Commentary Magazine


The Modern Jew's Path to God:
Inviting the Great Encounter

Is traditional Jewish religious thinking irrelevant to the 20th century—or does it merely seem so to many because of our misunderstanding of it? Emil L. Fackenheim believes the latter to be the case, and here tries to substantiate this belief.

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Any Jewish religious thinking that would do justice to both its Jewish sources and to the spiritual and intellectual condition of modern man will have to begin with the recognition that Judaism is not a system of ideas, but a form of religious existence.

Judaism has always been the living encounter of Israel with the God of Israel. The ideas arising in the course of this encounter were and are to be understood as by-products. Modem religious liberalism gravely distorted Judaism when it tried to transform it into a system of ideas, and its prophets into philosophers. Still worse are those distortions common in our day which see in Judaism little more than a useful tool for social and psychological adjustment. None of these “re interpretations” of Judaism in the 19th and 20th centuries is able to provide a religious reason why a Jew should continue to be a Jew—why Judaism ought to survive.

If Judaism is to endure we must understand the meaning and be prepared to vouch for the validity of this God-man encounter. Classical Jewish theology gave its own interpretation and justification, but, for better or worse, this account contains elements unacceptable to modern man and the modern Jew.

Where are we to begin in an attempt to describe the relationship between man and God? And with this question we face at once the full impact of modality. The ancient and medieval Jew could start out with the certainty that God existed and that He had revealed himself to Israel. For modern man this would be begging the question. What he faces as an immediate fact is that there are men with religious beliefs and that there seems to be such a thing as religious experience—this and nothing more. Moreover, he is aware that these religious beliefs and experiences are at least partly relative to the conditions—historical, social, and psychological—in which they arise. No modern man, then, can start his theology with God and God’s revelation, and work his way down to man. The procedure must be the reverse: we must start with man and see whether there is not something in his existence leading up to God—in other words, whether a profound enough self-understanding does not lead to the point where one must make the leap into faith.

This means, of course, going against modern man’s basic pattern of thought: the 20th century regards it as a foregone conclusion that to start with man means to end up with man, that man must remain within the circle of his experience. But is this, too, not a begging of the question, a prejudgment that resolves the issue without grappling with it?

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In our epoch of psychoanalysis and psychology, most thinking people, religious and irreligious, are quick to agree that man’s consciousness of himself seeks an ultimate “integration.” Man is not satisfied merely to have knowledge of this particular desire and that particular habit; he strives to understand his situation in reality as a whole, la condition humaine.

Generally, discussions of this need for ultimate integration are located under the rubric of “self-realization.” “Self-realization” is the integrating ideal for the two main philosophic schools—the idealists and the naturalists. The former mean by this term the realization of an ideal self slumbering in every person; the latter refer rather to the whole realm of self-expression, physical as well as spiritual, social as well as individual. It is a conviction common to both idealists and naturalists that man need not turn beyond himself or his society in order to achieve self-understanding and self-integration; he may need his fellow-men but he needs no God. The idealist feels that man is able to form a true image of his ideal self, and that he may approximate this ideal even if he never entirely realizes it. To the naturalist the integrating ideal is individual and social health; evil is mental disorder or social maladjustment Health produces social harmony because it balances pleasure and duty—a healthy egoism and a healthy altruism; it produces inner harmony because the healthy man concentrates on such of his problems as are soluble, ignoring those which are “insoluble.”

Religion, too, is regarded today as but one aspect of “self-realization,” so that many modern definitions of religion do not even bother to include God any more. The idealist speaks of God-ideas, which express man’s highest aspiration but do not refer to a God that exists. For the naturalist, religion is a form of self-expression analogous to art. Both can make sense of religion as a human activity, and can even “justify” its existence by reasons of utility. But neither can make sense of an existing God.

Such, then, is the ideal of “self-realization” which, in its naturalist or idealist form, governs much of present-day life and not a small portion of Jewish religious thinking. (In Judaism the idealist version was the earlier one, springing from the Enlightenment and neo-Kantian sources. The naturalist version, as represented by rabbinical psychiatry and rabbinical social work, is at the moment in full swing.) If the presuppositions of this ideal are correct, then God, as far as man is concerned, is dead. Moreover, we should in that case all come forward and state this fact. Atheism is a respectable position, being a commitment to what the atheist believes to be the truth. From the point of view of religion, the atheist is more a tragic figure than a blasphemer. But the present fashionable combination of disbelief in an existing God with the active perpetuation of a religion as a “useful” or “wholesome” illusion is both intolerable intellectual dishonesty and, from a religious standpoint, blasphemy.

However, the presuppositions of the ideal of “self-realization” are not correct—they are a self-delusion arising from the loss of all metaphysical perspective. For the beginning of religious wisdom lies in the insight that man is not, and never can be, all of one piece, reducible to one set of categories, whether naturalist or idealist; that man is an insoluble contradiction, a child of two worlds.

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The naturalist understands correctly enough man’s natural needs, his dependence on his environment and the necessity of adjusting to it. But the naturalist is not satisfied with this. He tries to understand human nature as a whole in terms of need—he makes naturalist principles absolute. This involves him in the most fearful consequences. For if “adjustment to the environment” is not merely a human need which we must recognize, but the ultimate criterion of human conduct, then morality goes by the board and those Germans who adjusted themselves to Nazi rule were as right as are we who adjust ourselves to living in a democracy. And if the ultimate criterion is adjustment to some definition of “psychic health,” how are we to determine that definition, how to justify it, and how are we to choose between conflicting definitions? (On what grounds, for instance, other than caprice, can one reject the fascist vision of “psychic health” in the warrior-type—if “psychic health” is really the final standard?) And if religion, as the naturalist maintains, is merely an emotional form of self-expression fulfilling a human need, then religions are to be divided, not into true and false, but into vital and decadent; and the religion of the master race is as good as the religion of the Lord of Hosts, provided only it gives equal emotional satisfaction. In other words, the consistent naturalist is reduced to utter and sheer nihilism.

But this is not all: after all, nihilism might be the truth. But the naturalist’s interpretation of human nature not only leads to nihilism, it is also self-contradictory. For what he is saying is that man can never transcend himself in the search for truth and value, that he is always expressing a need, or performing an adjustment either to the environment itself or to some ideal which is relative to the environment. But if this is true, then the naturalist’s philosophy is also no more than the product of his needs and his environment; in other words, the naturalist is doomed to travel along a vicious circle. Why should his particular philosophy have any authority for anyone besides himself?

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The idealist’s version of “self-realization,” too, casts us into insuperable difficulties, but they are of the opposite kind. “Self-realization,” according to him, is the recognition and realization of ideals which have a normative claim upon man, and which are accepted as valid criteria. And religion is part of this recognition and realization. To quote the Jewish theologian Kaufmann Kohler, who himself gave an idealist interpretation to Judaism: “Jewish religion is a battle for the pure idea of God and man which is not to end until the principle of divine holiness has done away with every form of life that tends to degrade and disunite mankind, and until Israel’s Only One has become the unifying power and highest ideal of all mankind.”

The idealist, then, is in no danger of denying the validity of values; his downfall is not nihilism or logical self-contradiction; but he constantly and habitually ignores the starkness of facts. No suspicion dawns upon him that the ideals which he has set up before himself might be, as the naturalist is quick to point but, tainted with hidden interest; or that they might be involved in the particularity of his situation. The ideals, say, of 19th-century Reform Judaism undoubtedly contain an element of lasting validity; but they are also the expression of an expanding and often self-satisfied bourgeois civilization. And who are we to distinguish precisely between the eternal and the transient in these ideals, implicated as we are in the conditions of the 20th century?

Let it be granted, however, that the idealist, and the Jew who translates Judaism into terms of ideals, are able to define these ideals so precisely as wholly to transcend the historical situation, so that they represent the absolute “Ought” toward which men should aspire. An immense philosophic effort may accomplish this; and the real downfall of the idealist does not lie in his incapacity to define truly valid ideals. His downfall lies in an illusion so vast that it must astound any sensitive and thinking person that men could fall victim to it. The illusion consists in the notion that the discrepancy between performance and ideal, between what man is and what he ought to be, is merely one of degree, whereas in truth it is one of kind. The idealist tells himself that the gap between ideal and actuality becomes, in the course of human evolution, narrower and narrower until it will finally disappear. Thus he substitutes, for example, the notion of progress for the much profounder traditional idea of the Messiah. To the idealist there is no need for a God who by His grace eliminates the discrepancy between the real and ideal: man himself eliminates it by his own effort.

But this represents an abysmal failure to understand the tragic element in existence. Progress in degree, important though it is, never spans the gap in kind. The insights of the naturalist are valid in this respect: try though he may to transcend them, man always remains implicated in the web spun by his animal nature. The idealist is quite correct in asserting that the absolute ideal inspires to imitation; but his romantic optimism, together with a good deal of hypocrisy and self-righteousness, makes him overlook the fact that the absolute ideal also paralyzes because of its very absoluteness. For to know of the heights at which we ought to be is to be in despair at the depths at which we are.

Thus both the naturalist and the idealist interpretations of human nature fall to pieces, the former because it denies that man is more than a highly developed animal, the latter because it ignores the fact that man is also and always animal. And along with this collapse, the modern ideal of “self-realization” crumbles into dust.

Classical Judaism had a quite different insight into human nature. It realized that, in the words of Moses of Coucy, “it is because man is half angel, half animal, that his inner life witnesses such bitter war between such unlike natures.” On the basis of this insight, classical Judaism saw that the quest for ultimate integration was not a quest for new God-ideas, or new moral systems, or new techniques of adjustment and adaptation—all of which are human products and hence themselves bear the traces of the contradiction of human nature. Classical Judaism understood that it was a search for God—not for religious experience or religious ideals, but for an existing God; a God who really speaks through the turmoil and confusion of human life; a God who, in relating Himself to man, resolves the contradictions of human existence; a God who, by His justice and mercy, gives meaning to human destiny.

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But it is quite possible to arrive at the conclusion that no ultimate integration of human existence is possible in humanistic terms, and nevertheless to reject as sheer escapism and “failure of nerve” any relation to the supernatural by virtue of faith. Reason and objective evidence may show life to be a contradiction: does this mean that an honest man should accept a God without evidence, merely in order to resolve that contradiction? Perhaps the contradiction is ultimate; perhaps life as a whole has no meaning. Faced with the alternative between objective evidence and what seems like subjective wishful thinking, what honest man will choose the latter?

This is the crucial question, and before trying to answer it we would do well to consider the position Jewish tradition adopts in this matter.

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Biblical and rabbinic tradition are pervaded by the conviction that it is impossible for any sensible man to doubt or deny the existence of God. The modern observer at once jumps to the conclusion that this conviction was due to philosophical naivety and the inability to deal critically with Scriptural texts and the evidence of the senses. It is time, of course, that the traditional Jew did not critically sift his evidence: nature too simply illustrated God’s providence, history too naively proved divine retribution, and personal experience was not objectively dissected.

But this is not the core of the matter. For the traditional Jew recognized that all forms of evidence for God’s existence frequently fail. Nature as well as human nature harbor both evil and good. History, as prophets and rabbis dramatically exclaim, often fails to give any hint of divine providence. And the anguish of the Psalms reveals that often there is no evidence of God in the forlorn human heart.

The point is that the traditional conviction of the existence of God was independent of both external and internal evidence. If nature or history revealed no meaning, this proved to Biblical and rabbinic Judaism, not that there is no God, but that His ways are past our finding out. If inner experience was sterile, this proved, not that God does not exist, but that He “hides his face.” No objective facts and no feeling of being deserted could affect the certainty of God’s existence. As Job puts it: “Even though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.”

What is this absolute and fact-defying certainty of the existence of God? Modem man is tempted to describe it as the peculiar this, if we truly try to understand the faith of our fathers, is an absurd prejudice. It rests on the assumption that religious existence is nothing more than a progressive evolution of religious feeling and ideas; man develops certain notions of God which he later subjects to criticism when he has reached a more advanced stage of objectivity and detachment. Classical Judaism, according to this view, simply had not attained our more mature level of consciousness.

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What the modems do not see is that if, in Jewish tradition, God’s existence is nowhere doubted or made dependent on objective evidence, this is not because man is here too “unscientific” to be concerned with such matters: it is because of the overwhelming certainty that in relation to God objective detachment is impossible.

Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from Thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there;
If I make my bed in the netherworld, behold,
    Thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there would Thy hand lead me,
And Thy right hand would hold me.

                                                        (Psalm 139)

It is a gross misunderstanding to say that we have here a somewhat crude formulation of a universal God-idea, or an early stage in the development of pure monotheism. If the Psalmist talks about a living God whom he cannot escape, rather than a universal Godidea that he himself has formed, this is not because he is not detached and critical enough; it is because of his conviction that ultimately man can be detached in thought when he considers objects, but not when he considers God. To judge objectively of the existence of God, as far as Judaism is concerned, is an attitude already based on a first lie, namely, being a spectator where one must be a participant. To traditional Judaism, man is here not a spectator and never can be one; he is inevitably a participant.

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We can now return to our question: whether a man has the right to seek meaning beyond himself in a realm not open to objective proof, or whether he ought, in all honesty, refuse to go beyond objectively known facts, even if this means to surrender all yearnings for an ultimate integration of his life.

Now if only we understand fully what is implied in Jewish tradition, we make at this point a crucial discovery: as regards the problem of ultimate integration, the alternative between objective detachment and “merely” subjective faith is a false alternative; and the whole so-called “scientific” approach to the problem of religious truth rests on an illusion.

When we deal with objects and the world of objects in scientific or philosophic inquiry, we assume toward them an attitude of objective detachment, the attitude of the spectator. We presuppose that in order to know them we must abstract from this world of objects the fact of our own existence. And we are right in making this assumption; it is indispensable to science and philosophy. In facing the problem of the ultimate meaning of human existence, however, we do not deal with a series of objects; we are dealing with our existence, and this existence can never be an object to which we are related as a detached spectator. While we think on existence, we are in fact involved in it as participants. And if, while thinking on existence, we do ignore the fact that we ourselves are involved in it, then what we know is not existence itself, but a bare abstraction. And if we take this abstraction for concrete existence itself, we have committed, as far as religious truth is concerned, the most irremediable mistake.

The concrete reality of existence is not made up of a relation between spectator and object, but between an I and a Thou; it is a lived, existential, not a scientific, relation, and from this it follows that the truth to be gained about both the Thou and the I cannot be gained in an attitude of objective detachment; it involves commitment and participation. Commitment is inescapable, for where as we can suspend judgment in matters of thought, we cannot suspend existence.

We can understand now the folly of those who try to consider the question of God’s existence from the standpoint of objective detachment, whether their object is to prove or refute it. To make this attempt is to presuppose that God is an object that can be scrutinized by a spectator. Jewish tradition was deeply aware of the error of this assumption. Even another mortal person, in the full concreteness of his Thou, is never an object. If there is a God, and if He is God, He embraces man’s existence with such totality as to make objective detachment altogether impossible. If man can detachedly pass judgment on God and His existence, it is not God on whom he passes judgment. And if God exists, and if He is God, He is not the generalized God of the world in general, but each concrete man’s personal God—in other words, not the God of the philosophers, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Thus the true alternative with which a man is religiously faced is not whether he should be “objective” and leave the question of God’s existence open, or whether he should be “biased” and accept what cannot be proven. The true alternative is whether, in the light of the fact that man cannot redeem himself, he should commit himself to a mode of existence which is tragic because it is lived without God and hence without resolution of the contradictoriness of human existence; or whether he should commit himself to God by virtue of faith.

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But does a commitment to God by virtue of faith constitute a meaningful alternative to tragic existence? Does it remove the essential contradictoriness of human existence? An understanding of religious existence as given in Jewish tradition will answer this question.

Jewish tradition is not concerned with the philosophical description of God as He may be in Himself. We know nothing of God as He is in Himself, and if we describe God objectively, in detachment from the relation he may have to us, we describe an object, an abstraction, but not God. The God of Jewish tradition is the living God who relates Himself to man and Israel. And we know of Him not in speculative detachment but only, if at all, in living encounter.

God is infinite and yet directly related to finite man. For if He were not infinite He would not be God, and if He were not directly related to us, we would either know nothing of Him or else we would speak of an abstraction. He is “enthroned on high and looketh down low” (Psalm 113:5-6). In the words of the Midrash, He is both “far and near”: “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, and so it is with all His creatures. He is as near to His creatures as the ear to mouth.”

The direct relation between the infinite God and finite man is by its very nature, Jewish tradition agrees, a mutual relationship. But if this is so, then we are right in the middle of a paradox: for the free actions and reactions of finite men make a difference to the infinite God.

Jewish tradition expresses the reality of this relation in a well-nigh infinite variety of metaphors, which are mostly anthropomorphic. The rabbis frequently use anthropomorphic language in full consciousness, and for a definite purpose: to say metaphorically and symbolically what cannot be expressed literally. This is evidenced by statements such as these:

‘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.

And: “When the Israelites do God’s will, they add to the power of God on high. When the Israelites do not do God’s will, they, as it were, weaken the great power of God.”

These statements are, of course, anthropomorphic, but they are not naive anthropomorphisms. The term “as it were” (k’b’yachol) has the full rank of a technical term in rabbinic theology, indicating the symbolic character of the statement it qualifies. There is simply no other way to describe the paradoxical fact that the finite acts of finite men cannot, and yet must, make a difference to the infinite God.

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Among the qualities ascribed to God by . rabbinic tradition, divine justice and divine mercy are of unsurpassed prominence. In a well-behaved philosophy, these qualities would either find no place at all, or at any rate they would not be primary; and if they did find a place they would be mutually incompatible. But rabbinic theology does not describe a philosophic abstraction; it describes a living relation. Since one of the terms, man, is a contradiction between spirit and animal, and the relation refers to him insofar as he is a contradiction, the relation itself must bear the traces of that contradiction. God’s mercy to the exclusion of His justice would wipe out the distinction between the righteous and the wicked; but this would mean to deny the reality of man’s spiritual freedom. To assert God’s justice without His mercy would be to imply that men could, if only they wished, become wholly just; and this would deny or ignore man’s essential animal dependence. This dialectical situation finds classic expression in the following Midrash: “. . . The Lord made heaven and earth.’ This may be compared to a king who had some empty glasses. Said the king: ‘If I pour hot water into them, they will burst; if cold, they wall contract and snap.’ What then did the king do? He mixed hot and cold water and poured it into them, and so they remained unbroken. Even so, said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘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.’”

By and large, rabbinic tradition refuses to polish off the sharp edges of this paradox. It insists on both unqualified justice and unqualified mercy, recognizing that in mutual compromise both would lose their meaning. Thus, on the one hand. Rabbi Akiba insists on the absolute and unqualified justice of God’s judgment, and in the Midrash, God is made to say: “All I do, I do in justice. If I sought to pass beyond justice but once, the world could not endure.” On the other hand, divine mercy is equally absolute and unqualified. For whatever their relative merits, before God all men need mercy absolutely. “All men need grace, including Abraham, for whose sake grace came plenteously into the world.”

Thus the rabbinic Jew finds ultimate integration only through his relation to God. But this relation does not turn him away from existence in the world; it leads him right into it What drives the Jew to activity in this world, what constitutes the driving force of the whole halachah (law) is not the illusion that man can redeem himself and the world by his own effort—that the Messiah is unnecessary—but the fundamental fact that though man can never hope to span the gap in kind between what he is and what he ought to be, he can, in degree, narrow the gap indefinitely. God says, “Remove [the evil inclination] a little.” How much is a little? The whole heart of the halachah is that this can never be known. That is why man, in fulfilling the law, must both tremble and rejoice at the same time: he trembles because what he does, no matter how much it may be, is nothing compared with what he ought to do and can do; he rejoices because it is, after all, something—even before divine justice; and because before divine mercy it is everything. Hence it is said: “Love and fear God; tremble and rejoice when you perform the commandments.”

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The above summary, of necessity brief, should yet suffice to indicate that religious existence, as seen by the traditional Jew, is neither the statement of a philosophic system, nor a mere response to the specific problems of any one epoch. It is a commitment to God by virtue of faith—a God who is not the arbitrary “creation” of some age or mind, but the only possible redeemer of the human condition. There is, then, nothing fundamentally “dated” in that religious existence: since it is made possible by virtue of faith, no science can refute it; since the essential content of that faith corresponds to perennial human problems, no mere accidental change affects it.

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There is, however, one basic modern problem to which tradition has no answer—for it did not know it in its full import.

The life before God, lived by the traditional Jew, had its problems. Whereas there were pregnant moments in history and in an individual’s life in which God spoke out, in which it was clear what He demanded of man, and in which the spirit of man was willing, there were other times when God was far and did not speak; or when His word could not be understood; or when men, knowing full well how they ought to respond, suffered the anguish of spiritual impotence. The Jew living before God knew both crisis and fulfillment, anguish and exaltation. But there was one problem he did not know—whereas we know it only too well: the situation of a man before the leap into faith.

This raises our final and most severe problem: can one choose religious existence at will? Can one decide to believe in God? Can one on one’s own volition “accept the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven”?

This question forces us to state what theological reflection can, and what it cannot, do. Theological reflection, after all, is only reasoning on existence, not the living of existence itself. And with reasoning one can only remove the obstacles to faith; a reflection on man’s condition, it leads up to the threshold of religious existence, but no further. Here reflection must halt and existence itself begin. Here theology ends and religion must come into being. But will it come into being? This is a question to which there is no a priori answer. And the question is not whether certain religious experiences will come—which one man might have and another lack. The question is whether or not the man who has a religious experience can trust it as revealing the Other, and whether the man in whose heart silence reigns concludes from this silence, not that God does not exist, but that He “hides His face.” When men can say the latter, the decision of faith will already have been made, and the ancient dialogue between God and man will come to life once more.

But no man can force the leap into faith; he can merely remove the obstructions. He can understand that existence is open, not closed, and can make himself ready to listen and to answer.

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