Originally published in the Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 15 (1972), pp. 1103-10.
THEOLOGY. Introduction. Defined by Richard Hooker, the Renaissance theologian, as “the science of things divine,” theology (from the Greek word theos, “God,” and logos, “word,” “doctrine”) is a sustained, rational discourse on God, His nature, His relationship to man and the universe, the manner in which He communicates His will to mankind, including such kindred topics as providence, miracles, prayer, worship, free will, sin, repentance, the problem of evil, immortality, and angelology. Theology has been particularly prominent in Christian thought, the Christian thinkers having devoted a good deal of reflection to the implications of their faith. For historical reasons (the heritage of the Bible with its strong practical emphasis; the influence of the Talmud, in which the ideal of law is paramount; the absence of doctrines such as the Trinity calling for precise definition; the dispersal of Jews in many different communities with varying patterns of thought), the genius of Judaism has been directed more toward the practices of the faith than toward abstract speculation, more to what God would have men do than to what God is. Therefore it has been frequently asserted that Judaism has no theology. Attempts at constructing a Jewish theology have sometimes been met with fierce opposition both by secularists, who object to theos of theology, seeing it as retrogressive and as leading to heresy hunting, and by the Orthodox, who object to the logos of theology as harmful to faith, which, they claim, demands only obedience to the law and which can only be disturbed through an inquiry into its roots. Some declare, therefore, that the whole theological exercise is un-Jewish. While there may be some truth to the contention that Judaism does not know of any systematic theology (even this is belied by the efforts of the medieval Jewish thinkers), it is obvious that God has been at the center of Jewish life and thought since the beginnings of Judaism. Jews have thought profoundly about God and there is a Jewish theology oven if some prefer to call it by some other name. There is the further point that the halakhic approach can only be defended on non-halakhic grounds. “Pan-Halakhism,” to use a phrase coined by A. J. Heschel, is self-defeating.
Theology in the Bible. The whole of the Hebrew Bible has God as its concern: the only biblical book containing no direct reference to God is the Book of Esther. The Bible does not, however, stand on its own in the Jewish tradition. The Torah is the Bible as interpreted in and by the historical experiences of the people of Israel. This goes a long way toward explaining why there have been no serious attempts among Jews at writing a biblical theology. For example, in discussing the theological difficulties of God “. . . visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation . . .” (Ex 20: 5), the Jewish theologian will not be content with this text on its own but will seek to discover how it ties up with other texts, such as Deuteronomy 24: 16 and Ezekiel, chapter 18. Above all, he will wish to know how the biblical doctrines fared at the hands of their Jewish interpreters throughout Jewish history. The modern Jewish theologian also accepts the insights provided by biblical criticism, archaeology, and philology. He recognizes the developing nature of biblical thought. His theology builds on the Bible but utilizes all the tools provided by modem scholarship for the understanding of the Bible. The study of biblical theology is, then, for him not a means of acquiring a ready-to-hand series of infallible texts, but a method of discovering how it all began, how the impact of the Divine first made itself felt in Israel’s collective life, how man quested for God, and how God allowed Himself to be found. While biblical theology has succeeded in establishing itself as a legitimate branch of biblical studies (H. H. Rowley (ed.), Old Testament and Modern Study (1951), 311-45; E. Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament (1958), 11-26) those who engage in it, all of them Christian scholars, generally approach the Old Testament from the point of view of the “New” and the interpretations of the Church. The criteria for determining the “permanent values” inherent in the biblical record, adopted by the Jewish theologian, are those provided by the Jewish tradition.
The key theological idea in the Bible is the sovereignty of God. He is the “living God,” Creator of the world and all that is in it: One, All-powerful, All-good and Holy, demanding of His creatures that they practice justice and righteousness. He chooses Israel lo be a “light to the nations.” He is both transcendent and immanent, uncontained by the highest heavens and yet “tabernacling” (i.e., dwelling as in a tent; see Cross, in: Biblical Archaeologist Reader, 1 (1961), 201-28) in the midst of the Children of Israel. He has many names but His special name is YHWH. Myths are not attached to Him as they are to pagan gods. He has no feminine partner and there is no name in the Bible for “goddess.” He is beyond birth and death and all similar human manifestations, though He is frequently described in anthropomorphic terms. These terms are, however, in no way incompatible with a highly spiritual outlook.
The Bible contains no systematic treatment of theological problems. Even the Books of Job and Ecelesiastes, with their majestic probing into the terrible question of why the righteous suffer, have little to say on the more fundamental difficulty of why there should be any suffering or evil at all. That nothing is impossible for God is slated in the Bible (Gen. 18: 14; Jer. 32: 27), but it is foreign to biblical thought to consider the problem, widely discussed by the medieval thinkers, whether this means that God can do the logically impossible, and whether things involving a contradiction fall under the scope of divine omnipotence. With very few exceptions the biblical books are silent on the whole question of the hereafter. The biblical picture is of the all-pervading presence of God: His footsteps heard in the wind and storm; His being felt in the dealings of man. The Bible, however, contains no command to believe and has no interest in theological speculations as to His true nature. All this is largely due to the severely concrete, “organic” nature of ancient Hebraic thought which hardly bears any resemblances to the philosophical thinking that is the heritage of the Greeks and to which the Western world owes its theology. To a greater or lesser extent the same is true of rabbinic thought.
Rabbinic Theology. The rabbinic period saw the emergence of new theological ideas and the strengthening of older ones. The Torah became the name for the sum total of Jewish religious teaching and its study the supreme religious duty. Rabbinic Judaism, according to some interpretations, is not a “religion of salvation”: for the rabbis, this life is good in itself, not merely a school for the eternal life, yet the rabbinic approach to Judaism is distinctly otherworldly. The “eternal life” of the world to come is always contrasted with the transient nature of this life. The biblical doctrines of sin and repentance are deepened, especially by the doctrine of the two inclinations in man: the “good inclination,” yezer ha-tov, which pulls him upward, and the “evil inclination,” yezer ha-ra, which drags him down. In the thought of this period biblical universalism is to some extent obscured by a particularistic emphasis typical of a minority group struggling for its survival. Anthropomorphic descriptions of God abound in rabbinic literature, though they are generally qualified by the suggestion that they cannot really be applied to God. In his dealings with man God operates by the principle of “measure for measure”: as man behaves so does God behave toward him. The notion of God as king is found in the Bible. In rabbinic literature, however, the term “the kingdom of God” (malkhut shamayim) expresses both an attitude of mind in which man acknowledges God’s sovereignty and the ultimate reign of God over all His creatures.
In dealing with the difficult subject of rabbinic theology one must always be aware of the rough and ready spontaneous nature of rabbinic thinking and guard against imposing on the sources a system that is basically alien to them. G. F. Moore’s warning (Judaism, 1 (1927), 357) is apposite:
Judaism, in the centuries with which we are concerned, had no body of articulated and systematized doctrine such as we understand by the name theology. Philo, indeed, endeavoured to harmonize his hereditary religion with a Hellenistic philosophy, but the resulting theology exerted no discoverable influence on the main current of Jewish thought. As in the case or the Bible itself, any exposition of Jewish teaching on these subjects, by the very necessity of orderly disposition, unavoidably gives an appearance of system and coherence which the teachings themselves do not exhibit, and which were not in the mind of the teachers. This fact the reader must constantly bear in mind. It must further be remarked that the utterances of the rabbis on this subject are not dogmatic, carrying an authority comparable to the juristic definitions and decisions of the Halakhah; they are in great part homiletic, often drawing instruction or edification from the words of Scripture by ingenious turns of interpretation, association, and application, which seized upon the attention and sixed themselves in the memory of the hearers by the novelty, not of the lesson, but of the way the homilist got it into the text and out again. Large liberty in such invention has always been accorded to preachers, and every one knows that scholastic precision is not to be looked for in what is said for impression.
The warning has been so strongly reinforced by Max Kadushin’s researches (Rabbinic Mind, 1965) into the nature of rabbinic thought and the extreme difficulty of distinguishing between authentic rabbinic dogma and the mere operation of concepts as a dynamic exercise, that a case can be made for denying altogether that there is a rabbinic theology. Summing up, it may be said that the rabbis were certainly much concerned with theological themes, but one would look in vain in rabbinic literature for any kind of systematic treatment of these themes.
Medieval Jewish Theology. Influenced by Aristotelian and Neoplatonic philosophy and by the Arabic Kalām, the medieval Jewish thinkers produced important systematic re treatises on Jewish theology. It was in this period that Jewish theology had its true birth. The term “medieval Jewish philosophy” is, in reality, a misnomer. The medieval thinkers pursued theology rather than philosophy in that, despite being undoubtedly influenced by Greek thinking, they began and ended with faith. Their use of reason was not consciously directed toward the working out of new philosophical positions, but to establish traditional ones, securely grounded in faith. They were religious believers writing for religious believers. What they sought to offer their readers was a reasoned defense of Jewish beliefs even if in the process they arrived at very unconventional altitudes.
The first great systematic Jewish theologian, Saadiah b. Joseph Gaon, wrote his Emunot ve-De’ot (“Beliefs and Opinions”) in Arabic in 933. Bahya b. Joseph ibn Paquda’s Hovot ha-Levavot (“Duties of the Heart”), though in the main an ethicoreligious tract, is theological in content, especially in its treatment of the unity theme in the first part (Sha’ar ha-Yihud, “Gate of Unification”). Judah Halevi’s able defense of Judaism in the Kuzari deals with many theological topics. The work of the Jewish Aristotelian thinker Abraham ibn Daud, Emunah Ramah (“Sublime Faith”), is entirely of a theological nature. All of Maimonides’ writings, with the exception of his medical treatises, are of theological import; the three most important works, from the theological point or view, are: a commentary to the Mishnah (the most significant of the three) in which he expounds the 13 principles of the Jewish faith as he saw them and accords theology the status of law; Moreh Nevukhim (“Guide of the Perplexed”); and a code of Jewish law, Mishneh Torah or Yad ha-Hazakah (“The Strong Hand”). Levi b. Gershom’s Milhamot Adonai (“Wars of the Lord”) is a particularly bold series of theological speculations. Hasdai Crescas wrote Or Adonai (“Light of the Lord”), a theological statement in which Aristotelianism is vigorously criticized. His pupil, Joseph Albo, wrote Sefer ha-Ikkarim (“Book of the Principles”), a full-scale investigation into the dogmas of Judaism. Isaac b. Moses Arama’s Akedat Yizhak (“The Sacrifice of Isaac”) is a collection of philosophical sermons on the Pentateuch containing much, though not very original, theological material. Isaac Abrabanel produced a number of similar works. Joseph b. Hayyim Jabez was a Spanish theologian, hostile to philosophy. R. Moses b. Joseph di Trani (Mabbit) in his Beit Elohim (“House of God”) deals with three major theological themes: prayer, repentance, and the dogmas of Judaism.
The God of the medieval thinkers is, in the main, impersonal, impassionate, and utterly beyond all human associations. His is a unity “simple to the furthest extent of simplicity” with not the slightest trace of multiplicity. Granted such a conception, the biblical anthropomorphisms presented a serious obstacle. How could one speak of God as “good” and “wise” or even as “one” or say that He “exists,” since all these are terms taken from human experience and their attribution to God in toto suggests plurality in His being? A dominant theme, consequently, though not followed by all the medieval thinkers, is the negation of God’s attributes in any positive form. It is permitted to say what God is not; never should an attempt be made to describe Him as He really is. Typical of this approach are Maimonides’ observations: “All men, those of the past and those of the future, affirm clearly that God, may He be exalted, cannot be apprehended by the intellects, and that none but He Himself can apprehend what He is, and that apprehension of Him consists in the inability to attain the ultimate term in apprehending Him. Thus all the philosophers say: We are dazzled by His beauty, and He is hidden from us because of the intensity with which He becomes manifest, just as the son is hidden to eyes that are too weak to apprehend it” (Guide 1: 59). “If I knew Him I would be Him” (Albo, Ikkarim, 2: 30) is another typical medieval summation of theological limitation. Yet so much thought is given to the doctrine of negation in these works that this, too, has to be treated as an important branch of medieval Jewish theology.
Medieval thought is even more otherworldly than that of the rabbis. The dichotomy of body and soul is especially pronounced. The pleasures of the world are seen as a hindrance to spiritual perfection. The sage has to resort to them but only in great moderation and to keep body and soul together. Eternal bliss is in direct proportion to man’s efforts on earth to grasp metaphysical truth and make it his own. The contradiction between these ideas and those of traditional Judaism, as found in the Bible and the Talmud, was acutely sensed and the usual device adopted was to declare that the Bible and the rabbis, when they dealt with theological matters, were not to be understood literally but allegorically. For the first time the mechanics of revelation were discussed in detail. Can one become a prophet even after the close of the Bible? Is prophecy a gift or an attainment? How does God communicate with the prophet? Since God has no vocal organs, what meaning can be given to those biblical passages in which He is said to “speak” to man? What is the difference between the state of prophecy attained by Moses and that of the other prophets? In what way can apparently irrelevant passages in the Pentateuch be considered the word of God? What were God’s reasons for ordaining rules such as the dietary laws which on the surface seem to have no rational or ethical justification?
The problems of creation and free will exercised the minds of these thinkers to an extraordinary degree because it was in these areas especially that philosophical thought appeared to contradict traditional Jewish views more strongly. Is matter eternal, as Aristotle suggested, or is it created? Can the believing Jew agree with Plato that from all eternity there exists a hylic substance upon which God imposed form or is the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo essential to Jewish faith? Is time a creation or was it always “there”? Is man really free and, if he is, how is this compatible with God’s foreknowledge of his actions? Can a man be blamed for entertaining false beliefs since he cannot have any control over what he believes? These questions were not only new in the history of Jewish thought but entirely inconceivable in the earlier, unreflective biblical and rabbinic periods.
The kabbalists produced their own systems, but insofar as these are closed, with little room for rational or critical assent or dissent and with many a warning against the introduction of human reason into the spheres of the divine mysteries conveyed by revelation, they belong to theosophy rather than to theology. For all that, profound theological themes were considered by the kabbalists. The central problem to which the kabbalists addressed themselves was theological. It comprised such queries and answers as: How can the finite world of error and multiplicity have emerged from the Infinite? The reply of the Zohar in terms of emanation and the Lurianic answer in terms of God’s withdrawal “from Himself into Himself” to leave room for the emergence of the finite; the Lurianic contemplation of how evil has its source in the divine contraction; the kabbalistic views on man’s soul and its relationship to God; the aim of divine worship as conceived by the kabbalists—for God’s sake not for man’s. All of these questions are theological and demand that a Jewish theology examine them, albeit in a critical light; accepting the insights they contain and rejecting those ideas which cannot defend themselves at the bar of consistency and coherence.
Another theological question raised by kabbalistic teachings is how far Judaism can sustain dualistic ideas. The doctrine of the Ten Sefirot, for example, comes close to affirming that there is multiplicity and dynamism in the Godhead and was, in fact, attacked on these grounds by the opponents of the Kabbalah. They went so far as to compare kabbalistic ideas on these matters with Christian speculations on the Trinity. The kabbalists themselves are naturally at pains to deny any suggestion of dualism. Ein Sof and the Sefirot, they repeatedly declared, are one, expounding their ideas in the famous illustration of water poured into bottles of different hue.
Audacious theological speculations are to be found in hasidic thought. R. Nahman of Bratslav, for instance, believed that it is inherent in man’s finite situation that he encounter difficulties when confronted by the Infinite. For this thinker, doubt, paradoxically, is not faith’s foe but its vindication (J. G. Weiss, in Alei Ayin . . . li-Shelomo Salman Schocken (1952), 245-91). R. Mordecai Joseph Leiner of Izbica was a religious determinist, holding that, in reality, “everything is in the hands of Heaven, even the fear of Heaven” (J. G. Weiss, in: Sefer Yovel le-Yizhak Boer (1960), 447-53). In Habad hasidism God alone enjoys ultimate existence, all creatures being included in His blessed unity. The attitude approaches Far Eastern religious ideas on the illusionary nature of worldly existence and it was attacked by the opponents of Hasidism as rank heresy. This type of hasidic pantheism (more correctly, panentheism) finds its consistent advocacy in the writings of Shneur Zalman of Lyady and his disciple R. Aaron b. Moses ha-Levi of Staroselye. The acute hasidic explorations into the nature of the love and fear of God and the hasidic teachings on contemplative prayer are major contributions to a Jewish mystical theology.
Modern Jewish Theology. From the days of Moses Mendelssohn onward the scope of Jewish thought in the Western world embraced theology. The closer contacts with Christian thought brought in their wake a fresh consideration of the vexed question of dogma in Judaism; of the true significance of ethical monotheism; of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and between religion and culture; and of the meaning of revelation. Mendelssohn himself wrote on these topics and on the immortality of the soul. In the 19th century the main theological thinkers were in Germany. They were in influenced by the philosophers Kant and Hegel, especially, and by the theologians Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl. Thinkers such as Abraham Geiger, Zacharias Frankel, Leopold Zunz, Nachman Krochmal, Solomon Ludwig Steinheim, Samuel Hirsch, Solomon Formstecher, Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Hermann Cohen made their contribution to theology even though many of their interests lay in other directions such as history, philosophy, or apologetics. In particular, the thinkers of the Reform movement were compelled to think through the logic of their new positions and hence were moved to concentrate on theological questions. An incidental result was that the Orthodox leaders were obliged to treat theological problems seriously. An outstanding theologian in the 20th century, Rabbi A. I. Kook, placed the problems of religious Zionism and the challenges presented by modern science and technology at the center of his thought. For example, Kook saw evolutionary theory as being compatible with the optimistic views of the Kabbalah. Isaac Breuer was another 20th-century Orthodox thinkers, with an interest in the religious interpretation of human history and with a view of the Jewish people as “meta-historical.” The Lithuanian Musar movement produced a galaxy of religious thinkers, operating, to be sure, within strictly traditional limits, but striving to uncover the psychological motivations of religious life. The writings of the somewhat nonrepresentative members of this school, Rabbi J. L. Bloch (Shi’urei Da’at, 2 vols., 1949-56), and Rabbi E. E. Dessler (Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, 3 vols., 1955-64), contain detailed and searching examinations of purely theological problems, such as the nature of miracles, free will and God’s foreknowledge, and the relationship between human time and God’s eternity.
For the majority of contemporary Jewish theologians the central theme is the defense of traditional theism. This is the doctrine of God as both transcendent and immanent in the universe, involved in all its processes, but also beyond the universe. If there were no universe there would still be a God but without God there could be no universe. Theism involves the rejection of the following doctrines as untrue: deism—God is only wholly immanent; polytheism—there are many gods; dualism—there are two gods, one good the other evil; atheism—there is no God; and agnosticism—man by his nature cannot know whether or not there is a God. Many Jewish theologians have followed Kant and Protestant theologians in declaring that the truth of God’s existence cannot be determined by rational proofs, as in medieval theology, but that it is to be accepted through mystical intuition, tradition, or the existentialist “leap of faith.”
Twentieth -century interest in existentialism is reflected in Jewish theological works. Of the three outstanding theologians produced by German Jewry in this century, Leo Baeck is the exponent of the more classical type of religious thought; Franz Rosenzweig represents the “new thinking” associated with existentialism; and Martin Buber can be described as a religious existentialist. Less influenced by continental philosophy, Milton Steinberg, on the other hand, is emphatic that the views of a Kierkegaard, for example, are incompatible with the Jewish approach to religion and ethics, and some thinkers have scorned Jewish preoccupation with religious existentialism, dubbing it “Kierkegaard with a yarmulka.”
Two prominent theologians with a worldwide influence are A. J. Heschel and J. B. Soloveichik. Heschel’s numerous theological works have as their theme “God in Search of Man,” which is the title of his best-known book. Heschel is opposed to that liberal theology which avows that man is capable of raising himself spiritually by his own unaided efforts. Like Reinhold and Helmut Richard Niebuhr, and with an almost Barthian ruthlessness, Heschel roundly declares that an overoptimistic view of man’s potentialities is thoroughly unbiblical. The nature of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Even the saintliest of men is tainted by sin and God alone gives man the power to survive in the struggle. Heschel also stresses the sense of wonder as an essential ingredient in religious life.
With the exception of his two essays, Ish ha-Halakhah (“The Man of Law,” 1965) and Ish ha-Emunah (“The Man of Faith,” 1968), Soloveichik has written little, but as the mentor of more than a generation of Orthodox rabbis he has been responsible, above any other contemporary thinkers, for defending the sober, painstaking, unemotional approach typical of halakhic Judaism. The halakhic man sees his greatest good and highest privilege in obeying God’s will as it is revealed in Jewish law. Religious ecstasy is viewed with a degree of suspicion as supererogatory. Of all Jewish thinkers, Soloveichik is undoubtedly closest to the iea of Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith.”
Religious naturalism finds its most powerful advocate in Mordecai M. Kaplan. The doctrine of a finite God has its Jewish followers, notably in Levi Olan. Among other modern theologians mention should be made of Louis Jacobs and Will Herberg. There is also considerable influence on Jewish thought, especially in the United States, of the ideas of A. N. Whitehead and of process philosophy. The more recent “death of God” theology is generally rejected by Jewish theologians with the exception of Richard L. Rubenstein. Two questions of especial concern, for obvious reasons, to contemporary Jewish theologians are the Holocaust and the State of Israel. How can theology make sense out of the honors in which a third of the Jewish people was murdered? Can it still be maintained that God works in human history? If the hand of God is to be discerned in the emergence of the State of Israel why was it powerless to intervene during the Hitler regime? Modem scientific theories raise theological problems of their own, particularly in the area of miracles and petitionary prayer, and these have been considered by Jewish theologians. While the logical positivists have been refuted, there has hardly been any reaction in the Jewish theological camp to the problems of religious language rendered acute by modern linguistic analysis.
A number of symposia on Jewish beliefs have been published, notably: Rediscovering Judaism: Reflections on a New Jewish Theology (ed. by A. J. Wolf, 1965); Varieties of Jewish Belief (ed. by I. Eisenstein, 1966); and The Condition of Jewish Belief (1966) originally published in Commentary (Aug. 1966). The questions in the Commentary symposium, addressed and replied to by rabbis of the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform groups in the United States, throw light on the particular subjects of contemporary theological interest. They are: (1) In what sense do you believe the Torah to be divine revelation? (2) In what sense do you believe that the Jews are the chosen people of God? (3) Is Judaism the one true religion? (4) Does Judaism as a religion entail any particular political viewpoint? (5) Does the “God is dead” question have any relevance to Judaism? There is, and has been, no Jewish journal devoted only to Jewish theology but Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Central Conference of American Rabbis Journal, and Tradition in the United States, and Perozedor, Petahim and De’ot in Israel contain many articles of a theological nature. See also Philosophy.
Bibliography: S. Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1909); K. Kohler, Jewish Theology (1918); G. F. Moore. Judaism . . . 3 vols. (1927-30); W. Herberg, Judaism and Modern Man (1951); J. J. Petuchowski, Theology of Haham David Nieto (1954); A. J. Heschel, God in Search of Man (1955); idem. Torah min ha-Shamayin he-Aspaklaryah shel ha-Dorot, 2 vols. (1962-65); M. Steinberg, Anatomy of Faith (1960); A. A. Cohen, Natural and Supernatural Jew (1962); J. Guttmann, Philosophies; I. Maybaum, Face of God after Auschwitz (1965), E. L. Fackenheim, Quest for Past and Future (1968); E. B. Borowitz, New Jewish Theology in the Making (1968); E. E. Urbach, Hazal―Pirkei Emunot ve-De’ot (1969); L. H. Silberman, in: AJYB 70 (1969), 37-58. [L.J.]