As a traumatic religious experience, Yom Kippur has been a turning-point for many a Jew: but for none more significantly than Franz Rosenzweig.
Yom Kippur in Berlin in 1913 brought him back from the brink of apostasy, and he decided he could never be anything other than a Jew.
What happened to Rosenzweig that Yom Kippur he never explicitly related. But it is significant that years later he described what Yom Kippur means to the Jew, who on that day “confronts the eyes of his judge in utter loneliness as if he were dead in the midst of life.”
And he said, “Anyone who has ever celebrated Yom Kippur knows that it is something more than a mere personal exaltation (though this may enter into it) or the symbolic recognition of a reality such as the Jewish people (though this may also be an element) – it is a testimony to the reality of God which cannot be controverted.”
In these passages Rosenzweig not only hints at what one particular Yom Kippur meant to him; he provides a classical description of the nature of religious experience.
Personal exaltation and participation in a worshipping community are part of it, but fundamentally religious experience is what William James in his “Varieties of Religious Experience” calls a private faith-state, when, as Rosenzweig says so movingly, one confronts the eyes of God in utter loneliness.
It is an intense, overwhelming, existential experience, almost beyond the realms of expression in words. It happens rarely, and it cannot always be maintained at such a peak. But this is religious experience, oblivious to time, place, context or company, and it is this which Rudolf Otto, moved by Yom Kippur in a simple North African Synagogue, called the numinous.
The God whom one confronts in utter loneliness is, as Abraham Joshua Heschel would put it, the God of the prophet, not the God of the philosopher.
For the prophet has an overwhelming, intuitive apprehension of God, whilst the God of the philosopher is the end result of a long, careful process of reasoning. The one, says Heschel, uses “situational thinking” in contrast to the other’s “conceptual thinking”.
Yet for Judaism both approaches – “the God of Abraham” and “the God of Aristotle”, as the medieval Jewish teachers expressed it – are not only acceptable but necessary. Each provides a corrective to the other.
Rosenzweig wrote, “To have found God is not an end but in itself a beginning… The reasoning process comes afterwards. Afterwards, however, it must come.”
The reasoning process prepares for, reinforces, and evaluates religious experience. It helps to protect the sensitive person from the excesses of his own imagination. It guides him to establish and maintain an on-going relationship which the God confronted in utter loneliness.
But the reasoning process can, as William James argues, suffer from a “tendency to let religion evaporate in intellectual terms”. One can study God so coldly and clinically that one freezes out the warm, personal Father in Heaven.
The pathway to God can be that of the prophet and it can be that of the philosopher. Each seeks the same truth. “The philosopher seeks at the end and what the prophet knows at the beginning”, says Arthur A Cohen in an essay on Heschel, Cohen himself comments, “Where faith leaps, philosophy moves slowly”.
Judaism is adamant that faith and philosophy must finally come to the same truth.
“The seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is truth”, said the sages. The truth which the prophet sees in a moment of intuition is the same truth at which the patient reasoning of the philosopher must eventually arrive.
As the classical Jewish thinkers put it, a man weighs several hundred identical coins and knows in a moment how many he has; but instead of weighing the coins he might count them one by one, and though this will take longer he will come to the same result in the end.
The problem the religious teachers of the classical age faced is different in degree but not in kind from that which confronts the contemporary believer, who is adamantly informed by the agnostic and the atheist that the use of reason does not confirm, but denies, the truth of the religious claim.
The believer suggests in reply that apparent contradictions are largely due to the limitations of human intelligence and reason.
Yoseph ben Shem-Tov was right to remark that there is a distinction between that which is above human reason, and that which is counter to reason.
My teacher, Isidore Epstein, wrote: “Judaism, whilst having too much respect for human intelligence to subscribe to any proposition involving the total surrender of human reason, nevertheless rightly recognises the limitations of the human faculties and senses and may well proclaim as an act of revealed faith, ‘Credible quia non intellectum est’ (‘To be believed because it is beyond the understanding’) – quite a tenable and rational position which it would be unscientific to assail or deny a priori.”
What Judaism could not do would be to assert, “Credo quia absurdum” – “I believe because it is absurd”, “Credible quia ineptum” – “To be believed because it is foolish”; or “Certum est quia impossibile est” – “It is certain because it is impossible”.