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Neil Gillman on Jewish theology (part 1/?)

Remember that contemporary theology books meme that was making the rounds of the religious blogosphere a while back? Were I doing that meme now, there's another book I would plug -- Neil Gillman's Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew. I've been assigned the task of reading sections from Rabbi Gillman's book for a forthcoming theodicy class, so this afternoon I donned a baseball cap and pulled up a big purple Adirondack chair and sat in the sun on our deck reading and underlining.

There's a lot of really good stuff here -- and I've only read a small handful of chapters so far. In this post I want to highlight some of the issues raised in the book's introduction; if there's interest, maybe I'll post more about other parts of the book later on.

One of the first ideas that caught my eye is Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan's formulation that we identify with the Jewish community by behaving, by believing, or by belonging. Kaplan's work focused on belonging, whereas more traditionalist critics insisted that behaving was primary. "What is particularly striking about the dispute is the absence of any prominent modern thinker who is willing to make the case for the primacy of believing," Gillman notes.

Historically, the enterprise of systematizing Jewish belief has been somewhat alien to Judaism, and the thinkers who did engage in this work did so in a language other than Hebrew. (Even Maimonides wrote most of his work in Arabic, Mishneh Torah notwithstanding.) "[W]hereas the Jewish legal tradition -- not surprisingly for a system of law -- exhibited a great deal of inner consistency and coherence, Jewish theological positions have been wide-ranging and diverse." In other words, we're great at expounding upon the commandments, but not so hot at outlining belief. Maybe precisely because Christianity makes belief so foundational (think "credo"), Judaism explicitly doesn't, or hasn't.

Contemporary Jewish philosophers and theologians, he writes, continue in the footsteps of our predecessors. We write in the vernacular, with an eye on contemporary thought and culture.

We too write for the Jew who is not 'at home' with his Jewishness, who feels the attraction of other theological options, who cherishes the freedom and individualism that are the hallmarks of modernity, or who is overwhelmed by the Holocaust...We write in order to tell these Jews that it is totally legitimate to them to hope that their children can embrace the best of the surrounding culture, and yet remain caring, committed, serious, and learning Jews. In fact, we try to provide a model for how this subtle and complex synthesis can be achieved.

There's inevitably a question of how much stretching the tradition can take while remaining recognizably Jewish. (Hi, Jewish Renewal rabbinic student over here -- that's obviously a central question for me.) "Ironically," he notes, "our work is almost doomed to be unsatisfactory -- not radical enough for the modernist who would insist that only a major transformation of the categories of Jewish thought can account for our experience, and inauthentic to the traditionalist who wonders why any change is necessary in the first place!"

Toward the end of the introduction, Gillman does something really beautiful with text and metaphor. He explores a traditional rabbinic homily on Deuteronomy 10:1-2, "Thereupon the Lord said to me [Moses], 'Carve out two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me on the mountain; and make an ark of wood. I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the ark." In the Talmud, tractate Bava Batra 14b, the rabbis read the last two phrases of the passage very carefully, and argue that the referent for the word "them" is not the new set of tablets but rather the broken shards of the old. The old fragments couldn't be restored, but they were still holy, and still very much worth holding on to.

"For many of us," Gillman writes, "the traditional set of images that characterized Judaism from antiquity on has been irreparably shattered... In this situation, we too have to carve out our own new set of tablets. But we also know that we can never discard the fragments of the old, however inadequate they may seem to us." In this, I hear an echo of Reb Zalman's teaching that in creating a renewed Judaism for future generations, we must take care to make something which has "backward compatibility" with old versions of Judaim's "operating software" -- to strike the right balance between honoring the old and forging the new.

(On a related note, PBS has published a terrific excerpt from an interview with Rabbi Gillman about Jewish Renewal, here. "By and large," he says, "this movement has brought Jews into Judaism [who] would otherwise never find their way here, and I think it's important to recognize that and credit the movement for having done that...")

I'm still assimilating the chapter on suffering (the primary assignment for the theodicy class, as you might imagine), but hope to post about it at some point. Meanwhile, I wanted to give this book a resounding thumbs-up. If you're feeling a dearth of contemporary Jewish theological voices, this book is a great place to start.

Relatedly -- the Forward published a piece recently called Where have all the theologians gone?, which sparked a small flurry of posts in the J-blogosphere. The author, Elliott Cosgrove, makes the fascinating point that "We are so focused on Israel, antisemitism and intermarriage that we have come to ignore the linchpin for all discussions on Jewish continuity — namely, a compelling case for Jewish belief." Of the responses I've seen, my favorite is Daniel Septimus' The Future (or Death) of Jewish Theology, wherein he notes that "Theology isn't really about belief -- that's dogma; theology is about narrative, the stories that articulate our religious visions and values." Good stuff.

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