In this post-secular age, questions of meaning increasingly consume the Millennial generation and many of the rest of us. And what does the Jewish community have to offer in response? A debate about the limits of Jewish status? About the limits of discourse on Israel? About an impending professional leadership crisis? These debates are real, but they may not speak to the heart of the matter or answer the deeper questions of the newest and largest generation of young Jews. A recent article in the New Jersey Jewish News by David Wilensky is but one example of a Millennial’s attempt to articulate this search and the communal blindnesses. He argues that they are not asking “Who is a Jew?” but rather “Why be Jewish?” Can Judaism help in their search to understand their place in the universe, communal life and their identities? Isn’t Judaism itself – in all its infinite complexity – precisely about this search? Many non-Orthodox Jews may think of theology as an esoteric subject, but it might just have some of the answers that they’re looking for. In an age of crisis and uncertainly, potential sources of meaning become ever more significant and potent.
Judaism is certainly one source of meaning, one set of possible frameworks for meaning.
But too often denominational boundaries, false dichotomies of ideological difference, make a deep engagement with Judaism as a source of meaning a distant option.
So how can theology help? Theology teaches not only about the nature of God, but about our relationship with an ultimate source of values, with ourselves, the environment and other human beings. It gives us a “ground” for that which is, or might be, authoritative in our lives. If we want meaning, some people might just even consider limiting the overrated value of “autonomy gone awry” in order to find it. According to thinkers of today, too much choice produces too much anxiety.
Theology guides us. Whether it’s ethics or faith, family tradition, community or peoplehood, which grounds one’s Jewish identity, each of these commitments has its theological roots. Ethics, after the Holocaust in particular, was clearly one of the last century’s most pivotal issues for Jewish thought, as Rabbi Prof. Eugene B. Borowitz (b. 1924) taught in a seminal essay. But ethics, too, is often based on deeper commitments and a recognition that human beings are not as trustworthy as a source for ethics as moderns once thought.
This 21st century has already taught much of the secular world that theology – although its usually called “spirituality” to make it more palatable – plays a more pivotal role in the world. Whether in Israel or in the rest of the Jewish world, it turns out that the sturdy liberal individualist needs and wants ritual, ceremony, prayer, joy, connection, community, and is even thirsting for God. As the Psalmist wrote and the medieval poet Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) sang: “My soul is desperately thirsty for a living God, that my heart and my whole being yearn for a living God” (63:2).
For postmodern Jews who live beyond the theologies of Halacha, faith comes in many forms – and great Jewish thinkers have offered many choices. One need not accept all their views of God to still see relevance in spirituality. For Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), faith was about “awe, wonder and amazement” at the presence of God in the world, and our mutually unending search and thirst of God for man and man for God. For Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983), faith was more about the “salvation” of the Jewish people and how our ultimate redemption is in redeeming ourselves and society.
And of course, Martin Buber (1878-1965) remains the greatest religious teacher and philosopher on what our existence must mean for others and for God. He is famous for his book I and Thou, and for teaching several generations that “all real living is meeting.”
Today, many passionate non-Orthodox Jews live a Jewish life and theology that is what I call a “blended theology,” clearly in keeping with Eugene Borowitz’s 1991 Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew. He taught two generations of liberal Jewish clergy and educators to prepare for this postmodern embrace of a limited autonomy of the Jewish self. A blended theology for this century might be one that allows for the non-establishment-oriented Millennial search, but one in which mainstream intuitions can be a help – and not a hindrance.
Half a century from now this next generation’s theology may reveal a new system, but it too will likely acknowledge some combination of the spirituality of Heschel, the Kaplanian focus on peoplehood – and a Buberian insistence on the existential and individual experience of the holy and the other. Having the right access to what these giants of modern Jewish thought might mean to them will likely ensure that this new generation will not continue to get tossed about in the sea of communal discourse, but will ultimately find their place among the ever-shifting and creative theologies of our people.
The writer is the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and President’s Scholar of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and teaches for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Her column appears monthly.