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Raising The Game

Is this the best we can do?
Is this the best we can do?

Come on people. We can do better this. The standard of debate and understanding in the British Jewish community is pathetically low. Both amongst advocates and critics, the level of discussion seems to be that of a Barmitzvah student at best. Rabbis and other Jewish professionals promote simplistic Judaism, and disillusioned Jews reject it, thinking there is no more to Judaism than cheap platitudes and trite conservatism. The following is an attempt to think about how we might begin to raise the game, exploring 4 areas in which common thinking is shallow, and suggesting ways in which it might be elevated.

Obviously this is non exhaustive, so please add suggestions!

1) Bible Criticism. The United Synagogue establishment (still disastrously powerful due to ownership of buildings burial grounds etc.) has made denial of biblical criticism the credo of orthodoxy, thereby cementing stupidity at the heart of Jewish understanding. If you’re a US rabbi who says that the Torah has a history? You’re gonna get sacked. A student at the Jewish studies department of JFS who asks a question about Wellhausen? Get out, child. I blame the Hertz chumash. A long outdated, defensive, non-intellectual mess that fried the brains of generations of young Jews who never got to read any decent Jewish literature. And what of the non-orthodox movements? You’d think they’d be great on this stuff, but amazingly they keep very quiet about it, preferring to play safe, sticking to talking about Israel and the Holocaust. If it does arise, it’ll be on the lines of well, any stuff that seems to contradict our bourgeois values, its not really true, that stuff wasn’t divinely inspired. Even the Masorti movement, for God’s sake, founded of this issue during the Jacobs affair, prefers to play these ideas down, as if they are too subversive for the masses. Why does no-one give serious discussions of J, E, P and D, Babylonian creation myths, the Code of Hammurabi, and the theology of the redactors? Where are the explorations of how a sacred text is shaped by having sewn together warring sources, on why one would invent a myth of ancestor slavery, on the meaning of narratives about the conquest of the land of Canaan that probably never occurred.  The proponents of the ‘God wrote it all now shut up’ approach think they are keeping people Jewish but in fact they do the opposite, encouraging Jews to walk away from a tradition that is in denial of objective history and sticking its head in the sand.


Elliot Freedman Who Wrote the Bible
Etz Chayyim Torah and Commentary
James Kugel How to Read the Bible
Louis Jacobs We Have Reason to Believe

2) Gender and Sexuality. Let’s puts this very simply. Any Judaism that does not promote full gender equality and the equality of homosexual and heterosexual relationships is complete bollocks. If there was a guy in your office who said that while gays should be tolerated, they’re fundamentally wrong, he’d be a social pariah. In Anglo Jewry, that guy would probably be the Rabbi.  Equality of gender and sexual orientation is the unambiguous reality of western society; if Judaism is not operating within these norms it becomes a site of nostalgia, a respite from reality. This is not where a cutting edge, relevant, intellectually compelling culture would want to position itself. A Judaism that is at odds with the social values that the vast majority of us hold gives us the message that that Judaism is not to be taken seriously; it is something to be indulged, to be patted on the head, to be given a loving, chicken soup drenched funeral, not something to be actually lived. And what’s more, the arguments aren’t that hard to make. The halachic case for women’s equal participation in ritual has been successfully made, and while the case for rereading the Torah’s prohibitions of homosexual acts is more recent, it’s no less compelling. Furthermore, in American Jewry we have a model where this is largely the norm, where these inclusion issues have largely been dealt with, and we can get on to deeper matters. Lets not fall behind the times.

Judith Plaskow  Standing Again at Sinai
Rachel Adler Engendering Judaism
Steve Greenberg Wrestling with God and Men
Rabbi Gordon Tucker’s Responsa on Gay Rights here
Judith Hauptman’s halachic case for women leading services here
Israeli Masorti movement’s responsa on aliyot for women here

3) Theologies. The Jewish theology that is promoted by many orthodox rabbis, and that so many people cannot bring themselves to believe in is frequently simplistic, unsophisticated and crude. Demanding loyalty to anthropomorphism, facile notions of chosenness, avoiding serious solutions to the problem of evil, and making outrageous theological claims about the birth and existence of the state of Israel. Is anyone with any kind of intellectual sophistication supposed to buy this stuff? Or is it preferred that awkward thinking types cease to engage in theological discussion and focus purely on ‘heritage’. Once again, non-orthodox rabbis are not much better. While not holding these views, they are weak at promoting serious alternative approaches, fearing that these would be too challenging for their congregants. For starters, why is their so little discussion of Maimonidean hyper philosophical rationalism, outlined in the Guide for the Perplexed? Where are the discussions of Spinozan religious naturalism? Where are the examinations of the theologies of French thinkers like Levinas, Blanchot, Jabes and Derrida? What about Pantheism, Panentheism, Jewish Renewal’s 4 worlds Judaism and Zalman Shachter Shalomi’s ‘Paradigm Shift?’ Perhaps most importantly, why is there so little knowledge of Mordechai Kaplan and Reconstructionism, the naturalistic non-theistic approach that provides a coherent intellectual approach that most Jews could honestly sign up to. Keep your head down and just believe in the unbelievable? Sadia Gaon, Maimonides, and ibn Gabirol (to name just a few) would be turning in their graves.

Maimonides Guide for the Perplexed
Marc-Alain Ouaknin The Burnt Book
Dorff and Newman (ed.) Contemporary Jewish Theology: A Reader
Mordechai Kaplan Judaism as a Civilisation
Marcia Falk The Book of Blessings
Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Paradigm Shift

4) The expanse and scope of Judaism. This is a large subject, and we’ll just touch on it here. The sense given by many teachers of Judaism (where rabbis or in the bizarre class of ‘informal educators’) is that Judaism is essentially a small thing. It is local, tribal parochial, concerned with its own survival, and concerned with the well being of its people. But at its best Judaism stretches far wider, with concern for all, and with ambition to transform the world. This is a place where the boundaries of the traditions are not policed, where other traditions are drawn freely upon, where focus is on the search for meaning rather than survival for its own sake. If we don’t at least touch upon these areas it is difficult to see what Judaism is for, what lies behind the barrage of rituals, what higher purposes are at work. The texts are there, its time open the libraries, and with them the gates of a wider and greater Torah.

Emanuel Levinas 9 Talmudic Readings
Nachman of Bratslav Likutei Mohoran (good bilingual editions from
Gershon Winkler The Path of the Boundary Crosser
Gershom Scholem The Messianic Idea in Judaism
Douglas Rushkoff Nothing Sacred
Asher Biemann (ed.) The Martin Buber Reader
Arthur Green Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow

And much more…

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5 thoughts on “Raising The Game”

  1. Dear Baruch Trotsky,

    You’ve nailed it with these four issues. Although I’d add a few personal thoughts… Under the point about the expanse and scope of Judaism I’d probably put the fact that Jewish institutions seem to have been stuck on Israel and the Holocaust/Anti-semitism forever – the article about the JC just becomes another case in point. It’s as if people with responsibility for the community at large are scared of facing the wider community and talking about ‘harder’ (by which I mean personally-affecting) questions. Both Israel and Anti-semitism reflect ‘the other’ in how they personally impinge upon us, even though they are both meaningful. Where as asking questions and debating jewish attitudes and communal ommissions for example to enivronmental concerns, gender issues, modern halachah in our lives or its lack relevance, post-modern theology and many other things you mention above. So much money is thrown at ‘Young People’, but what leaders fail to realise is that young people are choosing to opt-out, choosing to focus on what they see as honest and meaningful to their lives. A lack of self-criticism within many Jewish Institutions leads to their irrelevance for those who have grown up and studied within the wider post-modern society.

    Thank you for your discussion and this most useful of reading lists, i’m sure it will come in handy over time. I too agree that seriously open learning is hard to find in the UK, but thank God for a few open-minded and intellectual places out there – thanks to the Open Talmud Project people for a superb 4 days of studying this summer.

    To whomever is reading this, I send blessings for your own personal journey.

  2. Ericthehalfajew

    Okay Mr Trotsky, I started writing a response but then couldn’t be bothered. But I think I will. I think your intention is worthy, but your conclusions are dubious. For 2 reasons: 1) you suggest a whole load of reading material that is of very limited value if you do not already have a firm grounding in the classical Jewish sources. Maimonides, Levinas, Scholem, Buber, Nachman of Bratslav – all of these are works written on the basis of an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Jewish sources and, while you might learn a lot about the author, you won’t necessarily learn a great deal about Judaism.

    This relates to a bigger point, which is that what you are proposing is essentially a lazy person’s Judaism or, dare I say it, a very Westernised form of Judaism where basically what you need to do is read some academic works to gain an understanding of what is an ancient tradition based on very premises very different from those we are used to. Your point regarding opening up the Jewish canon is absolutely spot on (not massively radical, I might suggest), but what would be a much more important project would be for Jews to actually spend time grappling with the complexities and intricacies of the Jewish tradition. So I would add to your list – ooh, I don’t know, the Mishna, Gemara, Rashi, Mishneh Torah, Shulchan Aruch?? Plus hundreds of other texts that most progressive Jews can’t be bothered with. Then people might actually discover something of the depth, complexity and multi-faceted nature of the Jewish intellectual and ethical tradition. Admittedly this is much harder work and takes a lot longer than reading a Martin Buber reader, but you would learn a lot more about Judaism than you would simply by reading Art Green or Eliott Freedman (not to mention Spinoza or Derrida).

  3. I agree that Jews ought to devote serious time to studying the Mishna, Gemara, Rashi, Mishneh Torah, Shulchan Aruch. I’m totally with you there. I just don’t think that writers like Levinas, Scholem and Buber are worthless without such prior study, and do teach you about Judaism. And surely if people were to engage with these fabulous modern texts they might be inspired to tackle the more challenging, classical ones that you propose.

  4. Ericthehalfajew

    Yeah, they might be. I didn’t say they’re worthless, I just said I don’t think you learn so much about Judaism from them. Plus people might be inspired to tackle classical texts by reading Buber, but in my experience they are usually not, unless they are doing so in a very specific context. It’s just too much effort.

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