Symposium Great Neck 2

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Interviewer: Formal Jewish philosophy has a long history dating at least as far back as the first century. Reportedly Jewish philosophy is not as old as Jewish practice but it certainly has a history longer than that of most other religions. Over the centuries a relatively small set of questions have found themselves lingering at the center of our evolving philosophy, for example, why does the universe exist? Why does the individual exist? Why does the world as we find it and how can there be gross evil in the world? Whether or not there’s a unified over-arching philosophical system in the Torah is debatable. But what is less debatable is that the Torah puts relatively few barriers in the way of creative philosophical investigation. The result is that Jewish philosophers have been able to think rather freely about this set of core issues; issues that have thus emerged at the center of a crowded field of unique ideas that cover these questions on diverse and varied angles. In light of this is it still possible to contribute something new to the discourse or have these fundamental issues in Jewish philosophy been exhausted, if not resolved? I think that David has indeed contributed something new and different to these issues by perhaps paradoxically embracing realties that are implicit in the life of an observant Jew, but that seem to have been willfully overlooked by many of our philosophers. In his first book David explores traditional viewpoints on cosmogony, the origin of the universe and the odyssey. The problem of the co-existence of an omnitive God and world with evil within Judaism. He then presents his own detailed paradigm that explicates both. Book One, God and Evil, is about explaining. It is un-mystical and it was anything but abstract and while we can agree or disagree with him, the novel concepts in this book are well-defined, they are not open-ended and they are clearly explained. The first book sets the foundation for the second evolving in which David’s fascination with explanation continues. There is however one striking exception. The second volume introduces a new concept. The concept that is at the heart of this volume, enabling what David calls “divine potential”. Despite its being essential for this new paradigm, and its being the purpose and the inevitable destination of the individual and the cosmos in David’s theory, it is not described and it is not explained. So, in this philosophy we have metaphysics that is intent on explaining the most problematic phenomenon in Jewish philosophy, yet that seems to go out of its way to incorporate a concept that is left unexplained. Is this a fatal flaw or is there something more here? I would like to suggest that David rightly places this concept at the heart of the second volume and therefore at the heart of his metaphysics and in doing so gives return to embrace that which is inherently perhaps subconsciously most of the essence in our lives as observing Jews. So first of all what do we know about this concept of divine potential that appears in the second book? It is somehow the mysterious fascination of man, the reader is told essential nothing of its nature, but the author devotes one volume to describing how we approach it. Again the journey is explained, the destination is not and what is the journey? In a nutshell it is human life, human experience and particularly clinically Jewish experience. David makes Jewish experience his affiory. Jewish experience becomes the premise as opposed to the conclusion. Jewish experience explains it is not itself explaining. Now why is this an important step forward in my opinion for Jewish philosophy? To better this question I will actually like to begin with the critique of Christian philosophy, something that probably will not be controversial to us and then ask if the same criticism can be applied to Jewish philosophy. In his fear and trembaly, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard makes the following comment, “people who are profoundly lacking in learning and are given to clichés are frequently heard to say that a light shines over the Christian world whereas a darkness enshrouds Atheism. This kind of talk is always struck me as strange inasmuch as every more thorough thinker, every more earnest artist still regenerates himself in the eternal youth of the Greeks”. In other words, while the Christian community expresses distain for the Greek pagan world, the best Christian philosophers continue to recycle Greek ideas. Whether or not this is a valid criticism of Christian philosophy need not concern us. I would like to instead ask if the same critique can be made of Jewish philosophy. Can we also find this influence in our own philosophy and if so, what effect has this had on our perspective of religion? In the 55th Chapter of the third volume of his Guide of the Perplexed Maimonides writes “man does not sit, move and occupy himself when he is alone in his house as he sits, moves and occupies himself when he is the presence of a great king, nor does he speak and rejoice while he is with his family and relatives as he speaks in the King’s council, therefore, he who chooses to achieve human perfection and to be in true reality a man of God, must give heed and know that the greater King who always accompanies him and cleaves to him is greater than any human individual even the latter be David or Solomon. The King who cleaves to him and accompanies him is the intellect that overflows towards us”. Here Rhombus has substituted the intel in place of where most of us would have probably based on tonuth expected to find God. Now, granted that Rhombus considers the intellect to be an overflow from God which is itself the oplatonic idea, I think that it is clear from this passage and many others like it in the guide that Rhombus has relied no less on Greek ideas than on Jewish ones. Now does this perspective affect the way Maimonides views Jewish life? The actual observance of day-to-day Challahope I think again the answer is yes. This is for the same line of the guide that’s in Chapter 35, I shall return to examining the Penance of which it may be fantasy that they have no utility or that they constitute a decree that cannot be comprehended by the intellect in any way and I shall explain the reasons for them and in one respect they are useful making an exception only for those few whose purpose I have not grasped up to this time”. In other words, given those commandments that appear not to have any logic or utility, I Ammonites will explain their “reasons” and why they are “useful”. The laws are essentially all logical some are more logical than others but none are necessarily beyond the palate of the great King, namely the intel. This is contrast to the perspective on Jewish experience presented in the works we are discussing tonight. In God and Good, Jewish experience is not rationalized and has no practical function. It functions only to bring us closer to this mysterious notion of divine potential. To bring this distinction to sharper focus I would like to move briefly into the realm of modern philosophy. I would like to compare two modern philosophers, both of whom studied at the same university in Germany, at the same time and under the same teacher. One was Emanuel Levinas, the other Martin Heidegger, both studied at Freiburg University between World War I and World War II and both had Edmund Viseral as their teacher and find their intellectual influence. One, Emmanuel Levinas was an observing Jew; the other Martin Heidegger was a committed member of the Nazi party. While the philosophies of these two men are similar in many ways there are differences and not surprisingly these differences are mostly in their conception of the place of ethics in philosophy, but the difference does not run deep. They both very briefly, both men were interested in ontology, the study of what is and what it means to be, moreover both men would agree that ontology does not depend, does not provide a suitable foundation for ethics as philosophy does for my mind. To use a popular expression both
philosophers Levinas and Heidegger, would agree that you cannot get an ought from an its, but the agreement between Heidegger and Levinas ends here. Heidegger could not come to an ethics from his ontology and so he abandoned the ethics. His life is a testament to this. Interestingly Levinas could not come to an ethics from his ontology and so he reworked his ontology. Building on a foundation of the ethical for Levinas ethics could not be made dependent on the roots of philosophy, ethics therefore had to be a root itself. In Levinas’ own words, ethics is “first philosophy”. The ethical was to Levinas’ philosophy what Jewish experience is to God and Good, mainly something that explains, not something that can be explained. Two decades after writing God and Evil, a work which most critics saw as complete in and of itself, David decided to write a second volume introducing the new concept, divine potential, a concept which is not described. David explains how we arrive at divine potential in his theory, namely through Jewish experience, but he does not elaborate on the destination. Jewish experience has therefore made it to the pristine or primary foundation for a mysterious yet enormously important journey. In my reading of these two volumes, particularly the second, I see David describing a specific type of religious devotion, one that is its own foundation and one that is probably more difficult to achieve than devotion to a set of logical principles. The dominant narrative and flumash is that of Israel’s wandering in the desert. Three and a half of the five books of the Torah are set against this backdrop. Many of the collective actions of Israel that are described explicitly during this time are negative. A group worships a calf, the Jews complain of a lack of water and food, the art is hardened by the report of the spies, etc. There are however key collective acts that are positive. When Israel famously declares [inaudible 0:14:15.7] we will do and we will listen, the town lavishes praise upon him, saving for example in [inaudible 0:14:24.1] that a voice cried out a response from heaven, who has revealed to my children this secret of which the angels make use. It is interesting that the commitment to placing observance before their standing is called a secret, perhaps this is because the more we try to understand the essence of Jewish practice, the more they lose us. In any case, this “secret” that is the primacy of Jewish practice is one that in my opinion David correctly identifies it in his philosophy thereby allowing it to break with preceding Jewish philosophy and return to that, which is intrinsic to Judaism. I would like to end with a brief passage in the second chapter of Yirmeyahu; it is a beautiful retrospective picture of Israel’s ears in the desert. I think it makes this point subtly, yet succinctly. “I remember the devotion of your youth how as a bride you loved me and followed me in the wilderness through a land not sown”. Thank you.

For David Birnbaum philosophy, metaphysics, see also Tikkun-Epoch