Just a Thought: Portrait of a Jewish theologian

Lost in the contemporary discussions about the boundaries of Jewish law is the subject of Jewish theology and theologians.

A yad follows biblical script  370  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A yad follows biblical script 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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.
Jewish theologians 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.”
The 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.
A 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.
Jewish theologians 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 peers.
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 theology...”
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 from Maimonides.
“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 midrashot.