I’m certainly not the only person wondering where Judaism, particularly Liberal Judaism, is headed.
I’d like to call out three sources of conversation, out of many worthwhile ones, that I believe are useful for the sake of our conversation:
- Rabbi Arthur Green and his book, Radical Judaism.
- Rabbi Rami Shapiro and his books and blog.
- A recent discussion in Mosaic Magazine.
Before I discuss these, I’ll ask you to think about what works you have read that take on the themes of this discussion. Are there thinkers that you believe are pioneering new ways of being Jewish? Or arguing convincingly against change? Read on, and comment on what comes to mind.
Green’s Radical Judaism
Radical Judaism is the third book in a series of theological works by Rabbi Arthur Green. Radical Judaism is the systematic presentation of Green’s ideas from all three works. Green calls himself a “mystical panentheist,” a “religious humanist,” and a “secular Zionist.” His systematic approach yields three basic claims:
1) The difficulty in asserting God as a person.
2) The idea that Mitzvot are therefore not commanded, since there is no personal God to command.
3) The idea that Jewish peoplehood must move beyond limitations of ethnicity and nationalism.
For Green, the primary Jewish spiritual task is awareness of our interconnectedness and the responsibilities that flow from such. He structures his work around the traditional Jewish theological categories — God, Torah, Israel. And within each category he applies his three basic convictions to probe the questions, what is God? What is Torah? And what is Israel? All three spheres are considered from the perspective of a non-personal God and a Jewish identity that must go beyond our usual notions.
Central to his work is his “mystical panentheism” that he defines as “this underlying oneness of being [that] is accessible to human experience and reveals itself everywhere and always. Panentheists, as opposed to pantheists, believe in a divine that is more than the sum of its parts. The notion of divine transcendence that stands at the epicenter of biblical monotheism and allows for everything from revelation to divine election (chosenness) is erased.
While this position offers a stumbling block to more traditional Jews, it aligns well with the thinking of many in the Liberal movements. Developing a mature spirituality around such ideas is vital for furthering Liberal Judaism.
In terms of Jewish identity, Green notes that Jews face threats not only via anti-Semitism but also assimilation. Yet he seeks to expand the boundaries of Jewish identity and community. While not a naïve universalist, Green seeks to include in his notion of “Israel” to all those who “wrestle with God and meaning,” He’s reaching for a Judaism that engages the emergence of post-ethnic society where ethnicity no longer plays a central role of Jewish communal identity. HIs work here is incomplete, but he offers a fertile framework for a Post Rabbinic Judaism.
Rami Shapiro’s Judaism Next
Rabbi Rami Shapiro is the author of many books and blogs. A theme that pervades much of his work is his exploration of forms of emerging Judaism – something he sometimes refers to as Judaism Next.
For Shapiro, Judaism has an inherent tendency toward innovation. He cites Jewish Torah scholarship and its reliance on misreading and retelling to advance the Jewish conversation as one of those inherent qualities driving change. A second change driver is the Jewish spiritual notion of Lech Lecha:
The Hebrew lech lecha implies both an outer and an inner journey: lech/walk lecha/toward your self. Those who follow this command are called to free themselves both physically and psychologically from the constraints and conditioning of nationalism, culture, and parental bias. To these I would add all other isms and ideologies—race, creed, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Only when you are free from all these distortions can you see the land God wishes to show you; the land you see when your vision is cleansed from all conditioned thought and feelings. It is only then that you become great and live as a blessing to all the families of the earth. – Shapiro
Shapiro further recognizes that liberal Judaism, often unclear as to its theological positions, took refuge in ethnicity and tribal identity. Today, the Liberal movements find themselves facing a growing post-ethnic and post-tribal population searching for faith rather than folkways, piety not politics, and truth not tribalism. A Reform-Liberal tradition of observance requires further development and work.
A Conversation from Mosaic Magazine
January’s Mosaic Magazine – an online Jewish publication has featured a conversation about Torah and Philosophy. Jewish scholar Jon D. Levenson, offers this insight in his recent article, that touches upon our ongoing discussion.
Should, then, the religion of the Torah, which was expanded into even more detail and institutionalization in the Talmud, be superseded by a religion of spontaneity, general moral principles, and faith like the one that, in Seeskin’s mind, Abraham and Jesus practiced and Paul advocated? Relying again on Maimonides, he answers no, it shouldn’t: “these practices are intended for our sake, not God’s. In political terms, they provide the social glue that brings people together” and enables them “to survive as a people [his emphasis].” On this point, he draws a suggestive contrast between Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher who codified and practiced religious law, and the free-thinking Enlightenment philosopher Kant: “while Maimonides thought religious rituals would always be necessary to hold people together, Kant looked forward to the time when they would wither away and be replaced by moral principles alone.”
This, and the above insights give us food for thought, and help frame the related issues to emerging Judaism.