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SINAI SINCE SPINOZA: REFLECTIONS ON REVELATION

IN MODERN JEWISH THOUGHT

Paul Franks
University of Toronto, Canada

Spinoza (1632–1677 CE) was the first to understand that modern phi-
losophy, with its new conception of nature, issued an enormous chal-
lenge to Judaism as it had been interpreted in the Jewish philosophical
tradition, with which he was intimately familiar. Here I will bring this
challenge into focus by thematizing the role of Sinai in some strands
of Jewish philosophy. Some brief remarks on the linkage between Sinai
and nature in the Maimonidean tradition well-known to Spinoza will
enable me to characterize the challenge of modernity and to show
both that Mendelssohn’s pioneering response was problematic, and
that it contained the seeds of two contrasting approaches developed
by twentieth century Jewish thinkers.

1. Before Spinoza

The history of Jewish philosophy is intertwined with the history of
translations of the Hebrew Bible and, if one wants to locate the origin of
Jewish philosophy, one could do no better than to name the translation
of the Septuagint in Hellenistic Egypt. This much-storied event gave
rise to the earliest known Jewish philosophical conversation: a discus-
sion, preserved by Eusebius, about anthropomorphic characterizations
of God, between the Hellenistic king Ptolemy and a Jewish philosopher
named Aristobulus.1 More pertinent to my topic here, however, is the
Septuagint’s fateful translation of “Torah” as “nomos.” As has been noted
before, “didache” was an available alternative, yet “nomos” was used 196
times out of 220.2 Whatever the motivation for this choice, the result

1
Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica, 8.10.1–5, translated by A. Y. Collins in The Old
Testament Pseudepigrapha (ed. J. H. Charlesworth; 2 vols; Garden City, NY: Doubleday,
1985), 2.837–838.
2
See T. Muraoka, “A Japanese studying an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew
Bible at Göttingen.” Online: http://www.humboldt-foundation.de/de/netzwerk/
veranstalt/hoersaal/doc/muraoka.pdf.

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334 paul franks

was to present Torah primarily as the legally compulsory norm of a
Jewish polity—a move that would have rich and long-lasting implica-
tions for Jewish philosophy and for Judaism.3
It was of crucial importance that this nomos, unlike any other, was
given by the creator of nature. But the connection could be made
in several, significantly distinct ways. For Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20
BCE–50 CE), who drew on Stoicism among other resources, Torah
was nomos physeos.4 For Maimonides (1138–1204 CE), however, it was
crucial that, while nature was divinely established in its regularity, cre-
ation did not of itself give rise to any rule—or, at least, to any sufficient
rule—of human life. Human beings were unique in being composed
both of matter and of a form—the intellect—that could in principle
become separate from matter, and this gave rise to a problem of indi-
vidual and collective governance that was essentially not natural but rather
political.5 It was a problem best addressed by a law whose origin was
divine. This was in part because such a law, while not natural, could
imitate the divine governance of nature. If, for Maimonides, Torah was
not natural law, then it was nevertheless quasi-natural: a sort of second
nature stemming from the creator of first nature.

3
See James Kugel, “Some Unanticipated Consequences,” in this volume, 1:
“Rabbinic Judaism, it almost goes without saying, is a religion of laws . . . How did all this
come about?” On nomos, see Kugel, 7. In his broad-ranging and fascinating discussion
of the development of the idea of a covenant and of the prescriptive character of prac-
tices and figures, however, Kugel does not address the question of how this prescriptive
character came to be conceptualized as specifically that of law.
4
See Hindy Najman, “The Law of Nature and the Authority of Mosaic Law, ” SPhilo
11 (1999): 55–73; “A Written Copy of the Law of Nature: An Unthinkable Paradox?”
SPhilo 15 (2003): 51–6. On Torah as law and its connection to nature in Josephus, see
Zuleika Rodgers, “Josephus’ ‘Theokratia,’ ” in this volume, 129–47.
5
Thus Adam and Eve misunderstand the serpent’s promise because of the ambigu-
ity of the Hebrew word “elohim.” Whereas they thought that, if they ate the forbidden
fruit, they would become “as gods,” they would in fact become “as judges.” See Moses
Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed (2 vols; trans. Shlomo Pines; Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1963), I, ch. 2, 25. In general, Maimonides follows the Aristotelian view
that moral and political judgments are conventional. He uses no term signifying natural
law. However, as Kraemer has pointed out, it is possible to see natural law as implicit in
Maimonides’ thinking in two ways: he never excludes the possibility that some details
of conventional law may be rationally required for any well-ordered society; and he
asserts that there is an inborn disposition to do what is right, independently of pro-
phetic instruction. See Joel L. Kraemer, “Naturalism and Universalism in Maimonides’
Thought,” in Meah Shearim: Studies in Medieval Jewish Spiritual Life in Memory of Isadore
Twersky (ed. E. Fleischer et al.; Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2001), 57, 59. Nevertheless, it
remains the case that, for Maimonides, whatever norms of human life result from cre-
ation do not suffice to solve the problems of human life, which require a law that is not
natural, but political and indeed revealed.

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Guide. Maimonides emphasized the extent to which Mosaic governance imitated the divine governance of nature: If you consider the divine actions—I mean to say the natural actions—the deity’s wily graciousness and wisdom. (Exodus 33:13) his point was that he had to contend with “a people for the government of which I need to perform actions that I must seek to make similar to Thy actions in governing them. what Moses came to understand were the divine actions—that is. the nature that God had created and continued to govern. ch. And therefore God sent Moses our Master to make out of us a kingdom of priests and a holy nation . Guide. although the Torah was not. and (3) the covenantal partner who intervenes in history to bring Israel out of Egyptian servitude. Many things in our Law are due to something similar to this very governance on the part of Him who governs. as shown in the gradual suc- cession of the various states of the whole individual. 125. 54. may He be glorified and exalted. the law of nature.8 In general. I. . according to his nature. II. ch. 43. as shown in the creation of living beings. (2) the giver of natural or quasi-natural law. Similarly His wisdom and wily graciousness. is not capable of aban- doning suddenly all to which he was accustomed. For a sudden transition from one opposite to another is impos- sible. . was an education in physics. in the gradation of the motions of the limbs. 9 Maimonides. On the other hand.”6 And when God responded by causing “all My goodness” to pass before Moses (Exodus 33:19). will through them become clear to you. and in the proximity of some of the latter to others. 54. for although 6 Maimonides. 7 Maimonides. “the Law always tends to assimilate itself to nature. 571. perfecting the natural matters in a certain respect.”7 (Gen- esis 1:31) Thus. When Moses asked to be shown God’s ways. for Maimonides. . On the one hand. the tie between revelation and covenantal history was no less important. 25–6. And therefore man. 8 Maimonides. ch. which God had found to be “very good. 32. II. . 124. will become clear to you .”9 What was the role of Sinai within this conception of Judaism? It was the event that manifested the identity of (1) the creator of nature. nevertheless. for the revealed law had to be either natural or quasi-natural. najman_f17_333-354. Guide. I. ch. sinai since spinoza 335 Thus the education that Moses needed and requested in order to govern a people who could return to idolatry so quickly after the wonders of Sinai.indd 335 8/28/2008 11:02:47 AM . and such a law could only originate with the creator. the tie between revelation and creation was essential. Guide.

366. it was nevertheless the law of Israel in particular. ch. that all bodies colliding with smaller bodies lose as much of their own motion as they impart to other bodies] is one which necessarily follows from the very nature of the thing.”11 2. who communicated them in turn to Israel. the new physics was supposed to employ mathematics in order to grasp necessary truths about extended things. not to the class of intellecta. the remainder “belong to the class of generally accepted opinions and those adopted in virtue of tradition. consequences from which Spinoza did not shy away.10 Since the Torah was the uniquely quasi-natural law. 336 paul franks the law was of significance for all human beings. this man- ner depending either on Nature’s necessity or on human will.g. II. which were knowable through a speculation on nature that was universally accessible.” taken in its absolute sense. Among these impli- cations were consequences for Judaism. means that according to which each individual thing—either all in general or those of the same kind—act in one and the same fixed and determinate manner. 33. 33. a law which depends on human will. II. 11 Maimonides.” and were directly communicated to Moses the prophet alone.. najman_f17_333-354. and which could more properly be termed a statute [ius]. Guide. is one which men ordain for themselves 10 Maimonides. giving rise to exceptionless generalizations. As Spinoza emphasized. its definition. This duality was reflected in the con- tent of the Decalogue: the first two commandments were concerned with God’s existence and oneness. Although some modern philosophers spoke of these truths as laws of nature. and he fol- lowed what he took to be the radical implications of this reconception with unparalleled consistency and forthrightness. that is. A law which depends on Nature’s necessity [e. Spinoza saw that this locution was problematic and potentially confusing: The word “law. Guide. and in particular for Judaism as interpreted by Maimonides. ch. it was important to emphasize that Sinai was a unique event: “nothing like it happened before and will not happen after. 364. Spinoza and the Advent of Modernity Spinoza understood with great clarity the importance of the reconcep- tion of nature articulated in the project of modern physics.indd 336 8/28/2008 11:02:47 AM .

indd 337 8/28/2008 11:02:47 AM . otherwise they would not be laws in the relevant sense of regulating human life. following Descartes.”15 Since the laws of a thing’s nature were exceptionless. because presumably all nature is concerned with 12 See chapter 4 in Theological-Political Treatise in Benedictus de Spinoza. najman_f17_333-354. To avoid confusion. Complete Works: Spinoza (ed. it does with sovereign right. and can do no other. chapter 16 in Spinoza. or else they would not be laws of nature in the modern sense. 427.12 In other words. Appendix in Complete Works. that nature as reconceived by modern philosophy could offer no ethical or political guidance whatsoever for human life: “Whatever an individual thing does by the laws of its own nature. Complete Works. IN: Hackett. physics did not deal with what is always and by necessity. Spinoza suggested that we should be clear about which sense of the term “law” is primary: Still. and ordinarily “law” is used to mean simply a command which men can either obey or disobey. inasmuch as it restricts the total range of human power within set limits and demands nothing that is beyond the capacity of that power. “Mathematical accuracy is not to be demanded in everything. but with what is for the most part. Complete Works. 2002). 13 Theological-Political Treatise.13 Note that laws in the strict sense concern rules that have purposes. According to Aristotle. Hence this method is not that of natural science. Consequently. M. 527. the modern conception of nature excluded the notion of purpose from physics altogether. 238–43. but only in things which do not contain matter. but it was equally essential that laws depending on human will should admit exceptions. 15 Theological-Political Treatise. It is important to note that this potential for confusion existed because of the advent of the modern reconception of nature. sinai since spinoza 337 and for others with a view to making life more secure and more conve- nient. the laws of human nature called for no particular actions or arrangements rather than any other. Morgan. for example. articulated a conception of nature that fits more neatly with the idea of law. So it seems more fitting that law should be defined in its narrower sense. In con- trast. inasmuch as it acts as determined by Nature. or for other reasons. as a rule of life which man pre- scribes for himself or for others for some purpose.14 It follows. S. trans. as Spinoza insisted. that is. 426. it was essential that laws of nature be exceptionless. Aristotelian phys- ics. nothing could count as transgressing those laws. Shirley. chapter 4 in Spinoza. it seems to be by analogy that the word “law” is applied to natural phenomena. Indianapolis. 14 Spinoza’s Ethics I. as Spinoza noted.

modern physics gave rise to general- izations that were exceptionless and involved no reference to purpose. and since what existed was rational and intelligible to the extent that it operated according to excep- tionless generalizations.17 Moreover. nature could no longer provide guidance. And so it would have been impossible for Adam to eat of it. Because ethics and political science also dealt with generalizations that were valid for the most part and involved reference to purposes. it was eminently plausible. and that Adam did neverthe- less eat of the tree. then this could only have been a result of ignorance: God’s affirmations and negations always involve eternal necessity or truth. Adam perceived this revelation not as an eternal and necessary truth but as a law. since Scripture tells us that God did so command Adam. either directly or indirectly. If God had been understood instead as giving rise to laws in the strict—ethical or political—sense. In general. that is to say. So. Consequently. God said to Adam that he willed that Adam should not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. najman_f17_333-354.indd 338 8/28/2008 11:02:47 AM . if for example. it would have been a con- tradiction in terms for Adam to be able to eat of the tree. for example. Consequently. Aristotelian physics gave rise to generalizations that were valid for the most part and involved reference to purposes. 17 Nicomachean Ethics. However. to human life. either that nature could give ethical and political guidance to human life. it must be accepted that God revealed to Adam only the punishment he must incur if he should eat of that tree. Nature was “very good” (Genesis 1:31) because it served these purposes. 1027a20.16 Similarly. but stating these was not the task of sci- ence. with the truth that honey-water is usually beneficial in the case of fever. because that divine decree must have involved eternal necessity and truth. 338 paul franks matter. Now. there were numerous exceptions. Rather. since—according to Spinoza—God was the ground of the ratio- nality and intelligibility of all that existed. it was concerned. Book VI. 1094. physics—like ethics and political science—was concerned with purposes. or that nature could provide a model for a law that could give such guidance.” Since physics dealt with matter. In contrast. it was not concerned with exceptionless truths. an enactment from which good or ill consequence would ensue not from the intrinsic nature of deed performed but only from the 16 Metaphysics. the necessary entailment of that punishment was not revealed. ethics and political science dealt with what is for the most part. it followed that such generalizations—eternal truths—were the sole expressions of God.

This gave rise to a division of labour between faith and reason. But if God had spoken to them directly. 19 Theological Political Treatise. namely. for not knowing God’s existence as an eternal truth. 516–19. quite simply. . could Torah be? After all. Complete Works. Again. . and must be derived only from Scripture and revelation . sinai since spinoza 339 will and absolute power of some ruler.indd 339 8/28/2008 11:02:47 AM . that God existed. and he was scornful 18 Theological-Political Treatise. such a law was necessary. Complete Works. was a law. while the aim of faith . whereas faith is based on history and language. . there cannot be obedience to God. theology and philosophy: According to our fundamental principle. Of course. and God was a kind of lawgiver or ruler. . need not and indeed could not conflict. in relation to the Hebrews alone the Decalogue was a law. faith must be defined as the holding of certain beliefs about God such that. is nothing other than obedience and piety.19 The happy implication of this division of labour was that faith and reason. . between faith and theology on the one side and philosophy on the other there is no relation and affinity . 430. truth. but as an eternal truth. they would have perceived this not as a law.18 Here. solely in relation to Adam and solely because of the limitations of his knowl- edge. it was inevitable that they should have perceived as a law what was revealed to them in the Decalogue. their lack of knowledge. Spinoza concluded that it could only be a law based on ignorance. philosophy rests on the basis of univer- sally valid axioms. in a striking break with the Maimonidean tradition. these beliefs are necessarily posited . Spinoza’s radical rethinking of Scripture in accordance with the modern reconception of nature could hardly leave the Sinai event untouched. and if this obedience is posited. and since obedience could not be grounded solely on the knowledge that only a few could be expected to attain. . namely. without these beliefs. chapter 4 in Spinoza. Therefore that revelation. . Spinoza argued in effect that it was impossible for God to be both the origin of nature and the origin of law. What. For this same reason. He regarded the very idea of a revelatory event as an inappropriate anthropomorphization of God. theology and philosophy. and that God alone must be worshipped. najman_f17_333-354. However. it purported to be the law that originates with God. then. since ignorance was to be expected among the majority of human beings. chapter 14 in Spinoza. employing no physical means. The aim of philosophy is. since they were concerned with entirely different domains. . and must be constructed by studying Nature alone.

“I am the Lord. but with the blare of trumpets. Complete Works. etc. Therefore he assailed them. “I am the Lord”? Would the people thereby have understood God’s existence?21 But there was no problem here. as in a democracy. but rather an impressive public drama. but rather an act of law-giving. but. they all surrendered their right on equal terms. God’s essence or existence. and does not pertain to God’s nature) which declared. 21 Theological-Political Treatise. and desired to speak with him so as to be assured of his exis- tence. For God was not seeking to teach the Israelites the absolute attri- butes of his essence (he revealed none of these things at the time). 397. and he understood well that the establishment of a new polity called for. What happened on Sinai was not an act of revelation. not an impressive feat of argumentation. ch. with thunder and with lightnings (see Exodus ch. There was much. 20 v. and to induce them to obedience. 340 paul franks of Maimonides’ attempt to avoid the problem by portraying divine speech as issuing from a “created voice”:20 It seems quite alien to reason to assert that a created thing. 365. through its own individuality. 519. 22 Theological-Political Treatise. since—as we have seen—a true revela- tion would have to be of eternal truths. 33. should be able to express or display. “I am the Lord your God. and it was in this light that the pyrotechnics of the event should be understood: Although the voice which the Israelites heard could not have given those men a philosophical or mathematical certainty of God’s existence. Indeed. crying with one voice.” What if God had manipulated the lips of Moses—but why Moses? the lips of some beast—so as to pronounce the words. but to break down their obstinacy and bring them to obedience.22 In short. . this being the purpose of that manifes- tation. not with arguments. I fail to see how their need was met through a created thing (which is no more related to God than are other created things. Complete Works. we shall do” (no one being named 20 Maimonides. chapter 1 in Spinoza. Guide.” . it suf- ficed to strike them with awe of God as they had previously known him. . najman_f17_333-354.indd 340 8/28/2008 11:02:48 AM . Spinoza thought. II. 20). Now in the case of people who previously knew nothing of God but his name. chapter 14 in Spinoza. Moses was a master of statecraft. factually or verbally. declaring in the first person. dependent on God in the same way as other created things. to learn from the statecraft of Moses. “Whatever God shall speak. the original idea of Moses’ theocratic constitution—the idea of universal equality before God—was an excellent one: Since the Hebrews did not transfer their right to any other man.

. in short.e. 31. Complete Works.. . 549. insofar as these lay beyond the limits of human endeavour. i. chapter 17 in Spinoza. the safeguard of the people—as penalties and punishments. 540.25 Here we must recall that. For this reason it is obvious that these gifts are not peculiar to any nation but have always been common to all 23 Theological-Political Treatise. whose sole end should always be the honour. 2) To subjugate the passions. I. it follows that this covenant left them all completely equal. . . but for vengeance. so that their acquisition must depend on human power alone. God’s concern was not for their security. when the people withdrew after hearing the first two commandments: But on this first appearance before God they were so terrified and so thun- derstruck at hearing God speak that they thought that their last hour had come . abrogated the first covenant.23 However. the firstborn were rejected as defiled and the Levites were chosen in their place. najman_f17_333-354. and they all had an equal right to consult God. to receive and interpret his laws. welfare and security of the people. Complete Works. by divine reward and punishment. chapter 17 in Spinoza. but when all except the Levites had wor- shipped the calf. The Tacitus quotation is from Histories. the seeds of the destruction of the Mosaic constitution were also planted at Sinai. 3) To live in security and good health. chapter 17 in Spinoza. It was in this way that he explained the election of Israel: All worthy objects of desire can be classified under one of these three general headings: 1) To know things through their primary causes. not to the Levites. The more I consider the change. they all shared equally in the government of the state. which eventually became monarchy: It had first been intended to entrust the entire ministry of religion to the firstborn. . they . i. to acquire the habit of virtue. the more I am forced to exclaim in the words of Tacitus. Complete Works. 25 Theological-Political Treatise.e. with the result that their laws appeared to them to be not so much laws—that is. Spinoza understood nothing other than temporal success and failure. making an absolute transfer to Moses of their right to consult God and to interpret his decrees.24 Thus true theocracy became debased theocracy. sinai since spinoza 341 as mediator). The means that directly serve for the attainment of the first and second objectives lie within the bounds of human nature itself. with the intention of avenging himself and punishing the people.indd 341 8/28/2008 11:02:48 AM . solely on the laws of human nature. “At that time. 24 Theological-Political Treatise.” I cannot sufficiently marvel that such was the wrath of heaven that God framed their very laws. 540.

not its own. that are laid down in the Old Testament—were instituted for the Hebrews alone. . Even if some particular aspects of Mosaic law contributed to the endurance of Israel. a social body . it followed only that these were worthy of close study. 342 paul franks mankind . reason and experience have taught us no surer means than to organize a society under fixed laws. . to occupy a fixed territory and to concentrate the strength of all its members into one body.indd 342 8/28/2008 11:02:48 AM . . So it is evident that they do not pertain to 26 Tractatus. then the debasement of that idea. . not that they were in any way binding upon contemporary descendants of the Israelites: The Divine Law. Nevertheless. . for what it has experienced is far beyond its expectation and belief. but by reason of its social organization and the good fortune whereby it achieved supremacy and retained it for so many years. it cannot fail to marvel at and worship God’s guidance (that is to say. Both were present at Sinai.26 If the original idea of a constitution based on universal equality before God was the source of Israel’s endurance and the sign of Israel’s elec- tion. endures for some considerable time. and were so adapted to the nature of their gov- ernment that they could not be practised by the individual but involved the community as a whole. insofar as God acts through hidden external causes. Now ceremonial observances— those. which eventually led to the destruction of the state. So in this matter the fool and the wise man have about an equal chance of happiness or unhappiness. . . . as it were. 417–18. is of universal application to all men . not by reason of its understanding nor of its spiritual qualities. which makes men truly blessed and teaches the true life. But the means that serve for the attainment of security and physical well-being lie principally in external circumstances. this is to be attributed to some other guidance. much can be effected by human contrivance and vigilance to achieve security and to avoid injuries from other men and from beasts. Indeed. Complete Works. chapter 3 in Spinoza. at least. if it overcomes great perils and enjoys prosperity. . This division between the original Mosaic idea and its debasement also generated a distinction between the eternally valid core of the Mosaic polity—a politics based on universal equality and an ethics of neighbourly love—and those aspects that were limited to ancient Israel. and not through the nature and mind of man). najman_f17_333-354. Thus the Hebrew nation was chosen by God before all others. and can truly be regarded even as a miracle . and are called the gifts of fortune because they mainly depend on the operation of exter- nal causes of which we are in ignorance. If [such a society] . To this end. . must have been a sign of Israel’s rejection.

revealed legislation another. 23). omnipo- tent and omniscient. even as he resisted Spinoza’s conclusions. was not to be revealed there. sinai since spinoza 343 the Divine Law. for who was to be convinced of these 27 Theological-Political Treatise. 3. In particular. the idea that the Torah revealed on Sinai was essentially nomos. and that the destruction of the Jewish state should have resulted in the end of Judaism. 435–37. but to Judaism itself: according to the philosophical tradition. your God. “I am the Eternal. However. that is (as we demonstrated in chapter 3) to their temporal and material prosperity and peaceful government. independent being. that recompenses men in a future life according to their deeds. and so thereafter only those who know these things are to be deemed worthy of praise (see chapter 9 v. a purely political law: Revealed religion is one thing. In reality. chapter 5 in Spinoza. the validity of the Torah as law of Israel depended on its direct or indirect linkage to nature. najman_f17_333-354. The voice which let itself be heard on Sinai on that great day did not proclaim. and therefore do not contribute to blessedness and vir- tue. but nature could no longer be understood as a source or model of law. and the universal religion of mankind. not only to Jewish philosophy. who. Buber and Rosenzweig Mendelssohn (1729–1786 CE) was perhaps the first Jewish philosopher to respond seriously to Spinoza’s challenge.27 Thus Spinoza issued a challenge. . . he adopted some central features of Spinoza’s views about Judaism. when he saw and proclaimed the imminent ruin of the city. judgment and righteousness in the earth. the necessary. not Judaism. Responses: From Mendelssohn to Breuer. said that God delights only in those who know and understand that he exercises loving-kindness.” This is the universal religion of mankind. and therefore could have been of practical value only while their state existed .indd 343 8/28/2008 11:02:48 AM . That the Hebrews are not bound to prac- tise their ceremonial rites since the destruction of their state is clear from Jeremiah. without which men are neither vir- tuous nor capable of felicity. Complete Works. Mendelssohn adopted. so it followed that the law of Israel was no more and no less sanctioned by nature than any other law. no doubt because he too saw the enormous sig- nificance of modern philosophy’s reconception of nature. from Spinoza’s revision of the Maimonidean tradition. it could not have been revealed there. They have regard only to the election of the Hebrews.

which could all too easily give rise to idolatry. far removed from all idolatry. 344 paul franks eternal doctrines of salvation by the voice of thunder and the sound of trumpets? . which was therefore more compatible with the Enlightenment than Christianity. trans. was to be revealed here—commandments and ordinances. NH: University of New England Press. and was con- sequently universally accessible through reason. Hanover. the mission of Judaism was to preserve “pure concepts of religion. to inquire into its spirit. however divine. not in images. strictly speaking. where the 28 Moses Mendelssohn. 1983). or remind us of them.indd 344 8/28/2008 11:02:48 AM . not eternal religious truths. A. for such truths were to be known through observation of nature and through rational reflection. This was not to say. that Judaism lacked all connection to eternal truths.28 Mendelssohn rejected Maimonides’ view that the first two command- ments were speculative in content. For religion consisted in eternal truths conducive to human felicity. Arkush. however. Jerusalem or On Religious Power and Judaism (ed. just as Spinoza had argued that religion and philosophy could not conflict since they were concerned with different domains.31 Mendelssohn also disagreed sharply with Spinoza’s conclusion that Judaism should have ended with the destruction of the Temple: I cannot see how those born into the House of Jacob can in any consci- entious manner disencumber themselves of the law. here and there. but rather in patterns of living. 31 See Mendelssohn. not directed to a par- ticular people through revelation. The Torah revealed on Sinai was a political law for a people cov- enanted to God. to be passed down through the generations by largely unwritten example. which did indeed purport to be a religion. it would have been odd if God had revealed speculative truths at Sinai. We are permitted to reflect on the law. Jerusalem. Consequently. 99. 30 Mendelssohn. or are based upon. A historical truth. so Mendelssohn argued in effect that there could be no tension between “the religion of mankind” and Judaism. as well as laws. on which this people’s legislation was to be founded. 102–20 for his account of the need for the oral law. a religion. and rouse us to ponder them. Rather. A.”29 Indeed. Jerusalem. It was not. 97–8. they were expressions of God’s covenantal relationship with Israel. najman_f17_333-354. 118. not through pyrotechnics. . Here Mendelssohn parted company from Spinoza: “All [ Mosaic] laws refer to. Altmann. .”30 It was to do by embodying and symbolizing ideas. Indeed. 29 Mendelssohn. and. Jerusalem. eternal truths of reason.

as long as we can point to no such authentic exemption from the law. Mendelssohn’s defence of Judaism was problematic. place and circumstances—if it pleases the Supreme Lawgiver to make known to us His will on this matter. it was hard to see why the demise of the Mosaic state should be lamented rather than celebrated. although the Torah was intended as a political con- stitution. Jerusalem. on the other hand. perhaps. The fundamental laws of the Jewish religion are at the same time the fundamental laws of the Jewish state. As long as this has not happened. depended upon time. 45. perhaps. rather than in the domain of the state.”33 This did not make his views con- tradictory. sinai since spinoza 345 lawgiver gave no reason. and which. since he regarded the theocracy established at Sinai to be a direct effect of revelation. But he offered no account of what it meant to regard Sinai as revelatory and he did nothing to counter Spinoza’s objections to traditional conceptions of revelation as inappropriately anthropomorphic. not of a contract. However. and reverence for God draws a line between speculation and practice which no conscientious man may cross. was incompatible with natural right: “Religious society lays no claim to the right of coercion. to surmise a reason which. place. 33 Mendelssohn. Consequently. and only another revelatory event could abrogate it. and cannot obtain it by any possible contract. any man who separates himself from 32 Mendelssohn. and circumstances. drew the conclusion that Mendelssohn wished above all to avoid: So far as I am concerned. Salomon Maimon (1753–1800 CE). Jerusalem. and it was hard to see what force Mendelssohn’s defence of post-destruction Judaism could have. in as public a manner.32 In other words. and who wish to enjoy the rights granted to them under condition of their obedience. But. no sophistry of ours can free us from the strict obedience we owe to the law.indd 345 8/28/2008 11:02:48 AM . Mendelssohn himself had argued in an earlier section of Jerusalem that any exercise of legally coercive power in the domain of religion. They must therefore be obeyed by all who acknowledge themselves to be members of this state. may be liable to change in accordance with time. it originated in an event that was not only political but also revelatory. najman_f17_333-354. and as far beyond all doubt and ambiguity as He did when He gave us the law itself. a younger contemporary of Mendelssohn’s and a crucial figure in the development of post-Kantian Jewish philosophy. to make it known in as clear a voice. 233. I am led to assent entirely to Mendelssohn’s reasoning by my own reflections on the fundamental laws of the religion of my fathers. First.

whether he enters another state or betakes himself to solitude. 229–30. Since his attempt to convert to Christianity without compromising his philosophy was rebuffed. but they regarded his response to the challenge of modernity raised by Spinoza as a failure. An Autobiography. 253–57. . Mendelssohn’s work contained the seeds of at least two later responses that did not break with Judaism. who desires to be considered no longer a member of it.indd 346 8/28/2008 11:02:48 AM . Maimon left not only the observance of Judaism but also the Jewish community.36 After 34 Solomon Maimon.35 and since there was no secular state of which he could become a citizen. who founded independent Orthodoxy. and on the intrinsic value of both Torah and the sur- rounding. with Spinoza and Mendelssohn. Between Kant and Kabbalah (Albany: SUNY Press. Clark Murray. From Frankfurt to Jerusalem (Leiden: Brill. 1990). one could break with the entire tradition. of regarding Torah as nomos. On the one hand. Unlike communal Orthodoxy. Orthodox political movement—and later of Poalei Agudath Israel. IL: University of Illinois Press. if any. however. See Mordechai Breuer. and Matthias Morgenstern. Presumably. 346 paul franks this state. and why its validity had outlasted the existence of a Jewish state. Alan Mittleman. On the other hand. 35 Maimon. 2001). one would have to explain why theocratic nomos was a good thing. Maimon’s attitude to Mendelssohn was widely shared among Jewish philosophers: they revered Mendelssohn as a pioneer and as a personal- ity. as Maimon had done. Then. J. Mendelssohn lived in accordance with the laws of his religion. The first option was developed by Isaac Breuer (1883–1946 CE).34 Exercising the option that he thought Mendelssohn had shown him to be available. But then one would have to explain what role. But any man who abandons this state is acting just as little in violation of his duty. the leading intellectual figure of independent German Orthodoxy. 2002). he betook himself to solitude. there could be within Judaism for obligations. . but najman_f17_333-354. that Judaism was fundamentally not religion but law. independent Orthodoxy insisted on rigorous separation (Austritt) from all institutions involving non-Orthodox movements. is also in his conscience no longer bound to obey those laws . and he was the son of Joseph Breuer. Solomon Maimon: An Autobiography (trans. and consequently acted up to duty in this respect. therefore. Hirsch’s son-in-law and successor. 36 Breuer was the grandson of Samson Raphael Hirsch. Urbana and Chicago. including traditional Jewish communal institutions. 1992). As far as is known. and to renounce all his rights as such. Breuer played a leading role in the founding of Agudath Israel—the primary non-Zionist. he always regarded himself as still a member of the theocratic state of his fathers. Nevertheless. one could continue to main- tain. general culture. Modernity within Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press. originating in the Septuagint.

The Jewish law is no different. he will very soon and in a most unpleasant manner receive suf- ficient conviction. J.” in Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy (ed. and ed. . Breuer regarded the Sinai revelation as the factum at the basis of Judaism. Rosen. . should he disobey the constitutional will of the monarch. Employing Neo-Kantian terms. . The condi- tion and basis of his obedience lies not in his personal conviction of the excellence of the law. and Neo-Kantianism. Breuer argued that the Torah was obligatory for Jews in exactly the way that law was obligatory for citizens of a state: Law is simply obligatory ruling. “Serpentine Naturalism and Protean Nihilism: Transcendental Philosophy in Anthropological Neo- Kantianism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. German Idealism. 41. just as every science has a factum at its basis:38 The teaching of Judaism was demonstrated on Sinai with perfect lucidity before the eyes of the entire nation. 2007). For them the teach- ing of Judaism thus became a fact of experience. Breuer sounded as though he was merely articulating in Neo- Kantian terms the idea—developed by Spinoza and Mendelssohn—that the Torah was a non-natural nomos. whoever has never seen the king of Prussia and. 38 On the notion of a factum in post-Kantian philosophy. 43. Concepts of Judaism. see Paul Franks. The law imposes absolute obligation . B. 37 From Breuer’s Teaching. without which it simply could not be understood. The conviction. According to the collective will of the Jewish nation which was given expression at Mount Sinai. Law and Nation. Jerusalem: Israel Universities Press. 1974). But he departed significantly from his combination of uncompromising Orthodoxy with Neo-Kantianism and socialism remained largely his own view rather than the ideology of the movement. . therefore. it was rather the direct self-assurance which was based on their own perception. . the sole and exclusive constitutional organ of the legislature is God . Levinger. The Sinaitic community actu- ally experienced the doctrine of Judaism at Mount Sinai. succumbs to the fixed idea that such a person does not exist at all—then. . The individual Jew is subject to the law by reason of his membership of the Jewish nation. indeed not even his conviction of its divine origin. won from them in their deepest sensitivity. najman_f17_333-354. Law and Nation (1910) found in Isaac Breuer. in Breuer. Concepts of Judaism (trans. 39 Teaching.indd 347 8/28/2008 11:02:49 AM . indeed not of his theoretically confirmed existence but of his practically extremely effective manifestation of power. sinai since spinoza 347 developing a general account of law within a Neo-Kantian philosophi- cal framework.37 Such a view necessitated an emphasis on Sinai as the location of the event whereby the polity was established.39 So far. which the Sinaitic community brought to the teaching was not merely subjective. Leiter and M. It is in the concept-characteristic of obli- gation pure and simple that the complete abstraction from the individual lies .

The revelation was to remain effective for all time and not just for the contemporary generation. Law and Nation. He has permitted us direct insight into the truth of this teaching by making it our experience. Moses commanded a teaching to us who were collected at Mount Sinai. but rather the Torah itself : “Moses commanded us a teaching. but rather in the Torah as Israel’s constitu- tion. najman_f17_333-354. . This was the reason why the teaching should become king in Yeshurun. it is to be the inheritance of Jacob’s congregation. neither God nor Moses. for this reason it became king in Yeshurun” (Deut 33:4–5. following Hirsch’s translation). while Jewish communities that ceased to treat the Torah as their constitution lost their legitimacy entirely. But this doctrine is not to disap- pear with us. .40 Here lay the key both to Judaism’s continued legitimacy and to the need for separatism. Jewish communities that treated the Torah as their constitution retained the right to exercise legally coercive power. He also argued that the Jewish pol- ity founded at Sinai was a good thing from the standpoint of reason. not by subjective consent. re-establishing “Torah-true” communities. not in institutions such as the monarchy or the Temple. The continued legitimacy of Judaism after the destruction of the Jewish state was not the only problem with Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem that Breuer could claim to address. Kant had succeeded in formulating the structure of practical rationality. since it thematized the necessary conditions for the exercise of practical reason and could therefore claim universal validity. in Breuer. The teaching is to become an inheritance for all the future members of Jacob’s congregation. Sovereignty was vested. if necessary. Concepts of Judaism. Kant’s approach to ethics and law was the culmination of natural right. to which Jewish individuals would continue to be bound. why it had to be clothed in the power of the law and secure for itself purity and a future through the commanding authority of the law. Indeed. he could not help but 40 Teaching. Breuer affirmed the charge—originally made by Maimon but more famously repeated by Hegel—that Kantian ethics and natural right were merely formal and empty of content. but he had failed to provide substance for the structure. but in virtue of what happened at Sinai. . For Breuer. Hirsch—that Sinai established as king. Consequently.indd 348 8/28/2008 11:02:49 AM . 44–5. However. Therefore he could command us to accept this as a teaching. It was therefore of crucial importance to maintain the Jewish polity by preserving or. 348 paul franks his predecessors in his argument—which draws on the Bible com- mentary of his illustrious grandfather.

We do not know in advance. 1965). It is only through man in his self-contradiction that revelation becomes legislation.”41 Only the Torah. Concepts of Judaism.43 41 The New Kuzari (1934). 1924. found in Rosenzweig. I cannot admit the law transformed by man into the realm of my will. A very different view was developed by Martin Buber (1878–1965 CE). indeed. human reason unguided by revelation—had to fail. On Jewish Learning (trans. to a few fundamental concepts. So he had to be content with filling up the gap. najman_f17_333-354. Only revelation could: “From freedom—to law: [Kant] could not tread this path of Judaism. . 42 “The Builders” (1923) in Franz Rosenzweig. when someone tries to tell us. since he had not stood before Mount Sinai. On Jewish Learning. It was as if he was returning to the Septuagint and re-translating “Torah” as “didache. what is and is not Jewish teaching. 111. in Breuer.” In a famous letter. 77. Rosenzweig complained that Buber had excluded the legal aspects of Judaism altogether. June 24. 43 Martin Buber. in its real contradic- tions. since human reason alone could not solve the problem. Indeed. You have liberated the teaching from this circumscribed sphere and. it remained for the nineteenth to pursue this as a consistent method. where the law should have been. we turn away in disbelief and anger . could succeed where Kant—and. who rejected the identification of Torah with nomos. removed us from the imminent danger of making our spiritual Judaism depend on whether or not it was possible for us to be followers of Kant. N. above all. which had once recognized as Jewish teaching only what it could also find in Kant: We accept as teaching what enters us from out of the accumulated knowl- edge of the centuries in its apparent and.42 However. with the idea of the law. letter to Rosenzweig. sinai since spinoza 349 fail. New York: Schocken. and ed. in so doing. and empha- sized instead that Torah was teaching. Rosenzweig (1886–1929 CE) gave Buber full credit for this move. 277. as non-natural and revealed nomos. Earlier centuries had already reduced the teachings to a genteel poverty. . Buber saw revelation as an immediate I-thou encounter that could only be betrayed if it was expressed in legal terms: I do not believe that revelation is ever a formulation of law.indd 349 8/28/2008 11:02:49 AM . This is the fact of man. if I am to hold myself ready as well for the unmediated word of God directed to a specific hour of life. and for an open-mindedness towards Jewish tradition that had transformed German liberal Judaism. Glatzer. with the utmost seriousness.

On Jewish Learning. On Jewish Learning. . 77. your answer to the other side of the question. 78. For did any Jew prior to this really think—without having the question put to him—that he was keeping the Law. the question concerning the Law: “What are we to do?”—that your answer should leave this Law in the shackles put upon it—as well as upon the teachings—by the nineteenth century. najman_f17_333-354. in the face of whose challenge it had no choice but to transform itself into something narrower than traditional Jewish life. Moreover. only because God imposed it upon Israel at Sinai? Actually faced by the question. 45 Hirsch’s educational ideal was the person who was well-rounded both as a Jew (“Yisroel”) and as a human being (“Mensch”). Rosenzweig saw clearly that this unfortunate development had begun with Men- 44 “The Builders” in Rosenzweig. as obligations stemming from the nomos of a Jewish polity established at Sinai. Rosenzweig suggested that Buber’s narrow-mindedness con- sisted in rejecting the legal aspects of Judaism as if they could only be interpreted as Mendelssohn and Breuer had interpreted them—namely.indd 350 8/28/2008 11:02:49 AM . 46 “The Builders” in Rosenzweig. But no one before Hirsch and his followers ever seriously attempted to construct Jewish life on the narrow base of these reasons. and the Law him. and the philosophers to whom the question has been put because they were supposedly “profes- sional” thinkers. also Breuer’s ongo- ing development of his grandfather’s approach—to the sense in the nineteenth century that Judaism was compromised by modernity. have always been fond of giving this very reply. . Hirsch gave to his Yisroel- Mensch45 for keeping the Law.46 Here Rosenzweig explicitly connected both Kantian Jewish Liberalism and Hirsch’s independent Orthodoxy—implicitly. so too can one trace back the reasons that S. 350 paul franks Surely it was possible instead to adopt towards Jewish law exactly the same open-mindedness of attitude that Buber had urged towards Jew- ish teaching: And so it is all the more curious that after liberating us and pointing the way to a new teaching. Just as problematic as an over-emphasis on Judaism as legal system was an accompanying over-emphasis on Sinai itself: Just as the formulas into which the liberalism of the reformers wanted to crowd the Jewish spirit can be traced back to a long line of antecedents. Is the Law you speak of not rather the Law of the Western Orthodoxy of the past century?44 Indeed. For is it really Jewish law with which you try to come to terms? . he might have thought of such an answer. R.

indd 351 8/28/2008 11:02:49 AM . and that. and revelatory law with the heavy-handedness of the state. the Jewishness of every individual has squirmed on the needle point of a “why. it was high time for an architect to come and convert this foundation into a wall behind which the people. Law [Gesetz] must again become commandment [Gebot ]. this Torah. but was it not created before the creation of the world? Written against a background of shining fire in letters of somber flame? . too much had been given up. an alternative to the forced choice between narrow Liberalism and narrow Orthodoxy. sinai since spinoza 351 delssohn. Breuer was its leading Orthodox representative: From Mendelssohn on. Rosenzweig insisted.47 Before Mendelssohn. our entire people has subjected itself to the torture of this embarrassing questioning. . On Jewish Learning. all this is as important as the “fact. But it was only one factor among many others. The Torah’s demands upon action could be conceptualized in a way that was actually more consonant with traditional Jewish life. and all that our ancestors perceived in every “today” of the Torah: that the souls of all generations to come stood on Sinai along with those six hundred thousand and heard what they heard. There was. For a Jewish consciousness that does not question and is not questioned. In the effort to respond to the challenge arising from the modern severance of law from nature. But for those living without questions. only because of the one “fact which excluded the possi- bility of delusions.” Certainly. was given to Moses on Sinai. pressed with questions. No doubt the Torah. whatever can and must be commanded is not yet commandment. .” and that “fact” no whit more impor- tant than those other considerations. articulated within a web of midrashic and kabbalistic traditions to be found both in the books of scholars and in the liturgy familiar to the masses. this reason for keeping the Law was only one among others and probably not the most cogent. najman_f17_333-354. 78–79.” that the six hundred thousand heard the voice of God on Sinai? This “fact” certainly does play a part. if Buber was its leading Liberal exponent. German Jews had been forced into a choice between revelatory teaching with no ritual or legal expression. but no greater part than all we have mentioned before. And can we really fancy that Israel kept this Law. if not with Jewish philosophy—as mitzvah rather than as nomos: Whatever can and must be done is not yet deed. which seeks to be transformed into deed at the 47 “The Builders” in Rosenzweig. both writ- ten and oral. Sinai was indisputably an important factor within Jewish thinking about the demands of the Torah and their basis. could seek shelter.

Morgan. 2003). it was hard to reconcile Mendelssohn’s rejection of religious coercion in Section I with his presentation of Judaism as a revealed nomos in Section II. . each Jew had to face the spiritual challenge of coming to understand what seemed to be an impersonal law as a personal com- mandment addressed directly to him or her by God. as if you were commanded concerning them that very day. The latter—called commandments in the above passage— would have retained their obligatory status when the state ceased to 48 “The Builders” in Rosenzweig. if Sinai was more than a merely political event that had occurred in ancient history. Indianapolis. As Rosenzweig acknowledged. By invoking the demand that every day be seen as “today”49—as the present moment of revelation—Rosenzweig effected. in fact.: “Every day [the command- ments] should be new in your eyes. 71. this was because of the Deuteronomic repetition of Sinai. Christoph Schrempf. religion commandments [Gebote] . In one word: civil society. The state prescribes laws [Gesetze]. 52 Mendelssohn. Jerusalem. 2000).48 In other words. Philosophical and Theological Writings (trans. and ed. P. but rather the situation of Sinai within a broader tradition originating with Deuteronomy. Franks and M. religion teaches and persuades. IN: Hackett. On Jewish Learning. 45. najman_f17_333-354. . he learned the distinction between law and commandment from the controversial Christian theologian.52 As was discussed above. 85. 49 See Deut. not the replacement of Sinai with the plains of Moab. has actually obtained this right through the social contract.” 50 See Hindy Najman. and cannot obtain it by any possible contract.indd 352 8/28/2008 11:02:49 AM . 26:16 and Rashi’s commentary ad loc. can have the right of coercion. Leiden: Brill. Seconding Sinai: The Development of Mosaic Discourse in Second Temple Judaism ( JSJSup 77. and. Religious society lays no claim to the right of coercion. 51 See Franz Rosenzweig. It must regain that today-ness [Heutigkeit] in which all great Jewish periods have sensed the guarantee for its eternity. Why should some parts of this law have remained obligatory once the state was destroyed? Mendelssohn could have distinguished between those parts of the law directly associated with statehood and those whose significance did not depend on legal coercion. and because of the accompanying call to make revelation ever-present by repeating Sinai again and again. viewed as a moral person.51 But he could perhaps have found an intimation in Section I of Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem: The state gives orders and coerces.50 For. 352 paul franks very moment it is heard.

Without revelation. Judaism was the overcoming of natural religion.indd 353 8/28/2008 11:02:50 AM . In Rosenzweig’s words: “The word of God is Revelation only because at the same time it is the word of Creation. natural religion was not the doctrinal core of Judaism. Thus he undermined the connection drawn hitherto within Jewish philosophy between Torah and nature. this did not mean that the revelation at Sinai became. najman_f17_333-354. In one respect at least. 54 Rosenzweig. but on the authority of the commander. B. For him too. Madison. not of a manifestation of God’s power over nature and human society. and the disjunction between nature so con- ceived and law. Star. and there was no good reason for Jews to maintain Judaism. not on the coercive power of the state. While generally regarded as unsuccessful. after him. to Levinas (1906–1995). The first response affirmed Spinoza’s thesis that the Torah was political and not natural. dissociated from creation. instead. Rosenzweig’s view was similar to Breuer’s. but rather of a solely political event whereby was established the polity for which the Torah was the nomos. It was left to Rosenzweig and. however. nature alone could give rise only to paganism. However. Galli. equal revelation would be 53 See Rosenzweig’s treatment of paganism in The Star of Redemption (trans. to work out an ethics and a politics based on the command of the other. Conclusion Spinoza thematized the conception of nature articulated in modern physics and metaphysics. But Mendelssohn did not in fact develop this distinction. for Breuer and Rosenzweig. On the contrary. This led Spinoza to con- clude that.53 This was one of the fruits of Spinoza’s dissociation of Torah and Sinai from the ideas of natural and quasi-natural law. Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem contained the seeds of two responses to the challenge of modernity raised by Spinoza. because their authority rested. but sought to show that in some sense the obligations of Judaism persisted after the destruction of the Jewish state—either because a second. 121. Sinai became the site. since the Jewish polity no longer existed. 2005). WI: University of Wisconsin Press.”54 4. sinai since spinoza 353 exist. its nomos was no longer obligatory. only the creator of nature could overcome natural religion.

Sinai and nature. najman_f17_333-354. Natural Law in Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. it insisted that the Torah was in part teaching (didache). For another perspective on the relationship between Torah. this second response took Sinai’s importance to consist. or because the Jewish polity could survive without a state. Instead. not as laws. But it did not restore the pre-modern link between Torah and nature. not in its uniqueness. addressed by a personal God to a singular individual or to a singular people.indd 354 8/28/2008 11:02:50 AM . and that the obligations of Juda- ism were best understood.55 55 I have of course dealt here with only one strand of modern Jewish philosophy. Following the Deuteronomic tradition. The second response rejected Spinoza’s thesis and. 1998). indeed. but rather as commandments. While the first line of thought made Sinai more central to Juda- ism than ever. questioned the exclusive identification—traceable back to the Septuagint—of Torah as nomos. but rather in its repeatability. see David Novak. the second sought to undo what it regarded as an undue emphasis on Sinai that misunderstood Sinai’s importance. 354 paul franks required to undo the revelation at Sinai.