Eliezer Berkovits and the Revival of Jewish Moral Thought

By David Hazony

With the decreasing relevance of most Jewish philosophy, a neglected American thinker deserves a new look.

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For nearly two centuries, the institution of Jewish law has sustained withering criticism from religious thinkers who have argued that in submitting to a legalistic outlook, Judaism has abandoned the moral truths that were at the core of the ancient biblical teaching. Following Spinoza, these writers have argued that while the law may once have been necessary for the establishment of the ancient Jewish people, it was already showing signs of wear by the time of the prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, and is certainly not relevant as law today; rather, it is the moral spirit expressed by these prophets that is the eternal message of Judaism. Thus according to Martin Buber, a leading spokesman for this approach, the central problem with the traditional view is that it “transforms the law into a heap of petty formulas and allows man’s decision for right and wrong action to degenerate into hairsplitting casuistry,” with the result that “religion no longer shapes but enslaves religiosity.”1 
Views similar to Buber’s can be said to have reached the height of their influence during the first half of the twentieth century, at a time when modernist beliefs had become so accepted among Jewish religious thinkers that many openly doubted whether Jewish law would even survive the coming generations.2 In our day, however, a reaction against such extreme positions can be felt throughout the spectrum of Jewish religious belief, a striking example being the platform adopted by the Reform movement in 1999, which broke with its century-long opposition to the application of Jewish law when it called for the “ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot,” and the renewed observance of classical practices previously abjured by many of the movement’s leaders.3 As a result, the question of the importance of the Jewish law, or halacha, has again become relevant in circles well beyond its traditional constituency, necessitating the reconsideration of fundamental questions concerning the nature and function of this law: If an approach to Jewish life based on law is not inherently at odds with the moral demands of the prophets, as some have argued, then what, if anything, is its moral value? Is it possible that the law, properly understood, could itself play an important role in creating the moral personality, and even that most elusive of aims, the moral society?
With such questions in the air, it is well worth a renewed consideration of the writings of Eliezer Berkovits, perhaps the one modern thinker who addressed these questions most directly and systematically, and who for this reason may prove to be the most significant Jewish moral theorist of the last generation. Berkovits, who died in 1992, is known principally for his writings on the Holocaust, as well as his essays on modern trends of Jewish philosophy.4 His most important work, however, may be his exploration of the nature of Jewish morality—an effort spanning half a dozen books and many essays, which offers a comprehensive approach to Jewish faith that includes both respect for the traditional law asa binding norm and a belief in the normative supremacy of the values and vision articulated by the prophets.
This he achieved through a careful examination of the rabbinic and biblical literature, which led him to reach three important conclusions about Jewish morality: (i) That the halacha as presented in the Bible and Talmud is primarily about moral values rather than rules, and that any attempt to reduce it to a fixed set of rules violates its essence; (ii) that Jewish morality, as expressed by the prophets and as impressed upon the halacha, is concerned fundamentally with the consequences of one’s actions rather than the quality of one’s reasoning or intention; and (iii) that Judaism understands morality not only as a discipline of man’s intellect or spirit, but no less as an effort which must be incorporated into the habits of his physical being, through the vehicle of law, if it is to achieve its goal of advancing mankind in history.
Perhaps there is no need to say that if Berkovits’ description of Jewish morality is correct, then much of the fire and brimstone poured upon the halacha over many years may have been misguided, and the road may in fact be open for a serious reconsideration of the justifications and desirability of a law-observing Judaism in our own time. But perhaps of equal interest is the light which Berkovits’ arguments shed on the defense of the law mounted by many of its staunchest adherents in recent years, which the central claims of his philosophy do much to call into question as well. In what follows, therefore, I have devoted one section to each of what I take to be the three central tenets of Berkovits’ worldview concerning the relationship between Jewish morality and the traditional law. In so doing, I hope to show that, when considered together, they constitute one of the most potentially fruitful philosophies of Jewish morality in recent times; and to suggest that this effort may offer a path towards a more coherent understanding of the Jewish normative tradition. 

David Hazony is Senior Editor of Azure. He is the editor of a new anthology of Berkovits’ writings, Essential Essays on Judaism, to be published this year by Shalem Press.

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