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  • Theodicy as the Justified Demands of Atheism:Yeshayahu Leibowitz Versus Emmanuel Levinas
  • Hanoch Ben-Pazi (bio)

At present there is no great philosopher in the Jewish world. Among the living, I can only think of one individual, not that I learned anything from him, but I do respect him. He is also one of those who provide me with food for thought. Emmanuel Levinas lives in France and belongs to a group of scholars engaged in the study of epistemology. However, his writings on Judaism are exceptional ...

—(Yeshayahu Leibowitz, ‘‘They Changed My Life,’’ Maariv, May 5, 1994).

This is how Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903–1994), the Israeli thinker and intellectual, described his relationship with Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995), the French Jewish philosopher. For those familiar with these two personalities and their thought, Leibowitz’ response above may seem surprising due to the wide divergence in their philosophical interests and, more significantly, because of the great disparity in their religious outlooks. For what does a thinker such as Leibowitz, who places God at the center of his religious universe, have in common with a philosopher such as Levinas, who places ethics and responsibility to the Other at the center of his? One could offer a straightforward assessment of the two without assuming that they share a theoretical or intellectual affinity. Nevertheless, I will argue that there is indeed a philosophical affinity between them based on their call for religion to engage in dialog with rational thought, that is, on the notion that religion is necessary in order to confront philosophical criticism.1 I contend that, with regard to the question of theodicy, there is a great deal of affinity between Levinas and Leibowitz, and simply posing the question precipitates a new category of religious discourse and thinking that requires further analysis.2

While this introductory statement admittedly contains a broad generalization, it may be said that in considering the question of ‘‘justifying God’s ways’’—Theodicy—at the present time, one must address [End Page 249] two issues: first, the philosophical critique of the problem of theodicy, as formulated mainly by Kant; and second, the historical question that relates to the challenge to theodicy in light of two World Wars and the Holocaust. From a philosophical perspective it appears that both Leibowitz and Levinas conduct a dialog, directly and indirectly, with Kant’s critique, while both accept the arguments against theodicy. On the one hand, Leibowitz accepts the criticism of theodicy, and therefore seeks to define Judaism without having to relate to its belief system—the belief in God and Providence—stressing instead the practical elements in Judaism, the performance of the commandments.3 On the other hand, Levinas also accepts the criticism of theodicy, but his description of Judaism emphasizes the ethical significance embodied in Jewish learning.4 Despite the differences between the two one can still point to what they have in common: a final verdict on ‘‘the end of theodicy.’’ In an essay called ‘‘Useless Suffering,’’ Levinas relates to the question of justifying God’s ways as if it abrogates the meaning of suffering. The phenomenological analysis of the concept of suffering defines it, in a literal sense, as totally superfluous, without any purpose or justification.5 In a more elegant and critical tone he writes: ‘‘I shall refrain from turning the Passion of Passions into a spectacle or these inhuman cries into the vanity of an author or director. They continue to resound and reverberate down the centuries. Let us simply listen to the thought which they express.’’6 For his part, Leibowitz consciously renounces the religious meaning of suffering, and any attempt to write about theodicy. In his own unique way of expressing himself, Leibowitz, focusing on theodicy from the perspective of the Holocaust, counters that the most ‘‘awful’’ thing for people to comprehend is that ‘‘it has no meaning.’’ The Holocaust is for him ‘‘a horror with no meaning or explanation.’’7 And, as he responded to the journalist Yonah Hadari-Ramage in an interview that appeared in the series ‘‘In Two Octaves,’’ since that is the case no lesson can be learned from such a horror.




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pp. 249-276
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