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POSTMODERN JEWISH PHILOSOPHY
“A Case Study in Jewish Ethics–Three Jewish Strategies for Solving
* Norbert Samuelson
KABBALAH AND POSTMODERN JEWISH PHILOSOPHY
Responses to Shaul Magid’s “From Theosophy to Midrash, Lurianic
Exegesis on Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden”
* Elliot R. Wolfson
* Michael Satlow
* Oona Ajzenstat
POSTMODERNISM AND PUBLIC JEWISH LIFE
“Questions for Reform Judaism After the Critique of Modernity”
* Herbert Bronstein
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POSTMODERN JEWISH PHILOSOPHY
A Case Study in Jewish Ethics–
Three Jewish Strategies for Solving Theodicy
Norbert M. Samuelson, Temple University
Prima facie the answer to the question, “Can there be a Jewish
ethics” is, “Of course, why not?” There are two parts to this
answer: “of course,” and “why not?” The “of course” part is that
Jewish thought and life are filled with both prescribing moral
behavior and thinking about moral issues, so much so that the judgment
that there are Jewish ethics is as apparent to common sense as the
judgment that there is a physical world. The “why not?” part says
that anyone who doubts that there are, either is ignorant, an anti-
semite, or a philosopher, and these three categories are not mutually
The “why not?” reply has two possible philosophic answers,
neither of which strike me as terribly interesting. First, no
obligation can be called “moral” whose import is not universal; Jewish
ethics are imperatives that arise from a particular entity (the deity
of Abraham) making demands on another particular entity (the Jewish
people); consequently, obligations in Judaism are not universal, and
hence are not moral obligations. Second, the reasons that Jewish
thinkers give to explain moral obligations in Judaism are the same
reasons that all philosophers give for all moral obligations; ethics
are about the reasons for imperatives and not about the imperatives
themselves; hence, while some Jewish moral obligations may be
distinctively Jewish, there are no distinctive Jewish ethics.
Together, these two replies say that particular moral
imperatives and/or moral arguments cannot admit distinctions between
individuals and/or subgroups of collections of individuals within the
human species; the Jewish people are a subgroup; Jewish ethics apply
specifically to the Jewish people; hence, there are no Jewish ethics.
Or, to say the same thing in different words, either Jewish ethics are
not distinctively Jewish or they are not ethics. There are two
reasons why the question does not strike me as terribly interesting.
First, it is not obvious why ethics to be ethics must have a universal
domain. It seems to be perfectly reasonable, in fact common-sensical,
that some individual or individuals in one time-space setting may have
very different, but none-the-less absolute, moral obligations than the
same individual or individuals in another time-space setting or other
individuals in the same time-space setting. Second, there is no
single thing that can be called “Jewish ethics.” Rather, this is a
general term that ranges over a variety of very different positions
Jews have taken on moral and ethical questions from a variety of
significantly different philosophical standpoints, and this diversity
in no way disqualifies Jewish ethics from being both Jewish and
However, the question entails another question which to me is
interesting, viz., is there anything in Jewish ethics that is
philosophically interesting in the sense that it suggests a fresh
approach to doing ethics that is different from what we already find
in other sources of Western civilization besides Judaism? Here, my
answer is that there is at least one, and it is on that one that I
want to focus, through example, in this paper. In this case I want to
look at three different Jewish approaches to solving the so-called
problem of theodicy. In all three cases the solutions are
significantly different from the ones commonly recognized in our
Christian biased heritage of philosophical ethics.
The so-called problem of theodicy involves positing three
propositions which appear to be mutually incoherent. They are: (A)
God is perfectly good. (B) God is perfectly powerful. And (C) there
is evil. Any two of these three may be asserted without
contradiction, but one of the three must be denied. God may be (B)
perfectly powerful and (A) good if (~C) there is no evil. Conversely,
there can be (C) evil if (~B) God has limited power and/or (~A) is not
good. In general, the problem is resolved by denying any combination
of the three propositions.  Of course which of these options is
chosen depends on what theologians mean when they say “God”, “good”,
“evil”, “power”, and how the adverb “perfectly” modifies these
affirmations. Throughout the course of the history of Jewish thought
every possible move has been made to varying degrees, and several of
them have been made in radically different ways. I will limit myself
here to only three of what I consider to be the most interesting
1. God is neither perfectly good nor powerful–The View of Genesis in
Whatever were the views of the different authors who wrote the
different parts of the Pentateuch, a fairly consistent picture of the
universe emerges from the text that the Jewish people inherited from
its priestly editors in the sixth century B.C.E. That picture
contains one fairly specific version of the problem of theodicy and
poses a clear solution to it. The problem focuses on a fairly
specific event, viz. the destruction of the first Temple and the exile
of the people of Judea to Babylonia. According to this view God
created the universe for a single primary purpose–to provide the
space and time for sacrifices to be offered to Him. The successful
fulfillment of these acts constitutes the end by which all actions are
judged to be good or bad.
In this context moral values are applied both ontically and
socially. Ontically the term “good” is associated with separation and
order. At first the universe exists as a single, homogeneous whole
that is judged to be chaos. Gradually God introduces a set of
distinctions, all of which are understood to overcome chaos and are
called good. The progression of separations functions at two
levels simultaneously, one involving the space of the universe and the
other involving the occupants of that space. Light is separated from
dark, sky from earth, dry land from the seas on the surface of the
earth, the land of Israel from other lands, and eventually Mt. Zion
from other locals within the land of Israel, the space of the Temple
from Mt. Zion, and the space of the Holy of Holies from the Temple
mount. At the same time, the inhabitants of the sphere of the
earth are separated from the inhabitants of the sky, humanity from
other living creatures on and in the sphere of the earth, the nations
that descend from Abraham from the other nations that descend from
Noah, Israel from the other families of Abraham, the Levites from
other Israelites and eventually the Cohanim from the other Levites.
The concluding ontic goods–a separate priest class who performs
its defining function in a separate space–are themselves not
mentioned in the Pentateuchal narrative. But their existence is
always present throughout the narrative as the end towards which the
biblical story points beyond itself. They are the paradigmatic
references for the term “holy” (kadosh), a term that functions within
the narrative for what is of ultimate value. They are holy because
they are separate, but they are separate because of the key role they
play in making actual the purpose for which the universe was created–
the literal service of God.
Socially the term “good” is associated with obeying God’s
commandments. The differentiated regions of space are commanded to
generate living occupants without limit, while the light inhabitants
are ordered to rule their celestial region and the human inhabitants
are commanded to govern their terrestrial region. The nations of
humanity are given a set of laws beyond procreation to govern their
society, while Israel, in the middle book of the five books, is given
an extensive law code to create a nation whose central purpose is to
carry out the sacrificial laws described within the very heart of that
middle book. Israel is constituted to be a nation whose primary
task is to prepare meals where the holy people in their holy space
dine with the holy God of the universe three times per day on weekdays
and four times per day on the holy Sabbath. During the week there is
labor as well as feast, but on the Sabbath there is only feast. More
precisely, it is a day of continuous feast, for both God and humanity.
It is this day that provides the Torah’s primary vision of the end of
days. Sabbath is the goal towards which all of creation points. It
is the paradigm by which all good and evil are to be judged.
It is this cosmic schema that is the context of the biblical
version of the problem of theodicy. There is evil, since the Temple
has been destroyed and the priests cannot perform the tasks for which
Israel exists, for which the universe was created. Evil exists
because Israel failed to obey God’s commandments. Hence, the God of
the Pentateuch is not perfectly powerful, for there is service that he
needs that he cannot perform himself. Clearly He is more powerful
than anything else in the universe. He and He alone, after all, is
the force that can either create or destroy it. But that power has
Similarly, but less obviously, He is not perfectly good. He
performs acts of which He must repent, i.e., acts that fail to bring
about His desired ends, not the least of which is the creation of
humanity. Certainly from this respect–the human–He is not perfect.
For humanity exists within the universe for God; neither God nor the
universe exist for the sake of humanity. Clearly he is better than
anything else in the universe. He and he alone, after all, define
what is good and what is bad. But that goodness, like his power, has
2. While God is perfectly good and powerful, there really is no
evil–The Views of Maimonides and Gersonides in Classical Rabbinic
The solution to the pentateuchal problem of theodicy provided
the framework for the development of the second Jewish polity under
the policies of Ezra and Nehemiah. The new Judah became a state that
remained faithful to its Toraitic constitution, namely, to serve God
no matter what the human price. With the rise of Hellenism that price
became enormous. Because Judah refused to reconstitute itself into an
acceptable political model within the Hellenistic world, it became the
poorest of nations within the empire, and because it believed that its
deity was the ultimate power in the universe, it fought three
disastrous wars against the pagan Romans. Judah’s failure to win
those wars constituted a second, major occasion for the redefinition
of theodicy within the perspective of Jewish thought.
Scripture taught that the first Temple had been destroyed
because Israel had failed to keep God’s commandments. But the second
Temple was destroyed precisely because the nation did obey God’s law.
Clearly, if God is the creator of the physical world, the universe
should now come to an end, and, if it does not, then its continued
survival must be for some other reasons than continual communal dining
by a small portion of humanity with the creator God of the universe.
In other words, it cannot be true that the destruction of the second
Temple is really evil. Rather, it must serve some as yet unrecognized
divine good. Furthermore, if even the destruction of the Temple is
not really evil, then all the lesser evils from a human perspective
must not really be evil. But what could that purpose be and why does
it remain hidden from even the chosen people of God’s humanity?
The second Moses–Moses Maimonides–provides a second myth in
his Guide of the Perplexed, to solve the second paradigm fact of
evil. Again, the first paradigm was the destruction of the first
Temple, whose cosmic solution was presented in the name of the first
Moses as the myth of creation. The second paradigm is the destruction
of the second Temple, whose cosmic solution is hinted at by Moses
Maimonides in his myth of the Sabians.
Maimonides reports the following story: The universe as God
created it was perfect, as was everything within it. More precisely,
everything was created to be perfectly what it was supposed to be.
That does not mean that anything created was absolutely perfect. If
everything were absolutely perfect, then everything would have been
God, and there would not have been a world other than God.
Rather, the universe as a whole was perfectly a universe, and
everything within it was perfectly what it had been created to be,
including Adam, the first man. That Adam was perfectly a man entails
that he was no less, but also no more, than any human. With respect
to knowledge, he knew perfectly everything that a human could know,
but he knew nothing that was beyond human knowledge. In general that
meant that he understood everything that he perceived through his
senses and he had the mental ability to make valid logical inferences
from that experience, but he had no views on any subject the knowledge
of which was beyond the limits of experience. The topics of such
trans-empirical based knowledge fall under the general heading of
metaphysics. It includes cosmology, cosmogony, and theology. Angels
are capable of such knowledge, but not human beings. At best people
can have opinions, but they have no basis to know whether or not those
opinions are in fact true. And Adam, being a perfect human, knew only
what he knew he could know, i.e., physics, and did not even think
about what he could not know, i.e., metaphysics.
However, humanity also had the ability to extend its powers
beyond its original nature. Its first extension was to develop
agriculture. By nature what grows are a mixture of plants, some of
which are fit for human consumption and others of which are not. By
the simplest act of farming, viz. weeding out what they could not eat,
to leave more room for what he could, the first humans made nature
(from a human perspective) better, and by so doing made it unnatural.
From this beginning developed a nation of farmers, known as the
Sabians, who extended all of their abilities beyond the confines
of the human species into the power domain of the angels. However, in
so improving themselves, they introduced into the world error and sin.
In other words, by improving the universe for humanity they in fact
made it less perfect in itself than it had been. The problem was that
while the original human was perfectly human, the improved human was
imperfectly angelic. While humans limited their thought to what
humans could know, they reasoned without error, but when they improved
themselves to reason about what only the angels and God could know,
they reasoned badly, i.e., they made mistakes that had dire
consequences for both humanity and the universe.
The Sabians drew an analogy between their farms and the
universe. Their land lacked human order and value until they, the
farmers, imposed structure upon it, transforming it from a wasteland
into farms. Similarly, the universe as a whole exhibits order and
value. Hence, by analogy, just as they had imposed structure on one
segment of the space of the universe, so there must be an entity, who,
like a farmer, imposed divine order and value on what had originally
been the disordered, valueless space of the universe. That entity is
the Creator of the Universe, the only being worthy of worship as a
deity. But who would that God be? The question was right. The order
of the universe does suggest that it exists by intention and not by
accident, and the existence of an intelligent product does suggest an
intelligent producer. But, again, this is a question for divine
entities to ponder, not for mere humans, who, in consequence of their
limitations, gave false answers. They looked about them for what they
could find to be the most excellent entities within the realm of their
experience to worship as deity. Rightly their attention focused on
the celestial beings–the sun, the moon, and the constellations, who
they proclaimed to be their gods. Their reasoning was correct as far
as it could go. What is most excellent is most worthy of worship, and
of all that they could experience the living entities of the sky are
most excellent. But they are not the creator; they are merely
creatures. The true creator lay beyond anything that could be given
within the domain of human experience. Hence, the first humans
progressed from having no religion, like animals, to worshipping
deity, like angels. But the religion they formed was profane. Having
transcended the appropriate agnosticism of their origin where they
knew nothing about deities, they became idolators, who worshipped
false gods, the gravest form of sin, for the universe had been created
to serve its creator, not creatures.
The human decline from human perfection in its advance beyond
primordial human nature had equally dire consequences in ethics.
Originally human beings did not think about what is right and what is
wrong. They behaved naturally, without reflection. However, as they
developed their ability to manipulate nature, they came to realize
that humans need not always act in accord with their nature, that in
fact they could deliberate and make choices that were counter-
intuitive. They then began to think about what they ought and ought
not to do, and in so doing, because of their limitations as human
beings, they made bad decisions, often disastrous, decisions that
eventually led to the corruption of the generation of Noah, corruption
so profound that it threatened the survival of the universe as a
whole. In consequence, God was forced to destroy humanity through a
universal flood and to begin his universe anew. But this second
beginning differed from the first. Recognizing that humanity could
not remain forever within the confines of human nature, God provided a
political model for humanity to develop a kind of society in which it
could know the difference between metaphysical truth and error as well
as moral right and wrong. That model is the Torah that God revealed
to Moses at Sinai. Torah is here understood to be a national
constitution that has universal consequences. Through obedience to
its law, Israel could in time develop into a kingdom of angels, who,
armed with celestial wisdom, could lead the rest of humanity to an end
of days when all human beings would become divine.
So much for what Maimonides explicitly states in the text of the
Guide. Of course the problem is that Israel, being very human, cannot
understand adequately what the Torah says, including the reasons for
its social legislation. Hence, Israel, like all of humanity, always
has the option, through ignorance, to choose to disobey. To the
extent that Israel disobeys, it prevents the coming the end of days;
to the extent that Israel obeys, it hastens that coming. Maimonides
believed that progress toward the messianic ideal of an end of days
was more likely than decline towards the Noaitic flood limit of an end
to the universe, and that the destruction of the second Jewish
commonwealth itself contributed to that positive evolution.
Furthermore, he believed that to whatever extent Israel obeyed God’s
law, it improved its moral and conceptual talents, and to the extent
that Israel so improved, the possibility of even greater obedience to
Toraitic law improved. Increasingly Israel, and eventually the rest
of humanity, would understand God’s purpose in creation, and through
that understanding the apparent evils that occur in the world would
become intelligible and, in consequence, avoidable. But progress
would be slow, slower than even Maimonides himself anticipated.
It is against the background of the myth of the Sabians that we
should understand what Maimonides says explicitly about theodicy.
From an absolute perspective, God is perfectly good and powerful and
there really is no evil. To be sure from this perspective the created
universe is not perfect. But it could not be and still be the world.
It is, as Leibniz would later say, the best of all possible worlds.
In other words, though the universe is not perfect, because it cannot
be better than it is, its imperfection does not constitute real evil.
In fact, the only evil is human ignorance, a defect that the Torah was
created to overcome.
How ignorant are we? Prima facie Maimonides suggests that our
ignorance is absolute. The distance between what we know of God and
the universe as it is in itself is infinite, and, because it is
infinite, it is unbridgeable. But this surface reading of Maimonides’
words cannot be correct, for if it were, then, no matter how our
wisdom improves, we would be no closer to the messianic ideal, and, if
there can be no progress, then the legislation of the Torah would have
no practical value. On the one hand, it is clear that for Maimonides
the actual world is infinitely remote from the divine ideal, but, on
the other hand, it must be possible to progress towards it. The
reconciliation of these apparent opposites is found in Maimonides’
The critical datum underlying Maimonides, and all subsequent
Jewish philosophical analysis of God-talk, is that God and God alone
is the creator while everything else is a creature. Hence, there is a
fundamental difference between God and everything else, a difference
so extreme that no positive human language can literally be applied to
God. A general term can be predicated of any number of subjects in
the same way (i.e., with the same meaning) only if in the relevant
respects these subjects belong to the same species. Where a single
general term is predicated of two or more subjects from different
species, the meaning of the subsequent sentences is radically
different (e.g., “the boy is big” and “government is big.”) In such
cases, the meaning of the stated general term is equivocal. In what
way equivocal and how the different uses are related depends on the
way the relevant subject species differ. Whatever these ways are, it
is most extreme in the case where a single term is predicated of both
God and anything else, for here there cannot even be a common genus,
let alone a common species.
In subsequent centuries Maimonides was understood to have
claimed that the difference is so radical that any attribution of
anything to God is, from a human perspective, unintelligible.
Gersonides offered a less extreme, theologically more acceptable,
account of the difference in meaning between predication of God and
anything else. Basing himself on the way that Aristotle (in his
Metaphysics) applied the term “ousia” to a substance and any other
kind of subject, Gersonides judged divine attributes to be “pros hen”
equivocal, i.e., to apply primarily to God and only secondarily to
anything else. This means that the secondary usages are dependent on
the primary usage in the following two ways: (a) the meaning of the
predicate term when applied to something other than God contains a
reference to its primary divine meaning, so that the truth of the
secondary meaning is logically entailed by the truth of the primary
meaning, and (b) the fact described in the sentence that contains the
secondary predication is causally dependent on the state described in
the sentence that contains the primary predication. For example, to
say that certain persons are good states something about how those
people are related to God, so that what it means to say that they are
good involves a statement about how they are related to God’s
goodness, and how God is the ultimate cause of their goodness. In
brief, statements about the Creator express ideals which, as such, are
related to comparable statements about all and any creatures of God.
How the two classic Jewish interpretations of divine attributes,
Maimonides’ and Gersonides’, are different from each other is not
obvious. On final analysis Maimonides may have intended something
like what Gersonides subsequently spelled out. In fact, given the way
that Maimonides’ theory of divine attributes was interpreted by
Hermann Cohen’s disciples, there is little difference. For both
Jewish philosophers, divine attributes express ideals that are
related, as a primary and a final cause, to what is actual. All
divine attributes express God. But the actual in principle never
is God. The term “Creator” expresses God’s relationship to the
world as its first cause. He is the source from which the universe
unfolds. And the term “Redeemer” expresses God’s relationship to the
world as its final cause. He is the telos towards which it moves.
The perceived universe of time and space persists between these two
transcendent poles of origin and end.
3. While God is perfectly good, he is not perfectly powerful–The
Views of Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig in Modern
In Cohen’s understanding of Maimonides (and through Maimonides,
of authentic Judaism), divine attributes are to be understood as moral
ideals. In general, given any simple affirmative predicate P,
what it means to say that God is P is that God is not Q, where Q is
the complement of P. Hence, to say that God is good means that He is
not bad, that He is powerful means that He is not weak, etc. But
then, since no attribute literally understood can be predicated of
God, why can we not say with equal validity that God is Q, which
correctly understood means that God is not P? Maimonides’ answer is
that we may predicate of God only those attributes that the Torah
affirms of Him, and the reason why Scripture says what it says is
because the affirmed attributes are all human excellences. In other
words, all statements about God are in reality disguised moral
imperatives, where a statement of the narrative form, “God is P” means
the commandment, “Strive to become P.” What links the declaration to
the imperative is the principle of holiness, “You shall be holy as I
the Lord your God am holy.” (Lev 19:2) In other words, the content of
theological statements about God are entirely ethical, and the
religion of the people of Israel who proclaim them is a political
program to redeem the world. This Cohenian reading of Maimonides’
theology has informed all subsequent Jewish theology.
From this perspective, the problem of theodicy dissolves.
As a moral ideal God is perfectly good. More accurately He is *the*
good. But as an ideal He has power only to guide. The actual work of
the transformation of the universe into something good is the
obligation of human beings. They and they alone, in all of their
imperfection, have the power to realize moral values in lived life.
The nature of the world as God created it has order and structure, but
that order is morally neutral. On this understanding of the
biblically based faith of Israel, what Genesis means when it says that
God calls His creation “good” is that He has produced one kind of
creature, the human, whose task is to create good, i.e., to transform
what are ontically only things into something socially of value. In
other words, God creates the human, but it is the human who creates
Cohenian Judaism posits two ways to view reality–narratively as
it is viewed in natural science and history as something that is, and
imperatively as it is viewed in religion and ethics as something that
is not what it ought to be. The former way views the world in terms
of objects subject to physical laws. The latter way views it in terms
of personal relationships subject to moral rules. From the former
perspective, there is no evil. There are only facts and fictions that
are either intelligible or unintelligible. From the latter
perspective there are only occasions that create moral obligations
which may or may not be obeyed. Buber called the former the I-It
relationship and the latter the I-Thou. Within his language God is
“I-Eternal Thou,” by which he meant that God functions perfectly as
the paradigm for human moral obligation. Rosenzweig formed a picture
of the reality where life is lived between these two perspectives.
The former is the fore-world (Vorwelt) of things that he calls
“elements.” The latter is the over-world (uberwelt) of ideals that he
calls “structure” (Gestalt). Lived life in the world is an infinite
set of movements from distinct nothings of things toward individual
somethings of value. Infinitely remote at both ends of the flow of
human and physical history is God, as an element at the creation the
world, and as truth at its redemption. As such, God is not of the
world, even though He is what makes it intelligible. He is never
actual, but He is ultimately, ideally, all that really-truly is.
There is a deep divide between what is actual and what is true that
human beings in the world bridge through God.
To be sure there are important differences between the Jewish
philosophies of Cohen, Buber and Rosenzweig. But they do not differ
in the general guidelines that they inherited from Maimonides’
expression of biblical theology. Consequently, they share in common,
albeit in different languages, the same reconciliation of the problem
of theodicy. Only God is good, only what exists in the world has
power, and only humanity has the power to make good a world that is
not inherently so.
4. Concluding Remarks
In our story what Jewish philosophy has to say about theodicy is
now concluded, it is worth noting that the two main classical Jewish
accounts of theodicy arose in response to two specific events, the
destruction of the first Temple for the editors of the Torah and the
destruction of the second Temple for the rabbinic philosophers. In
contrast, the modern Jewish philosophers presupposed no such
paradigmatic event for their speculation. If there is one, it would
have happened after they wrote their major works. It would have been
the Holocaust. Several contemporary Jewish theologians believe that
this event requires a rethinking of Jewish theology no less radical
than the changes required by the destruction of the second Temple.
The most notable of these thinkers is Emil Fackenheim. He argues
that the Holocaust is so demonic and so distinct that it nullifies the
truth value of all previous philosophy, including Jewish philosophy,
and that it renders all subsequent philosophy, including Jewish
Personally I do not share this radical judgment. While the
Holocaust was a great disaster for both the Jewish people and for the
world, it does not merit a conceptual status that is qualitatively
beyond that of the destruction of the first two Temples. Nor does it
raise anything conceptually new beyond what the above accounts of
theodicy, all other factors being equal, can handle. None of this is
intended to minimalize either the great evil of the Holocaust or its
critical importance for contemporary Jewish history and life. It is
only to say that in itself the Holocaust raises no special perspective
for solving, or at least attempting to solve, the problem of theodicy.
In conclusion, there are a number of features of the above
description of Jewish philosophic accounts of theodicy that I would
like to highlight. Firstly, the problem of evil is seen in terms of
collectives rather than individuals. For Rosenzweig, as for the
editors of the Torah, moral issues range primarily over nations and
only secondarily over their citizens. In general, in marked contrast
to most modern thought, individuals exist as parts of collectives;
collectives are not mere mental groupings of individuals. Secondly,
judgments of individual events as good or bad are based on teleology.
No event in itself has moral value. The universe is either viewed
ontologically from a scientific perspective, in which case moral
judgments are inappropriate, or from a political perspective, in which
case events are judged from the perspective of a revealed vision of
both the origin (creation) and the end (redemption) of the universe.
Thirdly, neither standard of judgment, creation or redemption, is,
was, or ever will be anything actual in the perceptible world of time
and space. Rather, both are ideals that function perpetually for
humanity to know that what is is not yet good and can always become
better. It is in this sense that all of the solutions to the problem
of theodicy turn on positing myths. Here the term “myth” functions in
much the same way that Plato used it in the Timaeus, as a picture
or story or model that is inherently something more than opinion but
less than knowledge, that as such is somewhat, but not entirely,
1. This paper was delivered at the Academy of Jewish Philosophy
session on “Jewish Ethics,” at the Association of Jewish Studies
Annual Meeting, December, 1994. It expands an earlier piece,
Solutions to Theodicy out of the Sources of Judaism, Religious
Education 84, 1 (Winter, 1989) 55-67. A previous version of this
present paper was written for the Studies in Jewish Theology series
that Dan Cohen-Sherbok edits for Edwin Mellin.
2. viz. (1) ~A B C, (2) ~A ~B C, (3) A B ~C, (4) A ~B C, (5) ~A B ~C,
(6) ~A ~B ~C, and (7) A ~B ~C.
3. What follows in this section are conclusions based on a reasonably
rigorous literary analysis of the Hebrew text, particularly the first
chapter of Genesis, in my The First Seven Days: A Philosophical
Commentary on the Creation of Genesis, (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press,
4. The terms employed in the biblical narrative are “good” (tov) and
“chaos” (tohu vavohu), which are understood to be opposites, which
entails that “order” (seder) is associated with good while “evil”
(ra`) is associated with chaos, even though these latter terms are not
explicitly used in this way in the biblical text. However, the
association of these sets of terms will be made explicit in subsequent
(medieval) rabbinic, philosophic commentaries on the biblical text.
5. i.e., beyond the time line of the Pentateuchal narrative, which
concludes as Israel begins to take possession of its land and create a
nation, a nation whose destruction concludes the narratives of the
6. The Hebrew term is “avodah”, whose concrete referent is the
sacrificial activity of the Temple cult. It is the detailed
description of this literal divine service that occupies the central
(and therefore most important) place within this literary composition
by the exiled Babylonian priests who edited the Torah.
7. cf. Leviticus. On the judgment that the editors of the Pentateuch
followed a onion-like, as opposed to a linear, structure in
constructing the Torah, so that what is most important is set in the
middle of otherwise parallel texts in the extreme, see Jacob Milgrom’s
commentary on the Book of Numbers, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers
(Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1990), especially pp.
xvi-xxix of the Introduction.
8. In what follows I accept the view of Steven Schwarzschild that the
Messianic Age functioned for Maimonides as an asymptote, i.e., as an
ideal limit intended to provide humanity with a model for moral
judgments that can in actuality be approached but never realized. Cf.
Schwarzschild Moral Radicalism and Middlingness in the Ethics of
Maimonides Studies in Medieval Culture 11 (1977) 65-94.
9. In the Guide, Book III, chapter 29.
10. This explanation of why everything was not absolutely perfect is
not explicitly stated by Maimonides in the passage in question.
However, it is implied. My explicit statement is a summary of what
Maimonides’ predecessor, Abraham Ben David Ha-Levi (Ibn Daud), said in
the The Exalted Faith Book 2, Basic Principle 6, chapter 2, 203b16-
204b16 of the Mich 57 manuscript in Oxford University’s Bodleian
Library of Solomon Ibn Labi’s Hebrew trans. from the original Judeo-
Arabic. Cf. ibn Daud, The Exalted Faith (Ha-‘Emunah ha-Ramah), eds.
Norbert M. Samuelson and Gershon Weiss; trans. Norbert M. Samuelson,
(Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1986), pp. 242, 246-
11. Who the Sabians of Maimonides’ myth/story might be is a topic of
scholarly debate. My personal guess is that they are the Chaldeans.
12. In this article I accept the general guideline of Hermann Cohen
and his disciples who understand Maimonides’ negative theology to mean
that divine attributes state moral, asymptotic ideals. A sampling of
relevant sources is: Zevi Diesendruck, The Philosophy of
Maimonides, Central Conference of American Rabbis Yearbook LXV
(1935): pp. 355-68, and my three articles: On Knowing God:
Maimonides, Gersonides and the Philosophy of Religion, Judaism
(Winter, 1969) pp. 64-77; The Role of Politics in the Torah
According to Maimonides, Spinoza and Buber, Community and Culture:
Essays in Jewish Studies, ed. Nahum M. Waldman, (Philadelphia: Gratz
College, 1987), pp. 193-208; and Divine Attributes as Moral Ideals
in Maimonides’ Theology, The Thought of Maimonides: Philosophical and
Legal Studies, ed. Ira Robinson, Lawrence Kaplan and Julien Bauer,
Studies in the History of Philosophy, Volume 17, (Lewiston: Edwin
Mellon Press, 1991), pp. 69-76.
13. In Levi Ben Gershon (Gersonides), Milchamot Adonai (The Wars of
the Lord ) III-IV, (Riva di Trento: s.n., 1560 and Leipzig: K.B. Lark,
14. This is a topic that should be, but has not as yet been,
adequately discussed by contemporary students of medieval Jewish
15. Like his intellectual Jewish teachers, Maimonides and Gersonides,
Baruch Spinoza affirms a God who is perfectly good and powerful and
denies the reality of evil. However, his interpretation of these
three claims stands in intentional and explicit opposition to their
religious Jewish solutions of the problem of theodicy. He objects to
their judgment that the world is good.
16. For Maimonides and Gersonides this is a consequence of God’s
radical unity. No attribute can express part of God, because God can
have no parts. Similarly, no attribute can express something that
merely is true of God, because then God could be other than He is,
which would entail that God could be influenced by something other
than His own nature, which would entail that God is not perfectly
powerful. Consequently, every divine attribute is God.
17. Cohen will say that to affirm anything actual as good would
constitute idolatry, which is a consequence of both the radical
separation between God as Creator and the world as His creation, and
the radical separation in principle between the is and the ought.
18. The following works by Cohen are relevant to this discussion:
Das Prinzip der Infinitesimal-Method (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1968).
Judische Schriften , ed. Franz Rosenzweig (Berlin: 1924), and Religion
der Vernunft aus den Quellen der Judentums (Frankfurt a.M.: 1929).
19. The following application of the philosophies of Buber and
Rosenzweig to theodicy is based on my discussion in An Introduction to
Modern Jewish Philosophy, (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989). My
interpretation is based on the recommended readings listed at the end
of each chapter.
20. One should read all of his writings to see the development of his
most original and insightful analysis. However, clearly his most
mature, and conclusive, work is To Mend the World: Foundations of
Future Jewish Thought, (New York: Schocken, 1982).
21. p. 52b. There Plato invokes mythology, which he calls “bastard
reasoning” (logismu tini nothu), as the appropriate way to talk about
“space” (chora). See Richard Dakre Archer-Hind, The Timaeus of Plato
(New York: Arno Press, 1973), and Francis MacDonald Cornford, Plato’s
Cosmology. (London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1966).
KABBALAH AND POSTMODERN JEWISH PHILOSOPHY
Responses to Shaul Magid’s “From Theosophy to Midrash, Lurianic
Exegesis on Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden” (published in Network
Editor’s Note: These comments and those to come in Volume 4.4 will
set the initial terms and voices for our discussion at the American
Academy of Religion Meeting (Philadelphia, Sunday November 19, 9pm).
I. Elliot R. Wolfson, New York University
Magid’s study raises important questions for students of
kabbalah as well as for those interested in hermeneutics and Jewish
philosophy more generally. Magid distinguishes the attitude towards
Scripture in the writings of the disciples of the sixteenth-century
master, Isaac Luria, from other hermeneutical approaches to Scripture
found in Jewish sources, including midrashic and kabbalistic documents
such as Sefer ha-Bahir and the Zohar. Whereas the other midrashic and
kabbalistic sources are predicated on the notion of Scripture as an
open text–a text that allows for alternative readings, the Lurianic
kabbalists operate with the notion of Scripture as a symbolic reading
of a meta-text. The term “meta-text” denotes the theosophical-
cosmogonic system that informs their textual interpretation. The
details of the system are clearly not derived from Scripture. The
base text of Scripture, therefore, is transformed into the symbolic
articulation of the theosophic and cosmogonic realities that shape the
foundation myth of Lurianic kabbalah. Scripture ceases to be an open
text for it is viewed no longer as that which yields a multiplicity of
readings. In that respect one may speak of the meta-text stabilizing
the text in such a way that the the peshat (contextual sense) is
delimited to the particular expression of the symbolic worldview of
the Lurianic myth.
Magid tellingly refers to this process as the redemption of
Scripture from its own symbolic garb. This concurs in some measure
with the language of Hayyim Vital in Sha`ar ha-Hakdamot: “When [the
Torah] is in the world of emanation it is called kabbalah, for there
it is removed from all the garments that are called the literal sense
(peshat) from the expression ‘I had taken off (pashateti) my robe’
(Song of Songs 5:3), for [the literal sense] is the aspect of the
external garment that is upon the skin of the person, sometimes spread
(mitpashet) over him, and this is the essence of the meaning of the
word peshat.” By a play on words, the literal or contextual sense,
the peshat, is here identified with the garment in which the Torah is
robed, for the word pashat means to take off or to remove. The
stripping off of the garment occurs in the world of emanation, the
first of four worlds that corresponds to the realm of the divine
sefirot. Elsewhere Vital explicitly correlates the four worlds of
Emanation (‘atzilut), Creation (beri’ah), Formation (yetzirah), and
Making (`asiyyah), with the four subjects of Kabbalah, Talmud,
Mishnah, and Scripture.
The correspondence between the worlds and these texts is not
merely theoretical. On the contrary, by reciting the appropriate text
the soul is said to be bound to the corresponding world. According
to another tradition of Vital, the four levels of meaning, peshat,
remez, derash, and sod, alluded to in the acronym pardes,
correspond to the four worlds. Hence, the masters of Scripture
correspond to the world of `asiyyah, the masters of Mishnah to the
world of yetzirah, the masters of Talmud to the world of beri’ah, and
the masters of kabbalah to the world of ‘atzilut. In slightly
different terms this tradition is reported in the name of Vital by
Soliman ibn Ohana, the Torah in the world of Making is disseminated
by way of peshat, in the world of Formation by way of remez, in the
world of Creation by way of derash, and in the world of Emanation by
way of sod. Just as the four worlds are occasionally described by
Vital (reflecting earlier sources) in a Neoplatonic fashion as the
progressive concealment or garbing of the divine light, so the
different layers of meaning in the text may be seen in this manner.
In the sphere of emanation the Torah is called kabbalah for there is
nothing but pure interiority, the esoteric meaning related exclusively
to the dynamic processes of the Godhead. If I understand Magid
correctly, it is to this phenomenon that he refers to redeeming
Scripture from its own symbolic garb. The “symbolic garb,” which is
the external garment of the peshat, consists of the historical
narratives and the cultic rituals from which Scripture is liberated.
Magid presents two passages to illustrate the point that for the
mainstream Lurianic kabbalists reading has the soteriological task of
repairing the biblical text. The first, which is from Sefer ha-
Likkutim, deals with the birth of Adam and Eve, and the second, which
is from Likkutei Torah, is about the two portraits of Adam and the
nature of sin. Even a cursory glance at the Lurianic texts leaves one
with the distinct impression that these complex theosophical notions
are not in the least derived from Scripture nor do they appear to
respond to any particular exegetical issue in the texts. There seems
to be no hint whatsoever in the base text for the hermeneutical moves
imposed by the main mythical symbols of Lurianic kabbalah. On that
score there can be little disagreement with Magid. But is one
justified to argue on this basis that the “Lurianists no longer have
to read Scripture”? What, after all, would be the conception of the
biblical text operative in the Lurianic material that would validate
such a conclusion? Only after considering that question can we be in
a position to determine the role that Scripture, and in particular the
contextual meaning, plays in the overalll Lurianic worldview.
In spite of the important differences between the two passages
cited by Magid, for heuristic purposes it is possible to view them as
making a similar claim. When one cuts through the layers of technical
jargon so typical in Lurianic texts, it becomes evident that both
passages deal with the problem of the gender of Adam, manifest in the
human sphere and in the higher worlds, including the anthropomorphic
configuration of the sefirotic lights in the world of emanation. In
both passages there is an expressed concern with the feminine
counterpart to the male and the necessity of gender dimorphism for the
biological preservation of the species. Vital interprets the account of
creation and the sin of Adam and Eve in terms of a theogonic process
in the Godhead, which is essentially the splitting of the male
androgyne into masculine and feminine. The ultimate purpose of the
sexual mating of male and female is to restore the male androgyne or
to reintegrate the feminine into the masculine.
The process of gender bifurcation is presented in symbolic terms
as the gradual purification (berur) of the feminine aspect of the
divine, which is are represented as the seven primordial forces of
unbalanced judgment (symbolized by the kings of Edom who ruled before
the kings of Israel) contained within the masculine. As a result of
the construction of the feminine (tikkun ha-nukba’ or binyan ha-
nekevah) through this process of purification, the aspect of Malkhut
was in a position of back-to-back. i.e., it was not fully constructed.
The reason given for this lingering imperfection is that final
purification could only come about through the actions of man since he
is in the “depths of the shells, the secret of `asiyyah, in which
there are the secret of Malkhut and the strong judgments, and the
shells are rooted there. These feminine waters could not be recitifed
until the first Adam came, and by means of his actions and his prayers
the thorns are cleared out from the vineyard. Through him all the
feminine waters are purified.” Had Adam not sinned, the forces of
impurity would have been kept separate from the realm of holiness.
Insofar as this aspect of Malkhut was not purified before the creation
of Adam, the male and female personae in the divine (Ze`eir ‘Anpin and
Nukba’) were joined back-to-back, for if they had been turned face-to-
face then the demonic shells would have had the opportunity to be
attached to the posterior of the feminine. However, in order for the
male and the female to procreate, it was necessary for them to be
face-to-face, an idiom used in kabbalistic literature to depict sexual
union. In order to circumvent this problem, the Father (Hokhmah) and
the Mother (Binah) imparted to Malkhut the feminine waters of Binah
resulting in the elevation of Malkhut to the palace (i.e, Binah).
Within that palace Ze`eir ‘Anpin and Nukba’ are united in a face-to-
However, this situation was only temporary for when Ze`eir
‘Anpin and Nukba’ descended in order to produces the souls of Adam and
Eve, which were produced by their union, they returned to their
original status of being united back-to-back. Hence, the souls of
Adam and Eve emerged out of this union. Had Ze`eir ‘Anpin and Nukba’
been united face-to-face, Adam and Eve would have come forth in a
perfect state and all the worlds would have been complete. Adam and
Eve, therefore, were created in a pattern that reflects the ontic
situation of the masculine and the feminine in the divine. In order
for Adam and Eve to mate sexually, it was necessary for God to
separate them so that they could become autonomous beings with the
potential to face one another. With every righteous deed the demonic
force is subdued, the feminine waters of Malkhut are purified, and the
male and female attributes of the divine are united face-to-face. Had
Adam not sinned the face-to-face union of the masculine and the
feminine would have been the permanent ontic reality. However, Adam
did sin and as a result of his actions an aspect of the feminine
waters of Malkhut was not purified. During moments of sexual
intercourse the face-to-face relationship is temporarily restored, but
immediately afterwards the status of Malkhut vis-a-vis the male
potency regresses to back-to-back. In the exilic and fragmented state
the act of sexual intercourse is endowed with theurgical significance
for it facilitates the face-to-face encounter of the male and the
female and the consequent purification of some holy sparks entrapped
in the demonic shells.
In the second passage, Vital expresses the relationship of the
male and the female in terms of the distinction of Adam in the world
of Formation and Adam in the world of Making, which is related to the
two biblical accounts of the creation of Adam in the first and second
chapters of Genesis. Given the standard gender attributions, it
follows that the Adam in the higher ontic plane, the world of
Formation (yetzirah), is valorized as masculine and the Adam in the
lower plane, the world of Making (`asiyyah), is the feminine. Thus,
‘adam de-`asiyyah assumes the role of the female in relation to ‘adam
di-yetzirah. Vital employs this kabbalistic symbol in order to
explain the contextual sense of the narrative in Gen. 2:7-25. The
Adam placed by God in the garden of Eden to whom was given the command
not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is identified as
‘adam de-`asiyyah because ‘adam di-yetzirah (alluded to in Gen. 2:7,
wa-yyitzer yhwh ‘elohim ‘et ha-‘adam) does not need to be so commanded
since he is pure and not subject to any evil. By contrast, the
commandment makes sense when applied to ‘adam de-`asiyyah for the
demonic shells (kelippot) are attached to this figure. The peshat of
Gen. 2:15 is, therefore, that God took ‘adam de-`asiyyah from the
world of Creation (beri’ah), which is above the world of Formation
(yetzirah), and placed him in the Garden of Eden in the world of
Formation to serve as the aspect of the feminine in this ontic sphere.
Thus the verse uses the feminine form bah to refer to this garden and
it also employs the words `avodah and shemirah to characterize man’s
activity therein for the demonic shells are linked to this place.
In this stage there is no autonomous feminine counterpart to the
male because it was divine intention that the world of `asiyyah would
fulfill this function in relation to the world of yetzirah. But this
plan was not satisfactory because at some point in the process of the
evolution of the worlds the element of `asiyyah descends to form its
own sphere and thus can no longer serve as the feminine mate of ‘adam
di-yetzirah. The problematized situation of the male having no
feminine counterpart is related in the verse “It is not good for man
to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Anticipating the problem, however, God
creates the remedy by constructing (through the aspect of binah in the
world of yetzirah) the feminine out of the ‘adam di-yetzirah. This is
presented as the contextual meaning of “And the Lord God fashioned the
rib that He had taken from the man into a woman” (Gen. 2:22). In this
case the feminine is on the same ontic footing as the male, i.e., both
derive from the world of Formation (a point related to the words of
Adam in Gen. 2:23), and thus the possiblity of sexual mating is
assured. Vital explains this in another way in terms of the “secret
of the severance” (sod ha-nesirah), a kabbalistic motif that is based
on the midrashic idea of the division of the original androgynous Adam
into male and female. Up to this point all the worlds were in a state
of back-to-back, which is to say that the unification was not
complete. The mystical significance of God’s forming the feminine by
splitting her off from the male is that all the worlds are rectified
through the face-to-face union.
What in God’s name does any of this have to do with the
scriptural text? Precious little, one might be inclined to answer.
Yet, upon closer reflection it seems that in a profound way the
intricate theosophic symbolism is related to some issues that emerge
from an exegetical engagement with the text of Scripture, especially
when viewed through the prism of rabbinic aggadah. In my opinion the
common denominator of the two passages, which is related to various
biblical verses, is the issue of gender bifurcation and the temporary
state of the feminine as distinct from the masculine. Magid himself
reaches a similar conclusion and in the note mentions that his view
concurs with my own. I will not here enter into a lengthy
discussion of this issue. Suffice it to say that the Lurianic
discussions of gender, especially as they are related to the creation
of Adam and Eve in the first chapters of Genesis, are exegetical
elaborations of tendencies implicit in the scriptural text
(particularly as it is perceived through the lens of rabbinic
theology). The hermeneutical strategy, therefore, is to preserve the
text by uncovering the deepest meaning latent within it.
I am not certain that the attempt to distinguish the zoharic and
the Lurianic approaches to Scripture is entirely defensible. In spite
of the important differences between the two corpora, it seems to me
that in both the interpretation of the base text of Scripture is
shaped by what Magid has called a meta-text. It may be the case that
for the zoharic authorship the meta-text is more multivalent than it
is for the Lurianic kabbalists, but that is a quantitative rather than
a qualitative difference. Let me clarify the point by referring to an
earlier study of my own that Magid approvingly cites. In “Beautiful
Maiden Without Eyes: Peshat and Sod in Zoharic Hermeneutics,” I argued
that in a number of thirteenth-century kabbalistic sources, including
the Zohar, there is a convergence of the peshat and the sod, the
contextual meaning and the esoteric sense. That is, beyond the linear
and hierarchical stratification of the biblical text into the
different levels of meaning (the number four emerges by the end of the
thirteenth century as paradigmatic), the zoharic author(s), like
several kabbalists in the pre-zoharic period, e.g., Jacob ben Sheshet
and Moses ben Nahman, maintained that the peshat is, or contains, the
sod. The Torah is garbed with several layers of meaning but at the
core is the “text,” which is apprehended above all by the mystic
exegete in an erotic face-to-face encounter. From one perspective
what is disclosed (or, one might say, disclothed) is the sod, the
mystical core, but, from another perspective, this is the peshat,
which is the text itself. The text, of course, always stands in
relation to a reader for the meaningfulness of the text is revealed
only in and through the hermeneutical realtionship. I will take the
liberty to cite my own words:
” The movement of zoharic hermeneutics may thus be compared to a circle,
” beginning and ending with the text in its literal sense. For the
” Zohar the search for the deepest truths of Scripture is a gradual
” stripping away of the external forms or garments until one gets to
” the inner core, but when one gets to that inner core what one finds
” is nothing other than the peshat, i.e., the text as it is. To
” interpret, from the perspective of the Zohar, is not to impose
” finite meaning on the text, but to unfold the infinite meaning
” within the text…. By decoding the text in light of sefirotic
” symbolism the theosophic Kabbalist recovers that which is at work
” within Scripture, at least as viewed from his own perspective.”
In that context I employed the technical term “appropriation” as
used by Paul Ricouer to convey the idea that the interpreter is
recovering what is at work in the text or resaying what is said in the
text. In a second passage from that study I related the hermeneutical
strategy to the zoharic parable wherein the Torah is compared to the
beautiful maiden without eyes:
” The maiden without eyes, therefore, signifies that the text in and
” of itself is “blind,” without sense; whatever meaning the text has
” is imparted to it by the open eye of the reader…. The mystic,
” full of eyes, gives sense to the eyeless text by his bestowing
” glance, a glance that bestows by disclosing that which is latent
” in the text. The constitution of meaning in the hermeneutical
” relationship underlies the task of reading according to the Zohar.
” Paradoxically, this act of bestowal is characterized as an
” appropriation of that which the text reveals from within its
The “true” peshat of the biblical text is revealed exclusively to the
kabbalist who has exposed the text, or who has seen the text exposed.
What the text is ultimately about is the dynamic structure of the
In my opinion, one could make a similar claim for the Lurianic
kabbalists. The peshat is the particular garment that the Torah
assumes in the lowest of the four worlds. But the Torah is
essentially the same in all of the worlds. The progressive
condensation of the infinite light (seder ha-hishtalshelut) is a
process that corresponds to the various forms of meaning that the
Torah adopts in the different worlds. Just as the mystic can perceive
the divine light in the material substances of this world, so can he
perceive that the garb of the contextual meaning is in fact the
mystical body of Torah. To be sure, for the unenlightened the peshat
as it is in itself is the lowest form of disclosure. Such a person
may not get beyond this level and thus he will not comprehend the
esoteric meaning implicit in the peshat. Thus, in one context, Vital
uses the following image: masters of Scripture are like eggs, masters
of Mishnah like the chicks, and the masters of kabbalah like human
beings. For those who cannot perceive the esoteric meaning of the
text it is necessary to kindle the spark by other theurgical means so
that they might attain that which is concealed. For the kabbalist, on
the other hand, the hermeneutical task is to remove the external
layers covering the inner core of Torah. But what does he find at
that core if not the letters of the Torah? And what are the letters
of Torah if not the peshat in the truest sense, viz., the text fully
undressed? Reading is indeed a laying bare.
Magid has perceptively understood this key aspect of Lurianic
kabbalah to which he refers by the poignant expression of redeeming
Scripture from its symbolic garb. I wonder, however, if it is
necessary to view this as fundamentally different from the
hermeneutical approach of earlier kabbalistic sources, especially the
Zohar. I tend to see continuity here and the common element is the
presumption that the peshat and sod converge such that the theosophic
meaning is in fact an unfolding of that which lies coiled in the words
of Scripture. Following the particular orientation of the anonymous
author of Ra`aya Mehemna and Tikkune Zohar, Vital is critical of
the literalists who are concerned only with peshat. This does not
mean, however, that he is of the opinion that study of the peshat can
be ignored by the kabbalist. On the contrary, in his introduction
to Sha`ar ha-Hakdamot, he explicitly states that the external,
contextual and internal, symbolic meanings are related like the soul
to the body, and one is in the image of the other. In light of
this hermeneutical correspondence, it does not seem reasonable to me
to speak of completely divesting the body of the text from its
symbolic garb. The (hermeneutic) visibility of the scriptural text on
all levels is dependent on the text being properly attired. The text,
therefore, remains open so long as there are eyes that take note.
1. Cited in E. R. Wolfson, “Beautiful Maiden Without Eyes: Peshat and
Sod in Zoharic Hermeneutics,” in The Midrashic Imagination: Jewish
Exegesis, Thought, and History, ed. M. Fishbane (Albany, 1993), 198 n.
2. Sha`ar ha-Mitzvot (Jerusalem, 1978), 83; Peri `Etz Hayyim
(Jerusalem, 1980), 356. See L. Fine, “Torah as a Rite of Theurgical
Contemplation in Lurianic Kabbalah,” Approaches to Judaism in Medieval
Times, vol. 3, ed. D. R. Blumenthal (Atlanta, 1988), pp. 31-33.
3. See G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, trans. R.
Manheim (New York, 1969), pp. 53-61; I. Tishby, The Wisdom of the
Zohar, trans, D. Goldstein (Oxford, 1989), pp. 1085, 1091-1092; A. van
der Heide, “Pardes: Methodological Reflections on the Theory of the
Four Senses,” Journal of Jewish Studies 34 (1983): 147-159; Wolfson,
“Beautiful Maiden,” 155-156; M. Idel, “PaRDeS: Some Reflections on
Kabbalistic Hermeneutics,” in Death, Ecstasy, and Other Worldly
Journeys, ed. J. J. Collins and m. Fishbane (Albany, 1995), pp. 249-
4. Sha`ar Ma’amerei Razal (Jerusalem, 1898), 16b; Sefer ha-Gilgulim
(Przemysl, 1875), ch. 68:91d.
5. The Hebrew term is “titpashet”, which carries the double
connotation of to spread forth and to disrobe. By using this term
Vital wished to convey the idea that the Torah spreads forth a
particular hermeneutical level in a manner of taking off a layer of
6. The text is published in Likkutim Hadashim me-ha-‘Ari z”l u-me-
Rabbi Hayyim Vital z”l, ed. D. Touitou (Jerusalem, 1985), p. 80.
7. See, e.g., Likkutei Torah (Jerusalem, 1963), pp. 9-10.
8. For more detailed discussion of these motifs, see E. R. Wolfson,
“Woman–The Feminine as Other: Some Philosophical Reflections on the
Divine Androgyne in Theosophic Kabbalah,” in The Other in Jewish
Thought and History: Constructions of Jewish Culture and Identity, ed.
L. J. Silberstein and R. L. Cohn (New York, 1994), 166-204; idem,
“Erasing the Erasure/Gender and the Writing of God’s Body in
Kabbalistic Symbolism,” in Circle in the Square: Studies in the Use of
Gender in Kabbalistic Symbolism (Albany, 1995), pp. 49-78 and notes on
9. Sefer ha-Likkutim (Jerusalem, 1913), 5a.
10. Magid refers to my study in n. 36. The correct citation is
“Crossing Gender Boundaries in Kabbalistic Ritual and Myth,” in Circle
in the Square, pp. 79-121 and notes on pp. 195-232. In that study I
analyze earlier kabbalistic sources as well as Lurianic materials.
11. “Beautiful Maiden,” pp. 171-172.
12. ibid., 186-187. Y. Liebes, “Zohar we-‘Eros,” Alpayyim 9 (1994): 97
n. 182. Liebes neglects to cite the continuation of my argument
that indicates that my position is what he presents as his own view.
I argued that the hermeneutical theory implied in the zoharic parable
is that in bestowing meaning on the text the interpreter draws meaning
out from the text. My use of Ricoeur’s term “appropriation” is meant
to convey precisely this idea. Moreover, Liebes does not refer
to the second passage, in which I make the point explicitly that
interpretation in the Zohar is an unfolding of the infinite meaning
within the text.
13. Sefer ha-Gilgulim, ch. 68, 91c.
14. See Tishby, Wisdom of the Zohar, pp. 1089-1108; P. Giller, The
Enlightened Will Shine: Symbolization and Theurgy in the Later Strata
of the Zohar (Albany, 1993), pp. 59-79.
15. The study of peshat (of Scripture and of halakhah) was part of the
standard textual regimen advocated by Luria. Some of the relevant
sources are cited in Toledot ha- Ari, ed. M. Benayahu (Jerusalem,
1967), pp. 248, 319, 320. On the presumed existence of a composition
by Luria focused on the contextual meanings of Scripture (peshatei ha-
mikra’ot), see the comments of Benayahu, op. cit., p. 356.
16. The relevant passage is translated in Wolfson, “Beautiful Maiden,”
II. Michael Satlow, University of Virginia
Shaul Magid has raised a number of fundamental hermeneutical
issues in his intriguing paper. His contention, it seems to me, has
two parts: first, that by reading Scripture into a pre-determined
meta-text rather than allowing “a meta-textual thesis to emerge from a
reading of the base-text,” Lurianic exegesis breaks with previous
Jewish exegetical programs; second, that Lurianic exegesis serves to
flatten rather than expand the text, reducing a potential multiplicity
of readings to a single one. Given that few texts humble me as
completely as those that emerged from kabbalistic circles, I will
confine my remarks to some thoughts on how these two contentions play
out, especially vis-a-vis rabbinic literature.
Shaul’s first contention raises a number of obvious questions.
Foremost among them is whether the rabbis have any notion of “peshat”
in the sense that the term is used today. Most scholars today assert
that the notion of “peshat”–a simple, or obvious meaning of the text,
to be contrasted to other midrashic meanings–is a contribution of the
later biblical commentators. For the rabbis, or at least certain
rabbinic circles, there is no “obvious” meaning, accessible through
universal reason. Rabbinic interpretation of Scripture is rooted in
tradition and follows a somewhat rigid (if creatively applied) set of
hermeneutic rules. Unlike peshat, this system is not open to
privileging one reading over another by labeling it the only logical
reading. The very development of the notion of peshat, even when
supplemented by “midrash” and “sod,” begins a process of limiting
A larger, and more complex, issue is that of the relationship of
midrash to the base-text. While the rabbis do seem at times to work
in an entirely textual universe, frequently we see the impact of non-
textual factors on their exegesis. Contemporary realia, for example,
intrude on otherwise “pure” exegesis; exempla, drawn from contemporary
political structures or daily life, often are used to illustrate
scriptural exegesis. Although the polemical content of midrash has
been grossly exaggerated, some midrashim do appear to be polemical.
In neither case can we say that the rabbis approached the text free of
knowing what they were going to do with the text. More to the point,
literary exegetical programs certainly influenced at least the
selection of midrashim that were included in a given corpus. While
Neusner probably overstates the case, different rabbinic works do
appear to have distinct editorial programs that help to determine
their content. Rather than view all “midrash” together, we might
consider how midrash functions within specific works. One corpus
might genuinely promote an “open” reading of Scripture, while another
might attempt to limit exegesis. Why, for example, does the Sifra
look so different from Vayikra Rabbah, even though both use the same
base text? The former offers very narrow readings (e.g., “man” means
not a boy; “his garment” means not her garment) that, when compared to
the lengthy interpretation of Vayikra Rabbah or even to other
tannaitic midrashic corpora, might have been selected precisely to
conform to a pre-determined exegetical program.
Even for the rabbis, myth might have played a role. Gary
Anderson is currently working on a piece in which (following Peter
Schaefer’s suggestion) he contends that some midrashim (specifically
those that cite Psalm 8) were generated from now-lost Jewish myths
about Adam. Whether or not this is correct, it underlines the fact
that we know so little about the background of rabbinic midrash.
Because we do not know the myths that might have generated midrash
does not mean that a priori we should exclude the possibility that
Scripture was shaped to conform to mythic structures, albeit not in
the comprehensive manner of Lurianic kabbalah. The fitting of
Scripture to a reductionist meta-text is hardly new for Jews; Paul did
this many years before. There is a long and full Patristic record of
reading the Hebrew Bible into a single myth. The Christian use of
Hebrew Bible in this way mayhave been a factor in discouraging earlier
Jewish adaptation of this technique. Did Christianity loom so small
for the residents of sixteenth century Safed that they had no fear of
appropriating this form of hermeneutic? These echoes would no doubt
have influenced the reception of such a reading.
Shaul’s texts are fascinating precisely because they are so
rabbinic. Both texts–though especially text A–rely heavily on
midrash. Much of text A, in fact, looks like a selection and
integration of readings found in Bereshit Rabbah. I wonder, then, if
it would not be more accurate to modify Shaul’s contention:
ultimately it is midrash–previously processed Scripture–that is
being fitted into the meta-text. That is, are we seeing the
harmonization and smoothing of midrash rather than Scripture?
Finally, it is hard for me to resist trying, however crudely, to
fit the phenomenon noted by Shaul into a larger picture. In its
attempt to reduce the meanings of Scripture, how truly unique was
Lurianic kabbalah? Centuries earlier, Rashi, using “peshat” and
careful selection, began to weave together coherent interpretive
structures from diverse midrashim. The sixteenth century itself saw
the height of one of the most reductionist movements in Jewish
history, legal codification. Even the Tosafists can, on one level, be
seen as trying to create a seamless whole out of the impossible
contradictions of the Talmud. Lurianic kabbalah, as a program that
attempts to limit Scripture to a single meaning, would be very much at
home in this environment.
III. Oona Ajzenstat, McMaster University
1. Harold Bloom
Shaul Magid’s study reflects what is good in the current
scholarly approach to midrash and corrects some of what is wrong. I
refer to the recent shift away from arid scholarly discussion of
whether certain sorts of midrashic gap-filling are “legitimate” or
“illegitimate,” legitimate midrash being tightly exegetical, and
illegitimate midrash being what is “launched and sustained by the
reader’s subjective concerns… rather than by the text’s own norms
and directives” (Meir Sternberg, Poetics of Biblical Narrative, 188).
Such criteria work relatively well if all commentary is peshat, but it
is very difficult to see when a drash is true to the norms and
directives of the original text. Talk has therefore moved gradually
onto a more fertile ground that accepts midrashic reading as in some
sense unavoidably revisionist. James Kugel sees such revision as
necessary updating, but still maintains that midrash is primarily
exegetical. Michael Fishbane goes further: for him midrash is often
“promethian” reinterpretation, a covert challenge to divine authority.
Ithamar Gruenwald goes further still, writing that “midrash is chiefly
concerned with the creation of meaning–not with exegesis”. (“Midrash”
in Michael Fishbane, Midrashic Imagination, 9) And finally, reader
response criticism and other new forms of reading call upon us to
abandon any remaining distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate
Shaul Magid’s position takes all this into account and goes
beyond it. While aware that all readings can be said to be
revisionist, he nevertheless asserts that some are more so than
others. His description of the Lurianists’ redefinition of peshat in
light of an extra-biblical meta-text shows us how their commentaries,
like none before, set themselves up in defiance of their father-text.
The virtue of his analysis is that his standard for what might be
called legitimacy–which the Lurianists fail gloriously to attain–is
not the repitition of peshat, but a general openness to peshat or
compatibility with it.
One literary critic who has made much of the idea that all texts
are revisionist is Harold Bloom. Bloom too does not entirely do away
with the old distinction between legitimate and illegitimate; instead
he reverses it. For him, only the most heavily revisionist readings
are good, because only these are “strong.” All writing is misreading:
that is, all writing is commentary or midrash. Writers have a natural
love-hate relationship with their tradition, and to be a strong writer
ultimately depends on being able to kill one’s father-text(s).
Shortly after Bloom first published this theory (Anxiety of Influence,
1973), he began to read the works of the Lurianists and was pleasantly
surprised, he says, to find he’d been doing kabbalah all along. In
the next book (Map of Misreading, 1975), he defines reading as a six-
step process which I will let Susan Handelman describe for me: “Bloom
swerves, attempts to complete his precursors, empties himself out,
erects a counter-sublime, and faces a return from the dead” (The
Slayers of Moses, 209). We have here, according to Bloom, the
Lurianic myth thrice repeated: in each of the three pairs there is a
contraction or emptying–which is in essence catastrophic–followed by
a regaining which amounts almost to a self-divinization. The Lurianic
hubris is perfect for Bloom, who wants to say that, in the end, the
new poet not only writes his own poems, but also comes, to all intents
and purposes, to have written the precursor’s poems as well.
Magid’s discussion of the way the Lurianists “redeem” the text
through their meta-text sounds close to Bloom’s analysis; both see a
soteriological dimension in (re)writing. But it is not clear how
common Magid thinks this sort of thing is, nor indeed, how much he
likes it. Bloom, of course, is a devotee and belives that the sort of
revision accomplished by the Lurianists is the purview of the very
few: Milton, Blake, Dante, Stevens and the J author among them. For
my part, I do not admire the undeniably strong texts of the
Lurianists; the Torah is not a work I think needs strong reading.
2. Moral Implications
Magid raises questions about the Lurianists’ hermeneutical
principle that the words of Scripture symbolize cosmic reality, as
opposed to the rabbinic principle that Scripture precedes cosmos, and
therefore cosmos can presumably be said to symbolize Scripture. But
surely the use of the word “symbolize”–a word that suggests a one-way
relation–clouds the issue. Neither Torah nor cosmos can be said to
symbolize the other; rather Torah and cosmos exist in a special
relation of mutual expression. The cosmos, to the extent that it is
finished, expresses the blueprint laid out in Torah; correspondingly,
the Torah, to the extent that it is finished, displays the fullest
possible expression of cosmos.
A new criterion arises here to measure the legitimacy of textual
claimants to the position of Oral Torah. True representation of
cosmos becomes a mark of legitimate midrash. In effect, good
commentary reflects and fosters ethical reality. Although it requires
some arrogance to apply this criterion, it is even closer to the heart
of the matter than Magid’s notion of a given text’s openness to
peshat. Take the difference between Philo (a weak or relatively
legitimate reader) and the Lurianists. Like Luria, Philo has his own
extra-biblical meta-text; this is not the difference. But where Magid
says the difference is that Philo is open to Peshat, I think his very
openness arises from the fact that his meta-text does not stand
ethically or metaphysically contra cosmos. Similarly, the Lurianists
closedness to peshat follows from the fact that they do stand contra
To explain how the Lurianists stand contra cosmos (and thus
contra Scripture) one would first discuss the similarities between
their rewritings and the texts of the Valentinian gnostics.
Similarities in the central myths of the two traditions have long been
recognized and need not be discussed in full. In the two passages
Magid discusses, two gnostic themes come to the fore: the need to rise
to a purer realm, unaffected by human action, in order to generate
purely, and more importantly, the inescapability of sin in the impure
realm. That human sin is the inevitable result of mis-relation in the
cosmos not only removes from human beings the need to obey divine
command, but also opens the possibility that those who know the
esoteric truth will act deliberately against the precepts of the
peshat, molding themselves along the lines of the cosmic rupture in
order to facilitate its fixing. Tikkun may now imply not the
performance of halachah (already the dubious notion of “pressing for
the end”) but, rather, reduplicating the dysfunctional structures of
cosmos; in effect, redemption by sin.
There is evidence that the ideas I am calling gnostic play out
in strange sectarian activities: town orgies, murder and war. I see
Lurianic kabbalah as comparable to gnosticism, while the Zohar–which,
as Magid mentions, does not set itself up in defiance of peshat, or, I
add, of cosmos–is comparable to mysticism. Obviously the mystic
versus gnostic rubric does not clarify all the gradations in the
messianic believer, from the shoulder-shrugger to the crazed activist,
but it allows us to see that the Lurianists present an extreme that is
more than revolutionary. As a response to destruction and
devastation, their writings are irrensposible. They play Scripture
and cosmos false. They are not laments, but calls to the ugliest of
POSTMODERNISM AND PUBLIC JEWISH LIFE
Questions for Reform Judaism After the Critique of Modernity
by Herbert Bronstein
Editor’s Note: This is a slightly edited version of a speech made at
the opening of the Second Academic Convocation of Reform Rabbis on
December 12, 1994. The theme was “Judaism, Modernity and Postmodernism”
As exponents of a movement in Judaism born out of identification
with dominant elements of modernity, Reform rabbis at the end of the
twentieth century have a two-fold and ironic relationship with
Modernity is, of course, associated with the triumph of Reason
and Science in the West and with the exclusive claims of an empiricist
epistemology focused on the control of nature. Science and technology
brought miracles of healing, communications, transportation, and
material betterment of the conditions of life to multitudes. And yet,
with the self-justification that the West represented an “advanced”
form of humanity bringing higher civilization to “backward” people,
the same science and technology which brought was harnessed to an
ideology of imperialism which brought destitution to multitudes and
degradation to the lands and cultures of many peoples.
The Enlightenment, on whose banner was inscribed the fervent
affirmation of the autonomy of the unshackled reason of each
individual, produced in various places and times movements of
tolerance and emphasis on human rights, and for the Jews, therefore,
emancipation and entrance, however fitful or gradual, into the civil
order. But the identification of modernity with the reason of ancient
Athens was not sufficient to ward off the Holocaust, as science and
technology, fruits of modernity, were put to use to devise means of
human extermination in the most efficient way possible and with the
Some think Modernity to be a framework so powerful as to be akin
to a spiritual medium, even though it is materially based and its
impetus is the rationalization of all behavior and the denial of worth
to any knowledge or bodies of thought that cannot be quantified or
measured. Thus modern society, on the one hand, and religion on the
other, have come to be understood as opposed or, minimally,
dichotomous. It is wide-spread in the modern consciousness that a
primordial religious tradition affirming the realm of the soul or
spirit must be inherently opposed to modernity in ways that earlier
exponents could not have foreseen.
Modernity is also associated with the process of modernization,
faith in which was to redeem “stagnant” areas of the world and release
human beings from wasteful “superstition” (associated in many minds
with religion). At the same time, this process brought with it “the
rationalization” of all relationships on behalf of utility and
productivity. To use Marxian concepts, the “cash-nexus” as the
connection between human beings has resulted in widespread
dehumanization and alienation from others and from work.
North America is considered by many to exmplify the processes
of modernity and modernization. Reform Judaism blossomed in the
United States, and, as Reform Jews, we are “products” of a movement
which considered itself not only a response to modernity but an
embrace of modernity. A hallmark of Reform Judaism has been its
advocacy of religious ideas which would represent at once the ancient
prophetic spirit of our faith and the leading edge of the cultures of
Europe and America.
But by the end of this century, which has seen a tremendous
growth in Reform Judaism, many if not most of the presuppositions of
Modernity have suffered extreme critique. Western imperialism, two
World Wars, the Holocaust, Vietnam, have shown to what demonic uses
Reason, Science and Technology, which multitudes served as gods, can
be put. Further, the bond between reason and autonomy, once
indissolubly linked in human thought, has been dissolved by the
“hermeneutics of suspicion.” Freud, Levi-Straus and the critique of
ideology have vaporized the illusion of a free transcendent reason and
of autonomy itself.
Surely it is time for exponents of Reform Judaism to assess this
new situation. Up until modernity, rabbinic learning was rooted in
the Transcendent, in a spiritual dimension, and there found its
motives, sanctions and imperatives. In Classical Reform, rabbinic
learning harmonized Jewish tradition and the premises and principles
of modernity. But what is our stance now, after our loss optimism in
the power of reason, and later, science and technology, to bring about
“Progress,” that great slogan of modernity that once many of us
identified with our own Messianic vision? What do we now think of the
faith that a militant denial of heteronomy alone–the fervent
assertion of “freedom,” a word central to the vocabulary of the
current reform sabbath and daily prayer book–would not only liberate
the individual from oppression but would also release the finest moral
traits in humanity?
Reform Jewish scholarship committed itself to the empirical.
Nelson Glueck, President of the Hebrew Union College, embraced the
institutional manifestation of empiricism, not the model of the
traditional Yeshiva, but the modern university, as the paradigm for
the Reform rabbinical school. But while the concern for intellectual
honesty is essential to regular liberalism, some may wonder whether
this fervent or even exclusive commitment to the empirical is still
good for the Jews or humanity, not to mention for rabbinic education;
and whether or not, after all, a good deal has been lost for the Jews
and the rabbinate in the process.
Our situation is doubly ironic. The ideal of intellectual
honesty, the scientific spirit, and our historic consciousness along
with canons of academic integrity have enabled us to understand that
just as the Reform movement has its parentage in the Enlightenment,
so, for other reasons not so noble, it is a movement which consciously
or not, and with a motive of entry into the civil order, often
identified itself with a reformist Protestant agenda: an attack on
the “quackery” and “carnival show and trappings” of ritual in general.
In the process, we also now see in retrospect that Reform borrowed the
“Core and Husk” theory of Liberal Christianity (viz. Feuerbach’s The
Essence of Christianity) on behalf of a universalist ethics that
rejected particularist ways of life. This negation of ritual and
observance, a disdain which eased our assimilation of Christian modes
of worship and norms of “civil behavior”, resulted in the rejection of
our particular Jewish tradition and of entire sections of our textual
treasures, only recently now being recovered. And that recovery is
one aspect of a very confused postmodern situation which again,
ironically, questions the capacity of our recovered texts to deliver
any fixed meanings!
We must devise questions and approaches that would at least
focus on some of these issues. Who of us would want to give up a
commitment to the ethical dimension of monotheism and social
consciousness as the inner spirit of liberal Judaism itself? But we
may now, at the same time, wonder whether sundering ethics from ritual
life may be contrary to the phenomenon of Judaism itself! Today there
is a yearning for the retrieval of tradition; as a result, most
liberal rabbis embrace both social consciousness and observance. But
so far, in the current way of thinking in liberal congregations,
ethics and social action are over here in the “synagogue program,” and
observance and practice over there, and there has been as yet no
adequate integration of the two.
Despite a postmodern critical stance, how can we preserve those
aspects of the heritage of Modernity so precious to us? Above the
‘aron ha-kodesh at the Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati, Isaac Mayer
Wise’s synagogue, are inscribed the words “rosh d’varecha emet”–the
first of Your principles is truth. How can we preserve the passion
for factual truth and yet at the same time subsume its results into a
pursuit of spiritual meaning of the kind that empiricist
epistemologies cannot deal and therefore often reject? Can there be a
“meta-noetic” curriculum in a Reform Jewish Yeshiva that absorbs
critical science and yet retains transcendent significance, the
enchantment and mystery of our texts and stories? How can we reserve
the right autonomously to dissent from obfuscation in traditional
institutions of authority which conflict with what we consider to be
the best of our sensibilities and, at the same time, remain aware that
these sensibilities may be culturally, determined? And how can we, at
the same time, find the authority, without which the passion for
“truth” or “right” has no moral fundament and without which the
rabbinate has no true weight nor the rabbinic role any gravity? What
relationship does the recovery of engagement with sacred texts have to
do with the spiritual life? What is the religious motive for studying
Torah in our time equal to that of the late medieval Jew: “torat
adonai m’shivat nefesh,” the Torah of God restores the soul (to its
Source)? (Psalm 19)
After the mindless massacres in this century, the terror of our
history, our own continuous witness to a vision of history as a
butcher block in a way Hegel could never have conceived, can we
discover a vision of the end, or a recovery of time-fulfilled in the
present, which can call forth the best of the kind of energies and
fervor that our early forbearers in this our own movement felt in
their work every day?
Perhaps the fundamental issue, after first our embrace with
modernity and then its critique, is the question of our relationship
with the Transcendent. By the term “transcendent,” I mean a reality
that transcends the material dimension of existence and that therefore
eludes the determinism of material existence and the methods of
analyzing material existence. In philosophy it is what is referred to
as the metaphysical; in religion, what multitudes have spoken of as
“God”, the various names, attributes or emanations of the Divine
encountered in revelation or theophanies, and the apprehension of
those theologians who, out of the context of sacramental communities,
think about the relationship between the Divine and the human; and in
the custom of popular speech it is what is referred to as the
“signature,” or “footsteps” of the Divine, and “signals of
transcendence.” By using the word “transcendence”, we speak of the
realm connected to our sense experience not only through the sublime
works of art and poetry, but also through myths, symbol and metaphor,
and sacred observance, the realm to which Jewry has related by such
means of discourse as midrash aggadah, and the praxis of halacha. An
essay of Hannah Arendt published late in her life entitled, “Thinking
and Moral Consideration,” (1971) gives us another kind of reference
” What has come to an end [in modernity] is the distinction between
” the sensual and the super sensual together with the notion, at
” least as old as Parmenides, that whatever is not given to the
” sense… is more real, more truthful, more meaningful than
” what appears; that it is not just beyond sense perception but
” above the world of the senses… what is “dead” is not only the
” localization of… eternal truths’ but the [temporal/eternal,
” sensual/supersensual] distinction itself…. Meanwhile, in
” increasingly strident voices, the few defenders of metaphysics
” have warned of the danger of nihilism inherent in this
” development; and although they themselves seldom invoke it, they
” have an important argument in their favor: It is indeed true that
” once the super-sensual realm is discarded, its opposite, the world
” of appearances, as understood for so many centuries, is also
” annihilated. The sensual, as still understood by the positivists,
” cannot survive the death of the super-sensual. No one knew this
” better than Nietzsche, who, with his poetic and metaphoric
” description of the assassination of God in Zarathustra, has caused
” so much confusion in these matters. In a significant passage (in
” the Twilight of Idols), he clarifies what the word God meant in
” Zarathustra. It was a symbol for the supersensual realm as
” understood by metaphysics; he now uses instead of God the word
” ‘true world’ and says: ‘We have abolished the `true world’.
” What has remained? The apparent one perhaps? Oh, no! With the
” ‘true world’ we have also abolished the apparent one.'”
By which I take it both Nietzsche and Arendt mean the world in which
we live with its conflicts, issues and problems of the kind we must
now address, none of which issues could exist without assuming
The recovery of transcendence is at the root of all other issues
we must address, as the purpose of rabbinic or Jewish learning.
Without an enduring realm in which are rooted the moral principles to
which we fervently aspire and only dimly perceive, the entire issue of
autonomy versus authority dissolves for lack of a dialectic. If we
define autonomy, as liberal Jews must, as a choice against idols,
there can be no autonomy without an abiding structure or nomos with
which to identify the base and basis of our choice. Without authority
rooted in some transcendent reality beyond the self, the only
resolution that can emerge from a multiplicity of self aggrandizing
wills (in a Hobbesian war of the many against the many) will be
determined by the idolatries of state, nation, folk party, or dominant
interests. Since we lack a discourse of the transcendent, and with
this, a discourse of the Sacred, and have become so estranged from
such a discourse, there can be no integration of the praxis of the
Sacred on the one hand (observance, liturgy, meditation) and the
moral, ethical, and social consciousness on the other hand. Without
the transcendent the entire realm of ritual becomes what Freud said it
was: an infantile narcissistic self-deluding impediment to courageous
living, or a guru-centered, inculcated intoxication. For the liberal
stream of Judaism especially, our social consciousness, like roses cut
from the bush and enjoyed for a while in a vase, our ethics, cut from
the living tree or bush of the Jewish way of life, which is rooted in
the soil of the Sacred, ultimately wilt and wither in the desiccating
heat of radical relativism and of lives cut loose from any purpose
beyond the service of their own successes.
The transcendent is finally the metier of the rabbi, and of
course, the Jew. Rabbi Akiva’s parable of the fox and the fish is
apposite here; the fox enticing the fish to leave their watery world
and come out into the wonders of life on dry land. This was Akiva’s
answer to the Romans who encouraged the Jews to leave the way of Torah
and join the pagan culture of Hellenized Rome. When rabbis leave the
realm of the transcendent, our own element, we are inevitably
swallowed up into whatever is contemporary in this culture. These are
some of the issues which, through engagement with our texts, our own
modes of learning and discourse, we must continue to engage.
KABBALAH AND POSTMODERN JEWISH PHILOSOPHY: Final responses to Shaul
Magid’s paper are due October 10. Plan to join us at the AAR. For our
next issue, 4.4, final responses to Magid’s paper are due October 15.
IF YOU PLAN TO OFFER COMMENTS, PLEASE LET US KNOW NOW, via e-mail to
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“ALPER@IX.NETCOM.COM” Janice Alper, JES, Atlanta
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“SMAGID@RUF.RICE.EDU” Shaul Magid, Rice U.
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“DMARMAR@EPAS.UTORONTO.CA” Don Marmur, Toronto
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“JACOB.E.MESKIN@WILLIAMS.EDU” Jacob Meskin, Williams College
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“VOCHS@DREW.EDU” Vanessa Ochs, Drew U.
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Annette Aronowicz, Franklin and Marshall
Almut Bruckstein, Hebrew U., Jerusalem
Nina Cardin, CLAL
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Mark Friedman, Shaare Zedek Cong.
Michael Gottsegen, CLAL
Jack Greenberg, NJ
David Weiss Halivni. Columbia U.
Barry J. Hammer, Maine
Steven Jacobs, Temple B’nai Shalom
Leon Klenicki, ADL, NYC
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David Kraemer, Jewish Theological Seminary
David Novak, U. Virgina
Thomas Ogletree, Yale Divinity School
Adi Ophir, Tel Aviv U.
Michael Rosenak, Hebrew U.
Fred Saide, NJ
Richard Sarason, Hebrew Union College
Jonathan Seidel, UCLA
Avraham Shapira, Tel Aviv U.
Susan Shapiro, Columbia U.
Kenneth Seeskin, Northwestern U.
Paul Tuchman, Temple Beth El
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Michael Wyschogrod, U. of Houston
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