[I delivered this talk on April 30th at United Congregational Church Awakening Conference in Holyoke, MA]
The theme of this gathering is “re-imagining faith.” Tomorrow I plan to explore the deeper meaning of faith itself, faith beyond religion, faith as the innate human capacity to awaken to, in, and as Ultimate Reality. But tonight I want to explore the reimagining of faith as religion, and a specific religion at that: Judaism.
No religion is static, and Judaism is no exception to this rule. It has been imagined and reimagined many times. Original Judaism, the Judaism of Moses as imagined by the great 20th century rabbi Abba Hillel Silver was an ethical monotheism rooted in the Holiness Code of Leviticus 19, and the two articulations of the Ten Commandments in Exodus and Deuteronomy.
This original Judaism was reimagined by Moses’ cousins, the Levites, as a sacrificial religion run by an hereditary male priesthood, i.e. themselves. The Hebrew prophets challenged Priestly Judaism and reimagined Judaism as ethical monotheism: “With what shall I come before YHVH? How shall I worship God? Shall I come with burnt offerings and yearlings? Will YHVH be pleased with thousands of rams, or ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my sins, the fruit of my body for the errors of my soul? No! God has shown you, humanity, what is good. And what does YHVH require? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God,” (Micah 6:6-8).
The Pharisaic reimagining of Judaism gave us two Torahs: the Written Torah that Moses gave to the Priests, and the more important Oral Torah that was passed from Moses through the Prophets to the rabbis themselves. This was a Torah of Prophetic justice linked to a legal system of ritual practice that replaced the Temple and its hereditary priesthood with the study of Torah under the guidance of the rabbis own intellectual meritocracy.
Within Pharisaic Judaism came three further imaginings: the One Foot Torah of Rabbi Hillel, the apocalyptic Way of Rabbi Jesus, and, some two millennia later, the Judaism of the Sovereign Self of Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise.
Jesus’ Torah is well known: Love YHVH your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and Love your neighbor as yourself. “All Torah and the Prophets are based on these two commandments,” (Matthew 22: 37-40). The Church avoided the Torah of Jesus by promoting Jesus to the status of a God to be worshipped rather than a rabbi to be followed (rendering him powerless if not irrelevant), and replaced his Torah of love with dogma, creed, and a passion for torturing heretics in this world and the next.
Hillel’s Torah came earlier than that of Jesus and was far more radical. When asked to explain the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you do not do to another. This is the entire Torah. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study it,” (Shabbat 31). In other words Torah is the Golden Rule, and Judaism is a way of compassion. Where Jesus’ Torah rests on love of God and neighbor, Hillel’s Torah is completely humanistic: ignoring God and resting solely on compassion. Rabbinic Judaism ignored the Torah of Hillel by elevating “commentary” over Torah, and thus ritual over compassion.
The third reimagining of Pharisaic Judaism, Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise’s Judaism of the Sovereign Self, came almost two thousand years later. Rabbi Wise, the founder of American Reform Judaism, placed the autonomy of the individual Jew at the center of Judaism thus putting an end to rabbinic power and authority, and replacing rabbinic law and communal obligation with individual choice.
The Holocaust is the catalyst for the next as yet unclear reimagining of Judaism. For many if not most Jews, the murder of six million Jews shattered the Jewish conceit of an all-powerful supernatural God who cares about the Jews as His (sic) Chosen People. Without a God who chooses the Jews to receive His Torah, the Torah, both Written and Oral, becomes irrelevant. What has come to replace God is the State of Israel and Jewish ethnicity.
Zionism has been elevated (consciously or unconsciously) from a socio–political Jewish liberation movement to a theo–political worship of the Land. While the machinations of Israeli politics keeps Orthodox Judaism alive and Orthodox rabbis in power, for most Israelis both are obstacles to be navigated rather than God–given resources to be celebrated, and for most Jews outside of Israeli they are a cultural curiosity at best. As Zionism continues to reimagines Judaism as nationalism often at the expense of the rights of Palestinians, more and more liberal and secular Jews will find it wanting. Which leaves us with ethnicity.
Reimagining Judaism as the folkways of an ethnically identifiable ethnic group called Jews fails for two reasons. First Jews are too diverse to fit into any formula of ethnic purity, and any attempt at ethnic purification would eliminate the vast majority of Jews from the tribe. Second, with ethnicity as the driving factor, the only motivation for remaining Jewish is what Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim called the 614th commandment: “Thou shall not give Hitler a posthumous victory.” In other words we Jews must survive as a distinct ethnic group if for no other reason than Hitler tried to exterminate us. Doing something simply to spite Adolf Hitler is not a catalyst for a vibrant and creative Judaism, and ethnic Judaism is fading into oblivion.
So if the old God is dead, and the new God has yet to emerge; if the old tribe is gone and new sense of tribe has yet to be articulated, where is Judaism going? It is too early to know. But I can tell you what I want it to be.
My reimagining of Judaism blends the Original Torah of Moses with the prophetic passion for justice and Rabbi Hillel’s Torah as Compassion to create a Judaism devoted to helping Jews be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Here is my manifesto for just such a Judaism:
Judaism calls for revolution or it calls for nothing at all. Jews are or l’goyyim, a light unto the nations (Isaiah 49:6), or we are irrelevant. Our vision is of a fearless world without war (Micah 4:3–4) where people eat simply, drink moderately, work joyously, and love freely (Ecclesiastes 2:24; 4:8–12). Our path is the iconoclasm of lech lecha: freeing ourselves from the conditioning of nationality, tribe, parental bias, gender, race, class, religion, and every other narrative that keeps us from being a blessing to all the families of the earth, human and otherwise (Genesis 12:1–3). Our pedagogy is eilu v’eilu (Eruvin 13b), honoring argument, doubt and critical thinking over intellectual passivity, spiritual conformity, and manufactured consent. Our tools are Shabbat, liberating all beings from Mitzrayim, the narrow places of enslavement, and helping them reclaim their innate divinity (Deuteronomy 5:15; Exodus 20:8-10); kashrut, elevating manufacturing and consuming to the highest ethical and environmental standards; tzedakah, the just use of money and capital; chesed, practicing lovingkindness; shmirat halashon, cleansing our speech of gossip, slander, falsehood, and distortion; b’rachot, expressing gratitude for life’s gifts and wonders; limmud, studying our ancient texts in search of timeless wisdom; and tefillah, exploring the nature of self and other to reveal Ehyeh, the singular divine I manifesting all existence. A Jew is a person who shares our vision, values, and vehicles for change, not our blood. Let us teach our children to invent the future and not preserve a frozen and romanticized past. If we are not about tomorrow we will find that we have none.