Yeshayahu Leibowitz

This Israeli philosopher saw problems with both secular and religious Zionism.

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Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994) was among the premier intellectuals of Israeli life before and after the establishment of the State of Israel. A scientist and philosopher, it was in the latter role that he had the biggest impact. Leibowitz believed that halakhah (Jewish law) was an end in itself and the primary focus of Judaism. This view led him to controversial views on Zionism and the state. The following article offers a brief overview of Leibowitz's thought and his critique of Zionism. Reprinted with permission of the Shalom Hartman Institute from Conflicting Visions (Schocken Books).

Leibowitz is not alone in seeing the creation of Israel as a fundamental challenge to Judaism. In order to understand how he approaches the problem, however, his basic views on the nature of Judaism must be outlined.

By Halakhah Alone

According to Leibowitz, Judaism is fundamentally a communal frame of reference. Its prime concern is not with saving the soul of the individual but with providing a way of life whereby a community can express its commitment to serve God. The religious impulse motivating Judaism is the decision of a people to bear witness to the presence of God in the world through its worship and its way of life. Halakhah gives expression to the way that this community lives out its existence and defines its place in the world.

For long periods, the Jewish people was viewed by others and saw itself as a nation constituted by the rule of Torah. To Leibowitz, how­ever, what made Jews different from other nations was not their theol­ogy; other religions share basic assumptions of Jewish monotheism, eschatology, and the like. Nor did their Bible distinguish them, for it has also been adopted by the Christians.

What made the Jews unique was the halakhah that governed their way of life. The laws governing what Jews could eat, which days they were allowed to work, when sexual relations were permitted, as well as the laws on the liturgical forms for daily and festive worship--all these structured and institu­tionalized the Jewish community and provided its distinct character.

The essential point for Leibowitz is that the primacy of halakhah in Judaism is not a theological judgment but an empirical description of what in fact occurred in history. He points out that the Jewish commu­nity could tolerate hostile theological tendencies in its midst. Maimonides, for example, could regard the theology of many of his fellow Jews as mythological and even pagan, while the critics of Maimonides claimed that his theology had been corrupted by ideas taken from Greek philosophy.

However, there would be no comparable toleration of conflicting halakhic practice. Those who held minority halakhic views were allowed to state them, but in their practice they were re­quired to conform to the established majority outlook. What made the Jews a distinct communal entity in history was their commitment to serve God through a shared form of disciplined life, irrespective of their competing and contradictory conceptions of God.

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Rabbi David Hartman

Rabbi David Hartman is the founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He also served as a professor of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a visiting professor at the Universities of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles.