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 A long outdated, defensive, non-intellectual mess that fried the brains of generations of young Jews who never got to read any decent Jewish literature.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 breslov.org)
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…