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Is There Still One Jewish Theology?

Is There Still One Jewish Theology?

By Anita Silvert for JUF News

ONE WOULD THINK the only opportunity to spend six hours thinking about God would be Yom Kippur. But 250 people gathered at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies to do just that. They were attending the second collaboration between the University of Chicago Center for Jewish Studies and Spertus entitled, The State of American Jewish Belief Revisited: At the Edge of a Crisis or at a New Threshold? Speaking on the topic were five distinguished scholars of Jewish theology, representing a wide range of responses to this particular moment in Jewish life.

Opening remarks were made by Hal Lewis, President of Spertus, and Josef Stern and Paul Mendes-Flohr, both of the University of Chicago. Dr. Mendes-Flohr said the topic was chosen to address a series of recent articles sounding alarms about the decreasing synagogue memberships and affiliations across much of the denominational spectrum.

The first papers were offered by Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rachel Adler, professor of modern Jewish Thought and Judaism and Gender at Hebrew Union College, and Arthur Green, rector of the Rabbinical school at Hebrew College.

One of the points Dr. Eisen made was that people tend to think of Jewish theology as what happened to Moses up on Mt. Sinai, but there is "theology in Leviticus" - the theology of day-to-day life. Eisen continued that one of the challenges facing the community in discussing Jewish theology is that the topic has long been reserved for an elite circle of theologians and the ideas need to be transmitted beyond that circle. Another challenge is that Jews are more comfortable with universalistic language, rather than the particularistic; discussion of theology needs both.

Dr. Adler continued with reasons why the general public had trouble discussing theological concepts, including the need for more accessible language. She outlined societal challenges: increased obsession with "things," decrease in time to reflect, the rise of the "sovereign self" (rampant individualism and self-absorption), the decrease of a sense of duty to anything but oneself and finally, the lack of quality Jewish educators to tackle these complex ideas. Dr. Adler also spoke of the metaphor trap. We need metaphors to access God emotionally, but metaphors like "Father" or "King" can get frozen, at which point they are no longer metaphors, but have become permanent images.

Taking the conversation back to the individual, Rabbi Green pointed out that Jewish theology is an art, not a science. Judaism is a "quest-based religion," allowing the individual to seek God through an inner journey. Judaism is not the only language for this quest, but it is ours. We share that language through our text; Judaism is God is linked to the Jewish people through the love of text. Green pointed out that after the Holocaust, theologians fell silent. There were no words to address the idea of God, and that it shows a level of healing within the community that the discussion has started up again. The gap, he said, was filled by artists, poets, [and] musicians. Green also spoke about the return to Jewish mystical tradition, reclaiming what was pushed aside as "non-mainstream." Over the last generation, as more people have been looking for an alternative to secular, Western culture, the personal spiritual language of mystical Judaism allows one to be present to the reality of God.

After a short break, the discussion resumed with Rabbi Saul Berman, Yeshiva University. Rabbi Berman is a halachic scholar, a legalist. Berman identified some serious uses coming from within the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community currently being tolerated by the rest of Orthodox Judaism. He outlined the idea of an ethical, moral realm of discretion that resides between the fundamental thought of Judaism, and the law itself, which is a system that requires particular actions. The problem, Berman said, is that rather than authority residing in the process of legal reasoning and the character of the mandated halachic act, the measure of holiness has shifted to absolute obedience to self-proclaimed authorities.

This causes a theological problem; by making everything holy by virtue of obedience, the individual is deprived of the opportunity to choose holiness. Popular ultra-Orthodox theology placed higher value on authoritarianism, and devalues human reason and personal autonomy, which are tradition cornerstones of Jewish theology. Divisions within the Orthodox community are hardening, and with the increasing authoritarianism, it's causing even further alienation from the rest of the Jewish community. Any common vocabulary for theological discussion is getting harder to find.

Bringing a different voice into the discussion was anthropologist and professor of American Studies, Dr. Riv-Ellen Prell, from University of Minnesota. She noted that in the past, periods of reawakening in Jewish life were accompanied by nonlinear, sometimes contradictory trends in thought. This is where we are now. While there is higher tolerance, there is also greater extremism. While the rule of authority itself may be seen as weakening, authoritarianism within smaller groups is rising. Affiliation, identity, and community are all fragmented, but that seems to be indicating that we are in the next great wave of Jewish reawakening.

Many of the speakers voiced a concern that we were approaching the reality of requiring more than one Jewish theology, each speaking to a narrow slice of the community. One theology may not speak across denominations. Perhaps we're splitting into two communities with two theologies, raising the question of whether or not the Jewish people can survive without a common theological vocabulary. What was clear to the panelists, however, was that the conversation itself is inextricable from the future of the American Jewish community. #

Spertus is a partner in serving our community, supported by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook.

Monday, April 2, 2012