Where Have All the Theologians Gone?

Opinion

By Elliot Cosgrove

Published June 13, 2007, issue of June 15, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Name five contemporary Jewish theologians saying something interesting about Jewish belief who had not already published a major work by 1990.

Stumped? So am I.

Over the past few months, I have asked my theologically minded colleagues this question, and the responses have been disheartening.

Elie Wiesel? He is undoubtedly the premier spokesman on post-Holocaust Judaism, but “Night” was first published more than 50 years ago. Eugene Borowitz, Neil Gillman, Yitz Greenberg, David Hartman, Harold Kushner? It is to their credit that they continue to be productive, but the magnitude of their contributions only makes it clear that a new generation has yet to take their place in contemporary Jewish theology.

With Borowitz and Gillman retiring from their teaching positions at, respectively, Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, it is altogether troubling that there is no theological heir apparent at either institution. And last month’s passing of Mordechai Breuer serves to underscore the shortage of Orthodox thinkers who are fully engaged with the claims of modernity and critical scholarship.

It was not always this way.

The 1950s and 1960s saw the growth of a generation of theologically minded scholar-rabbis who would leave an extraordinary and enduring imprimatur on the institutional and theological landscape of American Jewry. Numerous journals — including Judaism, Commentary, Conservative Judaism, Central Conference of American Rabbis Quarterly Journal and Tradition — were founded, all devoted to explorations in Jewish theology.

This coterie of theologians included such luminaries as Arthur Cohen, Emil Fackenheim, Will Herberg, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jakob Petuchowski, Joseph Soloveitchik, Arnold Jacob Wolf and, in England, Louis Jacobs. In their journals, institutions and retreats, they were gripped by a spirit of theological inquiry remarkable in both its sophistication and its cooperative spirit.

The 1950s were an exciting time for Jewish theology for a variety of reasons. On the one hand, Jews were simply doing what their Christian contemporaries were already doing. Herberg, for example, made no secret of his debt to the great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. And as the evocative writings of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig arrived in America by way of Nahum Glatzer’s translations, American Jews were prompted to formulate their own homegrown response.

Moreover, the horrors of the Holocaust impelled Jews to ask difficult questions about God’s presence or lack thereof. In many ways, the Holocaust revealed the dangers of excessive secularism, and American Jews grew disenchanted by Mordecai Kaplan’s optimism in human achievement and began to turn back to a God-centered Judaism. This flourishing of Jewish theology can also be traced to the establishment of the State of Israel. After all, if you were going to be a committed Jew in the 1950s and choose not to live in the Jewish state, you needed a thought-out theological response to justify a distinctive Diaspora community.

There are many reasons for the surge of theological thinking in the 1950s, but the most important reason why theology matters — both then and now — is because while Judaism may be a religion of deed and not creed, a generation that does not invest its energy into the question of Jewish belief is a generation that will find itself without the life-sustaining aquifers necessary to keep it vital.

When kashrut is practiced without a theological matrix in place, it is a form of dietary cliquishness, not a distinguishing and distinctive expression of commandedness. When circumcision is practiced without an understanding of covenant, it is not a sign of a sacrosanct relationship with God, but a primitive if not objectionable rite. If commitment to Israel is framed solely in political terms, the argument for a modern state becomes less and less compelling for American Jews, Israelis and, for that matter, gentiles.

At every critical juncture in Jewish history, Jews have understood that a dynamic theology is the sine qua non to a vital Jewish community. From Mount Sinai to the prophets of the Exile, to Maimonides’s “Guide for the Perplexed,” to Kabbalah, to Hasidism, to mid-20th century North America, theological inquiry has sustained our people. Without it, Judaism becomes a dry, brittle and lifeless artifact.

The Jewish achievements of our age, and there are many, have overlooked the importance of Jewish belief. Our campus Hillels, federations, Holocaust museums, commitments to Israel and social justice work are all extraordinary feats, but they are cultural, institutional or political, not theological.

So, too, the fundamentalisms of the Orthodox world have resulted in a profound insularity that has marginalized the likes of Soloveitchik, Eliezer Berkowitz and Yeshayahu Leibowitz — Orthodox Jews who stood firm in their beliefs yet contended bravely with the claims of modernity. They have been replaced by literary achievements in the form of ArtScroll translations or popular books on Jewish literacy.

Ironically, the very successes of the Jewish community have also worked to the detriment of Jewish theological inquiry. The past 50 years have witnessed an extraordinary growth in Jewish studies programs and professors. But with very few exceptions, their achievements have been in journals and the classroom, not in the day to day of Jewish communal life.

The scholar-rabbis of yesteryear — Solomon Goldman, Robert Gordis, Milton Steinberg — simply do not exist anymore. The Jewish world is bifurcated between producers of Jewish esoterica and Jewish popularizers, communal leaders and academics, but not both. Our generation has precluded the possibility that administration, scholarship and religious vision are compatible, if not mutually dependent, elements of Jewish leadership.

There are many reasons for the dearth of theological thinking, but there is one reason that is particularly worrisome: Maybe there are no fresh Jewish theological voices because Jews are no longer interested in listening.

We are so focused on Israel, antisemitism and intermarriage that we have come to ignore the linchpin for all discussions on Jewish continuity — namely, a compelling case for Jewish belief.

This past month, Jews observed the festival of Shavuot, celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Do we believe that Mount Sinai really happened? Do we believe that the Torah continues to command us, shape us and bind us as a people? How can a Jew stand simultaneously at the base of Sinai and firmly in modernity?

These are difficult questions and there are no easy answers, but a Jewish community that does not ask them will not get very far in its journey. It is incumbent upon every generation to formulate a theology that makes Judaism compelling to the Jews of its age.

The time is ours. Nevertheless, the question remains: Is anyone interested in being part of the conversation?

Elliot Cosgrove, a Conservative rabbi at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago, is a doctoral candidate in modern Jewish thought at the University of Chicago.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.