My subject is “The Orthodox Jew as Intellectual Crank,” and it would be best if I began with some definitions. My dictionary defines a crank as an “ill-tempered, grouchy person,” as an “eccentric person who is overzealous in his advocacy of a private cause.” By these standards, Baruch Kurzweil and Yeshayahu Leibowitz, two Israeli Orthodox thinkers, certainly merit the label “crank.” Both men—Kurzweil died a suicide at age 65 in 1972, while Leibowitz is still active at age 87—have well-deserved reputations as intellectual wild men, as ferocious polemicists, no-holds-barred critics, and fevered champions of the unconventional and the outrageous. Is there a reader even slightly familiar with the writings of Kurzweil and Leibowitz who would not recognize “ill-tempered,” “eccentric,” and “overzealous” as suitable descriptive terms for these men?
The question I want to raise is this: Is the crank element—what I shall hereafter refer to as “crankitude”—that manifests itself in the work of Kurzweil and Leibowitz merely a reflection of personal idiosyncrasy or does it point to something more significant? To be sure, the personal element is there: Kurzweil and Leibowitz come by their crankitude honestly and naturally. At the same time, one cannot help but notice that being a crank helps them to function more effectively as Orthodox thinkers—crankitude provides them with nothing less than a full-fledged intellectual stance. In short, my thesis is that Kurzweil and Leibowitz have elevated personal idiosyncrasy into a stylized cultural response—a response that permits them, at once, to take modernity with full seriousness, but also to reject modernity in the name of Jewish faith. The excesses that one associates with these men—excesses of style, of rhetoric, and of substance—all play a part in this process. Kurzweil and Leibowitz are not Orthodox intellectuals who just happen to be cranks; rather, they are full-fledged “Orthodox intellectual cranks”—i.e., crankitude goes to the very heart of their enterprise as Orthodox thinkers.
To better appreciate the nature of the enterprise that Kurzweil and Leibowitz engage in as Orthodox intellectual cranks it would be useful to consider the categories employed by sociologist Peter Berger, the leading academic analyst of the modernization process. Berger argues that religious thinkers have available essentially three types of response to the challenge of modernity: “cognitive retrenchment,” “cognitive bargaining,” and “cognitive surrender.” Cognitive retrenchment is the sectarian option, calling for a conscious rejection of modernity as a dangerous heresy. The thinker taking this position in effect states, as Berger puts it: “The rest of you go climb a tree; we believe this, we know this, and we are going to stick to it. And if this is irrelevant to the rest of you, well, that is just too bad.” In cognitive bargaining, in contrast, “there are two conflicting views of the world and they start to negotiate with each other;” an “attempt is made to arrive at a cognitive compromise.” Finally, there is cognitive surrender, in which, in Berger’s terms, “one simply accepts the fact that the majority is right, then adapts oneself to that point of view.”
Most Orthodox thinkers operating in a modern framework—a tradition stretching from Samson Raphael Hirsch in the early nineteenth century to David Hartman in the late twentieth century—have engaged in one form or another of cognitive bargaining. In sharp contrast, Kurzweil and Leibowitz offer us the model of Orthodox intellectuals managing to combine—in equal measure no less—cognitive surrender and cognitive retrenchment. This, to put it mildly, is an astonishing intellectual feat, and crankitude is the form of its expression. Kurzweil and Leibowitz, at one and the same time, embrace and reject modernity. They exhibit, on the one hand, a radical openness to key aspects of the modern experience, and, on the other, a radical rejection of basic tendencies of modernity. Moreover, all this is carried out in the name of a radicalized version of Orthodox faith, a version that presents itself as the one true way. Small wonder then that Kurzweil and Leibowitz come across as intellectual wild men, that their work is characterized by high-voltage tension and extreme formulations. Such are the pressures—personal and psychological, no less so than abstractly intellectual—that come to bear on the Orthodox intellectual crank.
Rather than embarking on an extended discussion of what Kurzweil and Leibowitz have to say, I want to put forward a limited series of propositions that relate to their work in its typological aspects. After all, it is the Orthodox intellectual crank as a type that engages our attention. First, however, some biographical and bibliographical notes are in order.
Kurzweil and Leibowitz belong to the same generation—the former was born in Pirnice, Moravia, in 1907 and the latter in Riga, Russia, in 1903—and emigrated to Palestine during the same period— Kurzweil in 1939 and Leibowitz in 1935. They differ sharply, however, in their fields of scholarly pursuit and the trajectories of their careers. Kurzweil was the very model of the Central European intellectual, specializing in the study of literature, aesthetics, and philosophy at the University of Frankfurt. While he eventually attained the post of professor of Hebrew literature at Bar-Ilan University and wrote a regular column for Haaretz, he remained a permanent outsider to the Israeli intellectual establishment. Leibowitz, in contrast, was oriented toward the sciences, studying chemistry and medicine, although he also showed a strong interest in philosophy. Upon settling in Palestine, he became associated with the Hebrew University—an institution that Kurzweil detested—first as a professor of organic and biochemistry and neurophysiology, and later as a professor of the history and philosophy of science. Leibowitz’s extreme dovishness with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as his harsh attacks on institutionalized Orthodoxy—the latter element also appears in Kurzweil’s writings—have made him something of a darling to many secular Israeli intellectuals.
On the bibliographical side, it is important to note that only a very small sampling of the writings of Kurzweil and Leibowitz are available outside the Hebrew language. This fact underscores the point that the work of these two Orthodox thinkers, in its origin—though certainly not in its reach—is inseparable from the Israeli context. Indeed, until quite recently, Kurzweil and Leibowitz were virtually unknown beyond the borders of Israel. This has begun to change, however, with the appearance of James Diamond’s very fine English-language study Baruch Kurzweil and Modern Hebrew Literature and David Hartman’s English-language writings on Leibowitz. Within Israel itself, of course, both men have received considerable scholarly attention. The secondary literature on Kurzweil, including The Baruch Kurzweil Volume, a series of memorial essays, is quite massive, while that on Leibowitz—including The Yeshayahu Leibowitz Volume, a festschrift, and Negation for Negation’s Sake, an anti-festschrift—is also substantial.
Let us now get down to cases by describing some of the key typological features of the Orthodox intellectual crank.
Proposition 1: The Orthodox intellectual crank centers his work on a religious problematic defined in rigidly either/or terms.
In Kurzweil’s case, this problematic is the absolute gulf separating the world of pre-modern religious faith from the secular outlook of modernity. For Kurzweil, modern and secular are synonymous, and it is the rise of secularization that has made modernity an age of permanent crisis. The starting point of Kurzweil’s thinking is the assumption, as Diamond puts it, that the “only absolute in human life, human history, and human culture is faith in the living transcendent God.” In the absence of faith—which is what secular modernity has brought about—human existence loses its one sure anchor, opening itself to what Kurzweil variously calls the “void,” the “absurd,” and the “demonic.” (These are key terms in his lexicon.) The meaning of this change, as Kurzweil sees it, is described by Diamond in the following manner:
In this new setting man is thrust into a cosmos bereft of certainty. He lives now not in the presence of God but of the abyss, of Nothing. The individual ego becomes the center and gradually enlarges to fill the void. Man for the first time conceives of himself as an autonomous being who is self-sufficient. There is no transcendent source for values and morality, nothing to hold in check man’s instinctive capacity for self-aggrandizement, hubris, domination and destruction. . .Now man is utterly alone, beyond all values and all relationships with society or his fellow-men—yet he is unsatisfied. He has lost his soul but failed to gain the world, for the demons are insatiable.
A key element in Kurzweil’s thinking is the notion of “late return,” which occurs when an individual, caught in the web of modernity, seeks to escape his situation by turning back to a life of pristine faith. It is just here, however, that the either/or element comes to the fore, in that Kurzweil takes it for granted that no such return is possible for the vast majority of moderns. Kurzweil is not an evangelist calling for the restoration of religious faith; rather, he is a diagnostician of secular unbelief, describing what he takes to be the permanent condition of modern man. If Kurzweil devoted his career to the study of modern literature, it was because he saw it as offering telling testimony to this very condition. And the chief testifier, of course, was modern Hebrew literature.
Kurzweil’s interpretation of modern Hebrew literature is clearly set forth in Our Modern Literature: Continuity or Revolt? In this work, now a classic in the field, he argues decisively for the latter position. The emphasis here is on radical discontinuity, on modern Hebrew literature as a product of secularization and the collapse of religious faith. Kurzweil states: “The secularism of modern Hebrew literature is a given in that it is for the most part the outgrowth of a spiritual world divested of the primordial certainty in a sacral foundation that envelops all the events of life and measures their value.” Kurzweil mocks those who fail to see the “difference between the sacral world of traditional Judaism, in which the Divine Torah structures the totality of life activities, and a world which has become secularized in its totality but still preserves individual corners of interest in religious elements and subjects.” The former—the “sacral world of traditional Judaism”—is the domain of the “vision,” while the latter—a “world which has become secularized in its totality”—is the place of the “void.” Modern Hebrew writers, in Kurzweil’s view, sort themselves out most fundamentally by their varying responses to the confrontation with the “void.”
In Leibowitz’s case, the religious problematic is the radical disjuncture between theocentric and anthropocentric conceptions of religion; between religion as the service of God for its own sake and religion as an instrument for the satisfaction of human needs. Eliezer Schweid has shrewdly labeled Leibowitz’s position “neo-neo-Orthodoxy,” in that Leibowitz “frees Judaism of every tie . . . to human culture.” Leibowitz’s key claim, Warren Harvey indicates, is that “in Judaism, questions of ethics, politics, science, or history have no value whatsoever except insofar as they might be means to the service of God in accordance with the Torah and the commandments, that is, in accordance with the Halakhah.” Leibowitz himself states the matter as follows:
Every reason given for the mitzvot which bases itself on human needs from any consideration of the concept of need, whether intellectual, ethical, social, national—voids the mitzvot from every religious meaning. If they are meant to benefit society or if they maintain the Jewish people, then he who performs them does not serve God but himself or society or his people. In any case, he does not serve God but uses the Torah of God for his benefit and as a means to satisfy his needs. The reason for the mitzvot is the worship of God.
Amazingly enough, Leibowitz consistently invokes the name of Maimonides in putting forward this radically anti-humanistic conception of religion. A more appropriate model here—although Leibowitz would vehemently deny it—is Soren Kierkegaard, whose influence can be felt on virtually every page of Leibowitz’s writings. (Kierkegaard, incidentally, knew a thing or two about being an intellectual crank!) Is it a mere coincidence that Leibowitz points to the Akedah, to Abraham on Mount Moriah, as a paradigm of how man must stand before God? He states: “Christianity’s highest symbol is the crucifixion, and sacrifice which God brings for man, whereas the highest symbol of faith in Judaism is the Akedah where all man’s values are canceled and cast aside for reverence and love for God.” So powerful is the image of the Akedah for Leibowitz that he actually employs it to describe his intellectual hero, calling Maimonides “Abrahamic man.” He observes:
In Maimonides, more than in any other Jewish figure, there appears the image of the first Jew facing the crisis of the Akedah where all human thought, human feeling, and values are completely obliterated before the fear and love of God. This Abrahamic sense was alive in Maimonides. . .
The God of Maimonides is not. . .[a] functionary for the human group serving as a cosmic minister of health, law, police, and economics. Only for a God who is “true being” and not a provider of man’s needs does it befit man to take “the fire and the knife” in hand and go uncomplainingly “to the place of which God spoke to him” and sacrifice his only son, thereby relinquishing both his human aspirations and all hope for the future. . .
Proposition 2: The Orthodox intellectual crank displays radical openness to key aspects of the modern experience.
In Kurzweil’s case, this is the openness he shows to modern literary expression in all its forms. Far from spurning modern writing as the illicit fruit of the secularization process, Kurzweil lavishes endless attention on it, producing a body of literary criticism that is nothing short of massive. More importantly, it is also first-rate. Kurzweil’s critics are legion, but even the severest of them would have to admit that he was the very model of the engaged literary scholar. Thus Diamond—who personally is quite sympathetic to Kurzweil—points to the “marvelous coherence and consistency” of Kurzweil’s method, to the “passion and the struggle with which he carried out the critical enterprise.” Stanley Nash, in a review of Diamond’s book, maintains that Kurzweil “brought a rhetorical intensity and intellectual acumen to Hebrew criticism that have rarely been equaled.”
Consider, then, the strange phenomenon of an Orthodox intellectual identifying the realm of heresy and then settling in for the lifelong study of it. A study, moreover, carried out in loving detail and with a considerable amount of imaginative sympathy for the heretics. That certainly is what Kurzweil offers us in his literary criticism, which yielded brilliant analyses of the work of, among others, Bialik, Brenner, Tchernichovsky, Greenberg, and, of course, Agnon. All that Kurzweil asks of his writers is that they testify honestly to the confrontation with the “void” and the “demonic”—wherever that takes them. What he could not abide, however, were attempts at evasion, such as he saw in the younger generation of Israeli writers. Kurzweil took it upon himself—as if he needed any prodding!—to expose their “snobby immaturity and inflated nothingness.” With a straight face, he declared Amos Oz’s My Michael to be more dangerous to Israel as a nation than all the Arab armies.
In Leibowitz’s case, the openness shows itself in everything associated with the scientific realm—most especially the natural sciences, but social science and history as well. Eliezer Goldman, in an article entitled “Responses to Modernity in Orthodox Jewish Thought,” uses the words “radical acceptance” to describe Leibowitz’s stance in this regard. Radical it certainly is, in that Leibowitz fully endorses the empiricist descriptions of reality. Goldman summarizes Leibowitz’s position as follows:
Leibowitz’s conception of science is thoroughly empirical. However much of our knowledge may be imported into it by our intellectual schemes, the final arbiter in all questions of fact is our experience, and this is forced upon us. . .The world picture we all really accept when we do not delude ourselves is “secular.”. . .This applies not only to nature, but to human history in its factuality.
It is important to note that Leibowitz extends this line of analysis even to the study of the Bible, thus supporting the findings of modern critical scholarship. Leibowitz, David Hartman observes, regards the Bible not “as a source of factual information, but only as a source of normative direction—that is, as Torah and mitzvah.”
What is remarkable about Leibowitz’s embrace of the modern scientific outlook is that it is organically linked to his anti-humanistic conception of Judaism. From the religious standpoint, Leibowitz wishes to divorce the service of God from all other facets of the human endeavor. From the secular standpoint, however, this very divorce frees him to accept the world of science on its own (empiricist) terms. Declaring nature and history to be absolutely irrelevant to the religious quest, Leibowitz can approach them in a thoroughly modern manner. This is of no small importance to an Orthodox Jew who functioned as a serious research scientist long before he emerged publicly as a religious thinker. Leibowitz, quite clearly, has hit upon a marvelous formula for reducing cognitive dissonance. Is that not one important consequence of Leibowitz’s position, as outlined by Hartman?
Leibowitz. . .make[s] the important claim that religious language is totally prescriptive. . .All of Judaism can be translated into a way-of-life language that does not require any theological metaphysical claims about the nature of God and the way He acts in history. Whereas empirical descriptions have to be confirmed or falsified by the canons of scientific and logical thought, God-talk cannot be made intelligible outside of the normative language of the mitzvot. Halakhic Jews, therefore, should not look to nature or history in their religious quest. That quest is fully exhausted in their participation in the framework of the halakhah.
Proposition 3: Despite his receptivity to key aspects of modernity, the Orthodox intellectual crank’s ultimate allegiance is to a version of Orthodox Judaism that negates the basic thrust of the modern experience.
In Kurzweil’s case, this is the meta-historical vision of Jewish history advanced by Samson Raphael Hirsch and his grandson Isaac Breuer. Kurzweil first befriended Breuer during his years in Frankfurt, when, in addition to attending the university there, he enrolled in the yeshivah that Hirsch had founded in the nineteenth century. It was Hirsch, of course, who provided Kurzweil the model of an Orthodox Jew who is meticulous in religious observance, but also open to secular culture in its various forms. Breuer affirmed this model as well, but more importantly, he taught Kurzweil to oppose all attempts at the secularization of Jewish life. When Kurzweil argued that “Jewish existence without God is the Absurd with a capital ‘A,’” he was directly echoing Breuer. More generally, Kurzweil followed the Hirsch-Breuer school in regarding Judaism and the Jewish people as meta-historical realities. In this view. Diamond explains, the Torah is “God-given, a timeless absolute that transcends the limitations of human history. The Jews, therefore, exist for the sake of Judaism; Judaism does not exist for the sake of the Jews.” “Kurzweil’s commitment to a meta-historical fideism,” Diamond rightly concludes, “is antipodal to the perspective [of] most Hebrew literature in the twentieth century.”
It is precisely here that Kurzweil’s famous attacks on Ahad Haam and Gershom Scholem come into the picture. Kurzweil saw these two “arch culprits” aiming at a secularization of Jewish life, an enterprise he saw as nothing short of “demonic.” To struggle within the world of the “void,” as did modern Hebrew writers, was one thing; to establish the “void” as the new foundation for a Jewish life, as did Ahad Haam and Scholem, quite another. Against this tendency, Kurzweil was unsparing in his criticism, referring to the “palpable absurdities of the Ahad Haamist philosophy.” This was child’s play, however, compared to his polemic against Scholem, whose sins, in Kurzweil’s view, were threefold. First, he employed historicism as a tool to relativize the Judaic absolute. Second, he assigned “demonic” mysticism a position of importance in the framework of normative Judaism. Third, and most important, he legitimated secular Zionism as an expression native to Jewish history. “There is no more penetrating proof of the absurdity of our time,” Kurzweil railed, “than the fact that Scholem is today the spokesman for Judaism.”
Leibowitz, as indicated above, sees himself as a disciple of Maimonides in advancing his anti-humanistic conception of Judaism; indeed, he claims to be doing nothing more than laying bare Maimonides’ esoteric teaching in the Guide and elsewhere. The key point, however, is that Leibowitz wishes to make this teaching fully exoteric, believing that this is a vital necessity in the modern context. Why is this so? Harvey explains Leibowitz’s thinking on the matter as follows:
Leibowitz is convinced. . .that it is foolish to try to advance religion by pointing to its utility in satisfying human needs when these needs are in fact presently being satisfied quite well without religion. To teach religion today as a means. . .is to teach that it is superfluous. . .He consequently insists that today Judaism must be taught unequivocally as the service of God out of love. . .In every age. . .the true service of God entails rebellion against utilitarianism and anthropocentrism, but today it is additionally a rebellion against the reigning secularist values of society.
In calling for “rebellion” in the modern situation, Leibowitz intends nothing less than the absolute rejection of modernity’s key operative assumption: man as the center of value.
Proposition 4: Crankitude is a coping mechanism that enables the Orthodox intellectual crank to maintain a reasonable equilibrium in a situation of extreme stress.
From everything that I have said thus far about Kurzweil and Leibowitz it should be evident that theirs is not a placid synthesis of Orthodoxy and modernity à la Samson Raphael Hirsch. On the contrary, their encounter with modernity is characterized by sharply conflicted feelings, by powerful attraction on the one side and violent rejection on the other. The crucial factor here is the element of simultaneity—the fact that Kurzweil and Leibowitz feel drawn to and repulsed by modernity at one and the same time. It is no exaggeration at all to state that the measure of their attraction is the measure of their repulsion, and vice versa. It is precisely this tension that makes the work of these two Orthodox intellectuals so fascinating, and, I would contend, that accounts for their crankitude.
Crankitude, in short, is a coping mechanism, a tool for handling the severe pressures that result from a sharply conflicted response to modernity. Given what Kurzweil and Leibowitz wish to affirm and negate in the very same breath, is it any wonder that their writings are characterized by excess—by extreme formulations, by overheated language, and, let us add, by patently absurd claims? If they denounce their intellectual adversaries in the harshest of terms, can we not see in this a desperate attempt to beat back the enemy that lurks within—within, that is, Kurzweil and Leibowitz themselves? And if they insist on confronting modern Jews at every turn with either/or decisions, is it not because they themselves, at the most fundamental level, are forever unable to decide? To be a crank is a relatively simple matter; to be an Orthodox intellectual crank is a much more complicated undertaking.
DDavid Singer is Director of Research for the American Jewish Committee and Editor of the American Jewish Year Book.