Yeshayahu Leibowitz

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

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The Challenge of Emancipation

Such was the character of the Jewish community until the beginning of Jewish emancipation at the end of the 18th century. From then on, the Jewish community’s self-understanding began to break down, giving rise to what Leibowitz sees as one of the crucial questions for Judaism in the modern world. Emancipation, when it afforded the Jew the opportunity of merging completely into the surrounding non­-Jewish culture, provided competition with the Jew’s traditional self-understanding.

One attempt to meet that challenge was the emergence of trends within Judaism that sought to amend or even abandon much of halakhah, while preserving the synagogue as a place of worship. Secular Zionism constituted an even more powerful form of competi­tion, since it was an ideology that aimed to redefine the Jewish people in wholly nonreligious terms as a national political community.

Israeli vs. Diaspora Responses

As I see it, the challenge to Judaism in Israel is therefore very differ­ent from the challenge in the Western Diaspora. In the latter, the as­similatory framework with which Judaism is competing is one that threatens to dissolve the Jewish ethnic group, to absorb the Jews in such a way that they are no longer identifiable as Jews.

In Israel, there are two competing Jewish frameworks, both of which claim to be Jew­ish. One asserts that it continues Jewish history through a radical trans­formation of Jewish society and self-definition. The other maintains that the Jewish community is doomed if it abandons its religious roots.

However, Leibowitz himself does not see any essential difference be­tween the situation in Israel and the Diaspora because he does not see any specific Jewish content in Zionism….

Arguing Against Secularism

Leibowitz's constant argument against the secular option for defin­ing the continuity of Jewish history is that it is a distortion of the his­torical framework of the Jewish people. His argument not only springs from the framework of faith but is also a purely empirical one. To claim continuity with the historical Jewish people and yet abandon hala­khah, to abandon worship of God as the essential framework of Jewish identity, is a falsification of what in fact existed in history.

To Leibowitz, the halakhic way of life is a historical fact. Halakhah is primary for understanding the visible presence and action of this com­munity in history. Leibowitz consequently disagrees both with the religious Zionists who have joined the revolution to build political statehood and with the secular Zionists who claim to continue Jewish history although abandoning the halakhic framework.

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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.