Humility, Freedom, and Transcendence: An Exchange of Letters

May 1, 2012
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Dear Ari,

In October of 2011, in occupied Zuccotti Park, I noticed two seemingly unrelated occurrences. The first was a young Haredi man living with the anarchists; the second was a group of Modern Orthodox graduate students setting up an Occupy Sukkot space in the park. These sightings raised an important set of questions for me: Is there a role for the Torah, as Judaism’s founding text, in contributing to the literature that shapes left-wing ideologies? Does my own Jewish day school education inform my progressive political convictions?

While many important liberal values can be found in Jewish teachings, progressivism — the belief that ongoing sociopolitical reform improves our society — requires a certain degree of flexibility in order to continually adapt to changing socioeconomic conditions. The Torah would have to be treated as a living text. Otherwise, it risks becoming irrelevant to contemporary progressive Jews. I apply the same progressive reasoning to my understanding of the U.S. Constitution. Progressivism seems to require that our societies be based on documents that can adapt, and while the meanings of edicts and passages are still debated, the Torah as a text has been arguably fixed for thousands of years.

While Judaism is an important part of my personal identity, progressive politics defines my daily life. I understand the Torah as critical to the Jewish ethnohistorical identity, but it doesn’t retain, for me, its sacrosanct status. To treat the Torah as one political document among many is to deny its very essence — namely, that it is the will of God and thus a unique text. Once devoid of that holiness, the Torah becomes a cultural symbol, perhaps critical to our self-perception, but unreliable for answers to the critical economic and political questions of our time.

Like other contemporary Jews, the Haredi man in Zuccotti Park seems to have found ways to reconcile his interpretation of Judaism with his apparent political ideology. Ultimately, we all participate in our respective national projects by appealing to well-known contemporary texts. My father jokes that my Orthodox education successfully instilled in me the belief that the word of God, the Torah, is the supreme text. Thus, with my rejection of Torah’s divinity, I ask (as I was taught) how it can play a secondary or tertiary role in our thinking and still be viewed as divine in some other way. When passages must be reinterpreted to reflect evolving views, is that proof of the Torah’s timelessness or of its inescapable limitation?

I look forward to this exchange with you, Chisda


Dear Chisda,

Thank you for your letter and for stating your thoughts so directly. Your note reminded me of the conversation recorded in the Talmud between Rabbi Akiva and Pappus ben Judah (Berachot 61b). During those volatile years after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Roman government had forbidden the study of Torah on pain of death. In protest, the great Rabbi Akiva convened a pubic gathering, perhaps in a park, and taught the law. At that time, Pappas asked him: “Akiva, are you not afraid of the power of the state?” The rabbi responded with a parable:

A fox was walking along a river and observed a fish moving around and clearly anxious.

The fox: “Who are you fleeing?”

The fish: “The nets of the humans.”

The fox: “In that case, you should leave the water and live on dry land.”

The meaning of the parable is simple: Without the Torah/water, there is no life for the Jewish people. But what does this really mean? Why, without the Torah, will the Jewish people cease to exist as Jews? Or, to put the question in the language you expressed so eloquently in your letter: Why is the Torah necessary for progressive Jews? What about the Torah is unique? For me, the answer is simple: The Torah’s holiness adds a dimension to being above and beyond the limitations of progressive ideology. Let me explain.

What unites the intellectual underpinnings of the ideology of the left — from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch, through Martin Heidegger’s fixation on dasein (being), to Alain Badiou’s notion of the “event” and Slovaj Žižek’s recent affirmation of violence — is the emancipation of the self from traditional society and the primacy of authenticity regardless of the cost. Against the inherently violent and totalizing tendencies of progressive thought (and action!), the teachings expressed throughout the Torah open the dimension of transcendence and height. My understanding of the divinity of the Torah, its very holiness, is expressed in this idea: The self is obligated to more than itself; there is a “beyond the self” that is more important than the “self” and that commands the self. Without the transcendent teachings of the Torah, I fear, the ideology of the left can quickly become idolatry. The Torah is necessary to Jews and to the left, precisely because it is divine in this way. Without a notion of the holy, we are left only with ourselves, with no real reason, except perhaps irony, to prefer the ideology of Zuccoti Park rather than the amoral capitalism of Ayn Rand. Or, to return to Rabbi Akiva’s parable, without transcendence, we are like fish out of water.

You ask many important questions about the living Torah and how it can inform our values. I will plan to follow up on this in my next letter. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. B’Shalom, Ari


Dear Ari,

I find your response to my letter very interesting, both in terms of the transcendent Judaism you prescribe and the empirical limitations or tendencies of progressivism you describe. Left-wing ideologies have been used to justify terrible violence as well as liberal democracies, human rights, and civil liberties. You argue that religion with a transcendent commanding God provides a better moral framework for overcoming the undesirable tendencies of progressivism. Why the Torah, as opposed to the King James Bible or the Qur’an? That is, is there something specific about this transcendence (i.e., Torah) that makes it especially well-suited for moral understanding?

In my first letter, I wrote that the Torah could contribute to progressivism, but that its conception of a commanding, transcendent God who chooses one people can easily result in a totalizing ideology. The Torah’s conception of divinity suggests that we must obey God’s will or be punished. This transcendent divinity does express the notion of something greater than the self, cultivating a sense of humility; and yet, this can also justify a reductionism — a reading of the Torah as the source of all truth. It permits interpretation that could lead to human intolerance and even violence. The Torah must contribute to progressivism without dominating it, but can the Torah play a role in progressive ideology without the theological supposition of its own supremacy?

Judaic notions of divinity may provide a moral framework for evaluating ideologies that inform the “Occupy” movement and laissez-faire capitalism, but you seem to suggest that atheistic ideologies cannot. Immanuel Kant argues that the concept of “enlightenment” enables us to transcend the self through an understanding of the other — without divine transcendence. God, as an example of something greater then the self, is a humbling notion, but Kant holds, enlightenment frees us of the “inability to make sense of one’s own understanding without direction from another.” The transcendent may be humbling, but it also curtails our freedom and prevents personal ownership of our moral understanding and ideological preferences.

The notion of the other emancipates us from the self without transcendence and highlights a difficulty in reconciling contemporary progressivism with the Torah: the latter’s treatment of the other. A transcendent understanding of Judaism easily slips into an inherently exclusivist perspective. The very belief in “chosenness” undermines the inclusiveness of progressive ideologies. Perhaps secular Judaism, like Slavoj Žižek’s secular Christianity, overcomes some of the difficulties I’ve mentioned, but it seems that the commanding God as a vehicle for transcending the self is incompatible with contemporary progressivism.

Can understanding the Torah as a living text allow us to completely reconceptualize its meaning? Can we embrace a Torah even devoid of its divine source? These questions return, in part, to my first letter. You have raised many interesting considerations, and I look forward to your next letter. Chisda


Dear Chisda,

Thank you for your thoughts and for your letter. Reading your letter, I fear that you may have misunderstood my first letter or that I might not have expressed myself clearly. I do not think that the Torah, by which I mean the rabbinic tradition, and liberal thought are competing moral frameworks; to fall into this exclusivist trap would be naïve. What I passionately do believe is that the Torah opens the dimension of the holy and, in doing so, exposes the limitations of liberal thought, which promotes only freedom and not obligations, and whose project of emancipation takes us only so far.

Kant is all fine and good; yet his “Copernican Revolution” detailed in The Critique of Pure Reason, inaugurates German Idealism with its commitment to epistemic totality. Briefly stated, Kant’s thought is that consciousness, or the “I think,” creates meaning based on perception; knowledge can only be generated by consciousness and not by an outside source. This thought is applied to ethics in The Critique of Practical Reason: Here, the rational self legislates the universal moral law. It is only because of the will’s (Willkür) fidelity to the self-willed (Wille) legislated moral law that we are duty bound to act ethically. The self does not understand itself through an encounter with the other, nor does this encounter provoke a moral response unmediated by the self’s will. This point is essential for Kant. It follows that when there is a conflict between a commitment to the other and the commitment to the self-legislating will, Kant will (in)famously favor the latter and claim that to save a life by lying to a murderer is immoral(!), since to do so would be to act against the categorical imperative not to lie.

I dwell on this thought to stress that Kant’s goal, as you point out, is enlightenment, which is an emancipatory project whose aim is to place autonomy at the center of meaning and ethics. In a very limited and technical sense, it is transcendental; it would be a stretch to call it transcendent — further still to call it holy. As a counterbalance to Kant’s solipsistic fantasy, I maintain that the holy, as described in my previous letter, is necessary for progressivism.

In your letter, you point out that the Torah seems to suggest an exclusivist and punishing God. I agree. To read the Torah simply, simply leads to fundamentalism. It is a project for which the rabbis have little tolerance. Instead, they have long maintained that the Torah’s language is equivocal: it deliberately speaks in different voices and it should be interpreted through multiple hermeneutics, such as literalism, exegesis, midrash, mysticism, philosophical truth, ethics, and the list goes on.

Torah, like life, is messy and complex; in this sense it is and should be, as Emmanuel Levinas put it, a religion for adults, and like adults we should have a sophisticated relationship with it. We should recognize that we are not only informed by the Torah’s teaching, but we also have the responsibility to form it for the future of the Jewish people and the world. In this sense, I agree with you that the Torah is living.

I have enjoyed our correspondence; if there are topics that you raised that were not addressed, it is for lack of space and not lack of importance.

With blessings, Ari

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Chisda Magid, born in Jerusalem, grew up outside of Boston, Mass. He was an intern at J Street in Washington, D.C., and he will begin a doctoral program in political science at Indiana University Bloomington in the fall. He currently lives in New York.

Rabbi Ari Weiss is executive director of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization. In April 2010, he became a fellow of the Joshua Venture Group, which identifies emerging Jewish leaders and champions their visions for social change.

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