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The Emergence of Jewish Theology in America
by robert g. goldy
indiana university press, 149 pages, $25

Judaism was born in the Fertile Crescent when a young Semite, deeply troubled by his own sense of incompleteness and guilt, answered God’s call, and in so doing started a chosen people that would be “a light unto the nations.” From these first obscure revelations and intuitions the descendants of Abraham developed one of the great faiths of the world, based on centuries—indeed millennia—of experience and reflection on the meaning of sin, judgment, and redemption. The record of their dialogue with the One true God is contained in the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. The Old Testament) and is elaborated in a vast body of commentary, law, and tradition.

In the nineteenth century, following the Enlightenment and the emancipation of Jews from their ghettos, the ancient faith of Israel began to adjust itself to the modern world—particularly among Jews in the advanced societies of Western Europe and the United States. By the early and middle part of this century, liberalizing trends came to dominate much of the thought and practice of Reform and Conservative Judaism in America, also gaining some influence in Orthodoxy. A remote deist God—a lofty ideal or metaphor for man’s highest aspirations—quietly supplanted the active, personal God of the Torah. Optimism regarding human nature and its perfectibility through science and reason replaced the notion that human dependence and sin were overcome principally through religious study and spiritual discipline.

During and immediately after World War II, however, there was something of a revolt against modernizing tendencies. The revolt was prompted in part by the terrible outbreak of violence in the twentieth century, culminating in Auschwitz and Hiroshima. It was inspired also by certain intellectual trends (mainly in Europe): existentialism; the born-again Judaism of Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber; and the Protestant neo-Orthodoxy of Kierkegaard, Barth, Tillich, Brunner, and (in the U.S.) the Niebuhr brothers.

The challenge to liberal hegemony in American Judaism represented not so much an effort to restore the minutiae of ritual observance as an attempt to recover what was seen as the spiritual core of traditional faith: a radical dependence on God, the personal, saving God who intervenes in human affairs, public and private. The “new Jewish theologians” (as they were called) charged that secularism and liberal religion had lost sight of ancient truths, and as a consequence, their teachings denied men the metaphysical security and comfort they needed, leaving them in an anxious and irritated state, readily susceptible to totalitarian political movements and other modern forms of idolatry. Atavistic tribal passions and romantic Utopian schemes, however false in the final analysis, at least offered some approximation of the vital spiritual life that had been suppressed and smothered in a culture guided by modern rationalism. According to the new Jewish theologians, the furious violence and demonic fanaticisms of the twentieth century were in large measure traceable to the secularization process; such viciousness dramatically refuted the notion that evil and sin were outmoded categories.

In The Emergence of Jewish Theology in America, Robert G. Goldy tells the story of this rebellion against religious liberalism, and, despite certain deficiencies, he tells much of the story quite well. The strongest aspect of the book is Goldy’s ability to provide concise summaries of viewpoints and arguments on both the modernist-liberal side and on the “new theology” side. He is a good arbiter of the arguments and he writes with admirable clarity and ease.

The proponents of a “new Jewish theology,” it should be noted, did not speak as a group or bloc, outside of and against the whole of Judaism. They were, for the most part, insiders who were pursuing specifically Jewish agendas (not generic theology) within their respective denominations: Joseph Soloveitchik within Orthodoxy, Abraham Joshua Heschel within Conservatism, and Emil Fackenheim within the Reform movement. (Will Herberg, whose thought receives careful attention in Goldy’s study, was something of an outsider.) What united these different thinkers sufficiently to describe their activities as a single phenomenon was the attempt to unify the best insights of tradition and modernity: for Fackenheim, Herberg, and Heschel it was to restore the legitimacy of divine command and revelation to Judaism’s liberal, highly secularized wing; for Soloveitchik it was to make Orthodox faith credible in modernist terms.

All of these thinkers incurred stiff opposition from the established liberals, at least at first. (Soloveitchik, insofar as he confined his mission to the Orthodox, avoided this problem.) In his account of public debates in the forties and fifties, Goldy says that the defenders of liberal, modernized Judaism rarely hazarded serious engagement with the new Jewish theologians, sometimes ignoring them altogether and other times refuting mere caricatures of their thought. The modernists accused the theologizers of being superstitious, regressive, irrational, anti-humanistic, misanthropic, and mystical. They characterized them as cosmic kvetches, morbidly un-Jewish in their outlook, and—the unkindest cut of all—Christian in temperament. On top of all that, some of the theologians were resented for a tendency (according to Goldy) to be overbearing, even arrogant, in their manner of presentation.

The charge of atavistic and regressive supernaturalism was unfair in that it ignored the new theologians’ aim of developing a spiritual and intellectual “third way,” neither modernist nor medieval, but joining Enlightenment rationalism with traditional insight. Their “existentialism” consisted chiefly in recognizing a depth of sorrow and tragedy in life; and their “irrationality” amounted to the effort to equip believers with a genuinely religious hope beyond the palliatives of reason and therapy. Their stress on human finitude, fragility, and dependence represented a rejection not of the essential Hebrew spirit, but only of distorted liberal interpretations of that spirit. The Jewish theologians justified taking cues from Christian theorists like Reinhold Niebuhr by saying that such thinkers could help direct Jews back toward a truer version of their own faith and tradition. Besides. Fackenheim and others argued, human beings have a common nature, and modern men, Jews and Christians alike, had recently suffered through the same terrible crises. It was only natural to be comparing notes in order (as Heschel put it) “to recover the questions for which the Bible is an answer.” Goldy reinforces their case by recalling that Jewish thought has a long tradition of enriching itself through judicious incorporation of elements from other philosophies and faiths.

The problem with liberal Judaism, according to the new theologians, was that it did not merely borrow from, but largely surrendered to, various intellectual systems from the secular world, overlaying a superficial gloss of Judaic symbolism on what was in substance scientific naturalism, German idealism (especially Kant), and American pragmatism (especially Dewey). It was not just a particular theology that the modernists objected to—it was the very idea of theology, of God-talk, of supernatural truth. However, the Judaism they ended up with sometimes seemed less the faith of the fathers than Kant and Dewey in yarmulkes.

Goldy notes the strong protests by the new Jewish theologians on this point. Heschel lamented, “It is possible to be a rabbi [in America] and not believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” In 1948, a young Irving Kristol, then an editor at Commentary, deplored “the state of mind of a large section of the American rabbinate and much of the American Jewish community in general” as a “perversion of the Jewish religion into a shallow, if sincere, humanitarianism, plus a thorough-going insensitivity to present-day spiritual problems.” Emil Fackenheim decried as intellectual dishonesty and blasphemy “the present fashionable combination of disbelief in an existing God with the active perpetuation of a religion as a ‘useful’ or ‘wholesome’ illusion.” Though “Orthodoxy held fast to the Jewish God,” Fackenheim complained, it often “confined His essential activity to a conveniently remote Biblical and Talmudic past. . . .”

While Goldy’s book is good in establishing the tone and substance of the relevant arguments, it achieves only mixed success in tracing the effects on the life and thought of the Jewish community at large. He does recognize, and sometimes quotes from, the host of fellow travelers and disciples spawned by the postwar Jewish theological movement; and he mentions the important role of Jewish journals, old and new, in entertaining theological arguments. At the broader community level he points to the generations of Jewish college students in the 1960s and beyond who sought serious answers to questions of God, faith, and values. He cites the success of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book. When Bad Things Happen to Good People, as a sign of the permanent influence achieved by debates begun much earlier.

Clearly, the theological movement of the postwar period succeeded in breaking the near-monopoly of religious liberalism dominating much of the American Jewish community. But it did not achieve anything like the “Copernican revolution” in Jewish piety and practice that it sought. However one studies the matter— whether by casual observation or statistical study—modernist, secular attitudes retain a much stronger hold on Jews than on Christians, among whom traditional religious ideas (belief in an afterlife, a personal God, etc.) are more prevalent. Unaccountably, Goldy remarks, “Almost unknown before 1945, a Jewish theology which was neo-orthodox and existentialist had become by the 1960s the dominant mode of religious thought within the American Jewish community.”

On the contrary, it would be fair to say that many literate and intelligent Jewish readers who pick up Goldy’s book will be unable to understand from his account the nature of the intellectual conflict that arose forty-five years ago, so alien do the “new” theologians’ ideas remain even today. Such readers will find the author less helpful than he might be, since he never really defines key terms such as “existentialism,” or even “theology.” As a result it’s not entirely clear why the modernist rabbis objected to theology as something alien to Judaism, but not to “religious philosophy” or “religious thought.” Many readers may want to know more fully how these terms were understood by the different factions in the dispute. They might also profit from a discussion of how what they know as Judaism is largely constituted by the categories of modern creeds and philosophies.

For all these faults, The Emergence of Jewish Theology does represent a valuable contribution to the growing literature on Jewish life and faith that has appeared over the last decade or so. Even if the arguments described here were already part of the public recording various journals and books—Goldy has provided an important service in giving shape to the debates that occurred in the recent past. Indeed, his book (which has an extensive bibliography) may serve as a possible starting point for continuing dialogue about the nature and direction of contemporary Judaism—in its own internal affairs and in American public life. It may even present helpful insight for Christian churches that have experienced similar conflicts between liberal and neo-orthodox factions.

Matthew Berke is Managing Editor of First Things.

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