Barry L. Schwartz
Rabbi, Author, Teacher

The Case for Open Judaism

The Open Judaism Blogs (#1)

Are you a believer? An atheist? An Agnostic? None of the above? All of the above?

What is your place in the Jewniverse- the big wide world of Jewish thought?

And what does it matter?

Are you concerned about the so-called culture wars? The growing divide between religious and secular here in America?  And in Israel?

Do you worry about the legions of so-called “nones”- Jews of no religion? Those who are opting out and not passing on Judaism to the next generation? Those throwing the baby out with the bathwater because they believe Judaism to be archaic or irrelevant?

Welcome to Open Judaism, which is both an idea and the title of my new book: Open Judaism: A Guide for Believers, Atheists, and Agnostics (JPS, 2023).

Open Judaism is a big-tent welcome not only to all Jews but to all forms of contemporary Judaism.

 Open Judaism is at once an invitation to the spiritually seeking Jew, a clarion call for a deeply pluralistic Judaism and a comprehensive yet accessible survey of comparative Jewish thought.

Open Judaism honors and respects traditional, humanistic, and liberal Jewish views. In the book we examine nine major categories of Jewish thought: God, Soul, Torah, Halakhah, Jewish Identity, Inclusion, Israel, Ethics, and Prayer. In the process the foundations of denominational Judaism- Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Humanistic Judaism are revealed.

 Open Judaism is dedicated to the proposition that every Jew has the right and responsibility to find their place in the Jewniverse of modern Jewish thought.

Open Judaism contends that we all live in the nexus of two great philosophical traditions, Athens (reason) and Jerusalem (revelation), and that the search for a synthesis is alive and well and necessary.

Open Judaism eschews the binary religious/secular or conservative/liberal world view and proposes a third way that welcomes both the discipline of faith and the autonomy of reason.

In this troubled era of the so-called “culture wars,” I believe we need this synthesis more than ever.

Distinguishing between two ethical views behind the culture wars, distinguished columnist David Brooks calls the first the “moral freedom ethos,” which emerges from Athens and “puts tremendous emphasis on individual conscience and freedom of choice.” The second, which he terms the “you are not your own” ethos, emerges from Jerusalem and posits that “ultimate authority is outside the self…with emphasis on obedience, dependence, deference, and supplication.” I call this the “moral obedience ethos.”

Brooks urges us to appreciate that both the moral freedom ethos of liberals and the moral obedience ethos of conservatives contribute to the good society. Indeed, he says, both help correct the weaknesses of the other. The moral freedom ethos can devolve into what the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls “emotivism”: “what is morally right is what feels right to me.” It can fray the shared moral order we as a society need to preserve. On the other hand, the moral obedience ethos “can lead to rigid moral codes that people with power use to justify systems of oppression. This leads to a lot of othering—people not in our moral order are inferior and can be conquered and oppressed.”

Deeming both views “legitimate moral traditions,” Brooks observes: “The essence of good citizenship in a democratic society is to spend time with those who disagree with you so can understand their best arguments.”

In like vein, I believe we as Jews should not overlook the contribution of traditional faith to our society (and to ourselves). At the same time, we should not overlook the contribution of humanism, especially as it has dramatically expanded the inclusion of marginalized groups in our society. In short, we need both Athens and Jerusalem, and all that flows from the twin pillars of moral freedom and moral obedience.

As good citizens and as thoughtful Jews, can we examine and challenge our own predilections and backgrounds, and stand open both to the grounding of faith and the challenge of reason?

I believe that many Jews today want to embrace Judaism with their heart, but also with their head. They want to affirm a Judaism that offers spiritual connection while embracing equality, diversity, inclusion, and new ideas and approaches to God, Torah, and the people of Israel. They want faith, but with room for doubt and growth.

Open Judaism is about empowerment through informed decision making that affirms that we are part of the ever-evolving, ever-dynamic majesty of Judaism.

About the Author
Barry L. Schwartz is director emeritus of The Jewish Publication Society, rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, New Jersey, and author, most recently, of Open Judaism: A Guide for Believers, Atheists, and Agnostics (JPS, 2023).
Related Topics
Related Posts