Lost in the contemporary discussions about the boundaries of Jewish law is the
subject of Jewish theology and theologians. Who are these people that help shape
the very foundations of our beliefs? A rare breed, the Jewish theologian is a
strange person. He or she at once lives in the distant past and a far-off
future, contemplating an eternal God. A Jewish theologian is both an owner and a
caretaker of God’s revelation.
Jewish theologians count among their
friends Maimonides, Rav Sa’adia Gaon, Hasdai Crescas; and must translate their
wisdom to a mother in a hospital asking why her child just died. When sitting at
the table in the beit midrash they must feel Rav Albo and Rav Sa’adia’s
presence; not in some mystical construct but in the same reality in which they
pay their electricity bill. They must muster all their strength to help
Maimonides do battle against his detractors and at once bring Herman Cohen,
Nachman Krochmal, Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber into the argument. They know
these men as intimate friends, and thus can take liberties with them allowed
only to people who have known each other since youth.
must take an active role in the 21st-century conversations among our people.
Living either in the State of Israel or the shadow of it, they cannot ignore the
return of the Jewish people to Israel and the obvious questions wrought by the
resurrection of sovereignty.
The question of “Where was God in
Auschwitz?” constantly plagues them as they keep in mind the words of Rabbi Yitz
Greenberg about the Shoah, that “no statement, theological or otherwise, should
be made that is not credible in the presence of burning children.”
first prerequisite for a Jewish theologian is active Jewish belief. They are not
disengaged scientists looking through a microscope. They are artists intimately
involved with their art. Theology is not a demonstration of God’s existence, but
rather its role is to give form and content to the implications of God in this
world. A Jewish theologian is plagued with existential angst as he or she
struggles with getting the correct form and shaping the right content. In other
words, a Jewish theologian makes Judaism his personal responsibility.
Jewish theologian tries to expose himself to the best things Jews have done and
then bring those ideas into what he is doing. The Jewish theologian must
practice his art burdened with the knowledge that he cannot ignore those that
trod before him, and must add their thoughts and ideas to the satchel he
carries. That satchel, thousands of years old, must be handled with care because
it might very well be thousands of more years before it reaches its final
destination when the goals of Judaism are complete.
have “the mission to teach the doctrines and the literature of the religion
which is as old as history itself and as wide as the world.” Yet, remaining true
to their mission they can’t remain in the isolation of the Beit Midrash. They
have to understand who the people are and either rise to the occasion to oppose
them, or run ahead of them to lead.
To do this, the Jewish theologian
must be in possession of all of Jewish law and lore, all the rabbinic
literature, responsa, liturgy and writings to see if the direction is indeed
genuinely Jewish, for “in Judaism everything must emanate from the Torah and
culminate in it.”
One may use his position as a Jewish theologian to try
to set a new direction or argue against a popular belief he believes is wrong.
Being a Jewish theologian does not mean one needs to find consensus with his
As Solomon Schechter writes, “Probably you all know the way in
which some English statesmen speak of their opponents in the Parliament,
referring to them as His Majesty’s Opposition. This sounds like a paradox, yet
it contains a deep truth, implying as it does that both His Majesty’s government
as well as His Majesty’s opposition form one large community working for the
welfare of the country and prosperity of the nation. The same may be applied to
Schechter also writes that if he was once asked what
connection there was between Rashi and Maimonides, he would reply “None, save in
God and His Torah!” The Jewish theologian as well must carve his theology in the
same stone the Ten Commandments were given in. It can look different, even
unintelligible at first glance, but after scrutiny, any Jew in any era must be
able to recognize it as Jewish and as an outgrowth of the same tradition he
lives with and for.
To those who believe Jewish theology has nothing to
offer them today, I would offer them the same advice that Solomon Schechter took
“Learn a little more Hebrew, study a little more the
text and less commentaries and introductions, make yourself thoroughly
acquainted with its idioms and the methods of compositions in ancient Israel,
and you will find, after due deliberations, that the matter is not to be
understood as you first thought.”
The writer is a doctoral candidate in
Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high school yeshivot and