Just A Thought: Jewish theology

Perhaps one of the most neglected areas of study in our yeshivot and women’s seminaries is that of Jewish theology.

A worshiper holds up a Torah scroll 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
A worshiper holds up a Torah scroll 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Perhaps one of the most neglected areas of study in our yeshivot and women’s seminaries is that of Jewish theology.
The average Jewish day school or yeshiva student is taught to sing in kindergarten, “Hashem [God] is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere. Up, up, down, down, right, left and all around. Here, there and everywhere – that’s where He can be found!” (How many of you sang along while reading the words?)
After this song is memorized, any other discussion of God is focused on His demands of us. Children are taught biblical stories and how to recite prayers and blessings. Soon they learn to read and emphasis is placed on mastery of Jewish texts like the Bible, the Mishna and the Talmud. Over the years, students will be exposed to all the Jewish holidays and with their laws and customs, but Jewish theology itself is orphaned, neglected and ignored.
I have been privileged to meet many Jews who love Torah and are scrupulous observers of the commandments, but I cannot say I got the feeling that many of them love God. This is, of course, an anecdotal observation but one I fear most would agree with.
What, then, is Jewish theology? Why is it so important? It would seem that while spirituality can be universal, theology cannot. Theology is particularistic; it is what Abraham Joshua Heschel called “the content of belief.”
Thus Jews and gentiles might very well share the same spirituality and even feel the same while visiting their respective places of worship, but the content of their experience will necessarily be different.
Jewish theology doesn’t teach that God exists. It contains the meaning, the form and the function of his existence from a Jewish point of view.
The problem was best described by my teacher, Byron L. Sherwin: “For more than a century, the claim that Jewish theology does not exist – or that it is irrelevant to contemporary Jewish concerns and communal agendas – has been pervasive.”
Even the very Orthodox among us have seemed to neglect the study of theology.
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.”
The efforts of the Orthodox have been concentrated on Halacha for far too long.
Shapiro believes “the claim that Judaism is totally a religion of law to the exclusion of love, faith and morality, is simply neither historically nor theologically defensible.”
As Heschel put it: “To reduce Judaism to law, to Halacha, is to dim its light, to pervert its essence and to kill its spirit.”
In fact, it is ridiculous to posit that Judaism is a religion of law and to ignore the fact the very idea of there being any law at all is based on the theological premise of a God who acts in covenant with Israel, to whom He revealed His will. Nor can one posit that Judaism is a moral, ethical religion without a theistic belief in a God who determines what is in fact moral or ethical.
Today it is in vogue to present religion as a Baskin-Robbins of 31 flavors that offers something to everyone. Solomon Schechter said, “No! True religion is above all these silly demands. It is not a jack-ofall- trades, meaning monotheism to the philosopher, pluralism to the crowd, and some mysterious Nothing to the agnostic, Pantheism to the poet, and Service of Man to the Hero worshiper. Its mission is just as much to teach the world that there are false gods and false ideals as to bring it nearer to the true one. It means to convert the world and not convert itself.”
Sherwin said it best when he wrote: “Jewish theology is a palace of faith and conviction grounded in revelation and forged by tradition. Engendered by divine providence and love, carefully crafted by human intuition and intellect, and honed by history and experience, the theological edifice of Judaism rests upon three firmly planted pillars: God, Torah and Israel.”
Yet in studying theology, we would be wise to remember the maxim quoted by Solomon Schechter that “the best theology is not consistent.” Therefore, we do not look at theology as a science that by definition must always yield consistent results and answers. We look to theology to better understand who God is and what the parameters are of our relationship with Him.
Arthur Cohen once wrote that “Theology in Judaism is an intellectual discipline with a continuous history but a discontinuous tradition.” It is a shame that Jews, who are the bearers of so many traditions, have neglected this particular one. In the absence of Talmud and Halacha, Evangelical Christians talk a lot more about God than Jews do. Does one have to come at the expense of the other? Our children need to develop a deeper theology than a theologically problematic kindergarten song. This education needs to continue throughout elementary and high schools and continue to be a work in progress till the day one can confirm his or her notions of God when one meets his or her Maker.
If Judaism is a religion of covenant, wouldn’t it be wise to not only understand the nature of the covenant, but with Whom we have this covenant?
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.