Jewish Theology

Arguments and Doctrines: A Reader of Jewish Thinking in the Aftermath of the Holocaust.
Selected with Introductory Essays by Arthur A. Cohen.
Harper & Row. 541 pp. $11.95.

Jewish thought in the modern period has been less a continuation of traditional modes than a series of responses to historical events impinging on Jewish existence. From the 18th century down to a generation ago, Jewish philosophers and theologians focused their attention on harmonizing Judaism with the prevailing intellectual currents of a world judged essentially friendly to the Jew, or at least proceeding in the direction of greater toleration. Almost without exception, Jewish thinkers in Western Europe and America conceived the Jewish future as one of intimate and organic connection with the non-Jewish environment. The last thirty years, embracing the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, have necessitated a massive shift in the perspective of Jewish thinking. There has been none like it since the Enlightenment first raised Jewish hopes for intellectual and political integration within Gentile society.

The process of coming to grips with the new realities of Jewish existence after World War II and 1948 has been a slow one. But there has been at least an increasing awareness of the problems posed: How is it possible to believe in a God of history who chose Israel in the wake of Auschwitz? Is the Jewish state in any sense the beginning of the messianic redemption? Does the new Israel have any theological significance at all? It is to Arthur Cohen’s credit that he has brought together nearly thirty essays, most of which explore these and related questions which contemporary Jewish thinkers cannot hope to avoid. The majority of the essays appeared in COMMENTARY and Judaism; with one exception all were written since 1945. Cohen has provided a brief general introduction, an afterword, and glosses for each piece, sometimes explaining, sometimes elaborating, and sometimes taking issue with the respective writer.

One of Nazism’s first effects upon European Jewry was the identity crisis brought upon a large number of individuals who had ceased to regard themselves as Jews. With the adoption of the Nuremberg Laws, they found themselves externally redefined as Jews against their will according to ineluctable racial criteria. Not surprisingly, Jean Paul Sartre, in his Reflections on the Jewish Question, came to regard all contemporary Jews as the hapless victims of an animosity which shaped their identity and inhibited their escape from a senseless particularity. It is the point of the volume’s first essay, written by Harold Rosenberg, to expose Sartre’s skewed characterization of the Jew as based on his favorite analogy of the concentration-camp prisoner whose identity is imposed by his captors.

The fact is that thanks to intensive efforts at Jewish adult education many hitherto indifferent or self-hating European Jews came to an affirmation of their Jewishness for the first time during the 1930’s. But others did not. Perhaps the extreme example is the brilliant and sensitive Simone Weil. In the crucible of the Holocaust, Weil, for whom pain and torment were exquisite manifestations of God’s love, chose not to identify with the unchosen sufferings of Israel. Instead, she committed the absurdity (not to say, blasphemy) of charging Hitler with reviving the tribal God of Israel, “terrestrial, cruel, and exclusive.” Cohen includes two essays on Weil. The first, elegantly written by Leslie Fiedler, argues, unconvincingly I think, that, despite her Jewish self-hatred, Simone Weil nonetheless belongs in the Jewish prophetic tradition. The late Hans Meyerhoff’s piece is more persuasive in its contention that Weil’s transformation of the Jewish God into an incarnation of Satan was an expression of her utter despair with earthly human existence and of her desperate outreach beyond the flawed world of men to arrive at a supernatural salvation.



The largest section of the volume groups together a dozen essays under the title: “The Renewal of Theology.” The most relevant of these pieces in one way or another all seek to provide direction for contemporary Jewish thought. The first, by Erich linger, advocates a renewal of the medieval Jewish philosophical tradition which had the virtue of avoiding the modern error of divorcing religion from secular thought. Arthur Cohen, in an essay of his own, is concerned with the allied problem of communication between professional philosophers and Jewish thinkers. He argues that the biblical theologian, the existentialist, and the logical analyst all share a rejection of 19th-century philosophical systems; all three are post-rationalist. Positively, they are joined by a mutual respect for language and for the concrete data of history. Yet Cohen is fair enough to let follow immediately an essay by Steven Schwarzschild which seeks to correct the existentialist religious stance by recasting Jewish rationalism along the neo-Kantian lines of Hermann Cohen. Unless theologizing from individual experience in the manner of Buber and Rosenzweig is allowed to lead into clear definitions and concepts, Schwarzschild argues, such thinking will never be able to bridge the gulf separating the experiences of religious and secular men.

An even more basic issue is raised by Monford Harris when he calls into question the fundamental validity of the Jewish theological enterprise as such. It is well known that, especially among traditional Jews, the call for creating a Jewish theology in the 1950’s received a very cool reception. It was widely felt that theology was a Christian, not a Jewish preoccupation. Harris argues that, historically, Jews have paid little attention to general theological issues such as, for example, the nature of man. That Jews today need to theologize can be explained only by their estrangement from the traditional forms of Jewish existence defined by the Halakhah. Harris concludes that the concern with Jewish theology is “a product of sickness,” not a welcome development. At best it should be an “interim theology” to tide us over until we can rediscover the norms of traditional Jewish life.

The positions of Unger and Harris stand in clear contradiction to that of Emil Fackenheim, one of the most capable Jewish theologians of the postwar period. For Fackenheim, here represented by two essays, the Jew’s relation to God demands continual reexamination by the committed Jewish theologian, not the critical, detached philosopher. Writing in the 1950’s, Fackenheim takes a decidedly existentialist stance, refusing to place religion within the arena of reason. His interpretation of Jewish history is theological: Jewish survival can only be explained by reference to a living God; Jewish existence even today is determined by divine election. Fackenheim is one of the most eloquent, if apodictic, defenders of supernaturalism in the liberal Jewish community; he upholds and emphasizes the concept of revelation even while he rejects the specifics of Halakhah.

As suggestive as some of the essays in this theological section unquestionably are, one must fault the editor for his criteria of selection. Cohen has purposely eliminated certain writers on external and insufficient grounds. Although he has included positions differing from his own, he has intentionally shut out naturalist writers, Jewish death-of-God theologians (despite their obvious relevance), and (with one exception) any individual, however important his work, connected with a theological seminary. Such blatant prejudices serve to narrow the purview of the volume and severely limit its value. In their place Cohen has chosen to include a number of historical and general philosophical articles which are only most distantly related to his theme. In fact, through much of the volume one wonders whether the post-Holocaust motif of the title has not been totally abandoned. Essays by Gershom Scholem, Baruch Kurzweil, and Irving Kristol, to name only three out of more than a dozen, present “arguments and doctrines” but they simply do not relate directly to Jewish existence after the Holocaust. A number of them could easily have been written in the 1920’s. Judging by this volume alone, one would have to conclude that the Holocaust has been much less crucial for Jewish thought than is in fact the case. On the other hand, the most relevant essay, by Emil Fackenheim, “Jewish Faith and the Holocaust,”1 was omitted.

Cohen was right, however, to cluster a number of essays around the second major event of this generation’s Jewish history: the establishment of the State of Israel. To one side stands Ben Halpern, who as a committed secularist rejects the entire Jewish theological revival and the attempt to limit Jewish life to the synagogue. For him, the Jewish future lies only with the State of Israel; America will at best allow Judaism to survive within the confining bounds of a religious denomination. It will have no room for Jewish secularism. Yet Halpern’s Zionist negation of Diaspora fails to generate the obvious step of his own aliyah. To the other side stands Ernst Simon, living in Israel, but seriously doubtful about whether Israelis are still Jews. Given again, after two millennia, the opportunity of applying Judaism to the governance of an independent society, Israelis have been unable to solve satisfactorily the question of religion’s role in the new state. Despairing of overcoming the hiatus between the religious and the non-religious, some Israelis have sought unity in attributing messianic purpose to the state as such. Those who have favored the integration of religion into political life have championed a clerical regime which imposes a minimal public religiosity willy-nilly upon the entire population. What is lacking in Israel, Simon argues, is a renewal of the spirit of prophetic criticism, not the immediate restoration of theocracy. For Aharon Lichtenstein, however, neither Halpern’s secular bonds of peoplehood nor Simon’s application of the prophetic conscience bestow sufficiently Jewish character upon Israel. He stands in a long tradition of religious Zionists for whom religion must play a determining role in the public life of a Jewish state. Though he rejects coercion as a “no longer feasible and justifiable modus operandi,” he suggests that it is incumbent on Israel to educate its people to Jewish belief and observance, and in this process legislation necessarily plays a role. Between the alternatives of a wholly free society and a truly committed one, Lichtenstein (freely) chooses the latter.

Finally, we have Cohen’s own “fideist” interpretation of Jewish existence, easily culled from his various glosses, especially the confession with which he prefaces the last selection. As a Diaspora Jew who does not feel regenerated by the land and for whom the creation of the State of Israel does not mitigate the Holocaust, the “extremity of history” requires him either to affirm God as redeemer or to deny Him completely. Cohen has chosen to believe that God’s silence in the Holocaust, though humanly unfathomable, was not gratuitous. It will find its explanation in an eschaton “no less magnificent than the brutalities that anticipate its achievement.” His supernaturally directed messianism is one answer to the immense theological questions cast up by the Holocaust. Regrettably, he has not given certain other, no less important, responses an equal hearing.



1 COMMENTARY, August 1968.

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