Jul 7, 2010

Meeting God Face to Face: In Defense of Conservative Judaism

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Meeting God Face to Face: In Defense of Conservative Judaism
Rabbi Joel Roth


This piece first appeared in the Spring 1999 issue of JTS Magazine. You can read this issue and others online at 

 [bearded man sits with scroll] Most people know that there is a branch of theology called apologetics. But its name gives it a bum rap. Apologetics, in fact, has a glorious history. The word comes to us from Latin through the Greek apologiaApologia means not what we generally mean by the English word "apology" but rather, "defense." Technically, apologetics is called apologia pro vitam suam, or a "defense of one's own life." Apologetics, then, is a branch of theological inquiry that defends a belief system against those who question it or revile it. When the prophet Isaiah says, "Thus said God who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what it brings forth, who gave breath to the people upon it and life to those who walked thereon: "I the Lord have summoned you...I created you and appointed you a covenanted people, a light of nations,'" he was engaged in apologetics.

In the early first century in Alexandria, there was a philosopher named Philo who wrote a work entitled Apology on Behalf of the Jews. In it, he explained and defended Judaism against external accusations. Similarly, in the late first century, the historian and militarist Josephus wrote an apology that is still studied called Contra Apion (Against Apion). And in the twelfth century, the Spanish poet and philosopher Yehuda Halevi wrote the Kuzari, a backbone of medieval Jewish philosophy and an unabashed book of apologetics. Throughout the Middle Ages, Jewish scholars and sages in Europe were forced to engage in public debates with members of other faiths and defend the beliefs of the Jews. A lot rode on those disputations, for if the Jewish defender lost, a pogrom usually followed. Finally, skipping to the nineteenth century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch engaged in apologetics to defend Orthodoxy against the claims of Reform Judaism and to bring wayward Jews back into the fold.

This is only a brief summary of some of the glorious history of the field of apologetics. It serves as background for the claim I wish to make: that we Conservative Jews owe it to ourselves to engage in a little bit of apologetics. Our authenticity and legitimacy are often contested or reviled, both from within our ranks and from without. Though I cannot dispute the criticism that many Conservative Jews do not observe what Conservative Judaism actually mandates, and I do not wish to defend that lack of observance, I firmly believe that we are falsely accused of other things and that if we recognize them as false, observance might quickly follow.

We as Conservative Jews are often faulted for a lack of religious fervor, the absence of a religious quest and a paucity of spirituality. This criticism, I believe, grows out of our passionate commitment to dispassionate scholarship. Many believe that because we engage in that type of learning, we view our subject through a lens of "otherness," as if we are studying some ancient people but have nothing personal at stake.

The premise of our scholarly method is that Jews and Judaism have never existed in a vacuum. Rather, we have affected our surroundings and they have affected us. If the goal of our scholarship is to understand our own growth and development, we must understand our environment. This undertaking is not the study of some long dead or long forgotten society, but the quest for the understanding of our own essence. For example, if I am ignorant of the creation and flood traditions of the ancient Near East, I do not comprehend the religious significance of their presence in the Torah. When I read those parshiyot (Torah portions), they are no less filled with religious meaning because I know that we share some core traditions with other ancient peoples; rather, their spiritual content and significance lie in our unique Judaization of those shared traditions. Indeed, if I do not recognize this phenomenon, I lose a dimension of our religious creativity. If I naively believe that we alone possess those traditions, or if I worry unnecessarily about whether they are historical fact or not, I miss the point entirely.

If I am ignorant of Greek and Roman history and institutions, then vast parts of rabbinic literature remain for me an untapped reservoir of rabbinic struggle against values the rabbis found wanting, of rabbinic lessons on how to be a minority culture loyal to its roots while afloat in the sea of a majority culture. If I am ignorant of Aristotelian and Muslim thought, I cannot really understand Maimonides or appreciate his religious genius. I cannot see that he Judaized Aristotle rather than "Aristotelianizing" Judaism. Nothing is more spiritual than learning these lessons, for the history of our people and its ongoing, developing relationship with God is reflected in them. The list goes on and on.

 [Recent Rabbinical School graduates Abby Sosland and Jane Kanarek debate a text]
 Recent Rabbinical School graduates Abby Sosland
and Jane Kanarek debate a text
PHOTO: Marjorie Gersten
I study Akkadian and Ugaritic, ancient Semitic languages. I study Greek and Latin and Arabic and German and French. I study the history, the literature and the philosophy of every nation among whom we Jews have lived. These disciplines, contrary to accusation, do not secularize Torah; they sanctify it. They do not diminish the religious power of Torah; they enhance it. I study not to veil God in an impenetrable cloud of dispassionate and irreligious scholarship, but in order to meet God face to face in every era, as He reveals Himself through the ongoing encounter with our people. I and my generation are the current link in this unending process. Critical, historical and dispassionate scholarship, the hallmarks of Conservative Judaism, do not separate us from God. They bring us closer to God.

Can anyone who actually studied with H. L. Ginsberg, the most eminent Bible scholar of the previous generation of JTS faculty, doubt for one moment that his reconstruction of biblical texts was anything but a spiritual undertaking? As a Jew, H. L. Ginsberg knew that one must know what the Bible says and truly understand it, for it is the core of the divine message to the people. And really knowing what it says requires doing with the text what H. L. Ginsberg did. When he learned about Ugaritic and Akkadian cognates, he did so as a committed Jew who needed to know them in order to understand the message of Isaiah. Can anyone who actually studied with Saul Lieberman, Louis Finkelstein, Zalman Dimitrovsky, David Halivni, Moses Zucker, Abraham Joshua Heschel or Shalom Spiegel ever doubt that they were engaged in a religious enterprise? That they saw their scholarship as furthering Torah and not its antithesis? I studied with all of them. All of us who have are witnesses to the spirituality of their study and to the fact that their study was an act of divine service and worship.

Professor Finkelstein, of blessed memory, who served as JTS chancellor from 1951 until 1972, is regularly quoted as having said, "When I pray, I speak to God; and when I study, God speaks to me." What does the last part of the quotation mean, if not that the very type of study to which he devoted his life was what he understood that God demanded? For him, the ultimate quest for Jewish spirituality demanded knowing if there was a variant reading in one of twenty extant manuscripts of theSifra (a rabbinic commentary on Leviticus). It demanded knowing whether a word in the text he was studying came from a Latin root, a Greek root or was an indigenous Hebrew root. Professor Finkelstein insisted on such knowledge because he knew that dimensions of Torah could be understood adequately only on the basis of such fully rounded knowledge.

We have our shortcomings as a movement, and it behooves us to work on them. But we should know that what we stand for is authentically Jewish, spiritually rewarding and religiously fulfilling. Conservative Judaism at its best is the most authentic road to God in the Jewish world today. That is what attracted me to the Conservative movement in the first place. That is why it continues to attract me, and that is why I unashamedly and unabashedly devote my life to this religious movement. Conservative Judaism can be as spiritually rewarding and religiously fulfilling for every Conservative Jew. I invite you to join me in that quest.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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-- menachemcreditor.org

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