“The Rejection of Radical-Foundationalism and -Skepticism: Pragmatic Belief in God in Eliezer Berkovits’s Thought” [in Hebrew]

Journal of the Goldstein-Goren International Center for Jewish Thought 1:201-246 (2019)
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Faith has many aspects. One of them is whether absolute logical proof for God’s existence is a prerequisite for the proper establishment and individual acceptance of a religious system. The treatment of this question, examined here in the Jewish context of Rabbi Prof. Eliezer Berkovits, has been strongly influenced in the modern era by the radical foundationalism and radical skepticism of Descartes, who rooted in the Western mind the notion that religion and religious issues are “all or nothing” questions. Cartesianism, which surprisingly became the basis of modern secularism, was criticized by the classical American pragmatists. Peirce, James and Dewey all rejected the attempt to achieve infallible absolute knowledge, as well as the presumptuousness of establishing such a knowledge by means of casting Cartesian hyperbolic doubt. They advocated an alternative approach which was more holistic and humane. This paper lays out Descartes’s approach and the pragmatists’ critique. Despite the place that pragmatic considerations hold in Jewish tradition, some thinkers reject the relevance of these ideas. Yet Berkovits’s thought suggest a different path. He rejected Descartes’ radical skepticism and his radical foundationalism, in favor of a moderate foundationalism, which allows for a belief in God alongside constructive doubts. Similar to Peirce’s conception of the fixation of belief, Berkovits views local doubts (distinct from the hyperbolic doubt) as necessary for thought. Berkovits’s understanding of the biblical human-divine encounter, following Rosenzweig, Buber, and Heschel, is conceptualized here as “encounter theology”. Berkovits criticizes the propositionalist attempts to prove God’s existence logically, as well as the presumptuousness of basing religious belief on the teleological world-order. However, Berkovits’s conception of the ‘caring God’ is not provable, and thus defined as a pragmatic ‘postulate’. The article concludes by considering Berkovits’s “encounter theology”. In contrast to the approach described by Haym Soloveitchik, of halakhic stringency and lack of subjective experience of God’s face, Berkovits’s approach is dialogic through and through.

Author's Profile

Nadav S. Berman
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev


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