A CALL FOR JEWISH THEOLOGY
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