(Not) Beyond Good and Evil: Will Herberg on Utopianism, Cynicism, and the Jewish Ethic

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Will Herberg is a Jewish-American Theologian who is most noted for his book, published in 1955,  Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology.   His characterizations of American religious pluralism may be a little dated, but it is still discussed by scholars today.  But his first book, Judaism and Modern Man: An Interpretation of Jewish Religion, is lesser known and certainly deserves more attention than it has already received.  At first, I thought the book was rehearsing many of the ideas we find in the work of Julius Guttman and Leo Strauss on what makes Judaism…Jewish (in contrast to being Greek, Mythological, etc).  To be sure, although he doesn’t cite Guttman, Rosenzweig, Buber, and Strauss (which is a major drawback), we can hear many resonances.  I am interested in how he reinterprets their theological readings of Judaism.

But what interests me most is how his readings may or may not pertain to the schlemiel’s pursuit of goodness.  To be sure, one of Herberg’s major focuses in his book is what he calls the “Jewish ethic.”  What I find so interesting about his reading is the fact that he provides Ruth Wisse’s reading of the schlemiel (made in the early 70s) with a theological reflection.  In her reading of the schlemiel she claims that the schlemiel can only exist in a world that is neither fully optimistic (or utopian) nor fully skeptical (or cynical).  The schlemiel’s Jewishness, in her estimation, has to do with creating a tension between hope and skepticism.  This idea is what Herberg associates with a Jewish ethic.  Unlike Nietzsche’s call to go “beyond good and evil,” this ethic looks to preserve good and evil yet in a way that underscores the tenuous and complicated nature of good and evil in our society.  This, as a matter of course, says to Nietzsche: not so fast.  And this not so fast, so to speak, is at the core of the Jewish ethic and it seems to be at the core of what Ruth Wisse is getting at in her interpretation of the traditional schlemiel character.  The only difference, as I hope to show, is that Herberg’s theology is utterly serious and his discourse is far from comic; whereas the schlemiel works by way of comedy and indirection.   Both are reflections on Jewishness, but one is secular while the other is religious.

In a section entitled, “The Divine Imperative: The Absolute and the Relative,” Herberg looks into the meaning of Jewish ethics vis-à-vis the relation of the absolute to the relative.  Does Judaism have absolutes?  Can they be known and acted upon?

Writing for a Jewish-American audience, and recognizing the degree of influence of Christian ideas on the Jewish mind, Herberg begins the section with a discussion of the relationship of love to law.  For Herberg, law and justice are the “foundation of social existence”(106).  And love comes in to the picture by way of pointing out that the law must be kept but in a merciful manner.  He calls the appeal to mercy within the law as the “transcendence of law in love.”  Jews must go “beyond the letter of the law” not by rejecting it but by applying in the right manner.

Herberg rejects the antinomian claim that the law should be rejected in the name of love:

No responsible thinker will venture to foresee human conditions within history in which faith will be so perfectly realized in love that law can be dispensed with and all action take rise in spontaneous freedom.  (107)

But immediately following this, he redefines the “transcendence of law in love” in terms of an existential imperative:

The transcendence of law in love is the divine imperative that confronts every man in his relations with his fellow men but it is an imperative that only the most sentimental utopianism can identify with the realities of social life at any stage of history. (107)

As we can see from this quote, Herberg inserts a critique of utopianism in his definition of the “transcendence of law in love.”  He does this because he can see that utopianism, in its zeal, has an antinomian spirit.  To this end, he critiques not just utopianism but also its evil twin, cynicism.  For Herberg, all action is “contaminated.”  But this is no reason for total cynicism:

Activity of men in history, even in the pursuit of best ends, carries with it not only the promotion but also the violation of the highest imperatives of moral life. (109)

No one is pure: “Even the saint in his humility, does he not exalt himself in the pride of his humility?”(109).  These thoughts may give rise to cynicism which Herberg defines as such:

Cynicism denies that ideal imperatives, since they are impossible of actual enactment in life, can have any meaning or relevance to human existence. (110)

In response to this, he calls for a “realistic ethic” which must “know how to relate the ideal to reality without deceiving itself as to the actual distance between them.  It must know how to choose from among the evils without obliterating the distinction between good and evil”(110).

After making this claim, Herberg resorts to a kind of quasi-Kantian regulative ideal:

The absolute imperatives calling to perfection acquire their potency precisely through the fact that they transcend every actuality of existence.  They are regulative, not constitutive, principles of moral life; they cannot themselves be embodied in action but they operate as the dynamic power within it.  (110)

And these regulative ideals serve “as principles of criticism of existing conditions.  And they serve, next, as principles of guidance in the struggle for better conditions”(110).

Although this sounds quite familiar – vis-à-vis a kind of Marxist critique – however, Herberg draws the line when he says that we have to be very careful with our interpretation and application of these “principles.”   And, in the process, challenges the “utopian” view which invests too much in its critiques and aspirations.  The Jewish ethic is more skeptical than the utopian view but it is not cynical.  One must act, but how?

Herberg argues that the Jewish ethic gets deeply involved with the “relativities” of life. And it does so with a view to action based on quasi-principles.  Nonetheless, they “constitute transcendent principles of aspiration, criticism, and judgment”(112).   In other words, criticism and judgment are always on the horizon as is aspiration for getting it write (even in the face of possible failure).

However, at the very end of the chapter Herberg decides that it is more important to end with the existential note than the pragmatic one (which is not to say that he rejects pragmatism but that he is most interested in the “aspirational” aspect of the Jewish ethic).

He notes that at the core of all of this reflection on right, ethical action is a paradox and an existential dilemma and the only solution is a call to God for help:

The resolution of the heart-rending, existence shattering conflict between what we know we ought to do and that which in fact we do do is possible only on the religious level, on the level of repentance, grace, and forgiveness.  At this point, ethics transcends itself and returns to its religious source and origin.  (113)

Herberg ends with a prayer from the Jewish prayer book which basically points out that, at the end of the day, we should hold no certainties about how good we are:

Not because of our righteous acts do we lay our supplications before thee but because of thine abundant mercies. What are we? What is our life? What is our piety? What is our righteousness?

In the end, Herberg thinks that the preservation of the tension between the utopian and the cynic will bring Jews to another form of humility and sense of limitation that is religious.   On the other hand, the schlemiel also brings us to a similar sense of limitation, to the dilemma itself.  However, it brings us there by way of bitter-sweet comedy.

One can go on and will go on dealing with moral relativities, one will walk toward the good.  The Jewish sensibility, the moral sensibility, knows it must go on and perhaps, as Beckett says, fail better. But, still, it must go on and sketch out the limits of utopia and cynicism.  The ethic is, without a doubt, (not) beyond good and evil.

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