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Archive for the ‘Introduction’ Category

Introduction Part 3

Posted by Henric C. Jensen on August 18, 2007

Religion and morality

“…not claiming that a religious person cannot be a moral agent. At no point does he maintain that religious demands upon the person or the community are total in the sense of all-inclusive. On many matters the Halakhah is silent. At such points, moral considerations may very well come into play and ought to govern one’s actions. The immorality of a religious person under such circumstances may even reflect upon his religiosity and constitute what is called Hillul Hashem~ desecration of God’s name.

It is interesting that Leibowitz so clearly distinguishes between morals and religion. Not because he is not right doing so – he is – but because it’s an unusual position to take. It makes it possible, even self-evident that the non-religious person can have morals and ethics, something that is frequently questioned by religious people.

Another point where it’s refreshing to read this book, is on the matter of what Halakhah is and is not there to govern, and if in fact it can govern ALL aspects. I am more specifically thinking of all those instances where Halakhah assumes adherence to principles of human decency, and we fail to live up to them, and Halakhah doesn’t take this into consideration.

The agunot, land expropriation, the rights of non-Jews etc. where Halakhah rather than Written Torah assumes that there either is no need for such consideration or has, over the years, been adjusted away from the idea of Written Torah.

One such very specific area is the matter of the Ger. Written Torah is very specific – he/she is just a non-Jewish person living with the People – but the Sages, undoubtedly as a result of the Exile, adjusted the meaning to designate a convert and the original meaning of Ger was “lost”.

Another is the matter of the Agunot. Halakhah clearly assumes that marriage is all peachy, unless there’s a matter of infidelity. It clearly also assumes that a wife-beater will adjust his ways if softly spoken to by the Elders of the community – it does not accept the possibility that Halakhah is not at the forefront of a wife-beater’s mind, or that one aspect of domestic violence is DENIAL, which no soft-speaking will penetrate. Nor does Halakhah contemplate the idea that the whereabouts of an eloped husband cannot be determined at all times. Halakhah is clearly not made out to deal with a global community.

Leibowitz does insist that a person acting as a moral agent cannot be acting as a religious agent and that a religious action cannot be simultaneously a moral action. This is a corollary of his view that human actions, as contrasted with natural events, can only be identified in terms of the agents intention. The morality of an action is determined not by its consequences (though these enter into moral deliberation) but by the agents intention to perform his duty. The religious character of an action is determined by the motive of worshipful service of God. The same external act may on one occasion be moral and on another religious, depending upon the agents motivation. The idea of a religious duty to act morally when this seems to be required would not be a contradiction of Leibowitz’s basic position, even if it may not be consonant with some of his formulations. A moral act done out of respect for religious duty would be a religious act. The person’s proximate motive would be moral, but his ultimate motive religious. The intrinsic ultimacy of the religious motive is the point Leibowitz is trying to bring out.

I am having problems with Leibowitz view on action and intention. It doesn’t ring true that the morality of one’s actions should be determined by one’s intentions. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. So let’s say I kill someone, if I didn’t intend to, is that person less dead? Or is the killing less “killing”. It seems to me that Leibowitz has put the horse before the cart here. While intentions surely has a bearing on the moral consequences of our actions – the act in itself must be the determent.

Posted in Hillul Hashem, Introduction, Maimonides, Religion and morality | Leave a Comment »

The Introduction Part 2

Posted by Henric C. Jensen on July 26, 2007


“The very ascription of normative force to a divine command is a matter of decision. Like many other weighty decisions, this one may be tacit rather than explicit. In the typical case, one is committed to halakhic practice as a result of socialization. Only in situations in which it cannot be taken for granted need the decision enter one’s awareness. The tradition presents the decision to accept the Halakha as a unique historical event which committed the future generations of Israel. However if we follow out the logic of Leibowitz’s position, it would appear that recognition of the validity of this commitment requires constant renewal of the basic decision. The heteronomous force of the Torah and its Mitzvoth is dependent upon continued autonomous commitment (either explicit or tacit) on both communal and personal level.” (Introduction p. xv)

This sounds self-evident to me – again thoughts that have been roaming my mind for years. First the idea of acceptance of faith as a matter of fact (tacit) through socialization and then the idea of acceptance of faith as a result research (explicit) f.i through conversion, but also if the socialization was missed because of f.i secular parenting. Both are valid, and both require constant renewal.

I’d like to enter a thought that was put forward in the comments to “The Introduction Part 1” –

“And with that you should keep in mind that Leibowitz was a Litvak. While we see eye to eye on Jewish ethics, his approach to Jewish observance does not suit the needs of every Jew.” (Mobius July 25th, 2007 at 9:32 am) My emphasis.

When I read Leibowitz I am constantly reminded of Dr. Ellis Rivkin, and the idea that every generation of Rabbis pass the authority of Torah, the Mitzvot and the interpretation of those on to the next generation of Rabbis – which in reality means that even if one were to reverse the order of importance of Written and Oral Torah, the halahka one decides to follow would still be binding, because it’s been transmitted through a chain of halakhic decisions from Sinai to the present. If I choose to take up a certain practice, regardless of which order I give to WT and OT, I cannot one day decide to not do that practice, as that would be violating the level of observance that I have accepted on a personal level.

I also see how Ellis Rivkin and Yeshayahu Leibowitz share a strong kinship in terms of what Judaism and being Jewish is. This is a great comfort to me as I search for a way to reconcile within myself a Zionism that is based in Jewish Law and Tradition with a sense of something not being quite right with secular Zionism. But again I am forestalling the discussion 🙂

“In Leibowitz’s opinion, a need cannot possibly be a value since it is given, not chosen. Freedom of choice is not a value in its own right, but a condition of all valuation. It is something imposed, part of the human condition, not an end in itself. Autonomy does not commit one to any specific norms, not even “the Moral Law.” Hence there is nothing contradictory about the idea of autonomous commitment to a heteronomous system of rules.” (Introduction p. xv.)

I must say that I really don’t see any conflict or contradiction between an autonomous commitment and a heteronomous system of rules – such as halakha. After all, I still have to get up in the morning and put on my tzitzit, lay my tefillin and say my prayers. regardless of whether the decision to do so originates from within me or is imposed on me from without. Both require that I activate myself and move according to a religious imperative.

Posted in Faith, Halakha, Introduction, Litvak, normative, Yeshayahu Leibowitz | Leave a Comment »

The Introduction part 1

Posted by Henric C. Jensen on July 24, 2007

Reading Glasses

The Introduction to the Book is written by Eliezer Goldman.

I admit that I have difficulties getting all the finer points in Goldman’s Introduction to the Thinking of Leibowitz – I am not too familiar with the thinking of Kant on factual and normative. But I understand the meaning of the words, thanks to!

In philosophy, normative is usually contrasted with positive (i.e. descriptive) or explanatory when describing types of theories, beliefs, or propositions. Descriptive (or constative”) statements are falsifiable statements that attempt to describe reality. Normative statements, on the other hand, affirm how things should or ought to be, how to value them, which things are good or bad, which actions are right or wrong. It is only with David Hume in the 18th century that philosophers began to take cognizance of the logical difference between normative and descriptive statements and thinking, although Socrates had emphatically established it more than two thousand years before. There are several schools of thought regarding the status of normative statements and whether they can be rationally discussed or defended. Among these schools are the tradition of practical reason extending from Aristotle through Kant to Habermas, which asserts that they can, and the tradition of emotivism, which maintains that they are merely expressions of emotions and have no rational content. Normative statements and norms, as well as their meanings, are an integral part of human life. They are fundamental for prioritizing goals and organizing and planning thought, belief, emotion and action and are the basis of much ethical and political discourse.

You get that? I kind of do – normative is what we decide is the rule about something – regardless of whether it’s facts or not.

“Ultimately all normative obligations and value-imputations are dependent upon personal decision. A valuation may, of course, be justified in terms of already recognized values, but one’s ultimate values cannot be the subject of rational argument. Their validity for a person results from decision, not from recognition. Since Leibowitz regards religion as an exclusively normative domain and denies that Scripture was intended to be a body of information, this is as true of religious commitment as it is of all other basic life-values. Factual knowledge may be forced upon us by experience. There is nothing to compel one into acceptance of any ultimate value-commitments, including that of religious faith.” (introduction pp xiv-xv)

So religious faith is a choice. Well, I believed that already – though I wouldn’t have said it like that – I usually say it like this: “the existence of G-d cannot be proved nor disproved, so any belief based on the existence of G-d must be a matter of Faith.”

So what is religious faith according to Leibowitz? Leibowitz is Jewish (or was, as he died in 1994) so he is speaking about Judaism. To Leibowitz religious faith is the “Commitment to observance of Halakha as worshipful service of G-d”.

I like this – because it carries a thought I have had, often in discussion with more liberal Jews who complain about the rigidness of the Orthodox: “If it hadn’t been for the rigidness of the Orthodox there would have been no Judaism for you to claim!” Observance of the Mitzvot is the core of Judaism and what it means to be Jewish – in essence that is what makes one Jewish, and that observance is what has kept both the Jewish People and Judaism alive for more than 3000 years.

Posted in Aristotle, Faith, Halakha, Introduction, Kant, normative, Philosophy, Yeshayahu Leibowitz | 5 Comments »

So I begin…

Posted by Henric C. Jensen on July 23, 2007

I have longed for a voice like Yeshayahu Leibowitz – and have wondered where he has been all my Jewish Life…so much of what he says echoes within me.

I found him – and I am astounded, delighted and confused.

Posted in Introduction | 2 Comments »

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