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Leibowitz: Faith, Country & Man.

"Leibowitz: Faith, Country & Man". Three-hour documentary, written and directed by Uri Rosenwaks and Rinat Klein. Producers: Haim Slutzky and Dana Cohen of Dana Productions. Sponsored by Israel's Channel 8, AviChai Foundation and Rabinovich Foundation for Cinema. Israel. Hebrew with English subtitles. New release: 2013.

"Now, the loftiest idea a person can think of is the Unity of God, and all theological concepts that flow from this." Moses Maimonides, Commentary on the Mishnah (Egypt, 12th century)

Among the movies and films that I saw at the 2013 Jewish International Film Festival in Sydney was one that I knew I needed to view. It is called "Leibowitz: Faith, Country & Man," and it was divided into three parts which were screened with short breaks between them. Seeing "Leibowitz"--the film, was not just a meaningful viewing experience, it was more like actually experiencing the brilliant, feisty, professor and members of his family. The film is richly peppered with appearances and comments by Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, many of his six children, and his wife Greta. The film is so accurate, in fact, that I felt that this is the Professor Leibowitz that I saw in real life and at times I even felt as if I were walking behind him as he was returning home to his wife Greta.

Of the three hour-long segments, "Faith" was the first and had the greatest resonance for me personally. It is about Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz and his most personal take on faith, including significantly, his conception of God and prayer. We must be thankful that Professor Leibowitz, who immigrated to Palestine in 1935, lived during the modern period when so much of his 91 years of life could be faithfully recorded for posterity.

Professor Leibowitz was born in Riga, Latvia in 1903 and died in Jerusalem in August 1994. Even though it has been approximately 20 years since his passing, his impact upon Israelis and the world beyond continues unabated. He was a very outspoken person on an amazing variety of subjects, and was completely frank and forthright with the people who would turn to him with questions; all knew that they could trust him and believed that he would give only honest answers.

Professor Leibowitz was head of the Biological Chemistry Department at the Hebrew University and Professor of Neurophysiology, but wrote prolifically on a variety of Jewish subjects as well. I have most of his books on Judaism--both in Hebrew and English, and English translation. I believe it appropriate to weave some of my personal background into any review of Professor Leibowitz, since I have been profoundly influenced, even transformed, by him during my most formative years.

I knew of the professor when I enrolled as a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for the academic year of 1968 and 1969. Perhaps because of my studies in Bible with my dear late teacher Professor Nechama Leibowitz (d. 1997), Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz's sister, the Leibowitz name and fame became very important to me. In this review, we will focus on Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz and his work.

I had the privilege of attending some of his public forum lectures in Jerusalem and I would see him at various places at the Hebrew University, including Beit Hillel and at the synagogue that he regularly attended--Congregation Yeshurun. "Leibowitz. " the film deals with three major areas of his Jewish activism: "Faith", "Country" (the State of Israel) and "Man". Part one on "Faith" is the major focus of my review. It highlights his teachings and writings dealing with belief in God and prayer. Professor Leibowitz's lectures, radio and television broadcasts, and books, detailed with great clarity his position on faith and prayer. This, as with so much of his religious philosophy, is informed by his dedicated study of Maimonides.

In order to shed light on the impact of Professor Leibowitz's teachings and insights in the area of faith and prayer, let me highlight but two of his books. Harvard University Press published the first, a comprehensive collection of translations of many of his articles in 1992 --Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State, edited by Eliezer Goldman just two years before his death. The second, an astounding collection of correspondence on a variety of topics, is only available in Hebrew. The title in English is I Wanted to Ask You Professor Leibowitz--Letters to and from Yeshayahu Leibowitz, which was published posthumously in 1999.

I believe that most of the books that he wrote are not currently available in print. It is extremely gratifying to me that I was able to collect these books which were published over the years while he was still alive. Many books were compiled from transcriptions of tape recordings of his lectures, classes and gatherings. He became a regular television personality, appearing on panels and in interviews commenting on every conceivable subject. I would hear him on radio interviews, or when delivering his extremely popular series on the weekly Torah readings: these eventually saw the light of day in book form, both in Hebrew and in English translation.

One evening Professor Leibowitz appeared on a television panel together with the famous Rabbi Harold Kushner, who had written the phenomenally popular bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner's book sold in the millions, having a potent impact on people, including Christian theologians and clergy. Kushner appeared on major television talk shows and was a major hit worldwide, including in Australia. The Israeli TV show was conducted entirely in Hebrew.

Kushner wrote this book following the tragic, painful death of his young son from a condition which saw him age prematurely. In trying to come to terms with how this could happen if, as Judaism teaches, God is both benevolent and omnipotent, Kushner concluded, in effect, that the benevolent God is powerless to prevent bad things from happening, but instead God in His kindness feels our pain and shares our suffering, giving us the strength to carry on. This solution to the problem of evil however, paradoxically, in effect rejects the concept of God's omnipotence, a fundamental of Judaism, for the sake of affirming His goodness. While this may be comforting to the sufferer and encourage one's faith in God and prayer, giving one strength to endure the suffering, this is hardly a traditional Jewish view of God and His Creation.

When Professor Leibowitz was asked what he thought of the book and what Rabbi Kushner had written about the place of prayer to God, Leibowitz's response was "zo eiyna dei'ah Yehudit--this is not a Jewish opinion"--this is not a Jewish position or concept; and with that curt statement, Professor Leibowitz ended the subject.

The film, while not directly speaking to the issue addressed in response to Kushner's thesis, does demonstrate Leibowitz's direct and curt approach to answering challenges in all areas of concern. One can easily picture in one's mind's eye how he would have performed on the television panel with the world famous Harold Kushner.

I would like to return to Professor Leibowitz's understanding of faith in God and the concept of prayer. This is effectively dealt with in his aforementioned book Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State, in chapter 2 of the first section of that book. This is fundamental to my present conception of the Jewish practice of prayer and davening, as we say in common parlance. I found Dr Leibowitz's thoughts in the area of prayer liberating. It has given me a greater sense of confidence regarding my regular, daily fulfilment of tefillah (prayer) as a religious responsibility.

Professor Leibowitz divides prayer into two main categories. The first is what he calls the "human-psychological phenomenon, the expression of an impulse from within, an action which springs from man himself, from an experience he has undergone, or from the circumstances in which he finds himself." He then talks about "Prayer, as shaped in the prayer book," which he says "is an entirely different matter. It is obligatory and fixed." So the traditional Jewish prayer book--the siddur--is a fundamental book of Judaism, perhaps the fundamental book. It is something that we carry with us on a daily basis; containing what he sees as the most common and significant form of prayer, the fulfilment of our Jewish obligations to the Almighty.

What about the place of individual, personal prayer? While he does address this, albeit tangentially, this is not the area of Professor Leibowitz's focus. He seems to relegate such prayer to natural, human need, but hardly the major concern of the Sages of Israel and the relationship of Jews to their God.

The synagogue is there for the obligatory prayers, the prayers that are recited three times a day, tied to the korbanot--the sacrificial service of animals that were given in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. What Leibowitz basically says is that when you think that prayer is an outpouring of your heart it well may be that it is the prayer of the first type--the human-psychological phenomenon--where a person needs to pour out his or her heart. Such a person needs to give expression to pain or joy, but that is of a completely different nature to the prayers we find in the synagogue.

Synagogue prayer is not well understood by a large swathe of worshippers, who think they come to synagogue to pour out their hearts to God in prayer. This may engender a sense of confusion in the worshipper as to what the synagogue and prayer is all about. However, Leibowitz points out that this obligatory-statutory service is really in a sense a gift to God. It is something that we are packaging up and putting in the most beautiful terms possible, as they were set down for us by Hazal--the Hakhamim--the Sages of Israel. They give us the words, the form, the structure, so that all we need to do is to say those words and give this to God.

The statutory synagogue prayer may or may not be in accordance with my personal experience as a human being. The worshipper could be a mourner suffering the loss of a loved one or dealing with an illness; or on the other hand, a bridegroom or bride now celebrating the seven days of their joy with the Sheva' Berakhot. No matter who the person and what the personal circumstance, the same words that are found in the siddur--the prayer book--are required to be recited, in fulfilment of the mitzvah--the religious obligation for daily prayer. According to Leibowitz, the mitzvah--the relational obligation is the fundamental focus of our B'rit--the Jewish Covenant with the Creator.

There are many of us who are not aware of this. When in the synagogue we think that whatever prayer is recited is the moment that we must give expression to everything that is going on inside us. It is not that I think that this is of no value or purpose, but it is not what the religious services are all about, and it is this that Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz is teaching us.

Wherever one looks in the writings of Professor Leibowitz, whether it is in I Wanted to Ask You Professor Leibowitz or in Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State or in others of his prolific output, such as Judaism, Jewish People, and the State of Israel (1975, Hebrew); Faith, History and Values (1982, Hebrew); or The Faith of Maimonides (1987, English translation) he returns to the subject of the meaning of prayer time and again.

Of the many other aspects of Jewish thought related to prayer that Professor Leibowitz considered, one is the possibly widespread conception that God is some kind of super-human being, with the traits of a person: "If only I can get His attention, plead with Him, cajole Him, please Him," etc. Accordingly, many think that they are going to tell God something that God does not already know.

Leibowitz would question, what concept we could possibly entertain of God, if God is an infinite God, and as great as we understand Him to be. Certainly as Maimonides wrote in his philosophical writings, especially in his Moreh Nevuhim--The Guide of the Perplexed, how could it be that God does not know what is really going on inside a person's mind or heart? Maimonides, when speaking of God, chose to speak of what God is not and not what God is, because this is not given to humankind to comprehend.

Another concept that was dealt with in the film and in his teachings and writings is the conceptual difference between goof and nefesh--"body" and "soul". It is very interesting that goof is normally referred to as the "body" and nefesh as "soul" or "spirit." In Professor Leibowitz's writings and teachings, he points out that the separation of goof and nefesh is really not a Jewish concept, and he would recommend a book that has gone through numerous printings, a beautiful little paperback, Body and Mind by the non-Jewish scholar Keith Campbell. This book is helpful in clarifying the problems inherent in approaching the issues of dualism.

The duality of goof and nefesh as body and soul is a concept that stems from Western thought as taught in Christianity. Humans created in the image of God are consequently routinely seen as having two major components, one lower and bestial, and the other higher and heavenly. What Professor Leibowitz shows is that a human being is really one--that the body and mind are one indivisible unit. Of course, as is known, Biblically speaking there is originally no concept of brain as an organ in the body of man, at least not as we understand the brain today. Closer to what we now perceive as brain or mind is the Hebrew word "lev" usually translated as "heart," as in Deuteronomy 6, "Love God your Lord with all your 'lev'--'heart'...." Thus, brain was more related to heart, in contradistinction to the modern usage of brain or mind, or "moah" in Modern Hebrew.

I see this as very important in terms of age-old religious Jewish thought, and that outside influences have seeped into our Judaism. This in a way is to be expected; such duality that we find in Greek thought and in Christianity, we now find in Jewish mysticism--Zohar and Kabbalah. Professor Leibowitz often emphasised in his writings the conflicting understandings between a pristine Judaism, Christianity and other forms of Judaism, especially due to Greek thought and mystical notions. Leibowitz wrote, "Of the two great distortions of Jewish faith, the first was the Kabbalah, which converted the obligation imposed upon the Jewish people into a vocation affecting the cosmos and God Himself" (Leibowitz 1992:111).

Accordingly, these encroachments and syncretisms into Judaism from Greek thought and mysticism are found abundantly in Hasidic thought and teachings. Thus for Hasidism and other Kabbalistic teachings, there is a higher spirituality, meaning that you have the base, fundamental materialism, the substance which is called "goof", and then there is a higher level which is today called, "roohaneeoot" from "ruah"--spirit.

This leads on to the whole question of the status of a "neshamah" and what that means. What is "nefesh" and what is "ruah" in terms of spirituality? All of these are well defined in Jewish mysticism, but not in normative or pristine Judaism, as Leibowitz understood it. For Professor Leibowitz, it did not matter how pervasive these notions stemming from Greek thought and mysticism may have become, due to the increasing influence of Hasidism in Jewish life; it was still foreign and contradicted true Jewish belief. He wrote critically of the immensely popular first Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine (Israel), Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (d. 1935). "I was never a follower of Rabbi Kook, and the dangers inherent in his doctrine (Kabbalah) impressed me more than its lofty aspects (Leibowitz 1992: 112).

In summary, we have discussed some of the major issues emerging from viewing the film "Leibowitz." especially as it relates to the concepts of Jewish faith in God and prayer, as seen in part one, "Faith." The fundamental distinctions include prayer in the form of a "human-psychological phenomenon" giving expression to an impulse from within, as against prayer as shaped in the prayer book--in the siddur: Such prayer is a completely obligatory and fixed thing and not just what we feel inside. In a sense, this is taking and packaging a gift to give to God on a regular basis, thus maintaining one's relationship with God through Torah and mitzvot. We then looked at Professor Leibowitz's defiant attitude when it came to Greek thought, mysticism and syncretisms entering Jewish thought, such as a belief in duality--the separation of body and spirit.

To conclude, if ever the opportunity arises to view "Leibowitz: Faith, Country & Man" I would highly recommend that you take it up, as this film provides inspiring, edifying and informative viewing.


Campbell, K. 1984 (2nd Ed). Body and Mind, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Kushner, H. 1981. When Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York, NY: Schocken Books.

Leibowitz, Y. 1999. I Wanted to Ask You Professor Leibowitz, (Hebrew), Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House. 1992. Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State, edited by Eliezer Goldman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1990. Notes and Remarks On the Weekly Parashah, translated by Shmuel Himelstein. Brooklyn, NY: Chemed Books. 1987. The Faith of Maimonides, translated by John Glucker. New York, NY: Adama Books. 1975. Judaism, Jewish People, and the State of Israel (Hebrew), Jerusalem: Schoken Publishing. 1982. Faith, History and Values (Hebrew), Jerusalem: Academon.

Maimonides, M. 1963. The Guide of the Perplexed, translated by Shlomo Pines. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
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Author:Shudnow, Sanford H.
Publication:The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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