Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Where the Modern Orthodox and Yeshiva worlds converge

In the current Tradition there is a wonderful article by Prof. Daniel Statman – Negative Theology and the Meaning of the Commandments in Modern Orthodoxy. He argues that what is currently the theology of Modern Orthodoxy (in his notes he blurs the outlines of this categorization), is counter intuitively, suffering from the same underlying malaise of the Yeshivish way of thinking. He argues that Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s philosophy, which is based on a radical reading of Rambam’s Negative Theology, takes God out of religion and the performance of Mitzvos. Being that God is transcendental there is no hope of man ever grasping Him truly. The search for God is therefore a hopeless enterprise that one performs because it is required of us. Just like all Mitzvos the purpose is to submit to the yoke of Heaven, “Kabolas ol Malchus Shomayim”. This applies to everything including ethics. There is no other purpose in Bein Odom Lachavero or Bein Odom Lamokom, not even perfection of society, because that would mean that God is serving man while religion requires the opposite – man to serve God.

He then refers us to a seminal paper written by Prof. Haym Soloveitchik in 1994 http://www.opensourcejudaism.com/transformationoforthodoxy.htm , a sociological study of the current orthodox community. The thrust is that after the holocaust and being confronted with modernity, God has lost His place in the day to day life of the Orthodox Jew. As opposed to the European shtetel where the Divine presence was felt all the time, modernity has robbed us of this feeling. To make up for it, stricture in Halacha has taken the place of the Divine Presence. The emphasis has been changed from an intellectual and emotional approach to Mitzvos to a more mechanistic focus where the underlying theology is ignored. Quoting Soloveitchik “Having lost the touch of His presence, they seek now solace in the pressure of His yoke”. Thus both the Orthodox and the “modern” orthodox, keep the Mitzvos with a similar imperative, accepting the yoke of Heaven.

In a recent exchange with a Yeshivish individual I asked him to tell me why he learns and why he keeps mitzvos. His answer to the first question was: For the same reason one does any mitzvah – Hashem commanded us to. While to the second his reply was: Because that is how one gains the world-to-come.

Clearly the first answer is purely Leibowitz, while the second he would consider Avodah Zara – God serving man by affording him the opportunity for reward.

On a personal note, several years ago, when I discovered Leibowitz, I was completely enthralled by his philosophy. It took me a while to realize that the philosophy he ascribes to Rambam is really based on his personal interpretation of religion which he then appended to Rambam’s writings. Although there is merit to a lot of what he says I disagree with its conclusions. It is a long discussion better left for another post.


  1. Leibowitz goes beyond the Rambam only in that he says clearly and simply what he believes the Rambam meant.

    When you strip off the veneer and the niceties of what Rambam wrote you have the same as what Leibowitz says:

    1. We cannot know or comprehend God.

    2. We serve God and not the reverse.

    3. Miracles? Let's re-interpret?

    4. Contradictions between Torah and science? Interpret metaphorically.

    5. Life after death? Who knows - what is the point of dwelling on it.

    6. God does not act in history.

    In which of these main points does Leibowitz diverge from the Rambam?

  2. Leibowitz says that there is no purpose in trying to get close to God as it is an impossibility. He therefore holds that there are no reasons for mitzvos and they are only as Kabolas Ol malchus Shomayim. Rambam holds that getting close to God amounts to Veholachto Bidrochov. He also believes that there is such a thing as getting close to God- see his excitement in the last 3 chapters of the Moreh.

    I am planning to mpost soon on this. I have been a little busy this week.