American Jewish Thought Is Incredibly Rich. But Can It Succeed Without a Shared Sense of Commandedness?

April 20, 2021 | David Wolpe
About the author: David Wolpe is rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of, among other books, Why Be Jewish? and Why Faith Matters. He can be found on Twitter @RabbiWolpe.

Reviewing a new anthology titled American Jewish Thought since 1934, David Wolpe finds much worth reading and thinking about, from the works of the “great triumvirate” of Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordecai Kaplan, and Joseph B. Soloveitchik to essays by such thinkers as José Faur, Leo Strauss, and Hannah Arendt. But amid this intellectual feast, he finds evidence of the fundamental fragility of modern Jewish theology:

Jewish thinkers were once more preoccupied with explaining what God commands than why. . . . That there were commandments and a legal system that spelled them out was not really in doubt. This was not just a matter of theory; it was a matter of social fact. Jews lived in communities in which observance of the mitzvot was a way of life.

However, once the life of mitzvot is not a communal given and the notion of a divine Being who cares about what one eats becomes difficult to believe, the burden on Jewish religious thinkers is not merely to find symbolic or pragmatic reasons for the commandments but to justify them as commandments at all. “Because He—or the authoritative tradition He authorized—said so” no longer serves, and the main problem is only secondarily the male pronoun.

Thus, most modern Jewish thinkers have turned from explanations of obedience to ideologies of encouragement: you should make this practice part of your life for the following reasons . . . But none of these reasons is as compelling as a divine command, and liberal theology, and to some extent even Orthodox theology, has been a series of attempts to craft a rationale that delivers some sense of obligation. Yet “you should” will never be as compelling as “you must.”

Although there are, as evidenced in this anthology, serious and brilliant contemporary liberal Jewish thinkers, the number of serious liberal Jews is shrinking. [Thus] many Jews find that what they believe cannot be transmitted, and what can be effectively transmitted they cannot believe.

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