During the past two decades, many thoughtful observers have commented on the almost total lack of concern, on the part of the American synagogue, with theological issues and thinking. The announcement of the convening of an Institute of Reform Jewish Theology was received, accordingly, with the keenest attention, being taken as evidence of a reawakening of interest in the spiritual problem of our day. Here Eugene Borowitz reports on the Institute, whose meetings were held at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati toward the end of last March, estimates its accomplishments, and suggests future tasks.



If the purpose of the Institute on Reform Jewish Theology, held at the Hebrew Union College on March 20-22, was to formulate a declaration of belief, then it was a failure. The general as well as the Jewish press had carried stories declaring this to be its aim, and the American Jewish community is accustomed to seeing all assemblies of more than two persons bring forth some such statement, tailored to the moment and complete. Yet it can be fairly said this Institute was a success—perhaps just because it did not proclaim a credo.

Had there been no serious problems unsolved by the theology that has been current for the past fifty years or so, there would have been no need to convoke this Institute. Had the rabbinate or Reform Judaism as a whole had the answers to the questions perplexing us, had the Institute not recognized the profound seriousness of modern man’s situation, then a platform could easily have been prepared to order and canned for quick mass consumption. Happily, the Institute was neither so short-sighted, smug, nor “practical.”

The “religious crisis of our time” is no stock phrase restricted to the theological journals—that it is a sharp day-to-day reality, any man knows who ministers to individuals in their hours of need. The unexpectedly large attendance of rabbis at this mid-season conference can be directly traced to congregants—not a few, but very many—who confess they are unable to accept the old replies, who cannot cease questioning, who have no secure goals but a persistent anxiety and a deep, if hidden, fear of the future. Rabbi Levi Olan of Dallas, Texas, in his paper on “Theology Today,” described the situation accurately: “Modern man is in search of a faith that is resourceful enough to give meaning to chaos, and reliable enough to encourage hope for the future. . . . The world seems to have lost its direction. . . . Though we cannot comprehend with precise clarity the nature and extent of the upheaval in Western culture, we are faced with fundamentally radical changes.”



As the Institute split into its constituent around tables, it became evident that liberal Judaism today is confronted by four basic religious questions.

First, is the belief in God as an objective, divine reality indispensable to modern Judaism, or must it be replaced by something more agreeable to the modern temper?

The traditionalists insisted that God is either unique; eternal, and absolute, or He is nothing. Faith need not have rigorous proof. Only a God who is Lord of this world can give it universal standards and a universal meaning. Judaism without personal piety, meaningful prayer, and divine sanction, without an immanent and transcendent God, is no Judaism.

But some felt that the traditional Jewish belief in a God who exists in His own right, who is independent of man, is too much at variance with modern knowledge to be acceptable. His existence cannot be proved. It must be of an order which is completely foreign to our experience. Moreover the recent tragic course of Jewish history makes it difficult to believe in a God of justice who rules history.

Clearly, without a convincing answer to this question, no Jewish theology is possible.

Second, is it possible for man to believe that an existing God is active in our world? As modern men we cannot deny the rational structure of our universe. Any incursion of God into the normal operations of the universe is then a miracle—if not of the natural kind, as the dividing of the Red Sea in the Bible, then of the theological kind, as providence, election, and revelation. Everyone conceded the emotional efficacy of prayer, but whether it actually “worked” was a matter for great doubt. While all affirmed that the people of Israel had a moral and spiritual mission, Israel’s choice by God in any active sense was questioned by some. It was generally agreed that revelation was central to Judaism and that revelation involved man’s ability to perceive the ultimate principles governing his existence, but whether such a perception involved the idea of God was debated.

Third, to what extent is there authority within Reform Judaism? From its earliest days Reform had introduced into Judaism the idea that modern man had the right to select from tradition whatever elements remained meaningful in his belief and practice. Though Reform insisted upon the authority of Judaism’s moral teachings, it seemed to sanction anarchy in regard to everything else in Judaism. Indeed, recent Reform rabbinical deliberations have been one long continuing effort to bring order into this chaos.

Yet if part of our tradition is still binding, what are the criteria by which it is to be recognized? Who are the true and who are the false preachers? Furthermore, is there any divine authority in the sphere of custom and ritual? Do we believe “who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us”? Certainly no guide to Reform Jewish practice will pretend to have ecclesiastical authority. But what, then, will be the source of its authority?

Fourth, can we still believe in progress as “salvation”? The awesome tragedy of the first half of this century seems to stand as a refutation of the halcyon hopes of the late 19th-century thinkers. If we believe man is able to perfect himself without God’s intervention, then Reform teaches that history is a march, now slower, now faster, toward the Messianic era. If we believe man can never reach ultimate goodness, then Reform must hold that it is God who will bring about salvation in the “end of days” or else that history is simply endless movement toward an unattainable goal. Ten or fifteen years ago there was no doubt about the Reform belief in man’s march toward the Messianic age. Today some rabbis are wavering in this faith.



Originally, too, Reform was convinced that revelation was universal in time. God spoke to us today even as he spoke in Biblical days, and we had to be as obedient as our forefathers. Moreover, man’s knowledge progressed qualitatively, and the reform of Judaism was no mere convenience but a demand born of intellectual honesty. Because we are better informed today than in the past, the sacred literature of tradition could occupy only a subsidiary place in the determination of modern Judaism.

Today, this outlook has become problematic. This is not to say that there has been any hint of a compromise with the fundamentally liberal attitude toward tradition. Yet some rabbis at the Institute felt that the Bible, for example, contains a revelation of truth which has not changed and will not change. They concede that the historical context in which that truth was expressed has changed, and their attitude toward the Bible as a text is still critical. But they insist that there is A Truth in the Bible, and that this truth is as important to us as our knowledge of God. The latter expresses the same truth in the concrete terms of our own time and specific conditions. The former serves as a guide and check. There must be a tension between the two. This attitude denies essential progress but not change and reform.



A special word is necessary on the impact of the Existentialist interpretation of Judaism offered by Rabbi Emil L. Fackenheim, both in the round tables and by his formal paper. He held that the brutal facts of the past fifty years had demonstrated conclusively man’s inability to “save” himself. To those who believe that the universe is without plan or purpose, existence is a tragedy without relief which one should meet with as much courage as one can muster. The religious man, convinced that life has a meaning, believes in a real, transcendent God who will eventually “save” man. Salvation by progress is an error of 19th-century idealism which was grafted on to Judaism by the theological speculation of the last century. To the question of authority, Rabbi Fackenheim felt that only a tentative answer could be given at the moment. While the religious man’s relation to God was something certain and necessary, rising above the flow of time, the ceremonial and ritual practices and institutions of Israel could only be defended as a means of accepting one’s particular position in the contingencies of history and fulfilling it.

Existentialism came as a profound philosophical shock to the assembled rabbis. But the immediate reaction of annoyance at a new terminology and a new way of thinking soon changed to appreciation of the direct response this point of view has to offer to modern man’s perplexity. Religious Existentialism considers man’s innate inadequacy and anxiety as the norm of human existence. This view makes our modern bewilderment seem less the result of a catastrophic regression than the natural return from an unwarranted optimism. While there was no mass conversion to Existentialism, most of the rabbis agreed with Rabbi Fackenheim that it would be useful to Reform even if only as an antidote to the 19th-century idealist interpretation of Judaism.



It is not surprising that the forty-eight hours allotted for discussion were insufficient for more than a tentative exploration of the various problems. Though it was decided not to issue any comprehensive statement, the Institute as a whole, in plenary session, gave unanimous approval to the acceptance and publication in its name of the following paragraphs on the mission of Israel:

As touching the life of the Jew, our mission challenges us to win back to positive participation in Jewish religious life (1) those Jews who are un-synagogued; (2) those who have roamed away from traditional Judaism and who are groping for an expression of religion more congenial to their modern outlook; (3) to bring our own concept of Judaism to those Jews who live in non-progressive, religiously static areas of the world; (4) to assist Reform, or Progressive, congregations that are struggling to achieve self-sufficiency, wherever they may be; (5) and to assist in the creation of such congregations wherever the need for them may be expressed. The resuscitated State of Israel, whose spiritual potentialities seem unlimited, presents an important challenge and unique opportunity to Reform Judaism.

As touching the world in general, our mission has been to some extent fulfilled in the acceptance by Christianity and Mohammedanism of our Bible. However, the practical fulfillment of our mission requires firstly, a recognition that we have been derelict in our devotion to our mission; and secondly, a resolve that we implement the ideals of our faith by supporting every positive and progressive endeavor seeking to establish social justice, in cooperation with all men of good will; and thirdly, to promote within the congregations of Israel projects of social justice and social service among the despised and rejected, regardless of race or creed.

This definition of the practical tasks of Israel was given point by the personal presence and powerful preachment of Rabbi Moses Weiler of Johannesburg, South Africa, who was in the United States for his first visit in the seventeen years since he was graduated from the Hebrew Union College. He spoke to the rabbis of his struggles in establishing Reform synagogues, first in Johannesburg and later in other communities, and of his continuing fight to win a place for them in the South African Jewish community. He emphasized with great force on several occasions during the Institute that it was a real belief in Israel’s mission, and the practical activity which the liberal congregations had undertaken because of it, which had vitalized the movement in South Africa. They had tried to win the unaffiliated back to Judaism. They had undertaken projects for their white Christian neighbors and had even made the unprecedented step of opening a non-missionary, self-run school for Negroes. If the American congregations were not alive, he insisted, it was largely because they had lost the sense of mission.

It was not only Rabbi Weiler’s vigor which influenced the rabbis to give their unanimous assent to the statement on the mission of Israel, but the corroboration offered by their common experience and thought in the past decade or more. What is perhaps more significant is that, while there was no agreement as to the theological basis of Israel’s mission, there was complete unanimity as to its pragmatic meaning.



The same disparity between the theological and the pragmatic was found in the treatment of the question of a guide for Reform practice. Since the late 30’s there has been an increasing clamor for such a guide. At the moment it is the most hotly debated issue in Reform Judaism, both in the rabbinate and among the laity.

As soon as the first registration cards were mailed to the chairman, Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman of St. Louis, Missouri, it was clear that the round table on Reform Jewish practice was to be the best attended of all the round tables scheduled to meet. The chairman had also solicited statements of theological belief from a number of rabbis on the subjects to be discussed at the Institute. Almost unanimously the statements he received on “Reform Jewish Practice” avoided theology and dealt instead with the practicality of a “Guide,” or the merits or evils of its adoption. The discussions of the round table at the Institute continued this pattern.

Not only was this non-theological round table one of the best attended at the Institute on Theology; it was also, to speak strictly, a non-theological paper which was best received. Rabbi Lou H. Silberman of Omaha, Nebraska, delivered a lecture on “A Shulchan Aruch for Reform Judaism” (a title not of his own choosing). It was a most eloquent kaddish to the memory of his beloved teacher, Dr. Jacob Z. Lauterbach, whose eighth yahrzeit occurred that day. After a brilliant if brief introductory analysis of the criteria which should be employed, he discussed the significance of the form in which such a guide should be presented. He also decisively demonstrated by examples taken from the history of Reform in America—from its experience with the Union Prayer Book and the Columbus platform, both of which had been the occasion for (unwarranted) fear and trembling—that such a work would not congeal the freedom of the movement or render it a new orthodoxy. It was a mature paper, deserving the warm reception it received.

Shortly thereafter the Institute voted, with but two negative ballots, to accept a resolution of the round table on “Reform Jewish Practice.” In effect this statement declared that there was a need for a “Guide to Reform Jewish Practice” and formally asked the Central Conference to take steps to create one. Again it should be noted that while there was no agreement as to the meaning of revelation in modern Judaism, its practical consequences—ritual, ceremonial, law—were almost unanimously desired.



Because psychiatry has only recently become a matter of great interest to the rabbinate, the discussion on “Judaism and Psychiatry” indicated even more clearly the distance between rabbinical experience with practical matters, and systematic theological thinking.

While no round table discussed this subject, part of an evening was devoted to it by means of a paper by Rabbi Julius Gordon of St. Louis, Missouri. Unfortunately the lecture was an informal one and hence did not pretend to comprehensiveness. It dealt almost entirely with the apparent similarities between the teachings of Judaism and psychiatric dicta, and only partially with the question of the compatibility of the two. On the basis of Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, Rabbi Gordon felt that while Freud did not accept religion, he did not reject it either, and that harmony was possible.

After the lecture a number of rabbis stated the problems they have had in relation to psychiatry, ranging from lack of cooperation by psychiatrists in practical matters to conflicts with psychiatric theory and therapy on the basis of Jewish belief. The standard reply to these questions by Rabbi Gordon and others who spoke was that psychiatry is necessary if we wish to cure the ill and the maladjusted. Its therapy has marvelous accomplishments to show, and the rabbinate in its traditional Jewish appreciation of r’fuo (healing) cannot but accept it Moreover, it was asserted, every rabbi who deals daily with congregants in the moments of their greatest emotional crises values the insights that psychiatry has given him and which make it possible for him to accomplish his spiritual tasks more successfully. Psychiatry was regarded as a “creative ally,” but there was no attempt to make sharp and explicit the terms of the alliance.



It became obvious to the rabbis themselves, as the Institute progressed, that while their practical maturity had grown in their years of experience, they had neglected to maintain a corresponding theological growth.

This observation will come as a shock to those who have assumed that Reform Judaism is a theological movement. Was not “Jewish theology” a product of Reform, which sought to establish its validity by theological research and formulation? It was Kaufman Kohler, a president of the Hebrew Union College, writing for the cause of Reform Judaism, who produced Jewish. Theology the first systematic work on the subject. Even today the works of Baeck, Montefiore, Cohon, and Buber (who must certainly be classed with the liberals) make up nearly all the advanced works in the Jewish field.

Yet even a cursory examination of the history of the movement shows that Reform, like traditional Judaism, has been occupied mainly with the practical problems “of living a Jewish life.” Dr. Joseph Silverman, president of the Conference, at the Bar Mitzvah meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1903, was proud to say that it had devoted itself to the questions of: “Public Worship, Marriage and Divorce, Confirmation, Proselytism, Cremation, Zionism, Interpretation of Bible and Talmud, Funeral Reforms, Rabbinical Ethics, Religious Instruction, Circuit Preaching, Religious Propaganda, the Unaffiliated, etc.” The index of the Conference Yearbooks has few references to theology, almost all of them in connection with the early (1903-8) discussions on a synod. As Rabbi Hyman G. Enelow so pithily put it in 1904: “The Conference is not a summer school of theology. Its purpose is practical.”

The Reform movement today, then, is just emerging from a period in which the rabbis rejected theology almost completely. A Hebrew Union College graduate of the 20’s remarked at the Institute that in his day almost everyone was “for religion and against theology.” They had a real faith in God as the guarantor of human dignity, but beyond that they had little interest. Their concern with Jewish existence was directed at halting assimilation, fighting anti-Semitism, or enlisting in the ranks of the Zionists or anti-Zionists. Social justice and the prophetic role were the rabbinic order of the day, and the rabbis dedicated themselves to the fight for civil rights and social reform. Theology smacked of “pie in the sky” and was viewed with the traditional Jewish skepticism towards preoccupation with hidden things when there was so much to be done with what had already been revealed. That skepticism still persists.

The Hebrew Union College itself was unable to bring to its students a realization of theology’s function and significance. Not in any one department of the College alone, but in every area where the ideas of Judaism were taught, there was detailed scientific investigation and thorough historical training, but no inspiring theological creativity. The imagination neither of the rabbinate nor of the laity was captured for liberal Jewish theology. But to be sure, it is asking a good deal of any group of men that they reverse completely the social currents of their hour.



In the very opening hour of the Institute, the venerable Rabbi Leo Baeck gave an inspiring and authoritative analysis of “Jewish Theology Today.” Jewish theology, he said, is always, at the hour of its creation, Jewish theology for today. When the time is explosive, when frightening events belie the old questions and the old answers, then a new theology is needed.

The questions which are asked in these times of stress, Rabbi Baeck continued, are not really new ones, for only four or five basic questions have troubled man since the beginning of time. One of these questions may, in a sense, be called the “Jewish question”: “It is the problem of the transcendent becoming immanent, of the being entering into the passing, the eternal into the transient, the infinite into the finite, the creator into the creature, of the rational growing up out of the non-rational, the fathomable out of the unfathomable, the distinct out of the secret, the commandment out of the mystery. However we call it: creation, revelation, prophecy, law, hope, messianism, it is always the same problem, the problem manifested by Judaism.”

This question, or one of the others, will on occasion take hold of a man, and he will be compelled to struggle with it, to make it his own, to join it to his individual way of thinking and speaking. Through this grappling, his thought and language are recreated and the question itself assumes a new form. He is then finally able to give it new expression. These three factors, the problem, the personality, and the resolve of the personality to struggle with the problem are all necessary to bring about a new expression of the problem, a new theology.

But the problem itself is neither new nor without historical experience. To be Jewish theology, the new thinking must be an expression of Jewish tradition. This includes not only the Halacha (“the sphere of law”) but also the Aggada (“the sphere of the idea”), the poetry, the philosophy, the customs, and all the rest of our religious treasure. In the sphere of the idea there must be constant change, for its very production is for and through the individual. In keeping with this, the tradition of Judaism has been handed down not from one exclusive authority to any single authoritative body, but to the many congregations. Hence no Schulchan Aruch is possible in Judaism in the realm of the idea as there is in the realm of law.

The old liberal theology based on 19th century idealism might have weathered the tumultuous 30’s, but it could not survive the bestial 40’s. We are concerned because we are in crisis. And what we require is not a single, fabricated statement of belief but bold theological thinking to make clear the relevance of Judaism today.



If this the way that Jewish theology must take, then the Institute can be said to have made a significant contribution. The rabbis who attended the round table on “Revelation” were well enough satisfied to report to the Institute that they had found their discussions “fruitful and stimulating,” even though they were able to arrive at no more than a delineation of the eight major problems they felt existed in that area. What is more, the confrontation with the problems had had a profound personal effect upon the rabbis present. An older member of the rabbinate was able to say with sincerity that it was “one of the most moving spiritual experiences I have had since I was ordained.” Equally impressive was the insistence of the rabbis that the Institute’s work had been too important to be ended in one three-day meeting. They voted unanimously to formally recommend to the Conference the establishment of a permanent Institute on Theology to meet annually. The problems had captured the men.



+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link