Prof. Avi Sagi: Developing New Interpretations of what it means to be Human…and Jewish

Can morality exist without God? What happens when a Jewish convert becomes non-observant? Can Judaism function without a clear definition of the divine? And what does Jewish tradition have to offer in the debate over military ethics? These are questions that occupy the ever-active mind – and many of the nearly 40 books written by – Prof. Avi Sagi, of BIU's  Program for Hermeneutics and Cultural Studies.


Sagi’s answers may surprise and, in some cases, even shock you. The professor, who has spent his entire 35-year career at Bar-Ilan, including receiving his BA, MA, and PhD degrees from the university, consistently challenges traditional religious assumptions.


Take God and morality, for example. While many might argue that morality necessarily stems from the existence of a Creator, Sagi contends exactly the opposite: morality is entirely autonomous, he says; a precondition, in fact, to being in a covenant with God. Sagi’s reasoning is complex – indeed, it’s the basis for a book he wrote together with Prof. Daniel Statman – “Religion and Morality” – which has been translated into English. But, as he attempts to summarize it, “morality is on the first floor; Jewish law and ritual are only on the second.” And you have to enter through the front door.


Sagi takes a similarly contrarian approach in his insistence that the desire to “define” God is inherently misguided. In his book "Prayer After the Death of God," Sagi claims that Judaism can be understood perfectly well without any theoretical construct of the supernatural. “The question is not whether God is there or not,” he explains. “The question is whether the Jewish religion depends on having a developed theory about what is God. And I believe it does not. Faith should not be emphasized over practice.”


Sagi’s out-of-the-box thinking is academic, to be sure: he founded and heads up Bar-Ilan’s Interdisciplinary Program for Hermeneutics and Cultural Studies, which he says aims to “give students the philosophical tools to work on new ways of understanding what it means it means to be human.” But there are also numerous real world applications of his work.


The controversy of conversion in Israel is a prime example. Does one need to observe Jewish law in order to convert to Judaism? Sagi says yes, but not for the usually understood reasons. “Becoming a Jew means joining the Jewish nation, not the Jewish religion,” he explains in “Conversion and Jewish Identity,” a book co-authored with Bar-Ilan Faculty of Law Prof. Zvi Zohar. It’s a small but important distinction: if a convert subsequently stops observing Jewish law, he or she cannot be thrown outside the Jewish “nation” as has happened in several high profile cases in recent years where “religion” was the underlying rationale.


Sagi’s thoughtful approach reached its most tangible application through his role on the team that rewrote the IDF’s Code of Ethics – “the Spirit of the IDF” – to replace the previous work by Tel Aviv University Prof. Asa Kasher. Starting in the mid-1990’s, Sagi helped create guidelines that address moral questions in war: how to deal with terrorists who hide among a civilian population; what should be the relationship between men and women serving together.


His conclusion – once again surprising: “Leave the rabbis out of it. Jewish tradition really doesn’t give good answers to the new kinds of situations we find ourselves in,” he says. “We have the biblical tradition, yes, but I hope no one wants to live by this! Even the great rabbis of the Talmud didn’t accept it.” Sagi’s formulations on morality and modernity play a clear role in his work for the IDF and in his role as academic director of the Military Ethics Research Project at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, another hat the busy 60-year-old wears.


At Bar-Ilan, Sagi teaches classes in both the philosophy department and the interdisciplinary program, which he founded. “Hermeneutics” traditionally referred to the interpretation of written texts, especially those in the areas of literature, religion and law. Its definition has since been expanded to encompass “cultural studies,” such as those from Marx, who interprets society from an economic point of view, or Freud who uses psychoanalysis as the main prism.


“Human society is dependent on the creative act of interpretation itself. It’s what we humans tell about ourselves,” Sagi says. The holistic, interdisciplinary approach of the program, he adds, is the only one of its type in the world. “I receive questions from other universities all the time, who want to learn our model of teaching.”


Sagi is nothing if not prolific. His many books cover an expansive philosophical range. Together with Bar-Ilan Prof. Yedidia Stern, the former head of the university’s law faculty, Sagi also edits a journal  called “Democratic Culture.” Somewhere, he finds time to teach as well. This year, his classes include “Identity, Selfhood and Culture,” and “Basic Ontological Concepts of Existence in the Existential Tradition.”


Whether in the classroom or on the battlefield, Prof. Avi Sagi is undoubtedly working on his next creative interpretation melding Jewish tradition, hermeneutics, classic philosophy, and the challenges of modernity. We’ll all come out more enriched because of it.


For more on Prof. Sagi's work click here.