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Prophets With Honor

Thus it is not prophecy but their view of Halakha that divides Leibowitz from Buber. For Leibowitz the Halakha is the most appropriate expression of man’s attitude toward God. For him religious awareness cannot be formulated meaningfully in words; it is an attitude toward the world, which places God at the center of life. Obeying the Halakha with its many rules governing every aspect of daily life is the supreme act of human choice that comes from the need to worship God. It is not meant to fulfill any other sort of human need. It is a free expression of the belief that the purpose of worshiping God is to place God at the center of the world.

Leibowitz says that Gershom Scholem, the foremost scholar of Jewish mysticism, once told him: “You believe in the Law and not in God.” The philosopher Ernst Simon, a friend and student of Buber’s, said that Leibowitz “observes the Torah commandments in order to irritate God.” What he meant is that Leibowitz so carefully avoids giving reasons for observing the religious law that it seems as if the only reason left is that he wants to irritate God by doing so. Buber was not an observant Jew, but Leibowitz, who sees the essence of historical Judaism in the worship of God according to the Halakha, scrupulously observes its many commandments.

Leibowitz is prepared to accept Scholem’s remark that he believes in the Law, but for him this is the only meaning of the expression “I believe in God.” Belief for Leibowitz is accepting the obligation to worship God according to the Halakha rather than believing some propositions about God. Moreover, in his view the word “God” has meaning only in the phrase “worshiping God,” as if this were a single word, “Godworshiping,” in which “God” has no independent meaning. It is as if we said that “home” has a meaning only in the word “homework.” Leibowitz believes that metaphysical talk about divinity has no meaning. In this respect he is a radical positivist; the only meaning the concept of God can have is to be found in “worshiping God”—a description of an activity.

What remains difficult, of course, is the inevitable question: At whom is all this activity directed? Why are we to believe that an Old Testament personal God is there, worshiped by Jews observing the Law? Leibowitz cannot extricate himself from the basic difficulty posed by this question, and he does not try. He characterizes Judaism only descriptively, as a historical phenomenon, and normatively, as a way of life centered around the observance of the commandments.

As one might expect, Buber and Leibowitz differ over the texts they consider central to Judaism. In contrast to Leibowitz, whose hero is Maimonides, for Buber the Bible is central, and he is himself one of its most interesting modern commentators. This can be seen from his and Franz Rosenzweig’s translation of the Bible into German, as well as from his own many books about the Bible, among them The Kingship of God (1932), The Prophetic Faith (1942), Abraham the Seer (1955), and Moses (1964).

Buber and Rosenzweig dealt extensively both in lectures and in articles with the methodological problems of translating the Bible into German. In 1936 their essays were collected into an impressive volume that bore the Teutonic title Scripture and its Germanizations (Die Schrift und Ihre Verdeutschung). This collection is about to appear in English under the title Scripture and Translation. The translators rightly say in their preface that the key ideas of Buber and Rosenzweig with respect to the Bible—its unity, its stress on a linked series of messages, its grounding in oral recitation, and the importance of repetitive patterns of kernel words—are all present in this volume. Buber returned to the original Hebrew meanings of the words, using literal translations that had become corrupted by being invested with theological significance. Thus, for example, instead of the usual German translation of the Hebrew word Qorban as Opfer—sacrifice—Buber used the word Darnahung, which preserves the Hebrew root of “coming near.” Bringing a sacrifice is a way of coming nearer to God. (This interpretation is based on Buber’s sensitive reading of the story about Korah in Numbers, chapter 16, where one can see a connection between holiness, bringing sacrifices, and coming near.)

Among all the different leaders in the Bible—patriarch, law giver, prophet, judge, king, wise man—Buber chose to emphasize the suffering prophet, who was for him more important than the king-messiah figure of David. The tradition of rabbinic Judaism, to which Leibowitz belongs, brought the prophet down from his high station; leadership through inspiration is hard to reconcile with the religious authority based on the exegesis of texts. Protestant thought revived interest in prophecy, and this brought Buber close to Protestantism.

At the center of Buber’s world, alongside the Bible, are the Hasidic writings that emerged in Eastern Europe, especially in Poland and Ukraine in the eighteenth century. About this literature, as well as about the kabbalistic literature underlying it and the extensive research that has been done on it, Leibowitz might at best be prepared to say what has been attributed to the great Talmud scholar Saul Lieberman: “Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship.”

To many readers Buber is primarily the Buber of Hassidic stories. A typical example is the story called “The Signature.”1

When Rabbi Menahem (Mendel of Vitebsk) wrote letters from the Land of Israel he always signed himself: “He who is truly humble.”

The rabbi of Rizhyn was once asked: “If Rabbi Menahem were really humble, how could he call himself so?”

He was so humble,” said the rabbi of Rizhyn, “that just because humility dwelt within him, he no longer regarded it as a virtue.”

Leibowitz, echoing the judgment of Scholem and his followers, accuses Buber of “kitsch” and “fabrication” of Hassidic writings. He finds the tales sentimental and fuzzy in their meaning. But Buber’s interest in Hassidism was not only religious but nationalist—like the interest that the Brothers Grimm had when they collected fairy tales as part of the German national cultural revival. Buber’s critics agree that he had vast knowledge of Hassidic literature, but claim that he shifted attention away from the more than one thousand works of philosophical thought in the Hassidic literature in favor of the Hassidic tales, creating the impression that Hassidism is a sort of Zen-Judaism, with the stories of rabbis comparable to the profound but obscure stories of the Zen masters.

No doubt Buber was sometimes attracted to the “vast, vague and sentimental,” but there is also some truth in a remark of the novelist Agnon, who briefly helped Buber to collect Hassidic stories, that Buber managed to turn “provincial anecdotes into universal legends.” The price for this achievement was the “improvement” of the stories. Buber was faced with the typical translator’s dilemma of whether to be faithful to the texts or to make them more attractive, and he chose to make them more attractive. He saw Hassidism as a movement that renewed Judaism’s interest in the “here and now”—a religious trend that sanctified everyday experience and overcame the sterility of endless scholarly disputation over the texts. He therefore believed that Hassidism should serve as a model for Zionism, as a redemptive movement with spiritual significance. Only by imparting religious significance to the Zionist enterprise would it be possible to prevent it from degenerating into just another “national liberation movement.”

Scholem, by contrast, saw Hassidism as a “quietistic” movement, a religious trend in which the worship of God involves the abandonment of the ego, the annihilation of the human will. In Scholem’s view Hassidism is not the sanctification of the everyday but just the opposite: it is a gnostic attempt to remove “divine sparks” from concrete experiences in order to return them to their harmonic divine source. It is not the individual of the “here and now” that is the central idea of redemption in Hassidism, as Buber thought, but the gnostic denial of the individual’s will and selfhood.

For Buber the essence of Judaism is not commandments but the Jewish people’s unique encounter with God, which is magnificently documented in the Bible. The message of the Jewish people is neither monotheism nor any other sort of theology but the discovery that one can speak to God. Both Buber and Leibowitz are antitheological theologians, opposed to metaphysical justifications of religion. For Leibowitz such justifications have no cognitive meaning—there is no way to verify or refute religious claims. Buber’s distaste for religious metaphysics is existential: God is not a triangle—you pray to Him, you don’t prove theorems about Him. And you most certainly don’t pray to Him with Anselm’s prayer—asking God to give you the strength to prove His existence.

Buber describes an encounter he had in Berlin with the aged, influential pastor Wilhelm Hechler. After several hours of conversation Hechler was suspicious of Buber and before they parted asked him directly, “Do you believe in God?” Buber tried to reassure Hechler that he did, but the answer he thought he ought to have given him, the answer he spent his whole life trying to articulate, came to him on the way home: “If belief in God means speaking about Him in the third person, then I don’t believe in God. But if belief means being able to speak to Him in the second person, then I do believe.”

Buber thought that belief is the authentic biblical belief in God, and that it was Paul who “Hellenized” biblical belief. Paul replaced “belief in” by “belief that,” thus changing belief from encounter to a doctrine with a church. But Buber’s idea that we can converse with God without having any notion (independent of the conversation itself) of who it is we are speaking with is no less dubious than Leibowitz’s idea that we can worship God without having any notion (independent of the act of worship itself) of who this God is that we are worshiping.

Leibowitz loathes Christianity for two central reasons. The first, unoriginal, one involves the perception of Christianity as the most ancient anti-Semitic movement, which has sustained all other such movements. According to this view the source of anti-Semitism is theological, in contrast to an ordinary xenophobia based on economic or social competition. It is hatred for the “murderers of God’s son.” Leibowitz believes that there is a continuous line from the anti-Semitism of the Church Fathers to the Auschwitz crematoria.

His second, theological, reason for loathing Christianity is that in rebelling against the Halakha as the way of worshiping God, it became the supreme expression of the idolatrous world’s abuse of Judaism. For Leibowitz the contrast between Christianity and Judaism can be seen in the clash of their basic symbols: Abraham’s binding of Isaac and the crucifixion of Jesus. Abraham expressed a theocentric attitude central to Judaism: Man is willing to sacrifice his son for God. In contrast, the Christian attitude is anthropocentric: God sacrifices His son for Man. Almost any educated schoolchild in Israel could quote Leibowitz on this contrast between Judaism and Christianity, but the source of the contrast is actually Buber: “The prophetic idea of man who suffers for God’s sake has here given way to that of God who suffers for the sake of man.”

  1. 1

    Martin Buber, Tales of the Hassidim: The Early Masters (Schocken, 1947), p. 180.

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