To Leibowitz, God is not to be understood in
personalist theistic terms. All attempts at describing God from the perspective
of human concerns is tantamount to idolatry. Leibowitz is religiously very close
to the theological position articulated by Maimonides in his negative theology.
Maimonides claims that all descriptive language about God is either false or
inadequate and possibly close to idolatry because of the radical otherness of
God from tile human world. One cannot subsume God under any genus or species,
and therefore one cannot apply to God categories used to describe human reality.
Biblical anthropomorphic descriptions of God are for Maimonides concession human
beings who cannot think about the divine reality in noncorporeal terms. In
Leibowitz theology, one cannot talk about God but can only act in the presence
of God. Judaism does not give description of the reality of God, nor should one
attempt to establish ways of making sense of the existence of God. Rather,
religious language is prescriptive - it tries to direct man in his worship of
Maimonides bases his theology on logical considerations in insisting
the transcendence of God, in as much as all attempts at descriptions of God
violate the uniqueness and unity of God. For example, thinking of God in
corporeal terms would violate the notion unity. In the case of Leibowitz,
however, the reason for insisting on radical divine transcendence is not logical
but religious. It is not that human descriptions of God are false; rather, they
are religiously inappropriate. To think of God as way of satisfying human needs,
as a way of legitimizing ethical categories, is a ray of enhancing and securing
political structures so as to give order and coherence lo human society is to
male God subservient to the needs of man.
Certainly, Leibowitz recognizes the importance of
social and ethical actions within a religious framework. What he rejects is the
primacy of the ethical as an autonomous category. In the framework of Judaism,
it is not "Love thy neighbor as thyself" but "Love they neighbor as thyself I am
the Lord." Your love for your neighbor takes place within the context of worship
and service of God. Even an atheistic society, Leibowitz claims, can create a
very serious ethical personality. One chooses a religious world view not to
discover rules for ethics but because one recognizes that God is the ultimate
principle in reality and that the meaning of life is expressed in acts of
worship of God. For Judaism, the act of worship of God is expressed through the
framework of Halakhah.
The centrality of mitzvah (divine commandment)
in Judaism implies that God is a source of demand, not a guarantor of success
and meaning in history. Here is where Leibowitz distinguishes Judaism from
Christianity, the latter being a religion in which God redeems man and liberates
him from finitude and sin. Judaism offers no promise of resolution and
redemption, it does not offer solace, peace, security, meaning, and happiness.
Whereas Christianity promises to serve man's needs, Judaism calls man to strive
to worship God within the world as it is given.
The given world, just as it is and without needing
promises of redemption, expresses the will and wisdom of God. Nature and the
conditions of human behavior which create history are all willed by God in the
sense that whatever exists does so because of the ultimate reality of God. "The
principle of divine transcendence is what makes man, nature, and history
intelligible and possible. Judaism does nor offer man a way of explaining the
facts of the universe, it is a way of explaining what man does with those facts
within the world. It is therefore a constant striving to realize God's commands
in the world, although in essence the gap between God's demands and human action
The religious seriousness with which the Jew strives to
worship God is what gives significance and purpose to reality. It violates
Leibowitz's sense of worship to think of God as manipulating the world to move
in a specific direction for the worshiper's benefit. "To think of God as one who
provides for my wealth and health is to reduce him, to use a Leibowitzian
metaphor, to being the superadministrator of the Kupat Holim (sick fund). To
think of God as making good the failures of man, to think of him as a crutch on
which one can rely when human efforts fail, is to make him the grand
administrator of the world and robs Judaism of its essential thrust of worship.
Leibowitz sees two approaches to prayer within the Jewish religious
tradition. One treats prayer as growing from human crisis and human needs; it
expresses the longing to have God look on my suffering and aid me in my
tragedies. In the other approach to prayer, it is not personal need and the
existential human condition that cry out for divine attentiveness but rather the
disciplined commitment to obey the commandment to stand before God in worship.
Leibowitz rejects spontaneous prayer; he is wholly content to regard prayer as a
regime and discipline that obligates man to stand before God irrespective of his
present psychological or social condition. The irrelevance of that condition is
shown for Leibowitz by the fact that the mourner who has just buried his child
and the groom who has just married his beloved are called upon to recite the
Leibowitz, consequently, has no problem regarding
petitional prayer in the modern world because the essence of Judaic prayer is
not to ask God to respond to human needs but simply to accept the
obligation to stand in worship of God. Therefore, by tautology, all prayer is
answered because the very meaning of prayer is simply the willingness to accept
the discipline of standing in worship of God. No matter what is thrown at us in
history, no matter what nature reveals, no matter what we discover in the world,
the ability to worship remains permanent.
The paradigm of the Judaic religious life for
Leibowitz, the model of genuine worship of God, is Abraham's readiness to
sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham's ability to submit to God's commands, although
doing so violated all his natural impulses of love for his child, although it
contradicted all his dreams for building a religious community in history,
created a moment in which Abraham's worship transcended all human striving,
longing, and aspirations for the world.
Leibowitz therefore has serious religious difficulty
with the personal theistic framework found in the Judaic tradition. The source
that defines his religious consciousness is not the Bible but the religious
community that emerges out of the talmudic tradition. In the classical tradition
of Judaism, the oral tradition of the Talmud defines how one is to respond to
the biblical tradition. Leibowitz takes this approach to its extreme in which
the Bible no longer has any autonomous validity. For him, the revelatory
movement of God in history present in the Bible has been replaced by the
prayerful movement of man toward God found in the talmudic tradition. When in
the talmudic world descriptions of revelation and miracles cease to be an
essential part of the story, claims Leibowitz we notice a strengthening of the
Jewish people as a covenantal religious community.
An example for Leibowitz is the power of talmudic
Judaism to combat idolatry. In the biblical world, God is described as very
active and constantly interfering in human history, yet the community repeatedly
reacts by turning to idolatry. After the miraculous liberation from Egypt comes
the story of rebellion. Even after the great spectacle of revelation at Sinai,
the story is told of the golden calf. The biblical narrative teaches us that
miracles and direct revelation do not create a religious community. The Jewish
people became resolutely monotheistic only when the discipline of the talmudic
Halakhah was internalized and institutionalized in Jewish life.
Jews became a prayer community, when they adopted a life disciplined by the
normative framework of Halakhah, they at last succeeded in becoming a committed
religious community. This living religious community shapes Leibowitz's
perception of Judaism. He is not interested in the theology of the Bible but is
drawn to make religious sense of Judaism mediated by a living people.
Mitzvah and its concretization in Halakhah constitute the community's way
of expressing its commitment to God.
This viewpoint also enables Leibowitz to dismiss all
arguments about the factual accuracy of the Bible. The biblical descriptions of
the exodus from Egypt and the miraculous interventions in the desert are
interpreted by the Judaic community, he claims, within the conceptual frameworks
of the legal tradition rather than as factual historical accounts. The sanctity
of the Bible in Jewish life is not a result of the fact pf revelation but
results from the halakhic decision of the authoritative teachers of the Talmud
to endow the twenty-four books of the Bible with sanctity. The canon was
established by the normative authority of the Talmud and not by divine
intervention in history. One who regards the Bible as authoritative only in
framework of the legal authority of Jewish tradition is not forced to regard the
Bible as a source of factual information but only as a source of normative
director that is, as Torah and. mitzvah.
The theistic vision found in
the Bible does not need to be seen as factual truth. Rather, it reflects a
specific stage in the community normative religious development. Before the
community of Israel can truly enter a theocentric framework, it is portrayed by
the Bible as having an anthropocentric vision of God. This is what is called in
the Talmud she-lo lishmah, the service not for its own sake, since it is
motivated by human psychological concerns and. needs. This She-Lo Lishmah
was accepted and legitimated by the Judaic tradition but only as a stage on the
path to lishmah, service of God for its own sake. Although the authentic
paradigm of Judaism is Abraham's readiness to sacrifice Isaac at God's command,
there is a great distance separating normal human beings from the ideal
archetype found in Abraham. One must strive for a theocentric consciousness, but
Judaism accepts as a preliminary stage in human's religious life actions that
mirror an anthropocentric frame of worship.
This is how Leibowitz
understands the general communal approach to petitional prayer, the biblical
descriptions of God, and the stories that deal with God's promises of reward and
punishment. All these personalist descriptions mirror the anthropocentric focus,
the she-lo-lishmah level of religious life. Ultimately, however, the
tendency of Judaism and the essence of its religious power lie in its demand to
love God unconditionally and to perform mitzvoth motivated by pure
disinterested love of God.
For philosophical reasons of this kind, Leibowitz
cannot use concepts drawn from biblical anthropocentricism or from messiahism
and eschatology to ascribe religious significance to the mere historical fact
that Israel has been reborn as an independent policy. Reborn Israel will be
significant religiously only if this community demonstrates how all of life in
an autonomous Jewish society is dedicated to the worship of God.
Although Jewish commitment to the mitzvah must
be unconditional the halakhic concretization of the mitzvah can change.
Indeed, Leibowitz calls for bold, innovative halakhic changes in Israel. If
these changes come, if the religious community shows to the people of Israel how
the halakhic theocentric passion can have vital significance in the modern
world, then Judaism has a future. If however, the religious community cannot
offer that vision, or if it fails to persuade the larger community to shift; its
focus from a secular humanistic framework to a covenantal halakhic perspective,
Leibowitz does not see much hope for the continued existence of Judaism.
Will religious Zionism uproot the incipient idolatry in its Midst? Will its
followers have the courage to build a society that mirrors the new spirit needed
for the renewal of Halakhah? Will the Jewish community, awaken to the internal
dangers of assimilation and spiritual decadence? Leibowitz offers us no
automatic hope, no promise, and no prayer. He offers only the voice of an honest
critical thinker who lives daily in Israel with great trepidation regarding the
future but nevertheless continues with great passion and sincerity to march
across the country with the dedication of a young man, speaking to all who are
willing to listen and learn.