Theological Method – Jewish Theology Pt. VIII – Last in Series

Theological Method – Jewish Theology Pt. VIII – Last in Series March 8, 2017


From a Jewish perspective, the foundation of spirituality is the human capacity of being called by something beyond ourselves, something that both speaks to our nature and is yet embedded there. In moments of quiet honesty, we find ourselves with a given orientation – and that orientation offers itself up as an approach to our better selves – it is the voice of our own objective nature calling us toward fulfillment. We understand this urging of our own nature as the foundation of morality and religious practice.

Listen! God speaks to us through the world – through the burning bush and the quiet voice on the wind. 

Human fulfillment requires alignment with this “voice” calling out from reality/nature, including our own human nature.The insights for living a meaningful and good life arise from a reasoned, teleological reflection on our own nature and our relationships to others. This vision offers a formal framework within which to conduct our theological and moral reasoning.

The goal of Jewish practice and observance is Shalom – a holistic sense of peace and wholeness. Jewish spiritual practice teaches us to be good listeners – to hear the voice calling us to strive for wholeness and help others obtain the same. By doing so, we heal ourselves and our world and achieve our evolutionary and Torah-based primary directive – thrive and flourish!


The Jewish vision is that it is fundamental to human nature to seek the truth about the world and ourselves, attempting to find meaning in our lives. Genuine spirituality is centered on the truth – not elaborate, ungrounded theology or grand speculation without foundation.

Truth is the adequate correspondence of human judgments to reality itself. Human knowledge is fallible, but generally reliable, and is verified in relation to reality. Reasoned human discourse functions along these lines – when people make claims, they ought to be able to provide some justification for those claims – justification involves offering evidence based in reality – this is how human communities gain wisdom and make progress.

The Jewish search for meaning is approached from the vantage point of spiritual realism. Spiritual realism operates from an epistemological conservatism – humbly seeking to understand reality and trying to offer some explanation for events and circumstances. Jewish history has provided ample experience of tragedy that tempers any inclination to lofty, unjustified saccharine theologies.

Therefore, the spiritually grounded person is the one who listens to and sees reality as it truly is – waking up to the world as it is in itself. (Texts, teachers, and traditions can help us in this task, but these are fingers pointing to the moon, not the moon itself, as a Buddhist saying goes.)

The notion of listening is employed metaphorically – the goal being to strip away the unnecessary filters that block more accurate perceptions of nature, including our own human nature. Awakening to the world as it really is and living accordingly is the heart of Jewish spiritual realism.


We should stand in awe at the splendor of reality. And this awe, if carefully cultivated, reveals more than can be sustained by a mere mechanistic or materialistic vantage point that necessarily ascribes an accidental nature to everything that is.

Within the complex matrix of sufficient reason, causation, emergence, teleological thinking, and the nature of time – we begin to glimpse some sense of the multiple layers of contingency of the universe – contingency on some emergent cause that prompts the original expansion of singularity, the contingency on inherent principles that guide the ordered emergence of matter and energy, and the contingency on the regularity, continued existence, and direction of the unfolding.

Despite the protests of many, the universe appears to have an internal logic that inevitably drives matter from nonliving to living, from simple to complex, from inert to consciousness – in a seemingly clear direction toward life and increasing complexity for the sake of survival. (Protests abound, in part, because science cannot properly detect or evaluate meaning, purpose, or value.)

We may dismiss the above as poetry, but the proper response to some of life’s mysteries are reflection and meditation. Science solves problems. Religion plumbs the depth of mysteries. Wisdom is knowing the difference between a problem and a mystery. Mystery does not cry out for solutions or answers – it finds its resolution in awe and wonder and a willingness to engage its depths.

Jewish tradition understands that the purpose of theology isn’t to intervene in science over questions that science is much better prepared to address, but to relate the material universe studied by science to questions of ultimate concern—of value, meaning and purpose—which science can’t address and are instead the proper sphere of religion.

Cultivating this sense of awe and reverence is the purpose of spirituality in general, and Judaism in particular. Such an enterprise is pivotal in undoing the unfortunate effects of secularization – the tendencies toward nihilism and dehumanization – and provides an Archimedean point from which our culture can be renewed.


Jewish theology is the result of ongoing engagement with its sacred texts – and the primary rule is to always read the texts with an attitude of compassion – looking for mercy in the texts at all times.

The two great literary works of the Jewish people are the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament) and the Talmud. Most people are familiar with the Hebrew Bible, even if they don’t read it. It’s served as a foundational text for Western culture. Its myths and narratives are still invoked. Most Christians read it or have it read to them at least weekly.

The Talmud is less known and less read, even among Jews. Many people assume it’s a large volume of writings. But as my extremely kind friend who recently gave me, and thus carried the texts to my home, will attest – the English translation of the Talmud is 28 volumes, each individual text comprised of a 200-350 pages, or more. It’s massive.

What exactly is the Talmud?

The Talmud is a set of written teachings and commentary, related to the scriptures, and addressing aspects of Jewish law and tradition. The Rabbis began writing it down in the first century CE. And finished writing the initial version about 600 years later.

Each volume deals with general topics in Jewish life and poses questions, offers answers, debates the answers, clarifies scripture, and adds understanding to each issue.

Now, for the part about Jewish logic of mercy. Jews don’t relate to their law the same way as do Christians.  Linear logic is not the logic of the early Jewish Rabbis. Their logic is more circular, organic, more conversational, more dialectical, and more phenomenological – and always an attempt to find mercy in the text.

Each issue in the Talmud begins with a short quote from the Mishnah – a statement of law and/or practice often derived from the Bible. The statement is then debated and commented on – for years, decades, centuries, by multiple authors, calling upon various sources, sometimes quoting teachers long gone and dead, but assuming to know what they would say.

It’s like having Abraham Lincoln engaged in conversation with Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and John Kennedy about the Constitution. Conclusions are few. The conversation is riveting. You learn tons.

But when you’re done, you’re not really done.

There often isn’t a conclusion or definitive answer to the questions raised. First, the intention was that the conversation and debate would go on into the future, so that even Jews today would add their insights, their answers, and their thoughts for the generations to come. Second, it’s not part of Jewish logic that firm answers always exist to complex questions and issues. Some things seem settled and have a strong majority opinion, some issues are grayer, requiring further analysis.

Jewish theology always says – let’s talk – we have time.

Where does all of this get us? Especially in terms of Jewish logic of mercy?

Consider the Biblical commandment to stone a woman found guilty of committing adultery. The scriptures call for the woman to be stoned in front of her father’s house. The command appears in scripture at least twice.

The Rabbis raise the question in the Talmud and then begin applying their logic. What is adultery? How do we find someone guilty? How many witnesses are required? Why stone her in front of her father’s house?

By the time the commentary and analysis is done, it would be nearly impossible to stone any woman for adultery – the bar for conviction, the requirement of witnesses, the urging for mercy, the twists and turns of Jewish logic – always opting for compassion, justice, kindness, and forgiveness. Granted, adultery is never approved of, never condoned, but mercy prevails.

Can such conversation sound legalistic? Sure. Is such conversation motivated by legalism? Not at all. The motivation of even the ancient Rabbis was mercy and love. The entire enterprise of Talmud is one of gentleness and a move toward affirming human dignity.

Talmud, and thus Jewish law, understands that conversation isn’t over. The Talmud isn’t finished. And the logic toward mercy, love, and freedom is still alive and dominant in Jewish theology.

Christians often say that Jews are under the law and that Christianity is about mercy and freedom from the law. Are Jews under the law? Well, it depends on how you define law? And what exactly do you mean by under? And what would Rabbi Akivah say about that? How about Hillel? And here in Torah it says we are all free …

Pull up a chair. Have a glass of wine. This will take some time.

Browse Our Archives