September 19, 2019

A Return to Theology

“Most Jews are ignorant of some of the most basic beliefs that define Judaism. This indictment applies to Jews of all sects from the most liberal to the most Orthodox.
An over emphasis of Halacha has led our people to think that Jewish belief is unimportant. This in turn filters into almost every aspect of Jewish life, and therefore is of course going to be reflected in our school curriculum. After all, we are told time and again that we are a religion of deed, not creed. Even the haredi world seems to have neglected its study. As Marc B. Shapiro writes: “Jewish theology is not taken seriously in contemporary Orthodoxy. Unlike earlier generations, which had their ‘professional’ theologians or, at the very least, scholars who devoted a great deal of time to this field, today we have talmudists, who at best merely dabble in it.”

Yesheyahu Leibowitz, for example, is famous for his belief that Judaism was to be defined by adherence to the mitzvot alone. In his conception, the attachment of any other rhyme or reason for the mitzvot other than fulfillment of the divine will is to make avodah zarah (idolatry) of the mitzvah. While Leibowitz himself is not mainstream Orthodox, this idea of his is reflected in the concentration in Yeshiva curriculum on Halacha. The oft-repeated mantra heard in yeshivas is that “a good Jew is one who keeps Shulchan Aruch” completely neuters the role of belief and faith in the life of Orthodox Jews. Yet, from my experience teaching Judaism for over two decades, this is a mistake. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “to reduce Judaism to law, to Halacha, is to dim its light, to pervert its essence and to kill its spirit.”

As Modern Orthodox educators, the retention of our youth in the Jewish fold should be our first and primary goal. We cannot encourage them to find their place in the modern world by taking positions in law, medicine and business without equipping them to successfully “hold their own” in those spaces. While educating them in areas of Halacha and textual proficiency should remain our focus, there clearly needs to be other areas of Jewish knowledge that need to be imparted to our students before they leave our yeshivot and seminaries and make their way to the university.”

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