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Books & CultureLucid and winsome.
— John Wilson
Not in the Heavens traces the rise of Jewish secularism through the visionary writers and thinkers who led its development. Spanning the rich history of Judaism from the Bible to today, David Biale shows how the secular tradition these visionaries created is a uniquely Jewish one, and how the emergence of Jewish secularism was not merely a response to modernity but arose from forces long at play within Judaism itself.
Biale explores how ancient Hebrew books like Job, Song of Songs, and Esther downplay or even exclude God altogether, and how Spinoza, inspired by medieval Jewish philosophy, recast the biblical God in the role of nature and stripped the Torah of its revelatory status to instead read scripture as a historical and cultural text. Biale examines the influential Jewish thinkers who followed in Spinoza's secularizing footsteps, such as Salomon Maimon, Heinrich Heine, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein. He tells the stories of those who also took their cues from medieval Jewish mysticism in their revolts against tradition, including Hayim Nahman Bialik, Gershom Scholem, and Franz Kafka. And he looks at Zionists like David Ben-Gurion and other secular political thinkers who recast Israel and the Bible in modern terms of race, nationalism, and the state.
Not in the Heavens demonstrates how these many Jewish paths to secularism were dependent, in complex and paradoxical ways, on the very religious traditions they were rejecting, and examines the legacy and meaning of Jewish secularism today.
"There are not many contemporary Jewish scholars who could offer such succinct and at the same time penetrating analysis of such a variety of secular Jewish thinkers, writers, and artists. . . . David Biale's Not in the Heavens is a useful and fascinating account of the development of modern, secular alternatives. In demonstrating the variety and depth of modern secular thought, Biale has no doubt advanced our appreciation of this formidable tradition. As an introduction to modern Jewish thought in general, and Jewish secularism in particular, his book is likely to be required reading for the foreseeable future."--Steven Frankel, H-Net Reviews
"While readers may have been exposed to many of the ideas presented here, they may not be aware of their origins. For that reason, the book is a significant contribution to Jewish scholarship in many disciplines, most notably history and philosophy. While the text is serious, it is not ponderous, and the author takes time to explain the concepts. It should be purchased by academic libraries. The book should also be of interest to serious lay readers, and is recommended for larger synagogue libraries. Includes notes and index."--Fred Isaac, AJL Newsletter
"Biale covers a wide range of figures and the diverse approaches to secularism that stand behind modern modes of Jewish identification. This is a well-researched, cogently argued, and clearly presented volume."--Choice
It is often said that Judaism has no orthodoxy (correct belief), only orthopraxis (correct practice). The commandments, as spelled out in the Bible, elaborated by the rabbis, and codified by medieval sages, were the foundation for the Jewish religion to a far greater extent than theology. Belief in God as the source of these laws was, of course, a given, but without the elaborate dogma and its attendant heresies that one finds in Christianity. One might argue that this theological reticence provided part of the mentality in the modern period for those secular Jews who denied God's existence altogether. If one's culture was little preoccupied with the divine being's biography, personality, and attributes, how much easier then to imagine a world without him. Yet it would be a mistake to equate secularism with atheism. Many secular Jewish thinkers did not abandon the idea of God, even as they stripped him of his biblical personality and rabbinic authority.
In this chapter, we will follow three trends of secular thought, each grounded dialectically in premodern texts. The first is the transformation of the biblical God into nature, a trail first blazed by Baruch Spinoza in the seventeenth century and then followed by a series of thinkers whom I will call generically "Spinoza's children," from Salomon Maimon and Heinrich Heine to Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. We shall see how Spinoza and his children stood on the shoulders of the premodern Jewish tradition, especially the philosophy of Moses Maimonides. The second group of thinkers-Hayim Nahman Bialik, Gershom Scholem, and Franz Kafka-whom I term "secular Kabbalists," built upon the medieval mystical doctrine of God as "nothingness" to describe a world either devoid of the divine or at most haunted by his shadow. If Spinoza's children might be loosely called pantheists, since they hold that God is equivalent to nature, the secular Kabbalists have affinities with the ancient Gnostics, who believed that the true God is hidden and inaccessible. Finally, we will conclude briefly with a third trend, the secular revival of pagan gods as a weapon for dethroning the God of Judaism.
Who was the Jewish God against whom Spinoza and his acolytes revolted? In his Theological-Political Treatise, Spinoza showed little doubt that the Bible's idea of God was the opposite of a philosophical one, an anthropomorphic deity exhibiting human emotions (jealousy, anger, and occasionally even love). But it is worth noting that the Bible is not theologically monolithic and that the biblical God at times anticipates the God of the philosophers. While the Torah, the historical books, and the prophets demonstrate God's hand in history, God is often present only as a "cloud of glory" (the Priestly formulation) or in the form of his name (the book of Deuteronomy). According to the Priestly school, no one-even Moses-can look at God and live (Exodus 33:20). Some biblical texts speak of God's anatomy, but others make it clear that he cannot be compared in any way to human beings. The purely transcendent God of the philosophers has its roots, if not its fully realized form, in the Bible.
It is in the post-exilic Writings (that is, after the return from the Babylonian exile in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE) that one finds a thoroughgoing skepticism about the God of history. In many of the works that can be dated to the Persian or Hellenistic periods, such as Esther, Job, and Ecclesiastes, God is transcendent or even completely absent. He no longer walks among humans, as he did in the literature of the First Temple period, and his communication with them has become indirect, if not mute. The verities of the formative period of the nation no longer seemed to hold. Perhaps under the influence of Greek philosophy, but perhaps also as a result of their own internal history, the Jews no longer produced books like Deuteronomy or Isaiah. To be sure, God's perceived silence gave rise not only to works of religious skepticism but also to new genres of literature, like apocalypticism; yet here, too, God's will could only be divined from reinterpreting old prophecies or inventing pseudepigraphic new ones.
For the Second Temple period, God's perceived absence from the world thus prompted a literature far removed from the classical books of the Bible. The book of Esther, for example, famously does not mention God at all. Even though one could theoretically interpret the victory of the Jews over their Persian persecutors as evidence of divine intervention, the text itself attributes it to the machinations of the seductive Esther and her canny uncle, Mordecai. Esther is first and foremost a tale of politics in the Diaspora, and its lessons are thoroughly secular.
Other works similarly do not contest the existence of God but do question his role in the world. For the author of Ecclesiastes, everything is determined by God, but "man knows none of these in advance" (9:1). The writer finds no meaning in the world, starting and concluding that "all is futile." Although the coda to the book recommends revering God and obeying his commandments, one has the sense that this pious ending was tacked on to make the less-than-Orthodox text more palatable. Exactly what the philosophical position of the author actually was remains hotly contested, and he may or may not have been the follower of a Greek school of philosophy like that of Lucretius or Epicurus. But the book was certainly ripe for the picking by a modern secularist. For example, the nineteenth-century Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz, in a remarkable letter to Karl Marx, recommended his commentary on Ecclesiastes to his antireligious interlocutor on the following grounds:
[I]ts author [i.e., the author of Ecclesiastes] is a rude realist in a world of fantasies turned towards the heavens, who had the courage to say outright that in a certain sense this world should to be more important than that doubtful other world (Jenseits), and who, nineteen hundred years ago[,] already preached the rehabilitation of the flesh [Graetz writes the last phrase in French].
Graetz was certainly no secularist, but he knew enough of Marx's philosophy to understand that such a secular interpretation of Ecclesiastes would appeal to the founder of scientific socialism, who had written his doctoral dissertation on Democritus, Epicurus's predecessor.
A book with similar doubts about the divine is Job, which radically challenges prophetic theology. The prophets had taught that punishment is the direct consequence of sin. Job's friends articulate the same argument in an attempt to understand his suffering, but he rejects their explanations. He has committed no sin to justify his downfall. The theology that might be called the hallmark of biblical Judaism now turns out to be a conventional cliché, irrelevant to man's true predicament. It is Job's questioning of God that is authentic, not the pious and self-satisfied pontificating of his friends. In the end, of course, God does reveal himself to Job, but his answer is anything but theologically satisfying: "Where were you when I created the world?" Indeed, God's answer, although delivered in words, is more a demonstration of power than it is an argument.
For the rabbis of late antiquity, God was also largely an absent character. To be sure, they spoke of God's presence (shekhina) going into exile with the Jewish people. But the Almighty himself remained sequestered in his heavens. As the story of Rabbi Eliezer, discussed in the introduction, conveys, God did on occasion speak through a bat kol (heavenly voice), but in general the rabbis believed that prophecy had ended. It was this agnostic view of God that may have prompted in reaction a nonrabbinic literature of heavenly palaces in which a mystic journeyed to the heavens to behold the divine throne.
It was no doubt the reticence of the rabbis that gave rise to the view that Judaism has no prescribed theology. But the confrontation with Islamic philosophy and the challenge of the Karaites (those Jews in the eastern Mediterranean starting in the eighth or ninth centuries who rejected the authority of the rabbis) caused medieval Jewish thinkers to define core Jewish beliefs in theological terms. Saadiah Gaon's tenth-century Book of Beliefs and Opinions, the first work of medieval Jewish philosophy, was also the first to articulate such beliefs. Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) took this effort further by distilling Judaism's "beliefs and opinions" into thirteen principles. Perhaps his motivation was to match Islam's simple profession of faith with a Jewish parallel. Several of Maimonides' successors tried to outdo him by reducing the principles of faith to three-and then finally to one. These philosophical exercises to define a Jewish "dogma" were just that-exercises-and Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed was widely regarded as dangerous to Jewish practice. If anyone was liable to excommunication because of belief, it was more likely Maimonides and his followers than simple believers. But medieval Judaism never developed an Inquisition. In general, the question of God and correct belief about him remained the province of a tiny coterie of philosophers. Yet when modern thinkers encountered this philosophical tradition, it could become the catalyst for a radical trajectory never envisioned by its progenitors.
Medieval Jewish philosophy thus prepared the ground for the radical subversion of the biblical God, which explains why later generations of secular rebels would embrace not only Spinoza but also Maimonides, read as if through the eyes of Spinoza. Indeed, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the great Andalusian rationalist became the medieval model for modern secularists. Those rebelling against rabbinic authority often surreptitiously read his Guide of the Perplexed as a subversive work. On the face of it, though, Maimonides was an improbable candidate for this role. One of the harshest Jewish critics of astrology, Maimonides had no use for the science that seemingly did away with divine providence. And his Guide is perhaps the most thoroughgoing attempt to reconcile faith with reason. As the greatest codifier of Jewish law in the Middle Ages, Maimonides was anything but a rebel against tradition. On a number of different levels, though, Maimonides' philosophy contains radical ideas that excited violent opposition in his lifetime and were available for even more radical reinterpretation in the modern age.
To give a full account of Maimonides' thought would lie far outside the scope of this book, but in this chapter and the two following, we will encounter five aspects that seem particularly relevant to secular appropriation: negative theology, nature, biblical exegesis, the historical interpretation of the commandments and political theory.
If the God of the Hebrew Bible was both transcendent and immanent-that is, present in the world-Maimonides' God was utterly transcendent, so removed from the world as to have nothing in common with it. Maimonides arrived at this position by a radically allegorical reading of the Bible. Not only did he reject biblical anthropomorphisms (attributing to God a hand or a mouth), he rejected the attribution of any human or earthly characteristics to God: "[A]nything that entails corporeality ought of necessity to be negated in reference to Him and ... all affections likewise should be negated in reference to Him." God lacks a body as well as all emotions and other human qualities. This leads Maimonides to negate all positive statements about God. One cannot, for example, say of God that he is good. To do so would arouse comparisons with goodness in our world: is God better or worse than person X? In addition, to posit of God that he is good raises the possibility that he might, at some particular time, lose that quality, just as any human being who is good might, at some point, become evil. No matter how superlative God is in goodness, the very nature of goodness is that one can be deprived of it. And that is inadmissible for God, who doesn't change and lacks nothing.
The only way that Maimonides can find to insulate God from the relative nature of our world is to describe him by negations: he has no body and has no emotions. But what about qualities like goodness? The correct way to state it is by a "negation of a privation": God does not lack goodness. This statement is not the same as saying that God is good. Instead, it says that whatever God has with respect to goodness, it is not something that would cause a lack.
The argument through which Maimonides arrives at this negative theology is complicated and need not detain us here. What is important for our purposes are its consequences. Maimonides' God, who can only be described by negatives, is as far from the God of the Bible as one might imagine. This is a thoroughly transcendent God, one that would appear to be utterly remote from our world, since he cannot share anything with our world and remain God. This is a God who can only be worshipped by philosophers, insofar as such worship consists of meditation on negations.
Although Maimonides holds that a chain of negations leads ultimately to the affirmation of God's unity (albeit in the form of a negative proposition), it could just as well-against Maimonides' intention-lead to the final, big negation of atheism: a God so transcendent that "he" cannot be described is virtually a God that doesn't exist. It was perhaps in reaction to the heretical potential in Maimonides' theology that led the thirteenth-century Kabbalists to run to the other extreme and describe God in the most frankly human terms imaginable, including the erotic. The Kabbalists' anthropomorphic myth of the divine confirms in a negative way the atheistic threat of Maimonides' God.
By abstracting God from the world, Maimonides cleared the way for an autonomous realm of nature. Not that nature operates outside of divine providence, but it does so under what medieval scholastics called "general providence," or the laws of nature. The world, says Maimonides, represents God's "attributes of action," which means that all we can know of God are the effects of his creation. But the mechanism by which he accomplished this creation is unknown to us. We can infer nothing about the Creator from these laws except that they are self-evidently the product of a rational Creator. Maimonides thus articulated a medieval version of the modern religious argument from design: since the universe appears to be rationally ordered, it must have been ordered by an intelligent designer.
As a follower of Aristotle, Maimonides believed that the world is governed by necessity: everything that happens in it is a necessary product of the laws of nature, an anticipation, as well, of Spinoza's universe. This determinism was a reaction against one school of Muslim philosophy that held that everything in the world requires a unique intervention by God: a stone cannot fall unless God wills it to do so. The medieval Aristotelian position, which anticipated eighteenth-century deism, removed God from nature and left only his laws. The system works on its own, while God himself remains utterly transcendent. Insofar as God is said to "cause" actions within nature, it is really just a figure of speech or a formal statement. Physics stands separate from metaphysics.
This argument from necessity produced a head-on clash with the biblical doctrine of miracles. How could God suspend the laws that he himself had created if these laws were necessary and sufficient? Many medieval thinkers gave scientific or naturalistic explanations for these miracles and thus brought them under general providence. So, too, did Maimonides, but his answer to this conundrum was more subtle. There is no such thing as a thoroughly deterministic system, he argued. In giving the laws, God had to make certain choices. Should a particular sacrifice involve six lambs or seven? Should one slaughter an animal from the neck or from the throat? These choices no longer fall under the necessity dictated by reason. They are arbitrary. Thus, within any system of rational necessity, there is a small residue of contingency, of arbitrary choice: "Know that wisdom rendered it necessary-or, if you will, say that necessity occasioned-that there should be particulars for which no cause can be found." It is from this realm of contingency that God performed-or, "if you will, that necessity occasioned"-most of the miracles in the Bible. In this way, Maimonides was able to preserve traditional miracles and not reduce them to merely naturalistic explanations, but nevertheless incorporate them into a naturalistic philosophy. And it is striking that he equates God with necessity, a position that would be adopted by Spinoza.
Excerpted from Not in the Heavens by David Biale Copyright © 2011 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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