The Christian, particularly the Protestant, often thinks of religion as the ability to affirm a creed, a given content of belief, as well as the life, individual and communal, which flows from this faith. But for the Jew religion cannot be so easily identified with the affirmation of a creed, and consequently the distinction between the “secular” and the “religious”—which is so basic to Christian thought—has never been strictly applicable to Judaism. The Jews were a people in the simple ethnic sense of that term before they met their God at Sinai, and the maintenance of that peoplehood has been critical to them in all the centuries that have followed. If Mordecai Kaplan has performed any lasting service in Jewish theology, it is his emphasis on this ethnic component as the inescapable base of all Jewish religiosity, and his insistence that a Judaism which knows only God, but not Israel, His people, is no authentic link in the tradition. Indeed Kaplan’s therapy for the ills of contemporary Jewish religious life is a thoroughgoing revival of the sense of Jewish people-hood and its expression in every cultural dimension. The natural result of a healthy Jewishness, he feels, would be a rebirth of Jewish piety in appropriately modern terms.

In one form or another, Kaplan’s diagnosis has become an accepted axiom in responsible American Jewish theology. To proclaim one’s faith in God may—so most Jewish thinkers today would agree—yield a general religiosity, but Judaism is reached only when one is equally ready to affirm the special relation of the Jewish people to Him.

The Kaplan thesis, however, has had an interesting “underground” history which is only now beginning to bear fruit. From the very start, the emphasis on the concept of peoplehood has served the needs of those who wanted to be Jewish but could not think of themselves as religious—either because they did not believe in God, or (more frequently) because they were anxious to be rid of the discipline of traditional Jewish observance and its European or immigrant overtones. With the help of Kaplan’s theory or some variation of it, such non-believing or non-observant Jews (lay and rabbinic alike) could nevertheless devote themselves in all good conscience to Jewish life in its new American style, and they could feel themselves to be making a contribution to the maintenance and growth of Jewish culture without any commitment to theology or commandments. These would eventually come of themselves, or not. In either case, the present had its rationale.

Now, whatever else may be said of this position, it most certainly involved a distortion of Kaplan’s view. Kaplan has never divided Jewish existence into two seperate realms, that of the folk and that of the faith. He has never sought to introduce the categories “secular” and “religious” into Judaism in a way that would cut the one aspect off from the other. What he has done is to develop a theory of Jewish existence according to which the people, the social reality, has always had priority over its theology, and he has built a program for the people’s future on the basis of this order of priorities. At the same time he has always insisted that a people’s most significant cultural achievement is its religion and that true fulfillment can only come to a people as its religion suffuses its culture. Kaplan has not been unmindful of the dangers posed by those who would use him to set up a fundamental distinction between Jewish-ness and Jewish religiosity. Thus, while he began by speaking of Judaism as a civilization, the years since have seen him regularly speaking of it is a religious civilization.



While the secularity of the average synagogue member in America cannot be understood without reference to this ideological background, he himself is unaware of the sources of his attitudes. He comes, in increasing numbers, to join the synagogue because there are few if any socially acceptable alternatives to synagogue affiliation for one who wants to maintain his Jewish identity and wants his children to be Jewish, in some sense, after him. Though this is not the only motive or level of concern to be found within the synagogue today,1 the Jew who does not rise above such folk-feeling unquestionably and increasingly represents the synagogue’s majority mood. More than that, however, it must be said that he also represents the synagogue’s greatest threat. The damaging effect he has already had on the synagogue requires little new description. His new-found affluence and his need for status within the community have made the big building with the small sanctuary, the lavish wedding with the short ceremony, and the fabulous Bar Mitzvah celebration with the minimal religious significance, well-established patterns among American Jewish folkways. What other religious group in America can boast of men who are zealously committed to interfaith activities, but who have no faith of their own, who worship in no church with any degree of regularity, and who observe no commandments but those that their organizational participation requires or common American decency decrees? What does it say of Jewish life in America when Reform Judaism appeals because it demands so little but confers so much status?; when people blandly proclaim that they are non-observant Orthodox Jews?; when Conservative Judaism makes a virtue of not defining the center so that it may avoid alienating those disaffected on either side?

In short, the secularism which is endemic to the church is reaching into the synagogue as well. But there is a difference, for in the synagogue it claims to be there as of right, as a legitimate interpretation of Jewishness. The church can protect itself from the invasions of secularism by returning to its roots in faith, by a theological analysis of what makes it a church and who therefore has a right to participate in it. And indeed such a refining return to theology is today well under way in most of the major Protestant groups.

The impact of this concern with theology is only just beginning to be felt in Protestant life, and it may well be overwhelmed by the secular tides running through the churches. Nevertheless, a significant if small leadership has found the courage to face the issue and striven to meet it, knowing that even if it proves impossible to divert the massive social energies of our day, it may still be possible to prepare the church within the church that will somehow enable the truth of the gospel to survive.

Nothing like this movement in extent or depth is yet to be found in the synagogue. The stirrings of an interest in Jewish theology still affect only a few individuals responding mainly to one another and to that small group within the synagogue who have at least begun to ask the right questions.

The leadership of what is purportedly the Jewish religious community is, as a whole, uninterested in theology and is convinced that theology has nothing to do with truly practical questions like the goals of the community’s activity, the methods which are appropriate to reaching them, or the criteria by which either might be judged. If anything, rabbis and laymen alike have a positive antipathy to Jewish theology which among the more articulate and knowledgeable has congealed into an ideology. Judaism, they claim, has never had a theology. Judaism is a religion of deed, not creed. To aspire toward the development of a theology is to assimilate a Christian concern, to impose on Judaism a perspective decidedly uncongenial to it—in other words, it is an attempt to translate Jewish experience into a language appropriate only to Christianity. Moreover, there are practical risks to the theological enterprise. Let a Jewish theology arise and the next step would be to seek conformity to it, to force it upon others and thus destroy that productive pluralism, that creative intellectual dialectic which has been so precious a Jewish privilege.

At the lowest level this view amounts to an elaborate defense of the accomplishments of Jewish organizations, both lay and “religious,” over the past decade. The varieties of Jewish officialdom may be uneasy over the superficiality of Jewish affiliation and concerned about the meaningful continuity of Jewish life, but not to the extent of encouraging a challenge to the assumptions which underlie the mood of achievement that suffuses the organizational world of American Jewry. Only that theology is welcome which can be harnessed to organizational ends and apparatus, which is an ally and an aid to further institutionalization. No welcome is extended to a radical opposition—even an opposition that exists for the sake of heaven.

The most respectable rejection of Jewish theology stems from a concern for Jewish uniqueness, for the ethnic base of Jewishness and for its survival in some authentic fashion. Spokesmen for this view know Jewish theology only as an effort to establish the universalism of Judaism, to indicate what Jews have believed that all men might find true. Thus to them, theology inevitably involves a sacrifice of the Jewish people, of its specific historic experience and of its present separate existence. Yet whatever the motives behind it, this position, by restraining the religious explication of what is involved in Jewishness—another way of saying, Jewish theology—is serving as a major if unwitting instrument in the secularization of Judaism and the synagogue. And in any case, the fear of losing the particularity of Jewish experience is groundless, for under the influence of existentialism, contemporary theology (Christian as well as Jewish) has made its very starting point the particular and concrete existence, in which alone all universals are to be seen and find their meaning; this, indeed, is one of the things that distinguishes it most sharply from the rationalist line of 19th-century Jewish thought which was to some extent guilty of sacrificing the idea of Jewish peoplehood to the dream of a “universal” Judaism.



Inconsistent is too mild a word; chutzpah alone is adequate to characterize the assertion that theology has no place in Judaism. Because Judaism is basically ethnic, it does not follow that all else in Judaism is optional. What traditional Jewish warrant can be found for the view that Jewish peoplehood is separable from Jewish religiosity? It is only in the last seventy-five years that the idea of Jewishness as a species of secular existence has become so much as conceivable. Judaism has throughout its history asserted that to be a member of the Jewish people was to participate in the Covenant with God and that to partake of Jewish ethnicity was simultaneously to serve God’s purpose in history. Modern scholarship has by dint of much diligent toil sought to describe the Jews as they were before Sinai, to picture them as another sub-Semitic group or economic class. But the most important fact about pre-Sinaitic Israel is its utter rejection by classical Jewish literature. Once the secular Hebrews found themselves the people of the Covenant, they knew their only significant origins to be the meetings with God by Abraham and at Sinai. Once the Hebrews had found their new and altered character as God’s people, once they had passed beyond the ethnicity of the Hivites, the Jebusites, the Girgashites, their role as the servant-folk of God was all that mattered. Those, then, who consciously or unconsciously are turning the synagogue into an effectively secular institution are blaspheming a sacred history of millennia, indeed all the history the Jewish people has ever cared to remember until recent years.



But if Jewishness, while ethnic, has a religious component, modern man is entitled to know what Jewish belief means today. Perhaps in an earlier period one could have relied on the solidarity of the Jewish community or the continuity of Jewish practice to bring Judaism safely through the danger of secular domination. But it is precisely the Jewish masses who are the source of the growing secularism, while the standards of Jewish practice have by their continual decline shown their lack of independent foundation or authority. If kashrut were still regarded as God’s command, the Jew might well withstand the many-layered temptations which arise to violate it. If study were a mitzvah and not another possibility for leisure-time recreation, then Jewish learning might be a thick hedge surrounding the remnants of Jewish piety. But since neither the spirit nor the practice of “catholic Israel” suffices any longer to assure meaningful Jewish continuity, we are all the more in need of an adequate statement of Jewish faith relevant to our day, for it is only this that can restore the Jewish community to its goals and to the duties they entail. Where another generation might seek to meet its problems by trusting naively to the onward motion of an unfolding organic development, we are deprived of any such trust. History and sociology have shown us where we have been and where we are tending—shall we now pretend that we are blind? We have all the sophistication which self-knowledge and self-consciousness confer—where shall we hope to find the innocence of ignorance? Secularism is rising in religious guise, powered by the social and economic readjustments of a post-immigration, post-depression, and postwar America. To hide from this knowledge is simultaneously to spurn our freedom, and by preferring illusion to reality, to contemn the franchise of modernity. The question can no longer be whether Jewishness has always had a religious content or whether we really need discuss it. The only honest question left to ask is, how shall we speak of Jewish faith?

True, we cannot hope to speak out of an unbroken tradition of theology which has grown and developed with Judaism itself. For many reasons, the philosophic explication of faith has not, in the past, seemed a necessary part of Israel’s continuing intellectual activity. Thus, to develop a Jewish theology today, to explain what would purport to be an authentic Judaism, inevitably means using concepts and standards devised in a Christian context for Christian purposes. Such a task of translation seems forbiddingly formidable. Yet similar labor has been done before in Jewish Diaspora experience. Indeed, the classic expressions of Jewish theological creativity were the products of a cross-fertilization of Judaism and some other culture. The incursion of Hellenistic thought into Judaism, for example, made Philo both possible and necessary. And Maimonides was compelled to write the Guide for the Perplexed (and, one might argue, even his Code) because in his time Judaism was challenged by an Islam confident of its own truth and able to argue for itself in neo-Aristotelian terms. Neither Philo nor Maimonides nor any of their colleagues had a traditionally Jewish yet “universal” theological vocabulary to draw upon. They had to fashion one out of the general philosophic material of their day—and they succeeded in doing so without surrendering their Judaism. They succeeded because they did their borrowing in all Jewish self-respect, limiting their acquisitions to what they felt were the limits set by their Jewish faith, and transforming what they had borrowed to suit their Jewish goals. Philo’s logos is qualitatively distinct from that of his Hellenistic predecessors, and Maimonides, who knows Aristotle’s thesis of the eternity of matter so well that he can on its account break with the Moslem philosophic tradition of proving God from creation, will not surrender completely to that thesis because it might imperil Judaism’s insistence upon miracle and freedom. If Jewish theology must always be an “answering” theology, then the risk of falsifying Judaism will always have to be run. Still there is ample Jewish precedent to show that the risks can be overcome and that Judaism can thereby acquire a new vitality. If anything, the fact that Christianity stems from Judaism and seeks indigenously to relate to Judaism’s God, makes it at once easier and more necessary to find a means of saying, in language we both can share, where we must differ and where we can agree.



Such a quest for intellectual clarity need not restrict Judaism’s traditional freedom in the realm of thought. There is a significant difference between dogmatic and systematic theology. The former is an effort to clarify and explain, perhaps even to justify, what a member of a church with dogmas must believe. The latter also seeks to clarify, explain, and justify faith, but if the church does not insist on defining the content held necessary for membership, then the theology may, at best, come to be pervasive, accepted, and universally relied upon. The sense of discipline or obligation need not appear.

Judaism could hardly tolerate a dogmatic theology, for dogma, taken strictly, is alien to its spirit and experience. Rigor and authority are known only in the realm of Jewish practice, of halachah, but have rarely been introduced into the realm of thought. Thus, the closest thing to a dogmatic theology in Judaism might once have been a theology of the halachah. But with authority in the area of Jewish practice as eroded as it has become, such an enterprise, even were it able to surmount the almost insuperable academic difficulties involved, would still only be as coercive as its argument was persuasive.

Inhospitality to dogmatic theology, however, still leaves ample room for the systematic theology which would seek to set forth the content of Jewish belief in an integrated and reasoned way. The authority of such a theology would rest on its ability to convince, not on its special ecclesiastical status, and its very presence in the intellectual forum would require those with other views, or none, to meet its arguments and match its standards.

Since Jewish theology must be systematic rather than dogmatic, a reawakening of theological concern might very well result in a variety of views and approaches. But so far as the fight against the new religio-secularism is concerned, this would make very little difference, and so far as Judaism is concerned, it would be all to the good. Such disagreements could be resolved in meaningful and constructive debate, and if not resolved, they would at least contribute to the clarification of alternative possibilities in Jewish faith—while showing, incidentally, how baseless is the fear that the development of a modern Jewish theology will lead to creedal compulsion. If more need be said on this point, we might take note of the fact that the nature of such views as have already emerged among the younger Jewish theologians would militate strongly against any effort to impose them upon others. There is no absolutistic tendency apparent in the writings of Emil Fackenheim or Jakob Petuchowski or Steven Schwarzs-child or any of the other contemporary thinkers who have contributed to the nascent Jewish theological enterprise of the past few years. On the contrary, for most of them, freedom of conscience is the very foundation of thought and their concern with theology stems in the first place from their desire to transform Judaism from a social fate into a free commitment of conscience.



What Judaism needs, then, is not a theology, but theological concern, not theological uniformity but theological informedness. Whether expressed in a single pattern or in several patterns, this would make possible the corrected vision we require—a sharp focus on the religious component of Jewishness.

It would, of course, be naive to suppose that mere intellectual formulation and discussion could have an immediate or powerful effect on a community as ethnically rooted and as happily integrating as American Jewry. Still, every man of intellectual self-respect would feel himself challenged, and the new, biting quality to the quest for a meaningful Jewish identity would influence many. Through serious theological discussion Jewish identity would be defined, Jewish commitments and obligations outlined. Anyone who had the willingness to do so would finally be given an opportunity to direct his Jewish interest to serious Jewish living, and those who were still standing indecisively at the margins of the congregation would be provided with an incentive to join the community of the faithful. Perhaps a decisive minority could be won.

The positive hope is obvious—but there might also be a negative consequence from which we need not shy away. Clarifying Jewish faith might bring many to the conclusion that they cannot honestly participate in Judaism and the synagogue. Jewish theology could thus become a means of driving Jews from the synagogue. No one wishes to lose Jews for Judaism, but the time has come when the synagogue must be saved for the religious Jew. The time has come when we must be prepared to let some Jews opt out so that those who remain in, or who come in, will not be diverted from their duty to God. As the religion of a perpetual minority, Judaism must always first be concerned with the saving remnant, and so long as the synagogue is overwhelmed by the indifferent and the apathetic who control it for their own non-religious purposes, that remnant will continue to be deprived of its proper communal home. By defining the issues, clarifying the goals, challenging the conventions, Jewish theology may help save a faithful seed and thus round out its prophetic function in our time.

Would there, then, be no place in this community for the secular Jew? Would he be excommunicated, cut off forever from the Jewish people? Surely the answer must depend upon the secularist’s own Jewish concern. Some secular Jews have no interest in the Jewish people at all. They are Jews by birth and their secularism, they say, is purely human and universal, neither having nor requiring any particular foundation (which prompts the obvious comment that, remarkably, this urban, intellectual, universal type is a Jew). The responsibility of the religious community to such Jews would be to help them see what Judaism is and might be. But their right (and perhaps their duty) to stop being known as Jews would be all the more available to them as a matter of free choice.

The Jew who is secular in the sense of lacking religious faith but loyal to the Jewish community—the man who wants neither God nor commandments, but who likes Jews, the Jewish approach to life, or the Jewish style of being different—is the more difficult problem, perhaps because he is so new to the Jewish scene. What would an adequate Jewish theology say to him? Concerned with Jewish people-hood and Jewish history, it would somehow have to come to terms with all the various groupings into which this people has evolved, and with all the transitional forms in which so many of them find themselves—though it would also have to judge the ultimate value of these groupings and forms in terms of their relation to God. Committed to Klal Yisroel as well as to God, the new Jewish theology would probably take an ambivalent attitude to the committed Jewish secularist. He has a place among his people as long as he wishes one—nevertheless he does not stand within its traditional frame. He has his rights as worker, seeker, contributor—but hardly as leader, spokesman, or examplar. He must be called “Jew,” for there is no other useful term for him—nevertheless he is not, in his rejection of the Jewish faith, a “true,” a “real,” a “good” Jew. So long as his Jewish loyalty is limited to the people but not to the God it serves, he must be considered truncated and unfulfilled.

Jewish theology therefore has a special responsibility to him, both as challenge and alternative. It must ask him the source of his values, the foundations of his beliefs, in people, in ideals, in Jewishness itself. It must help him reach the profound questions of human existence to which Judaism has been a response. And over against his own implicit faith, it must pose the faith of the Jewish ages, now interpreted fresh and anew. It must help him face the need to believe, which is basic to any life of ideals, and it must then help him build a personal foundation in faith that can reach up to all men and the whole of human history. Within this context it must set before him in cogent fashion the riches, the depth, the maturity in value which centuries of experience in many different worlds of culture have brought to Judaism. How many intellectuals there are who know everything there is to know about minor novelists and poets and painters, but—witness the COMMENTARY symposium of last year—dismiss as insignificant a Judaism they stopped studying at the age of thirteen! Such Jews too should feel free—perhaps they should even be encouraged—to leave a Jewish people they discover irrevocably wed to God. But the Jewish theologian affirms his vocation as an affirmation of Judaism, in the faith that Judaism can only benefit from exposition and scrutiny. He trusts that he may communicate not concepts alone, but faith, and that he may arouse not understanding alone, but commitment.



1 For the positive side of this movement and for a glimpse of the creative minority who are searching from within, see my article “Crisis Theology and the Jewish Community,” COMMENTARY, July 1961.

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