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Samuel Lebens

Post-post-modern Orthodoxy: In response to Rabbi Herzl Hefter

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My teacher Rabbi Sacks, of blessed memory, didn’t like the term “Modern Orthodox.” He felt that it was too limiting. Orthodox Jews are already a minority of Jews worldwide. To call yourself a “Modern Orthodox” Jew is to place yourself within a minority of a minority. In fact, you might think that the term “Modern Orthodox” is somehow redundant now that we live in a post-modern age. But post-Modern Orthodoxy, for reasons that I’ll try to explain, makes very little sense to me. Perhaps I should describe myself as a post-post-modern Orthodox Jew.

I have been blessed to have a number of rabbis and mentors. In addition to Rabbi Sacks, I count myself as a student of Rabbi Herzl Hefter. He is a talmid chacham, whose thought has been shaped by years of absorption in the Jewish textual tradition. He also studied under some of the greatest rabbinic thinkers of the previous generation. When I returned to rabbinical studies, after completing my PhD in philosophy, it was Rabbi Hefter who caused me to think seriously about what it really means to have a relationship with God, and to be, not merely religious and a philosopher, but a religious philosopher. In short, I owe him a great deal, and have tremendous respect for him. But, as a teacher, he is the last person to expect conformity of thinking among his students, and so, in what follows, I want to explain a point of disagreement between us. His recent article, in The Times of Israel, is a vivid demonstration of the ways in which his outlook, with its amenability to post-modernism, differs from mine. 

Rabbi Hefter seeks to articulate a Judaism that is amenable to the post-modern climate in which we live. In characterising that climate, he tells us that, for the post-modernist, it is “a cardinal sin  to insist on the absolute superiority of the belief system of one civilization over another.” He recalls both Nietzsche’s claim that the philosophical desire to build a coherent and explanatory system of thought is “a disease of character,” and Jean Francois Lyotards incredulity towards “totalizing narratives”; including the narratives of the Torah, along with our halachic system which mandates normative behavior.

Now, to be clear, Rabbi Hefter isn’t endorsing the post-modern assault on modernity. As far as he’s concerned, that’s simply the climate in which we live, whether we agree with it or not. His suggestion is merely that our religiosity and our devotion to the halakhic service of God can be reconciled with that climate and can flourish within it.

To this end, he recruits the teachings of the great Hassidic master, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner. Rabbi Leiner teaches that anybody whose religiosity is animated by theological certainty, or by the idea that the revealed Torah offers us a pristine and total conception of the Divine will for humanity, is tainted by idolatry. Real religiosity, according to Rabbi Leiner, requires the sort of humility that can survive in the face of uncertainty. In an excerpt not quoted by Rabbi Hefter, Rabbi Leiner tells us that we should walk in the paths of God, just as prescribed by Scripture and the Rabbis, but all the while that we do so, we should be animated by uncertainty, because we should be constantly cognizant of the fact that God’s will is inestimably deep, and that any representation that we can have of it must, per force, be nothing more than an approximation, even if it’s the best approximation to which we currently have access.

Now, I fundamentally agree with Rabbi Leiner that true religiosity is saturated with the sort of humility that’s characteristic of uncertainty. I agree with him that if God exists above and beyond creation, then the tools with which we have to describe His nature and His will are likely to be limited and distorting, to the extent that the best we could ever hope for, even at a moment like the revelation at Sinai, is an approximation; a result of the infinite light of God contracting itself into the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew Bible. 

This is to agree with Rabbi Leiner, and to be open to a Judaism that is itself open to the unfolding of revelation over time, as our approximation of God’s will evolves in conversation with the unfolding of history, and human understanding. Of course, even to describe this process as one in which we develop ever closer approximations of God’s will is, itself, at best, a partial description of an underlying reality to which human language can likely do little justice. But it’s the best that we can do. It is a Judaism, as Rabbi Hefter rightly says, according to which the desire to “explain everything in the most certain terms must be naïve and ignorant of the complex and constantly changing world in which we live.” That’s just my sort of Judaism. I learnt it first from Rabbi Hefter. But I think it’s a mistake, and a deep one at that, to think that this sort of Judaism can flourish in a post-modern climate. On the contrary, the post-modern climate that Rabbi Hefter describes is as toxic to Rabbi Leiner’s Judaism as it is to the Judaism of the ultra-conservative and chauvinist religiosity that claims to have a pristine picture, at all times, of exactly what God wants. Both types of religion, the chauvinistically certain, and the humbly uncertain, wither in a post-modern climate. I’m happy for chauvinism to wither, but not for humility.

Rabbi Leiner’s principle of theological uncertainty is, exactly as it says it is, a principle about uncertainty. That means, technically speaking, that it belongs to the branch of philosophy called epistemology. Epistemology is the study of belief and knowledge. What Rabbi Leiner is suggesting is that the underlying reality of this world is such that a systematic explanation of all of its phenomena, one that is worthy of certainty, is beyond our epistemic reach. But does that mean that there is no such thing as an underlying reality? No. In fact, that’s one thing of which Rabbi Leiner does seem certain. Even if every system of thought is doomed to fail to capture it in its entirety, there is an underlying reality that we’re trying to capture. Rabbi Leiner was certain that there’s something that we can only grasp dimly, and with humility, rather than with arrogance and certainty, but that thing is the reality that exists beyond us. And it, whatever exactly it is, exists for certain. In fact, I think he was more sure of its existence than he was of the existence of his own personal-self. 

Can Rabbi Leiner’s theology thrive in a climate in which it is “a cardinal sin  to insist on the absolute superiority of the belief system of one civilization over another”? No. For Rabbi Leiner, the cardinal sin is to think that your belief system has got everything exactly right, in every respect, and in such a way that it’s worthy of our being certain of the truth of every one of its teachings. But that’s quite consistent with the claim that some belief systems are closer approximations of the truth than others; and that some are more worthy of our faith than others. Indeed, it could be that Judaism, even as it continues to evolve and change over time, is most worthy of our faith. It’s certainly more worthy of our faith than the human-sacrificing polytheisms of the ancient near-east that Judaism came to replace, for example, and it’s more worthy of our faith than the unthinking and reductive scientism of contemporary naturalistic philosophy.

Moreover, I think Rabbi Hefter is wrong to seek some way of accommodating religiosity to the post-modern climate he describes, all the while maintaining a neutral stance on the philosophical merits of that climate. Instead, I think he should be challenging the harmful presuppositions at the heart of the most radical forms of post-modernism. There’s a reason why the most extreme variants of this philosophy have flourished only in literature and sociology departments, and not in many of the great philosophy departments. The reason is that radically post-modern philosophy tends to be shoddy and sloppy philosophy. To look at incredulity at all “meta-narratives,” as Lyotard prescribes, is to become instantly entangled in unnecessary paradoxes of self-reference, as becomes clear when Nietzsche tells us to trust no system, not even his. Any sort of systematic antipathy to system-building will always be inherently self-refuting. To claim that logic, for example, is just a “pretentious meta-narrative,” like any other, is to invite people to scrutinise your claims illogically. But that’s a dereliction of the imperative of the intellect. 

The idea that there’s no such thing as fundamental truth is one of the most toxic delusions of our age. In a world where there are no facts to arbitrate our debates, the side that wins is simply the side that shouts loudest. In a world where there are no facts to arbitrate our debates, we get Trumpism on one side of the aisle, and an anti-intellectual form of identity politics on the other. Epistemic humility is the ability to recognise that many of your beliefs might be wrong, but it’s a far cry from the absurd belief that no beliefs are right or wrong. God’s Torah is unequivocally and certainly true. I don’t think that any of the Hassidic masters seriously doubted that claim. Rather, they would urge us to recognise that our current understanding of God’s Torah can only be an approximation, and a work in progress. But we must not deny the existence of the truth towards which we’re trying to march; otherwise there would be no point in marching towards it. 

Of course, I agree with Rabbi Hefter when it comes to the most important bottom line; that we should adopt Rabbi Leiner’s principle of theological uncertainty. But we cannot forget that it is a principle about epistemology (it tells us how we should wear our beliefs), and not a principle about metaphysics. Reality is not just a set of humanly constructed narratives upon narratives all the way down. There is, instead, some way that the world actually is, and that is what we approach, faultingly for sure, and never reaching an exhaustive understanding, as we move forward with the unfolding of science, philosophy, and Torah. 

But fundamentally, I would say that the epistemic humility of Rabbi Leiner is rendered empty and unimpressive when housed in a post-modern climate. It’s easy to be humble about what you believe if, like Nietzsche, you think that all beliefs are pretty much empty. It’s a much greater achievement, and a much richer form of religosity, to be humble about what you believe if your beliefs are undergirded by a foundational assumption that there is a brute reality (whether it be the physical constitution of the universe, or the psychological constitution of the mind of God), and that some systems of belief are closer, and some are further away, from being an accurate construal of its contours. To operate under the scope of that assumption, but still to recognise that your own system of beliefs is at best an approximation of something that’s still coming into focus, and that other people’s systems of beliefs may be better approximations, or may, at least, have grasped some aspects of reality better than yours, is to embody a religious mindset that’s much more inspiring and worthy of respect than any sort of religiosity founded upon the metaphysical nihilism of Nietzsche.

The one thing we should allow post-modernity to teach us is that there are slim prospects for arriving at certainty that any one systematic theory of the world is true. But we shouldn’t be seduced by the ultimately incoherent doctrine that there are no absolute truths to discover, even if some of them, and even if some sort of systematic certainty, lie forever out of our epistemic reach. Instead, we should make do with our best approximations of the truth, and walk in them with humility. This, I would call a post-post-modern Orthodoxy.

About the Author
Samuel Lebens is a Rabbi and a professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa. He has written books and articles on Jewish and secular philosophy covering a broad range of themes from the work of Bertrand Russell to the thought of the Hassidic masters. Visit his website at www.samlebens.com
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