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IN MEMORY OF PROF. ELIEZER SCHWEID: A FOUNDER OF THE SCHECHTER INSTITUTE OF JEWISH STUDIES
Generally, Shavua Tov @ Schechter focuses on Parasahat Hashavua (the weekly Torah Portion) or a particular holiday. Today, I want to focus on an event of another kind that concerns the year of the passing of Prof. Eliezer Schweid z’l, one of the great Jewish philosophers and public intellectuals of our generation.
Schweid also had an important role in the establishment of Schechter. He was one of the first lecturers and presents an interesting, compelling and challenging vision for our institution.
When we talk about the contribution of Schweid, it is important to know that he played a number of functions in Israeli society.
Firstly, he was a great scholar of Jewish thought. In fact, he can be seen as founding the field of the study of modern Jewish thought in Israel. He wrote about 40 books and a thousand articles in this field.
But Schweid was also, as I mentioned, a public intellectual. He was engaged with the contemporary societal problems of Israel. He voiced controversial views on issues of education, culture, society and economy in Israel.
But perhaps his greatest contribution was as a Jewish thinker. That is, apart from studying other Jewish thinkers, he developed his own independent Jewish thought in dialogue with these thinkers. I want to focus on one particular central, foundational idea, in his Jewish thought and it is the notion that there is not a dichotomy between secularism and religion.
According to Schweid, the conventional view that a true religious posture and an authentic secular world view necessarily collide with one another is simply mistaken. In contrast, Schweid holds that a true secular outlook, which for him is a form of humanism, does not contradict religion. In the case of Jewish Zionist secularism, religion is a necessary component thereof.
Schweid presents a complicated and multi-faceted foundation to base this argument. I am going to try to sum it up in a succinct and lucid form. I will focus on one of the necessary functions of religion for secularism according to Schweid, namely, that religion allows us to create cultural continuity. Schweid criticized previous secular Zionist thinkers because of their inability to create a deep and organic connection to the Jewish past. In this case, he wasn’t just talking about thinkers like (Theodore) Herzl, (Yosef Haim) Brenner and (Micha Yosef) Berditchevsky, he also criticized Zionist cultural thinkers like Ahad Ha’Am and (Chaim Nachman) Bialik.
According to his claim, these thinkers interpreted anew the Jewish tradition in a strictly secular idiom. According to their interpretation, the Jewish tradition is based on aesthetic, moral, national and cultural components. But Schweid explains that religion was always intertwined ineluctably with these components.
What is more, religion was not an outside shell that we could peel off and get to the inner ethical, national and cultural center of Judaism. Therefore, according to Schweid, the way to arrive at an authentic and deep connection to the Jewish past is by Jewish secular thinkers being open to the religious dimensions of the Jewish tradition.
Now, of course, Schweid doesn’t suffice with this one argument. He speaks expansively about this whole topic. He confronts questions like:
Can, and is it necessary for secularism to develop a type of faith?
What is the nature of this faith?
Is there a notion of secular halakha (Law)?
Can secular Jews pray?
Who are they praying to?
He talks extensively about the implications of his views on social, economic and cultural questions.
Obviously, you do not need to agree with Schweid. You neither have to accept his understanding of Jewish religion, nor do you have to agree with how he understands the development and the nature of Jewish secularism.
But in my mind, Schweid is one of the thinkers that if we want to shape for ourselves a contemporary Jewish outlook, we have to confront his view.
Thank you very much.
SHAVUA TOV FROM SCHECHTER
Prof. Ari Ackerman is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.
President Ackerman is Associate Professor for Jewish Philosophy and Jewish Education. Prior to his elevation to president, Ackerman held the (David) Golinkin Professor of TALI Jewish Education. He received his PhD in Jewish thought from Hebrew University and was a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton University. His most recent book is a Critical Edition of the Sermons of Zerahia Halevi Saladin (Beer Sheva University Press, 2013). Prof. Ackerman’s new book on creation and codification in the philosophy of Hasdai Crescas – Hasdai Crescas on Codification, Cosmology and Creation (Brill Press, 2022) is newly published. President Ackerman lives with his family in Jerusalem.