Todd Berman

Losing My Religion – The Need for Modern Theology

In a few days we will commemorate the destruction of the Temple.  Without its light, the Jewish people, in a way, have been stumbling around in the dark lacking a clear vision of God and our role in the Universe.  Without light, it’s hard not to get lost.  The beginning of the long Temple-less experience of the Jewish people actually began to sprout during the days of the Temple itself.

As Rav Kook writes, “at the beginning of the Second Temple, for our sages knew that there is no redemption which is not followed by Diaspora, the sages began to fortify the position of the nation, through the  standing of the Torah.” (Introduction to Ayn Ayah p. 15) According to Rav Kook , the sages secured the continuation of the people of the book by enhancing the structure of Halacha and through the erecting of halachik frameworks. This, argues Rav Kook, is the safety belt of Torah for the long flight towards the last redemption.

Even though legal constructs can secure the plane, they are not the (sole?) engines of redemption. The individual, the nation, and humanity require other powerful forces to bring them to God.  One of these forces is theology. Yet, unlike the question of which labors are prohibited or permitted on the Sabbath, theology can rarely be delineated by specific positivist outlines. Theology must touch the individual and relate to his or her depths of personality.  That which touched Maimonides is not the same as that which spoke to Nachmanides less than a century later. In order to find God, to come close to the Divine, to find some manner of redemption, the individual must seek out a personal understanding.  Yet, therein lies the rub. theological speculation contains an inherent relativist danger.

Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz spelled out this problem in the clearest of terms, “all Jewish philosophies are subjective. They make sense in a certain time, in a certain situation, for a certain people. They are always the words of men not God.” (What is Jewish Philosophy, Tradition, Spring 1961 p. 119.) The role of the philosopher, theologian, or rabbi as communicator of theological meaning is a subjective position. “The very ambition of the thinker to provide a true and convincing philosophy of Judaism makes his work always relative, i.e. temporal, and therefore of only passing validity…Every thinker in the history of Jewish philosophy interpreted Judaism in the categories of thought of his own generation.”

Recently in the Orthodox orbit, the beginnings of rumblings of rabbis wrestling with theology have burst forth. Rabbis Hertzl Hefter and Ysoscher Katz as well as others have offered new ways of reaching God which speak to them and they have written their positions because they think they will speak to others.    Some have challenged the notion of writing modern theology. Personally, I think it is a necessity. As Rabbi Berkovitz expressed above, every generation needs a human path to reaching the Divine.

Unless profound thinkers challenge classical notions and relate to issues such as Divine revelation, the role of women, relations to other religions and other peoples, ethics and religion and science, we as a people are probably lost and we will certainly lose the next generation. Thinkers such as Dr. Tamar Ross, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and the rabbis mentioned above among others have picked up this gauntlet. But we need other profound and thoughtful voices to join the conversation.

Of course, the danger in new theological formulations lies at the heart of the religious experience. On the one hand, Judaism’s powerful draw stems from its connection to tradition. This is as true in the realm of thought as it is in prayer and ritual. Yet, without making the connection personal, we risk losing ourselves in the process.  Someone may be worshiping God, but is it really me?

On the other hand, without some tether chord to tradition and a set of parameters, it is hard to really call a theology Jewish.

The Ba’a Shem Tov, as quoted by Martin Buber, described this paradox, between the personal and the traditional in what, for me, is one of the most stimulating of formulations:

“Why do we say “Our God and the God of our fathers”?

There are two kinds of people who believe in God. One believes because he has taken over the faith of his fathers, and his faith is strong. The other has arrived at faith through thinking and studying. The difference between them is this: The advantage of the first is that no matter what arguments may be brought against it, his faith cannot be shaken; his faith is firm because it was taken over from his fathers.  But there is one flaw in it; he has faith only in response to the command of man, and he has acquired it without studying and thinking for himself.  The advantage of the second is that, because he found God through much thinking, he has arrived at a faith of his own.  But here too there is a flaw: it is easy to shake his faith by refuting it through evidence.  But he who unites both kinds of faith is invincible.  And so we say, “Our God” with reference to our studies, and “God of our fathers” with an eye towards tradition.

The same interpretation has been given to our saying, “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob,” and not “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” for this indicates that Isaac and Jacob did not merely take over the tradition of Abraham; they themselves searched for God.” (Ten Rungs: Hassidic Sayings pp. 13-14)

We must find a nexus between our relationship to God as understood through tradition and as related to us personally.  Rejecting one or the other is doomed either to narcissism or meaninglessness. In this vein, it seems to me, the more attempts with honest struggling with conveying a meaningful picture of God to the next generation the better.  I challenge those who disagree with the attempts so far not to write critiques but to work on solving the issues of our generation.

If we want to rebuild the Temple, and really create, paraphrasing the words of Isaiah, a House of Prayer for all, we must build a modern house on a traditional foundation.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.