Rabbi Joseph Levi Explains What Is ‘at Base of Jewish Humanism’

The Model of Dialogue between God and Abraham

“A la base de l’humanisme juif”, par le rabbin Joseph Levi Le modèle du dialogue entre Dieu et Abraham 14 AOÛT 2017CONSTANCE ROQUESROME Rabbin Joseph Levi © Tonalestate Rabbin Joseph Levi © Tonalestate

“At the base of 19th century humanism is confidence in the divine dimension of the human spirit and its theological substratum that, according to Judaism, is present in every human spirit,” explained Rabbi Levi on the occasion of his conference last August 8, at the “Tonalestate” Meeting (August 7-10, 2017), which takes place every year in the Italian Alps, at Ponte di Legno and Col du Tonale, between Brescia and Trente.

A meeting that witnessed the participation of Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue; Dalil Boubakeur, Rector of the Paris Mosque, whose interventions L’Osservatore Romano published in Italian, and Jean Tonglet of ATD-Quart Monde.

Here is our translation of extracts of the intervention of Joseph Levi, former Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community of Florence, and entitled “The Dialogue between God and Abraham: Model for a Pact of Growth and Confidence between God and Humanity,” which was published by L’Osservatore Romano in Italian on August 11, 2017.  

At the Base of Jewish Humanism

In one of his last publications, Levi-Strauss, prophet of the universal structure of revelations and of particular cultural and anthropological structures, confesses that he became even more skeptical about its structural universalism after having seen the use made of his theories to legitimize the strangest particularisms to his vision however universalist. How could Abraham, and how can we make universal morality and particular morality correspond? And what measures and what philosophic, religious and scientific means do we have at our disposition to be able to have one and the other vision coexist and be legitimate? In the name of a universal morality and revelation, the West has eliminated whole particular populations and today, in different parts of the world, religious revelations justify crimes against the West and against humanity, including archaeological testimonies of ancient civilizations. What should be the role of reason and how can we make it be convincing? — a real and revealing voice capable of guiding the choices of the concrete application of the strongest religious revelations. In inter-religious meetings such as ours, are we up to developing a shared direction through which to serve as mediator or downright converse and address our relation with the divine?

Auerbach explains to us that all the tension created by the text that we hear as readers that accompany Abraham and Isaac in their desperate voyage shared between confidence in a God close to man, with whom He concluded a covenant, and the terrible episode of the trial, was constructed to enounce with greater rhetoric force  the merciful character of the God of Abraham and of the Bible, God who criticizes and rejects the human sacrifices effected at that time and in those regions as an acceptable cultural practice. The God of the Bible calls for absolute confidence and devotion but responds to this confidence by a mutual pact of confidence in man, Abraham, representing the whole of humanity. It will be God’s confidence in man that will make a universal morality of respect for all human life created by God grow and develop in him.

Applying the emotional dimension of universal reason, the divine character of man himself shines even more. This biblical message and this biblical anthropology are interpreted by the Midrash in a complicated relation of respect and envy between Adam and the Angels who cannot be impeded from bearing respect for man who contains the divine image in himself. And who, when they see him walk, the Midrash tells us, bow before him as if he were the divinity itself that presents itself.

Such an awareness of man’s divine dimension will then be at the base of Jewish humanism developed by post-Kantian Jewish thought. Man, his spirit and his potential structure contain in themselves this universal divine dimension capable of reasoning and of finding a universal morality and way of reasoning. The same myth of the divine image contained in created man will be at the base of successive developments of theology and of Christological anthropology. Found at the base of 19th century humanism is confidence in the divine dimension of the human spirit and of its theological substratum that, according to Judaism, is present in every human spirit and not only in the unique and symbolic spirit of Christ.

This profound confidence between God the Creator of man of the Hebrew Bible and humanity is also exemplified and enounced through another episode of Abraham’s life, the unexpected conversation with God regarding the future destruction of Sodom as punishment for the lack of humanity of its inhabitants, especially in their social relations and their hostile and cruel behaviour towards strangers. In a long conversation, Abraham and God discuss the terms of justice and of wisdom, divine and human, on the question of making the righteous die with the evildoers. In this debate, I wish to see the opening of a new dimension, a new Epistemology and Theology on the relation between divine morality and human morality, enormous and fundamental chapter on the reciprocity of  faith and of the pact between the God of the universe and man. Abraham, as representative of humanity, becomes the interlocutor of the divine, including in the domain of justice and of morality, leading the divinity itself to be confronted with man’s perception of justice, not only as form and image, but also and above all in its contents. Man, ally of the divine, also has the right to speak and reflect on morality, if not on religious morality, at least on civic morality. On the other hand, it is the divine itself that invites man to enter into dialogue on justice. The righteous man, faithful to God, such as Abraham, enjoys divine confidence to the point  that his reasoning and his mental faculties are also recognized as being in the measure to be confronted with divine reason on social, civic and, perhaps with due humility and submission, divine justice, a problem that the Bible presents to us through Job, another humble and faithful figure.

Hence, not only obedience, fidelity and submission but also confidence in the human spirit, created in the divine image as being able to reason in an autonomous manner and to offer its own arguments in a dialogue with the divine. An episode that should engage us and go beyond details, with an invitation to rewrite and describe the Epistemology and the Ontology of the conversation with man and the divine, including in regard to the many tragedies of humanity. From this neo-Midrashic reading the elements could be born  for a biblical neo-humanism, based on the immense confidence of the divinity in the reasoning of a faithful and devout person that, thanks to his awareness of the presence of the divine image in his own spirit, is recognized as a possible  interlocutor with God the Creator, Judge of the universe. Such mutual recognition and legitimation makes the pact and confidence between God and man grow and it can become a model of judgment on the divine revelations that can and must guide us in the difficult continual effort of perceiving and interpreting the divine will and justice. To make one’s own awareness grow means making one ‘s own suffering grow — a positive human suffering from which morality and reason are born.

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