Sidebar: The Idea of God in (Reform) Judaism

Kearney’s discussion of rabbinic commentaries’ explorations of Exodus 3.14 have prompted me to take a little dip into Jewish theology, for a very brief moment.

So I’m looking through a few of Eugene Borowitz’s lectures in Studies in the Meaning of Judaism. From my understanding, Borowitz is writing from the Reform Jewish tradition.

The Idea of God

Until modern times it is almost impossible to find a Jewish book whose major purpose it is to expound the idea of God. (34)

Borowitz makes the argument, that I think will nest nicely with Kearney’s emphasis on the ethical character of God’s ‘name’ in Exodus 3.14, that Judaism’s pivot, axis, is “not an idea of God, but the life of Torah.” (33) That is to say, “the root religious experience of Judaism, it seems to me, is not the negative one of escape from sin or suffering. It is the positive one of hearing God’s commandment that we serve Him, as a people and as single selves. It is the sense that God wants us to act in Godlike ways.” (33) He makes the interesting point that disputes in Judaism do not revolve on what God is, but rather how one should live in light of Torah. Jewish thinkers have been chiefly concerned with “the never ending effort to make more precise the definition of how God would have us live.” (34)

The aggada and the halacha are two realms of Jewish disciplines that are concerned with different religious themes. Halacha is like the Christian Code of Canon Law and is chiefly concerned with action. God is not the subject of the halacha but the underlying presupposition that gave rise to the Torah and subsequently the halacha. Aggada is the realm in which ideas of God are discussed. Whereas the halacha is black and white, precise, and binding, the aggada is flexible, “tolerant,” and comfortable with the grey areas of theological reflection. The halacha is authoritative and must be subscribed to by the Jewish person; the aggada does not have the same rigid borders that one must stay within:

In the aggada the Jew is always free to seek an ever more adequate expression of the meaning of his faith…except for certain minimal conditions, Judaism will not demand of him ideas he has not reached on his own nor legislate him out of Israel by the adoption of an authoritative code of beliefs…Though the aggada abounds with ideas about God, we may not expect to find in Judaism one systematically integrated idea of God. (34)

Theology-proper, the study of God, is then somewhat foreign to Judaism.

Judaism has but one GOd; but not one idea of Him.

Now for the interesting reason that Borowitz gives for the location of Theology-proper in the aggada. If ideas about God were located in the halacha, then it implicitly would have said that the “human mind [is] capable of reaching authoritative decisions about God as about Torah.” (35) At risk of being anachronistic, I would say that here we have some faint lines being painted of a sort of negative theology. Moreover, Borowtiz then goes on to state that Judaism affirms that God’s will can be known, but that “we may not see His face and live.” This also sounds similar to what I have previously been reading about the essence-energies distinction in Christian theology. God’s essence remains incomprehensible to human reason and as such Judaism wishes to place ideas about God in a realm where reason can be rightly kept in check.

Borowitz, writing in 1957, observes that embedded within the Jewish way of speaking about God has been an implicit recognition of the symbolic nature of theological language:

The significant phrases, ideas or events around which religion centers carry their meaning in a way which cannot be taken literally or understood denotatively, but must be recognized as reaching a level of reality otherwise closed to us by pointing to something beyond themselves, in which they at the same time participate. (36)

Jewish theology, however, isn’t without some structure. And, though Jewish ideas about God may seem contradictory, there is form that exists alongside “a complicated arrangement of theological checks and balances.” (Borowitz quoting Schechter, 37) But what is the criterion for thinking right thoughts about God? What allows an idea to be included in the realm of the aggada even if it appears contradictory? The Christian Church has creeds and canons. What does Jewish theology use as a ‘rule of faith’?

Our criterion must come rather from the primary realm, that of action or life….In Judaism an idea of God is judged by the way it operates in the life of the individual Jew, and, by appropriate additional standards, in the life of the Jewish religious community. (37)

Ethical reality is the ‘rule of faith.’ Does one’s idea of God make living the Torah more possible? Is one’s understanding of the origin and importance of living the Torah made stronger by an idea of God?

The more completely an idea of God motivates the performance of Torah, the more acceptable to Judaism it may be said to be. (37)

In the reverse, if an idea of God limits a Jew’s ability to live out the Torah, then that idea is problematic. Speaking as a Reform Jew, Borowitz says:

We still believe that ‘our lives should prove the strength of our own belief in the truths we proclaim.’ We would agree, I think, that an idea of God which kept us from social action, prayer, study, and the rest of what we know Torah is for us, had moved to the border of Judaism or beyond. (38)

On the communal level, an idea of God is judged to be right if it emphasizes the significance of the Jewish people and Israel. Now, this next quote flows nicely with Kearney’s notion of the possible God who proposes a gift to Moses and the Hebrews, a gift that God and the Hebrews mutually keep:

But why should Israel have the Torah and be a people of Torah? Because Israel felt that between it and God there was a mutual pledge, a bond, a Covenant, by virtue of which Israel became somehow His people, and he became their God. Israel exists as Israel because of its relationship with God.Whatever the Jew understands by God, it must make some kind of Covenant between that God and Israel possible; it must make Israel’s continuing dedication to Him reasonably significant; it must explain Israel’s suffering and make it possible for the individual Jew to intertwine his destiny with that of his people….Yet one thing more his idea of God must do for the individual Jew–it must make life with God possible for him, not just as a member of Israel, but as an individual as well…An idea of God which will not let us speak to Him, nor let Him be of help to us in meeting the varied experiences of life is not an idea for Jews. But insofar as it makes possible for us a rich and and intimate relationship with God, the idea is welcome within Judaism. (38-39)

Fascinating stuff. There is a mutual interplay of the individual and the community when it comes to ideas about God; unfortunately, from my perspective at least, these two essential authoritative poles are emphasized to opposing extremes in Christian thought. It is either the individual or the Church who determine what is considered orthodox.

Borowitz contends that the content of God is not binding to the Jew, as long as it abides by a deep concern for the individual and communal ways of living the Torah. “The content itself is at issue only as it affects the way the Jew lives Torah.” (39)

Now, does this mean the actual practise of Jewish theology, similar to that of the Christian Church, has no place in Judaism? No, Borowitz states. Judaism does not eschew theological studies: “Judaism exalts reason as the corrective of unreflective faith, questioning its consistency and coherence.” (40) But reason is not the final court of appeal in theological reflection. History is.

Any public idea of God in Judaism must stand not only before the test of intellectual coherence, but before the test of Jewish history as well. (40)

Now, in another interesting overlap with Kearney, Borowitz states that this history is not the past, but “history yet to come.” (41) Borowitz continues, “The generations yet to be, they will finally decide the adequacy of this idea for Israel. They will decide it by testing it in their lives…History is the laboratory of Jewish theology.” (41) This history-yet-to-come sounds somewhat similar to Kearney’s emphasis on the eschatological future and the promise of God to be with Moses, the Hebrews, and their children, and their children’s children. “I shall be what I shall be.” Reason has been kept in check by the realities of everyday existence through this emphasis on history as a criterion for the idea of God. Reason no longer supplants life; experience is allowed to inform and transform ideas about God rather than the speculation of an academic comfortably writing or reading in the confines of his study. Theology must speak to human experience; human experience must speak to theology. It is a dialogue, not a lecture; a co-operation, not a co-opting and assertion of hermeneutic authority.

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2 thoughts on “Sidebar: The Idea of God in (Reform) Judaism

    • Yeah, Heschel is on the reading list in a few weeks! Borowitz is my first introduction to Jewish philosophy/theology and I was excited by what I read…so I’m looking forward to Heschel.

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