Avi Sagi, Tradition vs. Traditionalism

More on Avi Sagi,  Tradition vs. Traditionalism

This book presents his take on his four favored thinkers: Leibowitz, Soloveitchik, Goldman, and Hartman. I am not sure how much I agree with any of these readings.

Sagi likes Soloveitchik as confessional, existential, communication, and sensitive to the human plight,it makes for good “thematic halakhah.” but notes that Soloveitchik is not really existentialist and is more Kierkegaard where the natural order is one of alienation serves to drive us to religion. But in Sagi’s harsh reading of Solovetichik, religion is the only true, useful, and acceptable vision of man, a limited relationship to the modern world. Hence a retreat from the modern world, or a least a very rigid hierarchy. Modern man is characterized by alienation, boredom, frustration, and Soloveitchik cannot see the positive in modern secular man.  In Sagi’s opinion, there is openness to the human plight but closure to modern values. (American readers may not be familiar with this Israeli reading)

Sagi likes Leibowitz for his ability to compartmentalize religion from the modern world. For Leibowitz even the fear and trembling associated with relgion, as in Kierkeguard, are not religious but part of ones secular psychology, personal struggles, and inner self. Only faith is faith. He likes the valuing of the Oral Torah over the written Torah, since the written torah is from God and we cannot know its true meaning, but we do know the Oral law since we create it. And our following it for its own sake is faith. No realization of divine ideal through halakhah as in Soloveitchik but pure lishmah, pure obedience. Modern formulation allows the tradition to be kept.

Sagi’s hero is Eliezer Goldman, (student of Soloveitchik, and trained in American jurisprudence turned kibbutznik and Maimonidean- In my time his articles had a cult following). Goldman distinguishes between illusory and non-illusory faith, illusory faith seeks to remake the world according to ones yearnings. In contrast, non-illusory faith accepts the world as it is and there is no escape from reality. There is no certainty of any traditional metaphysical claims. Faith allows one to accept God and revelation; revelation is not a datum of experience but part of the worldview after faith. Revelation is the recognition of the halakhic realm as heteronomous. Commandments have meaning and value but not reasons, causes or factual referents.

All halakhah is grounded in meta-halakhah as its meaning. (Rabbi Wurzburger and Prof Twersky took the concept from Goldman.) Goldman rejects the legal formalism of Kelsen and Hart and stresses instead the worldview of the jurists, the need for juridical autonomy, and values. Values and principles do not rest on facts.  (Today this is closest to what is taught under the broad category of Dworken followers, and has elements of Isaiah Berlin.)  The law needs to be realistic and adapt to changing situations. And just like Maimonides poured “Old wine in new bottles” by reading Torah through Aristotle, we are self- conscious in our need for a new formulation. Like Maimonides, he rejects the view of the hamon am, the ordinary believer, as not true faith. (Somehow Sagi calls this Dwroken-Berlin approach post-modern.)

Sagi presents Hartman as a modernist in that he is in dialogue with the tradition and questions it.  He quotes Hartman as saying that Jewish thinkers know their period or text, while Jewish philosophers also seek to dialogue the Jewish thought with the present and other cultures. For Hartman, Maimonides as hero of integration and synthesis. Hartman chooses to develop his thought from Halakhah and Hazal over the Bible because the Bible is too theocentric. Halakhah is better for an anthropocentric philosophy. Hartman offers a Torah of pluralism of human construction, answers to human needs, a rejection of the theocentric,  and a rejection of terms like “alienation” as vestiges of older European thought. Hartman offers a halakhic hope for the state of Israel and the messiah, which is this-worldly, conservative and realistic—unlike the utopia, apocalyptic and unrealistic hope of others.

As a side story, Sagi has a great chapter of the coming to be of Leibowitz’s compartmentalized view. It all started with a forgotten 1952 article by Ernst Simon “Are we still Jews?”  The article discussed the views of his friends and colleagues in the “Bahad”- German religious kibbutz movement. He wrote that they are all Catholic in that they want an all encompassing view of Torah. Simon argued that a Protestant approach would allow for recognizing the secular state, and offers freedom for religious Jews to restore a meaningful existence for ourselves. In the article, he discusses his friend, the Bnai Akiva leader Leibowitz  who thought that we need to change the halakhah radically for the new state  to be all encompassing. Simon compares him to a reverse of Neturei Karta who want everything as it was. Leibowitz changes his view to agree with Simon and goes further using dialectic theology. The state and all of life is secular except for religion itself, all religion is a personal decision. Leibowitz even renames his  1943 essay from “Educating toward a Torah State” to “Education towards Torah in a Modern Society.”Rabbi Moshe Zvei Neriah also responded in 1952 to Simon and wrote that the secular state is a problem to our religious vision. Therefore must give religious meaning to the state

2 responses to “Avi Sagi, Tradition vs. Traditionalism

  1. Dear Alan,

    I am wondering what you think of Avi Sagi’s Open Canon? From what I have read, it seems like a thoughtful exploration of the Talmudic tradition of “elu-va-elu divre Elokim hayyim.”

    Warmly,
    Jeff

    • It was published in English before I started blogging. I may come back at some point and post on it.
      It is a very good book but…
      There is an good article in one of Israeli Torah journals, I dont have reference at hand, pointing out corrections from a beit medrash point of view.
      His use of the word pluralism is too vague. Many of his Eastern European sources are intellectual pluralists but not moral pluralists. he could have used some more analytic rigor – see Rorty, Amelie Oksenberg. 1990. “Varieties of Pluralism in a Polyphonic Society.” Review of Metaphysics 44:3–20

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