Culture, Religion

A dynamic theology is the sine qua non to a vital Jewish community

From the Forward:

Name five contemporary Jewish theologians saying something interesting about Jewish belief who had not already published a major work by 1990.
Stumped? So am I.
Over the past few months, I have asked my theologically minded colleagues this question, and the responses have been disheartening.

The Jewish world is bifurcated between producers of Jewish esoterica and Jewish popularizers, communal leaders and academics, but not both. Our generation has precluded the possibility that administration, scholarship and religious vision are compatible, if not mutually dependent, elements of Jewish leadership.
There are many reasons for the dearth of theological thinking, but there is one reason that is particularly worrisome: Maybe there are no fresh Jewish theological voices because Jews are no longer interested in listening.
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.
This past month, Jews observed the festival of Shavuot, celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Do we believe that Mount Sinai really happened? Do we believe that the Torah continues to command us, shape us and bind us as a people? How can a Jew stand simultaneously at the base of Sinai and firmly in modernity?
These are difficult questions and there are no easy answers, but a Jewish community that does not ask them will not get very far in its journey. It is incumbent upon every generation to formulate a theology that makes Judaism compelling to the Jews of its age.
The time is ours. Nevertheless, the question remains: Is anyone interested in being part of the conversation?

Full story.
I know those of you writing and reading for this fine blog are thinking about the big questions – I’m of the opinion that the conversation is being played out in the blogosphere, here and elsewhere (If you haven’t been reading Mobius’ journals from Elat Chayyim, not would be a good time to start. Also, the Westheimer/Kurtzman conversation over at Jewcy).
We may not be the kind of institutional theologians whose disappearance is lamented in this article, but that may come in part from what is sometimes a certain anti-institutional sentiment. Or, we may not be too fond of our institutional options. Or, our institutions may be our blogs. Thoughts?

20 thoughts on “A dynamic theology is the sine qua non to a vital Jewish community

  1. It seems to me that the dearth of exciting theological thinking is a symptom of a much larger problem; namely, that modern Judaism (Orhtodoxy included) is no longer capable of producing either transcendent spiritual moments or transformational practices. I understand theology to be after the fact reflections, done systematically, about precisely these transcendent and transformational moments that no longer happen (or, at least, not very often).
    In short, Jews are not interested in Jewish theology because there isn’t anything very interesting to theologize about. I think American Judaisms’ energies would be much better spent in trying to figure out why its’ practices are not transformational for most American Jews. If and when they do this, interesting theological speculation will inevitably follow.

  2. the conversation is continuing. its just not by bestselling authors or huge public figures. its a lay-level conversation taking place in a network based framework, as opposed to the older American Jewish model of a leadership-level discussion in a more structured institutional framework.

  3. So look backward in time not forward! I, for one, am not that interested in what people of the now have to say about theology. Show me something thoughtful and insightful from 500+ years ago! That is interesting. When I do find something interesting I talk to anyone and everyone who might be interested.

  4. I think that there is some really great stuff coming out of Israel but that Americans tend to not be able to access it because of language (me also, i find it very difficult and I study in an Israeli program). Ron Margolin, Noam Zohar, Yair Lorberbaum and Moshe Halberthal, all have significant works and all focus on different aspects of the Jewish Academic panorama. Moreover, they do a great job of drawing out theology from their works, as much as is possible in Jewish text. But if theology is merely the study of our experience with God in a literal sense then there is no room for Talmud, Halacha, History, Bible and so forth in this conversation. The key is to look at these subjects as an interaction with the Jewish God, how their authors engaged with the Jewish God and ultimately how it builds our religiosity.
    In my view the most important Jewish book of the last 15 years in Moshe Halbertal’s The people of the book. This is a book on Jewish Hermeneutics. It is readable and enjoyable and explains the dynamic ever developing relationship Jews have with God through their interpretation of text. How they understand their text describes how they engage with God. But it is not straight theology. If you want straight theology (be it biblical) you have to read Jon Levinson or in hebrew, Dalit Rom-Shiloni. Yair Lorberbaum has a book on the image of God in hazal.
    In the end, you cannot just rely on Jewish Lights for your popular theology. Rabbis are no longer the great scholars of the Jewish world but Phd’s. This goes for the modern orthodox world also.
    Look at Areyeh Cohen’s book if you desperately need an American voice. However, I do not think that the secular Israeli voice dealing with a new freedom in their approach to religion is that different from the reform, recon, and renewal voice.
    Sorry for the rant and the misspellings

  5. None of the quality academic stuff is good theology, and no good theology comes from academia. Its simply a waste of time.

  6. say word.
    There’s a fair amount of theological exploration being ignored, for one reason or another, all around. I would argue that most of the community lacks the language to participate in much of the conversation, if not the interest.

  7. I don’t understand the whole focus on theology in the first place. Either we don’t want to listen, because the T. will make demands on us we don’t really want to comply with, or its a fuzzy feel-good thing everyone can be happy with.
    I think, also, that we’ve finally understood that belief and God are concepts too abstract to really put into words properly. Its better to focus on observance and literacy. That way people can think their own thoughts about God etc. without being bound by doctrine or being afraid for their lives.
    I think “theology” is just an easy way for people to talk religious without doing religious.

  8. My friends and I are finding Dawkins and Harris to be catalysts to grapple with theological issues, or lack thereof. It works as well. I’m surprised at how many of my observant friends are so thrown off by Dawkins challenges. And these are bright educated folks. His arrogrance and intelligence force us to grapple with issues we rarely think about.

  9. Hi there –
    I’m a self proclaimed “contemporary Jewish theologian saying something interesting about Jewish belief”.
    just thought i’d let you know

  10. thats true, i did find mr. kohanzad’s work pretty interesting. in general i don’t like reading about religion in academic terms though.
    poetry works better.

  11. This past Monday Rav Shagar Z’L sadly passed away. He was in my eyes the only Jewish Rabbi/Theologian to truly grapple with post-modernism, secularism, and the relation between freedom and belief. He understood post-modernism to be a new Shvirat Ha’Helim (breaking of the vessels) which now allows for a new authentic spirituality. He was one of the few who could weave together a class of in depth Gemara and include Rav Nachman, Derrida and Zizek. Almost none of his vast writings have yet been published, and only two small volumes have been translated into English. In the up-coming years I’m sure you will be hearing his name a lot more, as they say “Tzadik bemunato Yichyeh.”
    Here is a link to some trascripts of classes he gave on Sipurie masiot of Rav Nachman, in them he explores some of his basic positions in relation to Post-modernism and post-chasidut.

  12. Umm…what about Tamar Ross’ ‘Expanding the Palace of Torah’? She trying to get Orthodoxy/Jews to think about revelation differently…not completely earth shattering but sociologically it could end up being very important.

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