This Normal Life: The death of rational Judaism

Can a Judaism that cohabitates with the modern world continue to propagate well into the 21st century?

June 20, 2018 21:28
4 minute read.
This Normal Life: The death of rational Judaism

. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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The Babylonian Talmud tells the story of the great rabbinic leader Rebbe who in the third century CE developed a malignant gastro-intestinal disorder. His followers set up a non-stop prayer vigil in the courtyard of his house. The idea: as long as they continued to pray, he would live.

His maid, however, felt that Rebbe would be better off ending his misery and smashed a large ceramic jar nearby. The loud noise startled the petitioners and broke their concentration. At that very moment, the Talmud relates, Rebbe died.

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Jewish educator Dr. Elliott Malamet presented that story to illustrate a point in a provocative new talk he’s dubbed “Faith, Interrupted.” His lecture delves into the changing nature of belief and the rise of “rational” Judaism.

Malamet first needed to explain just how much the world has transformed since the advent of a scientific worldview – even amongst the religious. If, in a pre-modern age, the ancients ascribed cause and effect for inexplicable events to invisible deities and demons, today we know where to draw the line.

Malamet compared the prayer vigil at Rebbe’s house with a modern equivalent: life-support technology.

“Aren’t the two essentially the same?” Malamet once asked a class, only somewhat rhetorically. “You pull the plug and the person dies. You stop praying and the person dies.”

“Come on, Professor,” one of the students, who identified as Orthodox, responded. “The life support system, that’s science. But prayer, we all know that’s not how it really works.”


“The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and by the ‘disenchantment’ of the world,” wrote the German sociologist Max Weber in 1918, one of 35 citations Malamet brought to his talk. By “disenchantment,” Weber was referring to the belief that “there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.”

In that respect, nearly all Jews today are “rational,” Malamet explained, in that we can clearly contextualize the limits of religious phenomena. Rational Jews intuit which thoughts and behaviors to assign to the religious domain and which remain beyond it.

Contrast that with the premodern “irrational” era of Rebbe, where God controlled everything, disease was an inexorable riddle and miracles were everyday occurrences.

We take the steady drift away from our irrational prehistory as a given. But it prompts a tougher question with a less certain answer: is the rational approach to Judaism we have today sustainable over the long term? 

That is, can a Judaism that cohabits with the modern world continue to propagate well into the 21st century? Or has the breakdown of a once-shared, if simplistic, understanding of how the universe works irreparably wrecked the system? 

In 2011, Moment magazine asked a group of prominent Jewish leaders this question: “Can there be Judaism without belief in God?” While that takes the discussion of rational Judaism to a supernatural extreme, one rabbi’s response was nevertheless telling.

Rabbi David Wolpe is a leader in the Conservative movement. He says yes, there can be a Judaism with a more flexible attitude towards the divine. But it will continue only “briefly, as it cannot reproduce itself… It can last a generation or two, but will disappear without the roots that gave it nourishment. I don’t believe that people will continue to light Shabbat candles because it’s a cultural practice.”

Transmitting such a Judaism, Wolpe concludes, “will be an insurmountable challenge.”

That’s a pretty bleak prediction. But could Wolpe be right? 

Rabbi Nachman, founder of the Breslov Hassidic movement, tackled a related problem some 200 years ago. If God was everywhere, as Jewish mysticism proclaimed, he pondered, how could there be room in the universe for human beings? 

Unable to resolve the paradox, Nachman wrote in his seminal Likutei Moharan that one must “cast aside all rational processes and serve God simply.”

Mental understanding, he added, “is not essential.”

Even if Rabbi Nachman could not have anticipated the challenges of the scientific age, his conclusion was clear: only an approach to Judaism that deemphasizes thinking can persevere.

Two opinions, however respected their authors may be, do not foretell an immutable future, of course. But still, is it possible that in another 50 or 100 years, just the irrationalists will be left standing? 

Then I remembered where I live. While there’s no shortage of irrational Jews here in the Holy Land, Israel is flourishing as a bastion of rational Judaism. That’s in large part because we’re not just another denomination but a full-fledged nation and as such we don’t have to pay liturgical lip service to our irrational roots. When Jews light Shabbat candles in Israel, it can be part of our national traditions, not only as an expression of religious doctrine.

We may not exactly be secular, and the separation of church and state is hardly even a concept here. But we are at our core rational, and our identity as Israelis does not require that we revert to irrationality in order to survive.

Yes, Israel is still a work in progress. I’m not sure anyone would be entirely satisfied if, say, the recent holiday of Shavuot was reduced to cheesecake and water balloon fights.

But Israel can serve as the proverbial light unto the nations – in this case for the Jews. What we’ve built here, as unlikely as that seems these days given the ever-growing rift with our Diaspora brethren, can actually be an inspiration – or at least the starting point in a longer conversation – for Jews everywhere looking to strengthen a rational, enduring approach to tradition.

The writer’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.

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