Can Liberal Judaism Be Saved from Liberalism?


(Credit: CC-BY-NC-SA by Jerusalem Prayer Team)

Is the death of Judaism or liberal American Judaism suggested by the Pew report on American Judaism cause for alarm or remorse or an opportunity for creative renewal? I’ll side with the latter, along with Rabbi Rami Shapiro as he calls for abandoning the American Jewish status quo as a lost cause and starting something new. He lays out a vision he labels “Judaism Next” that embraces the inescapable skepticism and pluralism of our secular age and mixes Judaism’s wiser scriptures and traditions with contemporary philosophy, literature and moral sensibilities (and decorates the result with an avalanche of anarchic philanthropic experiments in Jewish meaning making.) He invites further conversation, asking us “not to argue with my vision of Judaism but to share your own.”

I applaud Rabbi Shapiro’s blunt prognosis and his invitation to creative rebuilding, and I’m sympathetic with much of his vision, but, despite my best efforts, I find myself succumbing to some inner compulsion to argue, even to the point that the presentation of my own vision will have to wait for a future article. My vision is still murky, complicated, not quite articulate, and can’t compete with Rabbi Shapiro’s unless I poke a couple holes in his first and question one of his underlying assumptions.
Well, the hole I want to call attention to doesn’t need to be poked so much as investigated: it’s the absence of faith in Rabbi Shapiro’s program. I can’t tell how intentional this absence is or if it constitutes a real tear in the overall fabric, but I see it in the space between Rabbi Shapiro’s skepticism and his sense of meaning and goodness.
I’m using skepticism as a shorthand for a complex of ideas outlined in Shapiro’s list of “the raw facts of existence” : “1. Life isn’t fair. 2. Bad things happen to good people; good things happen to bad people. 3. There is no surety, certainty, permanence, or security in life. 4. All human truths are constructed, reflecting the biases and limitations of their creators.” He makes this a plank of his program, “Our pedagogy will be learning to live with doubt, skepticism, paradox, irony, and uncertainty.”
Let me say immediately before I go on that I have no disagreement whatsoever with what I’m calling Rabbi Shapiro’s skepticism. I see the world and the raw facts of existence in exactly the same way myself.
Shapiro’s list of raw facts shifts at item six to what I’m calling his sense of meaning and goodness: “6. We have the capacity to make meaning from the raw facts of our existence. 7. Right meaning-making gives us a sense of belonging to something purposeful and greater than ourselves, and helps us cultivate love, gratitude, compassion, community, friendship, justice, peace, purpose, and unity with and obligation toward all life.” Several items in his program reflect this sense, including: “Our culture will teach us to be tzadikim nistarim, hidden saints healing and hallowing the world wherever and however we meet it.”
Shapiro says where right meaning-making will bring us; but starting from his skepticism and rejection of received certainties, it’s not clear what would make one kind of meaning-making more right than another or how he makes the leap from skepticism and life’s intrinsic lack of fairness and security to religious engagement and becoming a hidden saint. When Sartre or Camus or de Beauvoir make the leap from meaninglessness to man- or woman-made meaning, the leap makes sense but the meanings arrived at, noble or inspiring as they may be, are generally humanistic and secular. Making the leap from emptiness and skepticism to religious joy and saintliness, at least in my experience, requires the extra step of faith. Faith doesn’t need to be a commitment to particular transcendent certainties, but it is definitely not a self-sufficient, existentialist proclamation: Here I stand, proudly ready to make my meanings on no other authority than my own.
Shapiro has found a path to religious engagement that either leaves out the faith step, or includes it in a way that’s not apparent in his essay. I would love to hear more about how that works for him, and I would also love to hear how others make this leap in a secular age. On this matter I’m going to leave the current essay with a cliffhanger, but I’ll elaborate the problem a bit more and give a hint or two at my solution.
The underlying assumption I mentioned wanting to question is not clearly stated in Shapiro’s piece. I may be reading him wrong, but he seems to dismiss Orthodox Judaism as nothing but an archaic hindrance in the effort to create a new, vital Judaism. He describes Israel as having a choice between becoming “an embattled theocracy, a Jewish Iran, or a living museum of eighteenth-century Jewish life” or “a living experiment in twenty-first-century Jewish living.” He says, “Rabbinic Judaism is dead, and with nothing compelling to replace it Jews have turned to ancestor worship instead, making a fetish of highly romanticized and fictionalized pre-Holocaust Judaism personified by Tevya in the movie Fiddler on the Roof.”
Outside a couple details on pages 50 and 51 of the Pew report, I can offer no more than my own impression, but is it possible that while liberal Judaism is declining, Orthodox Judaism may actually be making a comeback? Its losses over the preceding decades have been so enormous that their momentum continues to overshadow any new resurgence if there is one, but I have a subjective and not especially well-informed sense that some new energy has been enlivening certain Orthodox communities for the last couple decades.

(Credit: CC-BY-NC-SA by Jaap Joris)

Rabbi Shapiro’s apparent assumption that Orthodox Judaism has nothing to teach those would like to save or re-create liberal Judaism is really the only thing in his essay that bothers me. His knowledge of all forms of Judaism surely dwarfs my own, but maybe I can claim some authority as a bona fide member of the demographic for whom liberal Judaism is all but dead. I’ve been reading Letters to a Buddhist Jew by Rabbi Akiva Tatz and Buddhist Jew David Gottlieb which has strangely bolstered my image of (Tatz’s form of) Orthodox Judaism as a religion that could speak to me, except the result is that I feel driven away from Judaism and towards Buddhism more than ever before.
Like Shapiro, Tatz is not troubled by the demise of contemporary Judaism. He sees the danger but says, “The Jewish people’s survival is not our problem. It is not a problem at all; it has been promised by the One who is entirely capable of delivering on His promises…Our problem is the survival of [individual] Jews…Our work must be to attract and help Jews for their sake…[and] to learn genuine Torah with anyone who remains sensitive enough to attempt it.” Tatz’s etiology of my alienation rings true to me: “One of the most profound aspects of our exile is the discarding of Hebrew by those who should have known better. When certain communities decided to learn and pray in translation, they virtually sealed their fate…[Judaism] became accessible, but it was no longer Judaism.”
The common understanding of why people drop away from Orthodox Judaism seems to that it’s too demanding, too much study, too many restrictions. For me, watching my son begin Hebrew school at a conservative synagogue that we chose by location and the friendliness of some of the other families in the congregation, it’s just sad to think of all the time and effort he’ll spend over the next five years preparing for a Bar Mitzvah that will probably seem spiritually meaningless to his father. Despite my being 50 years old and having no Jewish education to speak of, I might consider throwing myself into study alongside him at an Orthodox shul. What stops me is not all the work or the enormous lifestyle changes orthodoxy would require. It’s two philosophical sticking points I can’t get past: 1) I couldn’t fully embrace any set of beliefs that couldn’t co-exist with Rabbi Shapiro’s raw fact #4: all human truths are constructed, reflecting the biases and limitations of their creators; and 2) I couldn’t in good conscience join any community that denies full respect and equality to women or LGBT people.
But the attraction is there. Would I want my son learning a modicum of Hebrew because it happens to be the language of the religion of his ancestors and is required if he’s to be Bar Mitzvahed; or would I want him seriously studying biblical Hebrew because it’s the language God used to create the universe and every word is packed with numerological and theological significance, because every discrepancy and typo in the Torah has occasioned volumes of creative Midrash, the study of which could fill a lifetime with meaningful reflection, inspiration and debate? The thing that attracts me to Orthodox Judaism is not that I believe God intended every typo in the Torah, it’s that other people have believed it and have created a tradition of textual interpretation and commentary of unparalleled moral and intellectual richness and beauty.
A Judaism that appealed me would not be one that jettisoned all the willful and fanciful rabbinic interpretations or misreadings of the Torah; it would be one that could lead me into that world and its profoundest meanings and values without asking me to leave some of my most fundamental contemporary values and understandings at the door.
Some of this is a matter of personal taste and the way my idiosyncratic spiritual needs interact with the predicament of contemporary Judaism. But, in addition to the question I raised above, there is another broad question I want to raise here, occasioned by Rabbi Shapiro’s drive to create a liberal religion that has as much meaning and energy behind it as the religion of true believers. These are both questions relevant not just to Jews but to everyone who cares about religion while living in the philosophical uncertainties and confusions of our secular age.
First, how do those of us who do recognize the constructed nature of all our truths make the leap to passionate, life-changing religious practice and belief? Second, what can we learn from those who make a passionate commitment to religion but do not share our philosophical skepticism or pluralism? I’m eager to hear anyone’s answers to these questions, and, if anyone’s interested, I’ll offer some of my own answers in future articles.

0 thoughts on “Can Liberal Judaism Be Saved from Liberalism?

  1. The article “Fierceness and Reverence,” by Ana Levy-Lyons in the latest Tikkun magazine had a lot to say about what you are discussing and was deeply moving for me. I look forward to more of your thoughts.

  2. Thanks Sigfried for this wonderful article. You understood my essay, and raise an issue that I will have to ponder more deeply: namely the notion of a leap of faith. I really appreciate that.
    Your notion that I believe “Orthodox Judaism has nothing to teach those [who] would like to save or recreate liberal Judaism” is also accurate. Having grown up Orthodox, I don’t find myself drawn to either its theology or practice, but I agree that Orthodoxy is a bulwark against a disappearing Judaism. It just isn’t one I (or 91% of American Jewry) want to embrace.
    Abandoning Orthodoxy, however, doesn’t mean abandoning the genius of deliberately misreading Torah that is at the heart of all rabbinic Judaisms. On the contrary, if there is one thing that is uniquely Jewish it is our capacity to deconstruct/reconstruct text, and I want to salvage and celebrate that. Indeed, if Judaism is to thrive and not merely survive in the future it will because we have learned how to bring this particular Jewish genius to a growing number of Jews.
    Sadly, this isn’t being done.
    Liberal Jews continue to look to Orthodox Judaism to set our standards, and then create a Judaism lite in its shadow. We are promoting na’aseh v’nishmah, doing/understanding Jewishly when we should be promoting thinking Jewishly.
    Lastly, the questions at the end of your piece are great. I look forward to reading your answers to them.

  3. Rabbi Rami, thanks so much for the friendly and encouraging comments. I’m glad I wasn’t misreading your view on Orthodoxy, but I’m wondering if some of the reason you think they have nothing to teach is because you’ve already learned what they have to teach. I’m afraid I haven’t read any of your books yet, or anything at all in Reconstructionist or Renewal Judaism (I clearly need to fix that if I’m going to stick around here), but I suppose your sense is that whatever’s worth learning in the Orthodox tradition is available elsewhere, without all the bad parts and with important new stuff. That’s not an idea I had considered, but are there any particular sources you’d recommend to get me oriented?
    It may take me a couple more articles of laying out the motivation before I get to my answers to those questions, but when I do I’ll be eager to hear your thoughts.

Leave a Reply

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