Who Needs Theology?

December 1, 2005
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Neil Gillman

A recent encounter with a rabbinical student forced me to confront a reality that I had long tried to avoid. We were discussing God: How do we know about God? What can we say about God? and the rest, when the student’s hand shot up. “Why are we discussing all of this? What we need from you is some practical help on how to get Jews to have a kosher home or keep Shabbat. Theology is irrelevant.”

A personal note: My mature engagement with Judaism came on the wings of theology. I had been a philosophy major at McGill University and comfortable on the periphery of Jewish life when I wandered into a Hillel lecture by Will Herberg. This was the first hint I ever had that Judaism was intellectually stimulating.   Maimonides knew Plato and Aristotle! Kaplan had read Dewey! Franz Rosenzweig was a Jewish existentialist! There was a field called Jewish philosophy? That encounter led me to rabbinical school, where I soon realized that my fascination with theological issues was not shared by most of the seminary teachers. I went on for a doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University (the Jewish Theological Seminary did not have a PhD program in those days) and then a career teaching and writing Jewish philosophy and theology.

Early on in my rabbinic studies, a talmudic sugya prompted me to comment on the rabbinic concept of God. The instructor, a prominent talmudist, responded, “Mr. Gillman, God yes, God no. What’s important in this text is whether or not you put on tefillin this morning.” (The sugya had something to do with tefillin .) The response that came to my mind (though not to my lips) was, “Without God, I wouldn’t even begin to consider putting on tefillin .” For me at least, theology – what I more colloquially came to call “doing the head work,” – was simply indispensable to my Jewish religious identity. And, as I began to write and teach, my primary goal has been to convince my students and readers that it should be indispensable to them as well.

Bringing theology – and especially revelation – to the core of Jewish identity and identification has proven increasingly frustrating. And yet, how we address revelation determines our views on authority in matters of belief and practice, and how we address authority determines where we locate ourselves in the contemporary Jewish community.

As a Conservative Jew, the issue of revelation is particularly complex. I can neither accept as literally true the claim that God once spoke to our ancestors, nor can I dismiss Sinai as pure fiction. I need to articulate a theology of revelation that permits me to claim that God did reveal the Torah to the Jewish people. But it should also enable me to pursue higher biblical criticism, question the historicity of the pentateuchal narratives, and apply a critical, wide-ranging historicism to the study of Judaism. I support the decisions of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Law and Standards that, inter alia , permits the marriage of a kohen and a divorcee (though that practice is explicitly prohibited in the Torah) and is seriously considering the possibility of ordaining gays and lesbians. But intermarriage and patrilineal descent remain forbidden because, to quote the movement’s favorite slogan, “we are a halakhic movement!”

I have spent years trying to resolve these sometimes competing understandings of halakhah into a coherent theological position. Franz Rosenzweig, Mordecai Kaplan, and Abraham Joshua Heschel serve as my guides. While I had hoped that my students, my rabbinic colleagues, and at least some lay Conservative Jews would welcome these efforts, I have met with limited success.

My position is roughly the following. I have become increasingly impatient with the claim that Conservative Judaism is “a halakhic movement.” If anything, it is a “selectively halakhic movement.” It is halakhic when it chooses to be halakhic. Whatever authority we grant halakhah in our lives is grounded not in God, but rather in the communities that crafted Torah in the first place, and now in our own. That position inevitably relativizes halakhic authority. I see no way to avoid that conclusion. But then, I am asked, why keep kosher or observe Shabbat? Answer: because we choose to obligate ourselves. But isn’t that Reform? Answer: not if we make different choices.

Originally I had believed that a candid articulation of this position would clarify the movement’s ideology. But now I realize my student had been right all along. It’s not that my theology is wrong-headed. It is simply irrelevant, first, because it is complicated to teach, much more complicated than the polar positions on the right and on the left. Jews out there just “don’t get it,” and don’t care enough to exert the effort to “get it.”
Second, they don’t need to get it because Jews make their Jewish decisions for many reasons; theology is rarely one of them. It may be important to some few, but certainly not to the vast majority, not even to many of my rabbinic colleagues, which is why this position is rarely explicitly taught, preached, or advocated.

Theology is not only an academic discipline; the sheer experience of living everyday life forces all of us to confront theological issues. It is the responsibility of the rabbi or educator to raise these private ruminations into conscious awareness. In some instances, the process will help clarify a denominational identity. At other times, it may not. But in both cases, the enterprise of doing Jewish theology will be validated.

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Neil Gillman, Chair of the Sh'ma Advisory Committee, continues to teach Jewish theology at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He is the author, most recently, of Traces of God: Seeing God in Torah, History and Everyday Life , forthcoming from Jewish Lights Publishing.

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