'Prof. Leibowitz, Does Man Have a Soul?'

A new anthology offers insights into philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz's often-strident positions on a host of subjects.

Miron C. Izakson
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Miron C. Izakson

Yeshayahu Leibowitz: Bein shamranut leradikaliyut("Yeshayahu Leibowitz: Between Conservativism and Radicalism") (Hebrew) edited by Aviezer Ravitsky, Van Leer Institute / Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 453 pages, NIS 92

"He was not a prophet but a walking exclamation point, a solid rock, a man of answers, not a man of questions," wrote Prof. Aviezer Ravitsky in the introduction to his anthology on the philosophy of Yeshayahu Leibowitz.

Reading these lines brings me back to the good old days when I faithfully attended Leibowitz's lectures on "The Eight Chapters of Maimonides" at the Hebrew University. After class, I would tag after him (and sometimes drive him back to town from Mount Scopus in my car) to hear what I considered his "real teachings" the lessons he gave between courses.

Leibowitz (1903-1994) was an elderly, spry fellow who raced through campus, pausing from time to time to answer questions students or passersby shot at him: "Prof. Leibowitz, what is love?" or "Does man also have a soul?" He would stop and respond in all seriousness, without the verbal aggressiveness that sometimes marked his public appearances. He was generally more at ease in small groups.

During one of those private moments, I slipped Leibowitz a few of my poems. Some time later, he told me: "I read your poems and I understood what you meant, so in that respect, your poetry is good." Raising his voice, he added: "But what I understood, I disagreed with."

As Ravitsky writes, Leibowitz was never one for pandering to his listeners on the contrary. One way or another, his ascetic lifestyle and acerbic manner were proof enough that he had no desire for pleasures or compromises.

"Many of Leibowitz's admirers did not appreciate how profoundly religious faith guided him in his relentless iconoclastic journey," says Ravitsky. He is right. Too many found it convenient to believe that Leibowitz was not "really" religious. In practice, this was the very essence of his being.

The anthology of articles and papers was assembled in the wake of the Van Leer Institute conference held in Jerusalem to mark the 100th anniversary of Leibowitz's birth. It would be hard to find a more diverse collection, and Leibowitz certainly deserves it. The book's 25 impressive articles are divided into six categories religion and ethics, freedom and duty, philosophy and science, faith and practice, dissent and rebellion, society and state.

My sense is that all the contributors continue to harbor a deep appreciation for the man and his intellectual achievements, and yet criticism of his categorical opinions seems to have grown. This is not because his students have suddenly been relieved of fears that kept them from criticizing him in his lifetime, but because they are now able to view Leibowitz's incisive verdicts with a broader perspective and understanding of the dialectics of life.

In her article in the anthology entitled "The Autonomy of Religion and Autonomy of the Religious," Naomi Kasher makes a brave attempt to illuminate Leibowitz's thinking and even probe his psyche. She explores three main aspects of his religious philosophy: the sharp distinction between values, facts and needs; the body-soul relationship, and the philosophical problem of conceptually differentiating between determinism and freedom of choice. Kasher believes these will ultimately determine the rise or fall of the Leibowitzean school of Jewish thought.

"Without Leibowitz's philosophical view of the futility of philosophy, which he says is not capable of solving the enigma of the magical connection between body and soul, he would not have been able to define religious faith as he does, that is, as the unified product of behavior and religious consciousness," she writes.

Man's knowledge extends to two worlds, says Leibowitz - the outer world and the inner world. Everything that happens in the outer world can be defined by the laws of chemistry and physics. But what happens in the inner world is known only to one person - the person to whom this inner world belongs. The problem lies in the mystifying connection between these two worlds.

"I have the experience of doing something that I desire, but the action itself belongs to the physical world, and my desire only exists inside of me, in the private realm of my consciousness," Leibowitz put it. Kasher maintains that this enigmatic bond between body and soul serves Leibowitz well in his approach to religious faith: "Observing the mitzvot [religious commandments] is the practical side of religious faith, and recognizing that serving God is the reason for observing mitzvot represents the emotional side."

Religious faith thus exists only on the condition that a clear distinction be made between the physical and emotional, and only if both sides work together as a single entity despite the distinction.

Values and facts are another dichotomy in Leibowitzean thinking. Without going into detail here, facts are revealed while values are chosen. Keeping the two completely separate prevents any conflict between religion and science, for example.

A considered free will

At this point, a third component enters the picture - free will. According to Kasher, Leibowitz thought long and hard about this issue. As opposed to Maimonides, his great model and inspiration, Leibowitz did not conclude that man enjoys total freedom of choice when it comes to values.

While Leibowitz argues that the very fact of leading a religious life detaches man from the world of natural needs, Kasher says this does not necessarily mean that a person's decision to be religiously observant is the product of free choice.

She thereby questions Leibowitz's approach, which seeks to make a categorical distinction between pure, unfettered human choice in the matter of religious faith and a choice that involves additional considerations. At the moment of decision, Leibowitz's sharp distinction between values and facts falls apart, and even the body-soul dichotomy takes on different meaning.

Eliezer Schweid, in his article "Theocentrism and Anthropocentrism: Leibowitz's Attitude to Humanism," challenges Leibowitz's fierce opposition to humanism: "There is no connection between halakha [Jewish law] and ethics, he argues passionately. Ethics is a product of man's selfish desire for his own happiness ... Serving God is man's one supreme duty. Judaism is 'theocentric,' whereas humanism puts man at the center of the world, which makes it 'anthropocentric.'"

Schweid maintains that at a deeper level, Leibowitz did not abide by his own distinction. After all, he claims that man can become a god in his own eyes, to the point where he worships himself, and his idealistic humanism turns into fascism and communism, paving the road to atrocities perpetrated in their name.

Using these very same words, Leibowitz shows that he is a humanist, in that he warns of the evil that looms if the pursuit of human freedom descends into totalitarianism. It is Leibowitz's own humanism that makes him want to reject it.

In his article "Political Radicalism in the Thought of Yeshayahu Leibowitz: History, Theology and Ethics," Yishai Rosen-Zvi takes a different approach to Leibowitzean ethics. In 1929, Leibowitz wrote: "With respect to the Arabs, we choose only the rights and points of view that we are prepared to recognize." His harsh criticism of Israel's conduct in Qibya in 1953, and Kafr Kassem three years later, is also well known. In the wake of the Six-Day War and the First Lebanon War, his political views changed, but remained radical. A few days after the Six-Day War, he was already calling for unilateral withdrawal from the territories.

In 1970, he wrote: "The territories do not interest me at all. The only thing that matters to me is the quarter of a million Arabs living there, and not because I care about the Arabs but because I care about the Jewish people and its state. Incorporating these Arabs within our jurisdiction means the destruction of the State of Israel as a Jewish state. Israel will be turned into a country of the Shin Bet, with a devastating outcome for education and the democratic system of government."

Up until 1967, Leibowitz criticized the way Israel's wars were run, writes Rosen-Zvi, but from then on, he disapproved of the violation of human rights that became a basic component of Israeli rule over the territories. Rosen-Zvi rightly points out that Leibowitz's enthusiastic support of the establishment of the state derived not only from his being "sick of being ruled by the goyim," but because he believed that it could provide fertile grounds for the renaissance of Judaism as a whole. This was the source of his tremendous fear that after the 1967 war, the whole character of the state was liable to change.

Rosen-Zvi discerns another phase in Leibowitz's thinking during the Lebanon War: He began to call upon soldiers to disobey orders, dwelled less on the character of the state and reforms, and introduced more and more ethical terminology when speaking of the occupation. He also notes that Leibowitz expressed clear religious Zionist views when discussing the desirable character of the state in the 1930s and '40s.

A private matter

From the 1950s on, he stopped talking about a Torah state and began to push for the separation of religion and state, with halakha relegated to the private domain. Rosen-Zvi explains that this change was due to a more realistic view of the state as essentially secular at the core, and recognition of the vital role of religion as an independent opposition, not only in Israel, but in countries everywhere.

Science was another major part of Leibowitz's intellectual and worldly pursuits. Uri Ram ("Knowledge and Opinion: Leibowitz's Theory of Knowledge and the Post-Modern Challenge") argues that Leibowitz's basic position on knowledge and opinion was clearly modernist and positivist. He drew a strict line "between text and context, opinion and knowledge, subject and object, culture and nature."

According to this approach, knowledge is totally distinct from "what should be" or opinions on "what is." Ram offers an impressive and comprehensive analysis of various approaches in the sociology of knowledge and opinion. He breaks new ground in suggesting that Leibowitz, the scientist, could be seen as a proponent of the "modern-critical pragmatic approach," perhaps even against his will. Ram further points out that while Leibowitz insisted that knowledge and values were totally separate, he recognized that matters were more complex when it came to medicine.

Two other excellent articles in the book are those of Prof. Asa Kasher ("Yeshayahu Leibowitz: Between Responsibility and Criticism") and Prof. Avi Saguy ("Religious Commitment and Cultural Angst: Leibowitz as a Test Case"). Saguy compares Martin Heidegger and Leibowitz on the subject of "cultural angst." For Heidegger, cultural angst plays a central role in man's journey to authenticity. Leibowitz refuses to discuss culture. He says that human identity is shaped by religious commitment.

Kasher explores the fascinating turning point in Leibowitzean thought, from an early period of thinking, when he declared that religion and nationalism were not separate entities, to when he later called the very concept of religious nationalism "an abomination."

While it is impossible to mention all of them here, the book contains other articles that are no less impressive in subject matter and insight. The final product testifies not only to the high level of the contributors and the skill of the editor, but also to the uniqueness of Leibowitz's thought.

Over the years, people may have become more critical of Leibowitz, especially his strident and extreme views on certain subjects, and indeed, many have opted, as time passes, for a more complex and dialectical approach. But I have the feeling that it will not be long before interest in Leibowitz's keen and perceptive distinctions resumes with renewed vigor.



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