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Can We Believe in Judaism Religiously?An Ethical Faith Is Not Enough

Like many others in this sceptical era, Jewish theological writers have had some difficulty in accepting their Judaism, or advocating it, on truly religious grounds. Most Jewish religious apologists of our day tend to commend Judaism to us as a desirable ethical influence, or a handy kind of psychotherapy, or a rich tradition of wisdom literature to which we can occasionally turn for solace and insight, or a cement for group solidarity or survival. But when faced with the blunt question: “Do you really believe in the claim of this religion to be your unique, historically-covenanted social tie with the Divine—do you think it is the eternally true?” they react, more often than not, with embarrassment and confusion. Emil L. Fackenheim here attempts to point the way to a reconstruction of Jewish theology that would provide a solid religious foundation for Jewish religious belief in our age.



Rightly or wrongly, I have always thought highly of Abraham, the first Jew. It was not the condescending esteem we feel, say for an ancient Greek scientist who appreciably furthered scientific thought but whose ideas would appear naive today to any college senior. The greatness of Abraham, to my mind, surpassed any “contribution” to the “progress of ideas”: it was a greatness equally great at any time. The relationship I had thought it permissible to have to Abraham was a direct one, conceiving Abraham not as separate from us by many links in the chain of progress, but as the here-and-now guide and father of every mere Jew aspiring to be a good Jew. In taking Abraham with such live seriousness, I readily admit that I was influenced by Kierkegaard’s magnificent Fear and Trembling. But I also believed it to have the backing of Jewish tradition.



Recently, however, I suffered a sad loss. Rabbi Joseph H. Gumbiner’s essay “Existentialism and Father Abraham” COMMENTARY, February 1948), discovered for me that Abraham is a pure illustration of “ethical monotheism,” as distinguished from Kierkegaard’s Abraham, who experienced an agonized conflict between the ethical and the religious.

Alas, I am now deprived of Abraham. I can take small comfort in the assurance that I need not be ashamed of him; that, on the contrary, he was further advanced in his moral ideas than his contemporaries, being the first to hit upon the truth that childsacrifice is unacceptable to God. Abraham has been put in his place . . . and it is a relatively low one.

To Rabbi Gumbiner (and, he claims, to Judaism) Abraham represents no more than a step in the moral progress of mankind, and this progress is necessarily measured by standards which are universal, and superior to the specific example of Abraham. Thus is destroyed any direct relation we might have to Abraham as a guide and father; for every Tom, Dick, and Harry now knows what it took Abraham such a long struggle to realize: that Judaism is “ethical monotheism.” And if we imagined him alive today we should be compelled to instruct him in all the refinements and further progress that have been made since his important—but by now banal—discovery.



Let us for the moment resign ourselves to the loss of Abraham. Another question quickly presents itself as even more important: whether the criteria which Rabbi Gumbiner applies to Abraham are to be applied to Jewish tradition as a whole. If what is good and bad or living and dead in Abraham is to be measured by outside standards of moral progress, why not follow the same procedure with Moses, the prophets, the rabbis? By what right can we exempt any part of the Jewish past from this kind of valuation? On this question depends the fate of Jewish theology.

That may sound like a grandiose assertion, but it is inescapable. What is more, it explains why we can rightly speak of the non-existence of a modern Jewish theology. For it has not been asserted in modern times in any self-consistent or tenable form that Jewish tradition (or any part of it) supplies truths or authoritative standards directly obligatory for modern man or modern Jew—truths or standards that transcend the social and cultural norms of our day.

The question “What is Judaism?” may be posed in two forms. One of these, the purely historical one, does not interest us here. What concerns us is the question “What is valid or true Judaism?”—the Judaism to which we are obligated and which defines what is a good Jew, here and now. To Rabbi Gumbiner it is “ethical monotheism,” to others it is ethical nationalism, to others again it is something else—potentially if not in actuality. What happens in these cases is that some external principle and ideal is employed, with whose help is selected the “essence” of Judaism. Rabbi Gumbiner may deny that his principle is extraneous to Judaism, but the mere fact that he singles out “ethical monotheism” from a tradition which is, to say the least, also a lot of other things, presupposes a previous, superior yardstick as to what is living and dead, or important and unimportant in Judaism.

This procedure is typical of modem Jewish “theology.” Jewish tradition is approached as something considered vaguely as either “inspired,” in some sense “true,” or “morally progressive.” The question immediately arises whether, as Jews, we are obligated to this tradition because of these attributes or merely because it is Jewish. Obviously it cannot be the latter—or at least in that case this obligation has nothing to do with theology: it is pure nationalism. We are, then, obligated to the “truths” and “inspired teachings” in our tradition. But how do we measure them? We can only measure them by criteria of general reason, general ethics, and general philosophy: monotheism is the “purest form of religious thought,” the “prophetic ethic” is “most advanced,” “up-to-date” and so forth.

But if we follow this procedure (and it is difficult to see how any type of “modem” Jewish thought can do otherwise), two fatal implications immediately follow:

(1) The whole of Jewish tradition becomes at once superfluous, for the simple reason that we are certain of our basic moral and religious criteria prior (logically prior) to our judgment as to what is living and dead in Judaism. We could as easily deduce “ethical monotheism” from pure reason, or derive it from pragmatic criteria—whichever our philosophic preference. I do not mean, of course, that the Jewish tradition becomes practically valueless; it may continue to be necessary for the inspiration of individuals and a people. But from a strictly theoretical viewpoint the conclusion is inescapable that if I am to read that tradition with the notion that what is authoritative in it depends on my judgment, and not on the intrinsic religious truth and authority of that tradition itself, then the perusal of this tradition is no different from that of any other valuable literature. I am then a Jew as I may be a Platonist or Kantian or pragmatist. And my religion is essentially a religion of reason, intuition, or ecstasy; it is not essentially Jewish religion.

Some of the Reconstructionists understand this implication when they admit that the basic ideas of Judaism are to be derived from reason, and are therefore, at least potentially, basic to any (and all) highly developed religions; their defense of Jewishness lies in the no doubt correct insight that in practical life no abstract religion is possible, and that it must crystallize itself in definite patterns, forms of civilization. Hence, a Jew may find good grounds for carrying on the stream of Jewish tradition if he is convinced to begin with that he ought to live the universal truth in the particular Jewish pattern. But that he should so live it cannot be shown theologically. At best we can adduce only practical (social, national, etc.) reasons why he could not just as well become a follower of Unitarianism, Bahai, or Ethical Culture.

(2) This brings us to our second difficulty. If Jewish tradition (or any part of it) is true or obligatory not because it is Jewish or tradition but simply because it is, as a body of thought, convincing, then it must be equally true and obligatory for all men. There is not the slightest theological justification, in that case, for the separateness of the Jewish people. Our obligation is no longer to Jewishness but to truth and goodness, and, while in a world full of falseness and evil there are good grounds for continuing Jewish tradition as a convenient force against them, this is only a tactical consideration; essentially, we should be obligated to truth itself—the truth which is the object of all men of good will.

In other words, modem Jewish theology has not really succeeded in showing—in theologically valid terms—that Jews should continue to be Jews, and that to be a good Jew may include, but must necessarily transcend, the obligation to be a good man.



Now it may very well be that we can philosophically demonstrate what Hermann Cohen called a “religion of reason” and show that, in actual fact, Judaism alone of all the historical religions conforms to it. In that case we might be well satisfied with giving loyalty to our Jewish tradition only until such time as there would evolve a more universal religion embodying the “religion of reason.” Many of the early modernists certainly believed this, and could therefore be satisfied with understanding the Jewish “mission” as a relative one—a temporary, special, historical obligation to the “religion of reason.” It is the contention of this essay, however, that a “religion of reason” cannot be fully satisfactory to modern man and that Judaism is not identifiable with it—unless it be a Judaism distorted to fit the requirements of modern rationalism.

But we must first ask another question: is Jewish theology possible at all? Is it possible to have a discipline which claims to attain truth and validity, and ipso facto universality—for what is true is universally true, and what is valid is valid for all men—and yet is particularly Jewish—that is, assigns a special position to a specific tradition, and a special task to a specific people?

Our answer is, for the present, that classical Jewish theology (i.e. the theology of ancient and medieval times) has demonstrated this possibility. Classical Jewish theology starts out with the concept of revelation which is by definition supernatural. By reason of this single concept, classical Jewish theology differs radically from anything so called in modem times: it really is Jewish theology. For it finds its justification in the formal assertion that the criteria of its validity lie in the revelation itself—in the fact of its being revealed.

Traditional Torah and what the modems with vast equivocation call “Torah” differ radically in that the former is, in principle, absolute instruction, whereas the latter is merely random confirmation of the values to which the pupil subscribes to begin with. The fact that the traditional Jew may have been arbitrary in his interpretations of the Torah is not of primary importance; the important thing is the assertion of the absolute authority of the revelation as such. (That he was aware of the dangers of subjectivism or “humanism” as regards interpretation is evident from his belief in the necessity of a Torah she-b’al-peh in addition to the Torah she-bikh’tav—a revealed interpretation over and above the revelation itself.)

This conception, we say, really was Jewish theology: (1) It entailed a direct obligation to the Jewish tradition instead of encouraging a selection capable of confirming one’s presupposed values. Abraham, Moses, or the prophets were not men exemplifying the view of progress current at the time; they were, at least in theory, direct authority. (2) Reason and human capacity were of inestimable importance, but they were not entirely sufficient—at least not sufficient for being a good Jew; for in that case the revelation would have been superfluous. (3) The obligation to be a good Jew over and above being a good man was theologically demonstrable: for whatever reasons, there was a Law of Moses which, unlike the Law of Noah, was obligatory not for all mankind but for Israel alone.



Let us assume for the rest of this essay that medieval Judaism is unacceptable to the modern Jew, and that the concept of revelation, at least in the sense of a written code of law and doctrine, has been destroyed beyond recovery by historical criticism. Can we fall back on the “religion of reason”—“ethical monotheism”?

Twentieth century insight finds the “religion of reason” profoundly unsatisfactory. The difficulty is not so much whether we can philosophically justify its basic notions; for the present purpose we may disregard the fact that many present-day philosophies deny, in the name of reason, the very meaning of a concept of God and moral value. We may disregard the assertions that the “religion of reason” is untrue; but we must face the fact that it is inadequate to meet the human needs that it presumably serves. Irving Kristol, in his incisive criticism of Milton Steinberg’s Basic Judaism (COMMENTARY, January 1948), has shown precisely this. A religion which lives by the ideals of reason alone (i.e. without an existing God in addition to an idea of God—an existing God who reveals himself supernaturally) can be satisfactory only where it is believed that the gap between the envisaged ideal and the lived reality is not crucial; that it is a matter of degree only, and that it will be progressively bridged.

A “religion of reason” requires the conviction that there are few human ills which more effort will not heal. But what religiously sensitive persons of the 20th century have come to realize is that moral progress in degree, important though it be, does not span the gap in kind: there are conflicts in existence which can never be solved by a little more effort. Modern men have become aware of the tragic element in life.

As Kristol puts it: “The horror that breathes into our faces is the realization that evil may come by doing good—not merely intending to do good, but doing it.” This the “religion of reason” cannot understand. Nor is it equipped to face the fact that in the 20th century, men—all of us—find themselves compelled to commit or condone evil for the sake of preventing an evil believed to be greater. And the tragedy is that we do not know whether the evil we condone will not in the end be greater than the evil we seek to avert—or be identical with it.

The “religion of reason,” we increasingly recognize, is the illusion of an expanding bourgeois civilization. It is compelled, especially in a time of crisis, to discourage ultimate questions as to good and evil, as to the ultimate consequences of one’s moral action. It is compelled to become the religion of the philistine, “a comfortable religion for an uncomfortable world.”



Fortunately, Judaism is not identifiable with the bourgeois “religion of reason.” True, it is a religion of reason also, but it is more than that. And one of the first requirements for a real reconstruction of Jewish theology is to protest against the falsification and banalization Judaism has suffered by most, if not all, of its liberal interpreters. The rationalists of the 19th century (and many of the 20th) saw in Judaism the assertions that man is free, though morally obligated; that God represents moral law; that the messianic age is to be brought about by human effort. But they conveniently forgot the rabbinic assertions concerning the yetzer ha-ra’ (the evil inclination), an inclination so strong that only God in the world-to-come can uproot it. They forgot that God is represented not only as moral law (which may be understood in naturalistic terms), but also as love, forgiving to just and unjust alike (which cannot be so understood). They forgot that while on the one hand the Messiah is said to arrive when men repent—when the world has become good enough to make his coming possible—he is on the other hand said to come when the world will be so wicked as to make it necessary. They stressed the midrashim asserting Israel’s election as the result of its free choice, but ignored those that saw it as a supernaturally imposed fate.

Our naturalists and rationalists thought to improve Judaism; they made it more “systematic” and “scientific.” As becomes ever clearer today, they sucked the life out of it, and transformed profound insights of religious existence into platitudes.



Assuming that the medievalist interpretation of Judaism is unacceptable to modern man, the first task of a new theology is to understand Judaism as it actually was in terms truer and more adequate than the prejudices of liberal rationalism. We can here merely assert a general conclusion which we intend fully to corroborate elsewhere: Judaism is to be understood, not as an evolution of ideas in the direction of a pure rationalism, but as confrontation of finite human existence with the infinite. Jewish “ideas” are to be understood not in themselves (in their systematic-philosophic coherence), but as the reflection of this confrontation, in historic and personal existence. This accounts for the fact that the profoundest statements made on sin and freedom, reason and revelation, God’s justice and mercy, this world and the world-to-come, are not scientific or systematic but (if I may use Existentialist terminology) dialectical, that is, they express profound and irreducible tensions, struggles, conflicts—and resolutions—arising in and from the basic relationship of finite to Infinite.



Traditional sources abound in such a dialectical vision. The tension in the relationship between finite man and Infinite God is made irreducible by its immediacy and its mutuality. In its immediacy, it differs sharply from the philosophic relationship to the first cause. “God is far—for is He not in the heaven of heavens?—and yet He is near. . . . For a man enters a synagogue, and stands behind a pillar, and prays in a whisper, and God hears his prayer. . . . He is as near to His creatures as the ear to the mouth.” The infinite God, paradoxically, is yet everpresent to finite man.

That it is a mutual relation (in contrast with mysticism) is another vast paradox: the action of finite man cannot, and yet does, make a difference to the infinite God. “‘Ye are My witnesses, saith the Lord, and I am God.’ That is, when ye are My witnesses, I am God, and when ye are not My witnesses, I am, as it were, not God.” Statements such as this reflect fully and consciously the two-way, mutually-dependent, dialectical character of the God-man relationship. It is reflected no less in the descriptions of the nature of God, especially of His qualities of justice and mercy. Insofar as man is free and responsible, God is absolutely just, “never passing beyond justice but once”; yet insofar as man is finite, God is absolutely merciful: “If we have merit, and if we possess good deeds, He gives us what is ours; if not, then He acts charitably . . . toward us from what is His.” Absolute mercy and absolute justice are mutually exclusive; yet on the basis of either alone, the world (and the relationship between finite and infinite) is not possible: “If I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be great; on the basis of justice alone, the world cannot exist. Hence I will create it on the basis of justice and mercy, and may it then stand.”

In the rabbinic interpretation, man can only understand himself as both finite and yet transcending finitude. Insofar as he ought to combat the evil inclination (the yetzer ha-ra’), he can do so, especially with the help of the God-given “remedy” against the “disease”—the Torah. But while man can and must combat evil in degree, only God can root it out in kind: “The Israelites say to God, ‘Lord of the world, Thou knowest how hard is the strength of the evil inclination.’ God says, ‘Remove it a little in this world, and I will rid you of it altogether in the world to come.’” Again, insofar as the evil inclination is traceable to God it is potentially good and necessary for human life: yet it at the same time causes a contradiction in human life: “Woe to me from my Yotzer (Creator) if I follow my yetzer (evil inclination); and woe to me from my yetzer if I follow my Yotzer!”

The human situation involves a dialectical tension between a host of other notions which cannot even be mentioned here. Among them are the ethics of motive and the ethics of consequence, the relationship between the individual and the world, history and the trans-historical, this world and the world-to-come. To this last relationship R. Jacob refers in his profound statement in Pirkei Avot: “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole life of the world-to-come; yet better is one hour of blissfulness of spirit in the woild-to-come than the whole life of this world.” L. Feuer, in his Jewish Literature Since the Bible, omits the last half of this statement. This is a nice illustration of the sort of modem “improvement” of classical Judaism which transforms religious profundity into moralistic platitudes.1



Supporting our historical interpretation of Judaism to be correct, how does it lead to theology? We are confronted, to begin with, with an alternative: we may dissolve the “confrontation” we spoke of in terms of “experience,” that is, interpret what was subjectively to Abraham and the rest of Jewish tradition a direct relationship to the absolute as a mere feeling whose objective correlate, the “outside,” is denied or left in suspense. But then we escape the real question—the religious question—which is not directed to “experience” but to “existence.” “Existence” inescapably concerns me, and, being part of me, it at the same time resists complete rational penetration. It cannot be dissolved into a theoretical system, even if it is a system of “feeling” or “experience.” That is to say, I escape the question of religious living until I face the real choice: whether this “outside” is Nothing or Absolute Transcendence—the choice between nihilism and faith. This choice cannot be left in “scientific” suspense—for my existence cannot be left in suspense: it must be lived.

As regards Jewish history (which we say is a confrontation between finite existence and the infinite), we can take three attitudes: we may consider it a psychological curiosity and ignore the religious question; we may call the “outside” the Nothing—in which case we deny the very basis of Jewish theology and break away from a tradition which lived by an erroneous assumption; or we may make the decision of faith, in which case we find a new (and, this writer believes, the only possible besides the classical) basis for Jewish theology.



Let us briefly indicate the feasibility of this basis in some crucial points:

  1. A religious existence differs from a religious idea in the following: an idea, once thought, becomes the permanent possession of mankind; but existence must always be lived anew. As we have said; anyone can subscribe to “ethical monotheism”: but to live in direct relationship to God by virtue of faith (if there is such a thing—which depends on the decision of faith itself) is no less difficult because it has been done a thousand times before. While we may learn no “religious ideas” from Abraham, we may learn from him (probably we are not great enough to do this) religious existence. In other words, the existential approach provides the sole possibility (aside from the classic one) of finding a direct religious and theological guidance in Jewish tradition. And this in no way conflicts with what is really scientific in the contribution of the historian of ideas. One may well use one’s reason and yet turn to tradition and search for the ultimate possibilities of an existence lived in confrontation with the Absolute.
  2. Judaism is not alone in searching out the deepest strains of existence: we have no monopoly on profound living. Nor is Judaism alone in the decision that the “outside” is the Absolute rather than the Nothing: we have no monopoly on faith. But Judaism is alone in asserting that its people, for no other and better reason than that they are Jews, are forced by their destiny to live in that confrontation with the Absolute which, for others, is a matter of individual inclination or individual fate. Once we have shared the first decision with Judaism (the decision that the “outside” we must face is the Absolute), we are confronted with the question whether we shall share the second decision with Judaism as well: that Jewish history is to be understood as a fate urging to faith. Nothing in the science of history either compels us to make this decision or prevents us from making it. But one thing is clear: if we do not make this decision, and cannot accept the classical interpretation of Jewish existence, there is no theological basis for Judaism.

The approach here suggested would not only solve the perplexities noted above, but also solve the time-honored problem: “What is a Jew?” To tradition the answer was clear: a Jew is a person who by reason of his descent is obligated to the divine covenant, which obligation is not altered by the fact that he may reject it. It is modernism which is full of difficulties. Is Jewishness a matter of race? Then it includes him who is not even aware of his Jewish descent, and excludes the Jewish convert! Is it a matter of religious belief? Then it excludes the Jewish atheist!

The new interpretation resolves the problem in a manner not unlike the classical one: a Jew is anyone who by his descent is subject to Jewish fate (“the covenant”); whether he responds to Jewish fate with Jewish faith (whether he is “obedient” or “stiff-necked”) does not affect, though it is related to, his Jewishness.

Is it meaningless chance to be forced to this type of existence? Or is it meaningful destiny? To answer this last question affirmatively is a decision of faith. Only if we shed the banalities of a philistine optimism which is really a fear both of the tragic and the Absolute, and make this decision of faith in order to “prepare the world for the Kingdom of God”—only then has the time come for a reconstruction of Jewish faith and theology.



To return to Father Abraham—for at last I have regained him as father and guide. And I have regained him not without the help of Kierkegaard. To be sure, I will, as a Jew, subscribe to “ethical monotheism.” But I am not so much concerned with the purity of Abraham’s philosophic ideas: I am concerned with him as the awe-inspiring representative of an existence not essentially different from the existence in which all men live. This existence has fearful strains—which Abraham lived in an extreme form—and which we inevitably share. All of us today have in many things the alternative only between evils; and if “ethical monotheism” were all we had, we tremble to think of ourselves in eternal judgment. For we would have absolutely nothing with which to face up to the moral paradox that some of the evil we do or condone is both unavoidable and inexcusable.

Thus I revere Abraham who lived the human paradox to the extreme and yet had faith that it was not fatal. Perhaps it is because of his “merit” that we are spared his extreme tests? Be that as it may, Abraham waits for us, as the potential father of every Jew aspiring to be a good Jew: for he teaches us to live courageously the ethical under the moral law, in an existence which requires divine love superseding the ethical if it is to be healed of its tragic tensions. Hence we can confess with Kierkegaard: “No one is so great as Abraham! Who is capable of understanding him?”




1 This writer feels keenly the inadequacy of this brief digression on the dialectical element in Jewish tradition. He hopes soon to place before the public a fully documented work on this subject.

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