A radical change took place in the nature of academically worthy Jewish religious thought during the past century. Thinking back over five decades as a participant in that shift and as a careful reader of the earlier thinkers, it seems to me that the commanding power of ethics, not any issue that derived from the Holocaust or the establishment of the Jewish State, primarily shaped our philosophical and theological thinking.
Establishing The Paradigm
Modern Jewish religious thought is an intellectual response to the Emancipation of our people in western Europe. Leaving the ghetto/shtetl meant accepting the gains and sacrifices of modernization: participating in the general society’s education, literature, art, politics, economy and scientific outlook, thereby making the culture’s ethos our own. As a result, the pre-modern Jewish thought that had so long sustained us, whether rationalistic or kabbalistic, could not now provide us with a way of speaking to our new neighbors about the world. Modern European thought, we discovered, had displaced God, God’s revelation and God’s micro-management of the universe with human discovery and self-understanding. Human reason, with science as the primary evidence of its intellectual benefits, with technology and democracy as its great practical demonstrations, now was the primary means of ascertaining truth even as rational ethics defined human duty. The zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, equated modernity with secularity, enshrined the university as the cathedral of true instruction, and made the creations of high culture their “torah.”
Some religious believers in the areas affected by these developments – initially Christians and later Jews, with few Moslems participating – acknowledged the spiritual gains of modernization but still believed that God and classic religious teaching had much to teach us. Rejecting the identification of radical secularity and modernity, they created non-orthodox forms of Christianity and Judaism. We commonly call such non-orthodoxies “liberal” religions and it is in that loose sense that I shall use that term. These new interpretations of old faiths have for the past century all struggled with the slippery problem of balancing tradition and change, particularly when their received teachings seemed not to fully respect the worth of all human beings.
An example should help clarify this sweeping description of the spiritual state of the modernized Jewish community a century ago. In 1903 and 1905 there were two major, government-abetted pogroms against the Jews of Kishinev. In the first, 49 Jews were killed and then, in the second, 19 more, many others being injured and hundreds of homes and businesses looted or destroyed. The substantial protest in the international press generally alluded to the incompatibility of such civic violence with the standards of modern civilization. More important for our purpose was the response of Jewish religious leaders who wrote in the languages of their country. They did not try to explain the Shoah-of-their-time in classic theological fashion, namely that God, as Deuteronomy strongly teaches, was punishing the Jews for their non-observance. Instead of looking to psalms and piyyutim, they and other community leaders saw politics working for modern ethical goals as the appropriate Jewish response to the outrage. In America as in other free nations, they organized for action, founding the American Jewish Committee, “to prevent the infraction of the civil and religious rights of Jews, in any part of the world.” All these groups accepted the premise that a nation’s ethical secularity would assure Jews of equal participation in general society while evoking the old Jewish commitment to “the good and the just.” In one way or another, that has been the perspective behind the American Jewish community’s social policy ever since.
What concerns us here is the way religious thinkers sought to validate their kind of ethicized religiosity. They now took it for granted that, as science and technology demonstrate, the world operates without the need of a Divine guiding hand. But the scientific-technological worldview seemed deficient in its insistence that the world could adequately be described as value-free. That perspective might be admirable in eliminating prejudice but a value-free rationality couldn’t tell us what we ought to be doing about human relations or where we ought to be taking our societies. And in practice it turned out that neither the laboratory, nor the great modern systems of production, nor the political process, powerfully created moral character. So the western liberal religions, drawing on their rich heritage of story, ritual and belief and creatively combining them with the humanistic resources of the university and high culture, began seeing themselves as providing the modern world with its richest character-shaping input.
The intellectual structure for this commitment was largely drawn from the early 19th century philosopher Immanuel Kant. Working from the experience of the Enlightenment, Kant and his many followers characterized the rational mind as operating in three separate modes, or what a television oriented generation would call “channels.” The first and perhaps the simplest one to describe is the scientific-mathematical mode. A properly rational person would try to understand the operation of the universe and its diverse phenomena in that value-free, logically coherent, empirically testable, deterministic framework. A second mode of rationality extrapolated from the experience of moral command, the qualitative duty a rationally operating mind knows it ought to do despite being free to do many other things. Kant further called attention to that capacity of the rational mind to appreciate beauty and thus to its esthetic capability which had its own functional character. The Kantians devoted their lengthy tomes to analyzing and expounding the whole or parts of this tripartite conception of human reason.
The liberal religious thinkers were generally not academic philosophers but they followed what became the standard modern mode of thinking about faith; they would find a truth at the university which they then used to explicate the enduring value of their religious tradition. Particularly as the 19th century wore on, various descendants of Kantian philosophy served that purpose though it did not allow for a rational mind asserting the reality, that is, the existence “out there”, of God. That would be a mental assertion about a “thing” in the universe and issues about phenomena had to be dealt with rationally in the scientific-mathematical aspect of mind. That mode of thinking would, by definition, rule out the possibility of finding any trace of an allegedly non-corporeal, untestable, unique reality. But though one could not rationally demonstrate the reality of God, it was certainly reasonable for a rational mind to extend its ethical or even its esthetic sense to embrace the reality it called God as long as this did not contravene the understanding of one’s scientific-mathematical capacity. As a result, liberal religion has long had a greater certainty about ethics than about God and it has largely allowed its view of the ethical to shape its view of God and religious practice.
Two aspects of Kant’s thinking about the rational mind particularly appealed to modern Jewish religious thinkers. The first was that for an idea to qualify as properly rational it needed to be universal. Thus, in a Newtonian universe, if gravity had applied only to apples it might have been of interest to orchardists but since it was asserted to be true of all things that have mass everywhere in the universe, it is an exemplary instance of thinking rationally. For Jews, who believed that there was one God for the entire universe, the notion of universality as a standard of truth seemed intuitively correct. Moreover, since ethics are now a philosophical interest, they need to be rational and thus apply not just to my clan or nation but universally, thus including all rational agents; people, all of them, ought to be treated as ends in themselves and not merely as means to an end.
The identification of rational ethics with universalism had a powerful appeal to Jews: it confirmed their experience of the general human good they saw behind their emancipation from the “ghetto” and it assured them that, insofar as societies tried to be ethically rational, they would no longer discriminate against Jews. This combination of truth and practical benefit, so biblical in tone, is, in my opinion, the intellectual reason Jews remain involved in universal ethical causes in striking statistical disproportion to the rest of the American population or their socio-economic class. And within the Jewish community, this commitment to the universal reach of ethics continues to provide feminists and other excluded groups with a powerful justification for their complete inclusion.
The second Jewish appeal of Kantian thinking was that it associated rational ideas with that special urgency we term “law.” In the Newtonian universe one customarily spoke of “the laws” of gravity, or thermodynamics, or such. In that model of rationality, the proper form of identifying one’s moral obligation was not as “a resource for your self-development,” or “a character-trait people respond well to,” but, as Kant famously put it, “a categorical imperative.” That sounds very much like the tone of Jewish law and, if rational ethics ought to come with the pressure to act we associate with law, it took the sting out of the common Protestant denigration of Judaism as a religion of law rather than of love. To be sure this Kantian style of non-Orthodox Judaism could validate only ethical duties as obligatory, relegating the rest of classic Jewish duty to a second-level instrumental status at best. Secularity deemed religious ritual akin to superstition and liberal theology abetted the decline of ritual observance by giving it only a subsidiary value. Yet in the thrill of attaining social equality, many Jews a century ago were happy to replace the Oral Law with the Kantian Moral Law and this disposition gave rise to the ideology that ethics is the essence of Judaism. Surely many of the tensions in our discussions of halakhic issues these days still echo something of this sentiment.
Late in the nineteenth century Kantian philosophy was given new and significant restatement by Hermann Cohen, an achievement of such note that this Jew was appointed a full professor of philosophy at a German university (Marburg). Among his many other intellectual achievements, Cohen extended Kant’s notion of the reasonableness of a rational person believing in God and set forth several philosophic arguments demonstrating that to be fully rational, one required an adequate idea of God. Since Cohen’s thought about God retains a surprising resonance among Jews long after the academic demise of his neo-Kantianism, let me sketch in one of his arguments about the rational necessity of a God-concept. Kant, as we have noted, depicted the rational mind as operating in three distinct and unique modalities. Limiting ourselves here to the two best cases, science and ethics, we suddenly find ourselves with a dilemma. Scientific rationality depicts nature operating by law and is thus deterministic, while rational ethics understands people as functioning freely in rejecting temptation and choosing to live by the Moral Law. But it would be the height of irrationality to say ours is a schizoid universe, sometimes determined, sometimes free. If we are to have a rational worldview there must be another element in our idea-system which integrates these clashing concepts. This integrating notion must be independent or logically transcendent of the three modes of rationally structuring reality, a unique idea underlying the system as a whole. Cohen argued that this rationally required singular concept was what lay behind the non-philosophic mind’s rather mythic talk about God. To this day many Jews cannot speak directly of God but only about one’s “idea of” or “concept of” God. Cohen termed this ethics-based, intellectually grounded, universal understanding of God, “religion of reason.”
Like all philosophy, religion of reason is thoroughly universal and has no inherent relation to Judaism or Jewish practice. His philosophy established, Cohen vigorously defended Jewish ethical monotheism as the first and finest historical realization of the philosophic ideal of religion of reason and argued that its legal system was, at heart, an unparalleled means of instantiating the Moral Law in human practice.
At the least, two consequences of his work, theoretical and practical, demand his inclusion in this improbably concise effort to survey a century’s Jewish thought and, thus, this harsh compression of his thinking. First, Cohen was the model for later academic Jewish religious thought which, despite its substantive disagreements with his thinking, nonetheless followed his methodological procedure: they utilized a university generated pattern of disclosing truth (or several jointly) to explicate Judaism (and, in recent years, then occasionally challenging it in terms of their vision of Judaism’s truth). Second, in the first half of the twentieth century, those who wanted a doctorate in some aspect of Jewish literature or history, went to German universities. There, even as they studied fields far from philosophy, they absorbed some variety of Cohenian ethical monotheism for it was the established mode of validating Judaism to modern intellectuals. When later they staffed the emerging non-Orthodox rabbinic seminaries, they communicated to their students their versions of the notion that a high humanism, i. e., an ethical concern, was basic to Judaism. Though many of them also staunchly proclaimed the unique virtues of Judaism they then had to face the tensions the commanding power of general ethics created in their students and the community over what to do about issues like mamzerut, agunah, and (later) women’s rights. Or to refer to a most grievous contemporary issue, for all that American Jews today are strongly dedicated to the well-being of the State of Israel, what has increasingly troubled them, like many Israelis, has been the frequent failure of the State, even under the constraints of brutal conflict and realism, to demonstrate the kind of ethical action which a state that is a Jewish State should manifest.
As the early decades of the century passed, universal ethics established itself as perhaps the most important value of modernized Jewry. Thus non-believing Jews often argued for the superior virtue of their secularism by insisting that the ethical goals of messianism could more realistically be attained by good politics than by Jewish observance and reliance on God. Ethics also served as the community’s primary argument against outsiders who demeaned Judaism or insiders who spurned Judaism now that the whole of general culture lay before them: “Look at the Jewish record. Wherever we have been given entry, we have, in numbers radically disproportionate to our population, made major contributions to human betterment.” And the theme of our people’s ethical virtuosity still sounds strongly among us.
The Paradigm Triumphant – And Crumbling
In a most perverse way, the ideology of Jewish ethics achieved what at first appeared to be a triumphant intellectual validation in the mid-1960 theological discussion of the Holocaust. The death-of-God movement based its response to the barbarity on the liberal religious paradigm. Negatively, it condemned the Deuteronomic vision of God as the reliable, efficient, micro-manager of the Heavenly reward-and-punishment-system. Since no good God possessing God’s alleged supreme power would allow the Holocaust, the time had come to acknowledge forthrightly that Nietzsche’s shocking proclamation was correct: God was dead. Giving up our illogical, even unethical, notion of God, they then positively argued, would not substantially alter human duty for human reason gave our ethics a certainty no modern theory of revelation ever could.. If anything, discarding our infantile dependency on God would encourage us to be fully mature by accepting our sole responsibility for what transpired in history. In the Jewish community this pronouncement came with special appeal. Modernization had so radically appealed to acculturating Jews that most of those still caring about their Jewishness utilized religious institutions as part of their (largely suburban) Americanization and could accept their programs which focused on an ethical and ethnic program which allowed them (and much of their clergy) to remain religious agnostics. The Death-of-God movement called Jews to come out of the closets of their non-belief and adopt a forthright non-theistic ethical stance, one which unlike the assimilationist teaching of Ethical Culture would also now be enriched by ethnic loyalty. It seemed to many that now that the truth of the secular version of ethical Jewish modernization had been so violently substantiated, the need for synagogues had ended.
That prophecy proved utterly false. Rarely has so widely discussed and appealing an intellectual position been so thoroughly and quickly rejected by a community. By the 1980s large numbers of caring Jews became concerned with “spirituality” (the community euphemism of those still hesitant about using the term “God”), a movement that continues among us with impressive intensity. Orthodox Judaism, whose theology was the prime example of what could no longer be believed, has instead exhibited perhaps the most vigorous religious resurgence in contemporary Judaism. A concern for spiritual renewal characterizes most organized and spontaneous Jewish religious life and making communal prayer more personally rewarding is a widespread Jewish ambition. Mysticism and meditation, those direct means of intimately experiencing the Ultimate, once so rare and alien in our community, have become unexceptional activities for many Jews. And Kabbalah, the Jewish esoteric doctrine of the nature and functioning of Godhood (and, in some of its forms, of the evil counter-forces in the universe), is the leading attraction in our adult education programs and the living religious practice of a significant minority.
Death-of God indeed! What died among us was not God but the paradigm of modern non-orthodoxies, that human reason alone was the compelling source of our ethics which then became the foundation of every worthy human endeavor. Its demise came from two tightly intertwined twentieth century developments, one cognitive, the other social. For clarity, I shall discuss them separately but it is clear that neither would have been as corrosive had they not operated in tandem.
As the past century proceeded, the philosophic understanding of human reason changed radically. With science as the increasingly dominant model, the Kantian notion of mind necessarily operating in three modes – science, ethics and esthetics (the poet’s “the true, the good and the beautiful”) – said more about the thinker’s character preferences than about the correct operation of a mind. Science and mathematics demonstrated that rationality only meant proceeding logically from one’s premises to one’s conclusions and only in that way could one gain rational certainty. However, being logical in that sense did not involve the affirmation of moral values so rationality, and much philosophy with it, was stripped of its former substantive components and became largely technical. Philosophic existentialism, the major academic alternative to this scientizing of reason, redirected thought to selfhood, freedom and the search for authenticity but its ethics struggled to get beyond being-true-to-oneself. In both these major philosophic movements, the Kantian bond between rationality and ethics had been shattered. Philosophy no longer provided a meta-ethics, the sure intellectual path from having a good mind and therefore needing good character.
As rationality was de-ethicized, a series of critical attacks from without were also weakening the identification of reason with impersonal certainty. Already in the 19th century Marx had attacked the notion that individual reason could be utterly detached from its social situation, and later Freud and the anthropologists convincingly demonstrated that our ideas are broadly determined by our emotional structure and our cultural conditioning. In recent years, the notion that “dead, white, European, males” have clarified how everyone, everywhere ought to think – “universalism” – has been devastatingly debunked by people of color and by feminists who have laid bare the covert assertion of racial or gender supremacy in such “pure reason.” Moreover, the media’s continuing revelations day by day of the venality and malevolence in personal lives and social leadership has shattered our prior confidence that human nature was truly good and that education, culture, therapy or some other nostrum would liberate our ethical inclination.
The intellectual transition from ethics as certainty to ethics as problem is epitomized in an impressive recent book by one of our most able Jewish philosophic ethicists. Its title is “Why Ethics?” and every step of his response to that question yielded another question, each with its sub questions, all of which he courageously sought to answer. Some decades ago, seeing philosophical ethics as primarily a series of questions rather than an exploration of the certainties rationality yielded would have been unthinkable. But today’s intellectuality cannot tell us what grounds a compelling substantive ethics.
Now let me turn to the practical concomitant of this academic development. Once, freedom restrained by reason’s ethical authority meant that inherited patterns of social practice now understood to be unethical ought to be overthrown. Thus, the Emancipation of the Jews in Europe, the establishment of the full civil rights of African Americans (and, thus, other minorities) in the United States, and the current world-wide struggle for women’s equality all testify gloriously to the ethical power the notion of universal reason once wielded. But as rationality lost its tie to ethics in broad reaches of our society, naked self-determination began usurping the place once occupied by rational selfhood acting under the sovereignty of moral law. Kantian autonomy degenerated into will and whim as legitimators of “the thing to do.” The appalling results were dramatically seen in growing sexual license, drug abuse, and social violence, making the old adulation of freedom and human goodness seem naive. It forced a new ethical issue to the fore: what now sets the limits of freedom? Or, to say the same thing differently: what authority, if any, should rightfully override individual preference (and certainly inclination)? Or, to restate the issue in more classic Jewish terms, how today can ethics once again command us?
The spiritual trauma of western civilization in the latter third of the past century – exemplified for Jews in the Holocaust – was inflicted by the death of our effective “god,” humankind as so spiritually competent we had no need of God. But after all we have seen people do, we cannot any longer take ourselves that seriously. Instead, we are in mourning for the passing of the modern religious paradigm.
The Struggle For A New Religious Paradigm
For some years now, a postmodern religious search of highly diverse forms (not a few of them the old-time secularity draped in quasi-religious garb) has been under way. Our new realism about people as surrogates for God engendered a humility that has enabled the Divine or some substitute thereof, to reclaim a place in our lives. Some such change of ethos has led many Moslems, Christians and Jews to a freshly intense commitment to their inherited traditions and institutions, the many religious phenomena lumped under the label “fundamentalism.” These believers proudly turn their backs on the moral license they see abetted by modernity’s obsession with self-determination. Instead they glory in setting limits for the proper use of human freedom, and, equally appealing to many, provide communities which socially reinforce their standards. We see the broad appeal of this religious sentiment most plainly in the strong presence of fundamentalist religious groups in American politics.
What is equally remarkable is the staying power of a critical aspect of the old liberal position. Even though academic philosophers and social scientists have not produced a broadly convincing theory of ethics (particularly a meta-ethics) to replace the old Kantian view, most Jews, despite their disenchantment with modernity, have not become “fundamentalists.” The most reasonable explanation for this is their residual though less grandiose commitment to the ethical sensibility that liberal religion taught them. They may agree that their religious traditions and institutions have much to teach them about the good, often through its ritual and liturgical practice, but realism indicates that these teachings are also humanly flawed. As a consequence, thinking people cannot give them the reasonably unquestioned authority they demand. And, as the classic cases, mamzerut, agunot and women’s place in Judaism demonstrate, our majority will not, for all its new-found embrace of Jewish practice, patiently abide baldly discriminatory rules merely to maintain the systemic authority of their inherited tradition. Instead, they insist that moral imperatives be a major factor in the evolution of religious practice, or even argue that all those whose lives are intimately entwined with God as part of the Jewish people’s ongoing covenant with God, ought to have a substantial measure of self-determination with regard to their Jewish duty. With feminist Jewish thought (to be discussed below), these presently seem to be the central theological non-Orthodox currents among us. All are testimony to the continuing power of the ethical vision even without a sustaining contemporary intellectual theory of ethics.
My argument, that the ethical drive has survived the loss of its intellectual ground should not be read as disparaging the accomplishments of today’s academic Jewish philosophers or, for that matter, that of the teachers and practitioners of mysticism but only as an observation that their teaching has not influenced more than a thoughtful minority though it might yet become widely accepted. Both lines of thought, I believe, evidence the paradigm shift from ethics as the foundation of our religiosity to a search for a religious foundation which must, among the pillars of its spiritual construction, provide for a sturdy, commanding ethics. Let me say some words about each of them.
In philosophic activity we are the continuing beneficiaries of a bumper harvest of sophisticated publications. Two foci of interest are of special note. The one is the philosophic work of Franz Rosenzweig, much of which centers on the most intellectually compelling way to read his notoriously obscure book, The Star of Redemption. Contemporary Jewish philosophers are drawn to Rosenzweig by a concern different from that of Jewish thinkers a generation back, which then was his validation of Jewish Law in modern academic terms. That old interest may be part of a hidden agenda for contemporary thinkers but the overt attraction of his work seems to me to have another source. Just how did he, some eighty years ago, create an academically credible philosophy which responded to what he saw then as the moral (and religious) ineptitude of philosophy to ground our sense of human (and Jewish) value. Rosenzweig’s philosophy has a major place for God as a reality independent of our reason and thereby capable of commanding human responsibility by means of loving presence (the Rosenzweig/Buber vehicle of revelation). While Rosenzweig’s positive assessment of the relationship of philosophic ethics to Jewish law is a debated matter, it seems reasonably clear that his insistence on accepting the authority of the halakhah, even if occasionally our practice of it is deferred until we are “able” to do so, reinstates the clash of ethics and Jewish law described above, and prevents his being our rebbe without major reconstruction.
In the thought of Emmanuel Levinas, the other substantial focus of Jewish philosophical interest, there is no question about the centrality of a commanding ethics, probably the very reason his work is generating an extraordinarily rich body of secondary literature. Moreover, Levinas specifically identifies the primacy of ethics in his thinking as the “Hebrew” in his thought, a hybridizing element needed to remedy the deficiency he sees in European philosophical thought, the “Greek,” which, by its compulsion to totalize has deprived individuals of their particularity and thus of their ethical significance. Levinas, proceeding phenomenologically, asserts that whenever we are confronted by another person, an ethical imperative overwhelms us with its commanding power. The ethical is utterly primal in human existence and the philosophical insistence on thematizing it is the cardinal sin of “Greek” thinking, for all its high human importance otherwise. Levinas seeks to remedy this defect by philosophical treatises which provide an academically worthy version of the “Hebrew” genius, ethics as the axis of life and thought. Levinas insists that while the primal ethical experience does not disclose its essence or origin and no rationality will allow us to delve beyond this experience, it does leave its traces on us and these clues are what prompt people everywhere to speak of God. On the surface one might say that in speaking “Greek,” Levinas follows the modern paradigm of moving from ethics to God. However, what makes it possible for postmodern religious thinkers to say Levinas is influenced by a new paradigm is the fact that, to put it now in “Hebrew,” God grounds the commanding power of ethics even though, in biblical terms, ”we humans cannot see God’s face.” It remains to be seen whether Levinas can be this generation’s philosophical rebbe. True, his own Jewish practice was traditional and in some of his Talmudic readings he does make some highly positive asides about non-ethical Jewish observance. Nonetheless, the philosophy in his major works necessarily follows “Greek” standards and thus can validate only ethical duty making it unclear how his thought might escape the truncated Jewishness of his Jewish ethical forebears.
Looking now at some recent books reinterpreting the themes of Jewish mysticism, one similarly sees the strong influence of general ethics. The major concern of mysticism has always been to give God priority in our consciousness, a mindfulness which often leads on to full-fledged monism: God alone is real, all else being, in the last analysis, illusion. Traditionally, this Jewish God-centeredness has led to punctilious observance of the halakhah and the encouragement of new minhagim all of which, though they may not make much sense to us at our level of reality, are validated by their effect on the higher levels of Godhood. Thus, we are not surprised to discover in classic mystic teaching that Torah, not only as story but also as duty, is one aspect of God as the Supernal Sefirot. If, so to speak, Torah is a part of God, then the specifics of Jewish practice are commanded out of God’s very being. An interesting transformation of this doctrine takes place in a number of the modernized versions of kabbalah. In these, the monistic emphasis easily demands a strong affirmation of ecology, an embracing respect for all human beings and a commitment to achieving the equal status of women. In the community generally this understanding is echoed in the common use of the term tikkun olam to epitomize Judaism’s central thrust, but to mean by this Lurianic coinage not the mystic intentions that he taught should accompany Jewish observance but rather a diffuse ethical responsibility to make society better. Moreover, the intellectual leaders of contemporary Jewish mysticism do not provide their followers with a validation of traditional Jewish practice nearly comparable to the one they give for ethical living. Mostly they only commend Jewish observance for often providing an effective means of attaining or expressing a God-suffused personality. In such mystic teaching ethics has again helped create an admirable universal sensibility but at the cost of substantially displacing the traditional commanding power of the Law and the people of Israel’s unique covenant relationship with God.
The fullest demonstration of the continuing influence of general ethics upon Jewish thought is probably best seen in the continuing progress and promise of Jewish feminism. The substantially irresistible force of the feminist demand for change in Judaism derives from the ethical concept of human equality now finally understood in gender-neutral terms. That stance has unmasked the prior talk about human equality stemming from universal reason as a political charade, one which substantially censored out the voices and experience of women and thereby authorized continuing male dominance in our communities. Worse, it guaranteed that the power to reconsider and reshape these arrangements were to be kept in exclusively male hands. And, with a similar agenda in mind, God, the standard and model for human aspiration and action, was depicted almost entirely in masculine images. Not only has the ethical power of these themes caused their substantial adoption by non-Orthodox male Jewish thinkers but it has changed the actual practice of much Jewish institutional life and given birth to a widespread sense of further such readjustments. Perhaps an equally significant indicator of the continuing power of ethics has been the way in which numerous initiatives, arguably congenial to the halakhah, though not as previously practiced, have been undertaken by observant Orthodox groups despite the condemnation of such efforts by leading halakhic authorities.
In sum, a many-layered paradox underlies our current theological-philosophical situation. We have been betrayed by our former confidence in philosophy and the goodness of human nature to empower us and our society to conduct ourselves ethically and even serve as the basis for such religious belief and practice as we could bear. Were we thoroughly logical creatures, one would expect that with our moral underpinnings shattered most modern Jews would have then abandoned their ethical idealism and effectively lived out of a new-found cynicism. Indeed, despite the various genteel guises it has taken in the lives of some Jews (and others) that seems to have happened. Far more significant, I believe, is the countervailing, if negative, evidence of our continuing commitment to the ethical I see in the primal revulsion many in our community feel at each day’s new revelation of human depravity. We are sometimes confused by the clever interpretations put upon such behavior – read “spin” – but mostly we retain a strong sense of what is evil. Equally important, we know that many people of different faiths and climes share much of this feeling. There ought to be some common way that human beings can talk to one another about good and evil, both to understand other people’s point of view and to learn how we may together better understand our human moral obligations. For these and other reasons, I think it true though surprising, that most of us retain a strong commitment to the ethical despite our hard-earned realism about human nature, our intellectual confusion about why ethics commands us, and our inability to state clearly just what that good is which we know we must do.
Or to put it in more traditional terms, even a little faith tells modernized Jews that something utterly fundamental to the universe is denied, even assaulted, in evil behavior and exalted by the good. The confrontation with utter evil in the Holocaust made plain to Jews that realizing the Good must be a fundamental imperative of our existence. We may not have much theoretical clarity about this summum bonum, how to distinguish it from its frightful counterfeits and how to delineate its immediate entailments, but we are certain that how we treat people, how they fare in our communities and society, how we can avoid abusing them in any way, remain categorically imperative for us. Our situation is paradoxical. We know we are commanded but for all that we feel it our duty to think responsibly before we act, we have no widespread understanding of Who or What authoritatively commands us, and how such a thing is possible, and why our most thoughtful teachers often disagree as to what exactly is being demanded of us or how we are personally or communally to settle such issues. Yet in all this confusion we insist that any interpretation of Judaism that does not substantially affirm and exemplify the ethical will soon alienate us.
As one devoted to thinking and to the unity of God, I hope that one day our Jewish religious commitment to the ethical will come to a Jewish religious intellectual paradigm as widely accepted among us as was the modern one for much of the past century. But for the moment, it seems far more likely that we shall have many theologies expressing the diverse religious intuitions in our community, a situation not unlike the experience of most centuries in our long history.
Eugene B. Borowitz is the Sigmund L. Falk Distinguished Professor of Education and Jewish Religious Thought at the New York School of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The Jewish Publication Society has recently honored his work with a volume in its Scholar of Distinction Series, Studies in the Meaning of Judaism, a selection of his papers tracing the evolution of his thought from 1950-2002.