This paper is reprinted with permission of the author and was delivered at Temple Israel, New York on May 1, 2000.
Of late, every other year in July, I have been going to Berlin to teach in a program for Christian theology students. These young German men and women give up part of their summer vacation to study Judaism with Jewish teachers from the United States, Great Britain and Israel. On one of my recent visits I was lodged in Bonhoeffer Haus, a hostel run by the Evangelical Church, a pleasant but modest accommodation on a side-street near the university. This place is literally around the corner from the building which once housed the Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, the Institute for the Scientific Study of Judaism, where Rabbi Leo Baeck taught until all Jewish education institutions were closed in July, 1942. At the end there were about a dozen students. Six months later Baeck was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Theresienstadt.
It does not look like much today: an abandoned office building several stories high, most unprepossessing, drab and shabby like many pre-war buildings in East Berlin. The first woman rabbi in Jewish history once studied there and so did Franz Kafka. When I returned to my room late in the afternoon after my classes, my route took me past the doorway through which Leo Baeck walked on his way to teach Judaism to the last generation of rabbis in Germany. Every day, I paused to meditate for a moment on the strange turning of history which had brought me, a rabbi in an American synagogue dedicated to his memory, to teach in his city, indeed in his old neighborhood.
Today the facade of the building is undecorated, but I learned that one time it bore a Hebrew inscription: l’hochmah v’layirah, for wisdom and for awe, or possibly toward wisdom and awe. I find that a rather remarkable motto, most fitting for a place where modern men and women came to confront the teachings of our ancient tradition in a new way and out of that confrontation to accept the challenge, much like our own, of defining a new Judaism worthy of affirmation and practice. L’hochmah v=layirah, for/toward wisdom and awe, I submit, is also a suggestive paradigm for American Reform Judaism at the beginning of the new millennium. This phrase constitutes the text for my remarks today.
Hochmah is an ancient Hebrew word, usually translated as wisdom. I sense the leaders of the Lehranstalt chose it to embellish the doorway of their institute in order to articulate the nature of what was to occur in that building and also to say something about the people who came to study and teach there. It was a declaration of self-definition, a conscious expression OF who they were and who they were not. The Lehranstalt was not in any sense a yeshivah, but a modern academic institution devoted to Wissenschaft des Judentums, the scientific study of Judaism. It was a place where the texts and traditions of the Jewish past were seen through the lens of contemporary scholarly research. In its classrooms rational, critical inquiry was not only accepted but central. By using a old Biblical word, they affirmed their connection to Jewish tradition, and, at the same moment, their acceptance of modernity.
By the beginning of the twentieth century a rather considerable body of learning had been created. The academic study of tradition, the sifting and the scrutiny of texts using the latest tools of analysis, and the historical reconstructions which were attempted showed a new way of understanding the Jewish past. In retrospect we can see that these efforts were not as scientific as they pretended to be, if by scientific you mean objective and utterly free of bias. That scholarship, like ours, was shaped and limited by the blind spots that infect all human endeavors.
But the genie was now out of the bottle. The students and teachers in the Lehranstalt knew that it was not possible for Jews engaged with modernity to ignore what had now been learned about the Bible and the Talmud, the Midrash and the philosophical and mystical cultures of the Middle Ages. To be sure, out of academic study alone one could not create a new Judaism. But henceforth, for moderns to ignore the methods and understandings of Wissenschaft would be a sign of obscurantism. As Leon Wieseltier has noted: “The perdurability of the Jews has been owed to their absolute refusal ever to stop thinking, to the romance of brains.”1
There is a strong and invaluable connection between Wissenschaft des Judentums and Reform Judaism. From the academic study of the past, we have drawn five fundamental understandings which make it possible for our movement to be dynamic, creative, and thoughtfully responsive to the changing needs of our people. They are, briefly, the following:
1. The understanding that over time there have been not one but several distinct Judaisms, each unique, each created out of the special circumstances Jews faced at a particular time. Yes, there are important continuities, and, some would argue, certain constants, but ultimately when seen through history Judaism is pluralistic and multifarious, not monistic or unitary.
2. Related to the first, the understanding that Judaism is not immutable but always has been subject to change, development and transformation, indeed radical transformation. The Israeli scholar Efraim Shmueli has argued that the various cultures of Judaism each “tried to redefine [the tradition] in order to create a rationale for Jewish living that would respond to contemporary needs. This process was ever the result of a vociferous dissatisfaction with the attempts of previous cultures.”2 To be sure, “every one of Israel’s [historic] cultures luxuriates in its past: it gathers, preserves and remembers. But it also scatters, forgets. And buries.”3 “Jewish creativity [he noted] consists of a remarkable ability to embrace new elements.”4 He concluded that we owe our survival to this capacity “to both eradicate and revitalize [our] past”5 through the creation of “innovative terminology, new images, and reinvigorated symbols.”6
3. When Judaism, or more accurately, the various Judaisms of the past, is understood in this way, the result is a clear warrant for moderns to do what is necessary to reinvigorate a Judaism for our generation. If we add or subtract, innovate or conserve, prune dead wood so that new buds may grow or graft new branches into the trunk, we are doing exactly what our ancestors have done, again and again, although we may be more conscious of these transformations than they were.
4. When the traditions and texts of our heritage are understood in this way, we learn that the adjective “authentic” ought to be used with great care, if at all. Indeed, I would argue it should be dismissed from our discourse because it is likely to obfuscate rather than enlighten, and because it is sometimes invoked, I sense, when one party wishes to impose its own particular belief or practice on dissenters.
5. From the forgoing we learn not to be arrogant about the Judaism we create and affirm. If our ancestors were human and flawed, so are we; and if, in retrospect, we understand the limitations of what they taught as absolute or divine truth, we too must be restrained in making truth claims and modest in our assertions. The Judaism we create does not come from Sinai but from our hearts and our heads. It represents not the mind of God but what we think Jews of this time and culture can know and believe. And it is, just like every other Judaism ever created, fully authentic in the same way that these Judaisms were authentic: it represents the best of our thinking and our understanding, our aspirations and our dreams.
With these thoughts in mind, I now want to make several comments about Pittsburgh II: about the process that was followed; about the form that emerged; and about its content. I will add another comment, also about content, a bit later.
A little over two years ago, the famous architect Philip Johnson, was interviewed by a reporter from the Los Angeles Times7 and asked to characterize the state of architecture at the end of the century. He answered: “I just don’t think we can categorize where architecture is at the end of the millennium. I think you just have to say it is a wonderful, total absolute chaos.” He was then asked what broke things apart and created a condition that is so open. He said: “I think the times change, and we change, from certainty to uncertainty.”
I think that insight applies not just to architecture but perhaps to the condition of our culture today. We live in a culture where the canons of virtually every field of human endeavor are unclear. Uncertainty and ambiguity are rampant, and technology subjects us to incessant, destabilizing, and disorienting transformations. To articulate a vision of Judaism that is consonant with this culture, without affirming every aspect of it, is no easy task. It requires careful thought and ought not be done precipitously.
Chaos is uncomfortable, and uncertainty breeds anxiety. But they also may indicate that something new is aborning. The tension and uneasiness we experience may be birth pangs. In that case, any hasty attempt quickly to bring order to the chaos may be unwise. Untimely closure — and I believe that is what happened in Pittsburgh — threatens to abort the painful process of bringing into existence something new and durable. To continue the metaphor, even if protracted and intense, the labor pains ought be endured, at least for a time.
I found the form of Pittsburgh II, which is so manifestly a conscious rejection of the Platform of 1885, most revealing. Although Pittsburgh II eschews the term, it too is clearly a “platform.”
Consider that term for a moment. The word “platform” evokes memories of the railroad age. Indeed when Pittsburgh I was formulated, the most modern form of communication at the time connected with the rail network that was expanding dramatically across the continent was the telegraph which relied upon Morse code. As I learned long ago when I was a Boy Scout, Morse code is utterly linear in its operation. Through a system of dots and dashes, one letter at a time is transmitted in a fixed sequence over a line. Well, if the medium is the message, then we should not be surprised that when the rabbis traveled to Pittsburgh in 1885, presumably by railroad, their formulation of Judaism was a linear platform, which listed, one at a time, their affirmations and denials.
When Reform Judaism attempted a new statement of principles, in Columbus, Ohio in 1937, the radio age had begun, and linearity had been transcended. Although you could not access them simultaneously, numerous stations were broadcasting, all at the same time, not over wires but through the ether in every direction. And, interestingly, the Columbus Platform was longer than Pittsburgh I and more nuanced in what it had to say.
When it came time to adopt the next expression of our movement in 1973, the so-called Centenary Perspective (it is interesting to note that the term platform had now been abandoned), we were well into the era of television. Indeed the age of cable and satellites had begun. These make possible concurrent, instantaneous transmission of dozens, even hundreds, of different channels allowing the viewer enormous freedom of choice. No wonder that the Centenary Perspective, largely the work of one highly respected rabbi, Eugene Borowitz, was, in a sense, itself an exercise in narrow-casting. Borowitz argued that he was giving voice to a broad consensus (a debatable assertion). But he also conceded that his formulation “certainly allows for variety and development in Jewish faith in ways that go far beyond what our tradition knew.”8
In light of this pattern, one would have expected any articulation of Judaism at the end of the twentieth century to reflect in some subtle or overt way the existence of our increasingly dominant method of discourse, the Internet. In cyberspace communication is not only rapid, but intricate, convoluted, somewhat chaotic and internally complex. Hypertext and suggestive links lead the browsing net-surfer to unexpected connections, imaginative associations, puzzling paradoxes, and profound contradictions.
Yet Pittsburgh II, which self-consciously attempts to turn back the clock, does so, perhaps unintentionally, most effectively. It reads not like a web-page, which might reaffirm the autonomy long at the heart of our movement, but like an old-fashioned platform. Rather than being post-modern, it is pre-modern. Its form is thus curiously archaic and out of touch with the world in which we live.
I also find Pittsburgh II lacking in the theology which is invoked to sustain its assertions. Our generation has been fated to live “after Auschwitz.” The Holocaust is strongly part of our collective and individual consciousness. How could it not be so? The magnitude of the horror, what it reveals about the capacity of our species for violence, about the danger of modern technology divorced from ethical considerations, and about the vulnerability of our people, and all people, under certain circumstances — all these issues rightly demand somber attention and careful study as we try to learn what we can from this brutal episode.
For modern religious Jews one of the most important issues is theological. Reflection on the Holocaust inexorably raises anew with great power an ancient question: how could an all-knowing, powerful and beneficent God allow the deaths of so many innocents? This question of theodicy is vexatious. Virtually every important Jewish thinker of the last half-century has addressed it. The range of responses has been broad, from the boldly revisionist conclusions offered by Richard Rubenstein, Hans Jonas, and Emil Fackenheim to more conservative answers by neo-traditionalists like Michael Wyschograd and Eliezer Berkowitz. Some have suggested stunned silence or, like Job, a confession that human understanding is not adequate to this question. Martin Buber invoked the Biblical metaphor hester panim, the hiding of the divine face, what Buber called the “eclipse of God.”
But perhaps the most haunting comment was made by the modern Orthodox theologian Yitzchak Greenberg who argued that “after Auschwitz, one must beware of easy hope.”9 He proposed this working principle for post-Holocaust thinking about Judaism: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.”10
Yet in none of its many drafts did Pittsburgh II consider this matter or even betray the slightest awareness that there is a serious theological question that must be addressed. The first draft dealt expansively with mitzvot, kedushah, mikvah, tallit, tefillin, kashrut, and aliyah, but only alluded to the Holocaust parenthetically in a reference to Athe awful consequences of modernity.” The fourth draft had only this sunny sentence: “We are cheered that a half century after the Shoah, Jewish life has been reborn across Europe.” But in the next draft even this statement vanished. The version ultimately adopted touches on the Holocaust only in passing, almost as an after-thought, in these words: “We continue to have faith that, in spite of the unspeakable evils committed against our people and the sufferings endured by others, the partnership of God and humanity will ultimately prevail.” I find this pale statement suffused with “easy hope” and curiously reminiscent of Classical Reform Judaism.
The Classical Reformers are often criticized for their naïve progressivism. From our vantage point one can see their confidence in a beneficent Deity and in inexorable progress was unwarranted. They ignored what we have learned to our woe, namely, the tragic dimension of history. Now I am willing to be generous and non-judgmental toward the early Reformers for the simple reason that the generations before World War I and II did not have a crystal ball (and neither do we). An empathic observer ought to understand how they might have missed the darker side of human nature.
But what can be said in defense of Pittsburgh II in this matter? We live in the shadow of the slaughterhouse that was the twentieth century. Everyone knows that the dismal emblems of that century, Auschwitz and Hiroshima, were created out of modernity. We know now that the Messianic Era is not just around the corner. In the words of Amos Funkenstein, the Holocaust was “an eminently human event in that it demonstrated those extremes which only man and his society are capable of doing or suffering.”11 In short, we have learned something frightening about the demonic in human nature. A credible declaration of Jewish faith today must reflect and confront that dismal reality.
Yes, there is a surfeit of Holocaust consciousness in our community, and it is regrettable that what has come to be known as the Shoah has received far too much emphasis of late. The proliferation of memorials and museums, of books, memoirs, and university courses has fostered an unfortunate image of the Jew as victim, an image that is not worthy of us or our children. Yet, without succumbing to this excess, one can rightly demand that a statement of Jewish principles must be consonant with the historical and theological realities of the times in which we live. It also ought not be so glib, so relentlessly optimistic, so disconcertingly upbeat and buoyant, so lacking in theological courage, so oblivious to the warning: “beware of easy hope.” I find Pittsburgh II out of touch with the difficulties inherent in the quest for faith today.
The quest for faith. Faith as a task, rather than a given. That is what I witness as a synagogue rabbi in the souls of most of my congregants and in my own. Are the majority of the members of the CCAR clear and firm in their beliefs and free from religious doubt? I suspect that is not the case, despite the current pulpit fashion of speaking often and easily about God and what God wants us to do. I believe it is also not true of most of our people. In our community achieving religious faith is an arduous struggle, one we would face even if there had been no Holocaust.
Consider this. In the seventeenth century, at the dawn of our era, the French mathematician Pascal foresaw how modernity would ravage the spiritual life. “When I see the blind and wretched state of men, [he wrote] when I survey the whole universe in its deadness and man left to himself with no light, as though lost in this corner of the universe without knowing who put him there, what he has to do, what will become of him when he dies, incapable of knowing anything, I am moved to terror, like a man transported in his sleep to some terrifying desert island, who wakes up quite lost with no means of escape. Then I marvel that so wretched a state does not drive people to despair.”12
And that brings me, to the second part of that inscription over the doorway of the Lehranstalt in Berlin. Hochmah, reason and especially Wissenschaft des Judentums were the foundation and method, but that methodology was linked to another powerful Biblical word: yirah. In the Bible yirah means “fear,” or “terror” and by extension, in some contexts, “reverence, piety, awe.” An interesting and complex term: yirah. Fear and terror there have been aplenty in modern times, not to mention Angst. But reverence and piety and especially awe have been harder to come by. Perhaps that is what the founders of the Lehranstalt sought to express by inscribing over their portal the watchword l’hochmah v’layira — which might be translated: for wisdom and toward reverence, as if to say “in these times we will use our minds and our knowledge to move toward religious faith.”
How do we do that today, in our times? Efraim Shmueli wrote that “the secret of [the Jewish people’s] endurance lies in its faith in redemption, and its belief that history is not haplessly abandoned to the powers of evil.” But he added: “History unfolds within a sphere plagued by all the afflictions entailed in man’s mortality, a host of evils, foremost of which is the Angel of Death. Man journeys toward his end, to a place of worms and decay: all the benefits history brings with it are outweighed by the great calamity of man=s subjection to contingency and extinction.”14
The reality of death. Our finitude and frailty. The human condition. Here every religion, including ours, meets its greatest challenge. When the malach ha-mavet, the Angel of Death, stands before us – and sooner or later, he will — we need a Judaism that will speak to us with coherence and power, that will assuage our suffering and give meaning to our vulnerability, which will bring consolation and comfort on the darkest of nights and hope in the hour of despair.
Content: The Human Condition
Herewith is my greatest uneasiness with Pittsburgh II. You may recall that the first version of the principles came to us in an issue of Reform Judaism,15 the publication of our movement, which also featured a rather striking photo of Rabbi Richard N. Levy. That magazine arrived just as I was preparing for one of the most difficult funerals I have ever had to conduct. A forty-nine year old woman, an attorney, happily married, the mother of two young children, had just died of a virulent lung cancer after a few agonizing months of suffering. As I struggled to find words that might bring some comfort to these mourners, I read the proposed principles for the first time and found they had nothing to say, not to me nor to this shattered family.
Since the dawn of civilization, perhaps even earlier, the task of religion has been to transmute terror into awe; to hold out the hope of transcendence and redemption; to help us deal with these agonizingly difficult questions which religious seekers have always asked: “Who am I? Where am I going? What is expected of me? Why do I suffer? Why is it so that in a universe of such astonishing loveliness and majestic grandeur we are subject to dreadful forces we cannot understand or control? Why am I and all those I love and need destined to die? How must I live in this small hour granted to me, this ‘brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.’”16
But the principles, as I read them, have nothing to say about these questions. They are saturated with traditional terminology. They purport to elucidate the meaning of God, Torah and Israel for moderns. But when it comes to helping Jews of this time and place confront the deepest issues of personal, religious life in the real world, once again Pittsburgh II is mute.
Now I become even more sermonic. I conclude my remarks with a brief description of what I believe a Reform Judaism worthy of our times ought to be.
It will be a Judaism which recognizes the limitations of reason, but refuses to join in the chorus of mindless irrationality;
– a Judaism which knows it is possible to cultivate emotional richness without anesthetizing our critical faculties, which venerates the teachings of our heritage not because they are the word of God, but because they contain the deeply human wisdom of our ancestors whose amazing visions brought brilliant fire into a dark world;
– a Judaism which accepts our peoplehood as a given, but knows the dangers of untempered ethnic passion; which believes Israel must have security, the Palestinians must have a homeland and that Jerusalem is big enough to be the capital for both;
– a Judaism for Jews who never forget that we were slaves in Egypt, who have empathy for all who are deprived, whose affluence does not blind us to the iniquity and the misery and the danger which result when the chasm between haves and have-nots becomes as enormous as it is in every city in America right now;
– a Judaism which embraces the intermarried and welcomes them and their children, which recognizes gays and lesbians as fully part of our community and is color-blind and utterly egalitarian, post-patriarchal in every way;
– a Judaism which loves the tradition but is unafraid to say, when necessary, that our ancestors were fallible or limited by their times or just plain wrong;
– a Judaism rich in symbolism and metaphor and myth, which relishes the power of ritual to move our spirits, but continues the romance of brains and never forgets that the essence is the moral life;
– a Judaism which understands that for many today belief is difficult, which takes honest doubt seriously, and accepts the hard fact that we live at a time when the search for religious truth means to ask questions which cannot be answered easily or clearly or perhaps not at all;
– a Judaism which knows the role of religion is not to make people feel good or be happy, but to expand our vision and sharpen our ethical sensitivities, to bring hope when tragedy strikes, consolation and comfort in a time of despair;
– a Judaism which evokes in us awe and wonder before the mystery of existence, awe and wonder in the presence of the Infinite One, Unnamed and Unknowable, as we slowly make our make our way “between two eternities of darkness.”
1 The New Republic, 5/25/98.
2 From the dust jacket of Seven Jewish Cultures, translated from the Hebrew by Gila Shmueli (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
3 Ibid., p. 30.
4 Ibid., p. 7.
5 Ibid., p. 25.
6 Ibid,, p. 5.
7 January 4, 1999.
8 Reform Judaism Today, II, pp.6f. (New York; Behrman House, 1983)
9 “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity and Modernity after the Holocaust,” in Eva Fleischner (ed.), Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era?, p. 55. (New York, Ktav Publishing Company, 1977)
10 Ibid., p. 23.
11 “Theological Interpretations of the Holocaust,” in Francois Furet (ed.), Nazi Germany and the Genocide of the Jews, p. 302. (New York, Schocken Books, 1989)
12 Cited by Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God, p. 72 (New York, Knopf, 2000)
13 op. cit., p. 21
14 ibid., p. 144
15 Winter, 1998
16 the phrase is from Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory, p. 19 (New York, Vintage, ?)