Letters, Fall 2012

Much Ado About Nothing


Daniel C. Matt is too generous to Lawrence Krauss in his comments on A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing (“Before the Big Bang,” Summer 2012). The book is, for the most part, a standard synopsis for the layman of present day cosmology after the discovery of dark matter, dark energy, and the inflationary model. There exist other, less biased popular science accounts of modern cosmology such as Mario Livio’s The Accelerating Universe and Sean Carroll’s From Eternity to Here. Krauss’ book is, as pointed out by others, an attack on theism, amplified in the Afterword by Richard Dawkins.

Only in the last two chapters (of twelve) is the issue addressed in the title “Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing” discussed. Stephen Hawking in his elegant A Brief History of Time comes to the conclusion that the universe is completely self-contained and does not need a beginning or an end. Hawking states the atheistic conclusion “What place, then, for a creator?” This is also the subtext of Krauss’ book.

Of course the question of the eternity or creation of the universe was a major theme for medieval Jewish philosophers like Maimonides and Gersonides. Maimonides actually used the eternity of the universe as a metaphysical ground for establishing the existence of God and creation of the universe based in the requirement that a Jew must accept God as the creator of the universe (the first command).

Krauss emphasizes that science is about the why or how question and as a scientist I agree with him. But he assumes that religious belief is about the same question, so that once you know the answer to how “religious belief becomes less and less necessary.” However, as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik emphasized, Judaism is not about the why but about the what. For the most part, we do not try to explain why particular entities are asserted in Torah, but ask what ideas emerge from them. In a nutshell, this book is more concerned with religion bashing than with presenting the magnificence of modern cosmology, and Daniel C. Matt should not have glossed over this fact.

Ronald L. Birke
Professor, Department of Chemistry
City College, CUNY


Publishing Peace


I would like to thank Allan Arkush for reviewing my book, A Prophetic Peace (“War & Peace & Judaism,” Summer 2012), and for giving the book a close and careful reading. I know the book is challenging and not always easy, and therefore I am grateful to anyone who puts in the effort that is indeed required to follow it. It is not, of course, a book that has all the answers, and I was pleased and rewarded to read Arkush’s questions.

There are two things I would like to say if I may; two central aspects of the book that I feel were not represented correctly in the review. The first of these concerns my attitudes to the disciples of Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook. The second concerns the more practical implications of exposing the book’s argument to an Israeli readership/society.

First, rather than distancing myself from Rav Kook, I actually consider much of the book to be an affirmation of his teaching. I am gently urging for a less concrete politics that makes more space for the messianic call for tikkun olam be-malkhut Shaddai (fixing of the world in God’s kingdom) to emerge in Israeli life. I am simply insisting that messianism is about God, not secular political ideology. Something very meaningful is lost when the two are confused. If there is an object of criticism it is the secular power politics that fail to fulfill the promise that I see embodied in the notion of Jewish statehood. I believe the potential for cultivating this is understood far more powerfully and clearly by the followers of Rav Kook than it is by the political liberals. If there was a story of personal transition in the book it was not about a move away from the Rav Kook camp, but rather from my past in the religious left toward a much fuller recognition of the peaceful potential embedded in the politics of the messianic right. It was the selective readings of certain classical Jewish texts by religious doves that I was suggesting could not account for what is actually written in the Bible, Talmud, or siddur. If anything, this is the ground for what I call “theological disarmament.” The term refers not to the disarming of God but to the disarming of people by theological conviction. Nor does it imply an ideological stance that seeks to weaken God’s role. It is a weakening of our claims to lay hold on Him.

This is the humble religious/political state of mind that, I suggest, allows God to emerge as a source of peacefulness in politics. Theological disarmament means disarming the political theology of the secular state. It does not, in any way, point to the exclusion of the divine from politics. The challenge of how this is done without crushing the liberties, rights, and freedoms of the secular left or the Palestinians is indeed a crucially important one. Unanswered, this question does not allow my approach to be peaceful. And this is where I believe the disciples of Rav Kook today do, very often, fall short. The question of how religious politics makes sure that civil liberties are protected is not finally answered in the book and is indeed the subject of my current writing. I try to offer a first step that involves dissolving the secular political monopoly on the concept of peace by allowing a religious or theological notion of peace that is at the organic heart of the Jewish tradition to emerge. I certainly do not mean to displace the concept of the state or to deny its right to defend itself when necessary, as Arkush seems to suggest. 

On the claim that it was odd or maybe even tellingly significant for me to choose a publishing venue that directs such a book at an English-speaking audience, I confess, I prefer writing in English to Hebrew and wanted to see the book in print in my language of choice. However, the Hebrew translation is being prepared for publication, and I hope it will be available in the coming year. I am also grateful to Indiana University Press and have been deeply impressed by their sporting spirit and high quality of editing, publication, and marketing of the book. More importantly, in terms of directing the message of the book to an Israeli audience, despite my preference for writing in English, the book was not written with a back to Israel. Au contraire. My partners (Avinoam Rosenak and Sharon Leshem-Zinger) in the Talking Peace project, described briefly in the book, and I bring together leaders in Israeli society with religious leaders in the settlements and try to facilitate an open environment in which they can share their respective visions about peace with one another. The groups learn to understand each other personally, ideologically, and intellectually. We hope that this work can help break the deadlock inside Israel by supplementing the secular monopoly on peace with other constructive views that are never heard in the context of the normal political wrangling of the Knesset and the press. Several of the most influential religious leaders in the settlements have participated in this project. They have encountered intellectuals and activists from the left as well as leading figures from the political arena and the security community. Our hope is that these collaborations can help the different elements in Israel to communicate effectively with one another as they work toward finding new solutions to the many acute concerns that hold Israel back from fulfilling its peaceful ambitions.

Finally, I would like to make it clear that despite all my desire for peace, I did not intend in any way to underplay the importance of Israel’s military. Perhaps it was unwise of me to leave certain things about my commitment to Israel’s security unsaid. All the same, I still imagine that the extensive anecdotes drawn from my years of service in the IDF are an adequate testimonial to that. 

Alick Isaacs
Jerusalem, Israel


Allan Arkush Responds:


I appreciate Alick Isaacs’ clarifications of his admittedly difficult argument. In focusing on what I deemed the more accessible parts of his book, I did not plumb the depths of his complicated relationship to the Kook camp, and I am glad that he has taken the opportunity to restate his ideas here. I also applaud Isaacs’ success in finding a publisher for a Hebrew version of his book and am happy to hear his reassurances that the new turn in his thinking has not diminished his strong commitment to the security of his country. 



The Source of Aleph

I enjoyed Ilan Stavans’ article about Jorge Luis Borges (“Borges, the Jew,” Summer 2012). Regarding the title of the story “The Aleph” Mr. Stavans asks, “Why did Borges choose that letter? He never That was before I picked up a copy of Mathematics and the Imagination by Edward Kasner and James Newman, a book Borges reviewed in 1940 and later referenced as one of his favorites. On page 45 of the book you’ll find that the authors begin to discuss “transfinite numbers” and the work of Georg Cantor, the man whom we are told was the one who selected the “Aleph-Null” as the symbol that represents “the cardinality of a denumerably infinite class.” The Aleph was published in 1949. I can’t help but think the coincidence is unlikely.

Ben Woll
Glen Rock, NJ

Ilan Stavans Responds:


I appreciate Mr. Woll’s insightful comment. Borges was exposed to Jewish culture from an early age. He witnessed Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, escaping poverty and anti-Semitism, arriving to Buenos Aires when he was a child. Then, during his adolescence, he lived in Europe, where he had close Jewish friends whose intellectual curiosity shaped his own. One of these friends might have exposed Borges to kabbalistic motifs. During this time he read Gustav Meyrink’s novel The Golem, in which the mystical qualities of the Hebrew alphabet were played upon. So a single explanation is unlikely to solve the mystery of why he chose the letter aleph in his story as the central motif to represent our incessant, infinite universe. Still, Mr. Woll’s conjecture is thought-provoking. While it doesn’t reconfigure the overall meaning of the story, it no doubt proves-as if proof was needed-that everything we read, and surely this is the case with Borges, explains who we are.



Herzl’s Tel Aviv


One small point to add to Professor Avineri’s masterful article about rereading Herzl’s Altneuland: When Sokolow translated the novel into Hebrew he appropriated the poetic name Tel Aviv from Ezekiel 3:15. He was endeavoring to convey the sense and spirit of national renewal. Avineri renders this in English as “Hill of Spring,” but Tel Aviv connotes much more than topography or season. A tel is an artificial hill that contains the buried ruins of ancient cities that have been built, destroyed, and rebuilt on top of each other. Jeremiah prophesized that the exiled Israelites would return from Babylonia to the land of Israel and “The city shall be rebuilt on its mound (tel).” (Jer. 30:18) Thus, the word tel signifies the repository of the Jewish land and its history, and alludes to Jeremiah’s prophecy of the Jews’ return to their land. For its part, aviv, which literally means “spring,” speaks to Jewish renewal and flowering within the Land. Thus, the name Tel Aviv truly captures Herzl’s futuristic, utopian vision of an Old-New Land.

Seth A. Cohen
Mamaroneck, NY


What Would Kant Say?


Abraham Socher’s “Something Antigonus Said” (Summer 2012) properly turns to Kant in order to suggest, referring to “moral sentiments,” what Antigonus “requires of us” moderns—or at least what he doesn’t. It is true that Kant valued moral sentiments, which he termed “moral feelings.” In his view, our very consciousness of any obligation “depends upon moral feeling to make us aware of the constraint present in the thought of duty.” He understood the metaphysics of morals as a system of duties, duties to ourselves and to others. And this system is predicated not upon sentiment of any sort, but instead upon rational knowledge derived from practical (moral) concepts.

Kant understood the freedom to fulfill our duties to ourselves and others as the very essence of personality (which he equated with the soul). While many moderns appeal to sentiment or moral intuition as a touchstone in deciding what, ethically speaking, we owe ourselves and others, Kant held that so far as we take any mere sentiment to be the ground of our duties to ourselves and others, we act “only instinctively, and hence blindly.” Kant is the thinker who compellingly demonstrates in his final word on the matter (in The Metaphysics of Morals) how by committing suicide, enjoying lust excited merely by empty imaginings, or telling even white lies we violate our duties to ourselves (and others), and thereby destroy the dignity of humanity in our persons. If anything, Kant mercilessly exposed the intellectual shallowness and wayward implications of many of “our modern moral sentiments.”

Kant did not identify virtue with happiness, but famously taught that virtue makes us worthy of happiness. What, then, would be the last word on Antigonus’ teaching viewed from Kant’s standpoint? Perhaps this: “Do not be as servants, who serve their master on the condition of receiving a reward. Be, rather, as servants whose services render them worthy of reward. And let the fear of heaven keep the duty and the concomitant dignity of being worthy ever in your sight.”

Phillip Stambovsky
New Haven, CT


Abraham Socher Responds:


I meant to be slightly provocative in using Adam Smith’s famous phrase “moral sentiments,” in connection with Kant, so I’m glad Professor Stambovsky was provoked. One might describe the history of modern Jewish philosophy as a series of answers to the question of how to make Judaism Kantian and arguments about whether it is a good idea. Yeshayahu Leibowitz thought that it was, and in a 1970s radio lecture, he read Antigonus more or less as Stambovsky suggests (pace John Lennon, he imagined a religion with no heaven). Leibowitz’s brilliant provocations on Antigonus et al. are in
Sihot ‘al Pirke-Avot ve-‘al ha-Rambam (Schocken).



In Anne Trubek’s review of Joshua Henkin’s novel The World Without You (“Muddling Through,” Summer 2012), she wrote that “Thisbe blithely leaves her toddler for three hours to go rollerblading with Noelle . . . neither mother seems to even delegate taking care of the children to the grandparents.” This was true of the review copy, but the published text corrects the parental oversight. Trubek also claimed that there was an inconsistency regarding the age of one of Noelle’s children. This was incorrect; there is no inconsistency. We regret the error.


Suggested Reading

Kol Nidre with Dragons

Kol Nidre with Dragons

David Stern

One of the most spectacular books of medieval Ashkenaz, the Leipzig Mahzor, contains a stunning illumination for the opening of Yom Kippur.

Jews of Dune

Michael Weingrad

In Chapterhouse: Dune, the sixth book in the Dune series and the last Herbert wrote before his death, the Jews show up.

Summer of ’36

Summer of ’36

George Prochnik

By 1936, Joseph Roth’s alcoholism was increasingly desperate, and his friendship with Stefan Zweig was frayed. But still that summer gave them an opportunity to recover something of their old friendship.