One of the few things I have been enjoying about moving house is the excitement I feel when I rediscover something I already own. It’s better than buying something new because I already know I like it. It’s especially nice when I have forgotten that I owned it, and even better if it’s a book that I liked when I read it, and actually need now. The other day I was talking to a young man who is interested in Judaism, not (I think) to convert, at least not yet, but to begin to understand some of the theological and philosophical issues that he is grappling with in his life. I have a number of books I recommend to people who are interested in Judaism, but none of them seemed to suit his needs. And then, on a pile of unsorted books, I saw Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew by Rabbi Neil Gillman. The book dates from 1989, but it deals with universal and perhaps eternal concerns. A few chapter titles give a sense of what it is about: “Revelation: What Really Happened?”; “Religious Authority: Who Commands?”; “Encountering God: Existentialism”; “Suﬀering: Why does God Allow It?” These are all issues that have continued to be important despite the passage of thirty years.
In his introduction, Gillman describes his intellectual history and his relationship to Jewish theology. He was raised in French Canada in a nominally Jewish household, and discovered, in his undergraduate experience in the early 1950’s, the excitement of philosophy and literature. Jewish life seemed an irrelevant intellectual anachronism. And then he went to a lecture by a very inﬂuential (though now largely ignored) Jewish philosopher named Will Herberg, who himself had found his way back to Judaism only a few years before. Herberg’s book Judaism and Modern Man (1951) was a personal reworking of Jewish philosophical thought in terms of the existentialism of Buber and Rosenzweig, two important pioneers of Jewish philosophy. Herberg’s book connected Jewish philosophy with all forms of serious thought: Kierkegaard, Tillich, Sartre, and their predecessors, Plato and Aristotle, David Hume and John Locke. Heady stuﬀ. And through Herberg, the Bible came alive for Gillman, who went on to study with Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Gillman says that the issue of the legitimate role of theology and philosophy in Judaism was brought forward by Kaplan, who used to teach that there are three possible ways of identifying with a religious community: by behaving, by believing, or by belonging. For Kaplan, the primary form of Jewish identiﬁcation is belonging – the sense of kinship that binds Jews together across geographical and temporal boundaries. This was controversial, and I’m not certain that I fully agree with it either. But it was particularly galling for traditional Jews, for whom “behaving” is primary, and determined fully by Talmudic and halakhic literature. Mere “belonging” is, they would argue, simply emotional attachment with neither demands nor commitment.
This of course misses the third criterion, believing. Believing has not generally been the primary way Jews identify, despite the eﬀorts of Maimonides to create a criterion of belief based on his Thirteen Principles of Faith, which he insisted comprise the minimal belief system that every Jew must adhere to. But as much as Maimonides is respected in both traditional and non-traditional Jewish circles, generally speaking, Jews don’t debate belief, they debate practice and authority, in the context of Jewish law. Jewish beliefs about the nature of God, for example, have long been diverse, and even the Hebrew Bible alone demonstrates signiﬁcant changes in the nature of the God who is at the centre of the story.
And, as Gillman points out, where the Roman Catholic Mass has a section called the “Credo,” meaning, “I believe,” there is no parallel statement of belief for the Jew. To be honest, most of us don’t give much thought to what we might believe about God. “Of course we believe in God!” we generally say. And then we talk about which of the Chanukah candles should be lit ﬁrst.
But it is not true that Jews don’t have theology, it’s that it is generally expressed as a verb rather than a noun. It is not an accident that the principal Jewish concern is “halakha,” the Way, not “Da’at,” the belief. And this is an important challenge to progressive Judaism, which has largely moved away from speciﬁc Jewish practice toward a deﬁnition of Jewish identity based on belonging.
Gillman notes that the attempt to create a contemporary philosophy of Judaism will be controversial, and is doomed to be unsatisfactory. But to me that is not necessarily a bad thing. Speaking for myself, I’m more comfortable with interesting questions than persuasive answers.
Rabbi Gershon Silins