Symposium on “But Now My Eye Has Seen You”: Yissurin Shel Ahavah as Divine Intimacy Theodicy”

Yissurin Shel Ahavah as Divine Intimacy Theodicy

By Michael Harris, The Torah u-Madda Journal (17/2016-17).

With thanks to the editor of TUMJ, please click here for a copy of Harris’s paper.

For responses by commentators and reply by Harris, please click here

Rabbi Michael J. Harris
Rabbi Harris is a regular speaker at the annual Limmud Conference and has lectured in many synagogues and other venues within the UK Jewish community.

  1. Dani Rabinowitz

    Please note that a revised version of the responses and reply has now been attached to the above link.

    1. I find it unfortunate that the discussions does not live up to the expectation of taking on the whole sugya of YSA. Pious readers–apparently even philosopher–seem determined to evade a sugya that tests the limits of piety. Key elements of the sugya prove that YSA is all about the pathology of love that cherishes abusive love rather than accept torture as rejection. The key features are: [1] the inquiry whether or not are there limits beyond which torture can no longer be considered YSA, and [2] and the warning that extricating oneself from such a relation is akin to setting a prisoner free.
      p.s., my analysis of the whole sugya will be published soon by Routledge.

      1. Jewish Philosopher

        I think that this is a rather disappointing comment on your part, Prof. Benor.
        It’s a rather predictable ‘Jewish and Religious Studies’ sort of a comment, accusing any attempt at constructive theologically committed Jewish philosophy of being ‘pious’ and therefore, somehow, neither academic nor rigorous.
        Committed Jewish philosophers are quite obviously going to approach any sugya with a different set of foundational assumptions to you, but every discipline has its foundational assumptions, and it’s legitimate for ours to be different to yours.
        I’m sure that it’s attitudes like yours that have lead to a virtual death of constructive Jewish philosophy within academia, compared to the flourishing of academic Christian philosophy. Perhaps it would be best if real Jewish philosophy would migrate to real philosophy departments where this sort of work is respected.
        Your post was also self-promotional in the least tasteful way.
        Perhaps it’s ironic, but it seems to me that creative Jewish philosophy written by the ‘pious’, along with their pious assumptions, is much more likely to make a lasting impact on the Jewish world, despite your dismissal, than is much of the work that comes out of Jewish Studies departments.
        A pious Rabbi Kook, or Rabbi Heschel, is much more likely to be studied for generations to come, than any work of philology or textual archaeology (however worthy it may be).

  2. There’s a lot of fascinating material in this paper and in the comments and replies document.

    I would like to focus my first comment on something that Gabriel wrote.

    Gabriel discusses the significance of finding out that a contemporary philosophical theory is actually ‘part of the traditional Jewish approach’ to the issue at hand.

    He asks the following question:

    “Should this fact [that a given theory can be found in traditional texts] be important to Jewish philosophers and theologians? And if so, why, and to what extent?”

    He rephrases the question, more concretely in terms of a Jewish philosopher “grappling with the problem of suffering, do they have any reason – other things being equal – to prefer a theodicy that is a part of the Jewish theological tradition over one that is not? And if so, what kind of reason is this?”

    Gabriel then sketches two very different reasons: epistemic and cultural.

    I would like to suggest two epistemic reasons why a Jewish philosopher might have reason – all things being equal – to prefer a theory with feet in the tradition, to a theory that isn’t comparably grounded. I wonder whether other people find them, and the assumptions that ground them, as compelling as I do:

    1. The philosopher in question might have a belief in the Rabbinic tradition as some sort of unfolding revelation. That a contemporary philosophical theory can be found to ‘fall out’ of the classical texts, given this background belief, might count as evidence in favour of the theory.

    2. It might be thought, particularly by a Jewish philosopher, that scholars who have been immersed in Jewish texts, and Jewish practices, and have achieved a degree of mastery in both of these realms, may have calibrated their theological intuitions, in so doing. That texts written by such people can be said to contain the kernel of a contemporary philosophical theory, can be thought of as evidence for that theory, given this background assumption.

    I’ll to comment on more substantial issues of the problem of suffering and divine intimacy at a later point.

    1. Michael Harris

      Thank you Sam, and thank you again Gabriel for your most helpful response to the paper. I wanted first to respond to precisely the issue raised by Sam. If a contemporary philosophical theodicy seems grounded in Jewish tradition, then the advantage I see to it is authenticity for the self-identifying Jewish philosopher (actually I wrote in the paper, as quoted by Gabriel, one interested in a “traditional Jewish theological approach”). If divine intimacy theodicy only had roots in the Christian theological tradition and only cohered with Christian beliefs about God then it would seem inappropriate as part of a traditional Jewish theological approach, something grafted on to it rather than something that develops from within the tradition. If divine intimacy theodicy is close to YSA, its deployment within a traditional Jewish theological approach to suffering is intellectually faithful to the tradition. That seems to me stronger than a cultural preference but not in itself an epistemic reason, though a traditional Jewish theologian may well take rootedness in the tradition as an indication of truth as well.

      I read the remainder of Gabriel’s response with a very large measure of agreement. I acknowledge the tension between, on the one hand, the first three benefits identified by Gabriel in bringing YSA into conversation with contemporary analytic philosophy of religion, and the fourth benefit on the other hand. I also thought his exploration of precisely how suffering and divine intimacy are connected, in cases in which divine intimacy is taken to be achieved in the suffering itself, a most important development of that theme.

    2. Thanks Sam and Michael for your thoughts on my question about the significance of Jewish traditionality for a Jewish philosopher deciding which positions to take. The question, of course, arises in its purest form when the Jewish philosopher is confronted by a position which has no roots in the Jewish tradition but which is nonetheless entirely consistent with that tradition. Your two responses complement one another, in that of the two kinds of reason I raised for preferring a position that has roots in the tradition – epistemic and cultural – Sam takes the former, and Michael leans closer to the latter. Since I’m particularly interested in this latter option, I’d like to prod Michael a bit further about his suggestions…

      You suggest that a position that has roots in the Jewish tradition would be more “authentic” and more “appropriate” for a Jewish philosopher. And I take it that these judgements are grounded in your description of the traditionally Jewish position as being “intellectually faithful to the tradition”, as contrasted with the extra-Jewish position which would count merely as being “grafted on” to the tradition.

      But I’m still wondering what exactly the value of “intellectual faithfulness” and “authenticity” are, if they are not simply taken to be signs of truth (in which case this justification collapses into an epistemic one, at which point something like Sam’s considerations would need to come in). Are these intended to be simply the intellectual application of more generally applicable social norms, such as a general norm to be faithful to the community and history into which one has been born? And if so, what grounds that more general norm?

      And if the norm of faithfulness to one’s community and history is independent of the norm to conform our beliefs to the truth, then what do we do if faithfulness to the tradition seems to conflict with faithfulness to the truth? Is the duty, perhaps, only to give ‘first refusal’ to the traditional position? Or is it stronger than that? Perhaps the value of intellectual faithfulness to the community needs to be combined with a case for intellectual humility and scepticism, so that it turns out that we never have good enough reason to believe that the tradition conflicts with the truth?

      Moreover, might we not say that there are many ways of being intellectually faithful to the tradition of Jewish theology? One way might be by espousing positions with precedent in the tradition. But couldn’t another way be simply by *not* espousing any position which *contradicts* the tradition? Why is the former preferable to the latter? Especially if the latter is done in a way that is faithful to the tradition in other ways too – by using its terms and concepts, by being troubled by and trying to respond to its problems, by citing its texts, and even precisely by taking the time and effort to attempt a ‘grafting’ in the first place!

      Furthermore, at what point does a position count as *authentic* to the tradition rather than a foreign graft? For example, if I find precedent for my position in Maimonides, or Maharal, or Rosenzweig, is that enough to make it authentic in the right way? But what if, when *they* put forward the positions in question, it had no precedent in the tradition? In order to count a position as authentic rather than merely artificially grafted, do we need to start tracing potential roots back to the Talmud? To the Tenach?

      It could be suggested that if the tradition of Jewish theological discussion which does have its roots in the Talmud and Tenach moves forward and takes up the extra-traditional suggestions of a Maimonides, a Maharal, or a Rosenzweig, and absorbs them into the weave of the authentic tradition – by discussion, emulation, variation, and the like – then those positions can eventually count as having been ‘naturalized’ into the tradition. But if we allow that, then why should a contemporary Jewish philosopher not feel free to commit to an extra-traditional position, intending and hoping that it will, in time, be taken up into the tradition, as has (arguably) already happened for some of the extra-traditional positions of Maimonides, Maharal, or Rosenzweig? Indeed, might this kind of grafting of extra-Jewish positions into the Jewish tradition, not be considered the epitome of traditional Jewish philosophical practice?

      1. I’m also interested to hear Michael’s response to your prodding, Gabriel.
        Given, my epistemic route, I think that a Jewish philosopher can certainly adopt a theory that has no obvious foundation in the canon. The epistemic route only says that, all things being equal, grounding in the canon provides a certain amount of warrant. But if all things are not equal, then the extra-Jewish view can be adopted. I agree with you too, that in its being adopted, it can eventually become a part of the tradition – and its adoption into the tradition – given a certain approach to the nature of the unfolding revelation – may provide extra warrant for the position in generations to come.
        Michael’s conception of a non-epistemic virtue of faithfulness to a tradition intrigues me too. I look forward to hearing more.

  3. Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz wrote an article in Tradition, called ‘Dr. A. J. Heschel’s Theology of Pathos’.
    He argues forcefully against Heschel’s theology of pathos according to which God in Himself experiences profound emotions. He argues even more forcefully against he notion that God’s prophets somehow come to emphathise with the emotional experience of God. He goes so far as to sat ‘The suggestion that “in sympathy man experiences God as his own being” is alien to the heart beat of Judaism.’
    Part of his reasons for saying this is that, even in the Kabbalistic tradition, God’s emotions tend to be below the level of the Ein Sof, and are, therefore, more to do with how God appears to us than how God really is. He also argues that the Rabbinic texts that seem to indicate God as suffering or experiencing emotion are somewhat uncomfortable with attributing such things to God, which is why they attribute them to the Shekhina (again, God as he is experienced, rather than God as he is in and of himself).
    That is to say, part of his reasoning seems to be ‘cultural’ rather than ‘epistemic’, to use Gabriel’s terminology. But he also thinks that attributing suffering and other emotions to God is to fall prey to extreme anthropomorphism and to render God less than perfect, by stripping him of impassibility.
    Accordingly, I have three questions for Rabbi Harris, and anyone else who might be interested to answer:
    1. Do you think that the Divine Intimacy Theodicy, read into the sugya of YSA, requires God to suffer (Gabriel basically asked this question too, by listing various mechanisms, only some of which require God truly to suffer)?
    2. Do you think that God’s ‘apparent’ suffering – i.e., the sort of suffering that R. Berkovitwz sees in the Kabbalistic tradition – is enough, or do we need a full blown R. Heschel style passibilism?
    3. Do you think that attributing emotions to God is to fall prey to extreme anthropomorphism? Do you think that all emotions are a threat to Divine Passibility, or that some emotions are? Do you think that personifying God is the same thing as making him human (it seems to me that R. Berkovitz conflates these notions)?

    Incidentally, Anastasia Scrutton has written really interesting stuff on this topic, arguing that not all emotions are a threat to possibility classically conceived. Even R. Berkovitz speaks of God caring for his creation, which is to impart some sort of emotional stance to God.

  4. Andrew Pessin

    Thank you for this terrific paper, and for the terrific discussion that has so far ensued. Too much to grapple with fully, but I thought I might offer a couple of thoughts.

    (1) For one is not very well versed in the large corpus of Jewish texts (ie me), Michael’s paper served as a terrific introduction and collection of initial sources on this important topic–thank you.

    (2) It might be useful, at least where interpreting specifically and narrowly the passage cited in Berakhot 5a, to look more fully at its surrounding context.

    (3) Another potentially fruitful approach to exegesis of Ber 5a is to note that the passage cited is expressed quite subjectively: the sufferer is examining his deeds, and “he cannot find any sin, cannot find he lacks Torah study.” It isn’t “he did not sin and he did not neglect Torah,” but rather “he cannot find these ….” Seems to me this distinction is important and worth developing in the exegesis of this sugya ….

    (4) But more generally, beyond the exegesis of some single passage: Sam brought up Berkovitz and raised a few excellent questions. I won’t address them except to mention that Berkovitz may well have a lot to offer to this discussion of YSA. I think it’s in God, Man, History (no doubt elsewhere too) where he describes the experience of Sinaitic revelation, stressing that those who were so blessed simultaneously experienced the awesome power of God before which they were nothing, in the presence of which their very existence was threatened (for no human can directly experience God and live etc), and the fact that they were not annihilated regardless, which amounted to more or less direct experience of God’s saving power or perhaps love. (Can’t remember his exact terms.) It seems to me that any divine intimacy approach should grapple with this point–it is part of the metaphysical nature of God/humans that divine intimacy is life-threatening, it is essential to divine intimacy that there be experienced something like suffering, in a word. One doesn’t have to worry about difficult problems in anthropomorphism, God suffering, etc.. Perhaps now the Berkovitz point can be inserted into and developed in the divine intimacy account of YSA–where the experience of suffering (all of it? some of it?) is plausibly interpreted as experience of divine intimacy …. There’s lots more to work out here, but such an account might avoid some of the problems mentioned in the paper and discussion — re soul-building, cruelty, ends/means etc.

    (5) Putting (3) and (4) together: perhaps we have the idea that some people (few? many? all?) have a certain leeway in interpeting their suffering, and perhaps have the capacity to interpret their sufferings as intimacy ….

    (6) There is no (6). This was a terrific paper from which I learned a lot, and tho I’m about to be on the road traveling for the next couple of weeks, I look forward to watching the conversation develop.


  5. Michael Harris


  6. Michael Harris

    Thanks Gabriel, Sam and Andrew for your comments. Let me respond to Gabriel’s “prodding” in this post.

    Gabriel, I agree with much of what you have said but feel I am being taken in directions I don’t intend. Let me try and clarify my position in the following way. Imagine a possible world in which that the concept of YSA does not exist in Jewish tradition. Suppose further that in this possible world no other concept exists in Jewish tradition which could plausibly be argued to ground divine intimacy theodicy (DIT). Suppose further again that in this possible world the idea of divine impassibilty is unchallenged in Jewish tradition. And suppose finally that DIT has, as it does in the actual world, the natural affinities with Christian theology highlighted by Ekstrom that I cited in the paper: “Is not suffering as a means to intimacy with God exactly what one would expect of a God who, on Christian scripture and tradition, took on human form and suffered along with and for the world”. A Jewish philosopher in this possible world now claims that DIT should be part of a traditional Jewish theological response to evil. I don’t think the main problem with what this Jewish philosopher is doing is epistemic or cultural. The problem with what s/he is doing is that while DIT may be logically compatible with Jewish tradition in this possible world, in some broader sense DIT does not cohere with the tradition (maybe that’s a better concept to use than authenticity). Indeed, DIT in our possible world coheres with Christianity on precisely an issue (God taking on human form) on which Judaism and Christianity are divided. Now the Jewish philosopher in our possible world may be able to work persuasively on integrating DIT into traditional Jewish theology, which as you rightly suggest has often absorbed and integrated ideas from the ‘outside’. All I am claiming in the half-sentence in the conclusion of my paper which has sparked this whole discussion is that it is much more natural to consider DIT a candidate for inclusion in the traditional Jewish theological ‘tool-box’ in our actual world in which YSA is part of the Jewish tradition and divine impassibilty is not unchallenged in the tradition, and in which therefore DIT in a real sense coheres with Jewish tradition.

    1. Michael Harris

      In partial response to Sam, leaving the fascinating larger issues he raises in his question 3 for others better qualified to comment on, I don’t think that DIT, read into the sugya of YSA, requires God to suffer. On p. 83 of the paper I suggest that it may even be wiser for Jews attracted to DIT to opt for a “divine impassibility-compliant” version of it. As I mention there, Ekstrom thinks such a version of DIT can make sense even in a Christian context.

  7. Michael Harris

    I haven’t yet responded to Andrew. Firstly many thanks Andrew for your kind comments and I’m delighted that you found the paper and the discussion here helpful. I agree that the subjectivity highlighted in your points (3) and (5) is a very important element. Another way in which it comes out is on p. 82 of the paper, where I argue that willing acceptance of the suffering is partly constitutive of YSA. The link to Berkovits in your point (4) and the idea that the experience of something like suffering is essential to divine intimacy is very interesting. Clearly from your examples divine intimacy sometimes seems to be bound up with something like an experience of suffering. I wonder whether this is always the case though – Exodus 24:11 perhaps suggests not.

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