Yoram Hazony, Kierkegaard, and Judaism

I recently posted about the new book on Kierkegaard’s antisemitism. To this post I received the following public challenge from Yoram Hazony (used with permission).

Thanks for your column on Kierkegaard. I can’t understand why Kierkegaard is regarded (by Orthodox Jews!) as being theologically relevant to Judaism. As far as I have been able to tell, Kierkegaard views belief as an absurdity: We believe not because it is reasonable, but precisely because it is unreasonable. I’m not familiar with any biblical or talmudic sources that are compatible with this view. On the contrary, classical Jewish belief always involved a view of the Torah as reasonable. I think modern Jews need to ask themselves whether they really think that what we are interested in inculcating in our children is the view that Torah is something absurd. If so, then Kierkegaard is our man. If not, then perhaps we should consider dropping this.

Yoram Hazony
The Shalem Center, Jerusalem

I know that the dozen various major Orthodox proponents of Kierkegaard each claim to differ with Kierkegaard and correct his thought. But in the end, even when they said they were different they remained in the realm of absurd, contraction, submission, heroic struggles and leaps. They do not move into Maimonidean rationalism or other approaches where Judaism is reasonable. Any thoughts?

Personally, I don’t see this as a live debate. Some mixture of Oprah, Neo-Hasidism and Roshei Yeshiva have replaced high modernism. And the critiques of Kierkegaard by Levinas, Derrida, and Adorno have not been absorbed by the Orthodox religious community.

11 responses to “Yoram Hazony, Kierkegaard, and Judaism

  1. I see Kierkegaardian absurdism as an extension of Maimonidean rationalism. The medieval rationalist tradition as exemplified by Maimonides itself was a revolution in Judaism in that it asked the question as to whether Judaism could be justified based on the standards of reason put forth by Greco-Roman philosophy. The Talmud itself shows no interest in defending Judaism, but rather presents Judaism as a series of self evident truths. The rise of Christianity and Islam saw a revolution in religious thought. Now there were three monotheistic religions all claiming to be the unique truth. How could any of these religions hope to claim to be this truth when faced with the other unless by turning to the outside standards of Greco-Roman philosophy (or alternatively the claim of a superior historical train of transmission). Came modernity and rendered this entire project moot. What is critical here is not whether modernity has refuted the claims of our monotheistic religions; modernity has cut off the hope of a rationalist victory. So what can our would be medievalist rationalist hope for. The only option is to put reason at bay and admit that while reason might point in the direction of faith, there is an element within faith that is outside of reason. Considering Maimonides’ critic of the Kalaam, I suspect this is not far off from what Maimonides himself believed.
    For me reason itself is a leap of faith. Thanks to Gödel and Hume, I must recognize that I cannot prove the validity of either mathematics of science. I accept these things because without them my life could have no meaning. A belief in God is just one more absurdist leap of faith; if I must take it in order to justify the very possibility of reason then so be it.

  2. I dont think Hazony and those who modify Kierkegaard (I have the Rav in mind specifically, as I’m sure you do as well) disagree here. Both disagreed with Kierkegaard when it comes to belief; Hazony doesn’t say anything else except with regard to belief. I don’t think Hazony addresses submission to the Halakha.

    In fact, I think I’m going to ask, where do you see the Rav doing absurdity? Certainly not in his earlier works (HM, HMN); presumably you have in mind Majesty and Humility, and maybe Lonely Man of Faith. I see submission, contraction, and heroism, but absurdity?

    • It is in LMF and is used at the very start of HM to describe HomoReligious. In addition it is in EEM, KDD and the one on suffering. You are correct in the broader sense of absurd compared to heroism, however Hazony and his followers do differ over heroism; he prefers a common sense rationalism and the Biblical as teaching the best life.

  3. I think Kierkegaard is becoming more relevant as rational thinking becomes more prevalent. For those of us for whom it’s important to act in a coherent rational fashion, the Halacha itself, in many points, presents a problem – it’s simply not all rational. One of the ways to justify faith then becomes holding irrationality itself as an ideal, thereby making a virtue out of necessity. That’s when you hear of the divine mysteries of (Chabad) Le’maala Me’taam Ve’daat, of (Breslev) “throwing the Sechel”, and such. I wrote a short article about this dynamic for Makor Rishon (here: http://tomerpersico.com/2010/11/28/jewish_anti-rationalism/ ) regarding it’s appearance in the developing Jewish spiritual scene in Israel, but I’m sure it goes beyond that, to “regular” Orthodox circles.

  4. It may be of interest to note that Rav Yehudah Amital z”l, despite his affinity for existentialism was very anti k Kierkegaard. I dont recall his specific critiques.

  5. Questions for Hazony:

    1. Does he skip over the Akedah in his study of philosophy in the Bible?
    2. Can he rationally account for all the evil and suffering in the world?
    3. Does he at times feel the following paradoxical state: “what is man, that thou art mindful of Him?” yet “thou hast made him but a little lower then the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor.”
    4. Is he ever overcome with dread, anxiety, or the feeling of nihilism experienced after death, mourning, or a horrible tragedy?
    5. Can he rationally explain how an Infinite God makes room and creates a finite world? a) maybe Infinity is a non-Jewish Greek import? If then, how does he rationally explain how a finite super-human God created the world and why we should worship this super-human. or, what exactly is the difference between reason and a finite god. or, if infinite, does he not sense something rationally difficult about Infinity contracting and making room for finity? Or are these meaningless metaphysical questions? Well, yes, one can have a completely “rational” outlook all the way down if one brackets metaphysics.
    6. What is the rational basis for why human beings are endowed with a dignity far surpassing all other creations? What exactly is the argument for this? Or, once again, do we just assume the dignity of humans and let reason rip from this brute starting point?

    Has Hazony no sense of the mystery and Absurdity at the center of a genuine religious consciousness? Why Either/Or? Why only reason? There is much more to heaven and earth than a petty and limited rationalism can dream of. Not reason’s abandonment, but its limits, is what Z comes to preach…

    I guess Hazony also never read Job or Ecclesiastes.

  6. Hazony’s Judaism is:

    all Majesty, no Humility
    all Adam I, no Adam II
    all triumph, no defeat
    all freedom, no submission
    all certainty, no mystery
    And God responded” “I shall be what I shall be”. Is this, following the Rambam, a compressed cosmological argument?! or rather a statement of the radical mystery of God’s essence, one which Maimonides also recognizes? Is Hazony aware of the Maimonidean “rationalist” doctrine of the inscrutability of God’s essence?
    all arrival, no longing
    “and thou shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your might.” Maimonides the “rationalist” on the love of God: and you shall love God like your love for a woman, never stop thinking of her, your heart sick with love for her…” is this obsessive lovesickness wholly “rational”?

  7. >I’m not familiar with any biblical or talmudic sources that are compatible with this view.

    They didn’t have to be Orthodox Jews in the 20th century, now did they?

  8. lawrence kaplan

    Alan: The Rav specifically criticized K. on absurdity in the last foonote of LMF. Where is absurdity mentioned in EEM?

    Again, as Merlod Westphal has mentioned, Levinas and and others have criticized K. as if he never wrote Works of Love.

  9. If you read enough talmudic texts that touch on reward and punishment and theodicy you get a certain absurdist take fairly often. (e.g. Menahot 29b)

    Hazony seems to have think that the idea that Torah is reasonable (talmud, to my mind, has a proceduralist idea of what makes it reasonable) is not compatible with the idea that aspects of faith can be absurd. Why would that be the case?

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