Logic Like Lightning: Yeshayahu Leibowitz

Email Print

I first became aware of Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994) reading a recent post by Justin Raimondo at Antiwar.com. A true polymath, Leibowitz was trained as a biochemist and also served as a professor of organic chemistry and neurology; he taught and wrote on a wide array of subjects including theology, history, ethics and politics.  At the heart of his life and thought were his Judaism and Zionism, as he immigrated to Palestine in 1935 to live his life as a religious Jew in what would become Israel.  I have read a compilation of some of his articles, interviews, and speeches Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State (or on Google Books).  What was striking to me is his logic, in the form of short and direct prose to the heart of a subject that, like lighting, is illuminating, startling and perhaps dangerous. I give extensive examples below that begin with the essence of the Jewish faith and touch on history, political philosophy, and theology. As Raimondo noted, his logic led him to a type of libertarianism though I would not classify him as a libertarian per se, such that readers of LRC may find him of interest.

The primary tenant of Jewish life is to follow the word of God through his laws as Abraham was willing to do by sacrificing his son Isaac.  And this way of life is the absolute predominate fact that by his logic leads Leibowitz to pronounce on all other subjects.  The following passage introduces the concept of this way of life and its all encompassing nature.

The empirically confirmed fact of Judaism as a distinct historical phenomenon, which preserved a constant identity, maintained its continuity over a period of three thousand years, and was embodied solely in the Mitzvoth [precepts and commandments as commanded by God] systematically structured in the form of the Halakhah [the collective body of Jewish religious laws, based on the written and oral Torah] will serve as a point of departure.  Only by the virtue of the Halakhah was Judaism delimited as a single independent and autonomous unit distinguishable from others.  Within Judaism, faith is a superstrucuture rising above the Mitzvoth, the Mitzvoth do not subserve faith.  Acceptance of the principles of Jewish theological beliefs by individuals or entire communities did not lead to their incorporation within Jewry.  Such principles were discovered or conceived independently by individuals and groups who had no contact with Judaism.  Furthermore, within Judaism precisely the articles of faith were subject to controversy.  In any event, articles of faith were variously interpreted in different generations and even contemporaneously.  The upshot was that Judaism as a historic entity was not constituted by its set of beliefs.  It was not embodied in any specific political or social order. . . Judaism did not consist of a specific ethic.  Morality can be neither Jewish not non-Jewish, neither religious nor irreligious.  Morality is morality.  The attempt to fuse morality as guidance of man’s will in accordance with his knowledge of nature and of himself (the Stoics; Spinoza), or in accordance with what the individual considers his duty toward man as an end-in-himself (Kant), differs radically from religious consciousness or religious feeling.  From the standpoint of Judaism man as such has no intrinsic value.  He is an “image of God,” and only as such does he possess special significance.  That is why Judaism did not produce an ethical theory of its own, was never embodied in a moral system, and made no pretenses of representing a specific moral point of view.  The Bible does not recognize the good and the right as such, only “the good and the right in the eyes of God” (Deut. 12:28).  The systematic ethical theories found in the later Jewish sources (Maimonides; Bahya ibn Pakuda) were either adopted from non-Jewish sources or were guides to the systematic cultivation of the religious virtues, appeals to stricter adherence to the Torah and its commandments (Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto).  Judaism is a specifically defined entity existing continuously over a period of three thousand years was not realized in philosophy, literature, art, or anything other than halakhic living.  Hence whoever is able to achieve religiosity only through the channels of Judaism, or whoever is interested in the Jewish manifestations of religiosity, must, willy-nilly, come to grips with the religious praxis of Judaism, with the world of Halakhah.

Thus, being Jewish means to follow the laws, and only to follow the laws.  Any other use of the adjective Jewish is in error.  Furthermore, man in and of himself is nothing.  Only as a servant to God does his life have meaning.

Those who would ground morality on the image of God in man may remember that Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann were created in God’s image like you and me, and also every rapist and murderer, as well as the most righteous of men. The ultimate message of the Day of Atonement is that man, as such, has no intrinsic value; he acquires value insofar as he stands before God.

There are no ways to faith, since faith is the supreme, if not the only, manifestation of man’s free choice.

Nothing he could experience would lead him to faith if faith did not spring from his own decision and resolve.   Signs and wonders, “the mighty hand and the stretched-out arm,” God’s deliverance and even the revelation of the Shekhinah [divine presence of God]—none of these sufficed to inculcate faith in the generation that witnessed them….Conversely, long after them, scores of generations that saw no miracles and never in their lives beheld any testimony of divine governance, who witnessed neither reward of virtue nor punishment of sin and had not experienced deliverance, nevertheless conducted their lives in the fullness of faith.

Imagine the Jews who had passed through the Red Sea but did not believe in the Hebrew God but a golden calf. That is amazing.

Following this logic and to reiterate the essence of Judaism and the Jewish people he states:

The Jewish people, as it existed in history, is definable only by reference to its Judaism–a Judaism that was not a mere idea in the mind but the realization of a program of living set forth in the Torah and delineated by its Mitzvoth.  This way of life constituted the specific national content of Jewishness or, in other words, the uniqueness of the Jewish people.

The logic of the understanding that the practice of the program is all leads to remarkable conclusions for this arch Zionist about the state of Israel.  For example he writes that: “The state, as such, has no religious value. No state ever had. Political achievements, conquests, victories—none of these are religiously significant.”  He criticized his countrymen for their ultimate regard of the state using the ultimate accusation for a Jew; “Regarding the state as an intrinsic value is the essence of fascism.”  This is perhaps his most libertarian statement.

His understanding of how the state works to control all aspects of life is evident in this passage where he relates a conversation with the first prime minister of Israel, an atheist, David Ben-Gurion.

Some twenty years ago I had a lengthy conversation with Ben-Gurion, whose attitude toward Judaism is well known to you, about the problem of religion and the state. He said to me: “I understand very well why you demand the separation of religion from the state. You want the Jewish religion to be reinstated as an independent factor with which the political authority will have to contend. Therefore I shall never agree to the separation of state and religion. I want the state to hold religion under its control.”

The same logic leads him to an extreme iconoclasm.  For example, the land, monuments, and even the history of the Jewish people have no religious meaning. 

I cannot ascribe religious significance to our having regained political independence.  From the pronouncements of colleagues who preceded me at this evenings debate one might infer that they ‘hear the words of God and see the vision of the Almighty (Num. 24:4); that in historical events they discern ‘the finger of God’ and the final cause of the overflow descending from the upper to lower world. I have no reliable source for knowledge of divine intentions and do not detect in occurrences of the lower world any religious significance, unless they incorporate an intention at the lower world aimed at the upper world; in other words–insofar as human beings act for the sake of Heaven.  Apart from this, history has no religious meaning. History belongs to the course of the world and it is this course constitutes divine providence.  Every historical event is an instance of divine providence, so no particular event has greater religious significance than others.  The selective invocation of the ‘finger of God’ regarding what is convenient or desirable is comparable to the use of ‘holiness,’ which is so often abused for national-political purposes.  When the holiness of the Temple Mount is imputed to its being ‘God’s estate,’ I ask: is not any plot of land equally the ‘estate of God’?

So he writes that: “The Holocaust of our generation is religiously meaningless. The Holocaust belonged to the course of the world, it merely exemplified the lot of the helpless who fall prey to the wicked.”

In terms of current political practice the logic leads to a two-state solution to the problems of Palestine.  In this debate he also brings into to play his knowledge of history and political philosophy following the Six Day War in 1967. Writing in 1968 he was prescient on the transformations that would occur if Israel held onto the territories conquered during war.

‘Security’ is a reality only where there is true peace between neighbors, as in the case of Holland/Belgium, Sweden/Norway, the United States/Canada. In the absence of peace there is no security, and no geographic-strategic settlement on the land can change this.  There is no direct link between security and the territories.  There are no ‘secure boundaries.’  Posting defense on the fortified lines–the Maginot Line mentality–always failed, from the time of the Chinese Wall and the Roman Lines through the Atlantic Wall of Hitler.  Our security problem is not a problem of specific boundaries nor solely a military problem, but rather one in which military, political and social factors are intertwined.

Rule over the occupied territories would have social repercussions.  After a few years there would be no Jewish workers or Jewish farmers.  The Arabs would be the working people and the Jews the administrators, inspectors, officials, and police–mainly secret police.  A state ruling a hostile population of 1.5 to 2 million foreigners would necessarily become a secret-police state, with all that this implies for education, free speech, and democratic institutions.  The corruption characteristic of every colonial regime would also prevail in the state of Israel.  The administration would have to suppress Arab insurgency on the one hand and acquire Arab Quislings on the other.  There is also good reason to fear that the Israel Defense Force, which has been until now a people’s army, would, as a result of being transformed into an army of occupation, degenerate, and its commanders, who will have become military governors, resemble their colleagues in other nations.

The corruption he relates also applies to the US due to its imperial behavior.  In dealing with the imperial Israelis who use religious arguments Leibowitz was channeling Laurence Vance, or temporally, vice versa.

As for the ‘religious’ arguments for the annexation of the territories–these are only an expression, subconsciously or perhaps even overtly hypocritical, of the transformation of the Jewish religion into a camouflage for Israeli nationalism.  Counterfeit religion identifies national interests with the service of God and imputes to the state–which is only an instrument of serving human needs–supreme value from a religious standpoint.

Twenty years later in 1988 he wrote of the corruption that he had predicted that also can be applied to the United States virtually word-for-word.

That a subjugated people would fight for its freedom against the conquering ruler, with all the means at its disposal, without being squeamish about their legitimacy, was only to be expected.  This has been true of wars of liberation of all peoples.  We call the acts of the Palestinians ‘terrorism’ and their fighters ‘terrorists.’  But we are able to maintain our rule over the rebellious people only by actions regarded the world-over as criminal.  We refer to this as ‘policy’ rather than ‘terror’ because it is conducted by a duly constituted government and its regular army.  The ‘aberrant cases’ of necessity became the rule, since they are not incidental to a conquering regime buy essential to it.

We are creating–and have already created–a political atmosphere affecting the public as well as individual members, in which a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court legitimates the use of torture in the interrogation of Palestinian prisoners.  The Israeli Define Force, armed with up-to-date weaponry, kills within a span of weeks a hundred people who did not carry firearms, amongst them women and children; breaks the bones of me, women, and children by order of the Minister of Defense; forces its way into homes and humiliates their residents.  In this same atmosphere one hears of cases of soldiers attempting to bury Arab boys alive; the Attorney General distinguishes between torture and ‘reasonable’ torture; those in charge of the army distinguish ‘burial alive’ from the burying alive of bodies without interring the heads.  Similar tendencies characterize our foreign and defense policies.  The viscous folly of the Lebanese war was an outcome of the intention to maintain and assure the continued rule over the occupied territories and their people.  That war, initiated by the Begin government, was undertaken with the consent of the Alignment of workers’ parties, which continues to this day to oppose negotiations with the PLO, the representatives of the Palestinian people, over the repartitioning of the land.

Only by putting an end to our rule over the other people can we be saved from the dire consequences of persisting in the present policy.

If the present situation continues (and here the emphasis must be on ‘if’), the growing savagery of Israeli society will be as inevitable as the severance of the state from the Jews of the world.  The policy of a government of Sharon, Raful, and Druckman (or their counterparts), which in such circumstances also seems unavoidable, will begin with suppression of reliable information, elimination of free speech, the setting up of concentration camps for ‘traitors’ (like myself and perhaps you), and end in the mass expulsion and slaughter of the Arab population.

The “you” in the parenthetical statement in the last sentence could have been spoken to LRC readers today.

Below I provide an example of his logic on a final topic, the relationship of Christianity to Judaism.  In particular, following his premise on the nature of Judaism that it only entails following the law, and that Christ taught to go beyond that law; then Leibowitz can state that: “Christianity originated in opposition to the principles of Judaism.  Detachment from Judaism marked its very beginning.”  This understanding of Christianity was applied in his discussion of the controversial play of 1963 by Rolf Hochhuth called The Deputy.  In The Deputy Pope Pius XII is accused of being complicit with the holocaust. It has been suggested that perhaps Hochhuth was a dupe of a communist smear campaign of the Vatican.  Be that as it may, the conclusion of Leibowitz is chilling.

For the issues Hochhuth poses is not the attitude of the Pope to the mass-murder of human beings, which the Church does not condone–or even to the mass-murder of Jews, to which the Church would also take exception–but rather the murder of masses of Jews with the intent of extinction of Judaism.  The call for the obliteration of Judaism was not something grafted upon Christianity as a result of some historical development, something which Christianity is capable of overcoming and even rejecting.  It is of the very essence of Christianity since the day on which the Christian god appeared on earth.  It is nothing but the denial of the right of Judaism to exist; in a sense, a denial of its very existence.  The relationship of Christianity to Judaism is unlike that of other religions or faiths, whether pagan or Islamic, which deny the Torah of Israel and would nullify it.  Christianity does neither, but claims that it is Judaism and there is no Judaism apart from it.  On this claim it bases its very legitimacy, and therefore, can never concede this point.  From the standpoint of Christianity, the existence of Judaism apart from Christianity has ceased to be legitimate.  Its continued existence can only be interpreted as a deviation from the proper divine order of the world.  The Church could be reconciled to the continued existence of the Jewish people only to the extent that this existence was severed from the proper existence of mankind, that of the Christian world, whose members are the ‘true Jews.’  The Jewish people could be permitted to exist only if their existence were disfigured, cursed, and degraded.  The entry of Jews into the mainstream of the life of Christian society while still remaining Jewish, a process which began with the emancipation, must appear in the eyes of the Church as a challenge to the very root of Christianity.  Christianity regards itself as the legitimate heir of Judaism, and the heir cannot take possession of the inheritance while the testator is still alive.  The Church did not desire the physical annihilation of Jews.  It was interested in the liquidation of Judaism, and every Jewish convert was precious testimony to its truth.  The Church desired the repentance of Jews and not their death.  However, the existence of scores of generations clearly indicated that there was no prospect of a total conversion of the Jewish people, and only ‘with the last of the Jews would there be an end to Judaism.’ In effect, the extinction of Judaism could only be attained by the annihilation of the Jews.

Here the Church was impaled on the horns of a cruel dilemma: on the one hand, the need for the annihilation of the Jewish people, on the other hand, the inability of the Church to accomplish this by itself or even to demand it explicitly, since according to its principles ‘it does not shed blood’–not even the blood of heretics, let alone Jews.  The coming of Hitler resolved this dilemma.  The task which the Church itself was not permitted to carry out was undertaken by another agent.  The Pope, as a faithful Christian entrusted with upholding Christianity, could not help but see the finger of the divine agency in the appearance of Hitler, proponent of ‘the final solution’ of the Jewish problem.

Here I feel like McCoy yelling at Spock, “Damn It Leibowitz! Life is not always so logical.” He had already in the passage above gave ample reason for why as a faithful Christian he could oppose Hitler and the holocaust, that killing innocent human being is not Christian. And by-the-way, Hitler had no love for Christians in general or Catholics in particular.

The sample of the thought and writings I have read of Yeshayahu Leibowitz has piqued my interest, perhaps this article will do the same for you.

Email Print
  • LRC Blog

  • LRC Podcasts