Authority Needs Language
Strands in the Torah – Strands in Judaism
Like other readers of Benjamin Sommer’s new book, I found his rich, careful and exciting readings of the Torah, and its connections to later Jewish thought, inspiring and illuminating. Particularly interesting is the idea that the tension among the various strands in the biblical text as regards what happened at Sinai helps explain how views as different as those of Maimonides and the Kabbalah could both claim the mantle of authentic Judaism. This is a wonderful insight, and should be of great and lasting value to both historians and theologians.
Nevertheless, this insight does little to show how the Torah might be normatively binding — authoritative. An account of the Torah like Sommer’s, by which it amounts to a collection of different views of revelation rather than a unified source of law, makes it very unclear where legal authority is supposed to lie for Jews. If we are to choose between the E and the D version of a certain law, or to revise both as “merely human” approximations of what God might want of us, what criterion does Sommer suggest we use to guide that choice?
Individual Autonomy and Communal Authority: Two Problematic Alternatives
Sometimes Sommer appeals to autonomy as the criterion for such choices; more often he says that the relevant criterion for halachic decision-making is the will of our community. Decisions about the law need to be made, he says, “not by each individual” but by “communities of observant Jews.” Both of these alternatives are deeply problematic.
The first suggests that a principle of individual autonomy, like Kant’s categorical imperative, should be the real touchstone of Jewish law. If autonomy is our ultimate moral and spiritual authority, then that would seem to be what is really “revealed” to us by God, or what takes the place of revelation. This was indeed the approach of early Reform Judaism, leading it to regard only the moral aspects of the Torah as truly from God. There was consistency and integrity in this approach, but it led, notoriously, to the abandonment of most of what is distinctive in Jewish practice — not at all what Sommer is looking for (for similar reasons, the Reform movement itself later moved away from this approach).
Nor is there any reason to see the Torah as expressing individual autonomy especially well; a set of commands from above are hardly likely to do that. If individual autonomy is God’s true teaching to us, then we might as well take Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, which exalts precisely that idea, to be our real source of revelation.
The tendency of an emphasis on individual autonomy to pull us away from Torah altogether is probably the reason why Sommer insists that we should be guided by our communities instead. But, in the first place, this seems at variance with the emphasis on the beauty of a book filled with different human voices — individual human voices — that guides Sommer’s readings of the Torah. And in the second place, it is morally worrying.
How do we know which observant Jewish communities to trust, after all? It is not as if it is obvious how to answer that question: many observant communities condone or pass lightly over serious breaches of morality and those that do well in this regard are not infrequently communities committed simply to moral goodness, rather than to the details of shabbat or kashrut.
I cannot easily think of any Jewish community I would feel comfortable simply deferring to on all matters of halacha. But if I need to “pick and choose” which community I will listen to, on each halachic issue, then I would seem to be back to individual autonomy as my ultimate religious authority.
Revamping Rosenzweig’s Approach – To Its Detriment
Even if we set aside the question of the authority of law, however, we face a problem in Sommer’s construal of the nature of law. His suggestion that various strands in the Torah itself anticipate the thought of Heschel and Rosenzweig is new and plausible. But the view of law that he draws from Rosenzweig is deeply problematic.
Rosenzweig – Experienced Command vs. Law
Consider in particular Sommer’s use of Rosenzweig’s distinction between Gebot (command) and Gesetz (law). Franz Rosenzweig’s own version of this distinction is problematic. It is yet more problematic in the way that Sommer uses it. I’ll say something about the problems in Rosenzweig himself first, then turn to Sommer’s version of the distinction.
For Rosenzweig, the distinction picks out different ways of looking at the same normative content. When I say the beracha over laying tefillin or reading the Torah, then I experience these actions as Gebot, commanded to me by God in I/Thou mode; when I look at the rules requiring these actions from the outside, then they are mere Gesetz for me, dry norms of behavior that may be of sociological interest but have no religious content.
Thus Rosenzweig, especially when trying to get Buber to see existential value in lived Jewish ritual. Buber had brought out the existential power of a great range of Jewish texts, but dismissed Jewish law as deadening. For Buber, it was just “the fact of man” — human nature, by which he seems to mean our need for pattern, order, clear expectations — that leads the experience of God, the encounter with God that we have when we are fully authentic, to get translated into law. Rosenzweig urges Buber to find the same authentic encounter in halacha, when it is experienced as Gebot.
I have doubts about the presuppositions that Buber and Rosenzweig share, in this debate. Why suppose that our authentic selves appear only in the present moment? Why does our authentic self not include the need for pattern, order, etc. that leads us to seek out law? And why should God, presumably caring about our whole selves, rather than just the bits that appear in existentialist moments, not address us via law as well as command? But if God does address us via both, law and command may be more integrated than Rosenzweig supposes: we may not be able to separate God’s “commands” from God’s “laws.”
Sommer: General Obligation vs. Specifical Laws
But whatever one might say about Rosenzweig’s own use of this distinction, it is at least coherent. Gebot was just one way of looking at Gesetz; they had the same content. Which is to say that for Rosenzweig, commands have content.
That cannot be said of Sommer’s construal of commands (Gebote). Sommer wants to see a non-verbal divine command as somehow behind Jewish law, with the laws themselves as purely human. “At Sinai,” Sommer says, “God conveyed [just] the command, ‘Israel must —,’ ’Love Me, by —.’”
But these are not in fact commands: just templates for a command. Sommer’s commands are merely the opening part of sentences, not complete propositions. No criteria could possibly determine whether one was following or not following such empty frameworks, and it is unintelligible, therefore, to speak of “accepting” or “rejecting” them; what Sommer describes as “subverting the tradition … [by] rejecting the Gebot” is conceptually impossible, not something that we need either entertain or worry about.
Imagine if the U.S. Constitution amounted just to “The United States must —“, and “To show your loyalty to the country, you have to —.” That would be the same as not having a Constitution, and there could be no such thing as accepting or rejecting it.
The Impossibility of a Non-Verbal Command
A command is a sentence in the imperative mood. It has propositional form and it is addressed to one or more people as something she, or they, ought to do, regardless of what they want to do. Even if I say to you, simply, “Do this!”, I am pre-supposing that I can explain what “this” is, and differentiate it from other, similar things. A command is something the commander and the commanded can discuss, even if no reason is given for the command itself. Commands operate in a space of reasons, of discourse. But that is just to say that commands must take a discursive form; they must be couched in a language of some sort. A non-linguistic command is an oxymoron.
This point has far-reaching implications. In the first place, it suggests that if we want to see God as making normative demands on us, we need to see God as speaking to us in some sense, as engaging in linguistic — verbal — revelation. Perhaps some sort of revelation is possible nonverbally, but not a revelation that has legal implications. The wholly non-verbal revelation that Sommer privileges cannot underwrite any sort of halacha.
A Torah with God’s Words
It seems to me that we will in any case lose something if we reduce Jewish law to something made purely by human beings. One of the most inspiring ideas in Judaism is precisely that we have a source of law that, because divine, transcends what any individual or community may happen to think should govern us. It is that idea that lies at the core of the thought that God can speak to us — and that certain words, passed down as fixed and as deserving of deference, embody what God has said.
This is the deep idea, I think, that motivates a distinction between written and oral Torah. Written Torah, standing above Oral Torah — above the discussions and arguments by which we express our autonomy — is the voice of God that we hope underlies, but can also correct, everything that we say and believe. It is therefore a source of disruption: it can continually challenge the accepted wisdom of our day, the taken-for-granted assumptions of our discussions and arguments. We should be loath to lose that source of disruption, however it may need to be re-conceived in the modern day. Only with it in hand do we have the resources to claim that God’s commands contradict our communal norms — to defy our communities in the name of a higher authority.
For all the richness of Sommer’s book, and the insights it provides, his eagerness to abandon the idea of written Torah is thus a step backwards, not forwards: something that indeed shakes up the authority traditionally attributed to our law but that does so in favor of a worrying conservatism, an express favoring of the community over the individual that can ironically be more oppressive to dissenting views than the Orthodoxy it means to supplant. Progressive Jews committed to halacha need a view of Torah that allows us to call our communities to account, before the voice of the God who transcends us, yet speaks our language well enough to command us.
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January 4, 2017
September 22, 2019
Professor Sam Fleischacker is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and, in 2013-14, a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. His most recent books include What is Enlightenment? (Routledge, 2013) and Divine Teaching and the Way of the World (Oxford, 2011).
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