“THE RABBIS HAD TOO MUCH FREE TIME ON THEIR HANDS.”
By Rabbi Shai Cherry
Anyone who teaches Talmud at the introductory level has heard that charge muttered with either sarcasm or befuddlement. Attuned teachers can hear their student asking, “What sort of dysfunctional elites quibble over such inconsequential matters?” Equally challenging for one committed to the Jewish enterprise: “How could anyone, ever, possibly believe that?”
I have been told by others who came to Judaism as adults, like myself, that those questions eventually quieted for them. As I learned more and my appreciation for the wisdom of the Sages grew, those questions became more insistent. When a friend asked me why the biblical Isaac didn’t just retract the blessing he had given Jacob that had been intended for Esau, I gave my friend what I believed then, and what I still believe, to be the correct answer: in the author’s world, words create realities that can’t be retracted. Once God spoke the world into existence, to use a better-known example, He could destroy the world, but He couldn’t rewind the tape. My friend found that answer wanting. He gave me the “how could anyone, ever, possibly believe that” look.
When I tell a couple standing under a chuppah that the oral formula that the Rabbis prescribed brings their marriage into existence, I explain that they are creating their new world through speech—just like God did. Similarly, and sometimes tragically, divorce can only dissolve that world through speech. If the husband doesn’t pronounce the right words, the wife remains chained to him. We may find that immoral, but it is internally consistent. The metaphysics of speech track on to the halakhah of speech acts. The problem is that we reject the metaphysics—words affect our consciousness and our perception of reality, but they don’t affect reality (i.e., the world beyond ourselves) itself. Since we reject the metaphysics but still accept the halakhah predicated on the metaphysics, we have incoherence. Others might call it a farce.
Coherent Judaism: Constructive Theology, Creation, and Halakhah highlights such incoherence in my attempt to articulate a Judaism that’s both internally consistent and coheres, in the most robust form possible, with both what we believe to be true about reality and traditional Judaism. As a student of Jewish thought and theology I can say that the biblical writer/school known as D (the Deuteronomist) matures into a medieval philosopher while the biblical writer/school known as P (Priestly) matures into a medieval mystic. As a theologian, I can choose to combine the anthropology of D, which is relatively non-hierarchical and non-racialist, with the theology of P, which understands God to react naturally to human acts rather than to engage in the reward and punishment, a staple of D, highlighted in the prayerbook.
As a student of rabbinic texts, I can see that the Tosefta channels P in its position that any amount of pork renders a dish unkosher, while the Mishnah and Gemara take D’s nominalist approach that rejects the idea that any food is inherently holy or pure (t. Hullin 7:7 vs. m. Hullin 7:5 and Rashi on b. Hullin 97b, m’sha’arinan). Thus, D’s approach names that which is impure and the threshold which allows the impurity to contaminate its environment. Sometimes what looks to be a legal dispute between strict and lenient positions is really a metaphysical dispute that has legal consequences. When the House of Shammai insists that a thief has to return a stolen beam, even if it has been built into a new structure, it is not a matter of being strict or punitive. Repaying the money for the beam, as the House of Hillel allows, doesn’t repair the cosmological damage that stealing the beam created in the first place (from the perspective of the House of Shammai). The only remedy available is to return that very same beam (b. Gittin 55a). The House of Hillel doesn’t believe there was cosmological damage. There was a crime, and reparations must be made. At root, Hillel and Shammai have different metaphysics, or, as Jews might say, different theologies.
Shammai and Hillel were consistent and mutually exclusive. As we know, usually the Rabbis sided with Hillel on the halakhah, but not always. When Abraham Joshua Heschel published Heavenly Torah, he focused on mutually exclusive theologies. Not surprisingly, those theologies generated different laws. The Rabbis, already in the Mishnah, made a wise decision to privilege their consensus on deeds over dogma to maintain national unity among a dispersed people. Believe what you want to believe, but don’t eat with gentiles. It’s not that the Rabbis or the Torah necessarily believed that deeds were intrinsically more important than beliefs, it’s that given the historical reality of post-Temple Jewry, uniform deeds were more likely to preserve Jewish identity more effectively than uniform beliefs. It’s Jeremiah who says Israel has abandoned God and Torah; but it’s the Rabbinic God who prefers that the Israelites keep the Torah but abandon God (Psikta de-Rav Kahana 15:5 on Jer. 16:11). Hence, Rabbinic Judaism remains more about the deed than the creed.
As Steven Fraade has emphasized, there was also an ancient tradition emphasizing the idiosyncratic nature of revelation, l’fi kocho (according to the recipient’s capacity). Some degree of theological pluralism was thus ideological and not only an artifact of the Rabbinic survival strategy. The legacy of Rabbinic Judaism’s theological pluralism allows medieval philosophers and mystics to hold contrasting theologies but still eat and pray together. That legacy also reduces the cognitive dissonance for many contemporary Jews. On the one hand, there may be less God-talk from pulpit rabbis because they will need to decide which theology to choose. And on the other hand, Jews who do not see themselves as having any theology can still identify as Jews since there is no creedal litmus test.
Coherent Judaism toggles between the descriptions and analyses of an academic and the judgments and recommendations of a rabbi. Not just any rabbi. Me—in my own idiosyncratic glory. That shift to personal experience is a characteristic of modernity and is often slotted in the category of existentialism. To describe that movement within the history of Modern Jewish Thought requires some familiarity with the German philosophical tradition of Idealism. Most Modern Jewish Thought courses still spend a disproportionate amount of time discussing Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, and Franz Rosenzweig—a philosophical arc that begins with Idealism and lands in the world of religious existentialism.
Few Modern Jewish Thought classes, however, pay much attention to the Hasidism of Eastern Europe which advances Jewish theology in significant ways. That’s a shame. Shorn of its racialist roots, Hasidism has much salvage value for contemporary Jews. My teacher, Arthur Green, has devoted himself to excavating the theologies that pulse through the writings of marginalized mystics from the Rabbinic period through the Hasidic masters. Several of these theologies, particularly during the medieval phase of Kabbalistic sefirot, depict an exchange of sacred energy that mirrors biological, social, and environmental networks. Indeed, the Priestly worldview that I find surprisingly compelling in its theology is rife with scaled networks and fractals. The panentheism that is later articulated in Hasidic writings shifts the perspective from our outsiders’ view of God-and-the-cosmos to our place within God-and-the-cosmos. The first of the three books in Coherent Judaism is dedicated to the development of Jewish theologies. This first book concludes with post-Shoah theologies of radical immanence that dissolve theodicies in a mikveh that neutralizes the traditional conceits of individual providence and divine omnipotence. What remains as the primary force of God-and-the-cosmos is hesed (lovingkindness). In the words of the contemporary Jewish philosopher Professor Tamar Ross, a faithful academic disciple of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, “God need not be thought of as transcending history or acting as an agent in history, but rather as a sacred force that is present within history, inspiring a vision of liberation that progresses from age to age.”
The second book of Coherent Judaism traces hesed through the natural world where its presence does more than provide a vision. Hesed creates conditions for life to evolve in ways that allow for increasing freedom, diversity, and awareness. Hans Jonas, an underappreciated Jewish philosopher (1903-1993), called this force “cosmogonic eros.” I converted the term into “cosmogonic hesed.” The Sages intuited that divine creativity is consistent in its dual revelations within the worlds of nature and Torah. Just as the perception of continuous creation is enshrined in the liturgy, the belief in continuous revelation is fundamental to one understanding of Sinai. As the Talmud says, and RaSHI cites, “The voice of Sinai goes on forever.”
The Rabbinic Theology of Creation, featuring continuous creation, became affirmed in the prayerbook and subsequent Jewish literature. The Neo-Darwinian Synthesis accommodates the Rabbinic Theology of Creation, filtered through Kabbalah, with such little effort that it can make one sympathetic towards creationists and adherents of Intelligent Design. Unlike the beliefs of the latter groups, however, our vision of God is not interventionist; cosmogonic hesed is simply opportunistic. Moreover, the sacred energy that animates the universe is at work in all seemingly discrete entities and generates those very possibilities that are then ripe for activation. The “Deep” calling unto the “Deep” unites and drives all existents into existence. “All beings are somehow manifestations of the same single Being…. When you think of those beings as individuals, they collectively make up existence and are HWYH, or havayyah [existence or being]. But when you think of them as One they open to an infinite mystery, a dimension that was not seen before, and that HWYH becomes Y-H-W-H.” The tetragrammaton can be interpreted as a jussive verb that means, “let being become.” As the Rabbis claimed when attempting to deal with the multiple names of God in the Torah, the name YHWH is characterized by lovingkindness, hesed.
Demythologizing Kabbalah guts traditional notions of puppeteering providence, but it leaves divine influence intact. Just like hesed is baked into Rabbinic halakhah, it is also baked into the “laws” of nature. Ultimately, I believe our emergence as a species, conscious of the divine and able to advance hesed in the world, is the most glorious illustration of cosmogonic hesed. But the same laws of nature are responsible for the extinction of nearly every species to have evolved on our planet. Once one surrenders traditional notions of individual providence, where everyone receives their just deserts in this world, then facing the history of nature is like looking into a telescope trained on the past. The multiple mass extinctions on our planet are but a scaled-up version of the genocidal spasms that have periodically convulsed Jewish history. Ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim—what happened in evolutionary history has been recapitulated in Jewish history.
Although medieval Jewish philosophy has contributed much worth salvaging for a contemporary theology, the Priestly theology that wends its way through Kabbalah and modern Jewish thought has deeper Jewish roots and more accurately captures insights that can form the basis of a compelling Jewish theology. The conclusion of Book II of Coherent Judaism offers a contemporary theology of creation that draws deeply from our tradition’s wells and resonates with the current scientific emphasis on networks and communities. It also resonates with feminist critiques of religion and science. In a recent interview, Professor Suzanne Simard, a forest ecologist from the University of British Columbia who talks about the “wood wide web,” described the reception of her early research. “The old [male] foresters were like, ‘Why don’t you just study growth and yield?’ I was more interested in how these plants interact. They thought it was all very girlie.” In a strikingly similar critique of traditional theologies, feminist theologians have pointed out that strength, like growth and yield, is the fantasy of teenage boys.
The final book of Coherent Judaism links our understanding of God to our responsibilities towards God. More specifically, Book III offers a coherent approach to those responsibilities, dealing not with individual halakhot, per se, but with the philosophy of halakhah. The genre of ta’amei hamitzvot, rationales for the commandments, looms large in my claim that both the Torah and the Rabbis have a single overriding goal: to get the Israelites, and later the Jews, to, and keep them in, the Land of Israel; and once they were exiled, to return them to sovereignty in their ancestral land. National sovereignty for Jews in Israel is a modern way of expressing the goal that appears first in the Decalogue and reiterated throughout the Torah: to live long on the land that the Lord, your God, is giving to you (Exodus 20:11). By the Middle Ages, as Christians and Muslims were killing each other in and over the Land of Israel, both Jewish philosophers and mystics augmented the earlier goal of political redemption. Irrespective of distinctive messianic visions, all Jews continued to pray daily for the restoration of the Jewish state.
Rambam [Moses Maimonides, 1138-1204, Egypt] was influenced by Islamic jurisprudence which related to case law much differently than had the Talmud or the early Geonim in Babylonia. It was in the region of North Africa and Spain that Jews first produced halakhic codes often stripped of the contexts and rationales that animated Talmudic disputes. Medieval debates about the utility of halakhic codes included critiques of writing what was intended to retain the living quality of oral instruction. Yet with the advent of movable type, economics motivated the aggregation of isolated customs among the Ashkenazim, and the code (the Shulchan Arukh with the Mapah published together in 1580) became king.
The efflorescence of halakhic detail and unprecedented availability of printed texts emerged in Jewish history just before the twin challenges of emancipation and enlightenment. Subsequent halakhic reforms initiated a spectrum of responses that hardened into the denominational categories that still characterize contemporary Judaism. The irony is that the Jews who take halakhah most seriously are least likely to use halakhah jurisgeneratively (my thanks to Robert Cover, that Yale law professor and Jewish thinker [1943-1986], for this neologism) to legislate new laws geared toward Judaism’s fundamental goal of living long on the land that the Lord, our God, has given us. Liberal Jews, who are more amenable to environmental regulation, tend to be less concerned with halakhah and resistant to accepting any infringement upon their sovereign selfhood.
The challenge of Coherent Judaism is to forestall the irony from becoming a tragedy. It will take a global commitment and sacrifice to save our planet, the entire land which the Lord, our God, has given all of us. The self-transcendence demanded by religion, and joyously remitted by people of faith, may be the only model that will allow life to continue. For non-Orthodox Jews, if Judaism is to mean anything, it must mean everything. Rabbinic leaders must make the case that Judaism’s covenant with God makes claims on our behavior. What passes for theology in this country tends to be so childish that it has become a stumbling block. When 40% of Americans—guess who—believe that the earth was created in the last 10,000 years pretty much as it is today, who wants anything to do with religion?
Thinkers like Arthur Green and Bradley Shavit Artson have been articulating compelling, contemporary theologies. Moreover, several Rabbis have been advocating halakhic development predicated on Jewish values and environmentally relevant halakhah. Our Rabbinic theology of creation posited that creation is ongoing. How prescient! In parallel fashion, Rabbinic theology insisted that revelation is ongoing. The Rabbis demonstrated time and again their courage in hearing God’s word from Sinai and adjusting the law accordingly. They warned us against the meekness that brought down the Temple. “We can, in community with one another, in conversation with religious virtuosi of earlier generations, and in communion with the divine power at work in the world, choose a moral direction.” Just as in days of old, the moral direction will require sacrifice. Just as in days of old, the stakes are nothing less than living long on the Land that the Lord, our God, has given us.
Rabbi Shai Cherry, PhD., is rabbi of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, PA. Formerly on the faculties of Vanderbilt University and the University of San Diego, he is the featured lecturer for The Great Courses’ “Introduction to Judaism” and author of Torah through Time: Understanding Bible Commentary from the Rabbinic Period to Modern Times.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, Heavenly Torah as Refracted through the Generations, edited and translated with commentary by Gordon Tucker (New York: Continuum Books, 2006), first published in Hebrew in 1962 and 1965. ↑
David M. Grossberg, “Orthopraxy in Tannaitic Literature,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 41, no. 4/5 (2010). ↑
Tamar Ross, Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2004), pp. 213-14. ↑
Shai Cherry, “Judaism, Darwinism, and the Typology of Suffering,” Zygon 46:2, June 2011: 317-29. ↑
B. San. 17a and RaSHI on Dt. 5:19. ↑
Shai Cherry, “Crisis Management via Biblical Interpretation: Fundamentalism, Modern Orthodoxy, and Genesis” in Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism edited by Geoffrey Cantor and Marc Swetlitz, 163-246. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.) ↑
Arthur Green, Arthur Green: Hasidism for Tomorrow (Leiden: Brill, 2015), pp. 235-36. ↑
Genesis Rabbah 12:15. ↑
In Rabbinic literature, this phrase signals that the experience of the patriarchs foreshadows the experiences of their descendants. ↑
Shai Cherry, “The Camouflaged Ta’am (“Motive”): Redemptive Implications of Rabbinic Theurgy.” Zeramim: An Online Journal of Applied Jewish Thought Vol. IV: Issue 1–2 | Fall–Winter 2019–2020/ 5779–5780, pp. 5-56. ↑
Louis E. Newman, Past Imperatives: Studies in the History and Theory of Jewish Ethics (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 157. ↑