Nietzschean Judaism

An author looks to an atheist's ideas to buttress a divinely oriented worldview.

nietsche book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
nietsche book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
God, Man and Nietzsche: A Startling Dialogue between Judaism and Modern Philosophers By Zev Golan Universe 197 pages; $17.95 The very notion of imagining Friedrich "God is dead" Nietzsche on the same page as the master kabbalist Isaac Luria may seem unlikely at best. Throwing Job, Niels Bohr, F.W.J. Schelling and Maimonides into the mix just sharpens the perception of random absurdity. Yet Zev Golan's unassuming paperback is so chock-full of original and thought-provoking ideas that it's impossible to read it without drawing a highlighter across one pithy passage after another. Revealing himself as a sensitive intellectual who credits Soren Kierkegaard's writings with giving him "the strength to remain Orthodox," Golan searches for truth at the intersection of secular and Jewish philosophy. Boldly, he tackles such timeless puzzles as: What is the purpose of life? Why is there suffering? Where is history heading? Do science and religion clash? Five of the book's six chapters offer answers arising from a "dialogue" among foremost thinkers from both camps - Nietzsche, Schelling and Kierkegaard in conversation with Luria, Maimonides and the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, for example. A discussion of physics and Halacha is headlined by the Danish physicist Bohr, the German Nobel laureate Max Planck and rabbinic authors ranging from Shimon Bar Yochai to Joseph B. Soloveitchik. In a chapter on the meaning of history, we hear from the Russian Christian thinker Nicholas Berdyaev and Israeli philosophers Israel Eldad and Yeshayahu Leibowitz. And we come back to Nietzsche - here with the exegete David Kimchi and Rebbe Zusia of Hanipol - in an attempt to show that there is room for God in existentialism. The final chapter, which scrutinizes Nietzsche's writings to determine whether he was an anti- or philo-Semite, is not without merit. But perhaps it would better have been left to an academic forum. Analyzing an atheistic 19th-century philosopher's personal views on Jews is not as compelling as showing how his overarching philosophy can enhance the reader's understanding of difficult concepts. Looking to a non-believer for ideas that can buttress a divinely oriented worldview, Golan has appointed himself a formidable challenge: "Nietzsche was unable to put his theory into the hands of God; can we?" The "theory" to which he refers is eternal recurrence, Nietzsche's assertion that in a world of finite space and infinite time, historical events necessarily occur in an endlessly repeating circle. "While Judaism seems to reject the concept of eternal recurrence, we believe religious thought can fathom the meaning of Nietzsche's doctrine and communicate its impact," writes Golan. Indeed, he finds in kabbalistic literature an apt prism through which to refract Nietzsche's theory. Seen in this light, the infinitude of God leads us to "the logical necessity of creating our own eternal destiny each and every hour." With an awareness of a God who sees past, present and future simultaneously, we can then make sense of the psalmist's statement that "every day I will bless you, I will praise your name forever." Praise offered on one day, posits Golan, is praise offered on that day forever. In his exploration of the meaning of history, Golan presents no fewer than 122 numbered ideas, broadening the cast of contributors to include such disparate personages as Georg Hegel, Immanuel Kant, Emil Fackenheim and Socrates. The author posits that throughout their "dormant" years in exile, those Jews who chose to be faithful "bridges to the future" affected - even effected - history regardless of whether they lived to see where their bridges "constructed of memories, prayers and attempts at actualizing the kingdom in the here and now" were leading. "History," writes the author, "is the field on which God and man meet, and it is this meeting that gives history its meaning." Or to put this thought together with our new perspective on eternal recurrence, " reaches heavenward for historical meaning, but with these same arms he can give the meaning." Golan excavates philosophical profundity also from the study of physics. The fact that the behavior of a single atom cannot be predicted, and yet the statistical probabilities for a group of atoms is certain, correlates to the paradox of free will granted by an all-knowing creator. Planck's "quantum of action" - a minuscule number that defines a realm in which logic does not apply - has bearing on the riddle of how the ashes of the red heifer can both purify and defile at once. And if, as Bohr explained, that same quantum of action prevents confusion and instability in nature, it is not a stretch to suggest that "perhaps it is actually the existence of Halacha which prevents the world from reverting to chaos." Golan's assertion that Halacha actually defines God and makes it possible to "walk with God" comes off as neither coercive nor narrow-minded. However unlikely the premise may appear at the outset, this Nietzschean approach to Judaism is fresh, insightful and provocative on a universal scale.