I don’t remember ever being struck so utterly speechless as when over a year ago, Christian Wiese, then Dean, wrote to ask if I’d agree to be considered by his colleagues for an honorary degree in religious philosophy at the Faculty of Protestant Theology of the Goethe University. It wasn’t shock, as when receiving exceptionally good or bad news, and it was more than being overwhelmingly moved, which, of course, I was. It was a more meaningful loss for words that had less to do with the intensity of what I felt than with the mixture of contrasting feelings I was experiencing.

Philosophers are not accustomed to being rendered speechless. It took me several months to better articulate my loss for words. I mention this not to speak of pride or humility as such, but of how they joltingly combined to rob me of words. For my speechlessness struck me as more philosophically significant than the mixture of specific feelings to which it owed.

My vocabulary had failed me. But it wasn’t like trying to remember a word I knew, but couldn’t quite place—something that happens to me with frightening frequency in recent years. Nor was it the experience of something quite new for which I didn’t yet have a word. No, my vocabulary had failed me not for being out of reach, or in any way deficient. Something in what I was experiencing confounded my very ability to properly locate it by means of the words I had. It took me a while to realize that, though still lost for words, I had coined a term to characterize such moments of evaluative bewilderedness. I was ambivalated!—not toward the honorary degree, of course, but in my reaction to it.


Ambivalence is a concept I borrowed from Harry Frankfurt’s account of normative commitment over a decade ago while struggling with the main claim of The View From Within. It has since become central to my work. I liked the way Frankfurt accounted for normative commitment by means of what he termed second-order desires or volitions. The authority with which our norms speak for us, and their power to mobilize us to act on their behalf reside, according to Frankfurt, not merely in what we earnestly want, but in what we earnestly want to want. What renders a desire definitive of who we are is not the mere power of its pull but that we deem it to be a desired desire! The stamp of approval issued by our second-order desires or volitions owes to their wholeheartedness—another of Frankfurt’s most important words. Wholeheartedness is a measure not of the strength of a desire, but of its subjective rightness, in that we find our very wanting it desirable. Not unlike Kant, such a sense of rightness derives its normative authority from being autonomous in the deepest sense of the word. For what is free will, Frankfurt asks, if not wanting wholeheartedly what one wants to want—not the freedom to do anything, but the freedom to do anything we want to do.

Hence the source of normativity is located for Frankfurt, not in the idea of law or the principle by which the free will operates, as in Kant and latter-day Kantians like Christine Korsgaard, but in what the will most wholeheartedly wills.

Ambivalence, for Frankfurt, is the lack of wholeheartedness. There are things we care about, and things we don’t. The former mobilize us normatively; the latter do not. There are things we care about more than others. But at times we are neither here nor there; finding ourselves to be of two minds about a person, an idea, a community, a course of action: caring for them at one moment, indifferent to them at the next. Ambivalence for Frankfurt is a state of volitional incoherence in which, caught between motivation and the lack of it, we are unable to make up our minds, as he puts it—our judgment thwarted, our agency crippled, until it’s resolved this way or that.

Frankfurt considers ambivalence to be a grave disorder demanding urgent attention; “a disease of the mind,” a “threat to the cohesion of the self” that “tends to alarm a person and to mobilize him for an attempt at ‘self-preservation.’ ” I found in it the key to solving the problem I was grappling with: that of accounting for how we change our mind?—not our opinions, but our mind: how can we willfully change the standards and norms by which we assess and form opinions—which in Frankfurt’s jargon boils down to how we can change our second-order volitions? It has been a pressing question in the philosophy of science ever since Thomas Kuhn drew attention to the framework-dependency of all scientific work, and to the fact that from time to time scientific communities replaced the normative frameworks, or as he had it, the paradigms that governed their work. Kuhn and some of his followers raised the question of how a paradigm shift can be considered rational, but were unable to offer it an acceptable solution, while among philosophers of mind, self, language and agency in general, including in the works of Frankfurt himself, the question was very rarely even raised.

Because, the norms and standards to which we are committed pertain to what we wholeheartedly want, and because, as Frankfurt so nicely puts it, we cannot change our will at will, it follows that left to our own devices, we can never willfully change our minds. Yet it seems ridiculous to conclude that, therefore, the framework transitions undergone in such areas as science, ethics, politics, and religion, can be deemed to be no more rational and willed than the surreptitious shifts in aesthetic taste we experience from time to time as our commitment to different genres of music art and literature waxes and wanes. Harry Frankfurt’s notion of normative ambivalence allowed me to see a way out of the conundrum that differed from all former accounts of paradigm shifts.

The idea was simple enough: although we can never convince ourselves or be convinced by others of the unworthiness of norms we’re committed to, exposure to the normative criticism of others can on occasion ambivalate us toward the norms they’re questioning. And norms to which we become ambivalent lose their wholehearted status, and can be critically assessed in the light of our remaining convictions. Think of how by the end of Gulliver’s Travels the persistent critique of human values and conduct Gulliver was exposed to in Houyhnhnm, the land of the rational talking horses, utterly destabilized his bourgeoisie enlightenment standards.

Fixing on the demotive aspects of normative ambivalence served my argument well, and I followed Frankfurt’s lead in treating ambivalence as a wavering of commitment, as a vacillating between caring and not caring without further ado. But my ambivalated loss for words after reading Christian Wiese’s mail did not at all fit Frankfurt’s description! I was caught between the conflicting pull of two contrasting normative evaluative responses—pride and humility—not between caring and not caring. Caring for something, according to Frankfurt’s well know formulations, is a measure of its importance to us. The normative undecidedness I experienced was not about the importance I attributed to what Christian proposed or the extent to which I cared for it. It was about how to gauge the normative significance it held for me, to normatively categorize how I stood to it, not its importance or the extent to which I cared.

It was also very much to do with my evaluative vocabulary and ability to articulate what I felt, something to which Frankfurt’s work, to risk a pun, remains silent. I hence found myself returning to Charles Taylor’s benign, if critical endorsement of Frankfurt’s work in the late 1970s (see “What is Human Agency?” in T. Mischel (ed) 1977 anthology, The Self: Psychological and Philosophical Issues) as his Herderian account of agency was taking form in the essentially linguistic idiom that would typify his work thereafter. Human agency, urged Taylor, ultimately resides not in a volitional economy of caring, but in our singularly unique capacity for self-interpretation and self-evaluation. Some evaluations he terms “weak,” some “strong.” Weak evaluations, like deliberating between taking one’s holiday at the beach or camping in the hills, are determined empirically, by the weighing the options’ contingent pros and cons, and the strength of their attraction. If we could, we’d do both. Strong evaluations are a matter of principled normative judgment: a decision to intervene and speak up in defiance of the risks involved bespeaks a commitment to certain norms of conduct that overrides self-interest. Not doing so, might benefit my career, but I’d hate myself for it. The normative vocabulary of strong evaluation comes in positive and negative deontic pairings: valorous as opposed to cowardly, refined as opposed to vulgar, cautious as opposed to reckless, modest as opposed to arrogant, and so forth. Here, quite unlike weak evaluations, we can never have it both ways, and can never be both.

At one level, Taylor’s picture dovetails nicely with Frankfurt’s. To say that one is committed to conducting oneself, say, cautiously and modestly, is another way of saying that one has second-order desires to do so. But at another level, the two accounts differ interestingly. Since the flipside of caring is indifference, ambivalence for Frankfurt, as we have seen, is to waver between caring and not caring. This is not the case from Taylor’s perspective. The flipside of a positive deontic term is a negative one. Ambivalence toward taking a certain course of action, such as risking one’s position by speaking up, is not to waver between valorizing acting bravely or cowardly. If cowardice counts among one’s negative terms, it cannot be valorized as such, and if valor counts among one’s positive terms, one cannot be indifferent to it. We may not be able to muster the strength or the courage to act as we’d like to, we might be deeply committed to intervening against a bully and chicken out at the last minute. But self-disappointment is not ambivalence. From Taylor’s perspective, normative ambivalence is to be caught off guard between two contrasting yet perplexingly positive evaluative terms, like being rendered proud and humbled by one and the same state of affairs.

It is for this reason, I have now realized, that normative ambivalation is indeed a form of speechlessness, representing not a lack of words, but being lost for words. When our evaluative vocabulary is in plain sight, yet appears to clash jarringly with respect to one and the same course of action, rendering its object normatively inarticulable. But there’s more to ambivalence than evaluative incongruity.


My late father, Harold Fisch, took a special liking to cases of evaluative inconsistency, especially in religion, to which he devoted the last book he saw through the press. He titled it: Be-Seter Elyon—Divine Contradictions: Judaism and the Language of Paradox, and it abounded with intriguing examples of the paradoxical poetics of Judaism’s religious language and ritual. How the rickety temporary booths Jews erect and live in during the feast of Tabernacles are seen at once to represent both the safety and confidence of God’s protective presence, and the alarming vulnerability of the human condition; or how Jewish theology and liturgy vacillates between the ultimate nearness and ultimate remoteness of the divine, and much more. Interestingly none of the cases he analyzes amount to actual ambivalence. God’s immanence and transcendence like viewing the Sukkah as symbolizing both shelter and exposure, do not leave us speechless, or perplexed, or stop us in our tracks like Buridan’s ass incapable of coherently moving forward. Contrasting evaluation may well be a necessary condition of ambivalence, but it is not sufficient. Contrasting interpretations can lend depth and profundity to a work of art, and add to the holy’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans, to use Otto’s famous coinage, as implied by the Hebrew title of my father’s book. But Ambivalence connotes indecision, which is wholly lacking in such examples. Things, including ourselves, can be many things at the same time without rendering us undecidedly speechless and incapable of acting. We’re at once both friends and neighbors, citizens and members, spouses and siblings, parents and children, and even professors of philosophy, a confusing perhaps, yet by no means ambivalating array of roles and placings.

It is when they dictate us contradictory courses of action, that contrasting evaluations blossom into full-fledged ambivalence that requires making up our mind—as when in a professional capacity that demands impartiality, we are faced by a family member who does not. One can live with, and like my father even draw immense gratification from multiple contrasting meanings, even when paradoxical. But when their normative uptake requires us to act, gratification can morph into indecision and paralysis. The Talmudic canon contains many more instances of the type of unresolved, intriguingly, yet harmlessly contrasting readings of the kind dealt with in my father’s book. But it also contains an even broader array of unresolved halakhic disputes, legal disagreements that simply must be decided despite the fact that the Talmud refrains from doing so! Some of these disputes are absolutely fundamental. Are the halakhic authorities of each generation charged with legislative authority, and, therefore, obliged to criticize the law and change it when necessary, or are they charged with only judicial authority, and, therefore, powerless to do so? Are God’s deeds and Word to be deemed morally perfect, and, therefore, to be forever submitted to unquestionably, or to be considered morally imperfect, and, therefore, to be confronted whenever deemed wrong?—to name but two of the Talmud’s most fundamental and far-reaching disputes. In cases like these, sitting back intrigued and fascinated by the paradoxical mix is simply not an option. Disputes like these have to be resolved and firmly decided in order to be able to move forward. But the Talmudic canon refuses to decide them for us, and as a matter of principle, I believe, remains divided, forcing its practitioners to shoulder the responsibility of deciding them for themselves.

But to return to the problem I was grappling with. While Frankfurt views ambivalence as a disease of the mind, I came to view it as a blessing, as a moment of paralyzing indecision that enables us the impossible: namely, to take normative, critical stock of our otherwise wholehearted commitments. Rationality at its upmost, one might say, requires of us to become ambivalent, of which the Talmud appears to be uniquely aware. But how is that possible? There is no way we can render a wholehearted commitment of our own half-hearted by merely talking to ourselves. To do so we need to engage people who are differently committed. But merely talking to them, exchanging views and making an effort to understand them, even studying them closely, carry little ambivalating force, for they do not compel us to try on their different commitments for size. (Although some discursive settings are more confessional than others, as I found out when teaching Talmudic confrontational theology to a startled group of Methodist doctoral students at Duke Divinity last fall.)

The potential for real ambivalation lies, as I noted above, in exposure to the normative criticism leveled at us by others. This is because when criticizing our norms, as opposed to merely discussing them, our critics are forced, wittingly or unwittingly, to project onto us something of their own system of values, in order to mount their arguments against us. We have all experienced the hopelessness in principle of arguing against a normative framework from squarely within it. It is impossible to mount a cogent attack on liberalism on the sole basis of liberal assumptions or to challenge Darwinism on the basis solely of evolutionary reasoning. The only way to try to prove a normative commitment wrong is on the basis of a counter commitment—which brings us back to the contrasting couplets of Taylor’s deontic vocabularies. The only way I can hope to effectively criticize right-wing nationalist fellow Israelis is by attributing to them some measure of liberal value. It is in such discursive settings that we are given the opportunity to see ourselves in a slightly warped deontic mirror, portrayed by our critics as committed differently to the norms they are criticizing, in a manner capable of rendering us ambivalent in Taylor’s sense of the term.

This is the idea that animates almost everything I’ve attempted in the last decade or so, from accounting philosophically for how individuals can change their minds, how scientific paradigms can shift, the Talmudic literature’s great divides, its dialogism and its intriguing undecided self-positioning, as well as how to study the dynamics of interreligious mutual informing. The idea that normative ambivalence, which I believe I have only now begun properly to understand thanks to Christian, is the key to the rational reassessment and creative rethinking of fundamentals everywhere. Effective transformative rethinking in science and religion as in any other area of human endeavor can only be achieved at the center, by practitioners of voice and standing capable of moving their communities in new directions. But to do so they need to be first exposed to potentially ambivalating challenges from without, and these are encountered only at the periphery, where they are positioned toward and in critical exchange with members of other, differently committed communities

However, in order to have an impact on their home-community after journeying back from the periphery to the center, such freshly ambivalated individuals must be able to regain their voices. Speechless practitioners are ineffective regardless of the standing they otherwise command. They must be able, to somehow transform their speechlessness into a creative and articulable juxtaposition of contraries with which they believe they can live. My recent work on scientific framework transitions and in interreligious studies locates the driving transformative force of change, precisely in such works of creative normative hybridity. But the same is true of personal rethinking. For the ambivalating impact of external criticism to have a transformative effect, one cannot remain speechless, but try to somehow hold the contrasting horns of the normative dilemma in view, in order to resolve it. One will not be compelled to resolve the issue before feeling the full, as-articulated-as-possible brunt of the dilemma. This I believe is the role the Talmud undertook as a religious canon: not to dictate to Jews what to believe and how to act, but to force them to make up their own minds by presenting them with a profoundly divided and knowingly ambivalating canon.

But at times the creative upshot of normative ambivalence is not to fall this way or that, as Frankfurt, and with him, I have insisted, but to continue holding the two strained options in an uneasy and at first unnatural equilibrium that succeeds in time to crystallize into a two-fold, mutually enriching whole. Not all ambivalating jarrings can be contained in this way. The two fundamental Talmudic disputes I mentioned a moment ago represent mutually exclusive options. God is either morally perfect or He is not. He can’t be both. But He can be conceived as both Father and King, as being both close and remote, and so forth. Moreover, thus construed, each of the two sides gains in complexity, richness, and subtlety by being coupled to its counterpart. So there is something important to be learned from the effort my father saw fit to invest in teasing out and full-articulating the paradoxical two-sidedness of the cases he studied.


A willingness and ability to live creatively undecided between contrasting normative options, to straddle incongruous and initially ambivalating normative divides, resisting the temptation to resolve them, and attempting to somehow conjoin them into interesting if strained wholes greater than their parts, seems to run in my family for at least four generations. And it all started here in Frankfurt.

My grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Fisch was born into an orthodox family in the small, predominantly Jewish township of Wolbrum, situated about 50 kilometers north of Krakow. As was customary, the community encouraged its most gifted young men to pursue rabbinical studies in more prestigious institutions than Wolbrum had to offer. And thus, at the outbreak of WWI Solomon Fisch made his way here, to Frankfurt am Main to join the yeshiva of Rabbi Dr. Solomon Breuer, successor as rabbi of the town’s religionsgesellschaft to his legendary father-in-law Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Yeshivat Kahal Adat Yeshurun was located on Friedberger Anlage, just 3 kilometers from where we sit as the crow flies. It was an orthodox institution uniquely dedicated to Rabbi Hirsch’s torah im derech eretz approach—an effort, as Noah Efron puts it, “to render orthodoxy more consonant with modernity.” It was a life-changing experience for the young Solomon Fisch, of which he told many anecdotes in later years.

In 1920, freshly ordained and transformed by Frankfurt, he arrived in Liverpool, England, to begin a lifelong career as an uncompromising, old-school congregational rabbi first in Liverpool, then Birmingham, Sheffield, and eventually Leeds. Yet, like his role model Rabbi Breuer, who wrote a doctorate at Heidelberg on Kant, Solomon Fisch also insisted on pursuing a university education alongside his rabbinic career. He lacked a first degree, but Manchester University agreed to take him in as an MA, and later doctoral student, where he completed his doctorate with a critical edition and commentary on Midrash ha-Gadol Bamidbar based on a Yemenite manuscript that required him to study Greek and Arabic. There were strict orthodox congregational rabbis then as there are now. There are now exceedingly more serious orthodox academics than there were then. But even today juxtaposing the two is rare, and combining them, as my grandfather did, even rarer. The two worlds he insisted on living in jarred, yet he straddled them insistently, and in doing so conveyed at least to his loved ones a normative collocation both challenging and inspiring.

This was the house, with its wonderful twofold library, into which my father, Harold Fisch was born. He pursued a seemingly less hybridic trajectory in English literature, first at Sheffield and later at Oxford, but ended up not only fascinated by paradox but embracing an even more pronounced normative split that would characterize his lifework. Interestingly, he employed the same term—covenantal—to characterize both. “Covenantal hermeneutics” was the concept he coined to describe the hold of the Hebrew Bible on the poetic consciousness of the great English writers on whom he wrote: Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Blake—a key term that opened him to the world of Western literature, and allowed him to make that world his home. “The covenantal hermeneutics of Fisch,” writes recent critic Lloyd Davies, “reveals a universal truth.” But it also revealed for him a certainty in the exclusive uniqueness of the Jewish people. “The great divide,” as I put it in my introduction to his memoirs, “between the outward worldly openness of his scholarship and the inward self-sufficiency of his Judaism” including its political charge, generated an incommensurable and unresolvable tension that he nonetheless knowingly and creatively embraced.

Enough has been said this afternoon of the ambivalating splits and hybrids that characterize my own dappled undertakings, to last me a very long time. Let me just say that, given my analytical training and the potential charges of eclecticism, I would probably not have had the nerve to hold them undecidedly in the balance for long, and allow them to cross-pollinate over the years, had I not enjoyed the example of my father and grandfather. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, even in print, whether “Rational Rabbis” was an intended oxymoron!

And it doesn’t stop with me. Hanna, my wife’s constant and often tortured dithering, as a lawyer between mediating and taking sides in the heart-wrenching family disputes she deals with daily, straddles a similar divide between the contrasting master norms of peace and justice. Yael, our daughter, who studies early rabbinic midrash by looking closely at early Christian exegesis—especially Paul’s—and vice versa, firmly straddles a similarly precarious and dynamic divide, while resisting the temptations of reductive comparisons. I’m not quite sure what our son Eilon actually does in the high-tech firm he works for, which is way above my head. It has something to do with cloud technology. But the very idea of a cloud being the firmest and safest place to save and store our valuables seems to require a truly unthinkable straddle. And yet like the sukkah, it is…

This text is adapted from a lecture delivered July 12, 2017 at the Goethe University, Frankfurt.


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