Note that this post is a response to a previous post by R. Efrem Goldberg (link). At the end of this post, R. Goldberg responds.
In a recent post in this space, R. Efrem Goldberg noted how rhetoric can quickly heat up over issues such as the divine authorship of the Torah. He argued that, important as the question is, there are other questions on the Jewish agenda, giving useful—indeed, pressing—examples.
As some of the commentators on the piece noted, the importance of theological questions, including but not limited to authorship, goes further than whether that issue will itself directly lead people away from observance. R. Goldberg may be right that few of us would abandon our religious practices because we come to think that Jewish tradition misrepresents important theological questions. I’d like to suggest instead that flawed theology eats away at the religion in more indirect ways, the beginning of a rot best cured at its root.
Actual Mitzvot Dependent Directly on Theology
The first problem with looking to other questions than directly theological ones is that many mitzvoth in the Torah are themselves directly theological. In my experience, even well-educated Jews tend to forget that, I think because they don’t occupy the halachic space to which we are accustomed.
It is easier to define technical Sabbath observance, the avoidance of Sabbath violations, than it is to prescribe how to reach the state of shevittah, of leaving the week behind in the name of discovering the greater reality of the world that will one day come, a world that is “all Shabbat.” It is easier to define kosher food and kosher tefillin and kosher tzitzit than it is to lay out exactly how love and fear of Hashem work, to speak of moral and ethical obligations instead of speaking of trying to understand how Tanach and Chazal describe Hashem’s impact on the world. It is easier to delineate what kinds of speech we should avoid as slander or gossip than it is to lay out where we should trust Hashem to handle our future and where we should take care of it ourselves. It is easier to pick a good lulav than it is to recognize where the events of my life are a call from Hashem to change what I’m doing. We go with what is easy.
That doesn’t change the fact that there are mitzvoth, direct Biblical obligations, to create some kind of positive state of rest on Shabbat, to love and fear Hashem, to imitate Hashem’s ways of impacting the world, to trust Hashem rather than adopting non-Jews’ ways of trying to predict and control the future, and to be aware of where Hashem’s impact on our lives is a message, a call to improve who we are.
Each of those more amorphous mitzvoth becomes harder to fulfill, even to recognize the need to fulfill them, if our theological views go awry. A Jew who doesn’t believe in Hashem, or doesn’t believe in direct Divine revelation of the mitzvoth, will find ways to explain away these obligations, in a way that runs counter to what Jewish tradition has always told us. These are clear mitzvoth, defined in halachic sources (and more so in mussar works), but you can’t engage them unless you accept some of the very theological propositions that are under attack.
Turning Us Into Reconstructionists
Maybe R. Goldberg knows different Jews than I do, but the shying away from theology that I encounter leads to a situation where many Orthodox Jews I know are, in actuality, Reconstructionists. By that I mean that they are dedicated to the practices they know, but more as a matter of retaining membership in the community in which they were raised—or which they joined—than of trying to serve Hashem.
I note that R. Goldberg himself spoke consistently of “Torah and mitzvos” rather than “serving Hashem.” I mention this because I think that even he (whose theological bona fides I do not question at all) has, as a practicing rabbi, learned that people are more comfortable speaking of “Torah and mitzvos,” a defined system of practices. Speaking of the best way to serve or approach Hashem is much trickier, so rabbis learn to avoid it.
Trying to convince such people that Hashem wants us to act differently than what they and their communities have decided is right, isn’t difficult because they don’t believe you, it’s difficult because they don’t care—and they don’t care because Hashem doesn’t sit at the center of their religion. Their religion is to do what everyone around them says they need to do; show them, in black and white, that Hashem actually says otherwise, and it’s not that they disagree, it’s that it’s irrelevant.
Two simple examples from among the many I could relate. Talking in shul has long been a problem; what seems to me to be new, in shuls I have served, shuls I have attended, and shuls I hear about from others, is that the talkers, from well-educated backgrounds, have no interest in whether or not their talking is offensive to Hashem. Jews go to shul on Shabbat morning, so they do as well, but everything after that is their choice. They’ve done what their religion required, and all the rest is up to them. That’s because their theology is lacking or nonexistent.
Along these same lines, one of the worst uproars I ever caused in my time as a rabbi was when I invited those who were speaking throughout the reading of the Torah (and I did it from the pulpit, not singling anyone out, lest, God forbid, we embarrass a public sinner) to take their conversations outside. I proposed it sincerely, as a win-win—they weren’t interested in the Torah reading, as evidenced by their not pausing in their conversations; by leaving, they could stop bothering those around them. They were hugely insulted, infuriated that I thought I could tell them where they should and shouldn’t conduct their Shabbat morning socializing.
Someone recently told me of hearing another Jew say proudly that he had been at shul the previous Shabbat and had been so busy with his various involvements, he had literally not said a word of prayer. It’s not that it happened that I pin on poor theology, it’s that he tells the story about himself proudly; in his Orthodox Jewish world, there is nothing wrong in his conduct.
The second example is one R. Goldberg puts on his list of pressing issues, the question of how we bridge the disconnect between the values of “Torah and mitzvos” and those of the modern Western world. One of the reasons that conversation can become so difficult is that many Orthodox Jews don’t really believe their system of mitzvoth is of Divine origin. If Hashem tells you action or belief x is wrong, for all people, for all time, the fact that the modern world comes to believe it is acceptable or even good should not present a faith challenge. It presents a practical challenge—how do we interact with other intelligent, sophisticated people who have come to accept a belief or practice Hashem has told us is deeply wrong?—but not a problem for our relationship to our religion, to the system Hashem taught Moshe Rabbenu.
That it presents that kind of a problem for so many Jews—in any of the areas where it arises—is because they don’t believe our system is divine; they sort of, deep down, believe it’s a great system that very smart men put together over time, like the Constitution, but which needs to adjust, like the Constitution, to the “new truths” being discovered by those around us. With more space, I could demonstrate the theological underpinnings to several others of the issues R. Goldberg correctly identifies as central to an Orthodox agenda at the current time.
Losing Faith in Our Rabbis
The loss of—and disengagement from– our bedrock theology also leads directly, in my experience and understanding, to much of the Orthodox public’s reaction to their rabbis. My late teacher, Prof. Yitzchak Twersky, a”h, was fond of a story Joseph ibn Kaspi relates in a letter to his son. He mentions that his son should spend some time studying halachah before he moves on to the more important (in his view) discipline of philosophy; his recommendation stems from an embarrassing encounter he had one Friday night, when he dipped a milchig spoon or ladle into a meat stew.
Forgetting how to handle that situation, he went to the local halachist, who made ibn Kaspi wait until he had finished his meal to respond (there is reason to think the halachist was reacting to pre-existing tension between them). He writes bitterly of how this man made him stand there holding his spoon, waiting to be told what to do.
Ibn Kaspi was neither the first nor the last to assume that those who know halachah are technicians. The idea of rabbis as people who happen to have studied Jewish law instead of American law or finance, is both widespread and (I believe) subconsciously deliberate. It’s less threatening if your rabbi is fundamentally the same as you—he’s just a guy who happens to have chosen this career path rather than accounting, dentistry, or comedy. He’s a good pastor, and that’s comforting or helpful, and he knows how to make your kitchen kosher, but that’s as far as the need to follow him goes.
The idea that the rabbi has a better grasp, by virtue of his career path, of what Hashem wants from each of us, that he would be a good person to consult on general life and morality questions, would be anathema to many Orthodox Jews. They prefer the Western idea that we each know how to run our own lives—an idea that lives on despite millions of Westerners demonstrably messing up those very lives, often beyond repair. Rambam’s assertion that a Torah scholar is a doctor of the soul, who can prescribe the best ways to improve the state of those souls, would be offensive to many prominent Orthodox Jews, masses and lay leaders alike.
And, to be fair, this is a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy, since some rabbis today—perhaps shaped by their communities—are, in fact, no better at understanding what Hashem wants of us than anyone else. Indeed, more than one communal rabbi is so morally flawed—in ways well-known to their communities and to the broader public—that they make a mockery of the rabbinate when they try to weigh in on moral questions.
Yet they stay in their jobs, for years and decades, when the corporate world would never tolerate that! Part of the reason, I strongly suspect, goes back to theology—if you really think of your rabbi as someone who’s supposed to be leading you on the path to better service of Hashem, it’s intolerable that he not meet at least the minimal moral standards of general society; but if he’s a technician who does legal, pastoral, entertaining public speaking, and perhaps some programming work, there’s less reason to get into the messy business of removing him from a position his past acts disqualify him from holding.
A House Built on Poor Foundations Cannot Stand
There are many reasons we have arrived where we are, and I don’t pretend to know them all. In the realm of our loss of an attachment to theology, it seems to me true that we have become accustomed to avoid confronting our failings, to find ways to make positive steps without taking on the harder challenge. If we can stimulate Shabbat observance by speaking of its positive familial, social, and personal effects (all true), why go the further step of speaking of Hashem and risk alienating people?
True each step along the way, it can and does lull us into thinking that we don’t need to take on those theological questions, don’t need to ensure that the members of our communities understand that our religion isn’t about Shabbat, kashrut, and acts of kindness, it’s about those, and more, as part of striving to become more like the God Who gave us the Torah at Har Sinai.
I have no idea of what the “most pressing” issue facing Orthodox Jewry is today. But I can confidently say that our theological problems are not minor, and they contribute not only to a shaky relationship with Hashem, as individuals and as a people, but more directly to religious failings that R. Goldberg himself would include among those most pressing problems.
Response by R. Efrem Goldberg
Rabbi Gidon Rothstein has written a thoughtful response to my recent post. I am gratified that on the essential issue, namely the recognition that many contemporary Orthodox Jews struggle in connecting to and finding meaning in Torah, mitzvos and observance, we both agree. Rabbi Rothstein believes that a critical part of the solution is our compellingly establishing the divine authorship of the Torah. While I agree that a discussion on this subject is a worthy exercise and will contribute meaningfully to the conversation, I don’t believe it will satisfy the underlying causes and reasons people struggle. In my experience, addressing and working to improve on the other issues I raised will contribute more towards enriching the experience of Orthodox Jews such that they are open to greater observance, inspiration and a higher experience of avodas Hashem. Whatever the solution, my goal was—and remains—to generate the kind of conversations I believe we should be having and I am thankful to Rabbi Rothstein for adding to that discussion.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg