Old Series: Volume 2, Number 1 (August 1992)

Copyright (c) 1992 Postmodern Jewish Philosophy Bitnetwork
All rights reserved.

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

Eugene Borowitz, HUC/JIR, New York: BOROWITZ@NYUACF
Jonathan Boyarin, The New School: BOYARIN@CSSC.NEWSCHOOL.EDU
Daniel Breslauer, U of Kansas: BRESDAN@UKANVAX
Richard Cohen, University of Alabama: BDICKEY@UA1VM
Jay Geller, Rutgers University: ALEVINE@CC.SWARTHMORE.EDU
Robert Gibbs, Princeton University: RBGIBBS@PUCC
Yudit Greenberg, Rollins College: YGREEN@ROLLINS.BITNET
Peter Haas, Vanderbilt University: HAASXXPJ@VUCTRVAX
Martin Jaffee, University of Washington: JAFFEE@U.WASHINGTON.EDU
Steven Kepnes, Colgate University: SKEPNES@COLGATEU
Ze’ev Levy, University of Haifa: RHH1902@HAIFAUBVM
Peter Ochs, Drew University: POCHS@DREW
Norbert Samuelson, Temple University: V5118E@TEMPLEVM
Larry Silberstein, Lehigh University: LJS2@LEHIGH.EDU
Julius Simon, Temple University: JSMNTEMPLE@TEMPLEVM
Martin Srajek, Temple University: V1638G@TEMPLEVM
Alan Udoff, Baltimore Hebrew University: GURFEL@UMBC

Almut Bruckstein, Hebrew University, Jerusalem
Joseph Faur, Brooklyn
Michael Fishbane, University of Chicago
Steven Fraade, Yale University: FRASTED@YALE.VM
William Scott Green, SUNY Buffalo WMSG@UORDBV
Hanan Hever, Van Leer Foundaiton
Jacob Meskin, Williams College
Paul Mendes-Flohr, Hebrew University, Jerusalem: HYUMP@HUJIVM1
David Novak, University of Virginia
Adi Ophir, Tel-Aviv University
Ken Seeskin, Northwestern University
Avraham Shapira, Tel-Aviv University
Susan Shapiro, Hebrew University
Elliot Wolfson, New York University
Edith Wyschogrod, Rice University
Michael Wyschogrod, Rice University
Bernard Zelechow, York University, Toronto


Welcome to the first post-preparatory issue of the Bitnetwork.
Post-preparatory, because, after a year of collecting a sense of
who we are, we find our collection too vast and varied to identify,
in too prepared a way, and, willy nilly, we find ourselves speaking
rather than collecting. Acting, you might say, without
preparation. If there is a postmodern philosophic self, it appears
so much larger and messier than a pineal gland that we might rather
call it a society than a self (close enough to William James’ sense
of personal identity, a bit more social perhaps than Julia
Kristeva’s). It remains to be seen what sort of discourse
corresponds to this self-understanding and to what extent, as some
of our members claim, its pedigree is rabbinic.

This issue features the following sections:

BUSINESS: with your indulgence, we have little housekeeping to do.

issue. Here is a species of speaking-thinking: a redaction of five
months of electronic dialogues among a small group of NETWORK
members, initiated and managed by NORBERT SAMUELSON, redacted by
the NETWORK editor.

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY OUT OF ISRAEL: the first of three excerpts
from the recent work of ADI OPHIR. Offered as a topic for readers’

DESCRIPTIONS: in the manner of the first year’s issues, we
introduce a few new members by providing their abstracts of recent



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 BITNETWORK was generously supported in its infant year by
a Collaborative Grant from the American Academy of Religion and by
facilities support from Drew University. With warm thanks to the
AAR, we venture off on our own now. Issues of the BITNETWORK will
be sent free of charge to anyone with a Bitnet address. We now
request a $10 annual contribution from anyone wishing to receive
hardcopies of Volume 2 of the BITNETWORK. Of course, contributions
are welcome from softcopy folks, too, to help defray clerical and
distribution costs. Backcopies of VOLUME 1: free to BITNET
addresses; $10 contrib. for hardcopy mailings. Please send
contributions to: JEWISH STUDIES PROGRAM/BIT c/o Peter Ochs, Drew
University, Madison, NJ 07940.


From November ’91-March ’92, a subgroup of BITNETWORK members
participated in an electronic dialogue, managed by Norbert
Samuelson. Here are edited selections from the dialogue,
which began with Norbert’s responses to Steven Kepnes’
statement of postmodern concerns, published in the last issue
of BITNETWORK Vol. 1. The dialogic form may prove to be
typical of postmodern philosophic discourse — this remains to
be seen. While the discussion cannot be classified according
to theme any more than a Talmudic sugya, we find it convenient
to divide the responses into several dominant subjects: On the
Starting Point of Jewish Philosophic Reflection, On Judaism in
the University, On The Holocaust in Jewish Studies, On
Heschel’s Epistemology With a Pragmatic Twist.
Future issues of the BITNETWORK will include dialogues of this
kind. Readers interested in participating in such dialogues
should register their BITNET addreses with Norbert Samuelson
(“V5118E@Temple.VM”). Detailed responses to this issue are of
course welcome c/o “POCHS@Drew.”


1. Excerpt from STEVEN KEPNES’ Newsletter Remarks, Nov ’91:
Post-Modern Jewish Philosophy is a philosophy in search of
itself, Jewish thinking after the failure of modern varieties
of Judaism…. Never before have Jews had so much material
wealth. Yet in the face of the accumulation of this material
wealth we have seen an astounding slippage in the quality of
Jewish spiritual life.

Given this situation of deficit where do we begin in our
search for post-modern philosophy?…. Beginning with those
whom we can affect, let us begin with ourselves…, with
post-modern ground rules. The greatest sin of modern Jewish
philosophy is its acceptance of the starting point of modern
philosophy, the autonomous thinking subject. [Post-modern Jews
must begin, instead, together,] speaking to one another
honestly, vigorously, seriously…. Our speaking together must
be seen as our most important work…., retrieving [from Buber
and Rosenzweig] the central principle of Sprachdenken,
“speech-thinking,” … and retrieving the Talmudic spirit of
conversation….In the Talmud we see the back and forth of
argument, mutual respect between speakers, … and a
suggestion that we begin with a Jewish text. As the Talmud
begins with the Mishnah and allows it to generate its
conversation, we post-modern Jewish thinkers also need to
begin with a common text. We will be lead astray if we take
David Blumenthal’s suggestion to put “God at Center.” What we
need to do is to put a text at center…. With the text at
center our center moves out from Jewish philosophy, narrowly
conceived, to the concerns that a far larger array of scholars
in Jewish Studies hold dear…

Steve, you make two assumptions in this piece that strike me
as highly questionable: (1) you look to a group of Jews who
are grouped on the principle of their academic talent to
construct solutions to Jewish survival; (2) you regard the
survival of the Jewish people as a people as something of
inherent value. Concerning the first, if what I want is a
spiritual comunity, then I look to a group of spiritual
people; if I want to effect political change, then I look to
a group with political talents. Whether or not academics have
such talents is purely accidental. Concerning the second, I
believe that the Jewish people ought to survive because I
believe that God wants it to in order to serve Him. Hence, in
agreement with David Blumenthal, I would take God as a
starting point. Without God, however, I see no more inherent
value in the survival of the Jewish people than I do in the
survival of any other ethnic group. Now, there are many ways
to argue for the inherent value of an ethnic group (for
example, principles of nationalism a la Kaplan in the 1930s;
or perhaps there is some validity to considering a social
construct like a nation as relevantly analogous to a natural
species and arguing for any endangered nation’s survival with
the same logic that we appliy to endangered species.)
However, all of these arguments presuppose principles that are
hardly “post-modern.”

Norbert, the problem is not God but God as a starting for
philosophic reflection. To start with “God” per se is to
start either with some as yet unsituated claim about
experience or with a textual reference or interpretation. I
take the strength of Steven’s point to be (implicitly) that
the former kind of claim is either foundational (for example,
about a self-validating and self-explicating intuition, on
which Cf. Charles Peirce’s various critiques) OR it is
confessional ( in which case its use for a public exchange
like ours is questionable). The preferable alternative is to
start with text.

I trust we would discover that the text has authority because
it is God’s word, but that is claim we arrive at through a
process of reasoning, not through a claim about experience.
Perhaps you say we begin with a claim about the text’s
authority? That’s OK too, but then we are starting with the
whole context of our inquiry (community, history, text,
experience, the questions that move us here in this place for
this reason, and so on) þ not just text and certainly not just
“God.” I’d in fact prefer this whole context as a beginning;
otherwise we are playing a foundational sort of game by some
other name. We start where are we are when we start asking to
start. Only God started with God.

Martin Srajek pointed out to me last night that the very fact
that a text is a thing and God is not a thing makes a text,
rather than God, a preferred starting point from a
post-modernist perspective. This thesis seems OK as far as it
goes, but, without the assumption of something about God
and/or the Jewish people (better God), why should the text be
a Jewish one? Why not begin, for example, with a
Shakespearian sonnet? Why not something from Greek mythology?

Against a commitment to the primacy in value of Jewish
survival, see Rosenzweig’s STAR III:1 “Schicksal und
Ewigkeit.” If Jews are going to root their thinking in the
Jewish people, rather than God, then it seems to me to follow
that the Jews are to be just another people like any other
people. If yes, then certainly there is no basis at all to
guarantee their survival. In Rosenzweig’s terms, all people
who find their identity in anything like land, language,
history, culture, et.al., must accept that while they may
extend their life, they cannot avoid their death. In these
terms Kepnes’ concern for postmodern thinking is another
instance of Rosenzweig’s characterization of pre-modern (let
alone modern) thinking, viz., a futile passion to overcome
(vainly) one’s own death. The Jewish people have lived a long
time. Why (without reference to God) should their death now
be “untimely?”


Here are some responses to the previous issues of the
newsletter. Since I am in the middle of preparing a response
approach the items in the newsletters our of the context of my
thoughts concerning GB’s Postmodern Jewish theology.

1) I wonder at some comments throughout the newsletter that
the university should not set the Jewish agenda. After
reading GB, whose book I think assumes academe, I wonder why
not. After all, some 50% of Jews receive a college degree of
some sort, a number that compares favorably with the number of
Jews receiving any kind of systematic religious education.
The discourse of the university seems to be the most
appropriate for a large number of (non-Orthodox) Jews out
there. I think making the university the locus of the next
phase in Judaism has its perils, but it does follow along the
lines of a number of trends: the post-Rabbinic secularization
of Judaism (the center of Jewish life is moving from
synagogues to Community Centers, for example); the
displacement of Talmudic education by secular professional
education for the bulk of post-Orthodox Jews; the adoption of
Western culture in both America and Israel as the vehicle for
living Judaism. Is it possible/feasible for Universities to
take their place as a locus of Judaism alongside (or in
opposition to) community centers and synagogues? To put the
question in practical terms: should “our” audience be other
scholars, rabbis or Federation leaders?

2) I wonder about GB’s use of the label “post-modern.”. In
some sense he has the same idea in mind as many in the
newsletter have argued, namely, “what comes next after
modernity.” But he also has a specific content to
postmodernism. He sees it as the dialectic synthesis between
the (now discredited) modern emphasis on the individual and
the older, rabbinic/Orthodox emphasis on the transcendent Gd
and community. Postmodernism, at least for GB, subsumes and
combines these convictions. I have some doubts about this
Hegelian scheme, although I think GB makes it work.

3) I personally have some difficulty with homologizing the
difference between aggadah and halakha with the distinction
between ethics and law. My own study of the responsa
literature convinces me that principles of the good and the
right animate the halakha just as much as they animate
aggadah. What we have, I submit, are different literary
genres growing out of different communities; the law-ethics
distinction is ours and is imposed. In fact I think the two
are inseparable. If the university does become a or the new
locus for a or the postmodern Judaism, then it seems that we
have to address the concrete practice of Judaism (the halachic
sphere) even if what emerges is a different halakha than the
Orthodox one. We might want to warrant emerging Judaic
practices through aggadic (literary?) means rather than the
rabbinic reliance on the “posek,” but I think we doom
ourselves to irrelevance if we deal only on the abstract plane
of ethics and forget the maaseh. At least as far as I know,
no Judaism that has abandoned halakha entirely has been able
both to maintain that and survive (note the re-rabbinization
of Reform, for example, or how Zionism has yielded not Judaism
but secular Israeli statism). So my question: does postmodern
Jewish theology include the creation of a postmodern halakha?

In response to Peter Haas, I want to clarify at least my view,
if not that of others who advocate the University as the
setting for modern Jewish communal life, sensitivity, and also
halakha. I do not see the University as the only place for
Judaism in modern America. Rather I think that the University
takes as its central task the academic study of texts written
by and about Jews for various reasons at various times. In
every case the “text” takes on a different shape and sense.
Even gathering all the different interepretations into one
composite will not create a unified or single “Judaism.” As
a by-product of the academic enterprise, however, a common
commitment to texts arises. It is this that the university
can contribute to the wider Jewish community.

Bialik once said that the Tanach is like the seed that
contains everything within it in potential; the aggadah is
like the flower that attracts to itself that which is
necessary for reproduction; the halakha is like the fruit that
represents the culmination of the entire process and contains
within itself the seeds to start the process anew. If
scholars are to have a self-conscious “agenda” other than that
of good scholarship, it should be to fit into the cycle of
life (Pete Seeger has a song expressing the wish “tune my body
and my brain to the music in the land.”) When we see our
activities as part of an on-going process, then both halakhah
and aggada, action and reflection, take their place in the
chain of development. In many ways I take a deterministic
view point: if what we call “Judaism” does not possess enough
natural strength to produce ideas, actions, and institutions,
then it is too sick for me to do anything with. If, on the
other hand, my reflections as an academic awaken a desire to
do things differently, then, without my “intending” it,
Judaism has used me as its instrument of survival.

A note about God: I find discussions about divinity literally
beside the point. If, as I carry out my work, I experience a
reality that I can later call God, well and good. If not,
nothing is lost, because acknowledging or not acknowledging
divinity does not make it more or less real. Yes, I can act
in bad faith and proclaim an atheism that I know is false.
Yes, I can proclaim a theism that I know is false. I cannot
see the point of doing either of these.

Finally back to my first point–the university. Maimonides
wrote his GUIDE and opposed the French Yeshivot because he
thought an inaccurate theism was undermining Judaism’s chance
for survival. I doubt that he was completely correct in his
assessment. I, at least, do not think that I can or should
attack beliefs held by the mass of American Jews, just because
I think they are wrong. Nevertheless, if I think that the
type of Synagogue ideology and Zionist ideologies that abound
today leave many Jews looking for an alternative, then I can
call their attention to what I do, which is look at texts
honestly, seek to make sense out of claims about the divine,
the human, and revelation, and by being as true as I can to
what I find, hope that I point to one possible and perhaps
attractive way of standing in the chain of being that calls
itself Judaism.

Bialik is often misunderstood. That great seed he called the
Tanach served him not as a monument to be honored but as the
raw material out of which he created his poetry, essays, and
stories. That’s what I mean by the “texts” or “Torah.”
People took him too literally when he spoke of the Aggadah.
He did not mean just the texts he edited nor the whole range
of Jewish sources. He includes the type of creative work he
exhibits in “Megillat HaEsh.” (Not for nothing does Gershon
Scholem compare Agnon and Bialik as anthologizers; both did
not resist the temptation of adding their own creations to
so-called collections of material). Aggadah expresses the
principles, the ideas, the themes that animate life. For
Bialik, this spirit of the folk has a palpable reality. For
me, any dynamic approach to texts offers a similarly
attractive means of energizing the source material. Finally,
and most importantly, Bialik’s writing about Halakha was
focused on a process of doing. He did not mean that Jews
today should follow the same halakha as that of the older
generation. He meant that thought without deed was
evanescent. The trap set for intellectuals is overly
rationalizing things. Life is more than thought.


Steve, in response to your question [offered outside the
network] about why I don’t think the Holocaust has a lot to
teach us in terms of Jewish theology, what I have to say is
very close to what Borowitz says in RENEWING THE COVENANT.
What I’ll say now takes for granted what he says in that book.

While the Holocaust was politically a devastating event, it
raised nothing new conceptually for Jews, viz., most pre-
Holocaust Jewish theologies (especially normative political
Zionism, classical orthodoxy, and radical secular humanism)
would have not problem fitting the data of the Holocaust into
their schemata. (For example, for the Zionists it verifies
that Jews need power to survive; for the orthodox it verifies
that when Jews abandon halakha bad things happen to them; and
for the secularists, it verifies that there is no correlation
between observance and reward/punishment). In general, the
Holocaust does not compare to the destruction of the Second
Temple as an even that ruptures the way Jews view their world.
In fact, the closest thing to a “rupturing event” was
emancipation (also not in the same league as the destruction
of the Temple), which first and more critically called into
question the inherited classical rabbinic world/life-view. (A
similar case might also be made for Newtonian physics).

The case is different for Christians. The fact that a world
that had become fully Christian, that gave us a Christian
civilization unchallenged by any other religious tradition
(for the war against Islam was won by he beginning of the 20th
century), could deteriorate into the idolatry/paganism of the
Nazis is a significant challenge to any form of Christianity
that holds that the duty of Christians as Christians is to act
in the world (for example, advocates of a social gospel). For
them, the Holocaust is, or at least should be, a central
concern. Perhaps that is why the most successful models for
understanding the Holocaust (notably those of Elie Wiesel’s
novellas and Sidney Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker”) are

Norbert, you refer to “the most successful models for
understanding the Holocaust…” I think the terminology of
“understanding” is problematic. Bialik saw the problem more
clearly in “Ba-ir HaHarega.” Lines 175-219 outline a ritual
service that, as God informs the prophetic “I” of the poem, is
inadequate to the event. The poem contrasts prayer, which
only increases a sense of shame, to protest, which redresses
it; it calls upon the prophet to replace self-effacing
confessions with a deadly and poisonous silence. Zipora Kagan
suggests that Bialik is balancing halakha and aggada
throughout the poem. Here, the halakha of ritual observance
contrasts with the aggada of Jewish self-perception. Halakha
crystalizes in deed who we think we are and then creates this
self-image through its repetitive power. If, however, the
repeated self-image fails to produce such a self, then the
liturgy fails to work effectively. That happened with the
destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and became the impetus for
the construction of rabbinic liturgy; that happened again in
the Middle Ages–both during the period of massacres and the
Crusades and after the expulsion from Spain– and left
impressions on Jewish liturgical practice. Even the
Enlightenment does the same thing. The new liturgies–even
new Orthodox liturgies–meet the crisis of a new Jewish
self-image. The new aggadic self-understanding demands its
manifestation in liturgical halakhic formulation.

That seems to me to be one effect of the Holocaust–a
touchstone of whether our halakha and aggada do in fact mesh
one with another. The claim that the various modern ideologies
from secularist to Orthodox can deal with the Holocaust is
beside the point. The real challenge is whether in
understanding the Holocaust these ideologies are true to the
self-understanding of modern Jews. Here is where symbolic and
liturgical writing becomes crucial. We do have “Yom HaShoah”
and “Yad VaShem.” Have these symbols helped us grasp more
fully who we think we are and how we construct our Jewish
identities? Here, I think, is where Borowitz is exactly on
target: Jews began thinking about the Holocaust when it became
a clear symbol for the modern loss of faith in progress.
Lumped together with Hiroshima, Watergate, and Viet Nam, the
Holocaust reveals that we are more unsure of human potential,
more wary of proffered universalism, than our official
ideology often suggests. Borowitz frequently, and, I think
most effectively in his latest book, strips off the mask that
keeps us from recognizing who we are. The Holocaust
symbolically challenges modern Jews in the same way and is,
therefore, extremely important. What is needed is a way to
take the symbolism of the Holocaust and integrate it into how
and what we pray so that we see our real situation more
clearly and shape ourselves accordingly. I suspect that until
such revisioning of Jewish halakha occurs, the aggada of
confronting the Holocaust will be unsettled and unsettling.

Dan, I have no argument with what you say. It raises the
following questions for consideration. On your terms, the
issue of the Holocaust is not “understanding” it, that is,
placing it within a framework that makes intelligible what has
occurred in the past so that we may make intelligible what
will occur in the future (which is the enterprise of science,
philosophy and [with respect to religious concerns] theology).
Rather, the goal is more instrumental, viz., how are we to
represent this event ( use it as a communal symbol) to
accomplish what we (in this case, as Jews) want to accomplish
(which is the enterprise of politics).

On these terms a different set of questions arise. (Possibly
different from what was Steven Kepnes’ concern.) Will, for
example, symbols like YOM HA-SHOAH have lasting value in the
Jewish religious community? Do the symbols accomplish what we
want them to or do they accomplish other things, for example,
functioning as a rationale for rationally and/or morally
questionable behavior which both cheapens Judaism and the
events of the Holocaust? Is this the right way to discuss the
Holocaust ritual, or have I merely applied the classical
(paradigmatically modernist) Reform method of judging all
ritual? If yes, how are we to evaluate this new ritual of
which you speak? It’s not like wearing KIPPOT or keeping
KOSHER, because, since the ritual in question is new, it lacks
(as yet) the force (whatever that is) of being traditional.If
our use of the event cheapens it (as did Hitler’s use of
Wagner and German mythology), then in the end we accomplish
nothing of value. (How are “postmoderns” supposed to make
these kinds of decisions? Isn’t this what Borowitz is talking

Insofar as I really understand the situation I find myself,
more in agreement with Norbert than with Dan. I think that
“reason” has a critical role to play in keeping our action
responsible (to God via the Covenant). If I didn’t think so,
I wouldn’t spend so much time reasoning about what I
experience and believe. My polemic is not, I believe,
extended to every possible kind of philosopy or use of reason.
If Norbert can carry through the project of reuniting
math/science with ethics/value, then, depending on what it
allows religiously, that “reason” begins to sound appealing to
me. I polemicize against H. Cohen because I think
unreflective types in our community still use the word
“reason” or “rational” in his sense (bastardized) and don’t
see that his integration of the two doesn’t stand. Worse,
what has tended to be the fate of “reason” in recent decades
has torn asunder what Cohen/Kant integrated. I am not closed
to any future kind of rationality, and I therefore await
Norbert’s convincing his philosophic peers of his variety of
reason/value. That is to say, when rationality will once
again be somewhat widely understood as the reason/value that
Norbert claims it can be, then I am once again quite willing
to consider how much greater a rationalist I can be. And I
think I said something like that in the book.

I find that, in the discussion between Norbert and Dan about
the Holocaust, the old notion of separating life and
philosophy is still around. I fail to see why you don’t
consider the two to be in reciprocal connection. It seems to
me that any event that happens to us is automatically
integrated/integratable into reflective activity. But that
does not mean that it is integrated exclusively. In his book
LE DIFFEREND, Jean-Francois Lyotard describes how, once they
have occured, events immediately change their character and
turn into literal entities, that is, entities that consist of
signs rather than of real things. An infinite chain of
signifiers now separates us from the event itself. That in
itself seem s a very frustrating realization. Yet, it
emphasizes what Dan said earlier about the symbolic character
that the Holocaust could and should have for us. If our
relationship with it is constituted only through signifiers,
then it is nothing but symbolic. I believe we won’t make any
progress in understanding how to think about these things
unless we begin to learn how to devise models that better
explain the intricate relationship between life and theory.
Based on my reading of Levinas and, especially, Derrida, I
believe that we should look at both the pure event and the
pure theoretical reflection as the extreme limits of an
asymptotic function that stretches out between them. What we
do now, here, and anywhere else is described by the function
which is equally defined by its origin and its telos, yet will
not coincide with one or the other. That means we are
stretched, and it is very uncomfortable. Derrida calls this
relationship a tonal relationship because, depending on
whether we stretch more or less, we will produce a different
sound as a product of the differential relationship between
event and theory. By the way, about the relationship between
thought and life, check out Robert Pirsig’s new book LILA. A
little self-indulgent at times, but still valuable reading for
everyone who likes to think but is worried about forgetting
life at the same time.

(responding, again, to #7) Norbert, I found your short but
pointed remarks extremely interesting. Indeed, when I said
that I had found Holocaust Theology compelling I wasn’t being
totally honest. I have begun to question my own adherence to
the Fackenheim, Berkovits, Greenberg, A Cohen claim about the
primacy of the Holocaust to contemporary Jewish Thought, and
one reason I asked for clarification of your remarks was to
help me sort out my own revising position.

I have been appalled by the extent to which the Holocaust has
come to dominate popular discussion of contemporary Jewish
theology and to define Jewish identity for Jews and even
non-Jews in this country. When I teach my Holocaust course I
get 300 students signing up. This is contrasted with 15-20 for
my “Intro to Judaism” and “Mod Jewish Thought” classes. We
have got to concentrate more on the ways that Jews have
productively and creatively approached and thought about life
than on the way in which they died in Europe from 1939-45.

Now let me briefly respond to your remarks. You mentioned
three types of thinking that the Holocaust doesn’t radically
challenge. 1. Orthodox 2. Secular. 3 Zionist. Your arguments
are compelling, but you do not address some other groups that
are of crucial import. You do not address those intellectual,
University trained Jews — the bulk of American “conservative”
and “reform” Jews who often pose the questions of the
Holocaust most starkly. You also do not address the academic
theologians directly, and you finally don’t face, head-on, the
issue of theodicy. On theodicy, one could argue, as the
Holocaust theologians often do, that the the pre-Holocaust
theodicies cannot handle the Holocaust. Or one could take
your approach and say that they do. If the latter, what
particular pre-Holocaust theodicy makes most sense to you and
why? Do you take the position that God gave humans free will,
that the Holocaust is a problem of human evil alone and that
it therefore raises questions of anthropodicy and not
theodicy? Is it that God came down into human history only at
Sinai and cannot come down again without bringing the messiah?
Do you like the “hidden God”/ “eclipse of God” view? Jew as
“suffering servant?” Israel as God’s answer? A God of
creation who responds by continuing to create the world and
new Jewish life? As a Jewish philosopher, how do you
personally respond to the issues of theodicy that the
Holocaust raises?

Steven, in response to your concerns about Holocaust study:
First, I don’t take neo-rabbinic popular Jewish institutions
(Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist etc.) seriously as
sources for Jewish thought, although many of the people
committed to these (in my judgment) political institutions are
important Jewish thinkers, not the least of whom is Gene
Borowitz. So, what you would say to Jewish students who
identify themselves with these institutions is not different
in itself from what you woould say to other students. It is,
if you were teaching political theory, like asking what you
would say to students who were democrats or republicans or

Second, a solution to theodicy is one question and how the
Holocaust affects a solution is a different question. Whatever
is weak about any pre-Holocaust solution remains just as weak
after, and whatever is of value after the Holocaust remains
just as valuable.

In RENEWING THE COVENANT, Gene raises the question of a
finite God in a way that is relevant to these issues. Some of
the question relates to theodicy, but by no means all of it.
Part of what is at stake is how we read what Scripture says
about God: for example, why does Gene take Scripture so
strictly when he opts for a personal over an impersonal God?
Isn’t the textual case for a finite deity over an infinite
deity equally compelling?


14. BRESLAUER: (in response to comments by Samuelson on
Borowitz’ new book)
I know that many here disagree with me, but I think that
Heschel is far more convincing than most people think. One
has to take his essay “Saadya’s Search for Certainty” as a
reflection of Heschel’s own search. While his rhetoric may at
times seem extreme (always a danger when you try to use
language to create a reality for the reader–when the
conventions of language change, your message is changed), his
main argument is neither as irrational nor as religiously
imperialistic as Gene (Borowitz) at times suggests.

Heschel argues: 1) that, valid as they are in their own
spheres, science and philosophy cannot bring certainty.
Heschel would agree with Norbert that science and rationalism
do not claim to give definitive answers, but (and perhaps with
Gene) Heschel would say that human beings constitutionally
need more than just technical knowledge. They need a firm
sense of the grounding on which they stand; 2) the
insufficiency of technical knowledge, combined with the human
imperative for more than technical knowledge, force people to
look beyond rational experience; rationalism itself points
beyond its own limits by identifying its own boundaries and
the human need to cross them; 3) human culture, or at least
Western religious culture, presents the compelling fact of
Torah (that is of a claim to knowledge based on an event that
transcends reason), which has shaped who we are and how we
think. Since there is no more logical place than Torah in
which to seek that to which rationalism sends us, why not look
there for the answer to rationalism’s questions? And, says
Heschel, Torah does provide the answers: God requires things
of human beings beyond what common sense requires. These
demands of Torah are verified by their compelling power and
their ability to resolve the problems that rationalism leaves
open. I still do not see the flaws in that argument.

Dan, I have always felt that there was more to Heschel than
I have found in his writings, and I have looked forward to
others’ making sense out of his work. On your presentation of
Heschel’s thesis, let me ask a question to draw out Heschel’s
argument in more detail. Let’s grant that “since there is no
more logical place than Torah in which to seek that to which
rationalism sends us, why not look there for the answer to
rationalism’s questions?” Now, however, we need to explain
more about what is involved in looking to Torah. Is Torah the
words of the accepted Jewish canon of Hebrew Scriptures? Does
it include rabbinic commentaries on Scripture, and so on?
Or,is Torah more like Buber and Rosenzweig (at least in THE
STAR) suggest, viz., God’s presence to Israel, so that the
written words are not revelation but a communal (therefore
human and political) response to God’s presence? If the
former, how do we interpret that word and what difference do
the hypotheses of modern biblical criticism make (viz., if
those published words are a human product, how have we
transcended reason)?

Norbert, I believe that Torah is, indeed, the words of the
Jewish canon, the rabbinic commentaries on Scripture, the Oral
Torah, and anything that any talmid hacham will say in the
future! It is both God’s specific commands and the response
of specific human beings to those commands! At one point
Heschel says that the Torah is both: a revelation of God and
a co-revelation by humanity.

Heschel is both a minimalist and a traditionalist. His
minimalism answers your question of what to do with biblical
criticism. His traditionalism answers your question about
transcending reason. Heschel writes of carrying “on a battle
on two fronts, trying to winnow false notions of the
fundamentalist, and to dampen the over-confidence of the
rationalists.” (GOD IN SEARCH OF MAN, 272). On one level, he
denies that the problem of the Bible is historical or
chronological. The point is not who wrote the text when, but
what does the text mean as an expression of the divine demand?
He calls this the “level of faith.” The fundamentalist
misunderstands this dimension of revelation. For Heschel as
a minimalist, God’s words cannot be extended to every part of
the biblical text. He refuses to be bound by a maximalist
claim that faith requires that every biblical, rabbinic,
medieval, or modern Jewish statement be regarded as the very
word of God. He does this because he is not only being
pragmatic (although he is also being that, since he says, in
THE INSECURITY OF FREEDOM, that “maximalism is not the way to
this generation), but also realistically skeptical. He admits
that much in the Bible is not of value, that much reflects the
period in which it was written, the prejudices of a particular
culture, and the like. In this way he answers the
fundamentalists who demand “faith” in everything without
realizing that only a minimum of the Torah speaks with the
absolute voice of divinity unmixed with human responsesponse
(10% God’s word, 90% human response).

That 10%, however, is a real percent! Unlike Buber, Heschel
finds a content in the Torah–whether biblical, rabbinic,
modern, etc. Despite its variety, he sees a common theme
throughout–a theme that he identifies as the very word of
God: human beings are challenged, human beings feel that more
asked of them than reason, environment, or instinct requires.
He discovers in the Bible examples of men (and, yes, we today
can say that these are male examples because of the
socio-cultural-political realities of the biblical authors;
this would not disturb Heschel) who have extraordinary
sensitivity. What seems like ordinary business dealing to us,
seems like a scandal and outrage to them; what seems like
everyday history appears like a nightmare of inhumanity to
them. Specifically then, Heschel identifies an essential
divine command: to be human a person must be more than human.

Heschel identifies a second level of religious understanding.
Not only is faith needed, but also creed (sometimes he
divides these two into depth theology and theology; I prefer
faith/creed). Here he rejects the “overconfidence” of the
rationalist. The rationalist thinks that, with a minimum of
faith, it is possible to generate specific deeds and actions
using reason. Heschel denies this. Tradition supplies what
reason alone cannot–guides for how to fulfill the command to
transcend human insensitivity. In Western civilization,
certain biblical models consistently enable us to do this: the
Sabbath teaches us to transcend space and to sanctify time;
prayers surrounding eating, drinking, daily activities help us
move from self-centeredness to a more inclusive consciousness.

Yes, against the fundamentalist, Heschel will say that these
models need constant revision. The halakhic process itself
admits this. Still, against the rationalist, Heschel reminds
us again and again that we must look backward to our past for
models, that we cannot start anew every time we seek to answer
God’s challenge (that was Buber’s error although, I think more
a personal problem for him than a necessary error in his
philosophy). Here is where the Torah transcends reason.
Reason will tell us that there are many ways to respond to the
divine command to surpass ourselves. The Torah testifies to
the human reality that we require culturally specific means to
do this, and it provides those of us who stand in this culture
tested techniques for attaining this.

The longer I think and reflect on this, the more I am
convinced that Heschel combines the best in the existentialist
tradition of Buber and Rosenzweig with the best in the
pragmatic tradition of Kaplan and Ahad HaAm. Heschel also
sees his arguments as part of the long rationalist tradition
from Saadia and Maimonides through Hermann Cohen and his
disciples. Personally (unlike Gene Borowitz, I think), I have
never been really comfortable with that tradition, and so I
tend to stress the first two aspects of Heschel. Heschel,
however, offers cogent proofs for the existence of God (much
in the manner of David Novak, he sees them as confessional
expressions of how human beings respond to the fact of God’s
impingement on their lives) and argues for reason’s own
recognition of its limitations.

Yes–I think Heschel needs closer study than most people have
given him, perhaps because they’ve been seduced by his use of
language. (I wish he had never read Joseph Conrad!!!)

Dan, on your understanding of Heschel, how are we to decide
what content in the biblical/rabbinic tradition is divine and
what is human?

The divine content is the demand for an extremist response to
the world’s ills. The rest is working that out in terms of
real ills, real possiblities, real applications. The Bible
tells us: God is calling out “I need you, I am in pain.” The
prophets et. al. point toward how we feel empathically with
that pain and how we can respond accordingly. Some times and
places require different types of responding (PS., Moses,
like Jonah later, couldn’t deal with God’s pain until he
experienced his own pain, thus the shattering of the tablets

19. OCHS:
Friends, a general comment on the previous month’s discusion.
The electronic dialogue itself appears to have generated a
postmodern mode of philosophic discourse: each author
functions like Rav A or Rav B in redacted gemara discussion,
but from philosophic premises, or at least philosophic
responses to fundamental questions. Is this not the
postmodern gemara? To extend the model, perhaps the redactor
would identify a range of “real, experienced crises in the
communities to which we belong and practice” as the context
and stimulus of each phase of dialogue. Then these crises
represent points of interruption in the community’s formal
practices (in an earlier discussion, Dan Breslauer called this
the halakhic discourse of our self-images, or somthing like
that). Reasoning arises in response to these interruptions —
as an instrument of listening (to HEAR the cries in those
interruptions); of inquiry (to identify the character of the
cries, the conditions of the interruption as much as is
possible); of analysis (to offer ways of examining pertinent
elements of these conditions); of responsive
hypothesis-making (to generate hypotheses about what indeed is
the matter and about what may be done to mend it, by mending
the community, and so on). On this model (a pragmatic one, of
course), reasoning retains its link to practice because it
emerges only for the sake of clarifying and responding to
ruptures in that practice (I’m thinking here of Dan and
Norbert’s dialogue about when liturgy ceases to perform
its work; about when Jewish self-image needs restatement, and
so on. Dan offered a classic pragmatic analysis extended to
some uncharted territory; Norbert offered the classic
philosophic questions that elicit such an analysis).

God enters this process on two sides (plus as many more as God
may choose!): 1) the interrupted practices are the saving
remnants of past events of this kind; in each case, these are
modes of behavior infused with Torah/Halakha/Haskafa
(including science) and brought through interruption into
direct contact with divine negativity or correction. The
tradition attributes the Torah-(etc.)- infused behavior to
God’s positing speech (of which the Tanakh is a prototypical
record). But this God is encountered immediately only when
the behavior fails and we hear the divine NO; 2) some will say
that God returns again as the ground of hypothesis-making:
that is, as the condition of imaginative possibility or
creativity. Shefa perhaps. Divine effulgence. I don’t know.
Divine energy to be sure, but the context-specific contents
spewed forth in hypotheses must acquire their specific
character from the individual thinkers’ experiences. I’m left
with divine negations, divine energy formally, and the
contents of present experience and – most signficantly — of
past records, especially the canonized ones, as measures of
the Jewishly sanctioned authenticity of the contents.

In this approach, perhaps closest to Dan’s contributions (but
with more trust in reason, understood this way), the Shoah
would emerge as an interruption of unique proportion — an
interruption of course to the degree that we HEAR it that way
in our given modes of reasoning-response. Perhaps I mistated
this. Perhaps it is better to say, more of ourselves since
that’s what we have to work with, that we may attribute TO the
Shoah many of the interruptions we actually experience in our
practices or have experienced the past few decades. The
interruption is a fact, or not, of our practice. The claim
that it is the Shoah that interrupted is a claim of reasoning
— and thus belongs to post-holocaust thought. If so, this
thought would be compelling only to the degree that it
generated hypotheses about how actually to mend the

Peter, I take it that the “interruptions” needn’t only be
negative, or must they be? It has always seemed to me a
question about pragmatism. Thus in the religious life, as
Heschel’s “argument” indicates, what interrupts can be quite
positive, like wonder, the sublime, etc.

21. OCHS:
Gene, do interruptions include the positive? Pragmatists tend
to say no, in part because they fear the totalizing
consequences of ontologicallly founded claims. Aristo’s sense
of wonder leads perhaps to scholastic dogmatisms. The only way
to check (verify or not-falsify) claims of wonder (unless they
remain merely subjective reports) is to see either what other
claims they falsify (in which case they are the conditions of
a negative interruption after all) or if they are falsifiable.
If they are falsifiable but not yet falsified, then the
question is in what sense they contribute to our system of
practices. If they falsify others, then we return to the
previous comment. If they falsify simply by adding,
effortlessly, to what we already have, then there is no
interruption and we take them in as we do everyday perceptions
of new sights. But I’m not settled with what I have just said.
I’ve always wanted to find warrants for wonder, but have as
yet been able to find only the warrant of subjective
pleasure/growth or of hypothesis-making (that is, that wonder
contributes HYPOTHESES about what we may possibly see and do
in order to repair the interruptions we have or may yet

Peter, do you know Rosenzweig’s discussion of what makes a
WUNDER a WUNDER? It seems relevant to the discussion.


ADI OPHIR (of Tel Aviv University and of the Van Leer
Foundation) has recently written an expanded version of his
essay, “Beyond Good: Evil — An Outline for a Political Theory
of Evils” (of which earlier versions appeared in TEORIA-VE-
BIKORET (Theory and Criticism) and in THE PHILOSOPHICAL FORUM
XXI.1-2 (1989-90). In a complex and far-ranging essay of some
60 pages, Adi offers a number of theses worthy of our readers’
consideration and responses: for example, a critique of
classical and modern, metaphysical theories of the Good; a
critique of modern social contract theories; theories of
distributive evil and of social justice grounded on the
prevention of suffering. He places his theory-building in the
context of his concerns about what he calls the superfluous
suffering of Palistinians in Israel, and he offers, to boot,
a theory about the performative context of theory-building.
Readers, please enjoy these excerpts and send your responses to the
editor. The responses will be included in future issues, along
with more excerpts.

Beyond Good: Evil – An Outline for a Political Theory of Evils
(excerpts from Parts 1 and 2, of 9 parts)

Adi Ophir

In this paper I attempt to sketch a first outline for a
“political theory of evils” that may clarify the concept of
evil in a social and political context … Evil has a
presence that cannot be comprehensively expressed as a
negation or absence of good, and in contrast to the discussion
of the concept of good, the discussion of evil cannot be
limited to the spheres of ethics and metaphysics. Evil is a
product of social activity, and therefore social and political
philosophy is the natural and correct context for
understanding it … Evils are “what there is” not less, and
in fact more, than happiness, pleasure or freedom; the
presence of evil is … the practice of the production and
distribution of evils in society, “the order of evils…” The
order of evils is a contingent social product and hence is
open to change. Two categorical imperative will be derived
form this: the imperative to act for a reduction of the evil
produced and distributed in society, and the imperative to
permit the conversation of evils that have not been
prevented… I will propose a reformulation of the social
contract, an essential component of which will be a critical
interpretation of social reality int he light of the
distribution of evils within it. A social epistemology in
which evils, their production and distribution, are the main
object of knowledge and representation, is at the same time a
critical theory with the regard to the social reality being
examined. This critical dimension will become evident when I
focus on the local Israeli context in which I live and write.

Recently, thinking about evil has played a certain role in
research on the Holocaust and in the philosophical discussion
that has enveloped around attempts to understand it…
Naturally enough, this discussion, in its Israeli context at
least, does not involve a critical study of the concept of
evil itself. The presence of evil in Nazi Germany is so
intensive, decisive, and so near in time and place, that it
appears to threaten to erode any attempt to examine the
concept of evil in its modern historical context. On the
contrary: the evil that Nazism embodies is apprehended both
as a threat and as evident, so much so that it serves as an
absolute, objective criterion for the judging of other forms
of evil in other contexts. To frequently this comparison
imposes distorted analogies upon political and historical
debates, analogies with which the Israeli public discourse is
saturated to exhaustion-point. Analogical thinking in the
shade of the Nazi evil block attempts at thinking about evil
in itself and at thinking about it in other historical
contexts and in less horrible situation; and less horrible
situations are terrible and numerous enough.

To think today about evil in a political and historic context
one must bypass the sphere in which most of the discussion of
evil take place at present, especially in the Israeli context:
the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. A bypass of this sort will
also include the theoretical attempt to identify and interpret
the roots of the “absolute” or “radical” evil created by the
modern totalitarian regimes, Stalinism and Nazism foremost, as
such attempts have been expressed in the writing of thinkers
like Sartre, Marcuse, Arendt or Popper. If we leave wholly
out of account the meta-political thought that developed in
Europe in the shadow of the World War, the field of
Theoretical discussion of evil remains almost entirely empty.
The lack of attention that modern political philosophy has
devoted to an explicit discussion of evil has profound
historical roots. Since Plato, and more distinctively since
Plotinus and Augustine, evil has been defined as a privation
of good, and attempts to explain it, to the extent that there
have been such, have been mediated through the concept of the
good. In the Western metaphysical tradition, from Plato until
Leibniz at least, evil is a negative sign for the fixed and
constant presence of an essentially whole and perfect entity
the manifestions of which are always partial: the perfect
Good, the Good itself, which, especially in the tradition of
Christian thought, is identified with God. Evil is seen as
present in the world because of the instinctive part of man,
which is marked with the seal of original sin, testimony to
the infinite distance between this flawed and lacking human
entity and the perfect Good, which is never to be found in the
world but is always beyond and outside it. And thus,
paradoxically, the Good, which by definition, is a whole and
perfect presence, is always absent, while evil, which is
always existentially present, is defined only as an absence.
In the utilitarian tradition, in contrast, good and evil are
predicates of situations and human qualities, but the
antithetical opposition between good and evil remains. The
utilitarians do indeed cast doubt on the possibility of
transforming the predicate “evil” into a substantive “evil,”
but they leave the relations between good and evil unchanged:
evil is the sign of the contrary of good, which may always,
after the appropriate transvaluation, be substituted for it.

There have of course been exceptions, whose interpretations of
the concept of evil deserve detailed attention, but these, it
seems to me, do not contain anything that will advance the
discussion in the political context. In Hegel, for example,
the discussion of evil concludes with a characteristic
dialectical sublation (Aufhebung): the concept of evil, which
derives, as in Kant, from the arbitrariness of the individual
will, is explained by being introduced into an all-
encompassing historical context, which internalizes and
negates its original meaning; the opposition between good and
evil is presented as a necessary step in Reason’s dialectical
process. German Idealism after Hegel shifted the presence of
evil from man and original sin to actuality as a whole, and
posited the concept of evil in a distinctively metaphysical
context. Schopenhauer took this move to an extreme and saw
evil as a kind of primary, omnipresent entity. The outcome of
this philosophical move was a no less empty gesture of
“pessimism,” the immediate meaning of which is political
escapism and a renunciation of any attempt to understand evil
in the context of a concrete historical human reality. In
Nietzsche …, the point of view of the Qill to Power … may
for its part lead – and indeed did lead – to a too facile,
hasty and dangerous identification of evil with the multitude,
with the “plebeian” human element, and, at the same time, with
everything that is “too human” for the superman, the man of
free spirit.

The most significant exception in the history of thought was
perhaps Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne “put cruelly first”
(Shklar) on his inverted scale of virtues. He examined and
described various forms of evil in isolation from the
hypothetical situations or utopias in which these forms of
evil are excluded. Since he saw the causing of physical
suffering for its won sake as the most vicious form of malice,
Montaigne was able to examine evil without retreating to the
bosom of the Supreme Good or to a merciful (Christian) God
from whom such good flows in abundance. In this way Montaigne
succeeded in articulating various conceptions of evil and in
placing them in a changing framework of relations according to
changing moral sensibilities… He did all this while
avoiding the traps inherent in a relativistic stance towards
the moral sphere, because despite all his skepticism he
retained an unequivocal condemnation of cruelty, for the
causing of superfluous physical suffering, suffering which
could have bee prevented without harm to the victim, the
perpetrator or any other person, i.e., pointless suffering or
suffering for its own sake.

The concept of good, too, has received little attention from
modern political philosophy. Kant gave a legitmization to a
dubious, transcendental, concept of a “supreme good” (“Summum
Bonum”), but he did this only after he had established the
boundaries of critical moral judgment and the foundations of
its guiding principles. THe Kantian supreme good may be
interpreted quasi-metaphysically or quasi-historically, but in
both sases it deviates from the boundaries posited by critical
practical reason, and is permitted as a region of hopes only.
In the framework of the discussion made possible by the
Kantian critique, there is no hope of knowing with any
certitude what the supreme good is, and the center of gravity
of the moral discussion shifts to the formal characteristics
for the moral judgment. Modern Kantians in moral thought,
like Rawls or Habermas, have continued and deepened this true,
after giving up, without regret, the dialectical chapter in
the Critique of Practical Reason (the only place where
legitimization is given to the supreme good) and the
concatenation of the discussion in Kant’s minor writings.
They have developed rational procedures from fair struggle
between competing conceptions of the good life … The
surplus weight given tot he concepts of justice and
justification in modern moral doctrines, especially in the
Anglo-Saxon world, derives, inter alia, from the suspicion
towards any theoretical stance that claims to represent the
good itself in any exclusive manner. Thus, for example, in
Rawls’s theory of justice, the concept of good is allocated a
marginal position. Rawls claims … that the good is
“congruent” with justice but cannot sere as a basis for a
theory of justice… According to Rawls, there is no need for
any agreed concept of good and there is also no chance of such
a concept being found; justice is adequately served if within
the existing multiplicity of competing conceptions of the
good, it is possible to settle justly among conflicting
attempts to actualize competing life-projects proposed by
these conceptions.

Nevertheless, despite its exclusion of the concept of good and
its disregard of the concept of evil, a theory of social
justice seems to me a convenient place from which to begin the
discussion of evil in a political context. Such a choice is
appropriate to a critical position that rejects any attempt to
attribute to humans a constant essence from which the human
good may be derived; a critical theory of justice may be
expected to propose a way to settle among competing views of
the desirable social order that are based on competing claims
to represent or shape such an essence.

Correspondingly, skepticism towards any claim to know the
supreme criterion of moral judgment requires a shifting of the
discussion from the question of what is worthy or good to do,
to the question of how to settle among competing answers to
questions about values; a theory of justice should propose
principles of social order in a situation of co-existence of
competing scales of value. A theory of justice will thus also
have to cope with competing conceptions of evil and with
struggles between individuals and groups striving to reduce by
political means the quantity of evil that has fallen tot heir
lot. In the modern discourse of political philosophy, the
concept of evil marks a lacuna which does no oblige, but
certainly invites, an opening of the discussion of evil in the
framework of a theory of social justice. As a point of
departure for my argument I will choose the theory of justice
of the American philosopher Michael Walzer, with whose picture
of the social world I am in general agreement.

At the basis of Walzer’s theory of justice is a descriptive
model of modern society, which essentially corresponds to the
model of social space proposed by the French cultural
sociologist Bourdieu. This model presents society as a
cluster of spheres of activity that are more or less
differentiated from each other …, among which there are
complex hierarchical and lateral relationships, the obtaining
of which is also constantly at stake in power struggles. The
means of production are, of course, a kind of capital; control
of means of production determines positions in the economic
and political field. Capital and positions are the goods that
are offered in every society, for distribution according to
changing practices. Social conflicts occur around anything
that is conceived of as distributable: “distribution is what
social conflict is all about,” Walzer states in Spheres of
Justice. Principles of distribution are supposed to regulate
the movement of capital by means of: (1) the direct
distribution of forms of capital that serve as means for the
acquisition of goods; (2) control over the allocation of
people to positions, positions to people, and the limitation
of the maneuvering-space of the various positions. In each
sphere there exist exchange relations (in the market
commodities are exchanged; in the academy knowledge; in the
political sphere, positions of poser; and so on); among the
spheres there exist relations of conversion. It is possible
… to convert a degree into money and vice versa, scientific
authority into economic capital and vice versa or political
authority into sexual pleasure. Generally there is no agreed
procedure for fixing the prices of the conversion …

Just principles of distribution are determined both within
each particular sphere and in the conversion relations among
the spheres. The more autonomous the spheres, the smaller the
possibility of conversion of goods and positions among them.
A free pluralistic society is one in which success or failure
in one sphere does not entail advantage or inferiority in
other spheres, and where it is impossible to easily translate
capital and position in one sphere into capital and position
in other spheres. In contrast, in a society controlled by a
tyrannous regime there is one privilege sphere, the goods
acquired in which are convertible into those of every other
sphere. A theory of social justice is not simply a theory of
just distribution, but rather a theory of the various social
spheres, of the inter-relations among them, and of just
distribution within each of them. A society in which the
possibilities of arbitrary conversion are very limited,
although within each sphere the law of the jungle reigns, is
not a just society. A society where in each sphere the
principles of distribution are exemplarily just, but capital
and positions are converted within it in a free manner among
the spheres and thus arbitrarily foil the results of the
distribution determined by the principles of each sphere
separately, is not a just society. A theory of social justice
requires an accounting of the principles of distribution in
each sphere, on the one hand, and of the relations of inter-
dependence among the spheres, on the other. Such an
accounting requires us “to map out the entire social world.”
But to map out the entire social world means also to map out
spheres of evils, not only of goods.

A suitable description of the social reality …, cannot limit
itself to those social processes in which “people conceive and
create goods, which they then distribute among themselves”
(Walzer), because at the very same time as they create goods
people conceive and create “evils” too, and distribute them
among themselves, mainly among others … Like goods, the
modes of production and distribution of evils are reproduced
in a more or less ordered manner within the various spheres of
social action and interactions … I want to claim that an
“evil” is a no less concrete social object than the goods that
are used to produce it, to protect oneself against it or to
get rid of it; that in every society there are several spheres
of evils which sustain an inner logic of inter-relations and
have a relative autonomy, and in every society there are
evils, the prevalence and presence of which cuts across the
boundaries of the autonomous spheres of goods. True, each
isolated evil is describable in terms of the negation of a
good… But such a reversal is inadequate, because the
symmetrical relation which applies to each goods-object
separately does not apply to the spheres of the goods
themselves; the spheres of the production and distribution of
evils cannot be superposed upon the known spheres of goods.

What is an evil? Anything that causes a person suffering,
pain, discomfort or brings about a worsening, temporary or
permanent, of her condition, as grasped from her own point of
view, or form the point of view of another who seeks her
welfare or tries to understand her. This is a flexible
definition, suspiciously and intentionally so. In principle,
anyone can define anything as an evil, and there is no point
in seeking a universal criterion of evil that will distinguish
between subjective and objective identifications of evils or
between interested and disinterested definitions. The
critical-skeptical stance I declared for earlier denies the
validity of any such criterion, for if one were possible this
entire discussion would be superfluous. This discussion is
necessary precisely because a universal criterion is not a
possibility. At the same time it is clear that to interpret
situations and things as evil is not an idiosyncratic matter;
it can be justified and disseminated culturally as part of a
discourse in which an entire community of interlocutors take
part. As such it is of course a matter for argument and re-
interpretations. The re-interpretation has clear boundaries:
you don’t argue with a person who is screaming in anguish
about her pain, at the most you’ll try to relate the pain to
a different cause than the one conceived by the person
suffering. When there is pain, the subjective is the
objective; precisely for this reason the distinction between
pretense and authentic expression, which is so problematic in
any other context, applies in its simple sense in the case of
pain, and does not involve a matter of principle. The further
we move from the body and from the immediate experience of
pain, the greater the space of possibilities of
incompatibility between the suffering individual’s conception
of evils and that of the other observing her from the side …
The smaller the immediate component of the experience of
suffering, the sharper the difference between an evil and evil
per se, and the greater the possibilities of proposing a
context in which the good of a suffering person may be
understood as requiring her to take the punishment of evils.
But a person can also lovingly accept even terrible physical
pain …; in brief, evils (the opposites of goods) are not
necessarily evil (the opposite of good) … Often, evils are
conceived of as being completely beyond human control, like an
incurable disease, and earthquake, or a volcanic eruption.
But even in cases of natural disasters – the earthquake in
Armenia is a recent example — on moment after the earthquake
there begins the … creation of social mechanisms for the
distribution of the evils that have suddenly poured down so

A theory of social justice in particular and a theory of
political morality in general must delimit the discussion of
evils from two directions. First of all one must totally
discount evils that descend from heaven, and begin the
discussion from a moment after the earthquake. Secondly one
must totally discount haphazard human behavior … Also,
behavior that causes evil which does have a certain regularity
in the context of an individual’s life, and which can be
explained as the expression of a personality type, for
example, but cannot be related to social conditions, does not
belong to the present universe of discourse. The sphere that
interests us is the sphere of evils in the production,
dissemination and distribution of which there is some kind of
social regularity, a regularity that may be connected to
defined social practices and structural patterns of political
action. What I need to show now is not that there is such a
sphere – this, I think, is self-evident – but that the
description of it cannot be superimposed on the description of
society as that cluster of spheres of goods mentioned earlier.

Here are abstracts of the recent work of two new members of
BARBARA E. GALLI, McGill University
Rosenzweig prompts me to be concerned with boundaries and
relationships between philosophy and poetry; the limits of and
new beginnings arising out of traditional philosophy; the
collapse of philosophical totality by the “other;” notions of
time–questions of “when” over “what is;” and, of course,

I am following a method of philosophizing which Rosenzweig did
so well with poems by Jehuda Halevi. He stated that he
understood a poem only once he had translated it, that there
is vastly more worth in translating one line than in writing
a ten-page disquisition “about.” To Rosenzweig, all speech is
translating, even within the same language. He claimed that
he did not understand a poem until he had translated it, and
would therefore do so precisely in order to be permitted to
respond. He maintains that true word is word and response.
Except for the Star (and Das Buechlein vom gesunden und
kranken Menschenverstand), Rosenzweig’s corpus primarily
comprises essays, lecture drafts, addresses or letters written
to a specific other or others.

I have translated all ninety-five of Rosenzweig’s reflective
essays to the Halevi poetry, and the Afterward to his
translations. Each essay, sometimes in groups, warrants a
response. I am working on this. Shortly to be published is
my article which cites at length translated excerpts from
Rosenzweig’s note to the encyclopedia article on
anthropomorphism. In the winter of 1992 I shall submit my
response to Rosenzweig’s “The Secret of the Form of the Bible
Stories.” In the spring of 1992 my complete translation of
“The New Thinking” with a lengthy introduction should appear
in a slim volume. A few weeks ago I completed my translation
of “`The Eternal One’: Mendelssohn and the Name for God.” My
response will take into account John Hick’s God Has Many

MICHAEL OPPENHEIM, Concordia University
Mutual Upholding: Fashioning Jewish Philosophy Through
Letters, Peter Lang, forthcoming Fall 1992. The work consists
of six letters of chapter length, along with six brief
responses. Each letter is addressed to a colleague and
friend, and reflects in style, tone and themes the
relationship and particular issues discussed by us over the
years. The letters draw upon and extend some core insights of
Franz Rosenzweig, especially in terms of the way that speech
embodies interpersonal dynamics and the role of the language
of God as person in everyday life.

I find the fashioning of philosophy through letters to be
exciting and intriguing. The “book” responds to a current
philosophical quest to explore that which traditional
philosophy has not written, by way of the genre of the letter.
Equally, it seeks to take into account that world beyond the
solitary thinking self, through speaking with and writing for
specific other persons. Consequently, the “book” is very
personal. However, it attempts to witness both to the need
for philosophy to reflect the concrete life in dialogue of the
philosopher and to the relevance of such dialogues for a
larger audience.

Among the themes explored are; the relationship between
philosophy and religion, the contributions of Rosenzweig and
Buber to modern philosophy and modern Jewish thought, the role
of interpersonal relationships in the religious life of
contemporary Jews, the meaning of anthropomorphic metaphors
for God in religious life, the revelatory character of speech,
and the challenges that the Holocaust, feminist Judaism, and
religious pluralism pose for the understanding of God as

I have also completed two essays that might be of interest:
“Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Levinas: A Midrash or Thought
Experiment” (forthcoming in Judaism), and “Welcoming the
Other: The Foundations for Pluralism in the Works of Charles
Davis and Emmanuel Levinas.” As you can see form the titles,
I am trying to work through issues concerning the relationship
to others-a variety of others-by exploring stances of
particular religious thinkers. The first essay examines the
overturning or rupturing of the self through such
relationships, and the second explores the need for a
plurality of understandings of religious pluralism.

LARRY SILBERSTEIN sponsored a remarkable, postmodern sort of
conference at Lehigh’s Berman Center last May, with three full
days of eclectic responses to the question of The Other in
Judaism. Taking advantage of Larry’s hospitality, STEVEN
KEPNES sponsored a post-conference gathering of postmodern
Jewish philosophers. About twelve BITNETWORK members
reviewed, with much animated talk, papers by Larry (on Zionism
as ideology) and ADI OPHIR (on the Haggadah, power and
politics), an essay on legal pragmatism and remarks from DANNY
BOYARIN on the Talmud in postmodern perspective. The two day
session appeared to open some unexpected subterranean
movements; it was fun, too…. Soon after the conference,
JACOB MESKIN departed for a year (or?) in Israel. Soon after
that, the Israeli political scene turned upside down; for a
few weeks in July, there was (we must record it) even a sense
of euphoria there on the left to center. We don’t know if
Jacob contributed to any of this. But we pray for more….
We’ll miss EDITH AND MICHAEL WYSCHOGROD’s presence in New
York. We wish them well at Rice University (where Edith has
a chair in the Philosophy of Religion), and we look forward at
the very least to their presence at the AAR, and of course to
Edith’s leadership there…

On AAR matters, please note a news item on this BITNETWORK in
the next Religious Studies Newsletter. And please join us in
San Francisco this November for several events at the AAR
annual meeting of special pertinence to BITNETWORK themes:


* Sunday November 22, 9:00 am
Hermeneutics of Visionary Experience in Judaism

* Sunday November 22, 1:00 pm
Derrida and Judaism

* Sunday November 22, 9:30-11:00 PM, H-Plaza B
Postmodern Jewish Philosophy: “Politics and Art” (An
open meeting of the Bitnetwork. Discussion initiated by:
Yudit Korn Greenberg, Steven Kepnes, Peter Ochs, Larry

* Monday November 23, 9:00 am
Hermeneutics and Critical Theory in Postmodern Jewish
Philosophy (with L. Silberstein, S. Kepnes, D. Tracy, T.
Masuzawa, A. Peperzak, B. Zelechow.)


The next issues of BITNETWORK VOL. 2 will be devoted in part
to members’ responses to issues raised in this issue. Please
send reponses to the editor, through BITNET or the mails.
Deadline for responses to be included in the next issue is
OCTOBER 15. Speak, freely!