Yeshayahu Leibowitz

This Israeli philosopher saw problems with both secular and religious Zionism.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994) was among the premier intellectuals of Israeli life before and after the establishment of the State of Israel. A scientist and philosopher, it was in the latter role that he had the biggest impact. Leibowitz believed that halakhah (Jewish law) was an end in itself and the primary focus of Judaism. This view led him to controversial views on Zionism and the state. The following article offers a brief overview of Leibowitz’s thought and his critique of Zionism. Reprinted with permission of the Shalom Hartman Institute from Conflicting Visions (Schocken Books).

Leibowitz is not alone in seeing the creation of Israel as a fundamental challenge to Judaism. In order to understand how he approaches the problem, however, his basic views on the nature of Judaism must be outlined.

By Halakhah Alone

According to Leibowitz, Judaism is fundamentally a communal frame of reference. Its prime concern is not with saving the soul of the individual but with providing a way of life whereby a community can express its commitment to serve God. The religious impulse motivating Judaism is the decision of a people to bear witness to the presence of God in the world through its worship and its way of life. Halakhah gives expression to the way that this community lives out its existence and defines its place in the world.

For long periods, the Jewish people was viewed by others and saw itself as a nation constituted by the rule of Torah. To Leibowitz, how­ever, what made Jews different from other nations was not their theol­ogy; other religions share basic assumptions of Jewish monotheism, eschatology, and the like. Nor did their Bible distinguish them, for it has also been adopted by the Christians.

What made the Jews unique was the halakhah that governed their way of life. The laws governing what Jews could eat, which days they were allowed to work, when sexual relations were permitted, as well as the laws on the liturgical forms for daily and festive worship–all these structured and institu­tionalized the Jewish community and provided its distinct character.

The essential point for Leibowitz is that the primacy of halakhah in Judaism is not a theological judgment but an empirical description of what in fact occurred in history. He points out that the Jewish commu­nity could tolerate hostile theological tendencies in its midst. Maimonides, for example, could regard the theology of many of his fellow Jews as mythological and even pagan, while the critics of Maimonides claimed that his theology had been corrupted by ideas taken from Greek philosophy.

However, there would be no comparable toleration of conflicting halakhic practice. Those who held minority halakhic views were allowed to state them, but in their practice they were re­quired to conform to the established majority outlook. What made the Jews a distinct communal entity in history was their commitment to serve God through a shared form of disciplined life, irrespective of their competing and contradictory conceptions of God.

The Challenge of Emancipation

Such was the character of the Jewish community until the beginning of Jewish emancipation at the end of the 18th century. From then on, the Jewish community’s self-understanding began to break down, giving rise to what Leibowitz sees as one of the crucial questions for Judaism in the modern world. Emancipation, when it afforded the Jew the opportunity of merging completely into the surrounding non­-Jewish culture, provided competition with the Jew’s traditional self-understanding.

One attempt to meet that challenge was the emergence of trends within Judaism that sought to amend or even abandon much of halakhah, while preserving the synagogue as a place of worship. Secular Zionism constituted an even more powerful form of competi­tion, since it was an ideology that aimed to redefine the Jewish people in wholly nonreligious terms as a national political community.

Israeli vs. Diaspora Responses

As I see it, the challenge to Judaism in Israel is therefore very differ­ent from the challenge in the Western Diaspora. In the latter, the as­similatory framework with which Judaism is competing is one that threatens to dissolve the Jewish ethnic group, to absorb the Jews in such a way that they are no longer identifiable as Jews.

In Israel, there are two competing Jewish frameworks, both of which claim to be Jew­ish. One asserts that it continues Jewish history through a radical trans­formation of Jewish society and self-definition. The other maintains that the Jewish community is doomed if it abandons its religious roots.

However, Leibowitz himself does not see any essential difference be­tween the situation in Israel and the Diaspora because he does not see any specific Jewish content in Zionism….

Arguing Against Secularism

Leibowitz’s constant argument against the secular option for defin­ing the continuity of Jewish history is that it is a distortion of the his­torical framework of the Jewish people. His argument not only springs from the framework of faith but is also a purely empirical one. To claim continuity with the historical Jewish people and yet abandon hala­khah, to abandon worship of God as the essential framework of Jewish identity, is a falsification of what in fact existed in history.

To Leibowitz, the halakhic way of life is a historical fact. Halakhah is primary for understanding the visible presence and action of this com­munity in history. Leibowitz consequently disagrees both with the religious Zionists who have joined the revolution to build political statehood and with the secular Zionists who claim to continue Jewish history although abandoning the halakhic framework.

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