The Antithesis between Judaism and Nature in the Thought of Yeshayahu Leibowitz

BY: Eli Putterman[i]

It is my object in this piece to illuminate one aspect of the fascinating philosophy of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, one of the most original Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. In doing so, I hope to provide something of an introduction to his philosophical method, along with its analytical insight and its penchant for binary oppositions.[ii] Leibowitz’s clear, precise, and razor-sharp arguments serve as a fruitful point of departure for almost any question with which modern Jewish thought grapples, even if his conclusions may be difficult to digest. The defining characteristic of his thought is its extremism: though his positions are founded upon values well-articulated in Jewish tradition, he shows time and again that taking these values to their logical conclusion results in an outlook very far from that of the average Orthodox Jewish believer.  Indeed, perhaps the most significant contribution of the thought of Yeshayahu Leibowitz is his penetrating exposure of the contradictions between some of our deeply-held values; what he, of course, does not do, is resolve them.

To provide a brief example: one of the central themes in Leibowitz’s thought is the slogan avodah li-shemah – worship of God for its own sake – certainly a message with ample precedent in Jewish sources.[iii] Yet in Leibowitz’s hands, this principle leads to a denial of Divine Providence – for the traditional account of sakhar va-onesh (reward and punishment) dispensed by God for performance or nonperformance of the commandments implies that God serves humankind. In Leibowitz’s words: “Folkloristic religion makes God the functionary of human society, performing for it the tasks of Minister of Health, Minister of Justice, Minister of the Police, Minister of Welfare, and Minister of the Economy.”[iv] The halakhically committed Jew must therefore forgo all beliefs which posit a divine response to human worship – even in the case of prayer, which Leibowitz views as inherently meaningless rote recitation whose significance lies in its being commanded by the Rabbis, not in its fulfilling any intercessory function.[v]

Leibowitz’s discussion of the relationship between Judaism and nature, the topic of this piece, is somewhat less radical, with significant precedent for his view found in traditional sources. The core of his presentation is a very powerful religious idea which can be found, inter alia, in sources such as R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s “Majesty and Humility” and U-Bikkashtem mi-Sham and Prof. J. J. Schachter’s article in a previous issue of Kol Hamevaser.[vi] Yet, as in the case of Divine Providence, Leibowitz’s approach leads to conclusions which are difficult to accept from a Modern Orthodox standpoint.

The first step in Leibowitz’s argument is a sharp fact-value distinction. For Leibowitz, knowledge of the natural world or of history can never yield normative conclusions;[vii] an “is” never implies an “ought.” The choice of a particular axiology by which to guide one’s life lies not in the cognitive but in the conative realm;[viii] it is therefore a completely free choice.[ix] Prima facie, this argument is easily refutable – would not certain knowledge of the divine origin of the commandments render halakhic observance a compelling, rational decision? Even if you personally witnessed the revelation at Sinai (itself a difficult notion in Leibowitz’s thought), does the fact that God legislated a particular set of commands compel you to the observance of these commands? Only if you have already chosen the worship of God as the highest value, argues Leibowitz, does it do so.[x],[xi] Thus, the fact-value distinction immediately leads to a disconnect between “nature,” a term whose meaning expands in this context to include all factual data about the world, and Judaism, which, as a system of norms and values, cannot be derived from or refuted by such knowledge.

Leibowitz’s next step is his analysis of competing ideologies as motivated by different conceptions of the summum bonum, the highest value. Secular morality is essentially a form of humanism, the axiology which takes humanity to be the supreme end.[xii] Lebowitz also defined fascism as a value system that takes the good of the State, or raison d’État, as having intrinsic value,[xiii] and harshly criticized (Religious) Zionism for allowing inroads to this kind of reasoning.[xiv]

On the other hand, Judaism, in its Leibowitzian interpretation, views God and His worship as the supreme good. Since God Himself is the telos of the halakhic system, this worship – which, for Leibowitz, is the performance of the mitsvot, no more and no less[xv] – does not have any this-worldly meaning or purpose. This is in stark contrast to many Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides,[xvi] who viewed Jewish law as instrumental to the attainment of intellectual perfection, and Eliezer Berkovits, who saw the goal of Halakhah to be the achievement of moral ends.[xvii] On the other hand, Leibowitz has nothing but scorn for theologies which posit that halakhic observance in some way affects the Deity – i.e., the Kabbalah.[xviii] These quite simply constitute idolatry – worship ofa God in the image of man (quite literally, in the case of the Sefirotic pleroma). Thus, Leibowitz invalidates the entire enterprise of ta’amei ha-mitsvot (reasons for the commandments) a priori.

But this leads to the obvious question: If Halakhah fulfills no function in either the human or divine realms, what, in fact, motivates the Leibowitzian to observe Halakhah? A possible answer is implicit in what we have already stated – if Leibowitz does not compromise on his fact-value distinction and ignores any claims about cultural influence on one’s value system, then it appears as though the choice to be observant is unmotivated, irreducible, and unexplainable. Indeed, some interpreters of Leibowitz have taken this route,[xix] and this reading seems to be confirmed by Leibowitz’s explicit statement, “There are no ways to faith, since faith is the supreme, if not the only, manifestation of man’s free choice.”[xx]

But this passage admits of more than one interpretation. A free choice (Leibowitz, in the original, uses the term behirah hofshit)[xxi] is not necessarily an unmotivated one, depending on how one defines freedom; Maimonides (and later, Kant), for example, defined freedom as activity in accordance with the dictates of reason rather than those of the body – a notion almost diametrically opposed to the contemporary conception of free will.[xxii] Prima facie, Leibowitz does not seem to have this escape route, as he explicitly removes value choices from the cognitive realm. But this may not be the end of the story.

In “Religious Praxis,” an early article which covers many of the main themes in Leibowitz’s thought, appears a passage which, though it bears directly upon this issue, has not merited scholarly attention.[xxiii] In this passage, Lebowitz argues that commitment to a theocentric religion, a value system which places an entity other than man at its center, is the only possible method of liberating oneself from the “bondage of nature,” the state in which man’s own desires drive his behavior. He emphasizes that this attribute of religion is not shared by axiologies in which “rational or secular ethical” considerations rather than selfish inclinations are the overriding value – such as humanism and nationalism – as one might think. Instead, secular value systems are themselves a form of bondage to nature, since the ends they aim to achieve – the good of the State, human happiness, etc. – are not transcendent. The fact that moral and national aims are products of the “human spirit” rather than blind instinct matters not for Leibowitz:

“From a religious point of view the classification of being as nature, spirit, and God has no validity. There is only the dyad: nature, which includes the human spirit, and God. The only way man can break the bonds of nature is by cleaving to God; by acting in compliance with the divine will rather than in accordance with the human will.”[xxiv],[xxv]

The uniqueness of Judaism as an axiology, in Leibowitz’s thought, lies precisely in the fact that it is antithetical to nature and all values derived from it.

This passage may be taken as a justification of halakhic observance or as simply descriptive (see the previous note for a full discussion). In either case, Leibowitz’s point is profound, valuable, and deeply troubling: profound, because it builds upon the powerful human yearning for transcendence; valuable, for drawing a clear demarcation between Judaism and competing modern value systems which could be put to great use in Orthodox ideology; and troubling, because the price of this maneuver is denying the possibility of an Orthodoxy which aims to synthesize the best of secular culture – which, if limited to value-neutral science or even other areas of culture without extending to the realm of ideals, aspirations, and values, results in an impoverished synthesis indeed – with traditional Judaism. This of course is precisely the route taken by Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and to him we may turn to demonstrate the implications of such a step.

Leibowitz’s view of morality as inimical and irrelevant to Judaism was one of his central contentions.[xxvi] In a previous article, I have had occasion to cite his bluntest quotation on the topic: “There is no distinction between ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) and ‘You shall surely erase the memory of Amaleq’ (Deuteronomy 25:19). As for ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ its characterization as the ethic of Judaism is none other than a heretical falsification of the Torah.”[xxvii] This passage expresses Leibowitz’s astounding notion that the “moral law” of the Torah, the commandments which appear to derive from the Bible’s revolutionary conception of human value, have in fact nothing to do with morality at all. This is a necessary consequence of Leibowitz’s system, as the following passage, which I have quoted at length on account of its centrality, illuminates:

“Ethics, when regarded as unconditionally asserting its own validity, is an atheistic category par excellence. […] The Torah does not recognize moral imperatives stemming from knowledge of natural reality or from awareness of man’s duty to his fellow man. All it recognizes are Mitzvoth, divine imperatives. […] The counsel of conscience is not a religious concept. The ‘God in one’s heart’ which humanist moralists sometimes invoke is a ‘strange god.’ […] ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ is a great rule of the Torah not because it is a precept transcending the formalism of law and above the Mitzvoth but precisely because it appears as one of the 613 Mitzvoth. […] ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ does not, as such, occur in the Torah. The reading is: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am God.’”[xxviii]

In the final analysis, for all the philosophical virtuosity evident in Leibowitz’s analysis, it is quite difficult to accept it as simply a presentation of the traditional Jewish view, as Leibowitz contends.[xxix] To take a well-known example, Abraham’s demand of God, “Shall the Judge of the earth not do justice?”[xxx] seems to presuppose an independent standard of morality to which not only humans but even God is held.[xxxi] Thus, advocates of synthesis need not feel unduly threatened by Leibowitz.

Nevertheless, Leibowitz does brilliantly expose the tension between the religious ideals of sacrifice and avodah li-shemah and the deeply held commitments of Modern Orthodoxy to universal morality, a tension which cannot be recast positively as a fructifying “dialectic” but constitutes rather a genuine philosophical difficulty, as Leibowitz shows. How does Modern Orthodoxy reconcile the Abraham who challenges God’s ways in the name of a universal morality with the Abraham who a few chapters later willingly submits to God’s demand for human sacrifice? What does avodah li-shemah mean, if not a willingness to jettison all values in the face of the divine command? Can the Orthodox relationship to nature and “nature’s laws” be other than Leibowitz’s indifference and negation? The Leibowitzian critique has shown us that a facile identification of the telos of the Halakhah with moral or otherwise natural ends is, if not idolatry, certainly a step which calls into question other fundamental religious concepts. What we must do is articulate an ideology which preserves both our unconditional commitment to the Halakhah as expressed in the ideal of Torah li-shemah, and our most dearly held intuitions about halakhic Judaism’s attitudes toward nature and morality. Modern Orthodoxy demands no less.

Eli Putterman is a Junior at YC majoring in Mathematics and Physics and is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] I would like to thank avi mori for allowing me to take some of Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s books to Israel where (on the plane, exhausted but unable to sleep) I was first exposed to his thought, and Prof. Daniel Rynhold of the Jewish Philosophy department, who offered a highly stimulating course in 20th-century Jewish philosophy, one of whose foci was Leibowitz, last summer.

[ii] A wide selection of Leibowitz’s articles has been translated into English in the volume Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: 1992), edited by Eliezer Goldman. The editor’s introduction (pp. vii-xxxiv) is almost certainly the best summary of Leibowitz’s thought available in English. References will be made to this volume when possible.

[iii]Avot 1:3; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah, ch. 10.

[iv] Yeshayahu Leibowitz, “Ha-Rambam – Ha-Adam ha-Avrahami,” Be-Terem 211 (1955): 20-23, at p. 22.

[v] On prayer, see “Of Prayer,” in Judaism, pp. 30-36.

Strictly speaking, from this argument it follows only that the prospect reward or punishment should not be the motivating factor in observance, not that God does not reward or punish. A fuller presentation of this point would explain how Leibowitz’s denial of Divine Providence follows directly from his metaphysics – in which the idea of divine transcendence is taken to its logical extreme. However, the tightly integrated nature of Leibowitz’s thought means that we will come across a closely related point – though in an axiological rather than metaphysical context – shortly.

[vi] Jacob J. Schachter, “Submitting to Divine Religious Authority in a World of Personal Autonomy: The Challenge of Choice,” Kol Hamevaser 3:1 (August 2010):  5-7.

[vii] Readers will forgive, I hope, my failure to mention or adhere to the distinction between norms and values, which is irrelevant for our purposes.

[viii] This argument is entirely analogous to one developed by Menahem Fisch, according to which rationality serves as a progressive methodology for achieving a particular goal, but has nothing to say about the choice of goal. See Fisch, Rational Rabbis (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997), pp. 34-35.

The fact-value distinction in the strong formulations of Leibowitz and Fisch runs directly counter to Enlightenment attempts, notably by figures like Kant, to derive a morality from rational principles. It does not contradict the general Enlightenment optimism according to which reason would be able to achieve human happiness, so long as it is recognized that such humanism itself is the product of an unmotivated choice; indeed, Leibowitz, as a scientist, is less than interested in proclaiming the limits of reason within the purely cognitive realm.

[ix] Leibowitz, Judaism, p. 37. Jewish thinkers influenced by postmodernist trends have criticized Leibowitz for ignoring the formative role played by upbringing in determining the value system eventually chosen by a person; not that blind inertia necessarily determines one’s life trajectory, but that growing up within a particular tradition and way of life shapes one’s processes of reasoning such that his or her notion of what is “rational” behavior, or argument, or way of life, tends to be different from that of someone raised with a different background. See Gili Zivan, Dat le-Lo Ashlayah Nokhah Olam Post-Modernisti (Jerusalem: Hartman Institute Press, 2005), and Avi Sagi, Etgar ha-Shivah el ha-Masoret (Jerusalem: Hartman Institute Press, 2003) for a discussion of the difficulties with Leibowitz’s conception of faith, and Daniel Rynhold, Two Models of Jewish Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), for a discussion of the “biased” rationality which believers use in connection with their religious faith.

[x] This argument serves as a powerful reductio ad absurdum against Divine Command Morality, ve-ein kan makom le-ha’arikh.

[xi] Hearing about the reward and punishment associated with Jewish law might drive a selfish person to observance, but by adopting such a lifestyle, he has also thereby made a value choice, not a purely rational one – that of egoism. Of course, as noted, Leibowitz does not accept traditional notions of reward and punishment, so he considers such avodah she-lo li-shemah as not only religiously abhorrent but misguided.

[xii] Leibowitz usually referred to the moral system of the “atheist Kant” (Judaism, p. 19) when discussing morality, but his point applies whether the system is a deontological prescription of certain absolute duties towards other humans as ends in themselves, or a consequentialist ethic seeking to maximize human happiness.

[xiii] Leibowitz, Judaism, p. 218.

[xiv] See especially “After Kibiyeh,” in ibid., pp. 174-184; see also ibid., p. 150, where Leibowitz accuses Religious Zionism of “deifying” the State of Israel.

[xv] Ibid., p. 44.

[xvi] Assuming one takes his treatment in the Guide of the Perplexed III:25-49 seriously and not, as Leibowitz does, as a smokescreen for suspiciously Leibowitzian views (which allows him to call Maimonides “the greatest of believers;” see Judaism, pp. 39, 121, and also p. 56). This interpretation of Maimonides is found in a number of his articles, as well as in his short book, Emunato shel ha-Rambam (Hebrew; Tel Aviv: Ministry of Defense Press, 1980).

[xvii] See Eliezer Berkovits, Essential Essays on Judaism (Jerusalem: Shalem Press, 2002), pp. 3-39.

[xviii] Leibowitz, Judaism, pp. 76, 112-114. Gershom Scholem essentially agreed with Leibowitz’s assessment that Kabbalah, with its mythical elements and its theurgy, represents a foreign graft onto Rabbinic Judaism, but Moshe Idel, arguing that theurgic ideas are well-attested in rabbinic literature and in fact reflect a Jewish mystical tradition dating to rabbinic times, has disputed this. See Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken Books, 1961), pp. 21-25, and Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), esp. pp. 30-34, 156-172.

[xix] See note x. Avi Sagi, “Yeshayahu Leibowitz – A Breakthrough in Jewish Philosophy: Religion without Metaphysics,” Religious Studies 33,2 (1997): 203-216, at p. 215.

[xx] Leibowitz, Judaism, p. 37.

[xxi] Idem, Emunah, Historiyah, va-Arakhim: Ma’amarim ve-Hartsa’ot (Jerusalem: Akademon, 1982), p. 13.

[xxii] See David Shatz, “Judaism, Free Will, and the Genetic and Neuroscientific Revolutions,” in Yitzhak Berger and David Shatz (eds.), Judaism, Science, and Moral Responsibility (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2002), pp. 85-86.

Such “positive” definitions of freedom are attacked by Isaiah Berlin in his famous essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Four Essays on Liberty (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), as conducive to totalitarian ideologizing.

[xxiii] Leibowitz, Judaism, pp. 21-23.

[xxiv] Ibid., p. 22.

[xxv] If this passage is read as I read it – as an attempt to justify halakhic observance, even post facto, as opposed to any secular value system, and hence an escape route from the regnant understanding of Leibowitz as denying any sort of motivation for observance – Leibowitz’s argument runs into a difficulty. For a justification of a particular choice of axiology against all others to succeed, it must appeal to some human “spiritual instinct” (I use scare quotes in deference to Leibowitz). In this case, Leibowitz appeals to the human yearning for the transcendent. However, by Leibowitz’s own argument, the human spirit is simply a part of nature; thus, the human need to grasp at something transcendent is no different from any other inclination. If so, the question returns in full force: if Leibowitz does not in any way privilege the drive for the transcendent over other human drives, he has provided no justification for halakhic observance.

In my read, Leibowitz simply failed to realize this difficulty, but his very attempt demonstrates that he did not believe that the choice of the believer is completely unmotivated. However, if one reads this passage as merely a further development of Leibowitz’s phenomenology of Judaism rather than as an attempt to ground it in what seems reasonable, then one arrives again at a Leibowitz who believed that the religious choice is an arbitrary one.

[xxvi] A well-known difficulty with Leibowitz’s position is that it appears to conflict with his harsh moral critique of the national security policies of the State of Israel. On this, see Eliezer Goldman, “Religion and Morality in the Thought of Yeshayahu Leibowitz,” in Avi Sagi and Daniel Statman (eds.), Between Religion and Morality (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1993), pp. 107-114, and Moshe Halbertal, “Yeshayahu Leibowitz: Between Religious Thought and Social Criticism,” in Avi Sagi (ed.), Yeshayahu Leibowitz: Olamo ve-Haguto (Jerusalem: Keter, 1995), pp. 221-227. In a previous article, I approvingly cited Goldman’s position, but I find that I currently lean towards Halbertal’s understanding.

[xxvii] Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Judaism, Religion, and the Jewish State (Hebrew; Jerusalem: Schocken Press, 1979), p. 310.

[xxviii]Idem, Judaism, pp. 18-19.

[xxix] At least one other 20th-century Jewish philosopher was afflicted with the malady of ex cathedra pronouncements in the name of the Halakhah, ve-hamevin yavin. It seems unfortunate that a lack of critical reflection and historical consciousness seems to be a prerequisite for theological innovativeness.

[xxx] Genesis 18:25.

[xxxi] This argument is cited by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, By His Light (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 2003), p. 108, in the name of Benjamin Whichcote.  In Judaism, pp. 53-54, Leibowitz attempts to wave away the challenge to his system posed by Abraham’s discussion with God in Genesis 18 but without much success.