Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Notes on Philosophy and Revelation

Erev Shavuot, here is a powerful excerpt from Chapter 2: The Philosophical Routes of the Holocaust, in David Patterson's incredible Emil L. Fackenheim: A Jewish Philosopher's Response to the Holocaust. The argument here is that contrary to Orthodox rationalism, which would wish to see philosophy and Jewish thought at peace with each other, this is not the case.

What has been said of Christian anti-Judaic doctrine-that, while it may not have been a sufficient condition for the Holocaust, it was a necessary one-can also be said of the speculative ontological tradition in Western philosophy. The tradition is as old as Thales, the Western world's first philosopher. It is said that he was walking along one night gazing skyward, contemplating the mysteries of the heavens, when suddenly he fell into a hole. He climbed out of the hole and resolved never again to take a step without first looking to be sure of the firm ground under his feet. Thus the birth of the Western speculative tradition, with its clambering after syllogistic certainty and final solutions, logical universality and universal conformity, all of which led to the deadly equation of thought with being.In the first century of the Common Era the Stoic Seneca taught that anyone who would submit the world to himself should submit himself to reason (see Letters 37:4). That, indeed, is the ontological project: to rule over reality through reason and thus appropriate everything outside the self for the self. Knowledge is the key. Knowledge reduces good and evil to concepts, nothing more than the understanding and ultimately the will of the knowing ego. Knowledge, then, is power, and power is the only reality. Jewishly understood, knowledge here is daat, which is a "joining together" intoa sameness, so that, once the categories are reduced to a human concept and not a divine commandment, there is no distinction between good and evil. Hence the biblical warning: on the day you eat of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you will surely die (Genesis 2:17).Not only will you die-what is worse, you will murder, as it soon happened with Cain, who, rather than Thales, was perhaps the first philosopher. For with Cain we see the first positioning of the thinking ego at the center of all things. We die on the day we eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil because on that day we make good and evil into a self-serving sameness, in a vain attempt to become "like god" (Genesis 3:5), as the Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, has taught (1998, 10). The god we Would resemble, however, is not the God of Abraham, who is loving and compassionate, long-suffering and quick to forgive (see Exodus 34:5-7), but is the self-styled god of the speculative ego. Therefore, says Fackenheim, the ego's implicit denial of the God of Abraham, from whom the soul emanates, "is self-destruction or rebellion; it is never merely an erroneous objective stance" (1968, 38). That is why we die-die as Cain's soul died, by murder-when we eat the fruit of speculative ontological philosophy.The most the speculative thinker can muster with regard to a god outside himself is an Unmoved Mover or First Principle that neither judges nor cares. It simply is, neutral and indifferent. And, because it neither judges nor cares, the thinker can justify anything he can will. Despite every good intention, with reason as the philosopher's absolute, logical necessity is his or her truth, and with logical necessity comes natural necessity, so that all things are locked into an ineluctable chain of cause and effect, with the First Cause as the first link in the conceptual chain. Further, once the mind is situated at the center of reality, the body soon becomes the enemy, as we see, for example, in Plato's Phaedo (80a-81a [Plato 1969b]); and once this move is made, physical suffering-both in the self and in the other-becomes a matter of stoic indifference. After all, it is necessary, as the Stoics maintained. "What is noble?" Seneca asks. And he answers: "To bear adversity contentedly, taking whatever happens as if it we had wished it for ourselves" (Naturalium Quaestionum Libros 3:4 [Seneca 1996]). Because all that is, is necessarily so, said Marcus Aurelius, "to be disgruntled at anythingthat happens" degrades the soul (Meditations 2:16 [Aurelius 2003]). Said Spinoza, the Jew who was a philosopher but whose philosophy was hardly Jewish, non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere ("laugh not, weep not, curse nothing, but understand") (Spinoza 1914, 2:4). Thus the consolation of philosophy.
The philosophical indifference toward the suffering of the other human being stems from the indifference of Being itself, of its First Principle. The Unmoved Mover is moved by nothing, neither by suffering nor by joy, neither by righteousness nor by transgression, and least of all by prayer. Understood as sheer perfection, the ontological god of the philosophers is in need of nothing, as Aristotle asserts: it neither loves nor is in need of love (see Eudemian Ethics, 7.1244b [Aristotle 1992]). Nor does it have a name: we do not cry out "Y-H-V-H!" or "Father!" to the First Principle. The logos is not the Creator who summons us to rejoice, who is swayed by prayer, who in His love for us commands us to love others, and so on. In a word, the logos of the philosophers is not a caring who but a mute and indifferent what. Collapsing god, world, and humanity into the categories of thought, the speculative ontological tradition situates god in the self and the self in an isolation that would ultimately prove to be a source of sheer horror.
From the beginning, then, Western philosophy has stood in opposition to Jewish thought. Fackenheim explains:
At its apex, the God of Aristotle is ... the prime mover of the universe and the ultimate cause of what order there is in it. Even so, however, he is not beyond the universe but only the highest part of it. All this is in sharp contrast to the God of the Tenach, who makes His first appearance as Creator of heaven and earth. He does not create earth alone while dwelling Himself in heaven. He rather creates heaven-heaven fully as much as earth. And yet, though infinitely above the world and the humanity that is part of it, He creates man-him alone-in His very own image! The God of Aristotle does no such thing. (Fackenheim 1987, 108-9)
More than that, says Fackenheim, "having created heaven and earth, He, as it were, Himself'walks in the garden" (1970a, 40). Which means: the One who is most infinitely beyond all there is, is most immediately present within
all there is, making beyond and within into synonyms-a move utterly alien to ontological thought. As Elokim beyond, God judges; as 7-H-V-H within, He loves. Only thus understood can He be understood as the Creator, who in the constant movement of creation enters into a relation, both as King and as Father, with the human being created in His image and likeness.
Fackenheim correctly points out that, working only with what is, ontological "philosophical synthesis" cannot arrive at creation (1968, 77), the category most essential to Jewish thought. Indeed, in the opening line of Genesis it is written, `Bereshit barn Elokim," where bereshit is not precisely "in the beginning" God created, but rather "the first thing" or "most fundamental principle" is that God created. And with creation comes a revelation born of love. Ontologically speaking-and in contrast to Jewish teaching-there is cause but no creation, calculation but no caring, reasoning but no revelation. The god of Aristotle commands nothing and enters into no covenant. It asks nothing and demands nothing, for it is in need of nothing. It simply "is," without ultimate or inherent meaning or significance. A philosophy that embraces such a god cannot help but be hostile toward the God of Abraham, as well as toward the children of Abraham, who are His witnesses. One understands why the Talmud warns us to stay away from speculative philosophy (Berakhot 28b; Bava Kama 82b). It is a warning that the rabbis have repeated throughout the centuries and into modern times-indeed, especially into modern times, when the speculative tradition has reduced the child of God to a mere specimen of this race or that, of this gender or that, of this culture or that, who merely exists alongside others, operating only from self-interest, without ever entering into a genuine relation with anyone.

No comments: