Skip to main content

Intentions and Actions (2)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg

Jewish Reckoning

     Although Rihal calls his work "a defence of the despised religion," he does not engage in apologetics.  His unapologetic stance forces us to judge not only others, but ourselves as well.  In his formulation of the philosopher's position, Rihal charges us with the mission of self-examination.  Although the events depicted in his book take place a few hundred years prior to the book's composition, Rihal hints at the tumultuous period in which the book was written: the Crusades, waged for the sake of the Church, revealed the emptiness and poverty of the religion which motivated them.  In this matter, the humanistic philosopher expresses a justified criticism of religion.  He asserts that "the doctrine of the philosophers does not cause the killing of human beings, since their goal lies in the intellect."


     Paradoxically, the Kuzari king cites religious wars as a reason for his preference of the man of religion over the philosopher.  Is this the opinion of R. Yehuda Halevi as well?  The answer is unclear.  We would surmise that the king's words do not represent Rihal's true opinion.  And indeed, according to the literary device employed in the book, only the Jewish representative reflects Judaism's views.  This is not true of the king's explanations, however "positive" they may be.  This distinction remains intact even after his conversion to Judaism and certainly exists before his first meeting with the "chaver" (the Jewish representative).


     The Kuzari's claim must be understood differently.  If we compare the philosopher with the proponent of religion, we find that despite the philosopher's sophistication and refinement, the religious man surpasses him in one basic area.  The religious representative is not merely presenting an intellectual alternative to the philosopher.  He is championing a completely different way of life.  He is so convinced of its supremacy that he is willing to kill or to be killed for it.  To be sure, it is important to stress that the Kuzari is not advocating warfare, but rather praising the unwavering faith and internal conviction which foster the willingness to make sacrifices.  Thus, a previously mentioned point is relevant here too: The religious man's response must be acceptable to God!  The small seed of truth in the Kuzari's claim germinates and comes to fruition through the principle of "kiddush Hashem" (sanctification of God's name through self-sacrifice).  True faith finds its expression in the willingness to give up one's life, as well as on every other level of existence.  Religion can often lead to fanaticism and the persecution of those whose opinion differ from one's own.  Judaism directs us, instead, toward idealism: the readiness to stand by our faith in the face of persecution.  This does not, of course, mean that we must seek out suffering.  In fact, we are commanded to save the persecuted, including ourselves, even through such drastic means as brute force and warfare.  However, we may never take on the role of the persecutor.


     The Kuzari king makes no mention of war, and the issue could easily have been ignored.  Perhaps the fact that Rihal has the philosopher bring up the question of warfare points to some implied criticism of religion.  There are wars which are justified.  However, here the representative of religion is confronted by the censure of the humanist: How is it that you have lead the world through so many horrific wars in the name of religion?  A number of movements developed in the wake of this trenchant criticism of religion, during the Enlightenment and at the height of the socialist struggle - movements which attempted to destroy religion and build a new world upon its ruins.  Today we can look back and analyze these movements.  At the end of the twentieth century we may safely state that the philosopher's vision has become a reality.  His ambition to create a religion of the intellect has come to pass in the modern world.  These approaches were based upon the creation of a man bereft of his God.  They invented a new religion and made use of their human wisdom to conceive of a world in which there would be no bloodshed, because "their goal is the intellect."  Yet these groups, who stopped their ears against the heavenly call and replaced it with human wisdom and emotion, sowed the seeds of two movements: Nazism on the one hand and Communism on the other.  The secular wars waged by these groups, both internally and externally, make the religious wars of previous periods look like child's play.


     Not all movements and revolutions are alike, of course; some contain positive elements.  For example, the French Revolution and even part of the socialist struggle had "acceptable intentions."  They desired the utmost development of the human intellect and they honestly wished to construct a new world, stripped clean of negative religious influence.  Many Jews enthusiastically endorsed these movements.  During the French Revolution, they waved the tri-colored flag and literally transformed their Torah scrolls into drums with which to herald the new age.  During the Russian Revolution, many Jews raised the red flag and joyously transformed their synagogues into Communist meeting houses.  Today, it is impossible to view these attempts without an awareness of their ultimate results.  The French Revolution ended in terror, and the Russian Revolution in gulags and concentration camps, mass murders, exiles, destruction and irretrievable loss.  In contrast to these movements, Nazism made a conscious attempt to return to the age of idolatry.  Nazism saw its doctrine as a rebellion against the morality of Judaism and thus against religious morality as a whole.  Therefore, the philosopher's opinions need correction, since reality has proved much more complex than he anticipated.  Rihal's veiled criticism of religion remains valid; however, the philosopher's promise of hope has failed us as well.  Man took the reins into his own hands and invented a religion; yet he fared no better, and actually much worse, than the proponents of religion.


Humaneness and Humanism


     Let us stop for a moment and conduct a Jewish analysis of the conflict between religion and the secular humanist approach.  Since the dawn of time, man has lived under tragic circumstances.  We must eternally grapple both with heresy and idolatry, while remaining aware of the fact that wars often stem from idolatry hidden behind a mask of monotheism.  The Torah attempts to help us navigate between these two dangers: heresy and idolatry.


     The Torah's ideal is humane.  However, humanity has two meanings.  The Torah champions humaneness, not humanism.  Allow me to explain.  We often speak of the difference between a realistic and a humane, humanistic, approach.  Etymologically, the difference between the two is comparable to the contrast between the Talmudic concepts of "cheftza" (object) and "gavra" (person).  The realist approach deals with objects.  The humanist approach involves itself with man and his human responses to reality.  While realist studies focus on facts, humanist studies teach that there are things which resist scientific demonstration, but find expression in the human spirit.  Beyond the facts lie the values.  We are well aware that values are constantly disputed.  When educating the next generation, we attempt to transmit all the factual information we possess, proferring the benefit of our scientific and technological knowledge, so that our children need not start at the beginning.  Similarly, we feel a responsibility to instill in them the values which guide us, in order to prevent a repetition of the mistakes of the past.  Despite the continual debate over values, we feel the need to pass them on.  We believe in their worth and must therefore bequeath them to the coming generations.


     The Torah instructs us in humaneness, not humanism.  This trait is one of the defining characteristics of every truly religious person.   One who is guided by respect and love for his fellow man, believing that every person, no matter how badly misled or downtrodden, was created in God's image, is humane.  To him, the value of human life is non-negotiable and unquantifiable.


     The humanist, in the philosophical sense of the word, is a person who believes that these values stem from man and not from God.  The humanist believes in man as the ultimate lawmaker, the final arbiter of ethical behavior.  The religious person refuses to accept this premise.  While often agreeing with the humanist regarding the content of his values, he disagrees about their origin.  The source of humane behavior is not human; it is Divine.


     We may choose between two possible approaches to humanism.  There are those who dismiss it entirely, based upon its secular character.  Rav Kook, in contrast to this position, stresses the idea that humanism's ultimate source is Divine although its proponents may be unaware of the fact.  Using a kabbalistic model, Rav Kook explains that two types of light exist: the "surrounding radiance," which stems from without and is the light of Revelation, and the "internal radiance" which wells up inside of man himself.  The ideal is to be found in the balance between these two spiritual forces.


     The first approach was expressed by Rav Yaakov Krantz, the "Maggid (storyteller) of Dubno," through a parable which I will relate with some slight alterations.


     Two neighbors were blessed with daughters at the same time.  One man was a shoemaker by profession and extremely poor.  The other was a thief, and strange as it may seem, despite his profession he was equally poverty-stricken.  They would often lament their fate and discuss ways to help their daughters when they were to reach marriageable age.  A friend advised them to save money, and the shoemaker took his advice.  He bore a hole in a crate, locked it up, and would daily place a penny inside this safe.  In those days, a long period of such savings would reap a goodly sum.


     At the wedding of the shoemaker's daughter, the father of the bride and his neighbor the thief again discussed money matters.  "How did you manage it?" inquired the thief. 


     "I locked up a safe and placed pennies in it day after day," responded the shoemaker.  "And why did you not do the same?"


     "I, who have no fear of other people's locks - why should I fear a lock of my own?" replied the thief.


     Morality and law are the "locks" which govern man's behavior.  A person who accepts the Torah believes that there are God-given "locks" in this world.  The humanist maintains that all the locks are man-made.


     The Maggid's story demonstrates the weakness inherent in this position.  If man has locked the safe, he can just as easily unlock it.  He can always break his promise, crack his own safe.  We are faced with different people of various opinions: a liberal and a Nazi, a terrorist and a philanthropist, etc.  How may one differentiate between the different locks if one lacks an objective yardstick?


     Let us be specific.  I refer to a lock, not a policeman.  The religious Jew does not accept the Torah's rules merely out of a fear of punishment.  This is a low level, albeit an important one.  The believer accepts the yoke of heaven out of the conviction that it links him to Divine, not human, truth and goodness.


     Rav Kook wishes to bring us to a wider perception of the problem.  Although we disagree with the underlying philosophy of the humanist, we can still be party to many of his opinions.  Until now we have spoken of cases where man's intentions were acceptable, while his actions were not.  Sometimes, the opposite is true.  Man's intentions are not acceptable and yet his actions are!  This is possible since man is not always aware of the true motives behind his actions.  Unconscious motives, composed of a higher and better mettle than man himself recognizes, exist nonetheless.


     Here we discover one of the secrets of Rav Kook's philosophy which also found expression in various ways throughout Chassidic traditions.  Freud teaches us that when we delve into man's subconscious, we discover egoistic motives and uncontrolled passions.  The experience can be compared to that of entering a clean and beautifully kept room, only to discover dirt and dust under the rug.  While Rav Kook may agree with this picture, he would claim that one had not dug deep enough.  Under the carpet and the dust, beneath the foundations of the house, a wellspring of pure water flows.  The unconscious contains positive elements as well as negative, demonstrating that each person is subconsciously connected to the sublime.  In every moral and humane position, Godly footprints can be found, despite man's attempts to convince us otherwise.


     We believe that modern human values stem from the biblical "revolution" and are a direct result of the original prophetic force.  This force has not yet succeeded in fully changing the face of humanity.  Yet, we must be aware that modern society which speaks loftily of basic human values was built on the foundations of that elemental force.  The biblical tradition, despite the dimming of its radiance, has had a decisive influence upon human development and has in many senses fashioned Western society which supposedly possesses the ideals of humanism.


This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.


Copyright (c)1996 Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, Yeshivat Har Etzion.  All rights reserved.


This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!