skip to content

Cambridge Interfaith Programme


Disagree, for God's Sake! Jewish Philosophy, Truth and the Future of Dialogue - Professor Agata Bielik-Robson's response to Professor Robert Gibb

Disagree, for God's Sake! Jewish Philosophy, Truth and the Future of Dialogue - Professor Agata Bielik-Robson's response to Professor Robert Gibbs

Professor Agata Bielik-Robson,
Chair in Jewish Studies, Nottingham University,
Celebration for the new Polonsky-Coexist Lectureship in Jewish Studies, Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge, 24 February 2011

The text below followed an opening talk by Robert Gibbs.

My first response to Robert Gibbs goes somewhat against the grain of his lecture, for it is fully affirmative: yes, I agree – I absolutely agree that there is a special tradition of disagreement coming out of the sources of Judaism and it is precisely this anarchic or radically democratic diversity of voices which makes Jewish Philosophy something more than just an akward sub-discipline of philosophical thought, but a kind of a disciplined, alternative intervention with very distinctive position of its own. I talked about it in my previous lecture, where I tried to outline a wholly new philosophical position of the positive “Jewish Nominalism,” focusing on the name and singularity, and simultaneously arguing against the predominant Western tradition which always privileged universal ideas, general concepts and unifying categories. Thus, the quarrelsome temperament of Jewish thinkers reflects not only in the way they conduct their studies, it is also very heavily present in the substance of their thought which at its strongest and most distinctive manifestations boldly opposes the established tradition of Greek logos and its hochmat yevanit, the “Greek wisdoms.”

            But, having said that, I would like to move now to the other part of the title, the phrase “for God’s sake.” Robert Gibbs advocates, after the Sayings of the Fathers, that we should always disagree for God’s sake – that is, after the manner of the never resolved dispute between Hillel and Shammai, and not after the manner of the rebellion of Korach. First of all, I think that we differ slightly in our interpretation of Korach’s story. Robert Gibbs suggests that we would be naturally inclined to follow Korach because he represents a democratic protest against the theocratic rule of authorities, Moses and Aaron, whereas I tend to read Korach’s story differently, more in the vein of Spinoza, then Martin Buber, and also Walter Benjamin. They too condemn Korach, but not because he was a democrat, but for precisely reverse reasons: for them Korach is an aristocrat who tries to restore his “natural” privileges against the theocratic regime which abolished all “natural” hierarchies and revolutionised Jewish society by rendering it horizontal and democratic, comprised only of individuals, all equal in the face of God, the only lord and master. It is because Korach wants to revert to old natural ways and the pagan sense of lordship by birth, based on natural right, that he differs not for God’s sake and thus must be repudiated.

            This appears to be a minor point of disagreement, but only seemingly so. In fact, it points precisely to the meaning of the phrase “for God’s sake,” that is, to the place of God in all our human quarrels, debates and rebellions. That Jewish theocracy was in fact a first democracy – is an argument which was first formulated by Spinoza in his Theologico-Political Treatise, and then repeated by Moses Mendelssohn, the father of German haskalah, in Jerusalem. The transcendent place of God, which cannot be either usurped or even represented by any man or any other powerful being within the sphere of immanence, works here as a guarantee of democratic freedom and equality among his believers. Even Moses does not participate directly in divine power; to the contrary, he will be severely punished by God for having forgotten himself, just for a short moment of pride, and having drawn miraculously the water from the rock. This, however, should not be read as the sign of God’s absolute omnipotence, as the “theological absolutism” would like to have it. No, rather the reverse is true: it is not for the sake of augmenting the divine glory, but for the protection of human community against any individuals who, on the basis of the argument from participation in the holy power, would claim any special privileges or rights to take over and execute power over their fellow beings. God’s transcendent place is also a place of perfect separation: if all power belongs to him, it most of all means that no man participates in that power and thus cannot claim a sacred right to superiority.

            Robert has given us few beautiful passages from the Mishnah about the disagreements among the rabbis, which, in a very Deeridian manner indeed, reveal the essence of commentary as repetition - a constant, laborious repetition of the source which can never be given directly, in its literal fundamentalist truth. But I would add yet another fragment, probably already known to you, because it is one of the most famous loci in the whole rabbinic literature, quoted with equal relish by thinkers otheriwse as different as Gershom Scholem and Emmanuel Levinas. It once again shows the lines of separation and division of power between God and men, which allow for a uniquely democratic exercise of free interpretation.

            The ultimate parable on the significance of separation in Jewish thought comes from Bawa Meci’a, folio 59b, and is a story of a quarell between Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos and other rabbis on some complex halachic matters. The community of rabbis opposes Eliezer, so he, in order to convince them, calls on God and asks for miracles as proofs. And all these miracles come accordingly: the tree walks, the river changes its run, and the walls of the talmudic academy bend. More than that, when others remain still unconvinced, God’s voice itself roars from heaven confirming that Rabbi Eliezer has always been right. But then Rabbi Joshua raises and says: “It is not in heaven.” “What did he mean by that? Rabbi Jeremiah replied: The Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai, and it is no longer in heaven. We pay no heed to any heavenly voice, because already at Mount Sinai you wrote in the Torah (Ex 23, 2): ‘one must incline after the majority.’ Rabbi Nathan met prophet Eliah and asked him what the Holy one, blessed be His name, did at this very hour. He said: He smiled secretly and answered: Well, well, my children have defeated me!” (in G, 130-131)

Why – “defeated”? This defeat has a double sense here. First of all, if you look at Exodus 23, 2 in any translation, you will see – and this not at all a mistake – that God specifically tells not to incline after the majority and not to follow the crowd on moral judgments. But the way it is written in Hebrew, where lo meaning prohibitive “no” is not repeated, suggests that you may also read this passage as a truly written text, that is, not paying heed to heavenly voice or its intention, and then you will receive, indeed: “one must incline after majority.” So, the very argument used here in favour of the freedom of the written word against any intervention of the heavenly voice, is already a piece of reasoning extracted from the scripture, treated as scripture in the strongest sense of the word, i.e. without any heed to the spoken intention. What can God do in such case but smile? He himself, by writing down the Torah and leaving it in the sealed scriptural form, made himself – that is, his ongoing participation in our hermeneutic debates – irrelevant. This, without doubt, is the first case of the “death of the author,” and the whole Derridian deconstruction is comprised in it as if in a nutshell.

            One of the beautiful, most valuable features of Jewish theological tradition is that the argument from God’s separation usually empowers man, which means that, unlike in some absolutist systems of Islamic kalam or late-medieval Christianity, separation is not thought immediately and automatically “for God’s sake,” indicating: “in God’s favour” and for “God’s major glory.” Here, disagreeing for God’s sake is understood very dialectically, as also arguing with God, especially when He insists on showing his power here and now and produces miracles to support his favourite Eliezer, who precisely because of this usurpation of power becomes punished and temporarily excluded from the rabbinic community of interpreters. God’s transcendence has here also a temporal aspect: the incontestable status quo, guarding the definite past perfect of the revelation, betrays at the same time an enormous anxiety of influence (no more of God’s direct instructions!) and proudly demonstrates a measure of freedom to interpret, a certain, as Levinas has put it, je-ne-sais-quoi of irony and contrariety only such radical separation makes possible. Spinoza’s famous saying that “miracles bring shame on God” derives directly from this unique tradition of mature and independent rationality.

            So, what does it really mean “for God’s sake”? If somebody understood it as a possibility of speaking directly in God’s name, that is, in His stead, as an immediate, participatory representant of transcendence within immanence - that would be very wrong. “For God’s sake” precludes any “sacred” empowerment of the interpreter, who would claim a privileged position in the hermeneutic community, but it also protects him from a “profane” disempowerment, where it is only God who posseses the Truth. The truth is no longer in heaven. It has been written, laid down in the form of the written word, open and accessible to all readers. So, thank you, Robert, for reminding us how important it is to disagree fruitfully in our common, hyphenated, inter-faith efforts to read the Scripture which, to use Kripke’s felicitous phrase once again, fixed our reference throughout the ages.

Latest news

[Event report] The Art of Peace—Sir David Khalili on coexistence and intercultural exchange

11 June 2024

On Thursday 23 May, the Cambridge Interfaith Programme welcomed Professor Sir David Khalili for a keynote lecture exploring “The Art of Peace”. Over the course of 50 minutes...

Conference report | Being with Water Otherwise

14 May 2024

The conference Being with Water OTHERWISE (April 15-16, 2024) brought together scholars, practitioners, and activists from diverse backgrounds to explore the intricate...