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Unorthodox Theology

An anthology of liberal Jewish thought evinces a deep unease with traditional conceptions of God

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Earlier this month, in Jerusalem, more than 100,000 haredi Jews took to the streets to protest the Israeli government’s attempt to desegregate an Orthodox girls’ school. The school had been physically separating Ashkenazi and Sephardi students, ostensibly because the latter did not live up to the standards of piety and modesty demanded by parents of the former. When Israel’s High Court ordered the barriers removed, a group of parents belonging to the Slonim Hasidim withdrew their daughters from the school, and when the court ordered them to return, the parents preferred to go to jail. These arrests triggered the massive protest, in which signs were displayed that read “God will rule for all eternity.”

To turn from headlines like these to Jewish Theology in Our Time (Jewish Lights), a new book of essays by professors and rabbis associated mainly with the Reform and Conservative movements, is to see the dilemma of liberal Judaism in a starkly ironic light. In Bnei Berak—and, for that matter, in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Crown Heights—are thousands upon thousands of Jews who not only know with utter certainty just what Judaism is and what God wants from them, but are willing to defy the powers of the earth to do it. Meanwhile, the contributors to this book—edited by the rabbi of Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue, Elliot Cosgrove—can barely even use words like God and Judaism without a blizzard of explanations and qualifications.

“God,” writes Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of rabbinic studies at American Jewish University, “is the dynamic that makes for novelty, innovation, complexity, and growth.” Similarly, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum writes that “divinity is the radical force that moves the entire cosmos.” Such a God, quite obviously, cannot be the God who walked in the cool of evening in the Garden of Eden, or spoke to Moses out of a burning bush. Eitan Fishbane, assistant professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, confesses that “I could not believe in the God of heavenly transcendence, the highly anthropomorphic deity of classical Judaism.” And if, as Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky agrees, “The character in the Bible is not God,” then everything the Bible tells us about the covenant between God and the Jewish people is equally incredible: “[W]e cannot imagine that only Israel … possesses the covenant with God.” Rabbi Or N. Rose is still more explicit: “I do not believe that the Jewish People are God’s chosen people.”

All this is quite reasonable, and I am inclined to agree with it myself. But then, I am not in the unenviable position of having to make these denials and scruples the basis for a Jewish theology. To be fair, dogmatic theology has never been the primary expression of Jewish thinking about God, the way it has been for Christianity. When we think of the great Jewish teachers, they are rarely theologians like Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, but rather commentators like Rashi or mystics like the Baal Shem Tov.

Certainly, when the contributors to Jewish Theology in Our Time describe what they are doing, they are very reluctant to use the word theology, which implies that human beings are capable of making some kind of true statement about God. For almost all of them, this is not just a hopeless goal, it is not a goal at all; God, in these pages, is not a being to be described but a process to be experienced. As Kalmanofsky puts it, “Theology is discourse about God. Religion is the human, social response to transcendence; systems of ideas, tales, and behaviors that help us keep faith with our deepest spiritual experiences.”

The book is dedicated to the proposition that it is possible to have religion, in this pragmatic, metaphorical, experiential sense, without theology. “For many of us,” Rabbi Leon Morris writes, “contemporary theology is less about what we know to be true and more about religious ways of organizing and conceiving the world.” That the contributors force themselves to make this distinction honestly is the most appealing and honorable quality in the book. They are unable to build their Judaism on propositions they cannot genuinely believe are true. And their reason, schooled in secular history and science, makes them unable to subscribe to even the most basic traditions of Judaism—for instance, that God gave Moses the Torah on Mount Sinai, or that God promised the Land of Israel to the Jewish people.

Benjamin Sommer, professor of Bible at JTS, uses a gentle euphemism when he describes “the Bible as Israel’s reaction to divine revelation.” But a reaction is not a revelation, and it gives the Bible no greater authority than, in Sommer’s words, “midrashic collections, medieval commentaries, and modern scholarly works, not to mention questions asked last Saturday morning by a worshiper at a synagogue’s Torah discussion.” Any earnest attempt to grapple with the sacred is, by this definition, sacred.

This points to one of the two minimal affirmations that these theologians are willing to make: that there is something in our experience of the world that compels us to use the language of divinity. “We know,” writes Fishbane, “that there is radiance and redemption beneath the surface of our experience. That glow is the hidden light of divine presence, concealed there from time immemorial.” Should you reply that you do not “know” this, or if you acknowledge the phenomenon but decline to describe it in terms like “radiance and redemption,” you are probably an atheist or agnostic, and there will be nothing at all in Jewish Theology in Our Time to dissuade you from a strictly secular interpretation of experience.

But say that, like these writers and the majority of human beings, you do have an intuition of divinity in the world. This may be the basis for religion, or perhaps spirituality. But is it a basis for Judaism? To put it more sharply: Do the traditional texts and practices of Judaism have any claim on a Jew, or is she just as free to define her beliefs by drawing on Christian or Buddhist sources, or for that matter secular ones (art, music, literature)? “Some of us,” writes Rabbi Michael Marmur, “are in search of a new way of expressing our sense of commitment and responsibility, our yearnings and principles.” But must that “syntax and vocabulary,” as Marmur describes it, be a Jewish one?

Here, again, the contributors are maximally diffident. Fundamentally, most of them seem to agree that Judaism is not a better or truer description of man’s relation to God than any other faith. Being Jewish is not a commandment but a choice: “For me, the prospect of abandoning Judaism is inconceivable,” Marmur writes, with a tacit emphasis on the first two words. When the book’s contributors use the language of Judaism, it is because they find that language the most available and authentic.

In fact, what distinguishes this generation of liberal Jewish theologians from its predecessors is a renewed interest in the language of classical Judaism. Many of the contributors to Jewish Theology in Our Time use talmudic allusions and kabbalistic imagery to express their very contemporary concerns. The spiritual attitude of total resignation described by Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, in “Non-dual Judaism,” strikes me as essentially Buddhist, yet he phrases it in Hasidic language: “As the Baal Shem Tov describes it, our resistance to the difficulties of life merely multiplies our suffering, but when we respond to pain with compassion and acceptance our suffering becomes joy.” Marc Shapiro sounds like an 18th-century Deist when he writes, “I personally am comfortable removing God from almost everything that takes place in the world,” but he prefers to trace this idea to Maimonides.

In his afterword, Cosgrove expresses a certain degree of surprise at the book he has produced. He notes that certain subjects that might be expected to feature in contemporary Jewish theology—“the Enlightenment, Shoah, or establishment of the State of Israel”—go practically unmentioned here. But that is because these writers do not see it as part of their task even to touch on subjects like providence and theodicy. The existence of evil can present a theological problem only if you believe that God has the power to restrain or permit evil, and the God we see in these pages has no such power. It follows that this God would be extremely hard to pray to in times of need. A useful sequel to Jewish Theology in Our Time, in fact, would be accounts from these rabbis of how their theology works in a pastoral setting. When comforting a mourner, as when organizing a protest, it is probably much easier to be able to say, “God will rule for all eternity”—which doesn’t, of course, make it true.

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Jay A Friedman says:

The Haredim have removed other Jews from Judaism.

The liberal so-called “theologists” have removed God from Judaism.

Strange bedfellows but – actually – they deserve each other.

In the end, the Judaism we have is what is left of the past, what is fitting in the present and as for the future, who knows.

Darcy Vebber says:

For a sequal, I suggest an interesting and useful response to the issue of prayer raised here is found in Rabbi Mike Comins’ book “Making Prayer Real; Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer is Difficult and What To Do About it.” Also Jewish Lights. Maybe a boxed set for us liberal God-wrestlers?

Eliezer says:

Since slavish devotion at all costs – even at the cost of basic human morality and decency – to the existence of the Zionist state has replaced God as the religious focus of most Jews, what difference does it make anymore?

IMO, despite the intricate trappings of organized religions, no one individual or by extension, group of individuals know who, what, where or when is ‘God’. Nor will we ever know, given our intellectual and biological limitations. Making claims to the contrary is akin to imagining a school of microbes pilpuling over the essence and behavior of(for them) an incomprehensible human being. It is no irony that faith prevails, notwithstanding.

The first paragraph of this piece, about the haredi protest in Jerusalem, is riddled with inaccuracy:

1) The “100,000” (only about 50,000 rallied in Jerusalem, the rest rallied in Bnei Brak, Beitar, etc.) were NOT protesting the de-segregation. They were protesting the court order demanding that the mothers of the Ashkenazic girls go to jail. The distinction here is crucial, because,

2) NONE of the haredi protestors believed that there was actual segregation in the school. Indeed, the existence of a physical barrier was vehemently denied by the Slonimer Rebbe, leader of the Ashkenazic sect at the center of the whole incident, and only found out about it when discussing the recently-forged compromise with R. Ovadia Yosef. Plenty of haredi politicians argued that the very *notion* of segregation and racism between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews in a community that bases its lifestyle on rigid adherence to the Shulkhan Arukh, written by the Sephardic R. Yosef Caro, is ridiculous. Whether or not such arguments are realistic, it is extremely implausible to paint the protestors as racist proponents of segregation in the name of God – as opposed to a community that views itself embattled in the face of an anti-religious High Court seeking to destroy their way of life.

I understand that this is not the main point of the article, and that it merely makes a point about Orthodox vs. Heterodox theology. And I agree that segregation did take place at the school in Emmanuel, and that these protestors were enormously misinformed (as were their leaders). But to paint them as willing segregationists is slander, plain and simple. I await Mr. Kirsch’s corrections.

Paul says:

It is sad when arrogance replaces awe. It is equally disheartening whether this is by those who feel certainty that their actions and attitudes define and control the eternal or those who cannot accept and embrace the relationship that the eternal has blessed upon our people.

Kurt says:

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes . . ., Proverbs 12:15
The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” Psalm 14:1

What can you say to these people? G-d has chosen to reveal himself and his personality through the divine words of the Torah and the Prophets. Because some chose to believe they are wiser than G-d and have decided he does not exist or that G-d does not have a clue who G-d is, and with their finite minds they are much wiser-i.e. arrogent, does not make G-d nonexistent or not knowable as to what he has chosen to reveal about himself to us mortals. When your journey in this life ends and you come face to face with G-d, you can then explain to him he does not exist or if he does exist he does not matter much. If you do not trust in the G-d of the Torah and Prophets, what false god then are you going to call on in your time of need? If you don’t believe in G-d, try taking a breath without him. As humans we cannot add one second to the time G-d has given us on earth, yet these people suggest we don’t need the one who gave us the breath of life?

Why do the nations rage, And the people plot a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves,and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us break Their bonds in pieces And cast away their cords from us.” He who sits in heaven shall laugh; The Lord shall hold them in derision. Psalm 2:1-4.

In case you were wondering, I don’t think G-d cares if people think he does not exist or is impotent-except that it probably makes him sad at the outright rebellion. What people subjectively think does not change the truth, of which the Torah and the Prophets spoke.

Larry says:

Blah blah blah….blah blah blah: and the Oththodox will continue their time-tested march through history whether that group be one million or 10 million.
As Faulkner wrote about “negroes”: they endure.

Tsadok says:

From this article, it appears the rest of Liberal Judaism is catching-up with the Reconstructionalist movement, an ultimately unsatisfying path as it takes the religion out of Judaism, leaving only a people with a common heritage. If this is the atheology presented by the leaders of Liberal Judaism, the movements will continue to lose members to assimilation. Like Rabbi Arthur Green’s “Radical Judaism”, these views are far from radical. Radicalism in the 21st Century is an engagement with G!d, especially since G!d may feel so far away, especially since one does and does not believe in Him.

JCarpenter says:

A modern theologian? I’m surprised Abraham Joshua Heschel was not given mention.

djf says:

Eliezer says: “Since slavish devotion at all costs – even at the cost of basic human morality and decency – to the existence of the Zionist state has replaced God as the religious focus of most Jews, what difference does it make anymore?”

In my experience, most American Jews are slavishly devoted to leftist political ideology and the Democratic party. And, yes, this is at the cost of basic human morality and decency.

The State of Israel is nothing special, and frequently makes mistakes for which it deserves to be criticized, but I don’t see how supporting its existence, or defending it from those trying to destroy it, is inconsistent with “basic human morality and decency.” By the way, I haven’t noticed much of the latter two qualities among Israel’s enemies.

Michael says:

What makes me laugh and cry and want to scream, all at the same time, is this reality: That with only, what 12-13 million Jews on the planet?, we spend so much time raging about what divides us, rather than celebrating what unites us. Hey, we are all Jews, no? So can’t we all get along a bit?

Chris "Kalevi" says:

I don’t get it. Why be a rabbi and call yourself a spiritual leader if you don’t believe in your religion and it’s Scriptural claims? I’m by no means saying leave Judaism or quit practicing. But do you really think watering down your religion is going to make it relevant? Why pass on your own insecurities to the next generation? But at least you’re honest in saying that you reject the Jewish G-d of the Bible. But why? I just doon’t undertand. I’m not Orthodox, but I still want Judaism with G-d. I still want to read Tanakh and be inspired not just by our actions, but as a connection with the Divine. I think that there are more liberally observant people who would like to as well. I think that most liberal rabbis are out of touch. That’s why when Conservative or Reform rabbis over the years have debated Christians or taught on Pesach (like Wolpe) and denied the validity of Torah that they claim to be a teacher of, many of their congregation as liberal as they might be get upset. A lot of us want liberal religion, but we want G-d too. Many of us who are not observant do actually believe in the Exodus and we believe in Journey of Abraham and the continuing conversation with G-d. This is not radical to say that you don’t believe in your Scripture. It is idiotic that you declare yourself a teacher of people and a spiritual leader when you don’t even believe in your own religion. If you want to continually Reform the religion, by all means go ahead, but quit acting as if this is going to keep you relevant. This is why many people who are not Orthodox or observant send their children to Orthodox day schools, because whether or not their children are particularly observant, like the immigrants on the Lower East Side at the turn of the last century, we are going to know the basics about our language, culture, and be somewhat conversant in our Holy Texts so that at least we can have a prisim through which we can view the world, even if we reject the observance of those things.

Stephen T.eadow says:


Gavolt geschrigen; geschrfiegen gavolt!R. Rose does not understand the concept of “chosen” and seems to follow the interpretation of the anti-Semites that the Jews are claiming some kind of superiority. The concept comes from pre-Biblical religious ritual, the religion superseded by the Hebrew Scriptures. The meaning is found in the story of Saul, 1 Samuel 10:19 seq. There, Saul having been chosen, seeks to run away from the honor and is found “hiding among the gear” in the Temple storeroom. From scholarship on ancient myth and religion, we know that ritual participants were in the role of gods (or the particular god was made manifest in the role player). Accordingly, when the Biblical authors spoke of the Jews being “chosen” they meant that the Jews had been selected to represent and proselytize for the new god introduced at the Burning Bush. Whether this was an honor or not is yet to be deterined. Saul wasn’t altogether meshugah when he ran away.

Bennett Muraskin says:

If God is not a supernatural entity who has the power to intervene in human affairs, then what is the point of prayer? The Khumash and the Siddur both assume the existence of such a God. Those Jews who no longer believe in this concept of God–what exactly are they praying to? There are better alternatives.

Modern scholarship has disproved the historical basis for the Khumash. There was no Abraham, no Moses, no conquest of Canaan. And maybe that is a good thing too, because the morality of the Khumash is tribal, warlike and hopelessly authoritarian (those first born Egyptian boys, did they deserve to die?, do we as victims of genocide, want to celebrate the conquest of Canaan?) So why do liberal Jews still insist on giving the Khumash center stage in shul? “Tradition” not a sufficient reason if the “tradition” is offensive.

Liberal Jews should have the courage of their convictions. The texts they read in shul should match their beliefs, not the other way around.

There are humanistic books of the Bible—Ruth, Jonah, Job, Song of Songs. There are existential passages in the Bible–Ecclesiastes, certain Proverbs. There is a book of the Bible that questions the Chosen People concept—Amos. And more that challenge God’s unjust conduct and decrees—Job, Habakkuk, Abraham trying to save the innocent people in Sodom and Gemorrah from destruction, Moses arguing with God to stop him from annihilating all the Israelites.

Why not give most of the Khumash and the entire Siddur a rest and them a spin? And move on from there to reading Pirkey Avot and the many humanist stories from agada and midrash? And there is much to inspire us from selected Hasidic folktales and stories and poetry from modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature. (Itsik Manger, Abraham Slonsky, Peretz, Bialik, Grade anyone???)

Think outside the orthodox box! If they believe that stuff, let them keep it. Liberal Jews need to expand our Jewish horizons to keep our Judaism relevant.

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Unorthodox Theology

An anthology of liberal Jewish thought evinces a deep unease with traditional conceptions of God

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