that is really faith. For Kierkegaard, it is the ship of the individual, not of society, that is floundering. The Kotzker, whose religious torments Heschel sees as resembling those of Kierkegaard, is speaking of the individual as an individual, not as a member of society. Similarly, when the Kotzker is invoked in favour of social action, this appeal overlooks the fact that the Kotzker lived for a large portion of his life secluded in his room.
The above is offered not to critique Sherwin’s essential position, presented by him so convincingly, but only to note that eclecticism, even at its best, must be cautious in calling to the aid of a normative approach such mavericks as Kierkegaard and the Kotzker. I have often wondered whether, in fact, there is any such thing as “normative Judaism”.
Discussing the vexed question of euthanasia in one of the essays in the present volume, Sherwin surveys the halakhic literature on the question. He admits that the dominant view in the Jewish sources prohibits active euthanasia of any kind. Yet, “in view of contemporary realities”, he defends a position within the framework of classical Jewish sources that would justify active euthanasia in at least certain circumstances. Through this essay, Sherwin raises two acute questions: 1) How far should “contemporary realities” influence halakhic decisions? 2) How far can extra-halakhic sources be used to determine what the halakha (Jewish religious law) should be? When Heschel was critical of “pan-halakhism”, he was referring to the attitude according to which all that matters in Judaism is the halakhah (1955, 328). Sherwin goes further by introducing extra-halakhic categories into the halakhah itself.
Sherwin is similarly original in his application in the present volume of the Golem legend to the question of reproductive bio-technology (chs. 4, 6). The use of sources dealing with fantasies is not new in the halakhah, for example, witness the discussions in contemporary responsa about artificial insemination on the basis of the curious story of Ben Sira and the daughter of the prophet Jeremiah. But it has taken a Byron Sherwin to use the Golem legend for the consideration of the status of an “artificial person” in Jewish law and ethics. These essays, important in themselves, offer, as Sherwin says, “a window of opportunity” for applying old texts to new problems.
Discussing the Maharal’s attitude to the body, Sherwin sees this thinker as occupying a midway position between those who believe the body and its appetites to be good in themselves and those who have nothing but hatred for the body, which they see as a hindrance to spiritual progress (1982, 111-23). For the Maharal, the body is not good in itself but it becomes good when used as the means for spiritual advance. Elsewhere, Sherwin further explores the theme of the body from the wider perspective of Judaism in general, demonstrating that three attitudes prevail among Jewish thinkers: the positive attitude, which considers the body to be a blessing; the negative attitude, which sets the body in opposition to the soul; and the neutral attitude, according to which everything depends on how the body is used. With massive erudition, Sherwin surveys the whole range of Jewish thought on the question (1991a, 129-47). In the process he rightly observes that there have been Jewish thinkers with a negative attitude to the body so that, whatever modernists might hold, it is a distortion of the religion to state categorically that asceticism is totally alien to Judaism. After all, there were pious Jews who fasted from Sabbath to Sabbath; who engaged in self-flagellation, wore sackcloth and ashes, and even, as in the curious medieval tale about the talmudic Rabbi Joseph, blinded themselves in order not to be able to gaze outwards. This is far removed from “normative Judaism.” As the Victorian lady said on witnessing a performance of Cleopatra: “How different, how very different, from the home life of our own dear Queen!” Yet the phenomenon of asceticism does exist and here, too, a question is put again to the whole notion of a normative interpretation of the Jewish religion. On a personal note, I was honoured that Sherwin’s essay, “The Human Body and the Image of God”, excerpted in the present volume, was originally published in a Festschrift in my honour (see Sherwin 1991b).
Sherwin believes that unless theology and ethics are based on sound historical foundations, they are no more than a matter of personal preference. By definition a Jewish theology must take into account the facts of history. As the old lady said: “It isn’t only emes [truth], it’s a fact.” At the same time, the theologian must avoid a historicism in which all that matters is what happened in the Jewish past. Solomon Schechter once said of some scholars that they are so lost in the past they never come back to the present and they ignore the future.
In his preface to In Partnership with God, Sherwin boldly declares that he offers a variety of Jewish scholarship that is a continuation of what came before, and that it is not an objective “scientific” dissection of the Jewish past. In the first essay in that book, Sherwin offers in this vein “A Program for Jewish Scholarship”, drawing on the analogy of the dwarf on the giant’s shoulders. The dwarf without the giant cannot see further than his own nose, but if he stands on the giant’s shoulders without availing himself of the wider vision that is now afforded him, he might just as well have remained down on the ground.
“Yet, much of contemporary Jewish scholarship”, Sherwin avers, “seems to suffer from restricted peripheral vision. Scholars seem prone to overspecialization in minute sub-areas of Jewish studies without surveying the breadth of classical Jewish sources” (1990, 3).
Here, Sherwin bravely takes a swipe at the Judische Wissenschaft movement, quoting Scholem’s observation that this movement aims at the liquidation of Judaism as a living organism. But this is not one of Scholem’s happiest observations. Scholem himself rarely concerns himself with the kind of program Sherwin envisages and his plea is really for greater, not less, “objectivity” in Jewish studies. It can be argued that the Jewish scholar, qua scholar, in order to be true to his vocation, must confine himself to unbiased examination of the sources as if he were studying, say, Chinese metaphysics, leaving theology to the theologian who, admittedly, fails in his task if he does not take into account the researches of the historian. In other words, the ideal is for the theologian, while not necessarily engaged in historical research himself, to be extremely well informed about the conclusion arrived at in historical, objective scholarship and then proceed to foster his own discipline. Sherwin is one of the few Jewish theologians and ethicists working today to approximate to this ideal. In the present volume, Sherwin amplifies the use of this methodology with enviable erudition and skill.
Sherwin’s writings here and elsewhere reflect the influence of the thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Solomon Schechter, two of his heroes, who follow the same variety of Jewish learning in which impeccable scholarship is wedded to strong personal piety and total commitment to traditional Judaism. Of Heschel, Sherwin writes, “Heschel was no armchair philosopher, no ‘ivory tower’ theologian, no clinically detached academician. For Heschel, life is too precarious, too precious, to become a game of trivial pursuit” (1992, 50). Of Schechter, Sherwin has written that though scholarship was critical for him, it was insufficient in itself. Schechter’s ideal of the Jewish role model was not simply the scholar, but what he called “the saint-scholar”, for whom spiritual as well as intellectual conviction was necessary to sustain and to inspire the religious life (see Sherwin 1993). Sparing Byron Sherwin blushes, I shall not refer to him as a “saint-scholar” but am surely justified in noting that in all his work and general Jewish activity, he certainly follows this model as his ideal.
In one of his essays, Sherwin cites the talmudic story of the son of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi who was vouchsafed a vision of the next world, where he observed that those who are of little account here are of high account there, and those of high account here are of little account there (Sherwin 1995b, 149). However, Sherwin omits the punch line of the tale. “What of we scholars?” the father asked his son on the latter’s return from the “world of truth.” “We scholars,” he replied, “are the same there as we are here.” I understand this to mean that students of the Torah obtain so clear and true a picture of both life as it really is and of their own character here on earth that no celestial reversal is required for them. It can best be summed up by adapting the title of Heschel’s famous study of Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk (1973). Sherwin, like his heroes, has “a passion for truth”.
In his essay on my work published some years ago, Byron Sherwin wrote a generous appreciation of my work in which he paid me, by implication, the compliment that I would take kindly to criticism as well as to praise (1979, 95-108). It is in this spirit that I return the compliment. If, here and there, I have offered criticisms of his positions, this is because I believe he would have had me do no less. I yield to none in my admiration for Byron Sherwin and feel it a privilege to have been asked to provide the foreword to this original and highly stimulating book.