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Torah U'madda.

BOTH OF THESE RECENT WORKS OF MODERN Jewish thought share much in common. Their authors occupy prominent positions at leading rabbinical seminaries and are addressing rabbis and future rabbis in terms of the contemporary ideological encounter with secularism. Each author also directs himself to the educated lay reader in an attempt to engage synagogue members ideologically. Both works are informed by considerable scholarship and philosophical learning, although neither work amounts to a work of philosophy per se. Each in its own way seeks to redefine programmatically the nature of Jewish identity today. Each author inclines to a traditionalist perspective, articulating the beauties of Jewish tradition for contemporary thinking Jews. Finally, and most importantly, both of these books amount to major restatements of the tensions between Jewish tradition and modern culture -- seeking to incorporate the claims of modernity and its ethos of secularism, autonomy and personal conscience, and democratic norms within the rubric of Jewish tradition and to communicate the values of tradition in ways that will be salient to Jews living in the modern world.

Yet, if both works share similar points of departure, they clash sharply over conclusions, definitions, and understandings of Jewish values and identity. These differences far transcend the usual distinctions between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. Rather, they amount to statements of profound conflict and a parting of the ways over the nature of authority in Jewish tradition. In that sense, to the extent that each author writes from the perspective of his own movement -- Lamm that of Orthodoxy and Gillman that of Conservative Judaism -- although neither claims official status as movement spokesman, these books communicate the impression that the gulf between Conservative and Orthodox Judaism has widened considerably.

As President of Yeshiva University, Lamm sets forth to explain the mission and motto of the institution that he heads. Long considered the flagship of Modern Orthodoxy, Yeshiva mandates a dual curriculum of religion and secular studies. In the 1960s, Yeshiva felt little compulsion to justify secular education as a worthy pursuit. On the contrary, its leaders and faculty boldly proclaimed the excitement of synthesis -- integrating the best values of Torah and western culture. This synthesis sharply distinguished itself from both those who rejected secular values entirely, save for vocational purposes, and from those who embraced uncritically all facets of contemporary culture. Rather, Yeshiva sought to develop an integrated Jewish personality -- one at home both in the world of the Talmud and in that of Kierkegaard, and struggling to determine what, if any, relationships existed between the two.

However, as Lamm notes in his Preface, the idea of Torah U'Madda (Torah and secular knowledge) has come under increasing attacks in recent years. The intellectual climate within American Orthodoxy often restricts the desirability of secular education to the strictly utilitarian purposes of enabling one to earn a living. Lamm seeks to engage these right-wing critics of Torah U'madda and to restore a sense of mission and excitement to Yeshiva's ideals.

His point of departure is Jewish law, which remains binding as the core aspect of contemporary Jewish identity. To be sure, Lamm understands halakhah as, at best, minimum Judaism. However, the halakhic framework is essential for maintaining Jewish tradition and identity in the modern world.

Within that primacy of Torah and halakhah, Lamm mounts an eloquent plea for the role and place of secular education. Heavily influenced by Maimonides and the hasidic doctrine of Divine immanence permeating all of Creation, he argues that Torah knowledge includes secular knowledge, which is all a part of the cosmic Divine holiness. Although this argument closely parallels Maimonides' elevation of secular education, or, specifically, the study of general philosophy, into a religious imperative, Lamm is perhaps most brilliant and original in evoking mystical and hasidic sources to address these issues.

Given his defense of secular education within Torah, he proceeds to outline three possibilities for the outcome of the encounter between Torah and Madda. Following Samson Raphael Hirsch, we should strive for co-existence -- with little interaction between these two types of knowledge. Ze'ev Falk argues for a Hegelian synthesis, in which the theory of Torah and its antithesis of Madda will clash in a higher understanding, or synthesis, of Judaism and modern scholarship. Lamm himself prefers a model of symbiosis in which each world will enhance the other but will stop short of significantly altering its counterpart.

Lamm's program, in short, sets forth an ideological vision of education today at Yeshiva University. Although he concedes that not all will accept this vision of Madda as containing value in itself, all will allocate at least an instrumental or utilitarian role for the presence of secular education within Yeshiva's curriculum.

Yet, if this work aims towards a new restatement of the encounter of tradition and modernity, it abandons, in many ways, many of the claims of synthesis set forth by Modern Orthodox exponents. Most strikingly, Lamm ignores all references to contradictions or conflicts between secular knowledge and Torah knowledge. Certainly, for example, one may claim that knowledge of archaeology will enrich our understanding of the Bible. But Lamm offers the serious student of archaeology little or no guidance should archeological research contradict traditionalist assumptions about Scripture.

More generally, Lamm slights the entire tradition of academic Jewish studies or Wissenschaft des Judentums. Although he unabashedly acknowledges its presence and importance, his only advice to the serious Jewish historian is to consider whether knowledge of Torah might enrich the historian's craft -- a rather superficial exhortation to the practitioners of Wissenschaft that they might benefit from knowledge of Talmud and Midrash -- but no guidelines as to whether historicist findings and research can be absorbed by Torah even if they contradict aspects of its literal meaning.

This slighting of academic Jewish studies may explain the most striking omission in Lamm's treatment: the absence of even the slightest reference to Nachman Krochmal, perhaps the most profound exponent of synthesis among modern Jewish thinkers. Krochmal saw his mission as sensitizing contemporary Orthodoxy to the importance of time and historical scholarship. For him, history connoted the essential and critical challenge to traditional faith. In evoking, for his major philosophical work, the Maimonidean title of a modern "Guide for the Perplexed," Krochmal underscored the need for a new synthesis -- not between Torah and Greek philosophy but between Torah and historical criticism. This new version of synthesis amounts to a plea for freedom of inquiry and research, coupled with a theology of history which perceives the Divine Spirit as working within history. Krochmal's synthesis, in short, seeks to include historian and believer within a single model while accepting the integrity of both. Regrettably, Lamm's silence on Krochmal underscores a more general bias against permitting secular values to influence traditional Jewish thought, as well as a particular desire to minimize conflict between the world of Torah and the world of Madda. Although the teachings of Torah can profitably be applied to the major ethical and intellectual dilemmas of contemporary times, Lamm allocates little room for the potential influence of secular culture upon the formulation and shaping of Torah values.

In short, Lamm mounts an eloquent plea for the role of Madda within the world of Torah. He aims to persuade Orthodoxy's ideological right-wing both to respect the pursuit of Madda, and, programmatically, to accept that the practice of Torah and Madda need not be alien to the world of Roshei Yeshivah. In this latter sense, Lamm's work should be placed in the more general context of Orthodoxy's shift to the ideological Right. In other words, even as Lamm seeks to define a "Centrist" Orthodoxy, other voices within Yeshiva call for increased isolation form the general society and general culture. In seeking to placate these voices, he minimizes the intellectual doubts raised by modern science and historical scholarship as well as the excitement and challenge of wrestling with two competing claims or avenues for truth and the effort to find common ground between them. Lamm's ideological redefinition goes so far even as to legitimize the instrumentalist or utilitarian view of secular education, which the author himself denigrates. To be sure, it may succeed in legitimizing Centrist Orthodoxy for the Orthodox Right. It fails, however, to address the central question of modern Jewish identity: why be Jewish in a world in which the claims of modern culture are so attractive and skepticism towards traditional values is so rampant?

The sociological context, of course, is critical, for Modern Orthodoxy remains an embattled group. It continues to suffer the reproaches of those on the right who pillory it as a phony or watered-down version of traditional Judaism. Lamm's efforts to maintain Modern Orthodoxy's integrity and vitality therefore clearly merit communal support.

Yet, precisely given this context, Lamm's perception of Torah U'Madda appears too limited. Yeshiva's uniqueness lies in its capacity to transcend becoming a yeshivah by day and a college by night. Even Lamm's right-wing critics have long sanctioned evening college courses. Rather, a true synthesis represents a sincere effort to grapple with the challenges of modern culture, to take with equal seriousness the respective claims of tradition and modernity, to explore secular culture for its potential to enhance our understanding of Judaic text and tradition, and to apply Jewish values to contemporary, social and ethical issues. That route, to be sure, is perilous. The claims of modern culture are so powerful that Orthodoxy fears, correctly, for future Jewish continuity. Yet, Yeshiva's distinctiveness lies precisely in its capacity to traverse that exciting, albeit dangerous, path.

If Lamm seeks to claim ground on which Torah values permit encounter with general culture, Neil Gillman emphasizes those avenues by which modern Jews may become inspired by Torah teachings. Like Lamm, Gillman is concerned with the encounter between tradition and modernity. He, too, is biased in favor of tradition. Unlike Lamm, however, Gillman is compelled to question how Jewish tradition -- the "Sacred Fragments" -- has been reshaped by modern values.

To be sure, the primary objective of Sacred Fragments is personal rather than programmatic. Gillman seeks to empower lay readers to develop their own theologies -- informed, of course, by millennia of Jewish teachings. The book clearly emanates from encounters over a decade with Conservative synagogue members, and seeks to bridge the gap between the rich Judaic scholarship that prevails at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the paucity of ideological controversy and Judaic knowledge that prevails within Conservative synagogues. If anything, Gillman's major contribution -- both in this book and in his teaching and public lectures -- has been to energize Conservative lay leaders and rabbis in the field on the ideological definition of Conservative Judaism, in turn strengthening the ideological salience of the movement to its critical constituencies.

Moreover, many of Gillman's insights will benefit even those most richly versed in Jewish literature and thought. He demonstrates, for example, how deeply Abraham Joshua Heschel was indebted to Yehudah Halevi. Similarly, his chapter on Jewish eschatology must be considered one of the most brilliant treatments of that perplexing topic.

Yet, dominating this virtual catalogue of Jewish theology, is a single startling and most controversial thesis. Gillman's starting point is that "Torah is entirely a Midrash" -- a myth shattered by the onslaught of modernity, yet portions of which remain sacred and continue to speak to us as modern Jews.

In particular, it is modern critical scholarship which has shattered, for Gillman, our traditionalist myth. He claims that we must choose between a fundamentalist reading of Scripture in which everything remains sacred, and the critical reading, which challenges us to recover the Sacred Fragments. Because tradition functions as a myth, it by no means is irrelevant. The rituals and symbols of a myth are often most compelling -- vide the power of Thanksgiving or the American flag. It does mean, however, that the authority of determining Jewish practice has shifted from the word of God, expressed through the rabbis, to the people of Israel and the community, for, ultimately, their actions will determine what claims a tradition shattered by modern scholarship may still exercise upon us.

By myth, Gillman does not mean fiction or falsehood. He defines myth as a structure -- a vehicle by which the community makes sense of its experience. In that sense, the term midrash is probably more appropriate and certainly less threatening to the traditionalist reader. What is new is Gillman's willingness to subsume the entire corpus of tradition under the category of myth or midrash. Tradition is not binding because it was commanded by God; that, for Gillman, would amount to fundamentalism. Nor is it binding because it represents the historical experience of the Jews -- a criterion long favored by Conservative Jewish thinkers. Rather, it is today our challenge as modern Jews to find ways in which tradition can speak to us meaningfully. In other words, can its myths become our myths?

To be sure, Gillman makes no claim to a redefinition of Conservative Judaism. He occupies no official position within the movement save as one trained in it and as a prominent member of the JTS faculty. Therefore, unlike Lamm, he sets forth no institutional programme. Yet, one cannot ignore the implications of this book, as the work of a prominent Conservative theologian in dialogue with Conservative congregations, rabbis, and rabbinical students, for the movement's future.

First, and perhaps foremost, is the question of whether Jewish law remains normative and binding, or is it only part of the myth -- some of which remains sacred while other aspects may be discarded. Gillman insists that Judaism remains a halakhic system but maintains that it is the community that will decide for itself what is a mizvah and what is purely optional. Clearly, Gillman's preferences lie with Rosenzweig and Heschel, for whom halakhah remained central to modern Jewish identity. Yet, by including halakhah within midrash, he leaves open the possibility for downgrading its importance the way we might otherwise disregard unreasonable midrashim.

For example, we may take three of the most divisive issues on the contemporary Jewish agenda -- partilineal descent, rabbinic officiation at interfaith marriages, and the acceptance of homosexual rabbis. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements have adopted relatively liberal positions on these issues on the grounds that halakhah is no longer binding. It exercises a voice rather than a veto. Orthodoxy rejects liberal positions on these issues as violations of Jewish law. Generally, the Conservative movement has sided with the Orthodox on these questions, partly on the grounds of history, and party on the grounds of halakhah. Yet, Gillman rejects the Orthodox position as fundamentalist and locates authority within the community of Conservative Jews. Assuming, as recent research indicates, that the majority of Conservative laity would favor patrilineal descent and, perhaps, rabbinic officiation, Gillman's arguments virtually mandate redefinition of the movement's positions along these more liberal lines. Aside from further blurring distinctions between Conservative and Reform Judaism, such statements would signal the end of any remaining movement claims to represent halakhic Judaism. For, as Rabbi Joel Roth, one of the most perceptive exponents of Conservative Judaism as a halakhic movement, writes,

|O~nce talk of the absence of a system, or of a halachic system rather than the halachic system takes hold, ... they do violence to the halachic system, and break the chain of authentic halachic authority ... Since the rabbinic period, normative Judaism has been halachic. And it can remain normative only insofar as it remains halachic. If the "defenders of the faith" of our generation think that they meet the challenges of modernity when they advocate ideologies that undermine halacha and the halachic process, they are mistaken. Such ideological stances do not meet the challenges of modernity, they fail to meet its challenges.(1)

Significantly, Gillman's position departs significantly from that of Solomon Schechter, a founding architect of Conservative Judaism. Schechter also argued that the community determines norms and standards. Yet, by the term "Catholic Israel," Schechter and his successors meant the community of committed Jews. In other words, halakhah can evolve only through a process and dialogue within the halakhic community. Gillman, in pronounced contrast, transfers authority to the community generally, irrespective of halakhic parameters. Although Gillman repeatedly argues in favor of tradition, his position concerning authority owes more to Mordecai Kaplan than to Schechter.

Equally problematic is the radical pluralism which informs Gillman's work. Myths themselves tend to be highly relativist, for what is salient to one individual may be heresy to another. Gillman leaves us with little guidance as to why we should select one myth at the expense of others. His theme -- that "the text can come to mean whatever the community wants it to mean" -- challenges us to question what are the limits of pluralism. Are there universal truths to Judaism if Torah is entirely a midrash?

This radical pluralism is troubling on two counts. First, Conservative Judaism has always claimed authenticity in its understanding of Judaism and, therefore, has been critical of the other Movements. For Gillman, the difference between Conservative Judaism and the other Movements now becomes more a matter of personal taste rather than a conflict over basic values.

Even more telling is Norman Lamm's criticism that "if everything is kosher, then nothing is kosher." As laudable as it may be to include as many individuals and perceptions as possible under a Judaic umbrella, it has been the power of Jewish ideas and values that have made the Jews distinctive as a people. We cannot be all things to all people. Rather, the distinctiveness of Judaic ideas has been precisely the ability to underscore those ideas that we support, and negate those that we reject. Advocates of religious pluralism, to be sure, seek to cast their net widely. Yet, for Gillman, the parameters of the net lie entirely in the hands of the community. We are left, in short, with little sense of what, if any, are the limits of pluralism.

This theme emerges most strikingly in Gillman's chapter on Jewish rituals. There, he clearly aligns Conservative Judaism with the liberal movements, in pronounced contrast to Orthodoxy. Gillman argues for greater utilization of ritual in personal and communal life. However, in emphasizing the symbolic importance of ritual, he abandons its binding and authoritative quality. At this point, differences between Conservative and Reform Judaism become primarily one of degree rather than of doctrine.

A traditionalist reader who perceives Judaism as halakhic, yet remains influenced by and sensitive to the claims of modern scholarship, will find himself or herself theologically homeless within these books. Both authors purport to address Jews caught between the attractions of or it may be a cumulative response to a nagging sense of emptiness in their secular lives. It is more typical of people over forty, when family and professional rhythms allow some time for reflection and when one feels a distinct need for it at that stage in adult development, but teenagers can intensely feel a need for God, and, indeed, so can people of any age.

How one goes about this search, however, can vary enormously, and these books represent two of the major ways of proceeding. Gillman's book grew out of many years of helping lay people and rabbinical students think through their own Jewish theologies. Its approach to God is, thus, philosophical. It is certainly not bloodless or sterile intellectualism; quite the contrary, it manages to explain the critical philosophical issues and the primary alternatives for dealing with them while reflecting the personal struggle which lead lay people to raise, and to respond to, those issues in the first place -- quite unusual for a work in theology. Wolpe's method, by contrast, is literary. He plumbs Midrash and other Jewish and general literature in an attempt to respond to our contemporary need for God.

One very attractive feature of Sacred Fragments is its tone. Gillman clearly respects his lay students and readers. There is no condescension here; on the contrary, he presumes that, while those reading his book may know little about Jewish theology when they begin, they are intelligent people who can, and should, stretch to understand Jewish philosophy and even write some of their own. His descriptions of the issues and the principle alternatives for dealing with them are both clear and insightful, and they do not assume previous knowledge of either Judaism or philosophy; at the same time, though, they never talk down to the reader in explaining even relatively simple matters. In this book, we are all adults helping each other engage in our personal searches for God. Gillman is our group leader, not the repository of all knowledge or wisdom.

Several elements of style help this book accomplish its end. The author explains why he organized the book as he did, and he provides helpful bridge paragraphs to link one chapter to another. This clarifies the structure of the book in the mind of the reader, keeping the issues separate while yet showing their relationship to one another and why one leads from one to the other. Gillman has thankfully restrained himself from the scholarly penchant to write long footnotes, thus eliminating the ponderousness of many academic volumes. Instead, he notes citations to Biblical and rabbinic passages in the text, itself, and, at the end of each chapter, he provides a bibliography for further reading, where he cites the books that he discussed within the chapter and other readings on the same theme. These features, in addition to his clear, unaffected style of writing and his unusual ability to make complicated matters understandable and meaningful, make this, without exaggeration, the best introduction to Jewish thought in print.

In discussing each issue, Gillman presents each significant position sympathetically and yet objectively, identifying its strengths as well as its weaknesses. This, however, is not just a random survey: Gillman builds toward his own vision of Judaism. He seeks an approach which is modern, honest, and rooted in traditional texts, thought, and practice. In this reviewer's opinion, he has succeeded admirably in doing so, and many of his readers may well adopt a position more or less similar to his.

With that, I have some reservations about Gillman's approach -- and since he encourages people to create their own theologies and to share their thoughts with others, I would imagine that he would be glad that I do! He relies heavily on modern studies in anthropology and linguistics which describe the functioning of myths, rituals, and other forms of symbolic language, in responding to ultimate issues. We express ourselves that way because, in part, we cannot capture the meanings and values which we encounter in our experience in plain, descriptive terms. Moreover, matters of ultimate concern beg for responses framed with an aesthetic flourish -- the kind that we find in myths, rituals, and other symbols -- to express and enhance their emotional impact and to make the views and values which we espouse easier to transmit to others.

In many ways, such an analysis of religious stories and rituals is all well and good. It certainly frees us from having to deal with the spurious conflicts between science and religion which a literalist reading of Biblical texts produces, and, at the same time, it demonstrates why religious texts can, and should, be meaningful without always being literally true.

With those distinct advantages, though, come some hard questions. The first is the matter of truth. Are there some myths which are truer than others? If so, how do we determine that? If not, why choose one myth over another?

Gillman vacillates on this issue. In the early part of the book, he claims that an objective evaluation of myths is impossible:

We can never stand outside of the myth to measure its correspondence with reality, for we can never have a totally a-mythical perception of that reality. The issue is never myth or no myth, but which myth ... We simply do not have an independent picture of that reality against which we can measure the myth, for we literally can not see the world except through the spectacles of our myth.

Nevertheless, according to Gillman, myths can at least be falsified (his example is the claim that the Holocaust victims suffered because of their sins) and may even be verified in at least a general way.

But myths are also not capricious inventions. They emerge originally out of our experience of natural and historical patterns. They may select, identify, and organize these specific patterns, but they can do all of this because the patterns are there to be seen, selected, and organized in the first place. They can then be seen to be roughly consistent with our experience of the world.

Later, in fact, he claims that myths are "roughly comparable to the scientific truth of the more global and abstract of scientific theories...such as in quantum mechanics or astronomy." The "objective dimension" of myths, the patterns which are discovered, not invented, is what, according to Gillman, we call "revelation".

Nevertheless, when he lists four criteria for choosing one theology over another, the degree to which a given theology corresponds to our experiences of reality is not among them! Moreover, when he comes to discuss Jewish myths about the end of days, he says the following:

Since the events that we describe lie completely beyond our experience, our formulations have to be taken as poetic, dramatic, impressionistic visions -- never objective, scientific forecasts. They are in no way provable or disprovable. They do what great myths have always done: infuse meaning into our lives, generate emotion, mobilize us to action, inspire loyalty, and reveal unsuspected dimensions in our experience.

But how do myths about the admittedly unexperienced end of days "reveal unsuspected dimensions in our experience"? And how would we judge the truth or falsity of what the myths say about that which we have not experienced? Most interestingly, note that in this instance, when we have no experience against which to check a myth, Gillman describes myths totally without reference to their objective truth or falsity.

Clearly, then, the truth status of myths is something which Gillman has only partially worked out. It is, I agree, no simple matter; we may, indeed, have to develop a sophisticated method which applies varying criteria to different kinds of stories -- or to myths about differing topics. Moreover, we will need to test some stories which have ample evidence for their truth, some which articulate only one side of a multi-layered and controversial story, and some, like those describing the end of days, with virtually no evidence at all.

For all its difficulty, though, this is a crucial task, one which must be systematically addressed in all of its complexity, especially by someone who relies as much as Gillman does on seeing religious claims in the context of wider myths, We do, after all, find much meaning in stories which were never intended to be anything but fictions, and some such stories can do all the things on Gillman's list -- "infuse meaning into our lives, generate emotion, mobilize us to action, inspire loyalty, and reveal unsuspected dimensions in our experience." But those myths which also claim to be true hold a status beyond such noble fictions, for they claim that, as an articulation of truth, I should believe them, whether I want to or not. It is not only that it would add to my life to believe them, or that I would feel more deeply rooted to my community if I did: religious myths claim that I must believe them because it is they, and not competing myths, which tell the truth about life and death. On the other hand, if I cannot distinguish true myths from false ones by at least a fairly consistent and reliable method, I am left with just a bagful of stories, some of which I may like and some not.

The second cluster of issues I would like to raise for Gillman's position follows directly from the first. It concerns the authority and durability of such a faith, and it is not so much an objection as a question. Gillman correctly notes that "People die for their myths, so coercive is their hold." Would people be willing to die for religious myths, though, if they see them as myths? Less dramatically and more commonly, would they desire to comply with Jewish law if they thought of God and revelation this way? And what is the staying power of a faith disabused of literalism? Or, put in a broader form, once we leave the stage of naive literalism by doubting its claims in our intellectual adolescence, can the faith to which we ultimately arrive as adults hold the same sway over us as the abandoned, simple-minded, but compelling beliefs of our childhood? In Paul Ricoeur's terms, which Gillman approvingly quotes, can a "second, willed naivete" work? And can we transmit that faith in a dynamic and appealing way to the next generation?

I certainly hope that a sophisticated faith can be compelling and enduring, but I frankly do not know whether it can be. Fundamentalists the world over--and Jews among them--certainly exhibit more passion for their beliefs than those who hold any other form, and fundamentalists probably would more readily die for their beliefs than would others. Such zeal may not be good; perhaps a diminution in passion and a greater sense of perspective and calm are ultimately better for religion, the people adhering to it, and the rest of the world. Once we are disabused of our infantile literalisms and chastened by the experience of distrusting and ultimately rejecting the myths of our intellectual childhood, though, can we ever regain enough emotional fervor for our new religious synthesis to make it an integral and dynamic part of our lives, something for which we are, indeed, willing to sacrifice much and which our children will discern as such? And will the masses do this or only the few?

The facts are clearly not all in, for only very recently have people interpreted religious faith in terms similar to Gillman's. In the last two centuries, neither orthodox nor liberal positions have been entirely successful in motivating a living faith in Jews; both types have often produced sterile forms of religion and/or rebellion and disaffection. Ultimately, of course, only time will tell which is the most effective way of assuring the vitality and endurance of Judaism under conditions of modernity.

I to think, though, that Gillman's view of the authority of Jewish law must be modified if there is any hope of understanding and retaining the binding quality of Judaism. When describing his own position, he says this:

The issue, then, is most emphatically not the very legitimacy of a religious or specifically Jewish sense of being obligated. Nor is it the legitimacy of behavioral obligations in the first place. What is at issue are the respective roles of God and human beings in grounding that sense of obligation and in shaping the specific content of what we are obligated, as Jews, to do. If modernity has wrought a single, decisive transformation in the terms of this discussion, it is the insistence not that we be free from religious obligation, but that we take the authority on ourselves, or more accurately, that we share the authority with God, for we perceive God as having shared His authority with Israel ...

This view denies neither the existence of parameters for what constitutes authentic Jewish behavior nor the fact of authority. It does insist, however, that both the parameters and the authority emerge out of the community. But once we deny verbal or propositional revelation, there is simply no escaping that conclusion. It is the community that decides for itself what will be considered mitzvah and it does so on its own authority.

I certainly agree that the community -- in the form of its rabbis' decisions and its communal customs -- decides how to shape the content of Jewish law in our day, but it does so not only on its own authority, but on God's. The Jewish tradition interpreted Deuteronomy 17:8-13 to give rabbis in each generation unequivocal authority to determine the proper interpretation and application of Jewish law in their time; this is not a modern transformation. One famous section of the Talmud (B. Bava Mezia 59b) openly denies to God any say in the matter, and, more importantly, in practice, the talmudic rabbis always acted on that basis: they never consulted God for their decisions, but, rather, produced them through their own efforts. On the other hand, though, they saw this process as suffused with God. God ordained that they, and not He, should decide how to apply the law:

"For it is a law for Israel, a ruling of the God of Jacob" (Psalms 81:5). If it is not a law for Israel, it is, as it were, not a ruling for the God of Jacob. Rabbi Kerisafa said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: In the past, "These are the set times of the Lord" (Leviticus 23:4); from now on, "which you should call" (Ibid.). Rabbi Illa said: If you call them, they are My set times; if not, they are not My set times. (J. Rosh Hashanah 1:3 |57b~; cf.B. Rosh Hashanah 25a)

God also determined that nothing short of Divine revelation would take place through the rabbis' study and their decisions that, indeed, this was a more reliable form of revelation than prophecy had been (cf. B. Bava Batra 12a). As Gillman himself points out, even a naturalist like Mordecai Kaplan finds some role for God in the shaping of the law. With full recognition of the significant role legitimately exercised by human beings in this process, then, I think that the Divine element must be underscored; otherwise, we can neither understand how the law has held sway in the past nor hope that it will hold sway in the future.

One other matter along these lines: the only hope of retaining commitment to a sophisticated faith is if, from early childhood, religious stories are told as stories with a follow-up discussion of what in them is true and what is only imaginary. (Shirley Newman's A Child's Introduction to Torah is a good example of how to do this.) Only if honesty and a keen sense of truth is cultivated about religious matters from the very beginning can there be reasonable hope that adults will associate religious claims with these qualities. Only then is there a chance that people will be committed to their adult faith "with all their heart, with all their soul, and with all their might." Otherwise, religion will die the death of "Puff, the magic dragon" and will be, at best, a nostalgic memory of childhood, In other words, this element of the truth status of myths, as complicated as it is, will ultimately determine whether a faith such as Gillman's can do the other things he wants it to do -- "infuse meaning into our lives, generate emotion, mobilize us to action, inspire loyalty, and reveal unsuspected dimensions in our experience."

There are two other matters in Sacred Fragments which I shall address in shorter form. Gillman claims, much as did the early exponents of the Reform Movement, that morality always takes precedence over rituals in Jewish law. As I have explained at some length elsewhere,(1) it seems to me that old maxim is badly flawed. In more cases than not, ritual forms and moral norms are intertwined in Jewish law (a fact which Gillman acknowledges). Moreover, there are a few cases where ritual adherence is preferred--as, for example, when the choice is between obeying parents and observing the Sabbath (B. Yevamot 5b). It certainly is true that rituals alone will not do and that scrupulous adherence to them will not excuse moral turpitude, as the Prophets eloquently proclaim, and it is also true that moral concerns influenced the way in which the rabbis interpreted and applied the ritual commandments. But it is not at all clear that, in the classical tradition, "morality is primary" in creating the Jew's fellowship with God, even as a matter of emphasis.

Finally, the discussion of prayer in Sacred Fragments is the aspect of Gillman's presentation that I find weakest. He notes that prayer is sometimes done mechanically, and he has a nice discussion of the problem of adjusting the liturgy to our own beliefs and sensitivities, but nowhere does he probe the other philosophical issues that are involved in prayer. Why should I pray? How should I understand the answers to my prayer, if there be any? How should I understand the balance between the fixed elements in Jewish prayer (its liturgy, its times for prayer) and the need for spontaneous expression? In what ways is prayer an avenue to knowledge of, and encounter with, God? Prayer is certainly more than ritual (the subtitle under which Gillman discusses it), and it is too important an element of the Jewish religious experience not to be addressed fully.

Prayer, though, is the most complex of religious phenomena and, thus, the aspect of religion which lends itself least well to philosophical analysis. For that reason, liturgical and literary treatments of prayer often come closer to articulating our experience of it than do philosophical discussions, This is precisely the strength of a book like David Wolpe's.

Wolpe, like Gillman, seeks to encourage each reader to grope for God in an individual search. The Healer of Shattered Hearts, in fact, opens with the passage from the Pesikta (a book of homiletical midrash) which asserts that God revealed Himself at Sinai to each individual in a personal and unique address, according to his or her abilities and sensibilities. This includes our intellects; Wolpe specifically declares that a proper faith can be "neither anti-intellectual nor anti-rational." But philosophy is not key for Wolpe. While philosophy "can smooth the crags of coarse belief, refine it, ... faith springs from deep in the soul, the inaccessible point where individual conscience touches upon what is larger than itself and apprehends its place and purpose." He goes further: argument, he suggests, is closely allied with embarrassment, presumably the embarrassment of either not knowing how to explain one's interrelationship with God or, even more embarrassing, not experiencing God in the first place. He therefore aims to "present an idea, an image of the faith of the Rabbis, and to explore how this can be translated in our time." He does not aspire to persuade; he only wants to share enthusiasm. As he puts it, "Images culled from the tradition, however imprecise, can enable us to begin felling our way toward God, a process no less important and certainly not less lasting than the cognitive paths hewn out by systematic thinkers" (my itallics; cf. pp. 48, 81).

Wolpe thus attempts to evoke the feelings which have led the tradition to speak of God, the "ports of entry" through which God becomes manifest to us. He thus explores what the tradition means when it describes God as friend, parent, and lover. In one of this most effective passages, he points out the special qualities of night as a time to feel God. (A philosophic skeptic might say, "Ah yes, precisely when one cannot see the light of day!") And, in sharp contrast to Gillman, Wolpe's discussion of prayer speaks not to the form of prayer, but to the emotions which rouse it.

It is no surprise, then, that the strengths of this book are emotional and its weaknesses intellectual. His discussion of how we can understand the acting of God in history, for example, raises the question but hardly does justice to it in proposing only one answer and then not dealing with its weaknesses. At one point he says that "however much it may seem limiting or 'anthropomorphic' to speak of God understanding our feelings of displacement, it is surely more limiting to suggest God cannot understand." Later, however, he reneges on his unabashed anthropomorphism:

What it means for God to suffer we can never truly know. Clearly the tradition does not conceive of it as analogous to human suffering, because Judaism has ever been unequivocal in its insistence that God is not human. Where intellectual faculties fail, the heart must have its say. Understanding what it means for God to suffer is less important than the vivid beauty of the image ...

He clearly does not want to deal with the hard issues involved in depicting God in human terms -- or refusing to do so. And when it comes to the problem of evil, he expresses his aversion to philosophical approaches plainly:

Even the most powerful promptings of abstract argument melt away when confronted with the heat of human anguish. The practice of theodicy, the attempt to justify God in an evil world, is an enterprise whose rules are written by the sufferers of history and not by its logicians.

Many sections in The Healer of Shattered Hearts are aesthetically beautiful and emotionally evocative. Some are reminiscent of passages in Heschel -- but Wolpe's are always clearer and often more effective. In that sense, Wolpe has accomplished his goal. But, in the end, this reviewer is wary of a theology which meets one on an almost exclusively emotional plane. Wolpe's theology is not particularly objectionable, but if the rules of the game are solely emotional (despite a few of his disclaimers to the contrary), what is to prevent a view of God masquerading as Jewish while making outrageous statements about God, humanity, and the world?

In other words, this writer longs for a book which strikes a middle ground between Gillman's address to the mind and Wolpe's elicitation of the soul. Surely it should be possible to construct an approach to Judaism which is intellectually honest and, yet, emotionally effective. These books excellently carry out the disparate tasks which they set for themselves, but I yearn for a book which combines and integrates both approaches. Maybe I will try to write one!

STEVEN BAYME is National Director, Communal Affairs, for the American Jewish Committee.

1. See Joel Roth, "Halakhah and History" in Nina Beth Cardin and David Wolf Silverman, eds., The Seminary at One Hundred (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary and the Rabbinical Assembly, 1987), pp. 287-288.

1. Elliot N. Dorff, Mitzvah Means Commandment (New York: United Synagogue Youth, 1989), pp. 7-9, 223-230.

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Author:Bayme, Steven
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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