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Eliezer Berkovits, Evil Empires, and Zionism




Eliezer Berkovits
To the Editors:
David Hazony has rendered a sorely needed service to Jewish thought about ethics and observance in his beautifully written review of Eliezer Berkovits philosophy (Azure 11, Summer 2001). The article crystallized for me several vague notions that have been dancing around in my head for a while, especially: (i) That most “evil” is really selfishness is really weakness is really lack of dis­cipline, and (ii) that a major aspect of Christianitys (Hellenisti­cally inspired) critique of Judaism involved a denunciation of the Toras inductive methodology—what Hazony refers to as the heteronymous nature of halacha,in which higher ideals are attained via action and “one learns to swim by swimming” in favor of the new religions far more “logical” deductivemethodology, in which one confronts individual challenges by applying a limited number of over­arch­­ing principles to each new situation.
This dichotomy was best illustrated for me in my IDF medics training course, halfway through which our instructor was demobilized and another officer assumed command. The first teacher had insisted that we learn all the dozens of different dressings for the wide variety of possible wounds by rote,and we would drill each specific application of bandages for days on end until we had it down to second nature: Chest wound with possible lung collapse? Do “a then “b then “c.” Leg severed below the knee? Do “x” then“y” then “z.” We could pull this off blindfolded, or under fire, and the common medical principles informing these diverse treatments gradually revealed themselves to us as a result of the doing.
The new guy phased out that whole method, dubbing it wasteful and inefficient. He believed we should comprehend and internalize the fun­­damental "principles" of wound-dressing: Stop the hemor­rhaging, immobilize the limb, pre­vent infection, and so forth. Then, at the moment of truth, we would be able to bring these principles to bear on each different medical crisis we faced. This process was supposed to create a “flexible,” “thinking,” and “improvising” medic. It was an unmitigated disaster (and was promptly adopted as the preferred teaching method at Training Base 10).
I had read Berkovits Not in Heaven years ago, and was left with the impression that he saw Judaism as enshrining the methodology of the second instructor—halacha as a framework (in Berkovits own formulation) for “the creative boldness of application of the comprehensive ethos of the Tora to the case.” The concluding section of Hazonys essay provided me with an essential corrective, whereby it became clear that there is a crucial difference: While Berkovits saw the attainment of certain lofty ethical objectives as the ultimate raison detre of the Judaic system (and the premier guide of the rabbis in fleshing out and “adjusting” scriptural law), he did not make what I personally see as Christianitys major blunder of confusing ends with means, of employing ultimate aims as intermediate peda­gogical techniques. Ideals dont make good step­pingstones toward their own achievement. We do not arrive at a charitable society by constantly preaching charity, but by constantly giving charity, as Maimonides points out in his commentary to the exhortation “all is according to the amount of the work." (Mishna Avot, 3:19) Asking whether it is better to give a hundred beggars one coin each, or one beggar a hundred coins, Maimonides answers that the former option is preferable, because it inures one to the act of giving.
Berkovits as Hazony presents him has at least as much of my first, “inductive instructor in him as he does of my second, “deductive instructor, and this was news to me. Biblical and rabbinic norms, at any rate, appear to be a two-way street, proceeding at one and the same time inductively, min haprat el haklal (from the particular to the general), and deductively, min haklal el haprat (from the general to the particular). Berkovits as Hazony reveals him embodies this dialectical tension nicely, and builds upon it a truly compelling conception of Judaism.
Hazonys comparison of Berkovits outlook in this matter with those of Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and R. Joseph B. Solo­­vei­­tchik is as enlightening as it is timely: It should be required reading for all our resident mystics, philosophical ethicists, and spiritual individualists who have “turned the spotlight inward. I look forward to further installments of this edifying stuff.
Ze’ev Maghen
Tel Aviv
 
To the Editors:

David Hazonys essay “Eliezer Berkovits and the Revival of Jewish Moral Thought is a thoughtful and lucid presentation of a number of central issues in my fathers thought. The essay, and even more importantly, the forthcoming anthology Essential Essays on Judaism, edited by Hazony, which is to be published later this year, represents a major effort to focus our attention on the works of one of the most significant figures in twentieth-century Jewish thought. I believe that what would most excite my father about this project is the prospect of deepening our understanding of the major questions which continue to confront us in the application of Judaism in the modern Jewish state.
In the 1960s and 1970s, few if any Orthodox thinkers were concerned with the issues that preoccupied Eliezer Berkovits: Judaism and democracy; the role of women in the community and in Tora scholarship; unity and religious commitment; the relation of body and spirit in the worship of God; halacha and ethics; and the relation of rationality and personal experience as a foundation of faith. My fathers work is perhaps the most important attempt to date to create a philosophy to deal with these issues and with the creative application of Tora in human life, within a total commitment to the authority of Tora.
Today, important streams of Orthodox and secular life are growing aware of the critical need to concentrate on these issues. Thus, the Berkovits project is deeply relevant to the growing number of Israelis who aspire to live a realistic Jewish life in contemporary Israel. The encounter between European Orthodoxy and modern Western experience has at times become one of confusion and mutual ambivalence, and yet at the same time has catalyzed communal creativity. In the final analysis, though significant numbers of Orthodox Jews have been integrated into the sciences and technology, the liberal professions, the Israel Defense Forces, and the academic world, modern Orthodoxy remains the “peripheral man in Israel and in the diaspora, spiritually, socially, and culturally.
In Eliezer Berkovits interpretation of Judaism as a living framework for a contemporary Jewish state, the bedrock issue always is “the nature and function of halacha.” R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik harnessed a unique blend of religious existential thought with the rigors of the “Brisker” talmudic method to enrich and deepen a life of halacha. R. Abraham Isaac Kook plumbed the depths of kabalistic writing to describe the creative spiritual personality that might bring about the revival of Tora in the nascent culture of Israel. My father saw the central issue facing modern Orthodoxy as the challenge posed by the revolution in the activities and aspirations of real people and real communities. In response he began to see halacha as a tool in fashioning contemporary Jewish life. He sought a creative halachic process that would remain loyal to the ultimate concerns and commitments of Tora and Orthodoxy. The conceptual basis was formulated clearly by him in England in 1943:
Actual life is a great partner to the spirit; without the one the other is meaningless. The teachings of the Tora can therefore reveal their real sense only when there is a concrete reality in which they can be applied…for just as Tora shapes life, so does Tora-shaped life, in its turn, direct and unfold Tora… And so on to eternity; Tora leading life, and Tora-led life unfolding Tora. This is the inner meaning of the partner­ship between Tora and prosaic, everyday existence; and out of this partnership emerges a Judaism capable of unlim­ited development. (Toward Historic Judaism, p. 32)


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