Modernity and religion: New explorations in the light of the ‘union of opposites’

Avinoam Rosenak*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

1 Scopus citations


In this chapter, I examine the doctrine of the Unity of Opposites that lies at the heart of Maharal’s teachings and clarify its potential contribution to a new understanding of the tension and interactions between religion and modernity. This potential, it appears, has not yet been adequately expressed due to the patterns of thought that dominate our intellectual discourse. I attempt here to describe the current situation and the latent potential of the doctrine of the Unity of Opposites and note the logic of that approach, its explanatory capacity with respect to Maharal’s writings, and the implications of this novel reading. The questions raised by the interplay of religion and modernity have elicited various reactions, 1 and those reactions have generated a range of religious and secular streams and institutions within the Jewish world. The scholarly literature analysing the encounter, and attempting to understand the various religious streams emerging from it, is broad and diverse;2 but the writings of the American sociologist Peter Berger3 make a particularly seminal contribution to the effort. Berger writes of three possible reactions to the encounter between religion and modernity. The first option is termed ‘segregation’ (which entails the option selected by one who recoils from the encounter with modernity and wants to insulate religious society from all external influence, doing so either passively or actively and aggressively4). The second option is ‘cognitive surrender’ (which means accepting the values of the general society); and a third option is ‘cognitive negotiation’ (in which the cognitive minority acknowledges some of the broader society’s values but strives to preserve its separate identity).5 This typology creates a sociological platform upon which others wrote their analyses - writers such as Charles S. Liebman, 6 David Hartman, 7 Michael Rosenak, 8 Avi Sagi and Dov Schwartz, 9 all of whom made use of Berger’s distinctions, albeit adding their own concepts and terminology. In what follows, I propose a binary model that can shed further light on the fundamentals of the debate. The model is grounded in the writings of Akiva Ernst Simon, and in the ties between his thought and the writings of Emile Durkheim.10 After setting out the proposed model, I argue that even though it can explain the discussions dealing with the encounter between religion and modernity, there remains a third dimension, overlooked by the disputants. I call this alternative the doctrine of the Unity of Opposites, and its fundamentals are set out in the teachings of Maharal. The doctrine of the Unity of Opposites is unique in that it breaks out of Western culture’s conventional binary structure, allowing for new insights into such concepts as diversity of positions, multicultural discourse, pluralism and the relationship between particularism and universalism. The novel spirit to be found in the idea of the Unity of Opposites can also shed new light on the encounter between modernity (understood as secular, rational and scientific) and religion (understood as a rejection of modernity). After explaining the Unity of Opposites in light of Maharal’s writings and exploring various concepts as he uses them (such as ‘diversity’, ‘compromise’, ‘dispute’, ‘Halakha and Aggada’, ‘sacred and secular’, ‘relations between Israel and the nations’), I will note his contribution to understanding the ties between religion and modernity and its potential pertinence to contemporary multicultural discourse.

Original languageAmerican English
Title of host publicationRabbinic Theology and Jewish Intellectual History
Subtitle of host publicationThe Great Rabbi Loew of Prague
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages29
ISBN (Electronic)9781135700683
ISBN (Print)9780415503600
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2012

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2013 Meir Seidler for selection and editorial matter; individual contributors, their contributions.


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