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Worship and Ethics: A Study in Rabbinic Judaism, by Max Kadushin

Moral Reason

Worship and Ethics: A Study in Rabbinic Judaism.
by Max Kadushin.
Northwestern University Press. 329 pp. $8.50.

This book is an attempt to give a new understanding of rabbinic ethics, a field of study which has been sadly neglected by serious scholars. In an interesting and illuminating departure from conventional treatments of the subject, Dr. Kadushin tries to show that there is an intimate relationship in rabbinic Judaism between worship and ethics. That he has made a significant contribution to our understanding of rabbinic Judaism cannot be doubted. Unfortunately, however, Dr. Kadushin is not content to remain within the field of rabbinic scholarship, where his erudition and command are considerable; he also strays into the realm of speculation to develop a theory concerning the peculiar character of rabbinic value-concepts. And in expanding this theory, he frequently relies on unsound and ill-founded arguments.

Dr. Kadushin's basic contention, both here and in earlier works, seems to be that the rabbis were not systematic philosophers—a view to which we can hardly take exception. Certainly, it is true that the sages of the Talmud and the associated literature did not deal with their problems in formal philosophic fashion. But philosophic ideas and the techniques of logical argument and analysis are by no means the exclusive property of technical philosophers. Such ideas and techniques are to be found in every literature which concerns itself—as the rabbinic tradition does—with the ultimate questions. Dr. Kadushin, however, is determined to deny even these rudiments of philosophic method to the rabbis.

Thus he asserts categorically that “a rabbinic text is always misconstrued when given a philosophical interpretation”—a statement which surely deserves a prize for sheer dogmatism and one which would seem to indict the work of scholars ranging from Philo to Maimonides to Hermann Cohen. Even the great Louis Ginzberg (to whom Dr. Kadushin acknowledges his debt) is apparently in need of instruction by his former pupil on how to read rabbinic texts properly. It was Dr. Ginzberg who, commenting on the argument for the existence of God attributed to Abraham in the Midrash (and elsewhere), noted that “in all the sources . . . stress is laid upon the fact that Abraham came to know God through his own reasoning about the universe and its ruler who must necessarily exist.” Ginzberg also wrote that these sources tell us that “Abraham discovered the true faith by meditating on nature.” What are these if not “philosophic interpretations” of rabbinic texts?

Dr. Kadushin's failure to distinguish between formal technical philosophizing and the philosophic elements which are present in all thought drives him to such extremes as denying, for example, that in the rabbinic view the Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one”) is to be understood as an affirmation of the unity of God—an avowal, that is, of monotheism. It was the medieval Jewish thinkers, he holds, who first espoused this misinterpretation under the influence of secular philosophy. “The fact remains,” says Dr. Kadushin, “that reading the Shema in this way is an interpretation and that for the ordinary man it over-intellectualizes what is primarily a mystical experience.”

But does not any attempt to explain any given text constitute an “interpretation”? And if “interpretation” itself is intrinsically bad, Dr. Kadushin seems as culpable as the medievals he attacks. What is his own reading of the Shema if not an interpretation? Moreover, though we may grant that “the ordinary man” does not grasp a text in the same way as a highly sophisticated reader, is Dr. Kadushin ready to claim that the Bible, the rabbinic texts, and the liturgy reflect a level of understanding and insight no different from that of ordinary men? Indeed, the most telling rebuttal of Dr. Kadushin's view is to be found finally in the fact that he himself is constrained to use philosophic terminology in explaining rabbinic teaching. Is not that very “doctrine of the immanence of God” (which he finds was unacceptable to the rabbis) a philosophic construct? Or does Dr. Kadushin perhaps believe that philosophic elements are to be found only in what the rabbis rejected and not in what they affirmed?

Dr. Kadushin's possible line of defense might be contained in his statement that:

The concepts relating to the experience of God are . . . neither philosophical ideas nor philosophically inspired—nor have they any philosophical implications unless we force them into a framework that adds nothing, pragmatically, to the experience of God itself.

Where we do find philosophic ideas in rabbinic theology, Dr. Kadushin seems to be suggesting here, they are of no importance because they are not effective in religious experience. But what precisely does he mean by “religious experience”—a concept which seems to have such a high priority in his system? (The aim of the book, he writes, “is to describe how Halakhah, working with the value-concepts of the folk as a whole, enables the individual to achieve religious experience.”) The closest he comes to telling us is in his use of the term “normal mysticism” as a description of the way in which rabbinic Judaism “enables a person to make normal, commonplace, recurrent situations and events occasions for worship.”

But the very idea of “religious experience,” as a separate mode of awareness at least, has been seriously questioned. There is no convincing evidence that a special mode of cognition exists which can properly be called religious. A “poignant sense of the nearness of God”—in Dr. Kadushin's words—is not necessarily a veridical experience, and to make it the center of Jewish religious concern is hazardous indeed. Is it not clear that religious men vary widely in temperament, as well as in sensitivity and intellectual power? Religious experience, if the term is to mean anything at all, cannot be restricted to the domain of mysticism, not even the “normal mysticism” Dr. Kadushin talks about—fruitful though it is as a concept, and welcome though it is as an addition to our religious lexicon. Responses in the act of prayer itself may range in quality all the way from a mere mechanical recitation to the anguished elevation of Isaiah as he hears the seraphim proclaiming, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” Even while singing praises to the same God in identical words, different men will have different experiences; and even the same man may have thoughts that vary with the occasion and his own state of being. Instead of that mystical awareness of the “nearness of God” which Dr. Kadushin exalts above all responses, a man in the act of praying may find himself directed toward a metaphysical insight into some aspect of divinity. To deny religious legitimacy to what could be styled a “philosophic” response of this kind is to read out of the tradition some of our greatest spirits and to impoverish rabbinic theology beyond recognition.


When we shift our attention from the subject of worship to that of rabbinic ethics, the book's second major concern, we find once again that Dr. Kadushin's antagonism to philosophy has led him to extreme and indefensible claims., There is no quarreling with his desire to distinguish between the ethics of the rabbis and the ethical systems of the philosophers—a distinction which is fairly self-evident, and does not seem to require a treatise in its defense. What is distressing, however, is the basis on which he seeks to establish his claim for this distinction.

Unlike the ethical systems of the philosophers, Dr. Kadushin maintains, rabbinic ethics are the product of “a historically evolved tradition;” they are, moreover, rooted in the common experience of the people. Philosophic ethics, on the other hand, constitute “a system thought out by a philosopher.” This view is hard to take seriously. The philosopher may order, systematize, seek to justify the moral values of his time and tradition—but it is not therefore to be supposed that he invented these values. (Indeed the examples Dr. Kadushin cites to support his case—Aristotle and Kant—seem to me to prove its opposite.)

Still with reference to the same distinction, we next learn that unlike the terms of the philosophers, “rabbinic value-concepts . . . such as Torah, mitzvah, . . . charity, holiness, repentance, man . . . have a different character than other types of terms or concepts. These terms are connotative only, and hence are not amenable to formal definition.” In questioning this astonishing statement (which is not a momentary lapse, since it is repeated in substance a number of times throughout the book), we must ask by what rule of logic a term is to be considered “not amenable to formal definition” just because it is connotative? Here is what one of the most widely used college logic texts has to say about connotative definition: “It is regarded by many writers as the most important kind of definition, and by some as the only ‘genuine’ kind.” Another text similarly says that “the customary meaning of ‘definition’ is connotation.” Other kinds of definition may be admitted, but no responsible student of these matters could accept Dr. Kadushin's notion that connotation is what makes definition impossible.

Here again Dr. Kadushin's own argument is full of inconsistencies. Thus we find him maintaining, on the one hand, that rabbinic value terms are absolutely indefinable, and on the other hand, making assertions such as the following: “At times . . . the word ‘man’ is no more than a description of a biological species, but at other times it has, on the contrary, a universalistic, valuational connotation.” But if value terms cannot be distinguished from non-value terms, how are we to differentiate between the merely biological and the valuational meaning of “man”?

Philosophic ethics are also defective, Dr. Kadushin further asserts, because they depend for sanction on some ultimate criterion, and he seems to think that given such an ultimate criterion it necessarily follows that we cannot cope with the particularity of each moral situation. But there is no reason why a general rule pertaining to moral action cannot be applied to particular cases. Both Aristotle and Kant—to take Dr. Kadushin's own illustrations once again—dealt at length and in detail with a host of particular moral issues, questions, and circumstances.

Nor is it true, as Dr. Kadushin would have us believe, that the rabbis made do without recourse to an ultimate criterion. Indeed Dr. Kadushin himself, consciously or not, admits to the existence of such a criterion even while struggling mightily to prove its absence. He claims to have shown that “the rabbis had a most profound awareness of what is moral and ethical, and that they even adumbrated the sphere of morality, and that all this was achieved without recourse to a formal definition or an ultimate criterion. It was achieved through a concept, that of ‘derekh eretz.’” But what is this concept of derekh eretz, if not an “ultimate criterion” which functions, like any other, to distinguish the sphere of the moral from the non-moral and to differentiate between moral and immoral acts?


It is true that the rabbis did not ordinarily deal in formal definitions or formulate explicitly ultimate criteria for moral behavior. But this merely indicates that theirs was a folk morality, not yet exposed to philosophic analysis. And Dr. Kadushin's announcement that “the moral life is altogether possible without definitions of morality” hardly seems a great discovery. No one ever supposed that there was no morality until philosophers offered systematic expositions of ethics, any more than anyone ever imagined that there were no planetary motions prior to the birth of astronomy or no gravitational attraction until Newtonian physics came along. Scientists do not create nature and philosophers do not create society. One of their tasks is to make explicit definitions and criteria that are implicit in the natural world or the values of a society. Men engage in disputation with one another and construct valid arguments without knowing the rules of formal logic, just as they act virtuously or un-virtuously without necessarily being aware of a formal system of ethics.

Finally, there is yet another ground on which we must question Dr. Kadushin's assertion that there is no ultimate criterion in rabbinic ethics. Quite apart from his own criterion (veiled as a “concept”) of derekh eretz, all normative Jewish practice rests on Torah, viewed as divine revelation: this is the ultimate criterion to which rabbinic Judaism appeals. George Foot Moore expresses this view when he tells us that for rabbinic Judaism “right and wrong were . . . not defined by the reason and conscience of men, naive or reflective, nor by national custom or the consensus gentium, but by the revealed will of God.” Why Dr. Kadushin fails to acknowledge this very obvious “ultimate criterion” is something of a puzzle, to be explained, perhaps, only by the lengths of oversight to which tendentiousness can carry an argument.

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