A Tisha Be’av question: What is religion without theology? - opinion

Louis Jacobs says in one of his books, “Jewish theology is an attempt to think through consistently the implications of the Jewish religion."

 THE GATE to Auschwitz, photographed in January 2021, 76 years after the camp’s liberation: There are still countless Jews who say about the Shoah, ‘If this could happen, how can anyone still believe in God?’ (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)
THE GATE to Auschwitz, photographed in January 2021, 76 years after the camp’s liberation: There are still countless Jews who say about the Shoah, ‘If this could happen, how can anyone still believe in God?’
(photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)

We were at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney for a meeting of the Council of Christians and Jews. In a discussion about the educational program of the council, someone commented that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik – “The Rav” – was wary of theological dialogue.

“All Jews are,” said one of the Jewish delegates, adding, “I don’t think Jews actually have any theology. Jews are concerned with peoplehood, events, experiences, like Auschwitz and Israel, but not with theological issues.”

“That’s where you are quite wrong,” I said. “Each of these events raises a theological question.

“Auschwitz asks, is there a God? Who or what is God? Can one still believe in God? Can one still believe in Man?...

“Israel asks, do miracles still happen? Is there any messianism at the end of history?

“No one can avoid these questions. No modern events are more theologically challenging!”

On many subsequent occasions the Jewish delegate and I returned to our discussion. Our conversations often focused on the subject of theology. Not that my verbal sparring partner rejected religion, but I feel she had a limited notion of what religion was about – worship services, prayer books, Bible readings, Sabbaths and festivals, kosher food, kosher ethics. To her and maybe to many others, that was what comprised religion: religion without metaphysics, religion without theology.

 World's smallest Torah (credit: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL) World's smallest Torah (credit: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL)

What is theology after all?

Louis Jacobs says in one of his books, “Jewish theology is an attempt to think through consistently the implications of the Jewish religion.... The historian uses his skills to demonstrate what Jews have believed. The theologian is embarked on the more difficult, but, if realized, more relevant, task of discovering what it is that a Jew can believe in the present.”

Theology as creeds or tenets is probably rarely addressed among Jews, though Jacobs argued that it should be. But as a response to the events of history (catastrophes like the Holocaust, achievements like Israel), Jewish hearts and minds are pierced with questions and have no rest. After the Holocaust there are still countless Jews who say about the Shoah, “If this could happen, how can anyone still believe in God?” and many who say about Israel, “Is there more than politics, more than geography, something metaphysical about the Jewish state?”

The problem is that it is easier to ask the questions than to find answers. The questions are intertwined, as are the answers. Would the Holocaust have been less searing if there had already been an Israel in 1939? Was the wound healed at all by the emergence of Israel? Would Israel have been different without the Holocaust?

There is much to be said about Israel as a dimension of modern Judaism, but the major debate is about the Holocaust, even though we are almost a century beyond it. There is a still-growing literature on the Holocaust, a never-ending conversation about the tragedy. Was Hitler (God forbid) in some way the instrument of a higher power? Were the victims of the Holocaust being punished in some sense?

Every book, every writer, has an angle, but no one has yet arrived at the final answer. Yehuda Bauer, Emil Fackenheim, Immanuel Jakobovits, Eliezer Berkovits, Martin Buber, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, they’re all serious analysts. Jonathan Sacks is a poetic thinker. They all have their stances, but the deep questions remain. One question leads to another. One day, will the definitive answer be revealed?

In the meantime, God appears to be silent. There is a remarkable midrash about the silence of God. Chapter 15 of Exodus says, “Who is like You, O Lord, amongst the powers?” The Hebrew for powers is elim. Strangely, elim can also denote a speechless person. The sages took up that peculiarity and made the verse read, “‘Who is like You, O Lord, seeing the suffering of Your people and remaining silent?’ As it is said, ‘For a long time I have held My peace and kept Myself back.’”

A quandary: the Jewish people are in agony, and their God keeps quiet. Is it that He feels guilty for letting the fiends maul His children? Is He silent out of respect for the victims? Is He silent because He wants His creatures to seek and find whatever glimmer of comfort they can? Does He think they could not handle the truth?

The writer is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.