In the throes of the clash between faith and modernity, the non-dogmatic theologians have been forced to acknowledge the inadequacy of its time-honored dogma. Traditional halakhic literature by and large refused to open up to the crisis of faith in Western culture throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. But more liberal Jewish circles were certainly attentive to and affected by this historical turn.
In the 20th century, three eminent modern Jewish thinkers – Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Joseph Dov Soloveitchik – sought to chisel out a fresher face for the faith, a face with eyes wide open for the skeptical and far-from-docile outlook on religion and faith. But in this quest for a fresh religious perspective, the cause of modern Jewish theology became ambiguous. Is theology called upon to help us cope with or understand the halakha? Is it in the genre of ta’amei hamitzvot – expounding on the reasoning behind the rules and commandments to which Jews are obligated? Or is it an intellectual endeavor seeking to create a live option for the religious life? And furthermore, does a religious life require a clear understanding of what we mean by God?
This is a challenge I shied away from in all of my writings, because I never had a clear concept of God. As a people with multiple traditions and different strands, today we stand before a multiplicity of models and are expected to declare which one we identify with. Hence, the meaning of worshipping God may vary greatly. How can we know what a man of faith looks like? What is his or her way of life? If we are to untangle but some of this knot, we need a phenomenology of what it means to live a religious life: to examine carefully what religious life consists of.
I’m often asked how I know there is a God, and I reply that I know there is a God because I cannot conceive of any civilization that thought about itself without a conception of God; it is a universal phenomenon in the human condition. The presence of this dimension in people’s lives is instrumental for teaching them about Torah and prayer. In its absence, one is forced to begin playing an impossible polemical game. A living relationship to God challenges us to examine prayer as a fundamental aspect of religious life. The historical evolution of Jewish liturgy suggests that despite the setting of its canonical format, prayer is more elastic than rigid.
Each of the three thinkers we will encounter is led by a specific concern in shaping his religious thought: Leibowitz is concerned about the rational consistency of the halakhic framework, and anchors it in the believer’s choice to self-negate himself before God; Heschel seeks to revitalize Judaism within the context of modernity; and Soloveitchik wishes to integrate the believer’s traditional submission before God with a modern notion of free will and ethical responsibility.
Each thinker seeks to develop an imaginative integration that more often than not reinterprets the categories of “tradition,” “modernity,” “halakha” or “philosophy.”
Leibowitz believed that metaphyisical God-talk was utterly unintelligible. We have no access to the divine. For Leibowitz, the only way we can understand how Judaism understood God is by observing how Jews live. Hence, for him the empirical conditions of Jewish history are the frame of reference out of which one thinks theologically. Consequently, Leibowitz considers prayer as the paradigmatic model for understanding any talk about God. What prayer offers him is a model devoid of any experiential occurrences, an act in which the life context does not define the religious life, and a context in which halakha does not address one’s inner subjectivity.
The chassid celebrating his wedding and the parent who has just buried a child recite the same Shemoneh Esreh prayer, in a language that does not maintain any relationship with the experiential world of either of them. Therefore, the language of prayer determines one’s religious life in isolation from one’s subjective existential situation. Prayer is a decision to accept the authority of halakha. Leibowitz emphasizes that faith is purely a matter of choice, which falls outside of any theological understanding of God.
Leibowitz argues that waiving the right to a subjective religious experience is the essence of faith: it is utterly devoid of personal interest and/or any rational motivation. Jewish worship exists in a communal sphere perpetuated and manifested by the sharing of a monolithic code of practices. The code was formed essentially by Talmudic rabbis, who in the classic texts of Judaism, prescribed explicit rules of behavior without formulating an official dogma or theology. The multiple strands of theological discussions for which Jews are famous are a separate issue.
A Jew’s belief in God, Leibowitz contends, is by the way he or she gets up in the morning and by the way they choose to live their daily lives. And Leibowitz certainly practiced what he preached. You saw him every morning at 6:30, going to Yeshurun synagogue in Jerusalem to pray. Rain, shine, whatever it may be, Leibowitz was there, because being a Jew is about Jewish practice.
This is why Leibowitz was totally opposed to offering a humanistic understanding of Judaism. Leibowitz’s leap of faith is to clear religious conduct from serving any human need. Any act of faith, especially prayer, manifests one’s commitment to wanting to serve God. Do you know who God is? Can you talk about this God? No, but I can tell you, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God and God of our fathers.” Ask me what do you mean by God? I repeat what I do in the morning.
The metaphysics of God has for Leibowitz a single translation – that of the functional language of halakha.
One can hardly think of two Jewish thinkers that are more far apart than Leibowitz and Heschel. For the latter, the crucial concern was the imminent threat of national and cultural assimilation on contemporary Jewry. Heschel considered his task to be to lead Jews to find the genuine, passionate engagement with God, the radical amazement of being enveloped by the mystery of the divine.
Warning against spiritual detachment, Heschel lamented the “air of tranquility, complacency [that] prevails in our houses of worship.” In his most important book, theologically, “Man’s Quest for God,” he approaches the Bible as divine anthropology: religious man is guided by the desire to be a thought in God, to see himself in the way God sees him. God has to be very much alive, and Heschel takes it upon himself to illuminate His reality for the Jews who are skeptical, detached or indifferent.
If Liebowitz’s orientation is Talmudic promulgation, Heschel takes for the passion of biblical prophets. Heschel sought to restore the prophetic sense of divine concern for individual human behavior, to become attuned to His universal presence. This orientation leads Heschel to underscore the pivotal role of prayer in Jewish religious practice:
Prayer is our attachment to the utmost. Without God in sight, we are like the scattered rungs of a broken ladder. To pray is to become a ladder on which thoughts mount to God … (“Man’s Quest for God,” p. 7)
And this central role is also projected unto the mitzvot – for Heschel, prayer “is the queen of all commandments” – and therefore, “No religious act is performed in which prayer is not present.” Heschel provides a ground for an experiential quest, a spontaneous yearning to feel one’s self in the presence of God. Many people have difficulty with Judaism, because they do not what is demanded of them.
Heschel’s reply to this concern would be, “pray, and the rest will follow.” He does not offer a coherent, theologically compelling argument about the reality of God or the reality of prayer. What is more, he was one of the few modern Jewish theologians who could convey a sense of the living reality of God beyond the particular doctrinal and normative traditions of specific faith communities. That is why Heschel is prepared to think of prayer independent of halakha, considering it possible to find a way to make sense of the religious quest outside of the disciplined halakhic framework.
But Heschel suggests, in a sense, to waive the yoke of mitzvot not in order to make life easier for Jews, or because he does not think much of the halakhic framework. Far from it. This is Heschel’s way of engaging Jews with the essence of their faith: wholehearted devotion to God that is experienced personally and is at the same time shared with a community that possesses the same sense of radical amazement; an experience of the ineffable that is expressed in tight-knit structures of liturgical formulae. Once the individual has managed to secure a certain degree of genuineness in his or her religious experience, the road reopens to embrace Judaism as a way of life that entails the complete set of mitzvot.
For Leibowitz, the course one takes in order to be a Jew is straightforward: there is an ordered a way of life that its practice demonstrates what religious life is about. Serving God for Judaism is an institutional structure mediated by the lived religious life of the community. Therefore, Leibowitz is on pure empirical grounds. It frees him of all metaphysical language of making claims that cannot be validated, and he has a clear and distinct criterion for our relation to God and faith.
This criterion, halakha, was prescribed by classic Judaism without formulating an official dogma or theology. Halakha, Leibowitz concluded, was the single common denominator underlying the variety of religious orientations and sensibilities in the classical Jewish tradition. Tradition was shaped essentially by Talmudic rabbis and not by biblical prophets. Talmudic teachers extrapolating and elaborating a comprehensive structure of normative behavior – rather than God-intoxicated visionaries – changed the Jewish community’s way of life and ensured its continued existence throughout history.
By contrast, Heschel believed that the secret to reviving Judaism in the modern world lay in joining a God-oriented passion with halakhic commitment. He attempted to guide Jews back to halakha by way of the prophets, by restoring the prophetic sense of divine concern for individual human behavior. At the same time, he tried to cultivate an approach to halakha that mediated, rather than mitigated, the God-intoxicated passion of the prophets.
Based on a 2002 lecture series, “Images of God.” Adapted by Orr Scharf