In today’s commentary I am continuing my take on the questions that Rabbi Wine suggested must be answered by every modern Jewish movement. Here is his third question:
"How do we bridge the gulf between the Jewish personality of the past – pious, faithful, reverent and traditional – with the Jewish personality of the present – challenging, rational, skeptical and creative?"
While Rabbi Wine spoke about the two Jewish personalities, I prefer to look at the two broader contexts of pre- and post-modern life. I will work off the assumption that the gulf he refers to is between the Middle Ages and the beginnings of early modernity, approximately before and after 1500 C.E. Since Christian Europe hosted the largest Jewish community and is the source of most American Judaisms, I’ll start there, where there was surely a very great difference in conceptions of reality before and after 1500 C.E.
During the Middle Ages, Christian nations viewed the universe through one or another version of Plato’s “Great Chain of Being.” This hierarchy of everything placed God at the very top and made its way down through spheres of angels, humans, animals, plants, and minerals. They envisioned the human sphere with its own sub-hierarchies. At the top was the Crown, followed by clergy and nobility, and ending with the peasantry. (When in the 17th century modernity threatened the monarchy, those who still clung to the Great Chain of Being argued that it called for a Divine Right of Kings. Two prominent kings – England’s Charles I and France’s Louis XVI – would lose their heads over this, putting the final nails in the Great Chain’s coffin.)
Medieval Jews lived in this reality, too, so it was not incorrect for Rabbi Wine to describe the basis of their own social organization as “pious, faithful, reverent and traditional.” The whole of Christendom was organized that way. However, we also know that modernity ultimately loosened the traditional social and political binds of Christian societies. Who was responsible for the European Christian transition away from these medieval concepts of reality? It was the product of those who were “challenging, rational, skeptical and creative.”
From Renaissance to Reformation to Enlightenment, such Europeans changed everything. At the risk of distorting Rabbi Wine’s metaphor, they did not bridge a gulf. They completely filled it in through hundreds of years of work to replace the Chain of Being with countless competing alternatives. It was a long and painful process, frequently involving massive bloodshed. Yet at the end, Christendom looked entirely different. Soon we would not even call European civilization by that name.
At the same time that Europe’s leaders were shaping what became our modern world, its Jews were busy producing their own challengers, rationalists, skeptics and creative types. Among the first and most famous was Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza (1632-1677). He was not terribly effective, mostly because he was way ahead of his time, but he was far from alone. While Christian Protestants were duking it out over the Reformation and republicans were challenging monarchies, Jews were engaged in parallel challenges. Today’s pious Hasidim started out as rebellious Eastern European spiritualists, determined to overthrow the entire structure of Jewish community. Central European Jewish religious reformers introduced creative new approaches to Jewish practice. Those drawn to European nationalism looked to its principle and conceptualized Zionism. On and on it went as new Jewish responses emerged and evolved.*
Humanistic Judaism is but one creative, rational, and skeptical response to the many, many post-medieval changes that so profoundly altered our world. Though it sometimes seems helpful to portray our movement as gulf-bridging, I prefer to see it as but one important attempt among many by which Jews update Judaism. The concept that Humanistic Judaism erects a bridge over some gulf-sized gap between two distinct “personalities” doesn’t quite work for me. Perhaps I’ve been in too many other successful challenging, skeptical, and creative Jewish settings to feel that we got it all right. Rabbi Wine’s innovations are significant and important. The Jewish world needed a nontheistic Humanistic version of Judaism and as a Jew and humanist it was a great fit for me. It is not, however, the only Jewish movement to successfully answer his third question. It is but one among many that honors parts of our traditional past while calling upon the same skeptical and creative impulses that every modern movement has called upon for the last 500 years.
By the way, my analysis of Rabbi Wine’s question is by no means a disagreement with his answer. His is the road I chose to follow and here’s what he had to say about the third question:
"Humanistic Jews find the Jewish present just as interesting as the Jewish past. The secular world of science and technology has given the Jew more education, power and intellectual clout than he has ever enjoyed before. By virtue of their unprecedented affluence and freedom, contemporary Jews are, at least, the equals of their desert ancestors. An appropriate Jewish history gives as much time to Einstein as to Moses."
To which I quite traditionally offer a hearty “Amen!”
* In the interest of space, I deliberately left out the Jews of Islamic lands who, like their Muslim neighbors became skeptical, rational challengers in their own right even earlier than the Jews in Christian Europe.