Yeshayahu Leibowitz: Idol smasher or idol maker?

The brilliant Yeshayahu Leibowitz – one of the most admired and the most despised thinkers in the history of the State of Israel.

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June 22, 2019 22:09
Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz

Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz: An unattainable path. (photo credit: SA’AR YA’ACOV/GPO)

 
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The day was supposed to be one of celebration and sacrifice in the Tent of Meeting. But it turned into a day of tragedy for the Israelites and for the High Priest Aaron. Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s four sons, offered on their incense pans to the Lord “an alien fire.” Having disobeyed God’s command, they suffered severe punishment: “A fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them and they died instantly.” Moses spoke in God’s name to Aaron: “Through those near to me I show myself holy, and gain glory before all the people.” Aaron remained silent in either acceptance of the punishment or in protest against it.

The brilliant Yeshayahu Leibowitz – one of the most admired and the most despised thinkers in the history of the State of Israel – delivered short discourses on the Torah portion for 12-15 minutes on Fridays for Israel Television in 198586, a decade before his death. Leibowitz, born in Riga and educated in European universities where he earned his doctorate, immigrated to Israel in the pre-state epoch, and was a professor of organic chemistry and biology, and after retiring from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, taught philosophy. He served as editor-inchief of the Hebrew Encyclopedia.

But these biographical details do not do Prof. Leibowitz justice. He was an iconoclast who wrote and spoke in acid, condemning the concept that the State of Israel had any religious value, arguing for complete separation of religion and state, harshly condemning Israel’s treatment of her Arab enemies, and mocking the Western Wall as the “Disco-Kotel.” It was a strange political marriage – an Orthodox Jew being lauded by the Israeli Left – but it is fair to say his detractors outweighed his supporters.

While I disagree with most of the condemnation that Leibowitz musters, my main criticism of Leibowitz regards his understanding of Judaism and mitzvot. It is here that one could say the professor was not a prophet but a fanatic. Let us return to the Book of Leviticus and the death of Aaron’s two sons. In his remarks on Israel Television regarding Nadav and Avihu being struck down by God: “The faith which is expressed in the practical mitzvot, in the worship of God, is not something which is meant to give expression or release to man’s emotion, but its importance lies in the fact that the person has accepted upon himself what, in the post-Biblical tradition, is known as the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven and the yoke of the Torah and mitzvot. Faith is expressed in the acts which man does due to his awareness of his obligation to do them, and not because of an internal urge – even when he intends to worship God, but derives satisfaction for himself by this worship. That is illicit fire. And those that did this, the first priests after Aaron, and did it in the sanctuary, were punished as if they had committed idolatry.”

Leibowitz concludes: “This is a very important lesson for all generations: not to transform the worship of God into a means to release the tensions of one’s inner urges, which the person dresses up, possibly sincerely, as the worship of God.”

Smashing idols was Leibowitz’s mission. And there were many idols to smash: Reform Judaism, Jewish nationalism, Kabbalah, the mystical and messianic insights of Religious Zionism’s Abraham Isaac Kook, the notion that the mitzvot are grounded in moral principles. Any swerving from the notion that the Jew worshiped God solely to follow God’s command under His yoke was considered forms of idolatry.


LEIBOWITZ CONDEMNS Reform Judaism as a “historical distortion of the Jewish religion.” And he places the mystics in the same category as the reformers. Kabbalah leads to the dissolution of performing mitzvot for their own sake as does Reform Judaism. While reformers focus on Judaism as “ethical monotheism” with the mission of the Jew to be “a light unto the nations” – one can see how “social justice” has become the goal of progressive Judaism – Kabbalah seeks universal redemption through the performance of mitzvot. As for Zionism, “it is not defined by social, moral, or religious values. Moreover, the realization of Zionism affords no guarantee of the actualization of these values.”

Placing the state, Jewish history, or Jewish culture above God is to engage in avodah zarah, the worship of idols. In his assessment of Rav Kook, whom he admired despite their disagreements: “Today one can add that even the Doctrine of Truth of Rabbi Kook himself, which involves a confusion of the actual people of Israel with a mystical Israel, has become, in the hands of his disciples and their disciples, a deification of the nation and a fetishism of the land.” As for morality and ethics – “Indeed only the ethical atheist follows his conscience, which is his inclination, whereas he who fears God is not guided by his heart or eyes.”

Before challenging Leibowitz, many of his points are valid. Politics has replaced religion in the Jewish world as a “secular faith,” the emphasis on social justice in progressive Judaism is a distortion of a prophetic literature that mostly censures idolatry and connects it to unethical behavior, and there is a danger in embracing Rav Kook’s theology in terms of his followers who are messianic activists. But to base Judaism alone on living a life of commandments because they are God’s yoke is a distortion of centuries of Jewish history and Jewish life.

Indeed, Judaism disconnected from ethics, redemption and engagement with the world is a Judaism that will wither. Leibowitz dehumanizes halacha by purging Jewish law of human need. There is no crime in performing a mitzvah because one of the side benefits will be an improvement of society. In fact, there is a large corpus of rabbinic texts that deal with ta’amei mitzvot – the reason for commandments. Greater minds than Leibowitz have embraced the concept that improving society or gaining ethical satisfaction from performing a commandment is not idol worship. To search for idol worship everywhere, to perform mitzvot to serve God alone without question, to strip Judaism of its emotional, ethical and redemptive power, and to demand one way alone – that is a form of idolatry itself. Why can’t we question the purpose of the mitzvot? Is it not the essence of being human to understand why we do what we do? And, as regards the State of Israel, to divorce Zionism from history denies the traditional role God plays in interaction with the Chosen People and their destiny.

Was Nadav and Avihu’s “alien fire” an example of self-serving emotional satisfaction? Or did God incinerate them because they disobeyed a Divine command in the presence of the Israelite community? Or perhaps they were iconoclasts who served God in their own way? We will never know. Prof. Leibowitz has cogent criticisms to make about Jewry today, both in the Diaspora and Israel. But he is not the Prophet Elijah confronting the priests of Ba’al on Mount Carmel. His is a modern voice that is unwilling to admit that the Torah was crafted for humans. The Sinai Revelation was not only a religious event but the introduction of laws that would create a living and ordered society in the Land of Canaan. The rooting out of idol worship does not mean we sacrifice the humanity of the Jew or negate a God of history and a people of destiny.

(The quotations from the death of Nadav and Avihu are from the Etz Hayim Chumash. Notes and remarks on the weekly portion is the source of the Leibowitz commentary on Nadav and Avihu. Quotes from Prof. Leibowitz on various Jewish movements are from a collection of his writings, Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State, edited by Eliezer Goldman).

The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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