Originally published in Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, 25:4 (1976).
Concepts of Judaism. By ISAAC BREUER. Selected and edited by Jacob S. Levinger. Jerusalem. Israel Universities Press, 1974. 348 pp.
Reviewed by LOUIS JACOBS
PROFESSOR LEVINGER believes, with justice, that the writings of Isaac Breuer (1883-1946), grandson, and exponent of the ideas, of Samson Raphael Hirsch, of which this book contains a penetrating selection, constitute the most intellectual and well-balanced attempt to place on a rational basis the Orthodox position in modern times (Professor Levinger remarks “since the schism that occurred in Judaism at the beginning of the previous century,” referring, of course, to the rise of the Reform movement). The book includes important essays on religion and science, Jewish law today and Jewish nationalism; but, in an attempt to come to grips with Breuer’s closely-reasoned argument, this review limits itself to the lengthy selection from his Neue Kusari—Ein Weg zum Judentum (The New Kuzari-A Path to Judaism), published early in 1934, in which, using Kantian categories, he seeks to establish the epistemological basis of the belief in Torah min haShamayyim, the divine origin of the Torah.
Like its older model by Judah Ha-Levi, The New Kuzari is in the form of a dialogue. The imaginary discussion takes place between a Mr. Weiler and Alfred Roden, the son of a completely assimilated Jewish banker in Germany, who has won his way through to the strict Orthodoxy of German separatism, and who encourages Weiler, sincere in his Judaism but plagued by religious doubts, to follow the same path. In particular, Weiler has serious misgivings about the doctrine that the Torah is divine, a belief that has been undermined for him by, among other things, his acquaintance with Biblical criticism.
Breuer’s basic thrust is to apply Kant’s famous distinction between the phenomena and the noumena not only to our knowledge of God and the physical world but to the Torah. According to Kant, all we can know of the world is as things appear to us in perception. The world we perceive is one we construct by our thought-patterns. This is not the “real” world. Since we are incapable of getting out of our own skins, as it were, we can never know things as they are in themselves. By the same token, Breuer makes his hero argue, we can never know the Torah-in-itself (there is much in the book of this irritating Germanic habit of using portmanteau expressions), only the Torah as revealed to us in the word. All we can understand—all, indeed, that we need to understand—is this word, through which we perceive how the Torah-in-itself wishes us to regulate our lives. It follows, continues our friend Alfred as he wills poor, benighted Mr. Weiler into fundamentalism, though, naturally, he does not thus label it, that all Biblical criticism is as absurd as an attempt to criticize nature for its enigmas and contradictions. The Bible critics arrive at their conclusions because they treat the Torah like any other book. But, in the process, they deny the Torah-in-itself and are, therefore, as misguided as those few natural scientists who refuse to accept the “givenness” of the natural world instead of doing their proper job, which is to investigate thoroughly how this “givenness” makes its impact upon our sense perception. If the Torah were only a purely human production, the reasoning of the Bible critics might well be convincing, but that is precisely the point. The Torah is not a human production at all but is in the form of words by means of which God communicates with us. As Alfred puts it:
For the Jewish nation, the Torah is the sum of the letters that were written down at God’s command and by God’s dictation. The words that are composed of these letters produce a meaning which our reason can appreciate. For God has availed Himself of man’s language for His revelation of the word. But the Torah has not become the language of man on the strenght of this circumstance. The Torah as the language of men is only the visible form of the Torah as the language of God, in just the same manner that the world as conception we have perceived is only the visible form of the world-in-itself (p. 248).
At this stage it becomes clear that Alfred, and through him, Breuer, is trying to have his cake and eat it. Biblical criticism is rendered taboo and the Torah made immune from all its findings by invoking the concept of Torah-in-itself. But, by definition, no human being can understand the Torah-in-itself, so how do we study the Torah and how can we know what its demands are? How, indeed, can Torah-in-itself make any demands? The answer is that the Torah-in-itself operates, as it were, through the Torah as written word and we are capable of understanding this word. But, then, we are back where we started, since, if the written word can be understood by humans, on what grounds can we reject categorically the human understanding of the Bible critics which, on the human level at least, Breuer seems to admit is plausible. Breuer is too acute a thinker to ignore this difficulty, and seeks to solve it by making Alfred call to his aid the oral teaching, the Torah she-be-al Peh, the self-authenticating interpretation of the written word by “Kenesset Israel”.
Alfred: I mean the oral teaching, the “Torah of the spoken word,” which forms the link between Torah-in-itself, the “Torah of the written word,” and comprehended Torah.
Weiler: Well, tradition then. The “Torah of the spoken word” can only be preserved by tradition, being passed on orally from one generation to the next. The Torah of the written word resides with the “primal foundation” of things; it is creation, just like the world-in-iself.
Alfred: The Torah of the spoken word resides with the eternal Jewish nation which, as the transcendental custodian of the word which was addressed to it by God through Moses and has been guarded by it, is called “Kenesset Israel”. In its unity, formed by God’s spoken word, it represents God’s “kingship”.
But this begs the question with a vengeance. For this is precisely what we are discussing—the correct understanding of how the Torah, including the Torah of the spoken word, actually came to be. The massive researches of modern Rabbinical as well as Biblical scholarship surely demonstrate that there is a history of the whole concept of Torah so that, nowadays, to think of the community of Israel as merely passive recipients of a divine body of truth, unchanged and unimpaired throughout the ages, is not to accept the idea of a “metahistory” but to be completely unhistorical, to fly in the teeth of history.
This takes us to the heart of the matter. Breuer seems to have a mistaken notion as to what Biblical criticism is about. It is unfortunate that the terms “higher” and “lower,” taken from the study of the Greek classics, were used for the discipline of Biblical studies. The aim of every self-respecting critic (that some of them were biased and less than objective is to be deplored, but does not affect the argument) is not to sit in judgment on the Bible but to investigate how the Bible came to be. “Criticism” in this context means no more than investigation by methods tried and tested in other disciplines and which yield extremely plausible results. To be sure, Breuer is right that the natural scientist is behaving childishly if he “criticizes” the universe for not being a better place. He must accept the universe as it is, in all its “givenness.” What he does and should examine is the nature and extent of this “givenness.” In pre-Copernican astronomy, it was held to be “given” that the earth is at the centre of the universe. It was not a denial of the “given” but a better understanding of it that demanded a new picture based on the results of empirical investigation and applied human reasoning, themselves part of the “given.” One need not deny either the transcendental aspect of the Torah or the special role of the Jewish people and the Jewish tradition in its interpretation, to follow modern scholarly method, even if the results seem to suggest that, at times, there has been misunderstanding. After all, the real aim of scholarship in this area is to discover what the texts originally meant, how they were put together, how ideas developed. To deny all this in the name of an alleged monolithic structure of unassailable truth is to believe in the God who plants false clues to mislead those who use the reasoning powers He has given them.
It is worth comparing Breuer’s views to Solomon Schechter’s idea of Catholic Israel. In Schecther’s thought, too, “Kenesset Israel” is a kind of mystical entity, but the difference between Breuer’s concept and Schechter’s is that, for the former, “Kenesset Israel” is the body which passively receives the body of truth that is God-given, whereas for the latter “Kenesset Israel” plays a dynamic role. For Breuer, God gives the Torah to Israel. For Schechter He gives it through Israel. For many of us, Schechter’s concept is to be preferred because historical researches do demonstrate that Israel’s “interpretation” of the Torah consists in far more than a mere spelling out of sacred texts. The experiences of Israel are not so much a matter of living by the texts as originally understood but a creative re-working of those texts. To give just one example among many. The mediaeval commentators like Rashbam point out that the “plain meaning” of “and it was evening and it was morning” is that the day precedes the night—when it was “evening,” after the day had passed, and when it was “morning,” after the night had passed, there was “one day.” But the halakhic interpretation is, of course, that day follows night and, with the exception of a few sectarians, “Catholic Israel” has kept the Sabbaths and festivals in this way, beginning at nightfall and ending at nightfall. Breuer would say that, since this has been the experience of Israel, this is sufficient guarantee that the text meant this from the beginning, despite the “plain meaning.” Schechter would presumably say that the living concerns of Judaism make the original meaning of the text irrelevant, since Judaism is not Biblicism but the religion of the Torah, and the Torah of Israel has decided that this is how the Sabbaths and festivals are to be observed.
Isaiah Leibovitz has remarked correctly that, historically considered, it is not the Written Torah that has priority, with the Oral Torah as its interpretation; it is, rather, the case that the Oral Torah has decided which books are sacred and which are not, so that the Oral Torah has, in a sense, created the Written Torah. It might here be noted that Breuer’s views are clearly based on the Kabbalah and, in fact, he speaks of the Torah-in-itself as a “masculine” principle, evidently hinting at the Kabbalistic idea of the “Holy one, blessed be He,” the Sefirah Tiferet, as the male principle and the Shekhinah, known as “Kenesset Yisrael” (!) as the female principle. But, in the Kabbalah, interestingly enough, the Shekhinah is only feminine and passive in relation to Tiferet. In relation to creatures, the Shekhinah, the Oral Torah, is Malkhut, “Sovereignty.” It is male and active, represented on earth by King David.
More than once in his book Breuer refers to Bible critics and the disloyal Jews who adopt the critical approach. But modern critical investigation into the sources of Judaism is not a rival religious philosophy. It is a tool, an instrument, a method of discovering what happened in the past, yielding results that are to be questioned and further refined but which possess a high degree of probability with regard to the basic findings. In this sense, criticism is reasonable but it certainly does not imply that reason alone is the sole key to religious truth. The Jew prepared to adopt the critical approach need not deny the transcendental aspects of the Torah. His findings will no doubt be untraditional in that not every construction put on Jewish history by the past teachers of Judaism necessarily holds water today. But, far from this being an act of disloyalty to Judaism, it can be an act of supreme faith: faith in Judaism’s ability to accept the truth from whichever source it comes; faith in God, Who is not bound by the way we imagine that He must work to fulfill His purposes; and faith in human reasoning, which is, no doubt, a very poor thing but the only means we have for distinguishing between superstition and well-founded belief, between obscurantism and valid submission to a mystery beyond all our puny efforts at understanding, in a word, between error and truth, which is the “seal of the Holy One, blessed be He.”