The strongest force in the world is the power of an idea. People inspired by an idea have toppled governments, invented radically new technologies and saved countless lives. Judaism is founded on the idea of monotheism, that there is a single Creator who made the universe and whom we must serve. But that is not the only idea of Judaism. If it was, Judaism would be interchangeable with any other monotheistic religion. The Jewish religion has continuously flourished for thousands of years because it is a robust religion, powered by many ideas, as explained in Midrash, Talmud and related commentaries and codes. These include not just what is our purpose in life but what is life, what is family, what is community, what obligations we have to ourselves, to our community and to God. Lately, some of these ideas have been challenged by thinkers within the Orthodox Jewish community.
In the last year of his tragically shortened life, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks published two books, one of which is titled Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible. Rabbi Sacks writes that Judaism “is a way of thinking, a constellation of ideas: a way of understanding the world and our place within it” (xvii). These ideas—beliefs and values—form the basis of Torah commandments and commentary, the living Judaism of the generations. Too often, we take them for granted because they form part of the underlying platform on which Judaism is lived that is deeply ingrained within us from our youth. When these hidden-in-plain-sight Jewish ideas face challenges in contemporary culture, we often fail to recognize that these new ideas contradict Jewish tradition. Therefore, must treat new ideas carefully, in a way that retains the full strength and beauty of Jewish ideas.
Throughout the ages, Judaism has faced challengers who question its legitimacy. Some have attempted to undermine Jewish beliefs in divine revelation and the texts emerging from those revelations. Others have claimed that Judaism must change with the times. Traditional Judaism has consistently rejected these arguments. In Medieval times, Jews were subjected to claims that Judaism had been divinely changed or superseded by other religions. In response, leading rabbis argued that the Torah will never change. Some argued from textual cues, e.g., that the Torah says it will remain in force forever. Others put forth logical arguments, such as that the “perfect” nature of the Torah precludes change because that would imply imperfection. Most of these arguments do not resonate with the modern ear. However, one argument seems to retain at least some of its force precisely because it is not an attempted proof. Rabbi Moshe di Trani (Mabit) offers a number of explanations of the Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith from different perspectives. In his discussion of the ninth principle, that the Torah will never change, Mabit says that the recipients of the Torah are compelled to continue embracing it based on the force of history. Our ancestors received the Torah at Sinai, observed it throughout their years in Israel and their many years in exile. The chain continued for thousands of years, from parent to child, cherishing the sacred Torah as a guide to life. As recipients of that tradition, we are bound to continue the holy life of a Jew, committed to the Torah traditions in practice and in faith. It is our sacred duty. Hundreds of generations over thousands of years are counting on us to continue in their path. If we deviate from the Torah, we fail not only God who gave us the Torah but all of those who came before us and live on within us. Mabit offers us, not a proof for the eternity of the Torah, but the responsibility for ensuring its eternity.
One of the justifications advanced for changing Judaism is the claim that we constantly learn more about what God wants from us. Revelation, in one form or another, continues throughout history. This concept of “ongoing revelation” allows us to incorporate new teachings and understandings into our beliefs and practices. Despite some of his radical views, Rabbi Louis Jacobs, a non-Orthodox Jewish thinker, challenges the idea of “ongoing revelation” in a way that can serve as a broader critique of those who wish to change Judaism. First, this idea is influenced by the notion of progress, of an evolution of morality and religion. This implies that later is better, that history always moves in a positive direction, a view that is hard to justify. Additionally, this idea implies that God kept people in the dark, perhaps even misled them, for thousands of years until they reached the refined position where they find themselves today. That view of God and of ourselves seems quite strange. Are people today really more spiritually and morally refined than Rambam and Rashi, Abaye and Rava, Hillel and Shammai? This idea also sanctifies current cultural norms as religious imperatives. Whatever is popular today becomes a commandment. This claims that revelation itself is vague and therefore can be defined by contemporary norms. Effectively, we decide what is right and then inform God.
Recently, some thinkers in the Orthodox community have questioned classical Jewish ideas, effectively attempting to broaden the label Orthodox to include even ideas that contradict basic traditional concepts. For example, some question the existence of fundamental beliefs. Does Judaism care what you believe or is practical observance the only requirement? Even without dismissing belief completely, this attitude allows for minimizing belief into a triviality.
Some may ask, “What if I don’t believe any of this?” Rabbis, particularly from movements outside the Orthodox community, may answer by downplaying belief, saying that “what you do matters more than what you believe.” Indeed, it is common for some to cite Prof. Marc Shapiro’s book, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, as proof that Judaism does not require beliefs. Yet, that book explicitly states the opposite: “There is no question that one of the great misinterpretations of Judaism, so frequently repeated that it is often assumed as a matter of course, is that Judaism does not have dogmas... [T]he fact remains that for all Medieval authorities, as well as the Talmudic rabbis, there were certain dogmas which Jews were obligated to believe in, simply because the religion is unintelligible without them.” While we want all Jews to feel welcome in the Jewish community, we cannot downplay the importance of Jewish ideas, pretending that there are no sacred beliefs we embrace as Jews.
There is a small trend in some segments of the Jewish community to conduct gay Jewish weddings, with supporters arguing that this move seems to “uphold[s] the dignity of the Torah itself, which emphasizes the need for loving partnership.” But officiating at LGBTQ weddings does not only violate Jewish law; it violates Jewish ideas about sexuality. The Torah itself, and subsequent rabbinic literature, spends much time delineating proper and improper ways in which to direct our innate desire to bond with another. Even spouses face severe limitations in how and when to bond physically. Those who struggle with their sexuality need love and support for the challenges they face. This must go in tandem with a recognition that the Torah’s laws on this subject are not mere technical rules but guides to life, Jewish ideas about how to make best use of our time in this world and build a better, holier society. Regardless of whether the government has a place in your bedroom, the Shechinah, the Holy Presence, does.
Over the coming weeks, Torah Musings is hosting a symposium on these and other Jewish ideas that currently face challenges in communal discussion (TorahMusings.com/JewishIdeas). These are among the most contentious issues of the day. Some people today wish to change the Torah. Indeed, some question the very Torah text based on biblical criticism and related fields. Yet Jewish ideas are eternal. In this symposium, respected scholars engage the above and other contemporary arguments about important Jewish ideas and carefully find renewed meaning in these classical beliefs. Rabbi Dr. Yitzhak Berger addresses the challenges posed by biblical criticism, showing a path forward for believing Jews. Rabbi Netanel Wiederblank discusses the need for Jewish faith in the modern world, that Jews must believe in Judaism’s ideas. Rabbi Rafi Eis looks at Jewish ideas on sexuality and how they form a worldview different from that of contemporary culture. This symposium argues that Jewish ideas remain relevant and powerful today. The living Torah does not need to be adjusted to fit to the times. We need to adjust ourselves to live a life sanctified with Torah beliefs and practices.
Rabbi Gil Student is editor-in-chief of www.Torahmusings.com .