5757 - #14


Where Has All The Philosophy Gone?

When Rabbinic Judaism was challenged by the advent of the Karaite movement, the great Saadia Gaon responded with his classic work, Emunot v'Deot. When Aristotelianism raised intellectual challenges to the faith, it was no one less than Rambam who responded with his Moreh Nevuchim. We, though, now live in a world in which philosophical issues are responded to through "edicts" -- to which the general populace reacts with resentment, specifically to aspersions that were not even intended. Sadly, no explanation is given nor deemed essential by the presenter and no understanding is attempted nor deemed necessary by the listener. Where has all the philosophy gone?

The recent statement of the Agudas HaRabbonim that Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism "is not Judaism at all"[1] has created a major stir within the Jewish community. That the statement lacks educational depth and demonstrates a disregard for the frame of reference of the listener is a given. Yet, the statement has been specifically attacked by the general populace for its insinuation that non-Orthodox Jews are not truly Jews. The Agudas HaRabbonim, though, has emphatically declared that its statement is not commenting on the Jewish identity of any individual. It is the theological entities of Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism that is the focus of the statement's attack, not Conservative Jews or Reform Jews. The statement actually reflects an ideological perspective that unfortunately the general populace cannot hear because they are not taught to approach their Jewishness in philosophical terms. Thus, they cannot understand that the statement is basic to the theological and philosophical distinctions between the branches. To the general populace, it must only mean that Orthodox Jews think Conservative and Reform Jews are not as good as them.[2] Unfortunately the statement does nothing to educate the populace to approach the matter within the proper context. The ultimate tragedy of the statement and the community's response is the absence of Jewish Philosophy.

It would seem from the furore that the statement has created that its message is radical and original. It is, in fact, neither. The "edict" not to pray in Conservative and Reform synagogues is the normative halachic position. No less an Orthodox "liberal" than Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik is on record as pronouncing that it is better to not hear shofar on Rosh Hashanah than to attend a synagogue where men and women sit together.[3] The essential statement itself would appear to be nothing more than a tautology. As it would seem that the Agudas HaRabbonim meant by the term "Judaism", the religion of Sinai as defined by Orthodox Judaism, by definition, Conservative and Reform Judaism are not "Judaism". Clearly, Orthodox Judaism has always maintained Conservative and Reform Judaism to be heretical. This statement says nothing new. The real question that must be posed to the Agudas HaRabbonim is why it made this statement in this manner: provocative, without any intent to educate the populace about the fact that the differences between Orthodoxy and the other branches originate in disagreements over major philosophical issues. And we must also ask why the general populace always responds so vehemently whenever it is faced with the truth that Orthodoxy does consider Conservative and Reform Judaism heretical and that the differences between the branches indeed do reflect major philosophical disagreements.

Most Jews do not consider ideology as a determinant in their identity as a Jew. Ask most Jews -- Conservative, Reform or Orthodox -- the essential differences between the branches and their philosophical reason for attending one synagogue over another. To most Jews, the synagogue they attend is simply a reflection of how they wish to express their Jewishness -- and their Jewishness is really an expression of their ethnic identity. To most Jews, aside from the most simplistic perception that we are not Christians or Moslems, Jewishness is not considered as the expression of a philosophy, theology, idea or ideal. It is simply an expression of the sub-group of humanity with which we wish to identify. Shabbat,kashrut, shul are simply methods of identification -- with the different branches reflecting different methods of expressing this identity.

The easy acceptance into mainstream Jewish life of Reconstructionism with its absence of a personal G-d reflects this. To illustrate, I once heard an Orthodox rabbi, active in Federation, share with his congregation the paradoxical reality that, theologically, he had more in common with certain liberal Protestant denominations than Reconstructionist Judaism. That Reconstructionist Jews should be accepted as Jews is not the issue; the issue is that we do not even recognize the extent of our theological and philosophical differences -- and choose to simply ignore them. Statements such as the one made by the Agudas HaRabbonim are, thus, understood as, again, the Orthodox attacking the Conservative or Reform Jew's method of identifying as a Jew. No wonder what is heard is an attack on identity. And statements made as this one was -- that project Orthodoxy by simply ignoring and/or attacking Conservative and Reform Judaism rather than demanding individuals to determine their commitment through study and philosophical investigation -- do nothing to change this perspective and only fuel the flame.

Perhaps we shy away from investigating the differences between the branches because we are afraid of the consequences. Maybe within our deep consciousness, we are afraid that the philosophical distinctions are too large to foster unity -- and that a rift among Jews is inevitable. Ignoring the truth about the philosophical distinctions between the branches and attempting to achieve unity by ignoring reality, though, is inherently doomed to failure. It is time to start, again, to understand our Jewishness in philosophical terms, that identity as a Jew does not simply represent an emotional desire to connect with a certain sub-group of humanity but reflects a commitment to certain ideals and concepts. Let then the branches argue openly what these ideals and concepts are and let individuals aspire to make decisions based on knowledge and the truth of assertions. Is this not what Saadia Gaon and Rambam demanded?

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht


[1] See Toronto Star, Tuesday, April 1, 1997, page A2.

[2] How presumptuous it would be for any human being to declare that any other human being is good or not. Throughout the Torah literature, it is clear that there is only One True Judge and it is not for us to decide on the ultimate good or evil of an individual.

[3] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, On Seating and Sanctification in Baruch Litvin, The Sanctity of the Synagogue. In specific circumstances, it should be noted that, halacha l'ma'aseh, a posek may find a heter that would allow attendance.

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