Isaiah Berlin and Kant

Bereishit By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 21, 1995 / 5756 | Torah Commentary | Philosophy

I like Isaiah Berlin’s favorite quotation from Kant: “Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made nothing entirely straight can be built.” It is a sober estimate of human nature that comes close to summing up the view of the Torah. By the end of our parasha, God arrives at the same conclusion: “The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time (Genesis 6:5),” In the span of a single parasha, we move from the heights of divine satisfaction at the end of day six of creation (“And God saw all that He hd made and found it very good” – Genesis 1:31) to the depths of divine despair after but ten generations of human history.

According to the Talmud, the angels had tried to deter God from creating the human species. It is the Torah’s use of the first person plural at this juncture in the creation story (Genesis 1:26) that triggers the midrash in which God seeks the counsel of the angels in an exemplary display of modesty so that they might not come to hate a species on earth that will bear some resemblance to themselves.

The first group of angels asked God about the nature of human conduct. When God gave them a glimpse of things to come, they protested loudly: “What is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him (Psalm 8:5)?”

God incinerated them and summoned a second group, which responded similarly and met the same fate. Finally, the third group of angels deferred: “Of what value has been the advice of those who preceded us? The world is Yours. Do with it as You want.” But by the time God reached the generation of the Flood and the generation of the Tower of Babel with their unadulterated decadence, the last group of angels returned to God triumphantly: “Didn’t those who came before us advise You correctly?” The midrash has God reply stoically in a daring misreading of Isaiah 46:4: “I shall wait till I have turned gray with old age.” History had quickly tempered God’s expectations.

The midrash is a remarkable deepening of the early stories of Genesis. Chapter two makes it undeniably clear that human beings are a composite creature. The Hebrew word, “adam” (man) links blatantly the first couple with the dust of the earth (adamah) (Genesis 2:7). What sets them apart, what gives them a kinship to God is “the breath of life” which is inspirited by God. The rest of the organic kingdom lacks that divine spark. Humanity is a fusion of soil and soul, dust and divinity, a twofold nature that the midrash finds alluded to in the double “yud” of the verb “va-yitzer – God formed.” The same verb is used later in reference to the creation of the animals (again, from the earth), but this time with only a single “yud”, suggesting but a single nature (Genesis 2:19).

Disorder in God’s creation arises from this dichotomized and unstable nature of humankind. Cain is on the verge of killing his brother because he cannot handle the pain of rejection. God pleads with Cain to let his nobler sentiments prevail. “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin couches at the door. Its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master (Genesis 4:6-7).”

Again the midrash deepens the insight. The passions come to a boil slowly. At first, says the midrash, they insinuate themselves gently like a woman (the noun “hatat – sin” in verse 7 is feminine), until they overwhelm us in the end like a man (the verb “rovetz” – couches in the phrase hatat rovetz is masculine). The process of habituation inspires yet other analogies. At first our passions resemble but the strand of a spiderweb; in the end, they bind us with the force of a ship’s rope. At first they are but a guest in our home; in the end they become the proprietor.

While Kant preferred to speak of crooked timber, the book of Deuteronomy, which we have just completed, used another metaphor to depict human weakness, one more in keeping with biblical imagery. I refer to the image of an uncircumcised heart. At the end of a long period of exile, Moses foresees a final reconciliation between God and Israel, and an irreversible return to the promised homeland. What shall bring history to an end is God’s circumcision of the human heart: “Then the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live (Deuteronomy 30:6).” An uncircumcised heart is a figure of imperfection. Wisdom can hardly enter it.

More lyrically, the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel envision a day when Israel will be endowed with a new heart of flesh, replacing their immutable heart of stone. The Torah will then no longer be written on a scroll external to them, but actually inscribed in their hearts as part of human nature (Jeremiah 31:30-33, Ezekiel 36: 24-2). I find it striking that these verses with their messianic transformation of human nature interlace our liturgy for Yom Kippur.

Till that time, we are left to wrestle with our flawed and fractured nature, to internalize the ideal through a daily exertion of will. The Shema, Judaism’s great affirmation of faith, calls on us to love God with all our heart, that is, with both its good and evil dimensions. Short of renouncing our instincts, we are to sublimate them. Judaism as regimen and moral compass helps us to transmute them into allies in the service of God.

But why does God endure the travesties of human history foretold by the angels? What is the reason for God’s patience? The Rabbis offered an answer that rings with a modern sensibility: the recognition of God as God requires human consciousness. This is how R. Shimon ben Yohai (2nd century C.E.) read the prophetic verse: “So you are my witnesses (Israel) – declares the Lord – then I am God! (Isaiah 43:12)” — “When you are My witnesses – declares the Lord – then I am God.”

In 1899 at the age of 24 Rainer Maria Rilke, born in Prague but the finest poet of the 20th century to write in German, expressed the same idea still more boldly.

What would You do, God, if I die?
I am Your pitcher (if I break?)
I am Your drink (if I spoil?)
Your clothing and Your craft.
Without me, You lose Your meaning.

In other words, human testimony enhances God’s sovereignty. An outpost of consciousness in a soulless cosmos, humankind plays a unique role in the divine economy.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat B’reishit are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.