Yeshayahu Leibowitz - First step towards atheism

Lior Tal


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 particularly?
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 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 above.
  • 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 Judaism".
    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!
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?
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 z"l.
Nowadays I am an atheist.

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