On Yeshayahu Leibowitz

Yeshayahu Leibowitz

(1903 – 1994)

Born in Riga, Leibowitz studied chemistry and philosophy at the University of Berlin, where he received his doctorate in 1924. He also studied medicine and became a medical doctor in 1934 at the University of Basel. In 1935 he settled in Palestine and joined the staff of the Hebrew University. He was appointed professor of organic and biochemistry and neurophysiology. His research was concerned with saccharides and enzymes in chemistry and with the nervous system of the heart in physiology. He was the head of the biological chemistry department at the Hebrew University and professor of neurophysiology at the HU Medical School. He also taught the history and philosophy of science. Yet Leibowitz was not only an academician. He was involved in public affairs and had a unique approach to Judaism. As such he was a popular lecturer, who loved to appear before diverse audiences, also frequently on radio and television. Leibowitz served as editor in chief of several volumes of the Encyclopedia Hebraica. His writings are found mostly in periodicals: Gilyonot, De’ot, Be-Terem, Petaḥim, and Moznayim, and also in the newspaper Haaretz. A selection of lectures and articles from the period 1942–53 was published in book form, entitled Torah u-Mitzvot ba-Zeman ha-Zeh (1954). His book of collected essays, Yahadut, Am Yehudi u-Medinat Yisrael (“Judaism, Jewish People, and the State of Israel,” 1975) stated his philosophy and views. Other books (published in 1965 and 1982) testify to his broad knowledge and great interest in Jewish life. He also wrote on Maimonides, The Sayings of the Fathers, and the weekly Torah-portion. In 1992 Eliezer Goldman published a collection of Leibowitz’s essays in English under the title Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State, making him known internationally.Yeshayahu Leibowitz was an Israeli scientist and philosopher.

Leibowitz regarded Judaism as a religious and historical phenomenon, which is characterized by a recognition of the duty to serve God in performing mitzvot. The service of God according to binding halakhic norms must be “for its own sake” (li-shemah), and its purpose is not designed to achieve personal perfection or to improve society. Religion is thus not a means toward any specific end. Judaism is for Leibowitz not humanism, or a sentiment or a bundle of memories. Jews have the obligation to take upon themselves the yoke of Torah and mitzvot. Leibowitz’s standpoint is thus neither anthropocentric or ethnocentric, but theocentric. Consistent with his own reasoning, Leibowitz refused to be called a “humanist,” because this is an anthropocentric notion that envisages the human being as a supreme value. Under the influence of Maimonides, Leibowitz stressed the transcendence of God, whom we cannot know. His thought also contains Kantian elements. Kant’s critique of pure reason led to a theological agnosticism, whereas his critique of practical reason led him to affirm that the realization of values follows from a person’s autonomous decision. There is a tension between Leibowitz the philosopher who read Kant on human autonomy, and regarded politics and ethics as domains where human autonomy is decisive, and the halakhic man who lived in conformity with his strict halakhic, theocentric conception of Judaism. For Leibowitz, morality is thus an atheistic category. Kant’s influence on Leibowitz is also clear when he states that the value of a religious act is determined by the intention. Only when one performs an act because it is a divine commandment does it possess a religious value.

Leibowitz repeatedly expressed his opinions on the religious aspect of Jewish life in Israel. Before the state of Israel was established, he stressed the religious importance that national independence would assume, provided it would bring about halakhic legislation designed to mold the character of the state. After the establishment of the state, he advocated the separation of the Jewish religion from the state and its confrontation with it. He adopted a negative attitude toward the system of party rule, including the religious parties with their economic and rabbinical institutions.

Leibowitz emphasized the necessity for innovation in the halakhah, due to the changed circumstances created by the establishment of the State of Israel. He wanted halakhic decisions to cope with the challenge of today. One can note a change in his thought concerning the state in the course of time, although he himself would have denied this. Leibowitz refused to grant to the state religious status: the aim of the state would be the fulfillment of the needs of the individual and of the community, nothing more. He thought it was idolatry to ascribe holiness to the land or the state, which is not (in the words of religious Zionism) “the beginning of the redemption.” The state – just like history – had for Leibowitz no religious significance. He was a Zionist, but he emphasized that the state need not realize values, it has merely to satisfy needs. The Jewish people, on the other hand, has to realize values. Against Ben-Gurion, he pleaded for the separation of state and religion. Whereas Ben-Gurion wanted religion to be an instrument in the hands of the state, Leibowitz asserted that religion had to be in opposition to the state. For Judaism, only God is holy, whereas country, nation, and state lack that status. The state is not a value in itself; indeed, “seeing the state as a value is the essence of the fascist conception.” Rather, Leibowitz argued, the state is an instrument, a means to an end. Its existence allowed him not to be ruled by the goyim. In addition, Leibowitz criticized the “sacred cow of national unity,” pointing out that the Jewish religion had always divided the people, whether between prophets and kings or between religionists or secularists.

Leibowitz further denied that Zionism had any religious significance, stating that, since the intention of many of its propagators had been completely nonreligious, it could not be retrospectively assigned religious value. In the same way, he refused to acknowledge any messianic significance in the creation of the State of Israel, citing Maimonides’ warning against such messianic fervor. He did, however, ascribe immense moral significance for the Jewish people to the establishment of the Jewish state: “Now – and only now,” he wrote,”with the attainment of the independence of the Jewish nation – will Judaism be tested as to whether indeed it has a ‘Torah of life’ in its hand …. Certainly there is no guarantee that the struggle on behalf of the Torah within the framework of the state will be crowned with success, but even so we are not free to desist from it, for this struggle is itself a supreme religious value, independent of its results.”

Leibowitz was well known in Israel for his provocative utterances on the political situation. After the 1967 Six-Day War, his position on the occupation of the Palestinian territories was sharply critical. His uncompromising stance and forceful, biting language made him a known and much-discussed figure in religious as well as secular circles. In his opinion, partition of the country would be the rational and moral resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With the outbreak of the Lebanon War in 1982, Leibowitz called upon the Israeli soldiers to refuse to serve in Lebanon. He also supported conscientious objection regarding military service in the territories on the grounds that occupation morally corrupts. His outspokenness on matters of conscience led to his vilification by those who saw him as a threat to their values, and the protest that ensued upon the announcement that he had been awarded the Israel Prize in 1993 was such that he turned it down.

In his antimystical approach to Judaism, Leibowitz wanted Jews to reach out toward transcendence, which is approached in the mitzvot that have to be performed without reward. Whereas *Levinas links morality and religion, Leibowitz differentiates between them and even separates the two. Levinas believed that the appeal of the other person is heteronomous, whereas Leibowitz maintained that only the divine command is heteronomous and that morality is autonomous. Therefore, their views on the relationship between religion and morality are radically opposed: for Levinas, religion and morality are intrinsically linked, for Leibowitz, ethical laws are religiously relevant only if a person accepts them as commanded by God. Another crucial difference between Levinas and Leibowitz lies in the fact that the former emphasizes the performance of the ethical act itself, whereas the latter highlights the intention of the act: an act is religious if performed “for the sake of heaven,” it is not religious when performed as a function of human needs and based upon a person’s arbitrary will. Since morality is autonomous, based upon human thought and will, and therefore not “for the sake of heaven,” but “for the sake of man,” it is not religious. Towards the end of his life, Leibowitz appreciated Levinas, but his concept of Torah and mitzvot prevented him from agreeing with him.

Leibowitz had a very negative view of Christianity as well as of modern Jewish thinkers like *Rosenzweig and *Buber, who showed intellectual and religious interest in Christianity. In contrast to scholars and thinkers like David *Flusser, who investigated the Jewish roots of Christianity, Leibowitz wrote that the very concept of a “Judeo-Christian heritage” is a square circle. A synthesis or symbiosis is impossible; Christianity is for Leibowitz the adversary of Judaism. In his view, Christianity is the heir who does not want to admit that the testator is still alive. Judaism and Christianity cannot coexist, because Christianity claims that it is true Judaism, and is interested in the liquidation of Judaism as the religion of Torah and mitzvot.

In his essays, Leibowitz produced sharp and thought-provoking insights on many subjects such as the nature of holiness, chosenness, Messianism, prayer, redemption, and general and personal providence. His consistent and provocative thought gave him a prominent position in contemporary Jewish thought, especially in Israel. His thinking, even when contested, is stimulating and powerful and invites or even forces people to respond by formulating their own views.

In 2005, Leibowitz was voted the 20th-greatest Israeli of all time in an online poll conducted by an Israeli newspaper.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved; The Pedagogic Center, The Department for Jewish Zionist Education, The Jewish Agency for Israel, (c) 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, Director: Dr. Motti Friedman, Webmaster: Esther Carciente

A. Kasher and Y. Levinger, Sefer Yeshayahu Leibowitz (Heb., 1977); H. Kasher, “‘Torah for Its Own Sake,’ ‘Torah Not for Its Own Sake,’ and the Third Way,” in: The Jewish Quarterly Review, 89:2-3 (1988-89), 153-63; A. Sagi (ed.), Yeshayahu Leibowitz. His World and Philosophy (Heb., 1995); Yeshayahou Leibowitz: le retour du sadducéen par Ami Bouganim (1999); A.Z. Newton, The Fence and the Neighbor: Emmanuel Levinas, Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Israel among the Nations (2001); D. Banon, “E. Levinas et Y. Leibovitz,” in D. Cohen-Levinas and S. Trigano (eds.), Emmanuel Levinas: Philosophie et judaisme (2002), 57-86.

From Jewish Virtual Library, here.

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