Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle, 1 April 1966.
Recovering Judaism: Reflections on a New Theology. Edited by Arnold Jacob Wolf. Chicago: Quadrangle Books. $6.50.
Theology is viewed nowadays with suspicion. It is frequently suggested that, on the Jewish scene, it is not so much a question of dethroning the queen of the sciences as that no such royal personage ever existed.
Varying the metaphor, it is said that the introduction of theology into Judaism is like taking coals to a verdant tropical paradise in which coal-fires are required neither for light, warmth nor energy, in which they can do no good and may do much harm.
Of course, it all depends upon what one means by theology. Certainly it is monstrously untrue to claim that thinking about God land religion is foreign to Judaism.
It is extremely encouraging to find in this volume a number of highly sophisticated, Westernised Jewish thinkers considering with profundity some of the specifically religious aspects of Judaism. Lou H. Silberman deals with “The Task of Jewish Theology”; Jakob J. Petuchowski has a brilliant analysis of “The Dialectics of Reason and Revelation.”
Emil L. Fackenheim writes on “The Revealed Morality of Judaism and Modern Thought,” considering, particularly, Kantian views. Monford Harris treats of the problem of Jewish identity and the Chosen People idea in “Israel: The Uniqueness of Jewish History.”
Eugene B. Borowitz’s article is entitled “The Individual and the Community in Jewish Prayer”; and Zalman M. Schachter’s “Patterns of Good and Evil.” Unlike the others, these two contain no footnotes or references to the sources and are more in the nature of philosophical poems—albeit good ones—than theological essays.
The editor contributes a discussion of Freudian views: “Psychoanalysis and the Temperaments of Man.” But if any kind of equation is to be made between then psychoanalytic doctrine and the rabbinic, one can plausibly argue that the rabbinic yetzer ha-tobh (the good inclination), is closer to the Freudian super-ego than, as Wolf suggests, to the ego.
Maurice Friedman, the well-known authority on Buber, writes on “Christianity and the Contemporary Jew.” Finally, Steven S. Schwarzschild, the editor of “Judaism,” has a lengthy and stimulating essay on “A Jewish Perspective on International Relations.”
With the exception of the editor, the contributors to this exciting book are not practising rabbis but academic scholars seeking a new way of expressing the reality of traditional Jewish beliefs in the post-modern age. They belong to all three wings of American Judaism—Orthodox, Conservative and Reform—but remarks the editor, “such labels mean little in the world of ideas.”
One is reluctant to criticise this unique attempt at Jewish theological thinking in the idiom of our day, but readers in this country will probably find jarring the too dominant and exclusively existentialist note.
Now we are all, indeed, to some extent, heirs to the Kierkegaardian mistrust of system, but systematic thinking about Judaism also has its place. One might have expected, at least, a more systematic treatment of why system is not enough.
One thorough essay on linguistic analysis in its relation to theology would not only have been a welcome addition to the volume in itself but could have served as a corrective to occasional imprecision and lack of clarity. For all that, the book is an admirable achievement and deserves to be studied with care and attention.