Taking Hold of Torah
By Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, JTS, New York
6 July 2008
It is certainly a great privilege for me to be here. It would be so in any case but certainly to represent JTS at this synagogue on this evening in memory of Louis Jacobs. From what you just heard, if you read Zechariah Frankel, the founder of positive historical Judaism, the movement that became conservative in the sorts of Judaism, and then you read Louis Jacobs, you see echoes of Zechariah Frankel. JTS was based on the Frankel Seminary in Breslau in Germany. And then you look at Solomon Shechter. Before I became chancellor and since I became chancellor, you can imagine that I spent a lot of time reading Solomon Shechter. As Rabbi Gordon said, there’s no one writing in recent years who so conjures up the memory, the pros, the style, the emphasis of Solomon Shechter as Louis Jacobs did.
And I particularly am born and raised a conservative Jew. The major intellectual influences on me as an American Jew were two rabbis and thinkers who actually spent many years walking the corridors of JTS together, although for years on end, they weren’t on speaking terms with one another, were Mordechai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel. And if you read Louis Jacobs, as you’ll soon hear in what I have to say, you will hear echoes of Mordechai Kaplan, and you will hear distinct echoes of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
To speak tonight in memory of Louis Jacobs is to me to speak about a man who is at the center of the issues that engage us as contemporary Jews and certainly as conservative Jews. As a scholar of modern Judaism who comes at the study of modern Judaism, as it were, from the outside as a sociologist and from the inside as a historian of Judaism, I want to look at our contemporary dilemmas, where we’ve been, where we are, where we should be going by paying some attention to Louis Jacobs but also putting him in the context of other thinkers like him, such as Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mordechai Kaplan.
I’m going to try to do three things this evening, and I now am going to take my watch off so that I look at it and don’t keep you here for too long a time. I will, one, sketch out the contents. Having been a modern Jew all my life and trying to live my life as a contemporary Jew, a committed contemporary Jew and also as a scholar of contemporary Judaism, I want to try to draw on the lessons of personal experience, as well as the lessons of scholarship to speak to us about where we are, what our situation is, what are dilemmas are. And then number two, with the help of Louis Jacobs and Abraham Heschel and Mordechai Kaplan, I want to speak about a single issue, which I believe is at the heart of contemporary Jewish dilemmas and certainly is at the heart of conservative or Masorti Judaism and that is the issue of mitzvah and halakha. I want to clarify what I think that issue is and why it’s so widely misunderstood and how I think we should speak about it. And then finally, I want to talk about what I think we need to do as conservative Jews. And of course, my expertise is in America, but I think that these dilemmas are widely shared.
I think that one can say that we have a twofold agenda if we want to keep Judaism alive, vital, and strong and certainly if we want to do this conservative or Masorti Judaism:
Number one, we need to build and maintain strong, face-to-face communities of people. Communities of people that are bound up to one another and tied to obligation, commitment, mutual responsibility, as well as shared commitment to this tradition of ours. And number two, we have to speak a language of tradition that is revitalized. I use the title from my book, Taking Hold of Torah, because when I was at Oxford, for two very informative years of my life from 1973 starting with the Yom Kippur war through yeshivot in 1975, I had an experience at yeshivot where I was given the hagba’ah, which meant that I not only got to lift the Torah but got to hold onto it for the next 20 minutes of the service until the Torah was put back in the ark. And for whatever reasons, I had experienced that at the age of 21 or 22, which has recurred at various points in my life when I realized how desperately important this Torah is to me. Literally the Torah, literally the five books of Moses but also the tradition of which this Torah is the core; the tradition of thought and the tradition of light.
And it’s clear that this tradition was able to reach me in a live way because of Heschel and Kaplan and others and the way they were transmitted to me by a series of teachers who made it real to me, who made it compelling, profound, beautiful. And we struggle uphill when we try to do this for contemporary Jews because unlike past generations who lived apart from a larger culture, we have the blessing of living fully as part of the culture that surrounds us, which means that this culture pervades us. It is in us, and we are in it. And to be able to speak the language of Judaism authentically in this culture and to reach others, one has to constantly translate. And when you translate, you always run the risk that you’re losing something, that you’re distorting, that you’re losing authenticity, you’re losing continuity.
Our job, and it’s not easy, is to find ways of translating this language of Judaism in a way that is authentic and speaking to contemporary Jews in a framework of community. When we do this, we succeed. When we don’t do it, we fail. The question of course is how do we do it well? And that’s what I’ll be speaking about. To me, mitzvah is the key. And so the major initiative I’ve launched so far as Chancellor of JTS is an initiative to get Conservative Jews around the United States thinking about mitzvah in the terms that we’ll be talking about this evening; and not just thinking about mitzvah and talking about mitzvah but hopefully living mitzvah.
Let me begin with the general context of modern Judaism. I can say with some confidence – I don’t know whether I’m right about this, but I think I’m right about this – that the major challenge Jews have faced in the modern period, which let’s say begins in Germany and France at the end of the 18th century (in America it didn’t matter as much because there were so few Jews in America; at the time of the American Revolution, there were maybe 5,000 Jews in the colonies), the major challenge we have faced, the major blessing has been freedom, individual choice: what we call volunteerism.
This changed the terms of Jewish existence. One cannot exaggerate the importance of this. Previously, Jews that had rights, privileges, or disabilities at a community. It was clear that you were marked as a Jew, and your being a Jew determined who you were, what opportunities you had, where you could live, who you could marry, what you could work at, etc. Then from the time of the famous debate in the French National Assembly in 1791, after the Jews are given the rights of citizenship with everyone else in 1789, there began to be a debate about how many rights Jews will actually have. You probably heard this, it was the French Deputy to the National Assembly who was on the side of emancipation for the Jews, Clermont-Tonnerre, who stood up and said, ‘To the Jews as a people, no rights. To the Jews as individuals, all rights.’ To Jews as individuals, all rights. To Jews as a people, as a community, no rights.
What this meant was we were going to have to choose as individuals. The pressure was now on because we are eventually going to get more and more rights to choose, and the majority, of course, is choosing something entirely different. Not only that but we become part of a culture which is not mutual as regards Jewish identity. Here are – obviously I’m implying, but the great philosopher, Immanuel Kant pretty much said it all when in his essay, ‘What is Enlightenment’ from 1784, he begins with the question ‘what is enlightenment?’ And he answers, ‘freedom from tutelage’. Tutelage, which he derived as adolescent, as immature, as childish. It’s any situation where you are obedient to any kind of authority. To be obedient to tradition, according to Kant in that essay. To be obedient to religious authority is to be a child, is to be subservient, is to not think for yourself. And so we get a dichotomy between what Kant called autonomy, which is what he respects: being a law unto yourself, obeying the reason that’s inside your head; and heteronomy, the law of another, such as tradition, such as halakha, such as a rabbi, any authority that you did not choose.
Moses Mendelssohn, who counts as the first great Jewish thinker because he’s the first one to reckon with these developments, in his great book, Jerusalem, which was written in 1783, laid out a social contract theory where we surrender certain rights and privileges in order to be part of a society but there is complete religious freedom, according to Mendelssohn. Everyone is free to choose. Mendelssohn spends the first part of his book justifying why Jews, like Christians, like Muslims, like Hindus, should be free to choose their religion. There can be no compulsion of the individual. There must be total religious freedom.
Mendelssohn understands what he’s saying here. What he’s saying is that the kehilah, the Jewish community that governed Jews for centuries and at that moment still did in a way in Germany, would not have authority. No one could tell an individual Jew what to do or what to believe. It was up to the individual to decide. And, therefore, part two of his book had to be spent persuading Jews to do what until then had been a matter that needed no persuasion. It just simply was who you were. You were Jewish because you were Jewish because you were Jewish, period. You were born a Jew. You lived a Jew. You would die a Jew, period, and now you had to choose, which meant that someone had to persuade you in terms that you found compelling to choose this option called Judaism.
Well, Mendelssohn wrote his book in German, not in Hebrew, not in Judendeutsch, not in Yiddish. He wrote his book in German though very few Jews at the time spoke German, but he was writing it, as it were, for the emergent sort of Jew he believed would be a triumph for Judaism in Germany. Jews who spoke German, who lived German, who dreamed in German and, therefore, had to be presented Judaism in the kind of German language to persuade them. So you read in Mendelssohn’s book. You find quotations from philosophers like Hobbs and Montesquieu, and scientists like Boyle and Newton the same way that we might write in English and quote from Darwin or Freud or Einstein. The trouble is how do you persuade Jews to take on an age-old tradition, age-old loyalty at a time when the entire culture around them has no interest in this and in fact is quite hostile to it?
So Mendelssohn responds. I won’t give you a lecture here on Mendelssohn, but he frames Judaism as a system of universal moral truths, what he calls eternal truths, that are accompanied by particular historical narratives, which he calls historical truths. So a Jew has Pesach. A Jew has the Maccabees. A Jew has Sinai. Those are our historical truths. They separate us from Christians, although latently a Christian and a Jew, according to my notes, share the same basic morality, the same God, just as we share the same science and the same mathematics. Jews are most of all distinguished by mitzvah, which Mendelssohn, in a crucial turn of phrase, calls a ceremonial script. Mitzvah became our symbolic actions that we perform to remind us about eternal truths.
Well, you can see where we are. We’re in a situation where you’ve got to persuade Jews to undertake particular action at the same time that you’re telling them that ultimately you’re eternal truths are the same as those of the Christians. So if I can get a job as a Christian but I’m discriminated against as a Jew, if I can get the right to live where I want to as a Christian but like Moses Mendelssohn, I have to apply for the privilege to live in the City of Berlin every year until I die because Jews are not allowed to live in Berlin except by special permission, why would I want to be a Jew? The die is cast. The mark is against us. How do you persuade Jews to undertake a voluntary, particular identity that goes against the majority unless you can gather them up in communities that are so powerful and compelling and beautiful and deep that they want this for themselves and for their children?
Well, I’m going to leave Mendelssohn now and skip to the United States of America where, as you heard, I decided in the 1990’s to write a book with a sociologist. Steven Cohen has written a book, Following the Jew Within, about the British sociological situation I think called Beyond Belonging. It was modeled on The Jew Within, and for The Jew Within, we interviewed many Jews and did a quantitative survey of many others. We wanted to get at what’s going on with Jews in the United States. It was a piece of research done at the end of the 1990’s and published in the year 2000.
So I just want to get at this issue of autonomy, which I think is so crucial, volunteerism, by looking at some quotations from The Jew Within. So here is an example of a man. We named him Irv. We obviously gave these people fictitious names, and we wanted to be sure these were not just yuppies, gentrified Jews on the coast but working-class Jews as well who had imbibed this norm of autonomy, of volunteerism, what we call the sovereign self. And so we interviewed some working-class Jews in Brooklyn and Queens, parts of New York City, and here is the man we called Irv putting it this way. And this is word-for-word off the tape, but he could have been speaking for I think most contemporary Americans and certainly most contemporary American Jews and I’ll bet you a lot of Jews in Britain as well. ‘I don’t have any problem with what anybody does as far as Jewish observance is concerned as long as they don’t tell me what I have to do. So if you want to be involved with something that’s very dear to your heart, that’s fine, but don’t sit there and tell me about something that’s clearly an option in life that I have to be doing it and I should be doing it because I’m Jewish.’ Notice the word. It clearly is an option in life. Don’t you dare tell me I have to do it. In other words, don’t you dare tell me I’m obligated to do it or I’m commanded to do it because I’m Jewish. I will decide. I am a sovereign self.
My favorite spokesman for this position, which is constant autonomy taken to an extreme but this is quite common now, is a man named Edward who is a lawyer in Chicago who put the matter very succinctly. We asked everyone we interviewed if there was anything about Judaism they did not like, and he said, ‘By definition, there can’t be anything about Judaism I don’t like because I elect to observe it as I elect to observe it. If anything is potentially annoying, I avoid it.’ If it’s potentially annoying, I avoid it. So Judaism, of course, is exactly what he wants it to be. Again, a very typical response.
The difference now between contemporary Jews in America and a previous generation is not the fact of choice. It’s the belief in the right of choice. I cannot put this too strongly. Contemporary Jews believe that it is their right to choose. It is right that they choose. Let me put it even more strongly. It would be wrong of them to do anything at any moment that they do not find meaningful at that moment.
Let me give you an example of a Jew. In this case, he happens to be a reformed Jew. He could have been a conservative Jew. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, which is a suburb of Boston. He is an engineer by trade. We asked him to take us through the ritual year, and he could have been speaking for many, many thousands of Jews. Listen to what he says. ‘Pesach means the most to us. When I was growing up, my grandfather did everything. Now we have too big Seders, 18 to 20 people both nights, most not Jewish. Most of our friends are not Jewish.’ All right. The invocation of the ancestors is very typical, very wide-spread. If you ask contemporary Jews who are the most influential Jewish figures on them were, they almost never say their parents. It’s always their grandparents. Whether mythically or actually we don’t know, but the grandparents are conjured up as very pious Jews. The parents not so much. The fact that most of their friends are not Jewish, yes. This is typical of most American Jews.
‘Shabats we don’t really do anything. Often we’ll go to services and read Torah. This year, I’ll go to work, maybe services at night.’ Again, entirely real. This man knows enough. He calls the Sabbath Shabat. He reads from the Torah, but he chooses whether or not to go. This year, he went to work. Listen to this part. ‘I have tremendous difficulty with high holiday services. Sometimes I go to Kol Nidrei. This year, I didn’t. My wife and son went. My wife said to me, “Aren’t you going?” I said, “I can’t do it.”‘ Now why couldn’t he do it? Because the liturgy doesn’t speak to him or is offensive to him. God writing in a book of life who will live and who shall die. He doesn’t believe it. He doesn’t like it. He won’t submit to it. He believes it would be wrong of him to go without the proper set of beliefs, and so his wife and his son go to Kol Nidrei, and he stays home. Welcome to the contemporary American Jew.
Now the question is how do you deal with this? As I said before, you can either be depressed and give up, or you can believe that Jews can be persuaded to undertake Jewish obligations and commitments if you bind them up in true communities where they feel responsible for these communities and where they experience meaning and joy and companionship and suffering; where they feel that their lives are connected to other people’s lives. Experience after experience breeds more and more commitment. The language of the tradition speaks to them in the context of community. The meaning is there. The key is a life of commitment in community, and this notion of how you get to commitment in a framework of community, dealing with a culture that stresses autonomy and volunteerism where most contemporary Jews outside of the ultra-Orthodox world, including some inside modern Orthodoxy, do not any longer believe in a literal revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. How do you then generate commitment? This was the question that animated Abraham Joshua Heschel and Louis Jacobs, and it’s one I want to deal with for the next few minutes. How shall we think about mitzvah? How shall we think about halakha and Jewish law?
All right. Before I get to Heschel and Jacobs, let me speak for a minute about why, of all the things I could have done in my first year as Chancellor of JTS, I decided to institute a program to get Conservative Jews talking about mitzvah. The answer was I had made two observations over the course of the last 20 or 30 years as teacher in the Jewish community and as a teacher at a university, the first of which you’ve already heard about. The first observation is that the dichotomy that Kant poses between autonomy and heteronomy has been internalized by many, many contemporary Jews. They really do believe in contrasting everything our tradition wrote from the very beginning, that they have to choose between freedom and mitzvah. That either you’re free or you’re commanded. Either you’re autonomous and mature and a modern human being, or you’re subject to an authority beyond yourself. I thought this was just a book. I thought this was just a theory of Kant until I spoke to so many Jews. I learned, for instance, as a scholar in residence when I would speak at synagogues around the United States, that if I, in my first speech on Friday evening, spoke the language of obligation to them, they wouldn’t come back to hear me on Saturday morning. If I instead spoke a language of community, inviting them into the richness of a tradition that they could choose, they would come back to hear me. And then in the course of Shabbat or maybe Sunday morning, I could finally get around to talking to them about obligation.
I don’t think that any mature person is without obligation and responsibility, and it really ultimately does not depend on belief in God at Sinai. I remember, and I’m sure you do, too, in 1967 when Israel’s survival was at stake. Many people I know took out mortgages on their homes so that they could contribute the money to Israel. They gave everything they had. Many of these people were atheists and yet they felt a solemn sense of obligation, which I would have to call mitzvah. If not to God then to the Jewish people, the Jewish survival, the Jewish tradition of Israel, and they gave everything.
Take another example. A young couple has a child. The child cries in the middle of the night. Both of them would rather sleep. Neither one really wants to get up. You’d rather sleep, but you get up. Someone has to take care of the child. Is this a Kantian relationship here? You’re getting up out of a sense of duty because you have voluntarily taken upon yourself responsibility. I don’t think so. I think the relationship of a parent to a child goes far beyond some Kantian notion of duty or responsibility. There’s a word for the reason why the parent gets up in the middle of the night. The word is love. The child is the most precious thing you have in the world, and similarly, a lot of what we do in Judaism is not satisfactorily explained by duty or commandment. It’s explained by love. The rabbis, of course, went out of their way to use metaphors of parent to child when talking about the relationship to God. Love figures very heavily in the rabbis’ writings about mitzvah. I think that’s true to life. I think the dichotomy between love and obligation is a false one where the child is concerned or where Judaism is concerned, and I wanted to get this across to contemporary American Jews.
The second thing animating me is this. I’ve taught American students in American universities for about 27 of the last 30 years. I have come to the conclusion that the Christian dichotomy of law versus love has been internalized by Jewish students to our detriment. I say this without happiness, but I find that many students and indeed many adults walk around with the notion that Christians have a religion of love and we have a religion of law. We have a chastising and punishing, judgmental God. They have a wonderful, loving God. It makes me sad to say this because this dichotomy has been so harmful to Jews for the past 2000 years, and yet I’m convinced now that many Jews have it in their heads. And so I want to view some issues of this dichotomy, and so we’ll begin with the initiative by having Jews speak to one another.
Before they talked about participating in mitzvot, I wanted them to speak to each other. What does mitzvah mean to you? To what do you feel obligated? What do you feel responsible for? What do you feel engaged by? What do you love? And I wanted them to be conscious of the fact that mitzvah not only means commandment; it means engagement, responsibility, obligation, and love. And I wanted them to think about why. I wanted them to know that sitting next to them there may be a person who believes the Torah was given by God at Mt. Sinai. On the other side, there may be a person who doesn’t believe that God reveals anything at all, or there may be a person, like Louis Jacobs, who believed that God inspired prophesy but didn’t dictate it. Heschel also thought like that as you’ll see in a moment. So I wanted to get them to see that there are many notions of mitzvah, many sources of mitzvah, but we are bound together as a community because of what we feel engaged by in common; what we are responsible for in common.
Now one of the most famous Jewish thinkers in America, Mordechai Kaplan, was the founder of a movement called Reconstructionism. Kaplan – I wont’ go into it in any detail. Kaplan did not believe in a personal God. When we pray, and Kaplan prayed three times a day everyday, there is no God who hears prayer. God cannot command because God is not a personal being. Kaplan believed that God was a set of forces, impersonal forces in the world. And so in his great book, Judaism as a Civilization, which appeared in 1934 when Kaplan was 53 years old, he argued that we should drop the language of mitzvah. We should speak the language of folkway. Folkway. Why do you observe Shabbat? Because that’s what Jews do. Why do you observe Pesach? Because Jews have Pesach. Christians have Easter. Jews have Pesach. It’s a language of the Jewish people. You should observe it because it’s the way of your folk. But he had two particular reasons besides that wanting to get rid of the language of mitzvah.
First, he said mitzvah is a legalistic spirit, a spirit that often gives rise to quibbling and petty-fogging. It’s a great Dickensian word. Petty-fogging. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen it in Jewish thought. Petty-fogging. If you have a language of mitzvah, you get involved in legalism, pettiness, details. Throw it out. We forget the big picture. But secondly, he feels that mitzvah stifles originality. We must convey the implication that not only should there be many folkways that if it’s possible, you would retain and develop, but that Jewish life should be stimulated to involve new and additional folkways. Mitzvah gets us to cling to the past, to ignore the present, do nothing new in our tradition. And so Kaplan felt the best thing you could do was to get rid of the language of mitzvah.
Something to folkways going for it, and yet you skip about 150 pages. Kaplan had a great gift of contradicting himself in the space of two pages, but here he goes 150 pages. And lo and behold, he decides that there’s a problem with his own theory. If Jewish nationhood is to function in a diaspora, if it’s to work, it’s to be a source of values. Its principle manifestation must be the very element of involunteerism characteristic of national life. The opposite of volunteerism, the opposite of choice. We can’t be free individuals deciding every moment what we’re going to do. We can’t just have folkways. We need to have norms. We need to have commandments. I think that’s absolutely right. Kaplan was hung by his own petard, you might say, and yet he realizes that you can’t have a community without a language of obligation, without a language of involunteerism.
Now what I want to do for the next few minutes is give you the benefit of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Louis Jacobs taking very different approaches to this question. It could be that it was a difference in temperament. Heschel was descended from mysticism: he didn’t like the rational. Heschel’s books appear as paragraphs in chapters like everybody else’s books, but when you read Heschel carefully, you realize the man didn’t compose chapters. At most, he composed paragraphs. At best, he composed sentences. I should tell you the one time I got to interview Heschel for two hours in his office, I saw him scribbling on little pieces of yellow paper, tiny strips of yellow paper. And he opened his drawer, and there were hundreds of them in the drawer. It turned out the way he wrote his books – we know from someone who worked with him as an editor – was, he arranged the little strips of paper on his desk one sentence at a time. Louis Jacobs, as you know, not only wrote but spoke in entire chapters. It would come flowing out, organized, coherent, logical, rational arguments, the opposite of Heschel; systematic to a tee.
Heschel was anti-systematic, a man who wrote lyrical prose poems. And yet they’re doing similar things from different origins coming to a similar position.
Here’s a case of Heschel speaking as he often did about law. Listen to what he says. ‘It would be a fatal error to isolate the law, to disconnect it from the perplexities, cravings, and aspirations of the soul, from spontaneity and the totality of the person. In the spiritual crisis of the modern Jew, the problem of faith takes precedence over the problem of law. Without faith, the inwardness and the power of appreciation, the law is meaningless. That’s why Heschel wrote the kind of prose poems he did. That’s why he wrote his famous book, The Sabbath, where he wants to introduce you to the beauty of the day. That’s why he starts by trying to waken something in your soul. Unless you have a sense of connection to the mystery, to that which is beyond the rational, to God; unless he can get you to reach beyond your minds, Heschel felt that halakhic commitment will not speak to you.
Man is not alone. God’s in search of man. There’s always this search for connection with that which is beyond us, and when you have this sense of connection, you want a life that retains the connection, that fosters it. You want what he calls a pattern for living, and for Jews, the pattern for living, compatible with God in the world that gets me close to God in the world, that pattern for living is mitzvah. Heschel loved to site the Hasidic terminology for mitzvah. It comes from a word which means togetherness. A mitzvah brings me together with the holy, together with the divine. When I do a mitzvah, I feel myself doing what God is. Very rabbinic. I do what God does. God raises up those who are bowed down. I am engaged in social justice work and raise up those who are bowed down. I’m working with God. I’m doing God’s work. Surely that’s what the rabbis wanted when they had me praise God as ‘zokef kefufim’ in the morning blessings.
Heschel believed that halakha was not accessible to most Jews today because they have lost this inward sense of mystery, of search of the divine. ‘The gates of halakha are closed,’ he wrote. ‘No one departs. No one enters. Those inside are not concerned with those on the outside.’ Already in 1958, a critique of Orthodoxy for looking only inward and not concerning itself with the larger community. Those on the outside do not understand those who are within. The door has been locked to those who knock, and those who are anxious to enter, grow weary looking for an opening. That’s why he didn’t focus on halakha. He focused on a life of mitzvah animated by this sense of desire to be with God in the world.
Now Louis Jacobs, if I could put it this way, had a different problem, which was perhaps because he didn’t make the break that Heschel did or have the same rationale for that break. Heschel, when he went to America, the son, grandson, great grandson of Hassidic rebbbes, did not want to be a traditional Hassidic rebbe in the United States. He asked himself a different question. He said, ‘What would a Hassidic rebbe do in this situation? How can I be the continuation? Authentically, a continuation is very different. He kept in very close touch with his Hassidic cousins. They talked to him. They respected him. He observed halakha very strictly, but he didn’t emphasize that life. He certainly didn’t live an isolated life of halakha. You may know about Heschel. Heschel marched in protest against the Soviet treatment of the Jews before almost anyone else. Heschel, in 1963, went to Rome to talk to Pope John Paul the 23rd at the Vatican, too. Heschel marched with Martin Luther King in Sella, Alabama, 1965, and Heschel led Jews in opposing the Vietnam War in 1968. Heschel was everywhere on the streets because for him, God demands the life of a prophet. God wants us to care about the suffering of God’s children, and yet this man was in his study in the morning in his tallit and tefillin, praying to his Creator and then, as he put it, praying with his feet when he marched on the streets in the afternoon. He didn’t concern himself with justifying his position on halakha to Orthodoxy.
I think Louis Jacobs had no such luxury. He was forced to try to explain to himself and everyone else how one can be what he called a non-fundamentalist halakhic Jew. A lot of his writings are concerned with this. Now from very early on in such works like We Have Reason to Believe from 1957 straight through his very last works, Jacobs took, charted, cleaved to and vigorously defended his stance, non-fundamentalist halakha. He forcibly advocated it in The Principles of Jewish Faith, 1964, where the reader attuned to the history of the historical school. Here are clear echoes of Frankel and Shechter, and if I’m not mistaken, of Mordechai Kaplan. Let’s listen for a few minutes to the works of Louis Jacobs. Take this passage for example.
‘One can be perfectly free to investigate the origins of Jewish observance and come to conclusions concerning those which are at variance with tradition, without giving up the concept of mitzvah as divine standards.’ Or take this passage: ‘The mitzvot are divine commands for me. Why? Because they have come to be such through the long history of my people and because they speak to my own situation as a human being in need of God.’ Or another passage, utterly Mordechai Kaplan tone. ‘I keep Shabbat irrespective of its origins because it is the fundamental religious institution of my people.’ Nowhere is this closeness to Frankel and Shechter and Kaplan more true than in these sentences from his book, A Jewish Theology, from 1973. ‘The perceptions of the Torah are binding because they provide the vocabulary of worship, always understanding worship in its widest sense. God did command them but not by direct communication, as is the traditional view, but through the historical experience of the people of Israel. The idea of the mitzvah, the divine command, can and should be maintained even though intellectual honesty compels us to interpret revelation in non-propositional terms.’
I saw Shechter there: ‘If I could have believed this, I would have believed it. I would have been an Orthodox Jew and not made a break, but I can’t believe it. I have this problem. I won’t sacrifice intellectual integrity.’ And if I could put words in the mouth of Louis Jacobs, although he perhaps uttered these words, I haven’t found them. I, Arnold Eisen, believe that when I’m commanded to love the Lord my God with all my heart and all my soul and all my might – heart includes mind – I must love the Torah this way, too. I can’t bifurcate my mind. I can’t pretend I’m living in a different era. I can’t say science has nothing to say to the Torah. History has nothing to say to the Torah. Poetry, music, art have nothing to say. Of course Torah has something to say to every area of life, and they have something to say to Torah. And here I am in the 21st century. It doesn’t mean I accept everything that goes on, everything that people believe, but there are certain parts of our minds that we’re not called upon to sacrifice in order to retain our Judaism. Science is one of them. Historical sensibility is another one.
So given that we are who we are and we want to love God and love Torah with all we are, it’s not a sacrifice that we can make. And so one finds the way to mitzvah without the literal belief that God spoke the words at Mt. Sinai.
Now, I just want to give you a little more Heschel because I know you know Louis Jacobs, but not all of you know Heschel. Heschel had a theory of prophesy which he first laid out in his doctoral dissertation and then again in his book, The Prophets. It came out in 1962. At length also in his book, God in Search of Man, 1954. He believed that God spoke to the prophets through intuition. ‘God,’ he says, ‘was not dictating words.’ The prophets are not recording devices who merely hear God’s words and set them down. The prophets filter God’s intent through their human consciousness, through their biography and culture. The prophets literally feel God’s pain and the suffering of God’s creatures and out the other end comes the call for justice, the words of God, which are really the words of a prophet who is putting God’s intent into culture, into language, transmitting it to us. Because of that, Heschel is not concerned when Isaiah disagrees with Jeremiah. He doesn’t have to believe that Moses wrote every word of the Torah. He doesn’t care that Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ishmael differed so greatly, and he wrote an entire book called Torah min hashamayim, showing the variances within rabbinic thought throughout the ages on key issues.
My favorite of these, as you read Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiba on the command to love the Lord your God. Rabbi Akiba famously said ‘Love the Lord your God with all you are,’ down to the sacrifice of your life, and he rejoices when he is put to death for teaching Torah because it gives him finally a chance to love God with all he has. Rabbi Ishmael said the only meaning of the command to love God that he can make sense of is to love thy neighbor as thyself. That’s what it means to love God for Rabbi Ishmael, who is not a 21st-century, western, secular thinker but a second-century tanna, a second-century sage in Palestine. Two thousand years ago he interprets loving the Lord your God as loving your neighbor. It’s striking.
Heschel put it in a very dramatic formulation with which I’ll close this section of the talk. The Torah is not the word of God. The Torah is a midrash on the word of God. So if you find things in Torah which trouble you, you understand this is not God’s word speaking. These are people doing the best they can to interpret the voice of God that comes through them as parts of culture, and it’s our job to keep the tradition alive and well in the 21st century.
Well, I hope I’ve made the point, and if I didn’t, I invite you to study Jacobs and Heschel and Kaplan in more detail. Jews have, and always have had, a very rich sense of commandments. We have an entire tradition called ta’amei hamitzvot, reasons for the commandments. They have always been ta’amim in the plural. Always many reasons for the commandments and varied interpretations to what the commandments are. The Conservative movement in particular has thrived on a coherence that holds us together despite some differences as to the origins of the commandments, the exact interpretations of the commandments. I think it is healthy. I think it’s necessary, but it only works if we, Jews, particularly Conservative Jews, are animated by this sense of community and commandment. It only works if we are really bound together in ties of sensibility, language, learning, obligation.
The source of this obligation can vary. When someone in your congregation has a death in the family, there’s a shivah and you have to be there. You can disagree about why you have to be there. Is the source of that mitzvah of being at the shivah your communal responsibility? Your act as a human being of friendship, companionship? Is the source of that shivah a tradition that goes back to Moses at Sinai? Or a piece of each? We can disagree. The key thing is that we are all engaged intellectually and behaviourally with our minds with our actions, and with our bodies in a life of mitzvah.
I’ve read a lot of books about the contemporary Jewish situation. I’ve even written a few, but to me, it comes down to this very simple proposition. If we have times and spaces which are Jewish, like Shabbat as a Jewish time, like mezuzah or kashrut as marks of Jewish space, if we live inside these times and spaces with a shared language – this means literally a shared language as well as figuratively – I don’t think we’re going to survive long as a people without Jewish languages. This is really the first time in history we’re trying. We now have most diaspora Jews without access to a Jewish language. Not Hebrew, not Yiddish, not Ladino, nothing. It may be a reckless experiment on our part in trying to proceed without a Jewish language.
Without Jewish times and spaces, without Jewish language, without observances, without learning, without a common commitment to search for God with all our intellectual honesty, we can’t make it. But I’m convinced that if we can build and maintain strong Jewish communities, Conservative, Masorti, or otherwise, and if we can fill these communities with a meaningful life of Torah, Torah as studied, Torah as lived, then we have no worry whatsoever about survival of the Jewish people in the future. Thank you very much.