Originally published in Manna (London) 29 (1990) as a response to another article.
Precisely because this is a courageous and honest theological statement, whatever weakness is evident to some of its readers, it deserves to be noted. Maybe I am reading too much into the intention of the authors but the statement seems to espouse at one and the same time both the supernaturalist and the naturalist approaches to Theism.
It is affirmed, for instance, that there is one God and therefore one Creator and one Creation, satisfying the religious supernaturalist though it is far from clear why Creation is in capitals and what exactly is meant by one Creation. Yet, in the same paragraph, God is described as both the wholeness of life and the source—no capitals here—of its ultimate values, which the religious naturalist have no difficulty in giving his assent. ‘Prayer’, we are told, ‘has always been the primary vehicle by which Jews address God and seek their true selves’ (italics mine), suggesting the Kaplanesque view that in prayer we address the highest in ourselves rather than the Being who can and does answer prayer. The mitzvot are described as the means by which the essential rhythms of Jewish life are lived out and they are said to be of enduring value to us, in making the ordinary holy, reminding us of our tasks, linking us to God and constantly uniting Jews in mutual support and encouragement. There is nothing here of the mitzvot as divine commands to obey—which is to worship God, not use Him for aims however worthy and spiritual.
I am not a fully paid-up member of the Isaiah Leibovitz Admiration Society but Leibovitz has done well to decry a Jewish eudaemonism in which religion is not an aim in itself but a means to human self-fulfilment. One need not be a fundamentalist in order to see the binding character of the mitzvot as divine ordinances, albeit revealed through the Jewish people not only to the Jewish people as passive recipients. Nor is it clear why ‘Progressive Judaism believes that individuals must formulate their own patterns of Jewish practice’, rather than believing that new life should be infused into the old patterns. In practice the creation of new mitzvot often means dignifying with the tremendum of mitzvot the latest fashions of the Zeitgeist.
Nor is the document unambiguous on the question of the Afterlife. This is unlike classical Reform which, to be sure, abandoned the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of the dead but remained very strong on the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. ‘We believe that there is a part of each human being—personality, spirit, soul—which is unique and indestructible’. Fair enough. But does this entity persist after death in its individuality to enjoy God for ever? We are only told, in the language of the Reform funeral service, that love and goodness are mightier than the grave and that, after our deaths, judgment is passed upon our lives. Note the ‘judgment is passed’ instead of ‘we are judged’ after death. As it stands, the statement is capable of acceptance by the most dyed-in-the-wool atheist.
It is reasonable to seek a synthesis between the Jewish tradition and modernity. But as I know to my cost, the attempt is fraught with risk. As Shaw said to the actress: ‘What if the child has your brains and my beauty!’ Yet it is good that the attempt is made and that the quest should continue.
Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, New London Synagogue (Masorti), author of We Have Reason to Believe, A Jewish Theology.