Yeshayahu Leibowitz in the SEP

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) has a clear and useful introduction to the Orthodoxy of Yeshayahu Leibowitz written by Daniel Rynhold. The article was posted in March 2011, but I missed it when it came out. From the article one would not know that Leibowitz has written on philosophy of science and philosophy of medicine. However, it is a clear and concise presentation of his religiosity that integrates his early writings with his later interviews. If you could never grasp his views of God, faith, and revelation, then by the end of reading the entry you should have everything clear. Here are some selections- you can read the whole article here.

According to Leibowitz, the central idea of Jewish monotheism is the radical transcendence of God,
Following Maimonides’ negative theology, Leibowitz claims that we are unable to make any meaningful statements that purport to describe God. Any attempt to speak of God’s properties or characteristics transcend the limits of human thought and language.

For Leibowitz, the idea of radical transcendence, if taken seriously, implies that God cannot be “contained” within any reality that we encounter. Nature is nature, history is history—and if God is truly transcendent neither are God or are related to God in any direct sense. Thus, in a self-aware, if not self-deprecating moment, Leibowitz sets out his “heresy” (his description, not mine) thus: “God did not reveal himself in nature or in history.” (Yahadut, 240) Were things otherwise, then nature and history would be “Godly”—and thus would be perfect and worthy of worship themselves. There would be “no room for ‘the holy God’ who transcends natural reality, since then reality itself is divine and man himself is God” (Judaism, 25).

This historical account also melds with Leibowitz’s theological starting point. Given God’s transcendence, we know that the realm of natural or historical fact cannot be holy. Faith cannot therefore be “a conclusion a person may come to after pondering certain facts about the world,” and instead is “an evaluative decision that one makes, and, like all evaluations, it does not result from any information one has acquired, but is a commitment to which one binds himself.” (Judaism, 37, emphasis added). Jewish faith, therefore, rather than consisting of propositional beliefs concerning God upon which foundation halakhic observance is based, is instead founded upon the evaluative decision to commit to that very system of observance. For Leibowitz it is the mitzvoth themselves “which demarcate the realm of the sacred … [and] anything outside that realm lacks sanctity and is unworthy of religious adoration” (Judaism, 25).

Ordinarily one might assume that the commitment to the practice of the halakhic way of life is an independently specifiable mental act and certain statements that Leibowitz makes in his earlier writings, vestiges of which remain in some less careful later formulations, might appear to suggest this.[9] Yet for Leibowitz, faith is not an independently specifiable psychological state. Indeed he castigates those who “wish to distinguish a specific psychological-conceptual content of the religious consciousness from its concrete institutionalized embodiment” (Judaism, 38). Leibowitz will not allow us to pinpoint a particular psychological state that constitutes this commitment, and correlatively is highly critical of mystical approaches to Judaism that revolve around putative religious experiences. A religion devoted to halakhic practice “does not depend upon the incidence of religious experience” (Judaism, 13), which is a mere “embellishment” to halakhic practice. Indeed, “the aim of proximity to God is unattainable” (Judaism, 16).

“Halakhah is founded on faith, yet at the same time constitutes this faith. In other words, Judaism as a living religion creates the faith upon which it is founded. This is a logical paradox but not a religious paradox” (Judaism, 11).
Claim 1:
Faith is defined as, or constituted by halakhic practice
Claim 2:
Faith, defined as halakhic practice, is the basis of faith in the practice.

“I know of no ways to faith other than faith itself… . [It] cannot be taught. One can only present it in all its might and power” (Judaism, 37).
Yet as noted previously, Leibowitz cannot construe statements in the Torah regarding the event of revelation at Sinai as historical statements. So the problem remains of how a people could have been commanded and what exactly was “recognized” there if it is not the case that at some point in history the commandments were revealed by God.
At the very least we can say that at some point they made their incursion into history. But how? If not through some miraculous revelatory event—a possibility that Leibowitz excludes[11]—then it must have been through some form of human initiative. Thus, in parallel to the attribution of divinity to Scripture, as Sagi notes, “the system is made religiously meaningful by the believers’ perception of it as concerned with the worship of God,” while God collapses into a formal requirement of the system, “the supreme concept, uniting the system and endowing it with religious significance.” (Sagi 1997a, 213).

Leibowitz’s attempt to exclude God from history thus leaves him apparently unable to account for the divinity of the commandments in a manner that would render their performance acts of commitment to God in the ordinary sense. Indeed, when asked directly whether the statement “I believe in God” is meaningful, Leibowitz’s response was: “I do not understand these words if they are divorced from the obligations that derive from them … faith in God is not what I know about God, but what I know about my obligations to God” (Sihot, 97). Talk of divinity should not be understood cognitively but in terms of the normative demands it imposes. Even talk of the revelation at Sinai is to be construed along these lines—“The meaning of the revelation at Sinai is the recognition of the command that we have been commanded” (Emunah, 154)

Leibowitz writes: “That which cannot be said, is said by the religion of the Torah and the Mitzvoth,” (Yahadut, 343)—or at least by a commitment to them that cannot be given a specification independent of their practice. For Leibowitz, the realization that dawns with the rise of this commitment reveals that God cannot be spoken of as an entity who can be located in history or nature and that gives commandments over to a people in any conventional sense. Indeed, “the purpose of the mitzvoth is to educate man to recognize that knowing God and cleaving to him consist in the practice of these very precepts” (Judaism, 27).


Thus he writes that “our source of information is science. To the extent that we possess any real knowledge it is by way of scientific cognition” (Judaism, 136). But, given God’s transcendence, there can be nothing holy about history or nature, or the information it provides. So were the Torah a history book or a scientific tract detailing the science of the universe—and it is of course often read as at least giving an account of the origins of the universe—“it would be difficult to see where [its] sacredness resided” (Judaism, 140). The Torah cannot be a holy book if it is teaching us information that is by (Leibowitz’s) definition profane.[7]

But this means that the prima facie factual assertions that we encounter must be read as nothing of the sort. The Torah is not a work of fact containing truths that we can obtain through standard epistemic procedures. It is rather, a sacred work, a work that is concerned with the realm of the religious.

In one sense, this hermeneutic serves Leibowitz well, allowing him to bypass textual objections to his anti-providential reading of the Torah by claiming that the apparent references to God’s role in nature or history are no longer to be understood factually, but rather as expressing something about the nature of our obligation to God. Similarly, stories of individuals are not to be mined for their historical content but for what they teach regarding the nature of religious obligation.

The Torah, qua Holy Scripture, cannot be read as a repository of historical fact. To read it “from the standpoint of religious faith,” is to read it for the demands it places upon us.

It does, however, raise the question of Leibowitz’s understanding of the divine status of the Torah. For, if we cannot speak of it being revealed by God in any historical sense, whence its divinity? Leibowitz, fully aware of the problem, maintains that it is the Oral Torah that establishes the divine status of the Written Torah.
Leibowitz maintains that “religiously and from a logical and causal standpoint the Oral Law, the Halakhah, is prior to the Written Teaching” (Judaism, 12), and thus it is the Oral Torah that grants divine status to the Written Torah:
“The decision about which books to accept as Scripture was not made behind the veil of mythology or pre-history, but took place in the full light of history and in the course of halakhic negotiation… . Scripture is one of the institutions of the religion of Israel” (Judaism, 12).

This, Leibowitz admits, yields an inescapably circular account whereby the divinity of the Written Torah is established by the Oral Torah, which only gains its own authority on the basis of the Written Torah that it is being used to support. More significantly Leibowitz emphasizes time and again that the Oral Torah is a human product. Thus we end up with human beings stipulating that the Written Torah is divine, a stipulation, however, that only has authority based upon the Written Torah’s own statements to the effect that one must follow the words of the human sages Reinforcing the circularity, this reading of the relevant verses in the Torah is itself an interpretation of the sages.
Read the Rest Here.

For those who want more articles about his religious thought- here.

4 responses to “Yeshayahu Leibowitz in the SEP

  1. For those of us who did not have the chance to see him, the DVD interviews are a chance to see Leibowtiz “in action”.

  2. So Leibowitz was a radical transcendentalist! Are you aware if he was in anyway influenced by any of the great American transcendentalists and if so can you point me to references that support this?

  3. I never understood why some people seemed to be in awe of Leibowitz. No doubt he was a great thinker and many times more intelligent than me. I did meet him and I did read his books and I always had the impression that his theology was profoundly not Jewish. Your text here seems to confirm it. I never felt any connection to his vision of Judaism that sounded to me very German and Christian-influenced.

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