Today (January 29) marks the 120th birthday of Yeshayahu Leibowitz — one of the most original, iconoclastic, and controversial Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. In 1960 and again in 1972 he wrote about the separation of religion and state in Israel for TRADITION. In 1969 Leibowitz published “The Spiritual and Religious Meaning of Victory and Might” in our pages, considering the aftermath of the Six-Day War.
To some Leibowitz was an oracle, to others he was a crank — both wrote to him, and he responded to all. As he reminds us, “it is a good sign [to be troubled by questions], it shows that you think. The important thing is knowing to ask, regardless of your ability to give or obtain an answer. We have no answers to some of the greatest and gravest questions. As you know (from the Haggadah) the antithesis of wisdom is not knowing how to ask.” These letters show that he remains a compelling, original voice for those attempting to understand Jewish life, philosophy, and polity in Israel during the better part of the twentieth century.
In 2005 Prof. Daniel Statman analyzed Leibowitz’s theories about “Negative Theology and the Meaning of the Commandments” drawing attention to the great difference between Leibowitz’s view and that of Maimonides. After a critical discussion of Leibowitz’s position, showing the religious price entailed by his assumptions, Statman concludes by indicating a striking similarity between Leibowitz’s philosophy and Haym Soloveitchik’s insight into contemporary Orthodoxy as presented in “Rupture and Reconstruction.”