A Response to Richard Curtis

star of david next to the torah

Image courtesy of Pixabay

For those convinced that a vigorous theological discourse is necessary for a vibrant Judaism, Richard Curtis’s “The Case for Post-Theistic Judaism” ought to make for rather disturbing reading. Not because the idea of a non-theistic Judaism which the essay presents is so new and radical. Such proposals have been made often enough in the last two hundred years that no student of Jewish thought can still be exercised by the idea; and indeed after a little examination it turns out that Curtis’s own vision of post-theistic Judaism adds little to the conversation that was not said many decades ago. Rather, what is truly disturbing about “The Case for Post-Theistic Judaism” is the fact that such an essay — which is riddled with errors of argumentation, interpretation, and even simple fact — can pass for theological reflection at all in today’s Jewish community. That such a piece is possible is an ominous sign of the lack of seriousness with which theology is treated in contemporary American Judaism.

Before moving on to examine the problems with Curtis’s argument, it will suffice to point out just one of the errors of fact to which I have just alluded. In a section of his essay devoted cataloging Jewish leaders who have espoused atheism or something close to it, Curtis compares the thought of Mordecai Kaplan to that of Harold Schulweis, noting that “Schulweis was born in 1925 and Kaplan in 1930, and sadly Kaplan died young.” While ‘young’ is of course a relative term, I don’t think that many people would apply it to someone who had lived 102 years, which happens to be the age at which Kaplan (who was in fact born in 1881) died. This is truly a perplexing error, placing, as it does, Kaplan’s birth only 4 years before the publication of his magnum opus, Judaism as a Civilization. Nevertheless, is it not simply otiose and mean-spirited to point out this kind of mistake? Unfortunately, in this case it is not, for Curtis actually bases a substantive point on his misimpressions about Kaplan’s biography. Curtis writes that, while he judges Schulweis’ theology to be superior to Kaplan’s, Kaplan should not be judged too harshly for his failings, since Schulweis “though born before Kaplan lived much longer and benefited from having more time to develop his thinking.” Schulweis’ life, again, was 13 years shorter than Kaplan’s. What might have been dismissed as a typo is thus revealed as something much more serious. Setting aside the logic by which this conclusion was reached (many great thinkers have died relatively young), here the argument could simply not get off the ground without placing Mordecai Kaplan’s birth a half-century too late. Such an error is a shocking breach of basic research standards.

While the presence of this kind of factual error (and there are others, though generally less egregious) is disturbing enough, the problems attending Curtis’s case for post-theistic Judaism are more serious. These issues resolve, I think, into two: first, Curtis’s theoretical argument for the viability of a non-theistic Judaism rests on philosophical dogmatism and on a mishmash of social-scientific theories which have been largely problematized or rejected outright in the contemporary field of religious studies. Second, Curtis’s essay fails offer any positive vision of what his atheistic Judaism would look like, how it can plausibly be understood to be in continuity with Jewish tradition, or why it ought to command devotion from Jews.

Curtis’s argument begins with the assertion that God does not exist. While he occasionally gestures at the problem of evil as support for atheism, Curtis is in fact explicit that this position is his starting point; he writes that he will “not make a sustained attack on theism nor substantive defense of my atheism,” but rather “start[s] with the position that theists are simply wrong, however understandably in context.” Later on, he writes that “philosophical thought has progressed to the point that I can now assume atheism and focus on the religion and its history to mine its resources.” Now, setting aside the fact that Curtis has outsourced his philosophical conclusions to unnamed and un-cited authorities, this implies a view of philosophy — one which imputes to philosophy the status of a quasi-scientific or technical discipline in which it makes sense to think of, for example, the question of theism or atheism to be susceptible of final resolution — which, though once common enough among analytic philosophers, is not held by very many people today. There is a lively literature on philosophy of religion, including on arguments for and against God’s existence, but in this post-Kantian world rather few would put forth the proposition that philosophy of any kind is capable of definitively establishing transcendental claims of the kind ‘God exists’ or ‘God does not exist’ one way or another. Curtis’s case for post-theistic Judaism, then, begins with a dogmatic assertion. While much the same charge could of course be laid at the feet of any Jewish theology which begins with the assumption that God does exist, the position of such a theistic theologian is (as the rather awkward term just coined suggests) rather different. For a Jewish theologian to, qua theologian, assume the existence of God is as rational as for a political scientist to assume that there is some reality answering to the name of ‘the state’ or of ‘sovereignty’ — for these are the entities the existence of which is supposed make political science possible in the first place. A claim of the magnitude which Curtis is here advancing — that a certain tradition of thinking is not threatened or destabilized by the evacuation of one of its foundational concepts — requires much stronger argumentation than the assertions that Curtis offers.

Curtis is aware that his reader will want something more. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that God does not exist, why does it make sense to do ‘Jewish theology’ or to care about Judaism at all? The answer to this question comes in the form what Curtis writes has been “the scientific understanding of religion for the last century.” Human beings, we are told, “seem basically religious” from “the perspective of science.” Adrift in a world which is itself empty of meaning, “part of making our way… is creating religions. These start out very magical as humans are puzzled by reality and its workings.  Over time we learn patterns and think we know things. These ideas get worked up in systems of belief and rituals, and religion is created.” Finally Curtis offers what he takes to be a summary of “the social sciences” understand religion: “Religion is a collection of symbols that represent reality (a worldview) combined with a ritual system to express that view of reality and reinforce it through repetition” (emphasis original).
The ideas expressed above will be familiar enough to anyone who has taken a survey course in theories of religion. Curtis’s account is in fact a synthesis of the most prominent anthropological and sociological theories of religion which were offered from the late 19th to the mid 20th century: there’s a bit of Durkheim, a bit of Frazer, a bit of Geertz. Each of these theories made certain assumptions: for example that ‘religion’ is a universal human phenomenon, a generic category of which particular religions such as Judaism or Buddhism could be properly understood as species, and that ‘religion’ is something distinct from, say, politics or ethics. Given the evident diversity in doctrinal content among the different members of this genre, it was assumed that there was some functional essence or other, discoverable by a mix of scientific analysis and philosophical reflection, underpinning the various religions. If one accepts this basic paradigm (so Curtis’s argument goes), then the idea of a non-theistic Judaism presents no particular problem. Judaism is simply a particular example of the way in which all people ‘make sense of the world’; because God was never really the engine making Jewish tradition go, there ought not to be any barrier to our accepting a non-theistic interpretation of Judaism.

The problem is that the assumptions underpinning these theories have, in recent decades, undergone a sustained assault in the field of religious studies; most if not all are now thought to be untenable. Pioneering studies by such scholars as Talal Asad, William Cavanaugh, David Chidester, Tomoko Masuzawa, and Brent Nongbri, among others, have persuasively made the case that the cluster of ideas on which Curtis’s argument rests — ‘religion’ as a generic, natural, and universal phenomenon, distinct from such categories as politics, philosophy, and ethics, of which the various ‘world religions’ are specific manifestations — is a product of European modernity, emerging from the Wars of Religion and the process of colonization. The attempt to define some essence which all the supposed members of this class have in common inevitably collapses on closer inspection; it proves to be impossible to draw the lines in such a way as to include all of the groups that we ‘know’ are religious (like Buddhism and Islam) while excluding phenomena like Marxism (which explicitly define themselves as ‘anti-religious’ yet also seem to provide such things as organized world-views, interpretations of history, and answers to the questions of what is most valuable in human life, which are supposed to be the purview of religion). If we persist with our essentialist definition and decide to allow Marxism and its fellows into the club, it quickly becomes apparent that the idea of ‘religion’ is being defined so broadly as to be analytically useless. The assumptions about what generic ‘religion’ consists in, springing as they seem to have done from the milieu of early modern Protestantism, turn out to be distinctly unhelpful in our attempts to understand most phenomena usually understood as ‘religions.’ Contentions that humans are ‘essentially religious’ become a problematic attempt to categorize all people according to what is revealed to be a specific and historically contingent lens.

The contemporary study of religion is, in its attempts to come to grips with the above contentions, in a state of crisis (what does it mean to ‘study religion’ if ‘religion’ is no longer seen as a ‘real’ category?), but for our purposes that is neither here nor there. What concerns us is that Curtis’s attempt to argue for the viability of a non-theistic Judaism by using the paradigm of classical anthropology and sociology of religion is rendered very problematic by the forgoing critique, but that Curtis does not acknowledge this problem at all. While it may be that the current nominalism of religious studies is simply a fad which will, having had its day, disappear, it is surely incumbent on Curtis to at least attempt to answer the challenge. At one point he notes the contention of Rabbi Emil Hirsch that “whatever form of religion subsists in a race or is dominant in an age corresponds always to the culture of that race or that age,” adding that while “we know now that race is not a real category,” Hirsch’s “point stands.” An important result of the ‘genealogy of religion’ critique is precisely that it is not tenable to attempt to separate the turn-of-the-century theory of religion from the anthropological and sociological categories in which it was articulated — for it now seems that ‘religion’ is just as much a problematic theoretical construct as ‘race’. Thus while Curtis claims to argue for a non-theistic Judaism on the basis of what has been “the scientific understanding of religion for the last century,” it would be more accurate to say that he is beholden to what passed for science a century ago.

So far we have considered the weaknesses in Curtis’s argument for an atheistic Judaism — its real work is done by a mere assertion, and its support is a naive appropriation of obsolete social-scientific religious theory. Now we can turn the second major problem with his case: the absence of any indication about what a non-theistic Judaism would really be, how it could be understood to be an inheritor of the Jewish tradition, and why it would demand the respect or devotion of Jews. Curtis does not seem bothered by the idea that a non-theistic Judaism might be a radical departure from the Jewish tradition. His reasons for this are, as far as I can tell, two: first because, since “Judaism has no dogma,” there is no formal barrier to dropping God from the system; second is his scientistic frame of mind, which thinks of theology as it does philosophy, in terms of an empirical, technical discipline in which it makes sense to talk about linear progress in the pursuit of functional goals.

Writing in 1923, Franz Rosenzweig, perhaps the greatest theological mind the Jewish people has seen in the last century, noted wryly that “it has often been said, and more often repeated, that Judaism has no dogmas. As little as that may be correct — a superficial glance at Jewish history or into the Jewish prayerbook already teaches the opposite — something very correct is nevertheless meant by it. Namely, Judaism indeed has dogmas, but no dogmatics.” What Rosenzweig means by this last statement is that the difference between, say Judaism and the Roman Catholic Church in matters of belief is not that Judaism is indifferent about what Jews believe or teaches no distinctive beliefs, but rather that it does not have an elaborate system in which these beliefs are precisely defined and coordinated with one another. One simply cannot seriously engage with rabbinic Jewish tradition without admitting that there are indeed a cluster of ideas — for example (and these are merely examples, not a creed) that God created the world, entered into a special covenant with the Jewish people through the giving of the Torah, and will one day redeem all humanity — which provide the grammar without which the tradition is incomprehensible. Attempts, such as that made by Maimonides, to shape these beliefs into a precise system have met with resistance (though as Rosenzweig’s comment about the prayerbook indicates, the resistance is less than often supposed and has come more from theologians than from the laity). Nevertheless, what was at issue in, for example, the dispute between Maimonides and Nachmanides over whether there is a commandment to believe in God was not whether such a belief is dispensable for a Jew, but rather such a belief is a particular mitzvah or the assumption which undergirds the entire body of mitzvoth.

The Bible is the drama of God and the Jewish people in history. Rabbinic literature is the attempt to understand how to practice God’s mitzvoth and reflections on how to relate to God in a time of divine silence. The siddur is the accumulated effort of the Jewish people to speak to God. What would it mean to hold these texts to be authoritative if God is deemed inessential? Does it make sense to keep practicing mitzvoth (commandments) if we do not believe that there is ametzaveh (a commander)? Perhaps the mistake is to think that this body of literature and practices ought to be given privileged status, that we as Jews ought to hold ourselves accountable to products of the distant past. Curtis seems to think so. Writing that “religion must change as we learn about ourselves and the world,” he asks us to consider “how much medicine has changed in the last thousand years.” Does contemporary medicine, he asks, “measure itself against the practices of 1018 CE?” Of course not, for “far too much has changed. Why do we think,” he concludes, “we should measure religion looking backward?” The answer, of course, is because Torah and mitzvoth are not a technical discipline aimed at solving concrete practical problems. When we study the Talmud or pray, we are not trying to build more stable bridges or develop more efficient vaccines, but attempting to draw ourselves deeper into a mystery which will always elude any effort at a final comprehension. Although the Torah never stops growing and developing, we hold ourselves accountable to the past because we see ourselves as stewards of a sacred trust which we receive as a gift, which has passed from hand to hand in a process which began at Sinai.

Curtis does not offer any clear answer to what a Judaism which goes through the radical transformation of the elimination of God would look like. Though he gestures at the need for Judaism to “reinterpret…the symbols” of its theological vocabulary (as if interpretation were an act of will) and mentions that the basis of this new Judaism would be “the focus on history in Judaism’s worldview and the role of ethical conduct as the core teaching of the religion,” we meet with little in the way of concrete suggestion. But whatever the concrete reality of an atheistic Judaism might be, we have a final point to consider: why should this new Judaism matter to Jews at all? Why would it be anything more than a hobby? Lest it be thought that by using such language I am being unfairly dismissive, it is worth remembering that Curtis himself suggests the comparison when he writes that “what differentiates the rituals of a soccer game from Shabbat services is the shared worldview behind the rituals.” Later on he writes that the new construction of Judaism which he is advocating will serve the needs of “people who enjoy the social and emotional life (what people call spirituality) of organized religion and maybe even have a deep connection with the tradition or aspects of it.”

Enjoyment, certainly. “Deep connection” — maybe, but apparently not required. Judaism, in this new iteration, seems to exists to serve the pleasure of the individual, to provide an emotional and social outlet which though organized by ‘ritual’ practice is not fundamentally different from a book club. Is this really to be the role of Torah and mitzvoth in Curtis’s brave new world? To be a piece of spiritual technology, one more servant of the egoistic Western consumer, a fun diversion to be dipped into as one’s inclination demands? A Jewish version of the deracinated and vacuous Western versions of yoga and meditation that are scarcely recognizable to Buddhist and Hindu practitioners? It is hard to see how such a Judaism could command love, let alone the devotion and sacrifice which are inherent in a covenantal commitment. Abraham Joshua Heschel recognized long ago the tendency towards making Judaism into a tool, writing in God in Search of Man that “in a technological society, when religion becomes a function, piety too is an instrument to satisfy man’s needs,” and warning us that we must “be particularly careful not to fall into the habit of looking at religion as if it were a machine or an organization that can be run according to one’s calculations.” In Heschel’s time this tendency was largely implicit, but Curtis has brought it into the open for all to behold.

While other, stronger cases for a non-theistic Judaism have been made (the most formidable probably being the Cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha-Am), this essay has been an attempt to respond specifically to Curtis — to reject  what I take to the the scientism and consumerism of his proposal and to call for the contemporary Jewish community to take theology more seriously. By way of conclusion, we can return to Mordecai Kaplan. For Curtis adds little that was not already present in Kaplan’s attempt, nearly a century ago, to re-found Judaism on the basis of anthropological and sociological theories of religion (ones which at least for Kaplan were current). It is telling that, for the enormous influence that Kaplan has had on the shape of American Jewish life, it is precisely his theology (which did away with a personal God) and his theory of mitzvoth (as ‘folkways’) which have had the least staying-power. I think that this is because Jews, in spite of the doubt and confusion which they face in confronting the issues (such as evolution, the problem of evil, and the Documentary Hypothesis) which exercise Curtis, understand that a life of Torah and mitzvoth cannot endure a self-understanding as a purely immanent, human phenomenon. While some may be comfortable enough describing, say, the tallit as a ‘folkway’ when it is worn at an undramatic morning minyan, when we put on tallitot to attend protests demanding fair treatment of refugees and there, in voices full of passion, describe ahavat ha-ger as a mitzvah, or in any other in any other of a myriad of cases in which we appeal to the Torah as an authority against the wickedness we see all around us, it is because we all understand that our presumption to judge the ways of this world derives its power from the conviction that, somehow, our language and practices are rooted in that which transcends the world.

The challenges which beset the attempt to think Judaism in the modern era are formidable; the problems to which Curtis is responding are real. Here it is helpful to remember the statement of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg that in the contemporary period, the question of theism, or atheism, is not one of yes or no but of how often — we are all of us unbelievers at least some of the time. But if, as I am suggesting, it is not plausible to make a case for the Jewish tradition without centering the relationship between Israel and Hashem, how should we proceed? There are no easy ways out of our dilemma, no cheap answers to our questions. But the first step to meeting them is, rather than abandoning the field, to trust that the texts of the tradition are are capacious enough to meet us where we find ourselves. We ought to plumb them with open minds and hearts, discovering anew their vitality and power and taking seriously the claims they make on us. If we do so then perhaps it will not be long before we again encounter God, peering through the latices, beckoning to us and urging us forward into the world we can build together.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *