Old Series: Volume 1, Number 2 (July 1991)

Copyright (c) 1991 Postmodern Jewish Philosophy Bitnetwork
All rights reserved.

Office of Jewish Studies, Drew University, Madison, NJ 07940
Peter Ochs, Editor
Jennifer Straut, System Manager
Bitnet Address: POCHS@DREW; Telephone: (201) 408-3222


Richard Cohen, University of Alabama: UA1VMMJAMES
Robert Gibbs, Princeton University: RBGIBBS@PUCC
Yudit Greenberg, Rollins College:
Martin Jaffee, University of Washington: JAFFEE@U.WASHINGTON.EDU
Steven Kepnes, Colgate University: SKEPNES@COLGATEU
David Novak, University of Virginia
Peter Ochs, Drew University: POCHS@DREW
Susan Shapiro, University of Washington: JAFFEE@U.WASHINGTON.EDU
Larry Silberstein, Lehigh University: LJS2@NS
Alan Udoff, Baltimore Hebrew University: GURFEL@UMBC


Eugene Borowitz, HUC/JIR, New York
Almut Bruckstein, Hebrew University, Jerusalem
Joseph Faur, Brooklyn
Michael Fishbane, University of Chicago
Steven Fraade, Yale University: FRASTED@YALE.VM
Jay Geller, Rutgers University: LEVINE@SWARTHMR
William Scott Green, SUNY Buffalo WMSG@UORDBV
Jacob Meskin, Williams College
Paul Mendes-Flohr, Hebrew University, Jerusalem: HYUMP@HUJIVM1
Norbert Samuelson, Temple University: V5118E@TEMPLE VM
Ken Seeskin, Northwestern University
Avraham Shapira, Tel-Aviv University
Elliot Wolfson, New York University
Edith Wyschogrod, Queens College, CUNY
Michael Wyschogrod, Baruch College, CUNY
Bernard Zelechow, York University, Toronto


Welcome to the penultimate preparatory issue of the
Bitnetwork. Preparatory, because we are still collecting a sense
of what family of inquiries falls within the purview of our species
of “postmodernism,” delaying in characteristically modern fashion
a DECISION about what we will be as an electronic journal.
Penultimate, because we plan to be preparatory just one more time.

This issue features the following sections:
DESCRIPTIONS: as in the first issue, more abstracts of our
members’ current work. The goal remains collecting a family
resemblance class of descriptions of what we do, then searching for
the class characters that may define our network.
RESPONSES: our members’ initial responses to the abstracts in
the first issue. You may see some directions emerging out of our
initial apprehensions about post-modern trendiness.
ESSAYS: sampling reprints of some longer pieces pertinent to
finding our direction. Here, an excerpt from Eugene Borowitz’s
EXPLORING JEWISH ETHICS, and an existential definition from Richard
AFTERWORD: with plans for next time.

Beginning with this issue, we sport a copyright notice:

Copyright notice: Individual authors whose words appear in
the Description, Response, or Essay sections of this Bitnetwork
retain all rights for hard copy redistribution or electronic
retransmission of their words outside the Network. For words not
authored by individual contributors, rights are retained by the
editor of this Bitnetwork.


* “The Platonic Twist in Maimonides’ Ethics: A Revised Reading”

Philosophy according to Maimonides seems aimed at the
perplexing ideal of `knowing everything’; in methodological order
it includes such sciences as mathematics, astronomy, cosmology,
logic, ethics, and theology. The telos of all speculative
knowledge is the cognition of God which Maimonides identifies with
the correct interpretation of the prophetic writings.

Nowhere does Maimonides explicitly distinguish ethics and
theology as two distinct sciences. The content and character of
what it means to `know God’ are therefore left to speculative
interpretation. The 19th century German-Jewish philosopher Hermann
Cohen offers a most original and much disputed Platonic solution to
this question: ethical knowledge and knowledge of God are to be
identical, i.e. Maimonides’ ideal of `knowing God’ is taken as the
ideal of knowing ethics. Ethics thus becomes the prime issue in
interpreting Maimonides. Cohen’s thesis provides the argumentative
philosophical basis for the much repeated modern formula, namely
that Jewish philosophy is essentially ethical.

This paper offers a critical investigation of Cohen’s thesis
on the basis of the following line of argument:

The Platonic-Aristotelian controversy concerning the
characteristics of ethics is well known: Aristotle claims ethics is
a matter of practical training and habit whereas Plato considers
ethical knowledge a science based on the cognition of `the good.’
The Platonic ethical ideal, however, can only be intuitively known
and Plato consequently proclaims that ethics cannot be taught

Our reading of Maimonides tries to find an argumentative basis
for both the Aristotelian and Platonic definition of ethics without
tracing Maimonides’ thought back to either classic. Maimonides’
point of departure is the idea of `Imitatio Dei’, i.e. the
knowledge and emulation of God’s attributes of actions. In basing
`Imitatio Dei’ on the prophetic knowledge of thirteen concrete
actional attributes [rachum v’chanun] Maimonides endorses both the
`Platonic’ as well as the `Aristotelian’ aspect of ethics: Knowing
the `goodness’ of God– an act of speculative and axiomatic
cognition– becomes identical with the emulation of actional
attributes– an act that requires practical training and whose
habits can be taught [Hilkhot Deoth].

By taking Cohen’s thesis on Maimonides’ ethics seriously, i.e.
by understanding Imitatio Dei both as a speculative as well as an
emulative ideal, we find Cohen’s own anti-Aristotelian conclusions
counterproductive. Reading Maimonides, the moot questions of
either/or [practical or theoretical, contemplative or active,
Platonic or Aristotelian] give way to a more complementary reading
that can admit seemingly mutually exclusive theses to be equally
part of Maimonides’ thinking.

* “Teaching Levinas as a Jewish Thinker and Rosenzweig as a Post-
Modern Philosopher” for the International Center for University
Teaching in Jerusalem, July 1991
A quick introduction to my book, Correlations, with the
following new points: 1) Rosenzweig is a post-modern in his break
with pure reason, with reason as founding thought, and with the
possibility of absolute origins. In place of modern philosophy,
New Thinking offers a new orientation of thought–the relation to
others as what norms our experience. Rosenzweig turns to speech
and social gesture to supplement reason in order to achieve this
new orientation. 2) Levinas’ Judaism should be seen in the light
of Chaim of Volozin. Through a maskil, Levinas retains profound
respect for the mitnagdim, and attempts a contemporary French
adaptation of the intellectual and ethical rigor of the Volozin

* A Review Essay of Nine Talmudic Readings and Difficult Freedom
for Modern Judaism. (in progress)

* I am also doing a read-through of much Pragmatism (Peirce, James,
Royce and Dewey) to see if there is a way of expressing the radical
ethics of Cohen, Rosenzweig, and Levinas in an American idiom.

* “Re-membering the Body: Embodiment and Jewish Existence in the
Thought of Emmanuel Levinas”
This paper was given at the 1990 meeting of the AAR, in a
section devoted to post-modern Jewish philosophy. The paper
engages Levinas’ thinking about the body, focusing on accounts of
the body offered in Totality and Infinity and in Otherwise than
Being. Levinas’ thinking about the body, I argue, is intimately
connected to his thinking about Jewish existence, for the body,
like Jewish existence, brings a certain asymmetry into being. My
body, by itself, makes me just the individuated being I am — and
so my individuation is not primarily a social or historical matter
for Levinas. Similarly, Levinas reads the existence of the Jew, by
itself, as introducing a certain kind of differentiation into the
world. A consequence of my attempt to connect Levinas’ view of the
body with his view of Jewish existence is that Levinas would seem
to be left with a socially and historically attenuated view of
Jewish life. And this, I argue, turns out to be the case in many
of Levinas’ explicitly Jewish writings. I explore this consequence
toward the end of the paper, offering some suggestions as to how we
might retain Levinas’ incisive analyses of the body while, at the
same time, integrating social and historical considerations into
Levinas’ unique phenomenological (or anti-phenomenological)

* “From Post-Modern Political Thinking to Jewish Philosophy: The
Post-Modern Analysis of Images and the Jewish Critique of Idolatry”

This is an experimental paper, to be given at a Williams
College Faculty Research Seminar in the Fall of 1991. The paper
attempts to sketch out something like a “post-modern Jewish”
response to the recent call for a post-modern way of thinking about
politics. After rehearsing the debate between liberal and
deconstructive political perspectives, I attempt to develop a model
that might incorporate the strengths of both of these perspectives.
I work toward this model in the following way. First of all, I
present a particular body of post-modern political reflection,
namely the critique of images and their pervasive political power
advocated by Jean Baudrillard. I then go on to contrast the work
of Baudrillard with the critique of idolatry offered in Jewish
philosophy, concentrating, in particular, on arguments drawn from
Moses Mendelssohn, and to a lesser degree, on arguments drawn from
Emmanuel Levinas. The way in which these Jewish thinkers identify
the dangers of idolatry and suggest remedies, offers a fruitful
contrast with the work of Baudrillard. Most importantly, the
Jewish philosophical approach to idolatry suggests ways to sketch
out a model for political identity and activity. This model
provides us with many of the advantages of post-modern analysis,
but it does not relinquish possibilities for developing both
communal ideals and ethical criticism. And this model also
suggests valuable micro-institutions and rituals which may help to
preserve these very communal ideals and ethical criticism.

* Postcritical Scriptural Interpretation (edited collection, New
York, Ramsey: Paulist Press, forthcoming, 1992).

I’m now finishing up work on this collection of essays by six
Jewish and six Christian text scholars and theologians whose
writings display the emergent hermeneutical orientation I call
“postcritical inquiry.” The contributors are, in order of
appearance, the late Hans Frei, (“Literal Reading of Biblical
Narrative in the Christian Tradition”), George Lindbeck (“Toward a
Postliberal Theology”), Steven Fraade (“The Turn to Commentary in
Classical Judaism: the Case of Sifre”), David Weiss Halivni (“Plain
Sense and Applied Meaning in Rabbinic Exegesis”), Michael Fishbane
(“The Sense of Not Reading, As It Were”), Moshe Greenberg
(“Scriptural Citations in Maimonides’ MISHNEH TORAH”), David
Burrell (“Maimonides, Aquinas and Ghazali on Naming God”), Jose
Faur (“Sanchez’ Critique of Authoritas: Converso Skepticism and the
Emergence of Radical Hermeneutics”), John E. Smith (“Piety and its
Fruits in the Philosophy of Jonathan Edwards”), Paul Van Buren
(“How Is It That We Hear? An Interpretation of Acts 2:8-13),
Stanley Hauerwas (“Developing Hopeful Virtues: A Meditation on
Romans 5:1-5), Martin Buber (“Toward a New German Translation of
the Scriptures”) translated into English by Alan Swensen, edited
and with commentary by Steven Kepnes.

In my introductory essay and comments, I characterize
postcritical inquiry as “a tendency to give ecclesial and rabbinic
traditions of interpretation both the benefit of the doubt and the
benefit of doubt: the former, by assuming that there are
dimensions of Scriptural meaning which are disclosed only by way of
the hermeneutical practices of believing communities and believing
traditions of Jews and Christians; the latter, by assuming, in the
spirit of post-Spinozistic criticism, that these dimensions are
clarified through the disciplined practice of philological,
historical and textual/rhetorical criticism.” I suggest that
philosophy serves postcritical inquiry by displaying the family of
hermeneutical rules that informs it and by re-evaluating individual
inquiries on the basis of these rules. I identify these rules in
terms of the modified version of Charles Peirce’s semiotics I had
previously used to identify Max Kadushin’s postcritical

Among the defining features of postcritical inquiry are: 1)a
critique of the tendency of modernist Scriptural hermeneutics to
devolve into a dialectic of objectivist (propositional) and
subjectivist (emotivist) reductions; 2)the search for a paradigm of
mediating, non-dichotomizing hermeneutics within the practices of
traditional rabbinic or ecclesial exegesis; 3)the readoption of
that paradigm within the context of modern, critical inquiry. I
suggest that this paradigm draws a tripartite distinction among the
plain-sense of a text as symbol, the various referential senses of
the text as its range of possible meanings, and the various
contexts of interpretation with respect to which the text displays
its meanings. “Modernist” exegesis tends to reduce these contexts
to one, effectively distinguishing only text and reference, or text
and response (adopted in place of reference).


Some quick thoughts on “post-modernism.” I do not see the
real value of this label unless one clarifies, as is so rarely
done, the meaning of “modern.” As a philosopher I take “modern” to
mean that sort of thought that went on from Descartes to Kant (or
Hegel/Marx, depending on one’s point of view). “Post-modern,”
then, is the attempt to come up with a label for whatever the next
thing that is “happening” after “contemporary thought,” which is
what I, as a philosopher, call whatever it is that went on via
Nietzsche primarily (and for most of us is still going on) after
“modern” philosophy. I do not know what it means, except that it
seems to be associated with what is taken to be Derridean
“deconstruction,” but what is very often simply old fashioned
iconoclasm (with the attendant pleasures of the persecuted
coterie). Literary “types,” however, who have taken the “post-
modern” label and run with it (see MLA program), think of “modern”
as something that happened in literary criticism at the beginning
of this century, done by folks like Lionel Trilling, I.A.Richards,
et al., I think, and having to do with the relation or non-relation
of author to text. “Post-modern” in this context also, as in
philosophy, seems to mean anything that the person using the term
wants it to mean, but most usually, again, meaning a wild (or so I
think they would interpret themselves) sort of freedom (again of
the persecuted avant-garde minority). So far, in sum, “post-
modern” seems to be little else than the latest label for (the
perennial) sophism in academia (as opposed to the legal profession,
where sophists (=lawyers) can and often do make lots of money).

If I may add one more barb: If often seems to me that the word
“post-modernism” is used self-referentially when an academic wants
to be thought of as being creative/original/constructive rather
than “merely” scholarly/historical/secondary. I sympathize with
the desire, but nonetheless here, where Mr. Ego is so eager to jump
up and down and make all the usual sorts of self-promotional
noises, one must be extremely cautious, and as a matter of
principle trust no self-interpretations one way or the other.

So have I ticked anyone off? Am I really off base? Who can
straighten this question out? Does it (ie, do labels) matter?

We need more contributors. Whatever I say on the basis of
five people (and I am one of them) will not be adequate to the
task. I wish that several others (Novak, Shapiro, Udoff, and so
on) had also pitched in so that I could survey the larger field.
What I did find in the work of the five was a shared interest on
Biblical texts. The question of how to make the Bible speak
philosophy recurs, as well as the more general question of how to
make the Bible speak today. There is clearly also a shared concern
over the question of the relation of speech and writing as well.
Perhaps the question of greatest importance that remains open is
the relation of Halakhah and Aggadah–which roughly translates into
the importance of law and ethics in relation to the cognition of
truth. In terms of internal discussion, the way to explore the
relation between the Jewish terms might be the best focus. In
terms of talking with others, the Jewish interpretative traditions
seem the key to what we are examining.

It seems we have a number of different groups that are
emerging already. There are the “hermeneutical” people, those like
Ochs, Faur, and myself who see Jewish “post-modernism” as a textual
turn, a turn to biblical and rabbinic texts as the mediation
between Jewish self and tradition, Jewish self and other, Jewish
self and God.

There are the Continental philosophers like Gibbs, Meskin,
Greenberg, Silberstein, who are working to bring Jewish
philosophers like Buber, Rosenzweig and Levinas in contact with
post-modern thinkers like Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard etc. I notice
in Silberstein’s work a concerted attempt at “social or ideology
critique.” Although Silberstein is obviously appreciative of the
primal role of language, discourse, rhetoric, I do not see a focus
on “text.” Certainly not like Ochs and Faur, who are most text
embedded. I see Greenberg moving closer to the “Text” approach in
her application of Derrida to Rosenzweig’s writings on Song of
Songs and the Halevi poems. E. Wyschogrod represents still another
move in her work on Saints, on person and action rather than text
or ideology. Perhaps these distinctions I am making are too crisp
and really unhelpful. As “postmoderns” we do appreciate, as Susan
Shapiro has said, the breaking down of barriers between text,
interpreter, self/other, text/interpretation. Still, as we struggle
to articulate who we are as a group of Jewish post-moderns, this
exercise may have some heuristic value.

Although I have put myself in the “Textual” “Hermenetuic”
group I am presently moving back (or forward) to Continental
philosophy. I am captured by the notion that in the Jewish
Continental Philosophers Buber, Rosenzweig, Levinas, one finds a
dialogic or relational notion of self. This is in contradistinction
to Kant’s “autonomous self” on the one hand and it is also
different from the post-modern “de-centered,” “absent,” or
“disappearing” self on the other hand. Why are the Jewish
philosophers attracted to a dialogic or relational notion of self?
Is it their Judaism or is it their Hegelianism? I’d be grateful to
any thoughts group members have on this issue and to any references
you know of regarding Buber or Rosenzweig or Levinas’s notions of
self. I hope I am not turning away from my “hermeneutical turn” by
looking to Continental philosophy. I am interested to know if one
could say that the rabbis’ notion of self is hermeneutical in that
it is mediated by the text of torah and midrash. IS Ochs right
when he warns us get away from the Europeans, look to American
and pragmatism for your postmodern theories?

(The casual remarks that follow aim merely to stir things up
a bit, to stimulate other people to schmooze about similar things
as they see them. Maybe the collective conversation will help us
work out our focus and direction. I offer my programmatic and
partial reflections in this spirit.)

To begin somewhat facetiously, the expression “post-modern”
has come to cover such a multitude of sin that one may wonder
whether we need exactly this particular monicker. It is certainly
at least somewhat useful, in that it helps many of us to identify
our interests and concerns to one another. But the phrase “post-
modern” has also come to have a certain ephemeral currency, a
bravado and avant-garde quality of “being-with-it” associated with
the eternal return of the young Turk. With a shibboleth such as
this one, whose echo of triumphant “up-to-dateness” sometimes
resound in a vaguely millennarian fashion, perhaps a moment of
caution or self-consciousness would be beneficial.

On the other hand, as Peter Ochs mentioned in the last issue,
the reigning paradigms for Jewish philosophy — Aristotelianism and
Kantianism — are indeed part and parcel of large-scale world-views
that have increasingly less hold over our hearts and minds today.
Leaving aside for the moment Hegelian-inspired ways of narrating
the history of philosophy, it seems safe to say that post-modern
thinking is connected to the ongoing social, historical and
cultural realities we find around us and within us. The ever
growing importance of information processing, mass imagery,
fragmented views of the self, and the mutual interpenetration of
hitherto distinct cultural traditions — to name just a few
features — all characterize the different worldscape in which
post-modern thinking occurs.

Of course to be a Jewish thinker one must spin the newness of
the future from the threads of the past, discovering the surprise
of unexpected novelty amidst ancient fidelity. So we are hardly
free to dismiss previous ways of thinking about Judaism. Yet we
must also, at the same time, draw on post-modern suspicions,
methods, questions and insights if we are to be true to ourselves
and the world we live in. If we fail to do this, whatever chiddush
or life-giving newness contemporary Jewish philosophy may be able
to contribute to Judaism will dry up.

This presents a difficult agenda — to do post-modern thinking
about Judaism while somehow doing justice to previous approaches.
This agenda seems clearly to require that we exercise a heuristic
humility about our periodization of history. In other words, if we
are to do valuable post-modern Jewish philosophy, then we must
appreciate problems and dynamics that have always been involved in
the Jewish philosophical enterprise. And such an appreciation can
easily discourage innovation.

While this agenda is daunting enough, another matter also
demands attention. Judaism is more than scholarship. It is also
a lived religion. Now lived religions demand models and metaphors
and concepts that provide some sort of meaningful, and moving,
pattern for its adherents. And if social, historical and cultural
realities have changed in ways that often make post-modern thinking
a propos, then it follows that we may also need concrete, practical
and popular approaches to Jewish life that incorporate certain
post-modern ideas.

To put this point another way: social “plausibility
structures” are undergoing enormous changes. The inevitable
isolation and hyper-individualization of contemporary society, the
psychic dislocation, the absence of new social forms to replace
antiquated ones — all these things affect the lived affective tone
of flesh and blood religious people. What, exactly, does Judaism
have to say to these people — to us? It seems to me that post-
modern thinking has a valuable contribution to make to this
question. A constructive post-modern Jewish “theology”? Post-
modern reflections on Jewish ritual? On Jewish religious
experience? On Jewish identity? All of these seem both possible
and helpful to me.

Finally, without overdoing the point, there are undeniable
similarities between post-modern thinking and Jewish thinking —
especially in the areas of textuality and authority. Perhaps some
careful exploration of these similarities might also help us along
our uncharted and promising path.

As introduced in the first issue of this Bitnetwork, we’ve
adopted the label “postmodern” as a temporary place-marker. Until
we can identify what we do as a group, the label serves as an
indexical marker of the fact that our various inquiries do not seem
to fit into other already identified molds of Jewish philosophy and
that our work is, in part, in dialogue with forms of hermeneutical,
deconstructive or in other ways recent and irritable inquiry that
also lack comfortable self-identification and names. It seems the
best way to begin is to collect a sense of what we’re already
doing, reduce it somewhat to its identifiable tendencies, provide
some labels for them and then get on with it. Rather than ruminate
more about the term “postmodern” or about how any other groups in
the world care to use it, I therefore find it helpful to offer some
first level generalizations about what contributing members of the
Network have said they are doing. The labels can come later.

From the abstracts in the first issue, I think our colleagues’
work displays the following features:
1.Interpretive Paradigms:
(derived from) Bible:Borowitz, Kepnes, Ochs, (we could
add M. Wyschogrod; some of Novak).
Rabbinics: Borowitz, Gibbs, Meskin, Ochs (add Jaffee, M.
Wyschogrod, Novak)
Jewish Social Forms: Borowitz, Silberstein
Jewish and Other Literary Forms: Borowitz, Kepnes, E.
Wyschogrod (add Jaffee, Shapiro, Udoff)
Intellectual Paradigms: Samuelson (add Udoff)
Experiential Paradigms: Borowitz, Cohen, Gibbs, Meskin.
2.Analytic Procedures (tools for inspecting, clarifying the
interpretive paradigms):
Kant: Borowitz
Existentialism: Borowitz, Cohen
Phenomenology: Cohen, Gibbs, Greenberg, Meskin (Novak,
some E. Wyschogrod, M. Wyschogrod)
Continental Hermeneutics: Greenberg, Kepnes, Meskin
Deconstructive, Literary Hermeneutics: E. Wyschogrod
(Shapiro, Udoff)
Critical Theory: Silberstein
Semiotics, Pragmatism: some Gibbs, Ochs
Process models: Samuelson
Philosophic Realism, Mathmatical Philosophy: Samuelson
3.Prototypes in the Jewish Use of Such Analytic Paradigms:
Buber: Cohen, Kepnes
Rosenzweig: Gibbs, Greenberg, Meskin
Levinas: Cohen, Gibbs, Greenberg, Meskin, E. Wyschogrod
Lyotard: (Shapiro)
Kadushin and recent postcritical rabbinic scholars: Ochs
Medieval philosophers: Samuelson
Their own mix: Borowitz, Samuelson, E. Wyschogrod
(Novak, M. Wyschogrod).

These characteristics may collect into families, suggesting
some orders such as these:
Order: The variety of for-now-called-postmodern Jewish
philosophy displayed by our members is a non-ontologizing, non-
foundational philosophy, stimulated by concern for problems in our
social or religious praxis and by a shared concern that the
dichotomizing, reductive models of modernity (or also the
trajectory of medieval-modern philosophy) do not foster adequate
responses to those problems. This for-now-called-postmodern Jewish
philosophy participates in the open-ended inquiry into human
experience fostered by modern western philosophy, but seeks to
refer all interpretations of such experience to context-specific
paradigms of interpretation. Among the paradigmatic contexts
preferred by for-now-called-postmodern Jewish philosophers are:
Revealed Text (Bible); Prototypical Communities/Traditions of
Jewish Text Interpretation (Rabbinics); The Social-Intellectual
Practices of Jewish Communities.

Suborders: These should be divided, severally, according to
the pragmatic or corrective concerns which motivate the individual
philosophers’ works, including the context of modernist practice of
particular concern, then according to the philosophers’ preferred
works, including the context of modernist practice of particular
concern, then according to the philosophers’ preferred interpretive
paradigms and preferred analytic paradigms. For now, here’s a
guess at some more populated sub-groupings, according to the
preferred paradigms only:
a)Guided by Experiential and/or Biblical sources
b)Guided by Rabbinic sources
a)Continental (may be linked with 1a or 1b)
b)American – pragmatic (may be linked with 1b)
3)Literary-Deconstructive (may be linked with 2a)

Among the currently less populated:
4)Process/Philosophic Realism
5)Social (or critical) Theory

In my own case (without any attempt to impose [or interest in
imposing] my agenda on anyone else) I will interpret “postmodern
perspective” and “Jewish thought” to mean twentieth century events
that require a new way of thinking about issues of Judaism.
Undoubtedly, most people will list the “Holocaust” as such an
event. I shared that belief for approximately a decade (viz.,
after the publication of Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz), but I
changed my mind about it some time ago. The issue is not, is this
an extremely important event in human and Jewish history. Clearly
it is. Rather, the issue is, is there anything about this event
that requires us to think about anything, particularly about
Judaism, in new (i.e., post-19th century) ways, and I do not
believe that it does. I won’t argue that position here for two
reasons. (1) I interpret our assignment to set forth constructive,
rather than critical, judgements. (2) I assume that these
statements are for shared discussion over our network and I assume
that others will note the Holocaust as such an event. I would
rather deal with the issue in response to what others have to say
constructively rather than trying a priori to construct their case.

I find two sets of events to be of particular importance in
terms of a contemporary re-thinking of Jewish religious commitment.
One (A) is the communications revolution, viz., the development of
the motion picture and TV. Its importance is two-fold. First, it
is an industry that is predominantly secular Jewish that reaches
daily millions of people. The significance of this fact is that
(1) it is secular Jewish artists whose thought has more impact on
both Jews and the rest of humanity throughout the world than all
religious and/or scholarly Jews have ever had in all of history.
E.g., any prime time television program needs an audience of at
least 25 million people not to be canceled. That means that if
every Jew in the world (of whom there are about 20 million) watched
the show, it would not be enough to make prime time (between 8 and
11 pm EST) on any night of the week on any day in the year. (2)
Books/articles are no less and no more a visual media for
communication than Film/TV. The critical difference between them
is that the former is linear whereas the latter is not. Now, what
has functioned as logical thinking throughout most of history (and
all of Jewish intellectual history) is the logic of Aristotle whose
form, like writing itself, is linear. In contrast, the new visual
media uses a significantly different kind of logic to both prove
and convince its audience. The critical point is that this new
communication is no less logical than the old. It calls for a new
kind of logic, not the rejection of logic altogether.

In other words, it is not the case that the grammar of art
transcends the logic of reason (to paraphrase Rosenzweig). Rather,
it is the case that there are different kinds of logic; we as Jews
have used this term/tool in too limited a way, and we have to
explore how the new expanded uses of logic apply to perennial,
major issues of Jewish religious thought. It is from this
perspective that I would argue that (even post-modern) thinking
ought to remain mathematical. Contrary to Rosenzweig, geometry is
only algebra, i.e., the issue is not between geometry and algebra.
Rather, what is important is that both plain geometry and simple
algebra are too narrow for modern thought. They are incurably
restricted in two respects — they are static and (again) they are
linear. The solution is not to reject logic/math altogether, but
to take advantage of the new developments in math that provide us
with the tools of dynamic (e.g., calculus) and nonlinear ways of
thinking. (Early moderns attempted to draw a radical distinction
between quantitative and qualitative thinking has been, in my
judgment, a blind alley for progress in religious philosophy. We
would do better to return to both Genesis 1 and Plato’s Timaeus for
models for how to think mathematically about both ethics and
ontology.) {Rosenzweig does this by accident. Only Whitehead
tries to do it, but with limited results — largely because [in my
opinion] he was aware of changes in scientific thinking from
Einstein’s work in relativity, but not from quantum mechanics.}

The other (B) is the revolution in physics, viz., both
relativity theory and quantum mechanics. What seems to me to be
most important about both for rethinking traditional Jewish
religious positions are the following: (1) Modernism (viz.,
philosophy since Descartes) has presupposed the value of the
individual over the collective, and this moral/political judgment
was rooted (or, at least coherent with) a scientific world view in
which entities ultimately are some kind of particles, viz.,
individual substances from which the world is constituted. This
kind of “atomism” is now dead. Minimally, particles exist only in
nexus with other particles. Maximally, particles do not exist at
all. Rather (as both Timaeus and the author of Genesis 1 believed)
what exists is structured space that gives identity to not only
substances (contrary to the tradition of Aristotle through
Spinoza), but to facts/states-of-affairs as well (contrary to
process philosophy and the tradition of religious thought of both
Rosenzweig and Buber). Now it strikes me as somewhat precarious to
affirm the autonomy of the individual (viz., the most fundamental
commitment in all liberal religion) independent of scientific-
conceptual-coherence, which is the best that any liberal can hope
to do now, given the state of ontology in contemporary philosophy
of science. (2) The notion of causation that has been presupposed
in all discussions of God and the world in all Jewish thought has
been determinism, viz., to say “A causes B” means “A determines B”
means that in some significant sense “What is true about B
necessarily follows from what is true about A,” where A and B are
individuals. However, if the mathematical laws of modern science
in any sense describe reality, “truth” applies to collections of
individuals, not individuals, and “causes” are in principle
probability judgments whose degree of certainty in principle never
is 1, i.e., in principle whatever causation means it has nothing
to do with either determinism or necessity. Now, given that causal
relations between entities are probability judgments about
collectives, how are we to interpret traditional statements in
Jewish philosophy about God and his relation to the world?


excerpted from Exploring Jewish Ethics, Papers on Covenant
Responsibility (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1990): pp. 26-36.
* Ch. 2 “Jewish? Ethics? Jewish Ethics? — The New Problems”

Since Jews began leaving the ghetto, no facet of their new
self-image has carried more symbolic weight than the complex of
ideas associated with “Jewish ethics.” It justified their
participation in general society, validated their emancipated
Jewish identity, explained and shaped their secularity, refuted
Christian claims to superiority — and much more. Yet today the
entire notion of “Jewish ethics,” as we have commonly understood
the term, has become questionable, engendering the search for new


To begin with the history, the early nineteenth-century
Emancipation of “ghetto” Jewry — a gradual process rather than an
event — revolutionalized Jewish life to an extent free Jews can
hardly comprehend. After roughly 1500 years of segregation,
oppression, and then persecution, European Jews became social
equals. (Jews under Arab rule were not similarly benefitted as
were, in even happier ways, those coming to North America.) This
drastic social relocation made a revised understanding of Jewish
identity indispensable for the masses who eagerly embraced the new
freedom. Thinkers reflecting on the heady experience of equality
worked out a Jewish response to it in terms of ideas we have come
to know as “Jewish ethics,” a theme that became central to
modernized Jewry’s self-image.

Traditional Judaism had not addressed the abstract concern
with conduct called “ethics.” No book of the Bible or the Talmud
has ethics as its topic or major theme; however, once one thinks in
terms of ethics one becomes aware of the strong ethical thrust
found in the Written and Oral Torah. Ethics is, of course, a Greek
way of looking at duty, a duty derived from reason. Judaism had a
more reliable source of obligation, God’s revelation, and thus it
spoke of commandments, ones that dealt with very much more of life
than how one should treat other people. Not until Jews learned
about Greek philosophy in the ninth century did they occasionally
reflect specifically on ethics. Thus, the modern Jewish
understanding of Jewish ethics and its exaltation as the primary
means of being a good Jew were very much more a creative innovation
than a simple evolution.

The concept primarily derived from the startling experience of
having rights as a citizen. This only became possible when the
modern state enfranchised individuals, not classes like the
nobility, or institutions like the church or the Jewish community.
The new status of the single self was confirmed as democracy
increasingly expanded. Now each citizen had a share in determining
who would rule and, more important for our theme, who would
legislate. Though people had to share their political power with
numerous others, the act of voting taught them about their newly
enriched personal worth. Since then, participation in determining
the laws ruling one has been a critical indication of individual
dignity, a reality the worldwide passion for self-determination
continues to demonstrate.

Democracy came, and still comes, as a wonder to the previously
disenfranchised. To European Jewry, it seemed nearly miraculous,
for political equality was given to everyone, including, despite
controversy, those millennial outsiders, the Jews. The
intellectual-ethical roots of the emancipation of Jewry were
rationalistic. Citizenship was to be universal; ideally no one was
excluded from the democratic process and no one within it was to
have more power than anyone else. Moreover, the new opportunities
available to Jews seemed, compared to the ghetto’s limited arena of
activity, to encompass little less than the whole world. Not the
least of these were economic opportunities, offering the hope of
advancing from penury to security.

The overwhelming majority of Jews found the lure of
modernization irresistible; neither force nor special incentive was
ever required to get them to leave the ghetto. Subsequently,
whenever equality has been honestly offered to Jews, they have
avidly taken advantage of it. One cannot hope to fathom the
character of modern Jewish life today without acknowledging its
foundation in the Jewish passion to be an integral part of
democratic society.

Living largely among gentiles created a conflict with what the
rabbinate taught was the necessary form and tone of Jewish life.
To some extent the Torah directly mandated a good measure of Jewish
separatism; more critically, the recent centuries of segregation
and persecution had heightened the desire for self-isolation. They
brought about a defensiveness that opposed modernization, including
such adaptations as recent generations of the observant have found
compatible with Jewish law.

In response, many Jews simply did what modernity had taught
them: they made up their own minds about what they ought to do.
Mostly on their own, but learning from one another and occasionally
in concert, they created their own versions of how to be Jewish and
modern. In the West, the religious model proved most efficacious,
so Jews modernized their worship and other religious duties through
the movements we know as Reform and Conservative Judaism. In the
East, nationality offered a better way of modernizing, so Jews
there turned to secular patterns such as cultural enlightenment,
Zionism, and Jewish socialism for a new self-image. In all these
new modes of Jewish existence, the modern concept of ethics was
essential, providing Jews with their essential view of being human
and staying Jewish.

Many reasons came together to commend the notion of Jewish
ethics. Negatively, by its reliance on individual conscience and
reason, Jewish ethics persuasively superseded the now embarrassing
doctrine of God’s revelation, as well as the restrictive power of
the traditional rabbinate. Positively, the concept affirmed the
dignity of the individual, not the least by exalting the Jewish
virtue of simply doing good. Jewish ethics also provided an easily
understandable criterion for what was lasting in the Jewish
heritage — its ethics — and what might be changed — its other
observances. At the same time, it clarified why responsible Jews
should devote much of their energy to a world dominated by
gentiles, making such social involvement an essential Jewish duty.
In this way, it mandated a Jewish way of life that, because of its
universality, transcended the encumbrances of particularity, yet
simultaneously justified why Jews should stay Jews. Judaism, with
its classic emphasis on “works,” was, particularly when modernized,
simply more ethical than Christianity, which prided itself on its
concern with faith. Modern Jews had no difficulty reading historic
Jewish law as essentially moral law, but they denied that one could
create a realistic social ethics from the Christian doctrine of
love. And since ethics derived from human reason and made
believing in God Jewishly irrelevant, this notion appealed equally
to Jewish secularists.

Because of this multiple appeal, the various understandings
connected with Jewish ethics were at the ideological heart of every
movement to modernize Judaism. Despite much criticism, Jewish
ethics remains the single most important way Jews validate their
traditions to themselves and justify their community against its
detractors. This continuing commitment lies behind the tensions
American Jews feel whenever they perceive the United States or the
State of Israel transgressing decent ethical limits.

Acknowledging the social functions of the concept of Jewish
ethics does not lead to the cynical conclusion that the concept
merely rationalized Jewish group interest. It did serve Jewish
social needs and almost certainly gained its power from its social
origins, but most Jews affirmed the concept because they believed
it was true; they knew instinctively that the essence of Judaism
was being a good person. They saw their heritage uncommonly
devoted to creating good people and caring communities, though its
modes of doing so in other times and cultures now occasionally
clashed with an unsegregated existence.

No thinker more effectively demonstrated the academic
legitimacy of ethics and thus the primary principle of a rational
interpretation of Judaism than Hermann Cohen (1842-1918). Based on
his internationally recognized philosophic revival of Kant, this
great turn-of-the-century German philosopher gave the concept of
Jewish ethics its enduring distinctive form. Cohen’s thought was
brought to American Jewry by the many students who went to Germany
to pursue doctorates in Jewish studies. Since Cohen’s ideas
permeated German Jewish intellectual life, everyone who studied in
Germany absorbed them. Then often, as professors at American
seminaries, these former students taught Cohen’s ideas to their
rabbinical students, who in turn transmitted them to their

On a less academic level, the centrality of ethics to Judaism
was made an intellectual staple by the widely read Hebrew essayist
writing under the name Ahad Haam (Asher Ginzberg, 1856-1927). His
Zionism envisioned the Jewish homeland serving as a “spiritual
center” for worldwide Jewry. By “spiritual” he meant nothing
religious since he was a committed secularist. An uncompromising
elitist, Ahad Haam believed the human spirit could only by
fulfilled in high cultural creativity. He therefore wanted the
Jewish people to return to their land to revive an authentic Jewish
culture. In this, Jewish ethics would have to play a vital role
since he insisted that the Jews had a special national gift for
ethics, one their reestablished cultural independence would clearly
make manifest. In equating Jewish nationalism with high ethical
attainment, Ahad Haam was exceptional among the early theoreticians
of Zionism — the reason, observers suggest, that he is no longer
considered relevant by most Israeli intellectuals. Since Ahad Haam
never fully explicated his view of Jewish ethics or its
distinctiveness, and his brief references sound much like Hermann
Cohen’s neo-Kantianism, let us sketch in some of this thinker’s
relevant ideas.

Like Kant, Cohen argued that ethics was as fully significant
a dimension of the rational mind as was science (with esthetics the
third such mode). In the Kantian understanding, reason presses
toward comprehensive explanations so that a rational ethics can be
recognized, in part by its universality; that is, it has respect
for all moral agents (human beings), granting them intrinsic
dignity and including them in all truly ethical rules. Moreover,
Kant argued, just as in science a rational mind seeks to establish
the laws of nature, so a rational person will seek an ethics
structured in law, the so-called “moral law.”

Cohen developed his neo-Kantianism in heavy academic tomes,
quite independent of any Jewish overtones. Yet as a proud Jew, he
would occasionally write an essay showing how his philosophy
illuminated, indeed, lay at the core of the Jewish tradition.
Applied in virtuoso fashion by his many followers, this neo-
Kantianism seemed so true an understanding of what it meant to be
a modern, rational person and yet so clear an evocation of the soul
of traditional Judaism that it became the grounding premise of
modern Jewry’s intellectual self-understanding.

One further theme of particular American significance remains
to be mentioned: the identification of Jewish ethics with liberal
politics and social-action activities. European Jewish socialists
had stressed the moral power of politics — particularly as
contrasted to piety — and they brought their ethical activism with
them to the United States. By the mid-twentieth century, with the
massive East European Jewish migration acculturating, the United
States, itself catalyzed by the reforms of the New Deal, seemed
ready for a fuller democracy. After the World War II victory over
the Nazi totalitarians and with an expanding economy providing more
for everyone, America began making good on its promise of equality
to the minorities it had previously scorned. Jews delighted in
this process not only as a response to their social agenda but as
a powerful means of ensuring their new gains. If even those lower
on the ladder of social acceptability had guaranteed rights, then
Jews would surely be more secure in their status as equals.
Moreover, since anti-semitism seemed largely to arise from social
discontent, it was prudent for Jews to support governmental action
to alleviate problems such as unemployment, inadequate housing, job
discrimination, and so on. (Speculatively, this belief in the
government as moral leader has its roots in the experience of
Jewish emancipation and in the classic Jewish belief in the power
of law.) Consequently, as the 1950’s moved along and then as the
1960’s gave birth to a newly demonstrative, confrontational
politics, Jews were to be found in every liberal cause in highly
disproportionate numbers.

In sum, by the late 1960’s most American Jews took it for
granted that the most important thing about Judaism was its ethics
and that Jewish ethics meant liberal politics.


This remarkable amalgam of social experience, self-interest,
and moral intuition then began to fall apart as each of its
components came under increasing challenge. As a result, the
meanings popularly associated with the terms Jewish, ethics, and
Jewish ethics were thrown into doubt. How one might properly speak
of such a concept and, certainly, what its content was became
matters of considerable argument. One period’s certainty had
become another’s perplexity.

To begin with the social context again, American democracy,
with surprising quickness, lost much of its moral stature. A
strong civil-rights law did not lead to full equality for blacks,
and numerous other minority groups learned the politics of
confrontation and protest, the limits of American tolerance became
clear. The Vietnam War made suspicion rather than respect the
common attitude toward government, and the continuing scandals,
typified by Watergate, completed the desacralization of democratic
politics. At the same time, the university, the family, the arts,
religion, all the institutions we counted on to nurture character
now showed themselves equally capable of corrupting it. Then, too,
our economy could no longer promise most people expanding economic
horizons, and our society began tolerating actions that once would
have been condemned as vice. Above everyone’s head hovered the
plagues of violence and drugs. A shift in ethos from idealistic
hope to cynical resignation could hardly be avoided. Modernity had
become a deep disappointment; individual freedom was more than
conscience could handle so that the old stabilities suddenly became
preferable to the new openness.

In the Jewish community, the general misery had pointed focus
in the special pain of the Holocaust. Modern culture, even
democracy, did not prevent such ineffable evil. It took American
Jews nearly twenty years to face this horror — one intimately
connected, I am convinced, not with the death of a biblical God
that a largely agnostic community no longer affirmed, but with the
loss of its operative faith in Western culture and human
competence. Then came the further revelations that the
democracies, including the United States, had not done all they
could have to mitigate the slaughter. The depth of anti-semitism
in Western culture seemed immeasurable, and the continual incidents
that indicated its unabated virulence made modernity’s potential
for malevolence painfully unavoidable.

Intellectually, too, the vision of humankind as rational and
rationality itself implying a Kant-like ethics lost its old
compelling power, perhaps mostly as a result of the incredible
carnage of World War I. What remained of Kantian ethics faded as
psychoanalysis from within and anthropology and Marxism from
without demonstrated that, realistically, “conscience” mostly meant
the introjected parent or group interest. Moreover, if one tightly
identifies the ration with “clear and distinct ideas,” then only
science and logic qualify as rational, rendering ethics more
personal preference than reasoned truth. With the increasing
acceptance of this technical sense of rationality, one could
credibly claim to be quite rational yet a-ethical, a dichotomy
unthinkable to Kantians. Today many philosophic varieties of
“rationality” compete for our intellectual allegiance, none able to
demonstrate why it rather than its competitors should structure our
thinking. Even worse, with philosophy itself largely conceived as
a “construction of reality,” none can establish why, to begin with,
we ought to strive to be ethical and, as a consequence, why its
ethics command imperatives rather than merely offer counsel.

In this radically changed intellectual environment, few can
retain the old Kantian liberal certainty that ethics is more
certain than belief, and therefore religion must first begin with
a rational ethics and then include only what is compatible with it.
The postmodern situation begins with the recognition that ethics
has lost its old certainty and priority. The deconstructionists
unabashedly construe ethics as only another form of wordplay. But
most religious believers, unwilling to let the new midrashic anti-
rationalism overrule their sense of truth and right, have turned
the modernist premise around: they now ponder the role of belief
in establishing the ground and content of ethics — and thus, too,
of Jewish duty as a whole.

It should come as no surprise then, that the familiar
identification of Jewish ethics with liberal politics also has been
rejected. Neo-conservative criticism has devastatingly
demonstrated how much evil has been created by the government’s
efforts to increase our society’s welfare. Why must every burden
be thrown upon government when so often its major virtues, power
and reach, degenerate into inflexible rules and unresponsive
bureaucracies, defeating its humane aspirations? Surely there is
nothing unethical about exploiting what private initiative might do
— and perhaps do better — to foster social benefit. As to the
Jewish content of ethics, our tradition has long commended
industry, sobriety, moderation, modesty, the family, and public
decorum as against the liberal temper that so delights in self-
fulfillment, experimentation, sexual liberation and the toleration
of aberrance, and government spending as social therapy.

The needs of the State of Israel have also militated against
identifying Jewish ethics with liberal politics. Most Jews give
higher priority to its immediate survival than to assuring long-
range local security by improving America. Or, in the classic
terms, Israeli guns, it is argued, should concern American Jews
more than butter for the American deprived. Such political clout
as American Jews have should, therefore, be targeted to lobbying
for the State of Israel’s needs. Moreover, with the Soviet Union
and Red China sponsoring terrorists and otherwise impeding a
Middle-Eastern settlement, Jews should scorn any semblance of
support for the left and fight the moralistic rush to detente.

Such thinking requires a rethinking of what should be meant in
calling an ethic “Jewish.” Liberal Jews once understood this term
so universally that they fought for every people but their own.
But only an odd sense of the good would require sacrificing one’s
family — or one’s uncommonly admirable people — for the sake of
humankind. Are we not ethically entitled to ask “What’s good for
the Jews?” and to reject categorically a supine Jewish acceptance
of whatever modern ethics allegedly mandates? In simple self-
respect, we must insist that just as modernity may criticize and
enrich Judaism, so our problem-riddled culture can often benefit
from Jewish reproof and recommendation.

Believing Jews can now readily see that Western democracy, by
its drastic secularization, has cut itself off from its biblical
foundations. Losing its certainty in the moral standards laid upon
us by our Creator — the One who gave us our “unalienable rights” –
– our civilization has let freedom have its head with traumatic
social consequences. Its highly problematic ethical sense can no
longer, as it did in the heyday of liberalism, dictate what remains
valid in Judaism. Rather, our society needs to reappropriate its
Jewish — some say its Judeo-Christian — roots to restore its
moral well-being. Judaism as a whole and Jewish ethics in
particular now ought to be seen as independent sources of guidance
for a society desperately requiring ethical and metaethical help.

If the Jewishness of Jewish ethics no longer means uncovering
the rationalistic, liberal imperatives embedded in Jewish sources,
what does it mean? The early protagonists of modern Jewish ethics
generally utilized the biblical prophets and rabbinic agadah (lore)
to make their case since these materials often stressed the
priority of moral duty. But Jewish teachers have long insisted
that one finds the authoritative delineation of Jewish duty in the
halakhah (rabbinic law). If so, any ethics that claims to be
authentically “Jewish” ought to validate itself by Jewish
standards, that is, by serious attention to the dialectical working
out of the halakhah over the centuries.

This critique of the liberal version of Jewish ethics has
convinced some Jews, as have similar arguments in their communities
persuaded some Moslems and Christians, to turn to orthodoxy. The
choices before us are painted starkly: either a failed modernity
or a return to old religious ways, which, despite an occasional
problem, have proven themselves over the centuries to be truly
humane precisely because they are God’s own ways for us. If
retaining proper values entails the sacrifice of certain cherished
modern freedoms, like sexual openness, then it is well worth the
price. Every generation requires absolutes — ours more than most,
the blandishments of relativism being so seductive.

As a result, the movement in other communities to
fundamentalism is paralleled among Jews in a strong, if minority,
return to Orthodoxy. For believing Orthodox Jews, the halakhah,
the God-given system for determining Jewish duty, is the only
authentic Jewish form of what has been called “Jewish ethics,” a
term it does not customarily use even as it denies the secularists’
universal human ethics an independent role in fixing Jewish

In response, most Jews, despite their disillusionment with
modernity, have refused to give up its teaching about ethics.
Three issues clarify this demurral, all deriving from moral lessons
taught by the experience of democracy. The first arises from a
revulsion at the extremism and fanaticism that an unmodernized
religious traditionalism can readily engender. Judaism has the
same potential for zealotry as does every faith that claims
possession of the only God’s own truth. This empowers religious
leaders, as the situation requires, to punish the wicked
drastically, for this will restore them to a right relationship
with God. The result has been the sorry human experience of
religion as persecutor. Today, allowing their perception of
rampant anti-semitism to unshackle their tongues, Jewish religious
bigots on the right have publicly demonstrated Judaism’s halakhic
resources for intolerance.

One can give this line of argument positive form. For all the
faults of democracy, no political system does more to enhance the
dignity of individuals and promote tranquillity between
antagonistic groups. Religious orthodoxies commend themselves for
their moral absolutes, which also means they are, in principle, not
committed to pluralism. Jewish Orthodoxy, despite its meritocracy
of the learned and its appreciation of individuality, has not yet
made plain whether its relationship to democratic pluralism is
pragmatic or principled. Until it does so, the basis of its
effective control of its potential for fanaticism will be in doubt.
As long as that is so, most American Jews will seek spiritual
guidance in a liberal reinterpretation of their religion.

Modernists also reject Orthodoxy as a therapy for our
society’s moral ailments, because they find its social vision more
inner-directed than they believe right in our democratic situation.
They do not deny that Jewish survival ought to be a major Jewish
priority and that anti-semitism remains a dangerous threat in
Western cultures. But they believe we require greater emphasis on
our God-given duties to humankind entire than our traditionalists
commonly give them. The classic texts of the halakhah contain
legal conclusions derived by applying the behests of Torah to life
carried on under conditions of political subservience, social
segregation, and comparative economic scarcity. They therefore
naturally instruct Jews to direct almost all their energies to
their duties toward other Jews and the Jewish community. But
closely following these precedents today does not create a major
Jewish religious imperative to work for the common welfare of
humanity. In our unparalleled social equality and economic well-
being, that seems a less than ethical response to our society and
its ideals. And when emotion turns “What’s good for the Jews?”
into the overriding criterion of Jewish duty, one has the obverse
Orthodox equivalent of the liberals’ old sin of only asking,
“What’s good for humankind?”

This issue becomes particularly upsetting when some Jews
insist that the Holocaust proves people cannot be expected to act
ethically toward Jews so we have good reason to concentrate on
taking care of ourselves. Though there is some truth in such
realism, there is much more to be said. Were there not a universal
sense of ethics, one every human being ought to acknowledge and
obey, why should we expect every decent human being to be outraged
by what the Nazis did? If ethics are merely local standards or
group values, the Nazis acted properly according to the (perverted)
“moral” values of their (demented) culture. Only if we affirm that
there is a universal ethical order, one whose commands everyone can
know, can we rightly demand, as we regularly do, that people resist
“unjust orders” despite fearsome pressure. Because there are
universally accessible ethics, we are right to be scandalized by
the Holocaust, by the guilt of the “good Germans,” and by the
collusion of the leaders of the democracies. And we ought not to
forget that the equality of Jews in democratic societies is
premised on universal, not local, ethics. By some such line of
reasoning, most modern Jews know that an explicit, effective
universalism must be a necessary and significant element in Jewish
duty, a truth they do not see unequivocally mandated by our

Third, feminism has provided a dramatic, specific focus for
the limit to the modernist’s embrace of the Jewish tradition. If
all moral agents ought to be treated with ethical equality, as Kant
taught and democracy exemplifies, why should Jewish women not have
equal obligations and thus a religious status equal to that of
Jewish men? It will not do to say that women are inherently
spiritual and, hence, require fewer duties than men, or that
feminist goals refute themselves by seeking to obliterate all the
differences created by biology. The debate can be easily limited
to a few practical but deeply felt questions: Why should Jewish
law, as most traditionalists understand it, debar women from being
counted in the quorum for formal Jewish worship; and is that,
indeed, a good enough reason to prohibit their leading such
services? Why should the overwhelming majority of sages prohibit
women from studying the advanced texts of rabbinic law? Why may
they not generally serve as legal witnesses, or divorce a husband,
or be a rabbi? And, most tellingly of all, why do women have no
effective role in answering these questions, no significant share
in the decision making that affects their lives as Jews?

American Jewesses are the most highly educated group of women
in human history. Their accomplishments have been awesome. Most
American Jews, aside from their residual sexist conditioning, know
that women and men should rightly live by the same standards of
piety. But just in the face of the changes called for by this
intense moral conviction, the potential immobility of an
institutionalized religious absolute becomes a chilling reality.
That does not always happen. It can change some of its old ways or
rules. But other changes cannot or do not take place regardless of
what appears to be their spiritual value — and that, so far, has
been the response of most of the leaders of Orthodoxy to Jewish
feminism. This reaction has taught most American Jews that for all
their deepened respect for their tradition as an independent source
of moral guidance, they know they cannot rely on it exclusively —
and this has brought us back to the emancipated Jew’s project of
creating a proper Jewish ethics.


I wrote the papers gathered in this volume to gain insight
into this religious situation and, as I did so, to learn how to
respond to it. I see them as clearing the ground for a postmodern
Jewish ethic. It must be postmodern not in the sense of being
deconstructionist, for taken rigorously that position relativizes
all values into verbal play. By using the term postmodern, I mean
to point to our rejection of the old rationalist assumption that
universal ethics defines our essential Jewish duty and that neo-
Kantianism provides the necessary form and political liberalism
that proper content of Jewish ethics. There are many places one
can learn about Jewish duty today, the most important of which is
rabbinic literature. Certainly when it comes to the critical
metaethical determinations from which we elaborate our ethical
reasoning, the classic wisdom of the Jewish tradition instructs me
more reliably than any single body of modern knowledge I know. And
this primal Jewish commitment is the standard by which I gauge
where I may find the good in the welter of opportunities our
society sets before me.

Though Judaism is my most significant guide, I cannot accept
its classic absolutism, its consequent structure of authority, and
its delineation of Jewish obligation. Accepting neither modernity
nor Jewish tradition as providing my life’s determining rule, not
even understanding how they combine in sacred alliance rightfully
to indicate what I must do, I seek to redefine “Jewish ethics.”
For me this term now involves less a content than a process, one of
mediating between the values I find in each. But I have not found
nor think I will find a rule by which rightly to do that. I do not
possess that much confidence in the power of human reason (though
it is the major instrument utilized in these papers).

What mediates between these two sources of guidance is, I
suggest, my self, specifically the Jewish self I have tried to
describe here…. It must carry the work of self-exposure,
criticism, and learning I see as basic to this new kind of engaged
Jewish ethics. I am therefore deeply committed to pluralism in
defining Jewish obligation….

[Here is a piece that I was commissioned to write for a
Dictionary of Existentialism. It was rejected this past month, but
Peter wants me to contribute something to our NETWORK, so here
goes. You will notice that I take the philosophy of Jean-Paul
Sartre to be the definitive existentialist philosophy. We should
not forget, after all, that he was the only thinker willing to
accept the label “existentialist,” while everyone else shied away
from it like the plague. You will see that my reading of Judaism
is rather traditional, but in a non-controversial way I think, as
one would expect for a dictionary article.]

* “Judaism”

Judaism is neither an existentialist philosophy nor a philosophy.
Neither is it a religion, if by religion one means the spiritual
component within a larger scheme of life. Judaism is rather a total
way of life. Because existentialism is also a total way of life, and
a way of life essentially different from Judaism, Judaism and
existentialism necessarily stand in fundamental conflict. This
conflict, however, already points to a similarity: both Judaism and
existentialism are total ways of life rather than components within

In sharp contrast to existentialism, which is based on the
consciousness of individual autonomous or free choice of meaning,
Judaism is based on three inter-related foundations which from the
point of view of reflective consciousness are heteronomous: God, Torah
and Israel.

Israel means both that the Jew has an essential and special
relation to a land, the land of Israel, and that the Jew has an
essential and special relationship to other Jews, the people Israel.
What is special about both the land Israel and the people Israel is
that both are holy, ordained and sustained as such by the one God.
Neither of these two essentially Jewish relations, to land and people,
nor anything approximating them, nor the holiness which unites them,
play any role whatsoever in existentialist philosophy. Indeed, they
are excluded in principle by existentialism, which recognizes no such
a priori or essential relations.

Torah, too, sharply differentiates Judaism from existentialism.
In contrast to the ever present and necessary free creation of meaning
which constitutes existentialist consciousness, Jews are “yoked” to a
teaching, a Torah, given 3300 years ago by the one God at Mount Sinai
to the Jewish people, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible.
Existentialism, like rationalist thought generally, recognizes no more
than a fallacious circular reasoning in the Jews’ traditional
attachment and submission to Biblical revelation and commentary.

God too, perhaps most obviously, is excluded by the basic posture
of existentialism. True, the God of the Jews, the God of Abraham,
Isaac, and Jacob, is not the abstract rational God of the
philosophers, the God of Descartes’ Meditations, say, or Leibniz’
Monadology, which latter God both existentialism and Judaism agree to
reject. But neither is the one God of the Jews the absolutely
mysterious and silent God of a Kierkegaard, Marcel or Tillich. The
God of Judaism is both transcendent and immanent to history,
intervening unmistakably to free the Jews from servitude in ancient
Egypt, revealing himself and his laws unequivocally at Mount Sinai,
and planning (however inscrutably for the human eye) for the
redemption of the world, marked in history by the people Israel’s
exile from and return to the land Israel, and the coming of the

These three elements essential to Judaism — God, Torah and
Israel — are not only not found in existentialism, they are
explicitly denied by existentialist philosophy, based as it is on the
capacities of individual consciousness.
Existentialism denies Judaism by insisting on the necessity of an “I
choose” inserted between the individual and all meaning, in this case
between the Jew and “Judaism.” For existentialism the existing
individual is nothing other than a free choosing, where existence,
devoid of meaning by itself, takes on meaning simultaneously for and
from the existing individual. Judaism, then, like everything else, is
reduced to a complex of meanings, a complex of meanings which is
ultimately dependent on the meaning bestowing acts of the existing
individual who freely constitutes all meanings. Not Jews but
“Judaism” would henceforth be chosen.

To say that the Jew who is born (or converted) a Jew must choose
to be “Jewish,” or must choose what it means to be “Jewish,” two moves
which amount to the same thing in an existentialist perspective, is
the death of Judaism. The Jew is by essence chosen, and then makes
choices and interpretations on the basis of having already been
chosen. Such temporal antecedence or precedence, which is not merely
temporal, is the basic and irreversible structure of the transcendence
of God, Torah and Israel. If the Judaism of the Jew were chosen from
the bottom up, as it were, then the Jew would no longer be a Jew but
rather an existentialist. In Judaism an essentially irretrievable
beginning precedes the origin. Any reversal of these terms, whether
existentialist or otherwise, converts and distorts them both. The Jew
becomes an existentialist and the existentialist becomes he who takes
choosing to be the radical basis of all else.

Choosing meaning is an activity necessarily available to all
human beings, and hence it is an activity with no inner or exclusive
bond to Jews or Judaism. The Torah, given at Mount Sinai to the
Jewish people who affirmed their willingness to observe it before
knowing its contents, would now become a “Torah” and an “observance”
whose meanings would be freely chosen, constituted by individual
consciousnesses. The land and the peoplehood of the Jews, once and
for all time consecrated by God, would now become freely chosen, their
meaning freely constituted by each and every existing individual.
Nothing about these choices, just as nothing about the constitution of
meaning altogether, would be Jewish. Judaism based solely on free
choice would be a Judaism radically denied, an unholy Judaism. Having
been chosen is not an accidental quality within the Jewish way of
life, it is the essence of holiness, the unconditional condition of
God, Torah, and Israel, which exceed the limits of human choice and

Despite these very great, indeed irreducible differences
separating Judaism and existentialism, there are nonetheless elements
within the two world views shared in common. First and foremost both
world views emphasize the moral responsibility of the individual. For
existentialism responsibility is the defining trait of human
consciousness, whether this is acknowledged by the individual or not.
Judaism is less sanguine. Judaism believes that while moral
responsibility is the highest goal of inter-human relations, it is
nonetheless not a given, not a structure of human consciousness, not
the human condition. Rather it is a character trait that must be
developed, in individuals and communities across time.

Both Judaism and existentialism reject the split between mind and
body which characterizes much of the Western traditions of Platonism
and Christianity. In consequence, both Judaism and existentialism
reject any denial of the senses as illusory or evil. For
existentialism the sense world is a field of meanings. For Judaism
the sense world is a field for individual and communal sanctification.

Both Judaism and existentialism reject any submersion of the
individual within a secular or religious collectivity. The focal
point of existentialism is the solitary individual, isolated in
choice, fully responsible from the ground up. The focal point of
Judaism is the individual too, but the individual participating in
social and historical relations, in the family especially, but also in
the local and global community where Jews and non-Jews meet and
interact. As in existentialism, the individual Jew is not reducible
to the sum of external relations, but neither, in contrast to
existentialism, can the individual Jew be a Jew independent of these
relations or as the monadic origin of all these relations.

Jewish freedom is thus both less free and more free than
existentialist freedom. It is less free because it is a freedom
subject to prior commands whose primacy obligates the Jew prior to the
individual’s originary constituting consciousness. It is more free
because commanded by the commandments of God the Jew is subject to no
merely human will or material condition. Unlike the existentialist,
whose free existence is always the absolute originary subject of
history, the Jew is both subject and object of history. Because it
both acts upon and is acted upon by history Jewish freedom is serious,
its hands are dirty yet cleanable. Existentialist freedom, in
contrast, though burdened with all the meaning in the world is at the
same time light as air, the unperturbed and unperturbable center of
the historical storm, incapable of losing its balance or composure.

Despite the sharp differences which separate Judaism and
existentialism, a post-Enlightenment reform movement within European
Judaism, originating and developing in early 19th century Germany and
flourishing today in 20th century America, conceives itself in a
manner thoroughly consistent with existentialist philosophy.
Individual Jews and rabbis of Reform Judaism call “Jewish” what
conforms not to the Biblical-historical tradition of divine revelation
but rather what conforms to the dictates of universal reason. Whereas
hitherto Jews were to be priests in God’s service, Reform Jews are
each obligated to decide the whole meaning of Judaism for and by
themselves. The authority of Jewish tradition serves no more than as
a guide — indeed, as but one guide among others — but stripped of
its divine or even final authority. Final authority in all matters
resides in the conscience of the individual Jew. Judaism, in a word,
becomes what each individual Jew chooses. While this reformation
developed from out of the same intellectual and social milieu as
existentialism, and is doubtlessly consistent with its doctrines, the
difficult question for Reform Judaism — for its detractors as well
as for Reform Jews — is to grasp in what sense it remains Jewish.

Certain modern Jewish thinkers have been labelled
existentialists, the foremost of whom are Martin Buber (1878-1965),
Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), and Emmanuel Levinas (b.1906).

Martin Buber’s existentialism manifests itself in the distinction
he makes between the authenticity of what he calls the “I-Thou
relationship” and the inauthenticity of the “I-It experience.” Both
encounters are necessary parts of human life, but only in the former,
in the I-Thou relation, does the individual attain wholeness. What is
important is not what the I encounters, whether nature, persons, or
human spiritual creations, but rather how these are encountered. In
contrast to the fragmentation of the self in its I-It experiences, in
the I-Thou encounter the self enters into an intense holistic
meaningfulness. In contrast to existentialist philosophy, however,
the I of Buber’s I-Thou is not the sole origin of meaning, but shares
this function with the Thou. Rejecting the authority of the Biblical
revelation, Buber makes I-Thou relationality the foundation of

Franz Rosenzweig is probably characterized as an existentialist
as much for what he rejects, namely, the impersonal idealism of
classical philosophy, especially as found in Hegel, and the vagaries
of sentimentalized theology, especially as found in Schleiermacher, as
for what he accepts. On the positive side, like the existentialists
Rosenzweig does take seriously the living individual who fears death,
loves others, and lives, works, ethically strives, and dies in history
and community. In contrast to existentialism, especially that of
Nietzsche, however, Rosenzweig rejects subjectivity as an adequate
foundation for truth and morality. Rather he locates the authentic
individual in the communal religious life of — and exclusively of —
either of the two great revealed religions, Judaism and Christianity.
Rosenzweig rejects classical Western philosophy only in order to
accept it on the new basis of traditional Jewish thought and practice.

The French thinker Emmanuel Levinas is perhaps classified as an
existentialist almost as much because of his geographical and personal
associations as because of his masterful phenomenological descriptions
of concrete human life. Though his first book in 1930 influenced
Jean-Paul Sartre to learn phenomenology, and though he himself studied
phenomenology in Freiburg with both Edmund Husserl and Martin
Heidegger, Levinas has developed his own distinctive ethical
philosophy. Rooted in the concrete, Levinas’ thought stands in
explicit opposition to Sartrean existentialism. For Levinas the
finitude of human freedom does not derive from the limits of the pure
activity of consciousness alone. Rather freedom is finite because it
is that juncture of activity and passivity arising out of the self’s
encounter with the alterity of the other person, the individual
subject to other persons, which calls forth from the self a moral
responsibility for the other’s well being. If this is existentialism
at all, it is of a subtler kind than individualist existentialism.
Rather than originating in subjectivity alone, the meaning of meaning
comes to the self from the other person, the concrete other who
confronts the self, face-to-face, and commands the self to its proper
moral responsibilities. Levinas argues that this responsibility for
the other person encountered face-to-face across dialogue entails a
broader responsibility for all others, for all humankind. Just as
Buber makes the I-Thou relation the heart of his Judaism, Levinas
makes the ethical responsibility of the face-to-face encounter the
basis of his interpretation of Judaism.

[Members are welcome to submit for this section any news,
queries, or offerings that may interest the whole group.]

Look for the first issue of JEWISH THOUGHT, which will include
articles of pertinence to our work. And think of submitting essays to
JT, c/o Prof. Elliot Wolfson, Skirball Dept. of Hebrew and Judaic
Studies, New York University, 51 Washington Sq. South, NY, NY 10012.

Norbert Samuelson reports that Lionel Kochan (Oxford, Wolfson
College) has asked him to suggest a bibliography dealing with the
discussion in Jewish philosophy of “Juive,” so if anyone could
recommend works that he could suggest to Kochan, he would be very

Also, Norbert would like to suggest that this network be used for
academic concerns beyond paper and book abstracts. Perhaps sharing
questions and answers might be helpful; for instance, he has a
graduate student interested in working on issues of ecology in
relationship to contemporary physics. Can anyone suggest good books
and articles relating to this?

Deadlines for submissions to our next issue is October 15.
That should be the final preparatory issue, which means the last time
to collect a preliminary sense of what we’re doing. Besides
statements from a number of our official members, we need input from
process and from feminist philosophers as well as from rabbinic and
literary text hermeneuts whose work may have more to do with
philosophy than they presume! Please feel free to suggest

One occasion for us to sum up a year’s reflections will come up
at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in Kansas. An open
meeting of the Postmodern Jewish Philosophy Network is scheduled for
Sunday morning, November 24, from 9:15-10:15 am in Allis Plaza Suite
530. The agenda will be to respond to the question, “What is
postmodern Jewish philosophy” and, specifically, to define the
parameters of our network. Please join us!