Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology

by Michael Fishbane

University of Chicago Press, 246 pages, $30

The word theology means literally God-talk . But since talk about anything”even talk about God”takes place in a particular language at a particular time, how one engages in theology depends on the language being employed. So, if one is speaking in the language of a particular, historically transmitted religious culture, one’s use of the word God will require no introduction. Here one simply uses the word as it has been used. And if one is a skilled interpreter of the foundational texts of the tradition, one will then utter some new insight into the meaning of God in the context of the current existential concerns of the ­community.

We might call this “traditional theology.” It has been done as far back in Jewish history as the midrash of the ancient rabbis. Those midrashic utterances no doubt began as sermons in the synagogue. In fact, any good derashah (sermon), which comes out of a scriptural text (and doesn’t simply use it as a pretext), spoken to traditionally attuned Jews congregated in a synagogue, can still be a manifestation of such traditional Jewish theology, even today. The same could be said, mutatis mutandis, in a Christian or Muslim context. Sermons, as the essential manifestation of a traditional theology, speak out of Scripture and admonish a congregation about what they ought to do in their ongoing relationship with their God.

There are passages in Michael Fishbane’s Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology that have this sermonic quality. Like any good traditional theologian, Fishbane is personally committed to the Scriptures. The God of whom he writes is definitely his God and not just an anonymous character in an ancient epic. Nevertheless, Fishbane knows he is not primarily writing that kind of theology. Instead, he is speaking to an academic audience through a book published by a university press. That is why, in a somewhat fugue-like manner, Sacred Attunement regularly defines and redefines what it means by the word theology . Already in his preface, Fishbane speaks of theology as being based on “perceptions of transcendence . . . and the duties these perceptions impose.” Thus, he is quite explicit that theology precedes Jewish theology in the way a genus precedes its species.

His theological construction here is similar to that of the late Paul Tillich, who tried to do something similar for Christian theology. That is rather surprising, considering Fishbane’s reliance on Kabbalah for most of his major theological points, ­especially since his kabbalistic commitments seem to be much more ­theological than those of the philosophically inclined modern scholars of Kabbalah.

From a kabbalistic perspective, one could see Judaism and theology as identical”and thus that everyone employing God-talk outside Judaism and its traditional vocabulary is not really taking about the one true God at all. Or, at their most charitable, adherents of this view might recognize some non-Jewish speakers about God as doing some kind of derivative Jewish God-talk, even if these speakers are largely unaware of the deeper meaning of their own words.

Yet despite his constant use of Kabbalah, Fishbane clearly does not accept this view. Indeed, how could he accept it, inasmuch as this kind of Jewish theology allows for no external introduction to the truth it ­explicates?

From the more rationalist side of medieval Jewish theology, such as the theology of Maimonides (which Fishbane occasionally employs), one could see theology as the name of a type of God-talk that Judaism does best, yet still acknowledge that God-talk about the One God is also authentically engaged in by the “daughter religions” of Christians and Muslims. Here one sees the wider class of monotheistic theology, of which Judaism is the archetypal member, even if not the exclusive member.

Such an approach was most often occasioned when Christians and Muslims tried to get Jews to convert to Christianity or Islam, and Jews needed to be persuaded to remain within Judaism. And, in an environment where Jews could not ignore the theological similarities between Judaism and Christianity and Islam, Jews were able to do this without denigrating Christianity or Islam in the process. The fact that one acknowledges Judaism to be the better religion, or even the best religion, does not require one to designate Christianity or Islam as a bad religion. Furthermore, it is only worthwhile to maintain the often dangerous position of being a unique religious minority, in the face of a much larger majority, when one believes that religious superiority overcomes communal isolation.

So why does Fishbane, as the religiously committed Jewish thinker he surely is, not see the need to argue for Judaism’s superiority? Even in the absence of overt proselytizing, Jewish thinkers should attempt to persuade other Jews planning to leave Judaism that such a move is a move away from what is best, and they should encourage non-Jews planning to become Jews that this move is a move toward what is better. This is even more necessary for persuading marginal Jews, who will always be dangerously tempted to leave Judaism altogether, not only to remain within the religious Jewish community somehow but also to retrieve their ancestral Judaism more fully.

When Fishbane gets to Jewish theology, however, after speaking of theology per se, he calls it “a particular instantiation of theology more generally” and says that “Jewish theology will provide cultural forms of this truth, out of the resources of its inherited traditions and thoughtfulness.” I assume he could say the same thing about Christian theology or about Islamic theology. From this it seems, once one is persuaded of the value of theology per se, that it is inevitable that those of Jewish background will seek their particular instantiation, just as the same would be the case for those of Christian or Islamic background. But for anyone considering switching religious affiliation”whose numbers today seem to be legion”could Fishbane give them any reason other than ethnic loyalty or filial piety to one’s ancestors for staying put existentially, let alone becoming more intimate with one’s historic home?

It becomes quite evident that the main thrust of Fishbane’s work is to persuade his readers of the value of, perhaps even the necessity of, theology in the life of anyone who feels there is more to and for human existence than mere biological survival, the exercise of political power, or the pursuit of physical pleasure. Jews are not the primary addressees of Fishbane’s “Jewish theology.” The need here is to attune those likely to be religion’s cultured despisers (to borrow a term from Schleiermacher) to what is transcendent or sacred. For that reason, Fishbane is willing to specify Judaism into this more general theological reality and place it on equal terms with the several other examples of this theological reality.

Can we imagine this vision of theology being accepted by someone willing to die as a martyr rather than relate to God in any way but an originally Jewish way (a demand Jews have accepted as the Torah’s mandate)? For faithful Jews, Judaism cannot be one religion among several others. To specify Judaism in this way is to make it less than the primary locus of the ultimate concern of any faithful Jew. It is a recipe for assimilation or religious syncretism.

The audience for which Fishbane is writing might explain his reluctance, or perhaps his refusal, to privilege Judaism qua Jewish theology. In the pluralistic environment of the current academic and intellectual world, one is not supposed to make truth claims, especially truth claims for one’s commitment to a particular tradition. Making such claims in the context of the secular public square (epitomized by the secular university, then followed by the secular media) is considered out of bounds. Only the enunciation of particular meaning is allowed. If there is any universal truth, it becomes the truth of an abstraction such as “religion,” something that could be taken seriously only in the equally abstract atmosphere of a university seminar room or lecture hall.

The fact is, though, that in the real world there are only religions , the traditional theories of which are theologies . It is hard to see in the real world religion or theology being like a corporate headquarters, having various franchises in different times and places. Truth for the truly religious has a”indeed the ”real referent. Their authentic discourse is not just talking about itself any more than their sacred texts are only talking about each other.

For Fishbane, the movement toward theology begins from a ­nontheological starting point. He says that “theology must begin with a wholly natural attitude.” That, in and of itself, is not problematic for any Jewish theologian who sees creation (which is nature as made by God) as preceding revelation and not reducible to revelation.

This natural preparation for theology could be metaphysical, ethical, or aesthetic. That one can be led into theology metaphysically, owing to one’s seeing the multiplicity of the natural phenomenal world, seems to presuppose a higher singularity lying beyond its horizon. (This is the way of medieval Jewish theologians from Saadia to Maimonides to Gersonides.) Or one can be led into theology ethically owing to one’s hearing a higher voice behind the moral claims humans make on each other. (This is the way of such modern Jewish thinkers as Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, and Emmanuel Levinas.)

Fishbane, however, sees our being led into theology aesthetically. He pictures us beginning with “the natural world and ourselves as natural beings” and then proceeding “to the aesthetic sphere and our artistic constitution or reception of existence, and from there to a sense of the (overarching and inhering) theological dimension.”

That aesthetic starting point has problems, however, inasmuch as its beginnings seem to be essentially plural and thus polytheistic, especially in its making of images of created and creative beings with religious reverence. And polytheism in theory leads to idolatry in practice. Thus Fishbane speaks approvingly of “all the mythic correlations of God with the powers of nature, or the workings of culture, or the personalities of humans . . . as the work of the creative imagination, endlessly trying to depict God.” And, where serious Jews would typically claim that the only acceptable image of God is the human person engaged in a conscious and active relation with God, Fishbane speaks of “images of God” in the plural and says that “many and mysterious are the forms of this image (human and nonhuman).”

Sacred Attunement does not tell us how one moves from polytheism to the worship of the One God, who is, after all, the subject of Fishbane’s theology. In ancient Jewish interpretation, Abraham either breaks the idols of his father, which seem to be concrete ciphers of higher powers within nature, or Abraham stands up in the name of the One God against the political pretensions of King Nimrod (and all his epigones). But, could Abraham have done that if his father’s images were true ciphers of the Divine, and could Abraham have done that if King Nimrod was God’s true regent on earth? And, in fact, it seems that the prohibition of image-making altogether has made the realm of the aesthetic limited in Judaism and of far less theological significance than it has in other ­cultures.

Where Fishbane expresses traditional kabbalistic theology, there is much about which I could disagree with him as a Jewish theologian coming from what might be called the more “rationalist” or philosophical approach. But that would be the subject of an intra-Jewish dialogue. Here I have only tried to show that the academic quality of many of his key assertions in Sacred Attunement detracts from what I think is the genuine theological intent of the whole book itself.

All that notwithstanding, my hope is that Fishbane’s penetrating theological meditation here will stimulate more genuine theological discussion among Jews, moving our discourse away from either the historicism or the agnosticism that still characterizes too much of it today.

David Novak is the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.