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The Healer of Shattered Hearts: A Jewish View of God.

IT SEEMS ALMOST AN EON AWAY, BUT A short twenty-five years ago people were talking seriously about "the death of God." The statement was not so much metaphysical as sociological: even if God existed and cared about us, people found that fact irrelevant to their lives.

Although the movement was heavily Christian in its language and in the identity of its exponents, it certainly bespoke the attitude of many Jews as well. Indeed, Jews were then, and have remained, the most secularized religious group in America. Aside from sociological, economic, and educational factors, this may well stem from the inherent structure of Judaism, in contrast to that of Christianity: one can be a Christian only in religious terms, but one can identify with the broader civilizational and ethnic factors which make up Jewish identity without asserting its religious core. Philosophical and practical problems abound in doing that, but a large percentage of Jews believe and act that way. In opinion polls they may profess a belief in God, but, for most, such a response is more of an assertion of respectability than a statement of a dynamic reality in their lives. Jews certainly attend synagogues with much less regularity and in much smaller percentages than Christians find their way into churches.

These two books, however, are part of a battery of evidence that Jews in increasing numbers are now seeking God. This is hardly a mass movement, but it is a distinct phenomenon in contemporary Jewish life, which manifests itself among Jews of all types. Some plunge into it with the zeal of the newly converted -- and then, as often as not, leave it just as suddenly. This is especially true of Orthodox ba'alei teshuvah (repentants). Most Jews in a search for God are surprised at finding themselves engaged in it, recurrently uneasy about it, and maybe even embarrassed by it. They often are wary and skeptical.

Nevertheless, they yearn for a sense of meaning in their lives, for community, for an understanding of roots and goals, for an outlet for feelings, and for assurance that their struggles are not lonely and worthless. This may be triggered by a specific event, like the death of a parent, tradition and modernity. Neither will satisfy those who align with halakhic teaching but perceive modernity as a source of values with the power to enhance Judaism. Both books compel us to choose between tradition and modernity. A true synthesis of both value systems escapes each author -- albeit for different reasons.

Perhaps both authors are only reflecting current sociological realities. Orthodoxy clearly is moving rightward, and Lamm's book represents a retreat from the bold and venturesome vision of synthesis so popular a generation ago. Gillman's work articulates what many Conservative lay people do -- what Jacob Staub refers to as "the non-ideological nature of the attachment of so many of its members, who simply don't care, or act as if they don't care, about halacha."(2) These prevailing attitudes of Conservative laity stand in direct contrast to the halakhic norms emanating from the Jewish Theological Seminary. In this sense, Gillman's book supports what many of the movement's left-wing critics, particularly those among the havurot, have long advocated -- a shift in authority within the movement from rabbi as halakhic decisor to lay leadership as communal builders.

In the sociological sense, then, these works signify the growing distance in the Jewish community between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox. The problem of religious polarization will, doubtless, continue to dominate the Jewish communal agenda. At least as important, however, is the necessity for an ideology that will energize those Jews for whom halakhah remains authoritative, yet for whom the claims of modern culture are sufficiently powerful so as to warrant serious consideration not only in their own right but also in their capacity to influence Judaic values. That group, to be sure, may be numerically small. It does, however, have the capacity to serve as a bridge between the movements and to overcome prevailing religious polarization. Moreover, it is precisely as a constituency caught in the dialectic of tradition and modernity that it promises the capacity to mold a distinctive Jewish identity anchored in the authority of Jewish values yet influenced by modern culture, norms, and critiques.

ELLIOT N. DORFF is Provost, University of Judaism, Los Angeles, California.

2. Jacob J. Staub, "Reflections on the Conservative Movement," Ibid., p. 302.
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Author:Dorff, Elliot N.
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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