Commentary Magazine


Existentialism's Meaning for Judaism:
A Contemporary Midrash

Why has existentialism had so little impact upon the leaders of American Jewry? The educators and social workers move in another philosophic universe entirely. The laity is barely conscious of its existence—as it is barely conscious of philosophy in general—though it occasionally manages to recognize some such name as Franz Rosenzweig. The rabbinate has heard this or read that about the Jewish existentialists, but tends to see them as a menace deserving only of excoriation and denunciation. What has happened to that immutable principle of modern Jewish life, that the Christian fashion after a little while becomes the Jewish ideal? Surely nothing has excited and invigorated contemporary Christian thought, Catholic as well as Protestant, as much as existentialism. It has been the major excitement in academic and religious circles for over a decade, and even before World War II its influence had been felt in a number of intellectual-religious circles in America.

Perhaps stating the problem that baldly is already to give the most obvious answer. Existentialism, as no other philosophic movement since the emancipation of European Jewry, is of Christian religious origin. It was born out of Sören Kierkegaard’s violent protest against the Christianity of his day, and against what he saw as its intellectual foundation, Hegel’s all-encompassing rationalism. If Kierkegaard attacked Hegel—“attack” is perhaps a mild word to describe the venom, satire, invective, and irony of his philosophic enterprise—it was to make possible a renewed Christian life. Existentialism was born to renew the Protestant affirmation. No wonder it has had such influence on contemporary Protestantism, and on some leading Roman and Eastern Catholics.

But how could Jews be expected to respond sympathetically to a philosophic tendency of Christian religious origin? It is indeed a sign of the increasing self-respect which has characterized American Jewry since World War II that it has resisted existentialism on Jewish grounds and for apparently Jewish reasons.

Yet the grounds for the Jewish rejection of existentialism involve much more than a simple judgment of guilt by association. Most of the polemics against existentialism have held that its very content is un-Jewish. All existentialism is characterized by a critique of human reason, climaxed not, as in Kant, with a reaffirmation of its areas of power and certainty, but with a thoroughgoing delineation of its limitations. It is the humility of human reason before the realities of human existence which is the major theme of existentialism. Man’s mind is incapable of solving all his truly significant problems. Indeed, it cannot even explain the most fundamental datum of his life—that he exists.

It is this anti-rational strain in existentialism which alarms the few who take Jewish thought seriously; they see in it an insidious threat to all the progress of the past century in making Judaism rational. In their eyes, the existential delineation of reason’s limits quickly leads to “irrationalism,” “mysticism,” “a first step toward superstition and every danger of medievalism.” The fury of the attack indicates that more than just an idea is at stake.

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The two principal strains of liberal Judaism have each been associated with philosophies that strongly emphasize mind as the measure. One strain, Reform Judaism, has been dominated from its beginnings by the tradition of German rational philosophy. It leaned heavily on Kant in justifying its emphasis on ethics over ritual and on universal preachments over particular practices. With Hegel it saw in the forward movement of history the progressive self-revelation of the absolute, and looked forward to the triumph of spirit as enlightenment and education inexorably brought brotherhood and peace. Reform prided itself on logic and scientific investigation, the elimination of superstition and atavism, and the possession of a faith as reasonable as it was intelligible. Though their views varied in emphasis or detail, the early intellectual leaders, Abraham Geiger, David Einhorn, Kaufmann Kohler, and the later teachers of today’s Reform rabbinate—David Neumark, Samuel Cohon, Henry Slonimsky, Samuel Atlas—all spoke out of German rational idealism. It was rationalism that validated liberal Judaism. Without it, there could be no right to reform. Without it What would deter the resurgence of magic and superstition?

Conservative Judaism, the other liberal Jewish tendency, has been notorious for its studied refusal to clarify its ideological position. It would be most unfair to associate all of Conservative Judaism with Mordecai Kaplan’s rationalist religious philosophy. For one thing, there is a significant minority of Reform rabbis who espouse his Reconstructional theology with enthusiasm, at the same time that the preponderant majority of Conservative rabbis look askance at it. Nevertheless, the rationalist emphasis of Kaplan’s forthright reinterpretation of Jewish belief and practice typically distinguishes the thinking of his former students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who now make up the body of the Conservative rabbinate—this rationalism is the result of his influence on them as a teacher, and of their years of exposure to nearby Columbia University, the shrine of American naturalism.

Kaplan is as emphatic in insisting on the role of mind in shaping contemporary Judaism as any of the Reform thinkers. But he borrows from the American intellectual idiom where they borrowed from the German. Where the Germans sought for the elaboration of the “spirit,” with its strong intellectual connotations, the Americans sought rather to introduce the scientific method into the realm of philosophy. Naturalism implied an intellectual questioning of everything which could not be understood as part of the natural order as conceived by science, using that word in its broadest sense. The supernatural God of the religious tradition was by this mental effort transformed into a process in the universe; God’s choice of Israel became but a typical folk-conceit, acceptable only in the sense that it encouraged the Jewish people to choose God.

Here, far more than in the austere formulations of early Reform, room was made for the emotions. The Jewish people—an obvious datum of the natural order—invests its rationally validated beliefs with its particular folk feelings and associations, thus giving full scope to man’s emotive as well as his rational capacity. Thus Kaplan has emphasized the broadest cultural expression of Jewish religious belief, and is clearly an inspirer of the revived interest in Jewish art and music. Yet despite the acceptance of Jewish folkways and appreciation of the depth of Jewish traditional feeling, it is reason alone that is the arbiter of belief and that establishes the criteria for religious practice. Impressed by the success of science, and by the scientific direction of American philosophic thought in the 30’s, Reconstructionism established itself on a rationalistic foundation which it has never felt required to re-examine seriously.

Thus the left wing of Conservative Judaism consciously, and much of its thinking center often unconsciously, have associated American rationalism with their contemporary Judaism. For Conservative Judaism as for Reform, to challenge the adequacy of reason in the religious sphere looks like an effort to turn back the clock, a failure of nerve that imperils the continuing development of Judaism.

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It is something of a corroboration to find that a reverse process has occurred among the Orthodox. To be sure, Orthodoxy has been more concerned with defending traditional Jewish practice against the enticements of the contemporary American milieu than with dwelling on the mystery of the unique revelation at Sinai. There is also the notable history of rationalism in traditional Judaism. Nevertheless, the events at Sinai, which are basic to Orthodoxy, are not now and never have been rationally explicable. Their authority and uniqueness are inseparable. One can accept or reject the miraculous event. To explain it is to rob it of precisely that which makes it precious. The Torah and the Halachah, with or without rationalistic apologies, are the basis of the Orthodox faith. While it can accept such corroboration as reason might offer, as in Maimonides’ day, it does not see its life as being dependent upon philosophic explanations, but rather on acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom.

Thus it is in the Orthodox movement alone that we find a leading figure who is apparently a committed existentialist. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik serves as chairman of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Committee on Law, is professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University’s seminary, and is widely hailed as the spiritual leader of the American-trained Orthodox rabbinate. Unfortunately, he has published very little, and the few articles that have appeared about him have only hinted at his philosophic views. For the past few years he has been lecturing weekly on the Jewish view of man at a seminar of rabbis investigating the relations between Judaism and psychiatry. Neither Rabbi Soloveitchik’s written lecture notes nor the tape recordings of each session are available to the public. Yet if the reports of those in attendance may be relied on, and they seem consistent with the little else that we know, Soloveitchik’s position lies clearly within the existential camp, representing a view of man and revelation that seems analogous (l’havdil) with that of Karl Barth.

Like Barth he begins with a refusal to reduce religion to philosophy, psychology, ethics, or anything else. For Barth the crucifixion and resurrection of the Christ are unique acts in history through which God has let Himself be known. They are the measure for the rest of history, rather than measurable themselves according to the value placed on their antecedents and effects. Soloveitchik takes a similar position toward the Halachah. The justification of kashrut is not the danger of trichinosis, the “point” of religious ceremony is not the subjective one that it is a means for arousing emotion. The Halachah, like the Christ, must be taken in all its objectivity, in all its legal specificity; it must be seen as God’s instrument and the means of His service. Seen in this way, the Halachah implies a whole body of meaning and teaching which becomes the basis for encountering and grasping reality. Here too the criteria and standards derive from the unique historical event, the giving of the Law at Sinai, which makes the rest of history intelligible but must itself be accepted on faith.

Both thinkers see man desperately in need of faith, to save him from himself and the self-destruction inherent in his natural existence. Barth is the more radical here: every human effort to cope rationally with the problems of existence is for him a de facto rebellion against the sovereignty of God. Human reason is not only inadequate to the task of resolving man’s profound anxieties, it in fact strengthens them by holding out the delusive hope that it can somehow overcome finite existence. That way lies only sin and further estrangement from God, the fullest spiritual as well as natural death. But the man of Christian faith may hope through God’s promise to find true life. His acceptance of God’s condemnation of his sinfulness, and his hope in the promise God has made available through Jesus, have freed him from delusion and given him the one firm ground for a man in a shifting universe.

Soloveitchik would not denigrate human reason to this extent, yet he too insists upon its limitations and fundamental inadequacy. There is nothing inherently evil in the growth of human knowledge so long as man is willing to recognize the mystery which he thus continually uncovers. Science need not be considered a source of sin if it is accompanied by a growing sense of astonishment at the extent of order in the universe. When we confront human reason honestly, our humility increases with our self-esteem. It is the effort to rely on ourselves alone, to hide from the mystery and the wonder, that produces the alternate idolatry and dejection of our inner life. He makes a devastating analysis of modern man’s situation, using every sociological and psychological technique to expose the falseness, the hypocrisy, and, ultimately, the intense anxiety which fill our lives. The alternative to such a life is that of the man of the Halachah; Soloveitchik moves through the entire range of the tradition to show how Judaism carries its faithful adherents beyond anxiety to the only kind of security of which man is capable. It is the act of faith, the personal appropriation of Sinai and the life built upon it, which makes the difference. It is the revelation and the revelation alone which can transform man’s life. Such, as best it can be made out from a distance, is Soloveitchik’s argument. It is not just Orthodox Judaism. It is orthodox existentialism as well.

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One cannot help speculating why Soloveitchik refrains from publishing or publicly discussing his ideas. The astonished reception they would in all likelihood receive doubtless plays a part in his reticence. It is true that Orthodoxy could easily benefit from existentialism, but most of its leaders are unprepared for so radical a readjustment of their conscious or unconscious intellectual commitments. In general, they tend to follow the Reform and Conservative pack in noisily hunting out exponents of this view.

It is Will Herberg who has borne the brunt of the attack. The public Jewish reactions to his theological writings have been almost invariably negative, the private ones even worse. Again it is the Christian origins of Herberg’s thought that arouse the opposition. Were Herberg himself not so honest as to acknowledge the debt he owes to Reinhold Niebuhr, who showed him this pathway back to Jewish belief, the informed reader of Judaism and Modern Man would discover as much soon enough. Yet it is what Herberg says, not where he got it, that arouses the real resistance. Perhaps the best part of Herberg’s argument is his exposure of the pseudo-faiths, the substitute religions, of our time. He examines politics, science, and psychiatry to show how each in turn has served as a religion for many modern Jews. Each has seemed to offer salvation. And each has thereby been a means for modern man to evade the real religious problems, the ultimate issues which every man discovers in the depths of his existence.

Herberg is at pains to show that politics, science, and psychiatry each have their truth and value, but his main point is that they can never be legitimate substitutes for the act of faith. By destroying contemporary intellectual idols he in fact destroys the hope that anything man’s mind alone might ever create could be considered adequate as religion. The reliance on rationality obstructs the way to God.

What remains is the “leap of faith.” With his old false faiths gone, the individual now stands naked before the universe. The one positive step left him is the personal acceptance of God and Judaism. But it is just here that Herberg deserts us. What the “leap of faith” means, how it is to be accomplished, what keeps it from ending in Zen Buddhism, Christianity, or ghetto Judaism, is not made clear. As one might expect, this is precisely where all the liberal critics of Herberg have taken him to task. Indeed, the rejection has been so complete that while non-Jews and especially non-Jewish seminaries and colleges regard Herberg as an authoritative spokesman for Judaism, it is difficult to find any Jewish leaders who might think of themselves as being his intellectual disciples.

However, the criticism of Herberg is more than a rationalization of the various Jewish ideological positions. It is also a valid argument. Most existential analyses of man’s condition, after eliminating every seeming absolute, arrive like Herberg’s at a point Where they must decide What to commit themselves to. But not all of them then make the religious commitment. Some of them insist, in face of the absurdity of existence, that no mysterious plan beyond man’s reason finally gives it meaning. They prefer rather to accept this existence with all its unreasonableness than to anesthetize themselves with comforting illusions about God or the good. Atheistic existentialism is as legitimate an existentialist response to the unmasking of man’s pseudo-religions as is the leap of religious commitment. Herberg conveniently ignores this.

It is surprising that no major statement of a Jewish atheist existentialism has been forthcoming so far. With many old-line Zionists and other secular Jews anxious to escape from the increasing identification of Jewishness with religion in America, a Jewish atheist existentialism might well provide a personally meaningful, culturally exciting, non-religious, Jewish point of view. Its outlines do not seem difficult to discern.

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A logical beginning would be to view the Bible as a classic, but misunderstood, existentialist analysis. It would see its centuries of religious striving as a people’s effort to abolish anxiety by projecting an image of God into the world. Yet as the generations passed, the impossibility of maintaining this belief against the realities of existence becomes clearer. The outcry of the righteous in the Psalms, Jeremiah’s troubled confessions, Ecclesiastes’ assertion of the futility of history, and finally Job’s struggle for meaning in the face of suffering indicate there cannot be a God. There is no meaning to existence in this world and, as the Bible preponderantly knows, no after-life.

Yet man finds himself confronted by the continual need to make decisions. Every law of the Torah is a recognition of this fact. And every action, as the prophets show, stands under the judgment of “might have been” or “why not the other way?” Nonetheless, the Jewish affirmation of life, simply because it is given, as the schools of Shammai and Hillel agreed, remains basic. The Jew then seeks to redeem the unreasonableness of existence by sharing in the existence of family, folk, and mankind.

Here we have the outlines of a position that, all in all, might compete favorably with many a secular existentialism and yet consider itself fully Jewish at the same time. The fact that such a philosophy has not yet made an appearance speaks eloquently to those who are religious about what it means to be a Jew. The Jewish people and its destiny can be separated from God only by prodigious and unnatural effort.

The rejection of Herberg because of his failure to show why the religious commitment is necessary has convinced the defenders of rationalism that it is philosophic, not ideological, considerations which underly their opposition to existentialism. As a result they have proceeded with double incentive to decry all those who might seem to share the existentialist view. Here they err in failing to appreciate the scope and variety of views which pass under that label.

Paul Tillich has made a distinction which can serve us well at this point. Commonly, when we think of existentialism, we think of it in terms of the typical existentialist content, the conclusion that human reason is finally inadequate to grasp the problems of existence. But, Tillich reminds us, existentialism is also a philosophic method whose results may vary quite considerably from the customary ones. Thus, as a matter of fact, much of Kierkegaard’s most searching criticism of Hegel and the German idealists was directed at their method. It was in subjectivity, he argued, in a truth that involved the individual, that truth was to be found, not in an objectivity that produced a so-called truth to which one might well remain indifferent. It was in the concrete, specific, and therefore personal realm that truth was to be discovered, not in some splendid universal abstraction that encompassed the entire universe but left out the individual doing the thinking. Philosophy therefore should proceed from, build on, the individual, on the realities of his existence. It was the application of this method which has led to results as different as Kierkegaard’s passionate Protestantism and Jean-Paul Sartre’s atheism.

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It is clear that those Jewish thinkers who accept the existentialist conclusion about the inadequacy of human reason cannot be expected to influence the liberal wing of Judaism. But other than Herberg there are few who hold this position. The other representative Jewish existentialists, Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, employ its method but are far from embracing its usual content. This has not, however, saved them from the calumny visited on Herberg. If they are not members of his party they are at least his fellow travelers and deserve to be exposed. This explains the peculiar circumstance that while Buber is known, studied, and respected by Protestant and some Catholic thinkers, he has still to find recognition in most Jewish circles.

Buber himself seems to share something of the liberal’s suspicion of the anti-rationalism of existentialism. Two years ago, in a colloquium he conducted at Columbia University, he was asked if he considered himself an existentialist. His immediate reaction was not only negative, it indicated a certain amount of surprise that he should be so identified. The questioner, however, was more shaken by the answer than Buber by the question. After a moment’s embarrassed stuttering he rephrased the question in terms of philosophic procedures, emphasizing the immediate, concrete, and personal. This quickly relieved the situation. “Oh,” said Dr. Buber, “if that is what you mean, then of course I am an existentialist. I thought you meant whether I agreed with certain thinkers associated with that term.”

Buber’s thought leads him far from the usual existentialist content, though by a method clearly to be classified as existential. His well-known analysis of knowing as carried on in terms either of an I-It or an I-Thou relation bears all its hallmarks. An “I” is always involved, and this subjective content is matched with an emphasis on the individual’s immediate experience in knowing. In all things Buber will sacrifice the big abstraction to the concrete experience.

Yet Buber is not thereby a foe or denigrator of reason. In the realm of I-It, reason is of course the indispensable master, but even in the realm of I-Thou it is not denied or despised. In a truly personal relationship, the participants must be wholly involved. My mind or my social façade is not me, any more than my wanting to know you is a desire to become acquainted with your conversational talent or your artfully attired body rather than with you yourself. If I am to be involved in an I-Thou relation, I cannot leave my mind out of it and still be me. Yet I cannot simply think my way into it for I am more than a mind; I am a person.

Love, as always, supplies the best analogy to religion. To love only with my mind, or only my beloved’s mind, would not be the love of heart and soul and might that most men seek. On the other hand, to love without one’s mind is to commit the follies of which love has often been accused. It is a dangerous and difficult matter, to be sure. This is what is meant by existential risk. But every truly important human choice faces the same danger. So religious faith is not simply a matter of reason, nor can it yet proceed without it. God requires the whole man.

Thus the existentialist Buber, against the dire predictions of his critics, has not rejected man’s efforts to improve society. On the contrary, it is just his philosophic understanding of what the relations between men should be that has made him a religious socialist. One of his major works, Paths in Utopia, is an analysis of various social philosophies; and his Zionism, particularly his complete dissociation from the formal Zionist organizations, is founded upon his convictions about what men can and what Jews particularly ought to do to create a worthy community. It was not just Israeli politics that led him to be appointed professor of Social Philosophy at the Hebrew University.

Buber’s attitude to change and development in Judaism is like his attitude to social change. He is no bringer of a new orthodoxy. If anything, his insistence on personal experience as the criterion for Jewish observance is too free for most Jewish leaders. Here Rosenzweig’s emphasis upon the discipline of the Law, understood in a developmental sense, can serve as guidance for the more traditionally inclined. In either case it is clear that existentialism can, like rationalism, provide a firm basis for the liberal traditions in Judaism.

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What seems to disturb Jewish religious liberals most about Buber, though, is not his theory of Jewish practice, but his return to the older Jewish theological terms. To speak of God as a Thou is to return to a personal God, to a concept of prayer as a dialogue between persons, to revelation as communication between God and man. To require the involvement of the total individual in his religion, to emphasize the importance of personal faith and devotion, is to reach for the intimate in a way to which modern men are unaccustomed and which makes them feel uneasy. This is not the cool rationalist tone that seemed the essence of liberal Judaism, and the hallmark of the sophisticated American.

But rather than being a fault, this may be just the contribution existential interpretations of Judaism can give us now. It is just such questions of personal faith, of the meaning of prayer, of the authority of revelation which are making their way to the fore of the lay consciousness. The warmth and feeling which American Jews have found missing in the older expressions of their liberalism cannot be supplied for long simply by renewing ceremonials or kashrut, and certainly not by a host of congregational gimmicks. What is needed is a statement of Jewish meaning that involves the emotions as well as the mind, that helps us understand how we may give ourselves entire without losing the gains rationalism has brought us. The existentialist method if not the existentialist content seems to offer the best prospect of meeting this need.

Since existentialism insists upon exposing illusions, and by doing so forces us to make genuine decisions, it perhaps helps us see most clearly how far the American Jewish community must go to become a community of the Jewishly religious. And it must go very far indeed. The decision to create a meaningful American Judaism, rather than just to go on building buildings, enrolling members, and making a great communal stir, is beset by all sorts of risks. But the existentialist realizes that there are no decisions without risks. He realizes too that truth is known only in the Wholehearted acceptance which for a Jew must mean its living out in deeds. As Rosenzweig insisted, it is life that validates truth, and it takes the lives of generations to validate the greatest of them.

Here then is a call to American Jews which says nothing about defense activities and social acceptance, which does not use the carrot of mental health or the stick of intermarriage. It faces the realities of our possible failure, but knows that the promise of our own existence is bound up with our accepting the risk in a commitment to live by God’s law as Israel has come to know it.

To be sure, existentialism has its internal difficulties. It has not yet successfully grappled with the problem of communication—how the realities of one man’s existence may be harmonized with those another finds. In this respect Protestant thinkers, notably Paul Tillich, have already tried to go beyond existentialism. And there is of course a danger in too closely identifying Judaism with any philosophy, as Rudolph Bultmann seems to have identified Christianity too closely with existentialism. Judaism is not existentialism and it has much to say in the way of correcting and supplementing existentialism. Yet Judaism has always found value in midrash; it has considered philosophy not the equivalent of revelation, but a key to its meaning. Existentialism should yet prove to be the most meaningful midrash of our day.

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