by Randi Rashkover

Is there such a thing as Jewish theology? Frequently the claim is made that, unlike Christianity, Judaism is a tradition of deeds and maintains no strict theological tradition. Judaism's fundamental beliefs are inextricable from their halakhic observance (that set of laws revealed to Jews by God), embedded and presupposed by that way of life as it is lived and learned. But if this is so, what happens when the way of life is no longer practiced? It would seem to follow that the belief system would lose its life-world and its meaning.

I believe the above scenario provides an apt description of the situation of non-Orthodox Jews in the modern world as we know it in the West. From its beginnings, the modern period has challenged Jews to live less religiously observant or halakhically rigorous lives. Initially prompted by their desire to secure and maintain emancipation, Jews began to rewrite their prayers, sit men and women side by side in synagogue, grow familiar with the customs and cultures of other peoples. With the passage of time, many Jews continued this departure from a strict halakhic life, but now not only to secure their political status, but because they disagreed with much of what their grandparents accepted as truth and felt more comfortable with new ways. Liberal Jews began to use electricity on Shabbas, eat non-kosher food outside the home, ordain women as rabbis.

The purpose of this essay is not to judge the warrant for these changes. Rather, it is to acknowledge the situation that most contemporary, liberal Jews face because of them. The more Jews alter the halakhic system, the more they dismantle the theological beliefs embedded within it. Simply put, without the halakhic system, Jews lose their point of entry to understanding the Jewish God. Modern, liberal Jewry is, I believe, experiencing a theological crisis.

By claiming that modern, liberal Jewry is experiencing a theological crisis, I am not suggesting that only a return to a halakhic lifestyle can refamiliarize Jews with the Jewish God. What I am suggesting is that liberal Jews need new ways to learn and think about Judaism's position on God, revelation, election, free will, sin, the afterlife, and many other topics. Without new avenues of theological work, liberal Jews will remain committed to Judaism, but for cultural and political reasons only. They will lose the sense of Judaism as a fundamentally theological tradition.

Feminist scholars have often voiced this very same critique. For them, the problem appears when liberal Jewish denominations vacillate back and forth with respect to their willingness to meet feminist challenges. Feminists identify this vacillation as a product of theological disorientation. The liberal denominations do not know where they stand on the issues of God, law, revelation, autonomy, etc. Consequently, while their efforts to accommodate Jewish feminists reflect the best intentions, they are ultimately groundless and inconsistent. Susannah Heschel voices this critique as a more general criticism in her On Being a Jewish Feminist (Schocken Books, 1995) where she says, "It is not feminism which poses the threat to Judaism, but the denominations' own inability to come to terms with the challenges posed by modernity; the threat lies in their own inability to develop constructive theological positions which can respond to modernity's challenges -- including feminism" (xlix).

New work in Jewish theology cannot be expected to provide definite answers. Rather, new Jewish theological work must be exploratory. The greatest loss in contemporary Judaism is the inability to recogn