Yeshayahu Leibowitz - First step towards atheism
Lior Tal [email]
is a student of journalism and political science
in the University of Tel Aviv
Translation from Hebrew by the webmaster.
Is there actually no meaning to the statement "I believe in god"?|
"I do not understand the meaning of
those words when not related to the duties
that evolve of them... and you have to also mention that in the world as
it is today string pulling by god is not noticable at all".
What are the major elements in the faith of a religious person, as they are perceived
by the vast majority of the religious world, globally, and the Orthodox one
First, the creation of the world. The question is what is the
beginning of the being and the answer which points over an outter being
called God stands as the base of that faith. Second, The endowment of
the written Torah and the tractate of its commentaries on Mount Sinai, by
the same God. ie. The Torah and the pradigm of commands we have are a
divine document. Third, the existence of God as a supervising of the
incidents in the world and realizing his discipline in the terms of
compansation and punishment. This supervistion is perceived as private
supervisition and national one. And the completion of the faith circle:
afterlife, the reviving of dead and the arrival of Messiah. There is
an expected reward in the figure of those three to the short vain life on
earth, and all the worlds becomes a corridor leading to the "real world".
We can say those principals, that are, off course, anchored in the well
known 13 principals of faith by Maimonides, are being nowadays the faith
basis of the religious Jew. Almost no rabinical authority would dare oppose
the truth of those principals.
Each single one of those simple pricnipals are not accepted by Prof.
Yeshayahu Leibowitz, z"l. Before I quote his views I feel obligated
to note that Leibowitz was first of all a practicing religious man.
He considered keepeing the Orthodox Halakha as the basis of his existence
and the essence of his life. Leibowitz testified about himself that
over all his life he never considered not keeping Mitzvot, Even not in
teenage, and he sees only one single value in a human life - the worship of
God. "For this is what man is all about" he would repeatedly quote Kohelet.
Nevertheless, as I noted, Leibowitz disagreed with all of those basic
preassumptions of faith. To his claim, there is no religious obligation to
recognize those assumptions as true. He drafts, as his usual habit,
Maimonides to anchor his words in the scriptures. In several places
Maimonides writes that there is no Halkhic obligation in issues of faith
that are not directly linked to practicing Mitzvot. And this is what
Maimonides writes in his commentary about the mishna in Sota tractate,
chapter 3: "And I have already mentioned many times that when there is a
disagreement between the sages in a thought of faith whose object is not
imperative - you do not say there 'the Halakha is like someone says' as this
is something feeded back to God". Once Leibowitz sees himself
released of the religious duty to recognise those principals, he starts a
campaign against them.
The expected questions of everything said above is: What could we say to that
Jew who gets convinced of the words of Leibowitz each by each, refuses
to accept the faith circle of creation-endowment of the Torah-personal
guidance, but makes a further step forward and says: If the decision the
Torah is divine is human, I do not understand why, and by whom I am
demenaded to practice those Torah and human Mitzvot?
The creation of the world - "the existence of the world
depends in a "true extant' which is God, but that does not imply
specifically that the world exists since a particular moment in
which God created it. But most believers are merely unable to
believe in Hashem regarding his divineness, but only as a function
he takes, regarding his being the creator of the world in a
particular date... Perhaps in means of depth of the faith actually
the concept of a primitive world is more suitable, but it is not a
must in the aspect of the faithwise need of the believers".
Leibowitz distinguishes between the essence of the existence
of a god without which a world would be impossible, and the
recognition of the creation of the world by that god. He claims that
even Maimonides has never mentioned a creator (The quote in the
Siddur is indeed inaccurate. In the text of Maimonides the word
"creator" is not present)' but only the principal that was brought
The Torah and the commands we have are divine and were given in
mount sinai - "Faith does not come from upwards but from
downwards... do I need to teach you chapter 33 in the second part of
The Guide for The Perplexed? ie: the question whether the vision
mentioned in Mount Sinai forum is optical vision or a cognitive
vision? Maimonides leaves this issue as an open question, saying -
you can interpret it according to your ability and belief... the
faithwise basis of us is that our scriptures - which are human made
- is the divine discipline which obligates us. Ths is the dogma of
In my only rendezvous with Leibowitz, about two year before
he passed away, I tried to hear from hear in obvious words the basic
faith basis: Torah was written by the divinity. He could noway agree
to give up to a wording that seemed so trivial in Jewish faith. He
claimed in front of me that the only important thing is that I am
demanded to practice Torah and Mitzvot. To the question: by whom am
I demanded? He answered with his typical rebuke: "What does it mean
by whom? Do you think you should be a moral person? Why? There is no
rational reasoning for it, it is a value choice! You are demanded to
accept the burden of Torah and Mitzvot". Michael Sheshar also tried
to "squeeze" of Leibowitz the traditional common accepted
answer and asked him: "And what about the written Torah?", and
Leibowitz answered: "The scriptures declares those are holy
writings". Sheshar doe not loose: "And this is a human decision?"'
"Yes", implies Leibowitz, "we believe that that human
decision is itself the faithful religious decision. I think that I
am expressing myself totally clearly... what I am saying has nothing
new and I would be able to show you those things in the strictly
rabbinical writings. The scriptures are a human creature on one
hand, and on the other hand we accept it as divine. The same
discipline we created ourselves".
The existence of God as a supervising term in our world - "I
have already noted above there is a great difference between the
belief in God and the belief in God's guidance. If the Prime
Minister does not supervise and does not know what the intelligence
does, it is a horrible failure, since his duty is to supervise...
god has no duty for human... if you understand the concept of
'guidance' in its folklore meaning, than also six millions of Jews
were burnt in the gas cells with the assistance of god... In the
world as it is today string pulling by God is noticable at all".
Leibowitz says that the most rooted pricnipal among believers
is basically false. There is no divine interference in the world! In
his article about Job and Abraham Leibowitz says: "Job was
convinced' there was a hidden meaning to creation and wanted to know
it, and God showed him that creation - wherever it was divine - had
no meaning at all". This is how the author throws the whole
basis of religious education taught nowadays in all the Yeshivot to
the trash can, the one that says there is a guide to the world and
creation has a meaning. He says that all those are vain and that the
worlds acts naturally.
Afterlife and the reviving of the dead - "In the commentary of the
Mishna: 'Reviving of the death - I have already explained it' - and one has
to search where Maimonides explained that. And indeed, you find before that:
'Some sages said that evil men are called dead in their lives and justs are
called live when dead'. And this is the reviving of the dead!... the
just - that is the one who achieved a real cognition of God - does not die
with his biological death' since that intellectual cognition of God - and
only it - is eternal... if God revived the dead physically, he would
revive the evil as well". Regarding Messiah Leibowitz told me in my
conversation with him: "Messiah will always be going to come, forever in the
future, will be going to come". This figure of speech he explains literally.
It is impossible we would recognize a world in which Messiah would have
already come since that would not be a world in which we would live.
Therefore we would always be commanded to believe Messiah would come.
This is how Leibowitz closes the faith circle of creation -
endowment of a divine discipline - personal guidance - Afterlife and says
none of these is true! This is why it is easily understandable why there is
so much objection within the religious institute to the writings of the man
and why his name is dared to be mentioned in the seminars. Leibowitz
has a great rare faith in the obligation to worship God in spite of the
obvious recognition there is no divine interference in the world and there
is no promise for good set aside the duty. He contemplates the world in
pragmatic sharp eyes and sees the absurd' the chaos and meaningless in the
creation. As a man of science Leibowitz refuses to get excited of all those
interpretitions which give theoretical unproved answers to the problems of
the world and say that in spite of all there is a divine order inside the
human chaos that sorrounds us. He says that the Kabbalic world is idolatry
and completely rejects the doctrine of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi. Leibowitz
believes fully in one thing: there is a demand to practice the Halakha, this
is what man is all about and a Jew who does not keep that demand is worse,
for him, than the member of any other nation - whether it is a Christian,
Muslim, Indonesian or a complete atheist. The words: I believe in God, are
totally empty of meaning if there is no acceptance of the burden of Torah and
Mitzvot aside them. This is his strict declaration and there is no other way
to interprete him!
Leibowitz was not an atheist, but of his discipline atheism is
guaranteed! His brilliant and consistent rejection of what I call the
faith circle does not imply immediately the abandonment of Mitzvot, but it
will probably lead many to that step.
All I have left is to end with a personal note: I was first introduced to his
writings when I was a 15 year old religious lad. His book "About the world
and its content" taught me skepticism, a consistent uncompromising seeking
of the truth, what philosophical thinking is etc. Leibowitz changed
my thought patterns and furthermore - made me think. His writings brought
me, together with other reasons, to doubt the most basic principals of faith
by which I had been educated. In my rendezvous with him, towards the end of
my high school studies, I had a great lust to hear answers that would resume
me, progressively, to the faith that fleed between my fingers. I think it was
the first time in my life I got seriously disappointed of Prof. Leibowitz
Nowadays I am an atheist.