On a return to theology

t is not enough to teach our students what we believe, but it must be taught in the framework of understanding how those beliefs came to be.

By AHARON E. WEXLER
June 12, 2019 19:48
On a return to theology

‘WE CANNOT expect our students to follow the Halacha when they don’t even know the theology of Judaism.’. (photo credit: PIXABAY)

 
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Most Jews are ignorant of some of the most basic beliefs that define Judaism. This indictment applies to Jews of all sects from the most liberal to the most Orthodox.
An over emphasis of Halacha has led our people to think that Jewish belief is unimportant. This in turn filters into almost every aspect of Jewish life, and therefore is of course going to be reflected in our school curriculum. After all, we are told time and again that we are a religion of deed, not creed. Even the haredi world seems to have neglected its study. As Marc B. Shapiro writes: “Jewish theology is not taken seriously in contemporary Orthodoxy. Unlike earlier generations, which had their ‘professional’ theologians or, at the very least, scholars who devoted a great deal of time to this field, today we have talmudists, who at best merely dabble in it.”
Yesheyahu Leibowitz, for example, is famous for his belief that Judaism was to be defined by adherence to the mitzvot alone. In his conception, the attachment of any other rhyme or reason for the mitzvot other than fulfillment of the divine will is to make avodah zarah (idolatry) of the mitzvah. While Leibowitz himself is not mainstream Orthodox, this idea of his is reflected in the concentration in Yeshiva curriculum on Halacha. The oft-repeated mantra heard in yeshivas is that “a good Jew is one who keeps Shulchan Aruch” completely neuters the role of belief and faith in the life of Orthodox Jews. Yet, from my experience teaching Judaism for over two decades, this is a mistake. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “to reduce Judaism to law, to Halacha, is to dim its light, to pervert its essence and to kill its spirit.”
As Modern Orthodox educators, the retention of our youth in the Jewish fold should be our first and primary goal. We cannot encourage them to find their place in the modern world by taking positions in law, medicine and business without equipping them to successfully “hold their own” in those spaces. While educating them in areas of Halacha and textual proficiency should remain our focus, there clearly needs to be other areas of Jewish knowledge that need to be imparted to our students before they leave our yeshivot and seminaries and make their way to the university.
This is especially important for students that are “believers” but struggling with their observance. To completely discount the value of their faith is an injustice to them and Judaism. It is my hope that we can return Jewish theology to its rightful place in the yeshiva curriculum.
I use the word “return” because, before Talmud became the main (sole) focus of Jewish learning, theology had a large claim on the hearts and mind of scholarly Jews. The Golden Age of Jewish Theology was during the Middle Ages, when Judaism was under attack by both Christianity and Islam. The basic claims made by these religions was that Judaism had been surpassed by them and proof was the vast success of Islam and Christendom. The poor Jew, suffering in poverty, needed to be educated as to why to remain Jewish. (He already knew how to act as a Jew, now he needed to know why!) The only way to do that was to educate the Jew as to what we Jews believe and how that differed from his Muslim and Christian neighbors.

IN THE UNIVERSITY, our students will be inundated with ideas, philosophies and beliefs that are antithetical to Torah and its values. Therefore, it is not enough to teach our students what we believe, but it must be taught in the framework of understanding how those beliefs came to be. Our beliefs must be contrasted with the beliefs of others and where there is room for disagreement among the rabbis, we should not be afraid of exposing the students to those arguments.
It has been said that the task of education today is not to expose students to the world, but to teach them how to sift through all the information they are inundated with. Our students are not just exposed to the Western world, but play a large role in it. It is our task to prepare them for that responsibility. Only in this setting can our students be properly equipped for his or her time on campus.
And yes, we are a religion of laws and actions. And while, Jewish observance does trump Jewish belief, it is almost ridiculous to posit that Judaism is a religion of mitzvot, and ignore the divine origin of the mitzvot. In other words: You can’t have a commandment without a commander. Thus, belief in a commander comes even before the commandment.
We cannot expect our students to follow the Halacha when they don’t even know the theology of Judaism. We teach them about God when they are in pre-school on the level of a kindergarten child and then progress to reading and writing. We introduce them to Chumash, Mishna and Talmud, but the reality is that we leave our students with a childlike view of God, one that does not grow along with their knowledge and proficiency in rabbinic. This stunts their understanding of those sources. I cannot count how many times, I have had to argue with students in my class who insisted that every midrash was historically true. Only a more sophisticated understanding of theology can help one have a more sophisticated understanding of Judaism on the whole.
 The goal of theology, then, is to teach the students why we are Jewish and give content and authority to the Halacha. I think Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it best when he said: “Judaism is a reality, a drama within history, a fact, not merely a feeling or an experience. It claims certain extraordinary events occurred in which it originated. It stands for certain basic teachings. It claims to be the commitment of a people to God. To understand the meaning of these events, teachings and commitments is the task of the philosophy of Judaism.”

The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.

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