Reading Yeshayahu Leibowitz: a Jewish philosophy for the twenty-first century

Posted on September 13, 2012 by


Questions about Judaism’s place within Israeli society have been around since before the existence of the Jewish state, but there have been few coherent answers put forward. One of the most outspoken voices on this issue, as well as others relating to Jewish identity in the State-of-Israel era, was the scientist, teacher, and philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz. I recently read Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State, a collection of his essays focusing on these subjects.

Leibowitz was notorious in Israel for his unpopular and unsentimental outlook, flowing from a cold rationalism rooted in Maimonides. In the first section he deals with the meaning behind various halakhic rituals. In Leibowitz’s view, all of the mitzvoth are nothing more or less than an expression of obedience to God’s will. Any attempt to read a deeper significance into them, an emotional or experiential aspect, is a distortion of the true meaning of the Torah. It is precisely in the prosaic, repetitive fulfilment of the halakha that man can grow closest to his creator.

In keeping with this, Leibowitz similarly sees prayer as purely functional, and devoid of any element of pathos. “[P]rayer is not intended to satisfy a need,” he writes. “Nor is it the spontaneous outpouring of the soul.” Rather, as a fixed set of benedictions recited by every Jew, in every situation, prayer becomes the fulfilment of a religious duty, a milestone on the path to self-perfection. Similarly, religion has nothing to say on the subject of ethics – in contrast to the ideas proposed by other religious thinkers such as Reginald Neubuhr.

Such an approach is diametrically opposed to the emotionally charged, ecstatic prayer rituals of the Hasiddim and their spiritual forebears – the Kabbalists. And it is at this latter group that Leibowitz aims the greatest part of his ammunition. In his view, the corruption of Judaism affected by the false Messianism and ultimate apostasy of Sabbatai Zevi was a direct result of study of the mystical, borderline heretical doctrines of the Kabbalah. Leibowitz sees kedusha, holiness, as coming only from the attempts of man to draw closer to God; no object, land, or people is intrinsically holy. The goal of traditional Judaism is that man aspire to perfect himself. In contrast, the Kabbalah sees man as the most important creature in the universe, toward whom God directs special care and attention.

Leibowitz acknowledges the many great Jewish thinkers who opposed themselves to his view – Judah HaLevi, Maharal and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, to name a few. Nevertheless, he was prepared to go against them on the basis of his reading of the “Great Eagle” Maimonides. The students of Rabbi Kook (who Leibowitz scorns as “not intellectually equipped to understand his teachings”) were amongst the founders of Gush Emunim, a quasi-political messianic group which dedicated itself to the propagation of Jewish settlements in the contested areas of the Golan Heights and the West Bank. They were guilty of a “fetishization” of the Land of Israel, he claims, and in this respect came close to idolatry!

Such leftist views from a respected Orthodox thinker were not well received and yet Leibowitz continued to reiterate his positions with unflinching courage. He was amongst the first Israeli intellectuals to publicly proclaim that Israel needed to unilaterally withdraw from the territories captured in the Six-Day War, threatening that otherwise Israel could become “a police-state, with all that this implies for education, free speech, and democratic institutions.” While not many shared this view, it is interesting to note that this is exactly the charge routinely, and vociferously, levelled at Israel in more recent times.

Whether such a withdrawal is feasible, or justifiable from a security perspective, is another question altogether. Leibowitz breezes over it in a short paragraph, stating that given the anyway bleak prospects for peace in the short to medium term, the Arabs would be forced to come to terms with their diminished borders. He evinced this pessimistic outlook in light of the fundamental problem posed by one land viewed by two peoples as their ancestral homeland. Like many great thinkers of the left, Leibowitz perhaps open himself up to accusations of thinking in ideals, while ignoring the situation on the ground.

Another controversial view is found in his writings on religion and state. Leibowitz champions a total separation of the two as a way of saving Judaism from being a “kept mistress” of a secular government. He relates that David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the State, told him: “I well understand why you demand so insistently the separation of religion from the state. Your object is that the Jewish religion reinstate itself as an independent factor so the political authority will be compelled to deal with it. I will never agree to separation…I want the state to hold religion in the palm of its hand.”

In Leibowitz’s view, the destiny of the State was as a forum in which the future of Judaism could be discussed. After independence, the halakha of the Shulchan Arukh (code of Jewish law) had nothing to say about questions of governance, since these had never been around in the time of Jewish history when it was composed. Thus, what was needed was a fresh discussion of all of the questions of halakhic statehood. Leibowitz urged that only an independent, vibrant rabbinate – one not beholden to the state – was capable of taking on these issues. Any decisions made by the “atheist-clerical” coalition in the Knesset on such issues as who is a Jew, Sabbath observance, and civil marriages, were risible.

On women’s place in Judaism, Leibowitz urges a new approach. The study of Torah should be made open to all Jews, even to the extent of mixed batei midrash (study halls), as in his opinion the custom prohibiting women’s study is nothing more than a convention. When the existence of Orthodox Judaism is under threat, it is necessary and constructive to revise the traditional practices.

One of the criticisms levelled at Leibowitz is that he was a cold rationalist, incapable of seeing the emotional side of Jewish existence. Yet in fact a careful reading of this collection reveals the opposite – a passionate, true idealist; one who learned from Maimonides the great majesty of Reason, and applied it to the issues closest to his heart, Zionism and the Jewish people. As the twentieth anniversary of the book (and the author’s death in 1994) draws near, it is worthwhile to consider anew how our generation is answering the questions Leibowitz still raises.