The Case for Post-Theistic Judaism

Image of synagogue courtesy of Pixabay.

In times of joy and pain, solitude and community, my ventures into the storehouse of Jewish literature and practice provide me with the tools by which to approach what is ultimately an ever-elusive Truth.  – Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove[i]

Part of making our way, as human beings, 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.  Religion changes over time to meet the needs of the age.  Theology is the activity of providing the content to the worldview at the heart of one’s religion.  In the modern world that “language game,” to borrow a term from Ludwig Wittgenstein, focuses on a set of symbols that have been central to the tradition.  In Jewish thought these symbols are God, Torah and Israel.  Theology provides the updated symbolic content to the evolving ritual system.  Rabbi Cosgrove put it this way:

A theologian is entrusted with the task of theorizing on the nature of God.  Unlike the academic studying ancient religion, the theologian, as my teacher Rabbi Louis Jacobs taught, must ask what it is that one can believe today.[ii]

Theology evolves over time because people’s needs change over time and to be relevant theology must rework its symbols with each generation.  This is an old notion to theologians because it is what we do but might be surprising to some.  Rabbi Eugene Borowitz (1957) wrote:

An idea of God set before Israel must . . . meet the criterion of history past, present and future. It must demonstrate that it is an authentic development of the Jewish past. It must be logical enough in contemporary terms and standards to make the present generation want to live by it, and its content must be such that this life is recognizably Israel’s life of Torah before God.[iii]

In Christian seminaries, they have a saying: Theology takes three centuries to get from the mind of the theologian to general acceptance in the pews.  What this means is that the typical congregant today generally accepts the theological views of their tradition’s thinkers from the 1700’s.  Seriously!  In Protestantism, for example, this means the ideas of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834)—the Father of Modern Protestant Theology—are just now becoming widespread in mainstream Protestant churches (Fundamentalism is the resistance to this progress, and Process is the cutting edge).  Jewish theology moves more quickly because Judaism does not have creeds to protect, so the congregants can more freely entertain new ideas without threatening the established order; but I think it is safe to say that it still takes time.  The typical Reform congregant, for example, is just now expressing similar beliefs to the great Reform rabbis of the early 1900’s, the two giants being Kaufmann Kohler and Emil G. Hirsch.[iv]

We know from surveys that atheism is growing.  The question that every organized religion faces is how will it adjust to that reality.  For liberal religions, like the progressive forms of Judaism, this is not really a threatening question as we have been in the business of rethinking old ideas all along.  That is what distinguishes liberal religion from fundamentalism, we are rational and use our reason.  Today that means confronting atheism.  I think we not only can, but should have both – atheism and religion.  I will not make a sustained attack on theism nor substantive defense of my atheism, beyond noting that I find the idea of any intention in our world of suffering children morally offensive.  It makes no sense to me and never has.  I start with the position that theists are simply wrong, however understandably in context.  There is no thing that answers to their conception of “God.”  What I think they have in mind is more properly understood as a feeling.  There is this feeling of connection or awe we have at times and we are tempted to explain the feeling by an appeal to some external cause.  The feeling is real and it is called God; it is not caused by something called God.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel brilliantly put his own view this way that resonates completely with mine (which does not mean he would necessarily agree with me, of course):

A tremor seizes our limbs; our nerves are struck, quiver like strings; our whole being bursts into shudders. But then a cry, wrested from our very core, fills the world around us, as if a mountain were suddenly about to place itself in front of us. It is one word: GOD. Not an emotion, a stir within us, but a power, a marvel beyond us, tearing the world apart.[v]

I know that feeling and thus have an interest in the topic.  Some people—Sigmund Freud perhaps most famously—do not know that “oceanic” feeling, as he called it (and denied knowing it personally) in Future of an Illusion.  My suspicion is that our brains do a great deal of work in constituting a self, constructing our conscious experience of self, and so the brain seeks out opportunities to lose track of that self and take a rest, to not do the constant work of maintaining the self.  For me, the most predictably reliable way to create that feeling is to listen to the late Jerry Garcia “noodle” on his guitar.  Jerry (founding guitarist of the Grateful Dead) was famous for sort of wandering in his improvisations as they also do in jazz.  Jerry’s fans called it “noodling”.  Those wanderings provide a mental break to let go and just flow with him through musical space.  A very different example comes from Rabbi Jacobson-Maisels.  He sees an interplay between humility and submission in mitzvot, and a more intentionally constructed spirituality.  “Similarly, as the Maggid of Mezritch teaches, every act can be a mitzvah, a deep spiritual practice, yet we still need particular practices that demand our attention and so call on us to focus, reconnect, and awaken once more.”[vi]  However, it is also clearly the case that not everyone knows the feeling.  It is natural for some to have no interest in this topic.  For those who know the feeling in some sense, but don’t bother with supernatural explanations, this new approach is for you, especially if you are Jewish (but even if you are not, I think it will be of interest to anyone who is not a theist but is interested in religion).

Rabbi William Plevan has a way with words: “There is a common misconception that theology is about God.”[vii]  Brilliant!  “Rather, the purpose of a theology is to consider how it is that human beings should live knowing that a loving God invites and commands us to partner in the act of creation.”[viii]  The problem then is, just what does the word “God” mean (to us today)?  What is divine love?  What is this command?  This is the work of theology.  I have studied religion for the last thirty years, first as a social scientist and then as a philosopher and theologian.  From the perspective of science, humans seem basically religious (universally need the goods religions offer).  Here is a summary of how the social sciences understand it:  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.  Anthropologists use the phrase “depth dimension of culture” as well.  We all need to have a worldview, that is a sense of who we are and what the world is and how the two relate.  Many people also like having a formal ritual life (most people have rituals in their lives, however mundane, just because we like constancy and repetition, predictability in our world).  An organized religion is a worldview with an integrated ritual system and paid staff.  What differentiates religion from a philosophy of life is ritual.  What differentiates the rituals of a soccer game from Shabbat services is the shared worldview behind the rituals (the soccer game is just a shared activity).  Depending on where one is in the world and in history that shared view will differ.  This understanding may seem new because the culture is dominated by fundamentalist views, but it has been the scientific understanding of religion for the last century.  Rabbi Emil Hirsch wrote (in 1926), “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.”[ix]  We know now that race is not a real category, but his point stands.  He went on, “Every religion corresponds to the need and the mental outlook of the people who profess it.”[x]

The English philosopher Alain de Botton concluded his 2011 TED Talk: “You may not agree with religion but at the end of the day religions are so subtle, so complicated, so intelligent in many ways that they are not fit to be abandoned to the religious alone.”[xi]  Amen!  Daniel Maguire, a Catholic theologian, wrote a book that makes the same basic point.[xii]  In that book, boldly titled Christianity Without God, Maguire says it is time to move beyond Christianity’s belief in (1) a personal deity and (2) an incarnate divine Jesus who existed before his birth (as one of a trinity of divine persons) and who (3) continued living after death in some alternative invisible universe.  Maguire argues that these beliefs rest on a fatal fault line of cognitive instability and are not tenable. He then looks in the tradition for what he sees as a genuine contribution to the creation of a global ethic for this battered Earth.  That approach seems on the right track but is stopping with ethics.  The late Fr. Juan Luís Segundo, SJ, also a Catholic theologian, argued the same basic point is his posthumously published book, The Liberation of Dogma.[xiii]  He argued there that religion cannot functionally be constrained by what the Catholic Church calls dogma.  “If theology is good for anything it is perhaps to grasp such signs which may be minuscule in terms of quantity but which all point towards progress and change,” he wrote.[xiv]  And of course these ideas were not new to the 21st or even 20th Century.  Ludwig Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity (1841) was one important early move in this direction.  Atheist religion took a big step forward with the birth of the Ethical Culture movement (1877) and related groups like the overtly political Fabian Society (1900) in England.  Ethical Culture is interesting here but importantly is not overtly Jewish.  The founder, Felix Adler, was a rabbi and the son of a very influential Reform rabbi, Samuel Adler, but his big idea was to give up the particulars of Judaism to have a universal religion.  The universal approach is appealing to many but I think handicapped spiritually, in that it does not have access to the history based spirituality (felt connection to deep history) that I see as intrinsic to Jewish religious experience.  Rabbi Emil Hirsch once commented, “We have found no cogent reason to abandon our fellowship with the historical synagogue on the plea that the ethical ambition is within the old lines cramped or obscured or limited by certain creedal postulates.”[xv]

Couched in this language of argument is also a critique.  Feuerbach and John Dewey (a little later but in America) both claimed that theism is not just false but harmful.  It is not just that we ought to update our worldview to be accurate, rather we ought to do so for our own good.  “To enrich God, [humanity] must become poor; that God may be all, [humanity] must be nothing.”[xvi]  That was Feuerbach. Dewey was even more direct: “…the claim on the part of religion to possess a monopoly of ideas and of the supernatural means by which alone, it is alleged, they can be furthered, stands in the way of the realization of distinctively religious values inherent in natural experience.”[xvii]  His historical view claims that human society has moved away from a stage in which supernatural appeals made functional sense.  This led Dewey to further suggest that the vision he outlined was timely; that human society has reached a new—third, in his taxonomy of this development—stage in which human society has begun and should continue to develop what he was calling a “Common Faith,” a democratic realization of the religious element in human life.  Dewey obviously thought it was important to keep the framework of organized religion (his book has “faith” in the title).  He wrote that in 1934, Feuerbach in 1841.  History takes time.

Atheism started to develop in religion itself in the 20th Century, after that 19th Century dabbling.  Apparently, according to a very famous study by Rabbi Joseph Zeitlin, most Reform Rabbis between the 1920’s and 1950’s (especially in the 1930’s) were atheists.[xviii]  They used the word Naturalist, following John Dewey’s usage.  That naturalism was too close to atheism for the Cold War and so it disappeared.  Moving forward, in Christian circles it is worth mentioning Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson’s important little book, Honest to God (1963); Protestant theologian Thomas J.J. Altizer’s influential book, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (1965); and Ernst Bloch’s more political Atheism in Christianity (1968).  It was in this global context that Rabbi Sherwin Wine developed an overtly atheistic form of Judaism (1963) and then wrote his first book, Humanistic Judaism (1978).  Altizer and Wine came closest to the basic goal of trying to construct a theology that is overtly atheistic (Christian for Altizer); and for basically the same reasons as Botton or Maguire– theism is just not intellectually defensible (theism has one last move it is currently making in this game – pantheism as advanced by Process thought).  Most fascinating of all, this development was anticipated in a 1928 book, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality, by the important social critic and radical theorist Jose Carlos Mariategui (published in English in 1971). The so-called New Atheists apparently did not read him or Dewey.

We have definitely left behind the days of anticlerical prejudice, when the “free-thinking” critic happily discarded all dogmas and churches in favor of the dogma and church of the atheist’s free-thinking orthodoxy. The concept of religion has become broader and deeper, going far beyond a church and a sacrament. It now finds in religion’s institutions and sentiments a significance very different from that which was attributed to it by those fervent radicals who identified religion with “obscurantism.” [xix]

What is really remarkable about this is that it repeats a debate that happened after GWF Hegel died.  His followers split into camps of interpretation.  One group, called Young Hegelians, wanted to move Hegel’s ideas beyond his time to a more universal vision.  At the time, most of them thought the primary obstacle to progress was religion.  This is where the New Atheist critique was first introduced.  What we often forget is that Karl Marx was moving beyond this thinking when he and Fredrich Engels wrote: “religion is the opium of the people.”  Religion is not the problem, nor is it the solution, but rather it exists to soothe.  What he could not know, what we know today, is the active role religion plays in all culture, not just in soothing.  What he saw is that religion is not the problem.  It responds to the problem, in various—class conflicted—ways, including soothing.  Thinking religion is itself the problem is naïve, he pointed out a century and a half ago.  These New Atheists did not read Ernst Bloch either (which is shocking, especially for Daniel Dennett, who is a philosopher and Bloch having been the most famous philosopher in the world in the years Dennett was a student; where not having encountered Mariategui is understandable, not knowing Dewey seems bizarre).

The way to overcome the limitations of religion is not simply to rush at them head on in the hope that exposure to reason will destroy them, but to find within religion its own insuperable dualistic contradictions and to sublate them into the next stage of the dialectic.[xx]

Historically, one mainstream Jewish theologian has come very close to overt atheism and that is Rabbi Harold Schulweis.  He called his view Predicate Theology.  He contrasted that term with Subject Theology, traditional theology of being, or Being.  He meant any metaphysical view of a divine other.  Divine being makes no sense conceptually or morally given the Problem of Evil, but that does not eliminate godliness as a value.  We pursue godliness because that is real and transformative in our lives.  He also has a wonderful bit of logic in which he shows that all modern theodicy must become devoid of moral content because the abstraction that is defensible (any view of an abstract deity) must be incomprehensible (so abstract it is meaningless) and so beyond our moral terms.  This is clearly unsatisfying logic, he points out, and demands we shift focus.  To me, his view is half way to the coming new paradigm (the view I am advocating).

More currently, Rabbi Michael Lerner is famously creative in his theology too, but still very attached to Being.  He sees the problem.  “Is it anything more than a peculiarly human presumption to address that larger totality as a Thou, to imagine it as having personality and emotions?”[xxi]  The short and easy answer is: Yes.  It is nothing more than our peculiar way of comprehending the universe that leads us to assume things like: there exists some intention to the universe.  For my part, I don’t see a problem here.  Yes, the universe is cold and empty that is why we have to create our own meaning, as the existentialists taught.  Lerner has a problem though: “But seeing the universe as cold and unresponsive, or seeing the world as a mechanistic place governed by impersonal energy systems that have no particular knowledge or caring for us—these too are just human constructs.”[xxii]  Yes, but constructs based on the best information we have about ourselves and the universe.  A construct based on reality is likely much more valuable and productive than one based on fantasy.  Apparently, it just is the case that the universe is cold and uncaring, that the material world is mechanistic.  We are just cogs in a very complex machine.  Yes, that is all true.  Lerner then spends a lot of time on the idea of a satisfying theory.  Fine, people seek solace.  But my job is to confront reality not foster fantasy (no matter how much fostering of fantasy has gone before me).  Lerner is a rabbi, he is clergy and satisfying congregant needs is in his job description; but I am a systematic theologian and it is not in mine.  Systematic Theology puts truth over comfort.  We must live in the world we know, not the one we wish for.  We try to create the one we wish for but cannot succeed without knowing the one in which we live.  The ultimate truth is that if we want meaning in our lives we must construct it.  Pretending the universe cares seems to lead mostly to empty promises and unfulfilled dreams.  In Christianity without God, mentioned above, Daniel Maguire argued that theistic beliefs are no longer tenable and in fact have become dangerous.  He mines his tradition for what he sees as a genuine contribution to the creation of a new and global ethic for the age of global warming.  His point is that theism as traditionally constructed put human beings in a position relative to the Earth that makes rationalizing its destruction far too easy.  We must recognize our dependency and our need for a stable Earth.  We should update our theology to face these challenges.

In every sphere of culture, we develop new knowledge and adjust accordingly, why not in religion?  The conservative impulse seems to have unquestioned reign in religion, even while theologians are constantly growing and learning.  Of course, religion must change as we learn about ourselves and the world.  Think about how much medicine has changed in the last thousand years.  How much has the Catholic Church changed in that time?  Judaism has, of course, changed dramatically with the Reform movement; but we still seem to measure ourselves against a view of Halakah that seems to want to live, at least religiously, like we did a thousand years ago.  Does medicine measure itself against the practices of 1018CE?  Of course not, far too much has changed.  Why do we think we should measure religion looking backward?

Another view that is very close to atheism is that of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstruction.  Readers might also have his work in mind as he is more well-known than Schulweis.  Schulweis saw a great deal of overlap between his work and Kaplan’s.  Schulweis was born in 1925 and Kaplan in 1930, and sadly Kaplan died young.  My brief reading of Schulweis’ work leads me to the conclusion that he saw Kaplan as breaking new ground, which he was then developing.  I see my own work in this way and in this line.  Kaplan introduced the idea that we can construct Judaism without a divine other.  He kept the language and some of the metaphysics because his God, as power that motives, is not other but is not necessarily only me.  That is, he seemed to have a divine that is not other but is not yet material (it motivates the material).  I don’t think Kaplan meant to defend Cartesian dualism, but in breaking new ground he could only go so far and his work leaves open that Cartesian reading.  This seemed to be the point Schulweis made in emphasizing grammar.

It is to avoid such theological limitations [language favoring subjects over verbs and propositions] that Kaplan insists that God be considered as a functional, not a substantive noun, a correlative term which implies relationship, e.g., as teacher implies pupil and king implies subjects.[xxiii]

What this means is that language favors subjects and thus we are led to think that propositions must be housed in some subject, just as we assume the otherness of the source of our feelings.  If there is godliness there must a God, that is the idea.  Kaplan, Schulweis argued, saw the trap but still got stuck in it.  His god-talk is too subject oriented and so led to the same dualism of language and therefore of the god-idea.  Schulweis liked god-talk as a part of religious life, where I am merely tolerant of it.  Kaplan rejected a divine other, but kept it in his language, as a practical matter.  Schulweis came along and corrected that language problem and then had a divine that is not other, finally.  Schulweis, I might note, though born before Kaplan lived much longer and benefited from having more time to develop his thinking.

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, rather than arguing with theism.  It is now time for Bloch’s dialectic.[1]  I recently discovered a rabbi who is working on this.  Rabbi Sharon Brous is the founding rabbi of Ikar Los Angeles (ikar means the essence or main thing).  Her view, laid out in a 2016 TED Talk, “It’s Time to Reclaim and Reinvent Religion,”[xxiv] is that the youth of today are leaving organized religion because the institutions don’t speak to them, with one obvious problem being theism (the problem of evil behind it really) and for Judaism the institutions seemingly blind ear to the moral problems in the country Israel.  She goes on saying that organized religion is in a battle with fundamentalism, which is routinizing religion and depriving it of its “soul,” it’s ikar, true essence of human solidarity.  She is seeking to turn around organized religion’s decline following a similar to path to mine.  I don’t know if she knows Bloch or Dewey but she is consciously pursuing what she calls “religion’s next iteration.”  It is therefore timely to find all of these new constructions of religion, by 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, but do not accept theism. This is the next step and easier in some ways for Judaism to make the step first.  It was the mother of the other monotheism, so that may be its own reason.  I have in mind the focus on history in Judaism’s worldview and the role of ethical conduct as the core teaching of the religion.  Judaism does not need God—at all.  The others have to find a way past their supernatural dogmas, but Judaism has no dogma, let alone a supernatural one.  For Judaism to give up god it simply reinterprets the symbols, as I am describing.

To sum up, another recent note.  Rabbi Arthur Green told the 2010 High Holidays Rabbinic Conference of Greater Los Angeles that there were two great theological battles in the 20th Century and religion, commonly understood (he meant traditional theism), lost them both.[xxv]  The rabbis in the 1930 already had accepted these things, where we are finally coming back to their thinking.  On the one hand, there is Darwinian evolution.  It is no longer rationally possible to deny that human beings are the product of evolutionary forces.  On the other, new critical biblical scholarship taught us that the texts have contexts and multiple authors in different time periods.  It is no longer possible to deny the human constructed nature of scripture with multiple authors and editors contributing over time.  The details of the Documentary Hypothesis are debated but the basic conclusion can no longer be denied in intellectual honesty.  Green goes on to say that this “loss” is only a loss if one is confused about the task of religion.  Fundamentalism carries this confusion forward, but mainstream religion has accepted that its job is not to explain the science of creation; rather its job is to try to understand the meaning of it, of our existence.  I agree completely.  Rabbi Schulweis reminds us: “Menachem Mendel of Ktozk [1787-1859] maintained that ‘Whoever believes in miracles is a fool; and whoever does not believe in miracles is an atheist’.”[xxvi]  Green did not mean to say it this way, but perhaps we are all atheists now.  Maimonides gave us the idea of Ethical Monotheism, perhaps now is the time for Ethical Atheism.

 

NOTES

[1] Bloch was not just the most famous philosopher in the world at the end of his life, he was the philosophical world’s best-known Marxist.  To him this was importantly about understanding the patterns in which reality moves.  Hegel called this Dialectics.  Bloch continues that usage.  The basic idea is the “Negation of the Negation” (one of Hegel’s three laws of dialectics).  “Sublate” is the term Hegel used for a contradiction resolving itself.  Bloch thought the dualism of contemporary theism is an insuperable contradiction.  Atheist religion, then, is the elevation of religion out of the fatal contradiction of its old dualism.

[i] Elliot Cosgrove, “A Quest-Driven Faith” in Jewish Theology in Our Time, ed. Elliot Cosgrove (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010), hereafter JTOT.

[ii] Elliot Cosgrove, Introduction to Jewish Theology in Our Time: A New Generation Explores the Foundations and Future of Jewish Belief, ed. Elliot Cosgrove (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010), xviii.

[iii] Eugene B. Borowitz , “The Idea of God,” in Studies in the Meaning of Judaism (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 2002), 41.

[iv] See: Kaufmann Kohler, Jewish Theology Systematically and Historically Considered, (New York: MacMillan Co., 1918), and Emil Hirsch, My Religion.

[v] Abraham Joshua Heschel, God In Search of Man (New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1955), 78.

[vi] James Jacobson-Maisels, “Non-dual Judaism,” in JTOT, 38.

[vii] William Plevan, “Martin Buber: The Dialogue with God,” in JTOT, 93.

[viii] Pleavan, 93.

[ix] Emil G. Hirsch, My Religion, (New York: Macmillan, 1925), 269.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Alian Botton, TED Talk, “Atheism 2.0” recorded July 2011.

[xii] Daniel Maguire, Christianity without God: Moving Beyond the Dogmas and Retrieving the Epic Moral Narrative (New York: SUNY Press, 2014).

[xiii] Juan Luís Segundo, The Liberation of Dogma: Faith, Revelation and Dogmatic Teaching Authority, trans. Philip Berryman (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992).

[xiv] Ibid., 234.

[xv] Emil G. Hirsch, My Religion, (New York: MacMillan Co., 1925), 291.

[xvi] Feuerbach, 26.

[xvii] Ibid., 27-28.

[xviii] Joseph Zeitlin, Disciples of the Wise: The Religious and Social Opinions of American Rabbis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1947).

[xix] Jose Carlos Mariateg, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality, archived at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/mariateg/works/7-interpretive-essays/index.htm

[xx] Peter Thompson, Introduction, in Ernst Bloch, Atheism in Christianity: The Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom, translated by J.T. Swann (New York: Verso, 1972), x.

[xxi] Michael Lerner, “God and Goddess Emerging,” Tikkun Magazine, Volume 29, number 3, Summer 2014, 29.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Harold M. Schulweis, “From God to Godliness: Proposal for a Predicate Theology” in CJT, 124.

[xxiv] See Ikar-LA.org and https://www.ted.com/talks/sharon_brous_it_s_time_to_reclaim_and_reinvent_religion.

[xxv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GG3pwPHKBpY

[xxvi] Schulweis, 46.  His point was not to agree with Rabbi Mendel but to find a way out of that paradox.  I embrace it.

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