Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Celebrating skepticism

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of
Louis Jacobs's 'We Have Reason to Believe'


Who could disagree with Pope Benedict XVI's statement in his just-released second encyclical that "a world without God is a world without hope"?

Well, I suppose there are some, but for most of us balancing modernity and its intrinsic absence of absolutes with religion, which demands belief in a divine power, is what struggling with God is all about in the 21st century.

Isn't it paradoxical that in our post-modern world the search for God continues? A recent survey by the Guttman Center of the Israel Democracy Institute reveals that most native-born Israelis consider themselves either traditional or religious. Younger people nowadays, more than older folks, identify themselves as religious. So there's little question that Israelis are searching for God and hope.

Yet, how are we to reconcile the hard data with our intuitive sense that Israelis are mostly non-practicing Orthodox or altogether secular; that the average Israeli (like his American Jewish cousin) is so unfamiliar with the liturgy that if thrown into a Shabbat morning service, they'd be clueless.

Part of the answer, I suppose, is that while some Israelis reject organized religion which they associate with the corrupted official rabbinate - Israel's established church - many retain a deep cultural need for traditional customs in marking life-cycle milestones, thereby keeping God (however defined) and hope in their lives.

ONE MAN who was ahead of his time in this great effort to balance faith with modernity was Rabbi Louis Jacobs, who died in London last July at 85. This week marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of his We Have Reason to Believe.

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jacobs was at the epicenter of a hullabaloo for - what seems in hindsight - his rather diffident attempt to coax Orthodox Judaism into the 20th century.

For his troubles, Jacobs lost a shot at becoming chief rabbi of Great Britain, but his imagination gave further impetus to the development of centrist Judaism worldwide and, in Britain, of the Masorti movement.

On December 2, some of his admirers gathered at the New London Synagogue on Abbey Road in St. John's Wood, which Jacobs founded and where he held the pulpit for many decades, to inquire whether there is still reason to believe.

What set off the "Jacobs Affair" half a century ago was the rabbi's suggestion that maybe, just maybe, not every word and every letter of the Pentateuch was literally dictated by God to Moses. This audacity cost Jacobs his Orthodox pulpit in the late 1950s, and by the end of 1961 he was also forced to resign his position as "tutor" at London's Jews' College, then the training ground for Orthodox ministers, rabbis and cantors.

Here is what Jacobs said in bidding farewell to his students: "Doubt is the source of inquiry. Yet large sections of Jews live in self-assured ease. Their religion was part of their contentment, but who wants a life of contentment? Religion throughout the ages has been used to comfort the troubled. We should now use it to trouble the comfortable..."

DEBATING WHETHER the Torah is min hashamayim (from Heaven) may seem oddly esoteric from the vantage point of the 21st century. On the one hand, for today's Orthodox (and certainly among the thriving numbers of the newly religious), Torah min hashamayim isn't debatable - it's dogma. A strict-constructionist interpretation of God-given texts, and belief in divinely inspired precedent, continues to propel the Orthodox approach to Jewish law and custom.

On the other hand, for most non-Orthodox Jews - meaning the majority of Jewish people - there is no debate about Torah min hashamayim. That's because the Jewishly illiterate, the secular and the assimilated are oblivious to the issue. At the same time, practicing Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews continue to grapple with the Torah min hashamayim dilemma in their own ways.

Generally, Reform Jews say that the Torah is a compilation of both the divine and human; Conservatives say that the Torah is divinely inspired; while a Reconstructionist might fudge matters further by saying, as Rabbi Arthur Green does, that there may not be a Force out there, but there is a "deep consciousness" that underlies our existence.

ALL THIS matters, because Jewish civilization and with it our raison d'etre - for being Jews and for being Zionists - cannot reasonably be detached from Judaism's religious legacy. We either wrestle with this issue or we cease being Jews.

In his day, Jacobs was denounced as an apikoros by the Orthodox establishment. His so-called heresy, however, was in practice an authentically Jewish approach in struggling with God. Not everyone can or wants to take the leap of faith which unvarnished Orthodoxy demands. Take the highly educated - the Guttman survey showed that the more education people have the less religiously inclined they tend to be. It needn't be that way - perhaps we should redefine what it means to be "religious." We need to give people legitimate and enlightened options apart from Orthodoxy.

Reading Jacobs today, he hardly strikes me as much of a radical. Where Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan's Reconstructionist philosophy saw "Judaism as civilization" and God as a sociological construct, Jacobs argued that we ought to avoid, "when thinking of God, the extremes of both anthropomorphism and 'de-personalization.'" God can never be comprehended, Jacobs insisted. His creatures will find Him if they seek Him.

That reads pretty traditional to me.

FOR THE middle-of-the-road Jacobs, Conservative Judaism came with a small "c." He believed in God and in the possibility (at least) of an afterlife. As best as I can tell, he opposed abortion (with some exceptions), capital punishment, homosexuality and, perish the thought, even smoking. He acknowledged the validity of the theory of evolution, and he was said to champion women's rights.

Without question, however, some of his message was and remains radical. Jacobs argued that belief in the literal resurrection of the dead was not central to Judaism (Maimonides thought otherwise). He appeared not to subscribe to the idea of a personal messiah, nor did he hope for a concrete rebuilding of the Third Temple and the resumption of animal sacrifices.

Perhaps most iconoclastic of all, Jacobs - like many of today's observant non-Orthodox - understood mitzvot as binding only to the extent that they serve as a pathway to Godly behavior.

In some ways, it may have been easier to embrace centrist Judaism in his day than in our own. Today defining the middle ground - to the right of Reform and the left of Orthodoxy - is increasingly difficult. Certainly, the Conservative movement's inability to articulate a unified centrist dogma has been costly in membership and prestige.

And yet, precisely by not defining absolute parameters the movement is being true to itself. In Emet v'Emunah, the 1988 statement of principles of Conservative Judaism, proponents of centrism argued that "given our changing world, finality and certainty are illusory at best, destructive at worst. Rather than claiming to have found a goal at the end of the road, the ideal Conservative Jew is a traveler walking purposefully towards 'God's holy mountain.'"

In the quest for God and hope, centrist Judaism has had little choice but to emphasize observance over dogma, and in so doing has doubtlessly moved to Jacobs's left - even as Orthodoxy has lurched to the right of where it was when it ostracized him.

Still, if you ask me, we do have reason to believe. Whatever our doubts, prayer and ritual give us an essential framework for living spiritually. And that's vital because for all its heterogeneity, Jewish civilization cannot survive absent God and hope.

No comments:

My Archive