Commentary Magazine

Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State, by Yeshayahu Leibowitz

Torah & Politics

Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State.
by Yeshayahu Leibowitz.
Edited by Eliezer Goldman. Harvard University Press. 291 pp. $39.95.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz has long been one of the most eccentric figures in Israeli intellectual life. A respected biochemist, maverick Jewish theologian, and outspoken political crank, he has captured the attention and admiration of many Israelis and American Jews with his radical approach to contemporary Judaism and Middle East politics. Though himself a rigorously Orthodox Jew and a Zionist, Leibowitz preaches a paradoxically transcendent, anti-nationalist Jewish theology while also freely engaging in attacks on the government and political culture of Israel.

As a theologian, Leibowitz denies that God actively intervenes in human affairs, and he thus rejects completely the traditional Jewish religious belief in divine providence and God’s miraculous involvement in the world. He nonetheless insists that, though the Creator of man is essentially uninterested in his mundane existence, the Jews are still expected to serve Him in their daily lives by observing the dictates of the Torah.

As will be immediately evident to readers of this first English collection of Leibowitz’s essays, the late Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Jewish mysticism, was on to something when he accused Leibowitz of atheism: “‘Though you may believe in Torah,’” Leibowitz quotes Scholem as saying, “‘you certainly do not believe in God.’” In fact Leibowitz is no atheist, but the God in Whom he believes in no way resembles the God of classical Jewish theology.

To Leibowitz, the sole constant of Judaism and its only essential, distinguishing feature is the halakhah, or Jewish religious law. But his philosophy of halakhah is purely positivistic: in Leibowitz’s version of Judaism there is no place for anything beyond a slavish, unselfish, and otherworldly adherence to the Torah’s 613 mitzvot, or commandments:

If the mitzvot are in the service of God, not of man, they may not be directed toward the satisfaction of human wants. Any attempt to ground them in human needs—cognitive, moral, social, and national—deprives them of their religious meaning.

Leibowitz’s absolute exclusion of earthly or human concerns from the sphere of religion finds specific expression in his contempt for what he calls “the two great distortions of Jewish faith”—the Kabbalah and Reform Judaism. Leibowitz not only rejects Jewish mysticism’s view of God as emanating “into” the world; he also repudiates the late-kabbalistic doctrine of tikkun olam, an interpretation of halakhic observance as a vehicle for the reparation of flaws both in the Godhead and in the created universe. He is even less tolerant of Reform Judaism’s emphasis on the ethical monotheism of the prophetic tradition at the expense of faithfulness to rabbinic law. He defines all ethically based systems of religion, such as Reform Judaism, as “atheism par excellence.”

Finally, the requirement to exclude completely all selfish, earthly motives from religious practice pertains not only to the spiritual life of the individual Jew but in equal measure to the people of Israel. So, for example, Leibowitz has little patience with a view of Jewish law as an instrument for the advancement of Jewish nationhood. And he is still less patient with the Conservative movement’s appreciation of halakhah as the constantly evolving expression of the Jewish people’s encounter with history. For

the service of God as crystallized in the halakhah is an ahistoric reality. Historical vicissitudes and changes have no bearing on man’s posture before God.



Few scholars would deny that rabbinic law has been, since classical times, the one historic constant of Judaism. For almost two millennia, until the breakdown of traditional European Jewish society in the 19th century, faithfulness to halakhah was the sine qua non of traditional Jewish faith. But in no school of Judaism did the rule of law rule out the rest of life, or exclude entirely all other manifestations of spirituality, as it does in Leibowitz’s system. Indeed, Leibowitz’s strict legal positivism is without precedent in Jewish thought, and impossible to reconcile with almost any reasonable interpretation of the canonical sources of Judaism.

To begin with, Leibowitz’s system ignores what most authorities consider the defining characteristic of Jewish law, namely, its responsiveness to human needs and to social and historic change. By its nature, halakhah is an evolving system of jurisprudence which is constantly challenged to address new historical, social, scientific, and technological realities.

Then, too, Leibowitz’s radical removal of God from history cannot be squared with the actual Scriptural record. In maintaining that Judaism is a completely otherworldly faith, Leibowitz is forced to dismiss the many biblical and rabbinic texts which connect God intimately with the affairs of this world, and which emphasize the Creator’s intimate concern for the welfare of His people. Whereas, for example, Leibowitz takes Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac as the great paradigm of the selfless worship of God, in fact one of the overriding principles of normative Jewish law is the preservation and enhancement of life. This is reflected in a number of juridical principles, not least of which is the halakhic rule that “pikuakh nefesh,” or the saving of human life, overrides all but three of the Torah’s 613 commandments. In short, Leibowitz’s Judaism is a sad caricature of the religion it purports to define.



By far the most troubling aspect of this collection of essays, however, is the overtly political use to which Leibowitz puts his ostensibly anti-political theology. Because he insists that Judaism must never be concerned with earthly life, Leibowitz categorically rejects the attribution of intrinsic sanctity to the Jewish people’s return to Zion, and directs his sharpest criticism against religious Zionism’s sacerdotal interpretation of modern Jewish history, its conviction that the creation of modern Israel is of messianic significance, and the belief of some of its spokesmen in the holiness of “every inch” of the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria. In the same spirit Leibowitz rails against the corruptions of Israel’s domestic religious establishment and insists on the total separation of “synagogue and state.”

But Leibowitz is just as guilty of using religion to advance his own political agenda as are those whom he criticizes. The very sequence of the essays in this volume tells the tale: part one is entitled “Faith”; part two, “Religion, People, State”; and part three, “The Political Scene.” Leibowitz’s evaluation of the last derives directly from his particular interpretation of the first. Here, then, is a book which combines a theology of total retreat from the affairs of the world with a specific political posture emerging out of that very theology

Leibowitz has long been celebrated as the most dovish Orthodox Jew in Israel. Indeed, if his theology has found virtually no following even among the religious, his political proclamations are avidly sought out and quoted not only by the Israeli peace movement but by foreign journalists and others. That Leibowitz’s strident attacks on Israel’s political culture are at least as peculiar for an Orthodox Jew as is his theology only seems to add to the charm. Isaiah Berlin, for example, has praised Leibowitz as “one of Israel’s greatest moral assets” and “the conscience of Israel: the clearest and most honorable champion of those principles which justify the creation of a sovereign state.”

In this book the “conscience” of Israel repeats his well-known warnings against incipient fascism in the Jewish state and his opinion of religious Zionism as a form of idolatry; the editor, clearly an admirer of Leibowitz, has judiciously chosen not to include his outrageous characterization of Israel’s leaders during the war in Lebanon as Judeo-Nazis or other similarly extreme statements. There is not even so much as an allusion in this collection of essays to the tragedies of recent Jewish history or to the murderous record of the Arab nations toward the Jews and Israel, let alone to the fact that Israel is and remains a democratic state.



As for the Western liberals and intellectuals who are so charmed by the radical politics and anti-ecclesiastical proclamations of this sage in a black yarmulke, they have, in many respects, the wrong man. Many who invoke Leibowitz to advance their own agenda often speak in the name of “tikkun olam,” but, as we have seen, there is hardly anything in Jewish thought more repugnant to Leibowitz than the idea that it is the business of religion to “correct” the world. Leibowitz’s political followers also resolutely ignore his deep religious intolerance, his rejection of the pluralism of Jewish thought, and his contempt for the pluralism of Jewish life. In Leibowitz’s world of Orthodox exclusivism, most of his own greatest admirers are allowed no legitimate place. That this does not deter them from parading him as their authority, or him from courting the publicity they have given his views, is only another confirmation of the old saw about politics making strange bedfellows.

About the Author

Allan Nadler is professor of religion and director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University. He is currently completing a book about the reception of Spinoza in modern Yiddish thought and literature.

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