Commentary Magazine

Judiasm and Existentialism

To The Editor

Many a good cause is ruined by a weak argument. That is certainly true of religion. We probably would not have so many atheists, if it were not for the well-meaning but ill-arguing theologians. The current awakening of interest in Jewish theology is a welcome phenomenon, even though it has come about through the ringing of church bells. But what is not so welcome to some of us is the transfer, almost bodily, to Judaism of a pattern of thought which is native and idiomatic to Christianity.

If that pattern were self-consistent and congruous with historical fact and the laws of thought, its Christian origin would in no way militate against its transfer to Judaism. But, unfortunately, it is very far from meeting those requirements. This becomes evident when we read an article like Emil L. Fackenheim’s “The Modern Jew’s Path to God,” which appeared in the May COMMENTARY.



In That article, the author, who recognizes that classical Jewish theology “contains elements unacceptable to modern man and the modern Jew,” undertakes to formulate a theology that would be free from those elements. His formulation is couched in Existentialist terminology, and is not easy to follow. It is bound to tax the attention of the reader all the more in the form in which I am obliged to summarize it here.

Frankly, I would not bother with this Christo-Judean theology, were it not used as a stick to beat all those who attempt to render Jewish religion compatible with the generally accepted norms of thought and belief. The author characterizes all who differ with him as guilty either of “blasphemy and intellectual dishonesty,” or “hypocrisy and self-righteousness.” He is not alone in resorting to vituperation as a means of “strengthening” his argument. Others of the same school of “thought” are fond of hurling the epithet “idolatrous” at those who disagree with them. If the interest in theology is not to be merely a temporary flare-up which may for a time collect around it a curious crowd of spectators who always enjoy a fight, but who are soon bored and disperse, then we must insist that the theologians stop using the “encounter with God” as a disguise for encounter with their fellow men.

Judaism, Fackenheim maintains, is not a system of ideas but “a form of religious existence.” He defines that existence as “the living encounter of Israel with the God of Israel.” The two distortions of Judaism, according to him, are those which represent it either “as a system of ideas” or “as little more than a useful tool for social and psychological adjustment.” The basis of traditional Judaism was the certainty that God existed and that He had revealed himself to Israel. “Modern man,” however, must start with man, i.e. with his striving for “self-realization,” and see whether a profound self-understanding “does not lead to the point where one must take the leap into faith.”



Fackenheim then proceeds to describe two attempts to reach God without “the leap into faith”: that of the naturalist and that of the idealist. The naturalist recognizes the need for ultimate “integration,” but only as “adjustment to environment” or “psychic health.” But, contends Fackenheim, with that as an ultimate criterion, what is to prevent one from finding such “psychic health” under Nazi rule? The other version of “self-realization” is the idealist’s. Fackenheim points out that it, too, is untenable, because it does not reckon with the actual evil in man’s nature, and logically should lead to despair rather than to belief in God.

Classical Judaism was “a search for God—not for religious experience or religious ideals, but for an existing God. . . . In Jewish tradition God’s existence is nowhere doubted or made dependent on objective evidence.” This God is recognized by each of us when we realize the inner contradiction of human nature—both angel and animal. Such awareness of God comes when we take “the leap of faith.”

Fackenheim then goes on to point out in what sense we might actually hear God speak to us or “have religious existence,” as he puts it. He falls back upon Buber’s identification of God as the cosmic Thou of each particular I. That accounts for “the paradoxical fact that the finite acts of man cannot and yet must make a difference to God.” Through this relation to God “the rabbinic Jew finds ultimate integration.” By means of Halacha “he can narrow, but not span, the gap between what ought to be and what is.”

The traditional Jew, however, Fackenheim concludes, never faced the problem of modern man. “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?”



In The first place, I wish to point out that the editorial comment misleads the reader. It reads: “Is traditional Jewish thinking irrelevant to the 20th century—or does it merely seem so because of our misunderstanding of it? Emil L. Fackenheim believes the latter to be the case and here tries to substantiate it.” That comment implies that those who disagree with Dr. Fackenheim regard traditional Jewish religious thinking as irrelevant to the 20th century. Is not an attempt at reinterpretation of “traditional Jewish religious thinking,” such as Kaufmann Kohler’s, which Fackenheim disparages, based on the assumption that “traditional Jewish religious thinking” is relevant to the 20th century? Anyone who doubts that, let him try to read Kohler’s Jewish Theology. Likewise, Hermann Cohen, who was a neo-Kantian idealist, had no difficulty in finding traditional religious thinking relevant. The greater part of his Die Religion der Vernunft aus der Quellen des Judentums is a modern Midrash.

And now for Fackenheim’s argument itself. It all turns upon a metaphysical or epistemological problem as to what we are to understand by “reality,” whether (1) idea, (2) experience, or (3) existence. To Hermann Cohen in his Die Religion der Vernunft, the only reality is idea. All else is illusion. And he had just as devout and immediate a sense of God’s existence, from his point of view, as Fackenheim and Tillich from theirs. I happen to have as immediate an experience of the reality of God as I have of my own personality. That does not make God any less real to me, or less of an existence, than He is to Buber or Niebuhr. In that experience I am both as certain and as uncertain that it is God that I hear as they are concerning their own experience. After all, Plato and Berkeley and Hegel and Royce were no chimney sweeps, and knew a thing or two, even if they disagree with Kierkegaard and Sartre. They happened to believe that ultimate reality was idea. Neither can we dismiss James, Peirce, Dewey, and to a large extent Whitehead, as of no account even if they did regard experience as the only revealer of reality. What special supernatural revelation have the Existentialist theologians been vouchsafed that entitles them to claim that only their version of reality is the true one?

There are styles in philosophy as there are styles in clothes. This current preference for the term “existence” to the term “experience” is only due to the fact that the term “experience” has come to be a well-worn cliché which fails to convey the feel of all that the term originally conveyed. The very term “leap of faith,” for example, shows how we are often driven to create new terms for old ideas. For actually what is faith itself if not a mental leap? To speak of a leap of faith is tantamount to speaking of “a leap of a leap.” Philosophically, Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason is an elaboration of the meaning of faith. A leap into practical reason would make more sense than “a leap into faith.”

For Fackenheim to read out of, or into, Scriptural and rabbinic passages meanings that belong to his style of philosophy (not religion) is a legitimate procedure. That may be good or bad homiletics, but it proves nothing. He uses, for example, a text from Job to prove that in Biblical Judaism the certainty of God’s existence was not questioned. The text he gives is the well-known one from the King James version: “Even though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” The original Hebrew, however, is obscure. In fact the ketib or “written” text says the opposite. Or take the rabbinic text which he quotes in support of his theory; actually it refutes his theory. The text reads as follows: “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.” If it means anything, it means that the very godhood of God depends upon men’s belief in Him. Could any statement more plainly contradict the entire point of the article?



According to Fackenheim, “nowhere is God’s existence doubted or made dependent on objective evidence.” If that is true, how does he account for a statement like the one in Deuteronomy which points out that no other people actually heard “God’s voice speaking from the midst of the fire,” or witnessed such miracles as those which it saw with its own eyes when it left Egypt. And it then adds: “Thou hast been shown all this that thou mightest know that YHWH alone is God.” The truth is that in all this neo-orthodox Christian-Jewish, or so-called realistic, theology, no attempt is made to reckon with the facts that have been learned from the actual observation of the way religion has functioned in the lives of men and nations. The existence of superhuman powers endowed with man-like wills and purposes was an assumption by no means confined to any one people. Even the highly sophisticated Epicureans believed in the existence of gods. What they denied was the intervention of the gods in the affairs of man. What mattered was not the existence of a god, but his power, and his use of that power to help his people. These did require objective proof.

Our ancestors were no exception in having to be given evidence. Elijah had to demonstrate that YHWH was a real god and not Baal by having his prayer for a sign answered. Isaiah rebukes Ahaz for not asking objective proof of YHWH’s power to save Jerusalem from the kings who besieged it. To read the Bible as Fackenheim does is to misunderstand it from beginning to end.

From the introduction to his article it is evident that Fackenheim believes that his theology is the only one that can “provide a religious reason why a Jew should continue to be a Jew—why Judaism ought to survive.” On the other hand, it is equally evident that Fackenheim does not believe in the historicity of the miracles which the Bible gives as objective proof of God’s power and of his concern for the Jewish people. The religious rationale which Fackenheim suggests, no doubt, has validity for him. But so long as he cannot claim that rationale to be God’s revelation to him, he is hardly in a position to claim for it the exclusive validity that he does.

If Fackenheim would believe that the miracles and the theophany actually occurred, he would not have to look to Existentialism as a rationale for Jewish religion. Judah Halevi was much more to the point when he maintained that, with all those miracles as historic fact, all philosophical arguments are superfluous. Existentialism is no less philosophical than naturalism or idealism.

Mordecai M. Kaplan
Jewish Theological Seminary
New York City



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