Early Shabbat Study and Discussion on
Ways of Being (and Doing) Jewish
Reform Judaism
Eugene Borowitz
Liberal Judaism (1984) and Renewing the Covenant (1991)1

Introduction: our story to this point.
We previously considered Orthodox Judaism, through the lens of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s classic volume, Halakhic Man.  Soloveitchik described a division between what he termed “cognitive man” and “religious man”.  Cognitive man, says Soloveitchik, seeks to understand the world.  The religious man argues that there are aspects of the world we cannot understand. 

Halakhic man bridges the gap, Soloveitchik argues.  Halakhah is the template according to which he lives his life.  Halakhic man relies on Halakhah to help bring the divine, hidden aspects of the world down to a concrete level.  Taken as a whole, Soloveitchik’s argument throughout Halakhic Man constitutes a passionate explanation for a way of life that may to an outsider appear rigid and arbitrary.

Borowitz’s prose is clear and precise, and does not argue as abstractly or with as much technical language as is found in Soloveitchik.  It therefore requires less introductory explanation.  Generally, Borowitz addresses key issues of Jewish life and thought through the perspective that might be employed by an engaged modern Jew.  The term “engaged” is key.  While Borowitz does not feel “commanded” to follow Halakhah, he argues for (and is expressly writing for) a caring core of Jews who are committed to living Jewishly and to wrestling with the issues of what that means in the modern era.  Borowitz explores four main themes (and we will follow his pattern): what does it mean to be Jewish?; how do we understand God?; how has our understanding of Jewish law evolved?; and what are our ethical and ritual obligations as Jews?

I. The Jewish People

1. What Sort of Group are the Jews?
Borowitz begins his examination of the question of “who are the Jews” by describing familiar patterns.
In the largest cities the overwhelming majority of Jews remain unaffiliated.  Those who do associate with a religious institution rarely do so for spiritual reasons.  They speak instead of their children’s needs for Jewish identification or their sense of community responsibility…
In almost every individual country, we develop intimate, barely describable yet effective expressions and signals of our Jewishness.  We have our special ways of eating, of drinking, of handling class status; we have familiar jokes, patterns of gossip, and reference signals that…enable us to detect in an unfamiliar crowed who else is a “member of the tribe”…
Almost none of what I have described is normally considered part of a religion yet it comprises much of the reality of American Jewish lives.
(LJ, pages 19-20).

Borowitz goes on to provide a historical summary of how Jews have thought of themselves.  In earlier times, there was a sense of Jewish nationhood.

Borowitz quotes the characterization provided by the first century historian Josephus (who betrayed Judea to the Romans, but was nevertheless a sober historian). 

Other lawgivers gave “instructions in words” or stressed “exercises in practice…Our legislator [Moses] very carefully joined these two methods of instruction together…Beginning with the earliest infancy and the partaking of food, he left nothing, not even of the smallest consequence, to be done at the pleasure and caprice of the persons themselves, but made fixed laws and rules.  He did not suffer the pretext of ignorance to be valid…but ordained that people should stop their activities and assemble together to hear the Law and be perfectly instructed in it…every week…And it is this very thing that principally  creates such wonderful oneness of mind among us.  Because we have one and the same religious belief and have no difference from one another in our way of living and our manners, we have the most excellent agreement in our human character.”
(LJ p. 23)

Borowitz describes how, through medieval times
Jews were as good as a state within the regular state.
(LJ p. 25)

The turning point came with the Enlightenment.  A major consequence of the Enlightenment was that the state began to be defined in secular and national, rather than religious terms. 

With the inception of the politics of modernity, religion and nationality were sundered from one another, making it far more difficult to adequately describe the Jews as a group.
(LJ p. 26).

Borowitz describes how the concept of race arose in the early 20th century and how some Jews sought to define themselves in those terms.  The Nazi Germany abuse of this mode of thought – together with scientific research - has led to general abandonment of this means of attempting to identify Jews.

The birth of Zionism and Israel raises the question as to the extent to which being Jewish can be defined in purely national and secular terms.  He quotes Herzl:
“I consider the Jewish question [anti-Semitism] neither a social nor a religious one, though it occasionally takes these and other forms.  It is a national question.”
(LJ p. 30).

Borowitz is not comfortable with the notion of the Jewish people as being – as a result of Zionism – essentially secular and non-religious.  He argues:
I would argue that the notion of Jewish nationalism is the mirror-image error of asserting that the Jews are a religious group.
(LJ p. 32)

Borowitz explains the differing perspectives of what it means to be Jewish by describing the different viewpoints taken in Israel and parts of the Diaspora, notably America:
In western Europe and America, the Jews overwhelmingly spoke of themselves as a religion, thus losing much of the national side of historic Judaism.  In Eastern Europe, most Zionists rejected the religious definition.  They proclaimed the Jews to be a nation like all other secular nations, thus denying the centrality of God and Torah in Jewish existence over the millennia…
Most Israelis still think and talk in terms of the secularism of classic Zionist theory – to the consternation of the American Jews who take the religious interpretation of Jewish life for granted.
(LJ p. 32).

Borowitz goes on to explain that the 20th century sociology term “ethnic group” is useful.  To introduce the religious element, Borowitz coins the term: “religio-ethnic group.”  (LJ p. 37).

2. How did Judaism Begin?
Borowitz continues with an examination of both the “traditional” and “modern” accounts of early Jewish history.   He reviews the issue of the extent to which the historical material in the Bible is reliable.  He notes the major external evidence: archaeological findings and documents from other sources.  As Borowitz puts it
We do not know much and are unlikely to learn more.
(LJ p. 40).

Next, Borowitz examines a corollary issue: the development of monotheism among the Jews.  One issue is whether the monotheistic belief evolved and gradually took root, or was a result of sudden inspiration.  Borowitz makes the point that monotheism is exclusively a development among the Hebrew tribes, not among their neighbors.
The spiritual history of ancient humanity knows nothing like the God of the Hebrew Bible.  Only the Hebrews arrived at a fully monotheistic faith.
(LJ p. 45)

The question of what “really” happened regarding the creation of monotheism is, Borowitz says, cast in humanistic terms.  That is, the underlying assumption is that we can only address what people did.  Borowitz argues that the accounts of the development of monotheism contained in the Hebrew Bible are convincing because they appear to accurately portray human nature:
These accounts of the Hebrews’ backsliding are so human – which is to say that we recognize ourselves in them – that we can hardly doubt them.  They describe the way we would expect people to behave when challenged by a radical doctrine.
(LJ p. 47).

Borowitz goes on to describe perspectives on the development of Jewish monotheism that are not exclusively humanistic – that is, the view that God and people can “communicate” (in some non-Orthodox fashion, to be sure).
(LJ p. 47).

Of particular note is the view of Heschel that posing the question as we do says more about us than about God.  As Borowitz explains
[Heschel] held that critical modern conceptions of what transpired in the biblical period say more about our modern self-assertion and denial of God than they do about what “really” happened.
(LJ p. 48).

3. Are the Jews Chosen?

Borowitz confronts directly the “paradox” of the idea of the Jews as the chosen people as being already present in the Hebrew Bible.  He observes:

This distinction between the Jews and other peoples creates a paradoxical biblical view of humankind.  The biblical writers earnestly believe in the essential equality of all human beings before God…The authors of the Bible also assert that God separated one group from among all other groups of humans and brought them into a unique relationship with God.
(LJ p. 52).

Borowitz explains that, until modern times, Jews did not have much difficulty regarding themselves as different.  In their manner of worship and daily lives, Jews were demonstrably different from their neighbors.  Borowitz also notes that the concept of a “chosen people” has lived parallel to a long history of Jewish persecution, leading to the familiar quip – why didn’t You choose someone else? (LJ p. 59).

But modernity undermines the assumptions about the distinctiveness of any one group of people.  The idea of a God who selects a particular group clashes with our scientific and rational understanding:

…the notion of God choosing seems irredeemably prescientific…We see events occurring largely in terms of natural patterns rather than as the result of unpredictable divine incursions…[T]hat God, at one point in history, selected the Jews from among all the nations can hardly find a place in our modern world view.
(LJ pages 59-60).

In addition, the notion of a chosen people clashes with our understanding of the commonality of humanity.

The doctrine [of a chosen people] also troubles us because our intellectuality demands universalism…We know increasingly, as no generation of earlier times, that humankind is truly one.
(LJ p. 60).

Borowitz then surveys the ways Jewish thinkers have attempted to grapple with the concept of a chosen people.  He notes that Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement (whom we will examine in more depth at a future date), says simply that the doctrine must be eliminated.

[Kaplan] insists that this Jewish tenet defies reinterpretation and must be abandoned.  Its views of God and of humanity are equally intolerable.
(LJ p. 61).

Borowitz notes that one reinterpretation of the idea of a chosen people disclaims any superiority on the part of Jews, but at the same time acknowledges the unique contributions that Jews have made as a people.  These thinkers argue that all groups demonstrate some distinctive way of living which is their unique contribution to the development of humankind.  One might then argue that the Jews have shown a special gift for ethical religion but this would not be extended as a claim for Jewish superiority…We can give up chosenness and the invidiousness implicit in it without denying the special contribution our people has made to history.
(LJ p. 62).

Borowitz goes on to examine the views of Baeck, Buber, and Heschel.  He notes that Baeck argues that the idea of ethical monotheism is historically deeply identified particularly with the Jewish people.  Buber, from his view of relationship as being at the core of religion, argues that only the Jews chose as a people to establish a reciprocal relation with God,  and staked its entire being and purpose on that relationship.  

He concludes the discussion of the chosen people by examining Heschel’s view, which is at once traditional and modern.  Heschel’s traditionalist sensibility, Borowitz says, leads Heschel to contend that

[w]hen we regain a radical wonder before the grandeur of the God who made everything possible – including our questions about particularity – then we can accept the Torah’s incontrovertible historic declaration: God’s revelation came fully to the people of Israel and to no other.
(LJ, p. 67).

At the same time, Borowitz continues, Heschel was enough of a modernist and universalist to not leave the matter at that point.  Heschel argued, and lived his life, according to the principle that

[t]he Covenant mandated a concern for all humanity and that, wherever human values were seriously at stake, Jewish interests were necessarily involved.
(LJ p. 67).

Elsewhere, Borowitz argues that there is really no basis on which to ground the idea of chosenness:

Since sociologists created and elaborated the notion of “culture,” folk psychology and the idea of peoples having specific ethnic talents have become intellectually unsupportable. Moreover, the more open-mindedly one studies the history of Jewish culture, the less one can argue that it evidences a gift for high culture and a distinctive ethics.
(RC p. 208).

4. What Do We Expect in the Messianic Age?

Borowitz discusses the origins and history of the concept of Messianism in Jewish thought.  He explains that it was unique in the ancient world.  He also underscores that it has become clouded by the inevitable comparison with Christian doctrine.  Borowitz leaves one with the sense that the notion of a Messianic era, or end time, is speculative and not particularly well thought out in the Jewish tradition.  As Borowitz explains

[t]raditional Judaism may properly be called a this-worldly religion…it bids its adherents devote their lives to the spiritual challenges of everyday existence rather than concentrate on what is likely to happen to us in the world-to-come.
(LJ p. 75).

In modern times, Borowitz explains, liberal Jews have redefined Messianism.  It is defined in terms of what humans can accomplish.  In particular, democracy would give people the power to strive toward these goals.

Instead of God sending an ideal king, they foresaw, all humankind working together and by social reconstruction [would produce] a perfected world.
(LJ p. 82).

Borowitz also explains his view that secular Jews have turned to Marxism and/or to Zionism as, in effect, substitutes for a traditional Messianic outlook.

Somewhat surprisingly, Borowitz takes a slightly traditional view of Messianism.  This is an outgrowth of an understandable pessimism:

For Jews, after the Holocaust, to base their faith in our ultimate destiny on the innate goodness of humanity seems ludicrous…
…For myself, I do not see how the liberal notion of a Messianic Age can be freed from its corollary faith in the perfectibility of humankind by human effort…I do not have such trust in us alone…
…Being more modest in our self-estimate today, I think we are ready to acknowledge our need for God’s help in finally redeeming this sinful world.  Accepting God as a true partner does not require us to surrender the sense of healthy self-reliance we identify with personal maturity.  Rather, an able but not omnipotent humankind, acting as co-creator with God of the ideal society, reflects the classic Covenant relationship between God and the people of Israel.
(LJ pages 85-86).

5. What Does the State of Israel Mean to Jews?

Borowitz begins by describing the obstacles faced by the early Zionists and young State of Israel.  As he notes:
For these Jews, largely survivors and refugees, it was an utterly heroic undertaking – one they carried through successfully.
(LJ p. 91).

As Borowitz notes, the version of the Jewish people as embodied by Israelis are entirely new:
No such Jews have existed for centuries, perhaps, ever.  At their best, they have a natural organic Jewishness unknown to Diaspora Jews.
(LJ p. 93).

Borowitz observes that

[m]ost impressively, despite a hard-bitten realism, they remain idealists…The only heroics I want to call to your attention of the average, overburdened, hard-working, troubled Israeli one meets when one visits one’s relatives in the State of Israel or has a chance conversation with someone there…What they have done, what they yet hope to do despite all they have experienced and realistically fear, is inspiring.  I am convinced that is why American Jews returning from their visits to the State of Israel feel so proud and invigorated as Jews.
(LJ p. 94).

However, Borowitz next turns his attention to the areas of disconnect between Israelis and Diaspora (chiefly American) Jews.  He comments on these sources of disagreement in the context of language, culture, and politics.

As Borowitz acknowledges, American Jews largely refuse to learn Hebrew.  He notes, with a hint of sarcasm:

Were Americans less determinedly monolingual, a pervasive Hebraism might soon characterize us – but, despite our love of the State of Israel, little progress has been made in this regard.
(LJ p. 96).

Arising from this disconnect, American Jews find it difficult to relate culturally to Israelis.  American Jews look to Israel for reinforcement of traditional motifs of Judaism.  However, Israeli authors, sure of their Jewishness, pay little direct attention to it.
(LJ p. 97).

Borowitz cites as instances the novels of Amos Oz or the poetry of Yehuda Amichai.  It is similar with other writers.  The slowing down of life on Shabbat, the pervasiveness of the military, the lingering shadow of the Holocaust, are so much a part of the fabric of Israeli life as to form the background, rather than the focus, of much of Israeli culture.  As Borowitz indicates, for Israelis Jewishness is more nationalistic; for American Jews, it is more “religio-cultural” (LJ p. 98).

Borowitz indicates that politics form a particular source of occasional strain between liberal Jews and Israelis.  Note that Borowitz was writing in 1984, and the problem has if anything become more exacerbated subsequently.  Borowitz contends that liberal Jews find themselves in what he characterizes as a dilemma:

In my opinion, most liberal Jews want to maintain something of both positions.  They believe that Jews ought not to live by the relatively cynical, a-moral standards of much of contemporary civilization.  Yet they know that political reality will occasionally require Israeli governments to subordinate high human standards to the proper demands of power.  And they are particularly concerned not to do anything which might hurt the State of Israel.
(LJ p. 101)2

6. Why Do Jews Have to Be Different?

In this chapter, Borowitz outlines the history of the Jewish choice to be different, and the anti-Semitism that has accompanied that choice through the centuries.  Borowitz points out that the will to worship one God drove the Jewish people’s sense of separateness.

Once again, the modern era brought a tidal change, and goes to the core of American Jewish identity:

The overwhelming majority of Jews have not wanted to give up being Jewish though they were desperately eager to be at home in Western civilization…To this day, what constitutes the proper blend of modernity and Jewishness, of social integration and separation, remains the major problem of Jewish life…
…The first great response to the Emancipation was the liberalization of Jewish religious life by Reform Jews and, in due course, by Conservative and modern Orthodox Jews.
(LJ p. 115).

Borowitz particularly describes the approach taken by the Reform Jewish movement to remake Judaism as a religion alongside other religions, but effectively within the fold of the modern state and society. Borowitz goes on to consider the factors which cause, or ought to cause, some hesitation by Jews in fully assimilating. To give up our separate Jewish existence in the hope of creating a model of the new, undifferentiated humanity is too suicidal to be called a worthy ideal.
(LJ p. 117).

Another argument is simply that the rest of the world will not allow Jews to avoid the label of being Jewish. The Jew remains one of the great scapegoats of Western civilization.  Third World politicians, whose countries have never had a substantial Jewish population, regularly defame Zionism and the State of Israel and, thereby, the Jewish people.  The behavior of the members of the United Nations has exploded whatever delusions we once had about a parliament of nations finally bringing rationality into international politics.
(LJ p. 117).

But Borowitz suggests that at least some liberal Jews are coming around to the idea that they do not “believe nothing”.  For such new Jewish searchers, the Jewish distinctiveness of the Jewish people ultimately derives from its continuing response to God, as difficult as that is to acknowledge or talk about.
(LJ p. 118).

Borowitz concludes with a discussion of how intermarriage is deeply affecting the notions of particularism versus universalism.  He concludes that, despite almost two centuries of experience, we have reached no consensus as to where exactly the balance between integration and separatism should be set or just what forms it should most appropriately take.
(LJ p. 120).

7. Who is a Good Jew?

Borowitz attempts to answer this question.  In so doing, he understands that he has only the authority to persuade.  Also, Borowitz confronts directly the challenge of minimalism:

Many people want to know what constitutes a good Jew so that they can find out how little they need to do and still maintain community respectability…We are willing to fit a reasonable amount of Jewish obligation into our already overscheduled lives.
(LJ p. 126).

It becomes clear, and Borowitz will make this explicit at the end of the book, that Borowitz is struggling to find some standards that will set forth a sense of seriousness of purpose in being Jewish, without the imposition of the rigors of Halakhah.

Borowitz notes favorably that:
[m]ost modern Jews want to continue our tradition’s ancient emphasis on action. We may not be as certain as previous generations were about the details of proper Jewish living but we know that we shall judge the good Jew more by practice than by thinking, feelings, or mental states.
(LJ p. 128).

However, Borowitz begins with an assertion that he realizes will be problematic for many liberal Jews:
My first assertion is probably the most controversial one I shall make: I consider nothing more fundamental to being a good Jews than belief in God.
(LJ p. 129).

The important qualifier is what we mean by “God”, and Borowitz reserves that discussion for later in the volume.

Borowitz also emphasizes strongly – as do most Jews – the “ethics” of ethical monotheism.  

Of all such duties, none has a higher place than that of being ethical.
(LJ p. 134).

Borowitz also argues for the importance of adopting the sense of rhythm of life lived as Jews.  He points particularly to “daily prayer, study, and religious observance”. (LJ p. 134).     

Borowitz continues:
All these events have more than purely personal significance.  They have a communal dimension…Jewish duty largely centers on participating in a rich Jewish family life.  A good Jew participates in the synagogue for there the community regularly renews the Covenant through liturgy, deepens it in study, and refreshes it by association.  That institution, in turn, leads Jews on to serve the Jewish community locally, nationally, and worldwide – and through it, all humankind.
(LJ p. 135).

Borowitz also states that support for the State of Israel is a key duty, whether the individual Jew lives in Israel or in the Diaspora.  He points to aliyah as being highly worthy, though not in any way implying that Jewish life elsewhere is in any sense less “authentic”.

Borowitz concludes:
  A good Jew will not despair…Our instinctive response to the Holocaust was to take life and renew it…That, despite everything, the Jewish people lives proclaims a uniquely positive message about the continuing capabilities of people, the remaining possibilities of history, and the enduring reality of God.
(LJ p. 136).

    Questions for Discussion:

1. What themes of Borowitz resonate with us?  Which do we find more problematic?

2. How do we define “who are the Jews”?  Is the definition religious? cultural? national? racial? ethnic?something else?

3. Borowitz puts his chapter headings generally in the forms of questions.  What are our answers to some of these questions?  How do our answers compare with Borowitz’s?

4. Are Conservative (large “C”) Jews liberal (small “l”, and with relatively minimal emphasis on the political dimension of the word) Jews?  To what extent do the categories overlap, and how do they differ?

5. What are some features of Jewish life that Borowitz says were radically altered by the Emancipation (also known as Enlightenment or Haskalah)?

6. Why do we choose to identify as Conservative Jews?  

II. The God We Affirm
1.    How Can We Talk About God?
In the second part of Liberal Judaism, Borowitz focuses on how the Reform movement addresses theological questions.  
Borowitz begins with a discussion of the difficulty of communicating anything about God.  He does so with an initial survey of how people create and use symbols.  He talks about non-linguistic symbols (ex. a flag or a trophy) and about how language is a system of symbols.  Borowitz further explains:
There is a social and historical dimension to symbols.  They will not work for you unless you are part of the group that shares them…We begin to feel at home in a new culture not just when we can use its language but when we can begin to respond emotionally to its symbol world.
(LJ p. 141).

Borowitz applies the explanation about symbols to theology by saying that “God-Talk is necessarily symbolic” (LJ p. 142). 

As Borowitz puts it:
Our language about God is highly symbolic.  That is, we take our words for everyday things and press them into service as symbols, using them to point beyond themselves to that ineffable reality, God.
(LJ p. 143).

Borowitz illustrates his point about symbolism by discussing at length the significance of referring to God as a “Rock”.  He notes some of the Biblical uses of this term.  As Borowitz notes, use of the term “rock” on a literal level seems ridiculous.  He continues by noting the paradox of such usage in Judaism:
It makes no sense that a religion that often calls God a “rock” adamantly refuses to use a stone object to stand for God.
(LJ p. 144).

Of course, as Borowitz explains, we use the term “rock” symbolically, and that use of the term conveys a multiplicity of meanings relating to our sense of God’s strength and endurance. 

Borowitz discusses the difficulties Jews have had, and continue to have, with the danger of literal interpretations about God’s hand, arm, etc.  He reminds us that Maimonides expressed great concern about the tendency to anthropomorphize God (this concern is voiced in the Yigdal  hymn).  Such terminology is particularly troubling in a scientific era, Borowitz says.  Further, the traditional use of the masculine form clashes with present day norms about men and women.

2.    How Do We Know God is Real?    
Borowitz frames the problem thus:
Belief in God seems to be no problem to some people.  They simply know God exists and nothing, not even tragedy, shakes their faith.  Leo Baeck seemed to be such a person.  Though this great Jewish thinker was in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, he came through the experience with his belief unchanged.
Most of us are not like that.  We would like to believe in God and sometimes we think we do, only soon to find ourselves questioning what a few moments before seemed relatively certain.  At such times particularly, we wish we had reasons we could point to for our belief.
(LJ p. 153).

Borowitz acknowledges that the expression of doubt goes back to the Bible.  He points to the opening verse of Psalm 10 as an example:
“Why do you stand far off, O Lord,
And hide Yourself when we need You?”
(LJ p. 154).

Borowitz provides historical context for how the problem of knowing God has been addressed in Jewish history.  He explains that in the Bible, there are three main arguments (1) the grandeur of creation (2) the redemption from Egypt (3) the personal encounter of a particular figure.

Medieval Jewish thought, led by Maimonides, followed the then prevalent pattern of attempting to deduce the existence of God through logic.  As Borowitz notes, citing Descartes, these explanations ultimately failed before the modern tendency to eliminate assumptions.

Today, says Borowitz, we moderns are as skilled at disbelief as the medievals were at believing.
(LJ p. 160).

Borowitz goes on to discuss the approaches of five major modern Jewish thinkers on the topic of how we can know God, or know anything about God.  He discusses in turn Hermann Cohen and ethical monotheism; Mordecai Kaplan and naturalism (hopefully, we will look more closely at Kaplan later this spring); Leo Baeck’s reliance on religious sentiment; Martin Buber and the God of dialogue or encounter; and Abraham Joshua Heschel, who tried to turn the question on its head and question whether human experience can be at all useful in “explaining” God.

Borowitz then explains that the classic liberal Jewish position has been one of agnosticism.  In particular, says Borowitz, the question receded from importance:
More important, coming to a decision about God did not seem necessary for we had other means of knowing our responsibilities.  Our ethics and politics were commanded by our faith in the goodness of human nature and the obvious necessity of liberal social attitudes…We could afford to be agnostics then for the general culture gave us our values and our people’s needs mandated our Jewish responsibilities…In the meantime, we suspended decision and went on with our lives.
(LJ p. 170).

However, Borowitz continues, we can no longer be so sanguine about human nature or about the general culture.  One senses the anguish in his comments at this point:
We cannot depend on the secular culture to inculcate the values we know to be basic to worthy human existence.  We once took it for granted that every intelligent person would have a clear and compelling ethic…Once we thought that people did not need to believe anything special to be committed to a proper set of human values.  Now we are confronted with people who, believing nothing, feel free to try anything.  The humanistic, secular faith of the past generation has failed the test of history.
(LJ p. 171).

Borowitz argues that our awareness of the emptiness and moral failure of modern society gives us a sense that we are compelled to respond and improve the world.  He will continue by arguing that the sense of being compelled is what he refers to as God.  He further argues that a small but growing number of liberal Jews find themselves attracted by this view:
We no longer live in a time when it makes no difference what you believe…For all our doubts and questions, for all our tolerance and openness, we know that not every form of human conduct is equally worthwhile.  Should our civilization be entering a period of fall and decline, we know we must still live by ideal standards of conduct.  For we now recognize that personal existence gains its worth and dignity from a relationship with the God who “calls” humankind to transform history.
(LJ p. 172).

3.    What is God Like?
Borowitz follows the format of the previous chapter, tracing the history of how Jewish thought has approached this question.
Borowitz grounds his discussion in the well known observation that Jewish existence is about actions more than belief or speculation.  He traces the roots of this emphasis to the Hebrew Bible, and the Hebrew language itself:
In the main [the Bible] tells us about people, how they lived, or how they should have lived…There is very little…which is abstract and speculative…Our prophets are quite reticent when it comes to seeing what God is truly like.

The nature of Hebrew language seems itself to make such disclosures unlikely…The language is built around verbs, and its nouns commonly derive from verb roots.  Hebrew seems impoverished when it comes to abstract terms like “being” or “process” or “infinite,” – terms that we moderns like to use when trying to describe God.
(LJ pages 177-178).

Borowitz then traces the discussion of the nature of God through medieval and into modern times.  He summarizes the arguments of the rationalists (Cohen, Kaplan) and the non-rationalists (Baeck, Buber, Heschel). 

Borowitz reiterates the point made in the previous chapter, that our “post-modern” (my term) disillusioned view of the world has brought some formerly happily agnostic Jews into a search for some kind of spirituality.  As Borowitz expresses it:
We may reject dogmatism but we will not say there are no limits to what people should do…We may not believe much, but we do not believe nothing.
(LJ p. 188).

Again Borowitz argues that our intuition that we must (note the imperative form) nihilism and amorality, hints at the existence of God:
With the social sources of our commitment to humane values collapsing, our persisting dedication to them must have a basis which is more than human.  For all that we have closed ourselves off to such knowledge, we now dimly perceive that we are responding to something in the universe greater than us or our society.

I see no compelling reason not to call this cosmic, commanding otherness, God.
(LJ pages 188-189).

4.    Why Is There Evil?
The problem of evil has been the conundrum of theology since before Job.  As Borowitz notes, the Book of Job confronts this problem directly.  And in our time, as Borowitz and others note, we must confront the Holocaust, the most dramatic rebuke of both man and God that has ever been witnessed.  Borowitz reviews some of these arguments.  He focuses particularly on the unhappy but, one supposes, inevitable argument popularized by Harold Kushner, that God is not omnipotent.

I believe this theory is the only intellectually satisfying answer which has been given to the Holocaust.
(LJ p. 203).

However, despite the appeal of consistency of this view, Borowitz finds it lacking.

For all my appreciation of its intellectual sophistication and Jewish roots, I do not finally find the doctrine of a limited God acceptable.  I keep wondering who is in control of the evils of which God does not have power.
(LJ p. 204).

Further, Borowitz argues, it is difficult to profess allegiance to a God of less than absolute power:
I also question whether a limited, so to speak, a weak God is worthy of worship and daily trust.
(LJ p. 204).

Borowitz explains that, paradoxically, the response of many liberal Jews to the Holocaust was to question whether their agnosticism was misplaced.  As in the previous chapter, Borowitz argues that this questioning, and concurrent increase in at least exploring the possibility of belief in God, arose from the loss of faith in humankind.

What has died for us is not the God of Jewish tradition.  We hadn’t believed in that God for some time.  Rather we have lost faith in our old real “God,” humankind.  The Holocaust and the subsequent social traumas we now associate with our disillusionment smashed our idol.
(LJ p. 205).

Again reiterating a point emphasized in the prior chapter, Borowitz explains that liberal Jews are recognizing that they don’t – quite – accept all of the logical manifestations of a godless cosmos:
Then shall we say that the Holocaust…demonstrates that there is no meaning to the universe?...Such theorizing “explains” the Holocaust but does so with a horrifying consequence.  It says that, in a neutral universe, one has as much right to be a Nazi as to be a Jew!  That goes too far in disbelief for many of us.  We may believe little, but we believe more than that the world is empty of values.
(LJ p. 205).

At this point, Borowitz does not really attempt to resolve the paradox.  Rather, he points to survivors of tragedy, from Job to the survivors of the Holocaust, and their ability to maintain their faith. We owe these saints the benefit of such belief as we can muster.
(LJ p. 207).

5.    Is There Life After Death?
In this chapter, which I am not going to attempt to review in depth, Borowitz again begins by announcing the central problem.   He then examines the history of Jewish thought on the topic.  As Borowitz notes:
On no other topic, I would guess, has naturalism, thinking about religion in terms of science, enjoyed a greater success.  For some time now most Jews seem to me to have effectively given up belief in life-after-death.  At the least, they have been more determinedly skeptical on this belief than any other.
(LJ p. 219).

Borowitz acknowledges he can’t make any other scientific case.  Still, he feels there is merit in maintaining the belief in some sort of continuation.  He further contends that this belief makes him more likely to pursue an active ethical life, rather than lead to complacent resignation and awaiting what is to come.  He concludes the chapter with a recitation of the final verse of Adon Olam.

6.    Why Do Religions Differ?

Borowitz acknowledges the inconsistent view of traditional Judaism on the subject.  Consider the prayer Aleinu.  In three brief paragraphs it elides from a strong statement of the particular status of Jews and Judaism to a powerful and hopeful prophecy of a unitary worldwide faith.

Borowitz then discusses key arguments in support of unified religion and diversity.  This is a highly theoretical discussion, but worth examining briefly.  In support of unity, Borowitz observes:

Jews recognize two compelling arguments for the coming of one religion…[first,] with only one God in the universe, there should ideally be only one religion…
The other argument stems from our bitter experience with religious difference.

Here Borowitz briefly addresses persecution of Jews in the name of religion, and the history of religious wars in general.

In support of diversity, Borowitz references five arguments.  First, it is impractical.  Given human differences, it simply cannot be accomplished.  Second, for liberal Jews particularly, unity would likely necessarily imply subjecting oneself to unwelcome strictures imposed from the outside.  Third, to the extent that we equate religious unity with the messianic era, there is the danger of the false messiah.  The case of Shabbetai Zevi in the 1600’s dramatically illustrates this danger.  More affirmatively, diversity in religion, as elsewhere in life, has inherent value.  On the one hand, we appreciate and connect with our own ethnic traditions.  On the other, we also appreciate learning about, seeing, and participating in, the traditions of others.  At this point, Borowitz briefly discusses how Jews deal with Christmas.  Finally, religions really do have fundamentally different views on some key elements of life.

On this last issue, Borowitz makes a particular effort to examine the argument outside the confines of his bias and tradition.  As he notes

I am, of course, not a disinterested party in such a discussion…
(LJ p. 234).

Borowitz resolves this conflict of interest by examining, as an outsider, comparative view of religions other than Judaism.  He notes, for example, that Islam is fatalistic, making all the will of Allah.  Hinduism, on the other hand, views all of life as essentially an illusion from which we ultimately want to escape.  In particular, the distinct views about the meaning of suffering separate Christianity and Buddhism.  In Christianity, suffering offers adherents an opportunity to imitate Jesus.  Buddhism, conversely, views suffering as stemming from the fact that we desire things.  The Buddha’s path was to find a way to avoid desiring anything, and thus to escape from suffering.  Borowitz notes the inherent contradiction of these views:

Either one accepts suffering as the fulfillment of one’s love of God, or one devotes oneself to gaining a philosophy of life which will enable one to never suffer.
(LJ p. 236).

After his discussion of other religions, Borowitz ventures a brief discussion of where Judaism fits in.  

Perhaps now I may be permitted a few words about Judaism’s unique way of understanding and relating to ultimate reality.  Unlike the Asian faiths, Jewish belief is centered on a God who is concerned about people and their everyday conduct.  Its daughter faiths, Christianity and Islam, share this distinctive ethical monotheism.  Yet Judaism is more monotheistic than Christianity and more activist than either of its offspring, since it emphasizes serving God through many specific acts.
That is about as much as can usefully be said here.  Beyond that…[there are] a number of views of what constitutes the uniqueness of our religion.
(LJ pages 236-237).

Borowitz argues that the plea for universalism coming from some liberal Jews is essentially posing the question of whether we still need to be Jews.  

The assimilatory intent buried in this proposal emerges from the plan suggested for its implementation.  This almost always assumes that the Jews will give up their practices for those of other groups.  Oddly enough we take it for granted that distinctive Jewish observances are unworthy of adoption by the rest of humanity, e.g., a universal Yom Kippur day.
(LJ p. 231).

Here Borowitz includes a humorous vignette which illustrates where the particular and universal somehow touch.  See pages 231-232.

Borowitz concludes the section by paraphrasing Hillel:
If we are not for ourselves, or if we are only for ourselves, we are nothing.
(LJ p. 238).

Questions for Discussion

1. How would we compare the liberal Jewish view of God with a more traditional view?  What is our understanding?

2.    Borowitz repeats the argument that liberal Jews have gone through a period in which they, in effect, substituted the innate good will of humans for God, and that they have been subsequently disillusioned.  Do we see evidence of this transition?  Have we experienced it ourselves?

3.    Borowitz also makes the claim for liberal Jews that “we do not believe much, but we do not believe nothing.”  What is the least that Jews need to believe?  Is even that morsel of belief rational?  Does it need to be rational?

4.    What feelings does Borowitz’s vignette about the Long Island Bar Mitzvah evoke?

III. The Bible and Tradition

1. Did God Give the Bible?

Borowitz begins this section by starkly setting forth the competing perspectives:

A different understanding of Torah, rather than of God or the people of Israel, critically divides liberal from traditional Jews.  The authors of the Bible…say God gave the Torah to the Jews; liberal Jews take such statements symbolically…Traditional Judaism claimed God’s authority stood behind the words of [the Torah and] all the rest of the Bible, and of the Oral Torah, the rabbinic law, which was presumably also revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
(LJ p. 241)

Borowitz notes briefly the particular challenge presented by laws which appear arbitrary (abstaining from pork, not wearing mixed fibers, etc.).   Traditionally, the rabbis simply resorted to the dictum: “because God said so.”  In medieval times, Jewish thinkers who appreciated rationalism, particularly Maimonides, attempted to find reasons, but even he said ultimately:

“It is right that a man study the laws of the holy Torah and seek to understand their full meaning to the extent that he is able.  Nevertheless, a law for which he finds no reason or sees no cause should not be trivial in his eyes…” (Mishneh Torah Hil. Meilah 8:8).
(LJ p. 244).

In the nineteenth century, Borowitz tells us, the German Orthodox scholar Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch updated this argument.  His position was:
that only one who accepts the authority of the commandments may validly inquire into their reasons…[if a person has already] rejected the law’s commanding quality one claims that because there is no rational reason for Jewish practice [and therefore] one has become nonobservant…Hirsch approves of only one motive for asking for a rationale for the laws: to understand God’s will better.
(LJ p. 244).

Liberal Judaism challenged the traditional view of the authority of the Torah on two grounds:

They had a deep intuition, first, that innovations prohibited by their rabbis were necessary for Judaism to remain meaningful.  And they found, second, what seemed to them a better way of thinking about the Bible than that of the Jewish tradition.
(LJ p. 244-245).

Borowitz explains that the period extending from the late 18th to mid 19th century seemed to place Jews in a position of either accepting modernity or remaining within the fold of traditional Judaism.  He describes a great thinker of the late 18th century, Moses Mendelssohn, who attempted to bridge this gap.

Judaism, Mendelssohn argued, had always encouraged an impartial search for truth.  Modernity could enter Judaism through its openness to ideas…
Though ideas and cultural forms might change in Judaism, he opined, its laws could not…Its practices were ordinances of God imposed upon the Jews by God’s unprecedented revelation at Sinai…In our terminology, Mendelssohn was liberal in his philosophy except for his theory of revelation; yet he was Orthodox in his practice.
(LJ p. 247-248).3

Mendelssohn’s approach was not satisfactory for many Jews.  His approval of scientific inquiry, except in the matter of the revelation at Sinai, proved problematic:

If the modern intellect could satisfactorily deal with all other questions, why could it not also help us understand the central claim of Judaism…?
…They were seeking an integrated view of their humanity and their Jewishness.
(LJ p. 248).

This approach was particularly apparent in the development of non-traditional views of the Bible.  As Borowitz notes, an early (one might say too early) adherent of this approach was Baruch Spinoza.

Borowitz reviews several of the problems the modernists found with the Biblical text.  One was the presence of internal contradictions.  For example, what is one to make of the presence of two creation stories? (the rabbis had, and we retain on a symbolic level at least, explanations for this contradiction); the words of the Ten Commandments vary in their two recitations (again, there are traditional explanations).

However, [m]ore troubling to the moderns…were some of its descriptions of God.  It is unethical of God to harden pharaoh’s heart…The elaboration…that God will punish the second, third, and fourth generations of those people who reject God [shows]…vindictiveness…God is depicted as having a blazing anger, one which can barely be restrained by Moses’ intense pleas…These notions…seriously compromise God’s right to be worshiped and contradict all the rest the Bible writers teach…
(LJ p. 250).

Archaeological discoveries also challenged traditional interpretations, Borowitz notes.  He cites, for example, the presence of parallel flood myths in various Near Eastern cultures.

Borowitz briefly outlines the development of the Documentary Hypothesis – the view that the Torah is a compilation of basically four works.  He notes that while the Documentary Hypothesis itself has undergone significant criticism

…contemporary Bible students have found no theory which better integrates all the data; they still rely upon it but with considerable caution.
(LJ p. 253).

Borowitz concludes by bringing us back to the key point of the discussion:

If the basic documents of the Jewish faith are essentially human, then so is the authority behind Jewish law.
(LJ p. 254).

2. How Does God Speak to People?

In the Hebrew Bible, God is depicted as speaking in a variety of ways.  Borowitz examines some of these:

-Direct encounter, as with the giving of the Ten Commandments:

…The setting was awesome, “Mt. Sinai was all in smoke for Adonai had come down upon it in fire…” (Exod. 19:18-19).

-Through a prophetic vision:

Jeremiah sees a boiling pot and “the word of Adonai comes to him with a message of judgment for the people.

-Through intermediaries who might be angels:

…as was the case with Abraham’s three visitors. (Gen. 18:2 and following).
(LJ pages 258-259).

By the time of Maimonides, even though the idea of scientific inquiry had not taken root, people did understand cause and effect, and that what was being attributed to God was outside the realm of normal causation.  

Though he did not give a rational explanation for everything, Maimonides made revelation plausible for his generation’s questioners.  “God speaks” now meant to them a human mind which had reached the stage of being fully influenced by God’s activating intellect.
(LJ p. 262).

Borowitz then turns to a discussion of how moderns understand “God speaks”:

…liberal Jewish thinkers have roughly followed Maimonides’s strategy.  They have converted “God speaks” into a version of “people understand.”
(LJ p. 262).

Borowitz considers the approach of four modern liberal Jewish thinkers, whom we have met before: Hermann Cohen, Leo Baeck, Mordecai Kaplan, and Martin Buber.  He also discusses Heschel, whom he categorizes in this context as not liberal.

Hermann Cohen – ethical rationalism:

For Cohen, using reason is humanity’s greatest talent; using it properly enables us to gain an integrated concept of the three distinct realms which comprise mature rationality-science, ethics, and esthetics.  The basis of such a world view is the integrating idea which people traditionally called God.  Thus, for Cohen, true rational philosophy is the same as true religion, a unity he called religion of reason.

Obviously, a God who is understood as an idea, cannot “speak”.  For Cohen, revelation is a term describing the human mind functioning at its best…
…Cohen becomes quite passionate about the connection between God and ethics…a critical sign of one’s rationality was one’s responsiveness to ethical duty…
…As long as liberal Jews had great confidence in the power of human rationality, Cohen’s theory of revelation was highly influential…
(LJ pages 264-265).

Leo Baeck – the intuition of religious feelings:

For Baeck, revelation derives from our awe at being alive and empowered, as well as from our reason…
…In Judaism, the subjective aspect of faith must be a full partner to ethical rationality, lest we create a sterile, moralistic sort of religion…
(LJ pages 266-267).

Mordecai Kaplan – revelation as collective wisdom:

Kaplan’s thought derives from American naturalism which seeks to understand people in terms of their interaction with the world…
…revelation is the process by which people discover the highest truth about themselves and their world, a largely but not entirely rational matter.  Since almost all of us receive our stock of ideas-even our rebellious ones!-from our society, one’s people, rather than one’s self, is revelation’s most reliable source and repository…This makes Kaplan a liberal Jew, for as the Jewish collectivity changes its mind, so ought modern Jewish law.
(LJ pages 267-268).

Martin Buber-individual relation with God:

To understand what revelation might mean to us today, Buber utilizes the experience of friendship or love…When you are very close to someone, that person has a powerful effect on your life.  You care what they think, want to do what they desire, are fearful of their judgment…Perhaps they specifically spoke to you about these matters, but they need not have.  Merely by intimacy you and they will have a mutual sense of command and responsibility.  Indeed, it often happens that they will feel their relationship with you damaged if they must say what deeply concerns them.  If you truly cared, you should have known…
…The basic Jewish commandment is not to love our minds, our consciousness, or our higher self, but God.  Not everyone is capable of a great passion for God, but all of us can grow into friendly intimacy.  Our moments of closeness with God are the basis of our religious life…God does not speak words to us, but knowing that God is present with us engenders our knowledge of what we must do to stay close to God.
(LJ pages 268-269).

Abraham Joshua Heschel – prophets and the God of pathos:

As compared with the above thinkers, Heschel, says Borowitz, occupies a more traditional view.  Heschel does not so much try to explain how we can understand God when we can’t hear God, as to suggest that we are not listening carefully enough.

Heschels’ theory is typically modern in seeking to explain God’s revelation in terms of personal experience.  For Heschel, modern science has robbed us of our instinctive surprise at the wonder that we or anything exists.  If we can shed our secular programming, all of us can have a direct, personal appreciation of the incomparable grandeur of the God who created and sustains all being.

The prophets differed from us only in the unusually profound way they had this experience…
…Heschel’s prophet does not literally hear words addressed to him.  He does not have to.  He is so intimate with God’s “desires” that he can accurately verbalize them…
…Heschel emphasizes that prophets do not invent or create anything they say…their words accurately represent what they felt God undergoing…
…The prophets continually speak of God in highly emotional terms.  We should learn from this, says Heschel, that the God of Israel is a God of pathos, that is, feeling.  And he mounts an intense polemic against the notion that God would be more God-like if God felt nothing at all…Instead of apologizing for the prophets by calling their highly-charged language poetic or exaggerated, we should recognize that they are reliably transmitting God’s response to our sinfulness and obduracy…He argues that God’s wrath is always controlled by God’s moral purposes.
(LJ pages 263-264).

Borowitz explains that Heschel’s thought on revelation has not fully resonated with liberal Jewish thinkers.

In human beings, anger denotes an emotional state in which we throw off our usual restraints…To liberals, this understanding of God projects the prophets’ distress better than God’s reality…
(LJ p. 264).

3. How True is the Bible?

Borowitz discusses the problem of how to reconcile the Bible with what we as moderns understand.  He discusses the contradictions inherent in the account of creation.  He also discusses historical inconsistencies, for example, the narrative of the Book of Esther.  He also discusses the miracles, including those we read from Shemot (Exodus).

Borowitz explains that liberal Jewish thought rejects the notion that God (however defined) handed over a text.  Rather, the Bible is the result of the hands of humans, with all flaws possibly attendant thereto.  However, Borowitz observes, there is still a basis on which the Bible can remain sacred in Jewish tradition:

First, we believe the Bible is a work of incomparable religious genius.  Second, we value it as the founding religio-ethnic saga of our people.  On both counts, Jews will have a lasting intimate involvement with Hebrew Scriptures.
(LJ p. 280).

The essence of Borowitz’s argument, and, he posits, that of Liberal Judaism, is that the Hebrew Bible is the brilliant and enduring work of inspired humans.  It deserves respect as such, and has stood the test of time.  He concludes:

Whatever means we utilize in perceiving the Bible’s truth for us and our people, one conclusion strongly impresses itself on liberal Jews.  If these are “only” words of people, how astonishing it is that they so often radically transcend their time and place!  What a depth if sensitivity and a breadth of compassion again and again infuses these ancient Hebrews!  Reading their writings thousands of years later in a thoroughly transformed world, we, the best educated generation the world has ever known, are instructed and exalted by them.
(LJ p. 283).

4. Why Are the Prophets Especially Important in Liberal Judaism?

Borowitz argues that the Prophets hold an especially important place for Liberal Judaism.  He reminds us that this is not reflective of traditional Judaism, where the Torah of course holds primacy of place.  

First, Borowitz explains, the Prophets emphasize ethics.  He quotes from Isaiah Chapter 5, for example:

“Woe to those who call evil “good” and good “evil”…
“Who, for a consideration, vindicate the wicked
And wrest the right of the righteous from him.”

Such passages gave ancient Judaism immediacy in the modern world…Living by such behests, one would not only be a good Jew but the sort of citizen everyone would respect.
(LJ pages 287-288).

Liberal Jews also respond to the courage of the Prophets in standing up to authority.  He quotes from Chapter 7 of Micah:

“Listen to this, you rulers of the House of Jacob,
You chiefs of the House of Israel,
Who abhor justice
and pervert all equity…
Assuredly, because of you
Zion shall be plowed as a field
And Jerusalem become ruins.”

Jews attaining citizenship in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries found such attacks particularly pertinent to leaders who condoned evil or promoted it…With the words of the prophets ringing in their ears, [Jews] could feel they were helping their countries live up to their highest ideals while they were following the most valuable part of their religion.  It was an ideal fusion of modernity and Judaism.
(LJ pages 290-291).

Liberal Jews also respond, says Borowitz, to the expression of individuality in the Prophets.  Borowitz briefly recounts Isaiah’s ease in moving among royalty, Jeremiah’s role as a social gadfly, and Ezekiel’s as a purveyor of seemingly mad visions.

Borowitz’s brief sketch of Jonah is especially touching.  After summarizing the story, Borowitz remarks:

Jonah’s petulance makes me laugh at myself for all those times I am concerned with self-justification rather than God’s purpose.  And I should like to think that something like this, rather than “the great fish”, has made him precious to other liberal Jews as well.
(LJ p. 294).

Returning to the theme of ethics, Borowitz notes that a strong element of the appeal of the prophets is their often expressed valuing of ethics over ritual.  He cites the familiar passages from Chapter 58 of Second Isaiah:

“Is this the fast I desire,
a day for men to afflict their bodies?...
No, this is the fast I desire:
To loose the fetters of wickedness…
to share your bread with the hungry…”
(LJ p. 299).

5. How Has Change Come Into Judaism?
Now Borowitz begins to grapple with the problem of  Judaism’s evolution.  He first addresses the Rabbinic period and then the centuries of essentially traditional practice in which the interpretations of the Rabbis were decisive.  It is only with the coming of the emancipation in the late 18th and early 19th century that the chain is severed.

A digest version of Borowitz’s description follows:

The rabbis, not the Bible or the sectarians, fixed the fundamental beliefs and practices of Judaism and, equally important, the system for adapting them to changed historical circumstances…

…First, the rabbis created a method of studying and amplifying their traditions which continues down to the present day.  Second, a body of literature came into being which, without formal promulgation, became classic for all Jews.  Third, a system of individual authority became accepted, which, though informal, effectively guided Jewish life…

…This system treats the past with great reverence…

…[However] innovation comes from the practice of encouraging and remembering different opinions.  The early controversies between the Schools of Shammai and Hillel are among the most famous divergent interpretations of Judaism, but the method of clarifying by dialectical argument continues down to the present day…

…[The Talmud] practically luxuriates in divergent opinion and its text wanders freely from a given topic to whatever tangent seems momentarily of interest…One may well say that nothing human is alien to it…

…A final layer of definitive literature eventually arose, the codes…

…[Finally] rabbis have broad personal authority over the community that elected them…[t]hey have…made their influence felt by the…responsum, the formal answer to a question put to an authority…

…Utter democracy and informality characterizes the realm of the responsa…
(LJ pages 301-311).