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Where Have All the Theologians Gone?

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.


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