Struggling with the World, Part 1

I’m not arguing for either the superiority or the necessity of a covenantal orientation to life for the realization of human responsibility and dignity. In thinking about Judaism, I cannot ignore the fact that atheists act with moral dignity and compassion in the world. I believe, in contrast to many contemporary religious thinkers, that secular humanism is a viable and morally coherent position. What I am claiming is only that neither the critique of halakhic Judaism found in the Christian tradition nor the moral critique found in Spinoza is convincing. There are many different approaches to human life that encourage initiative, intellectual freedom, responsibility, and the sense of personal adequacy and dignity. I am not arguing that faith is necessary in order to have these values, but only that faith in a covenantal God of Judaism does not have to contradict or undermine them.

The God of Sinai does not merely hand over responsibility for the mitzvot to Israel and then take His leave. He also commits Himself to permanent involvement in the history of the community…

-Rabbi David Hartman
Chapter 8: “Rabbinic Responses to Suffering”
A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism

I hadn’t intended to turn this into a series, but I find myself continuing to compare the relative merits of the moral and ethical positions of Christianity and, if not atheism as such, progressive secular humanism, which is the predominant philosophy of modern western culture. My previous missives on this topic are Collision, which is my introduction into why atheism holds such animosity toward Christians and Repairing Life which suggests one possible response.

That should have been the end of my reflections on “Religion vs. Atheism,” and it was from a Christian point of view, but I neglected to discuss how Judaism considers this dynamic. As with many things, there’s no single Jewish viewpoint (and I’m probably not qualified to write about this but I will anyway) so I’ll try to offer two: one from Rabbi Hartman’s above-quoted book and the other from Rabbi Tzvi Freeman and

Whenever someone asks me a question, I first have to think, “What kind of a box has this guy trapped me in?” Then I can deconstruct the box. If the box dissolves, there goes the question. If it doesn’t dissolve, I better listen up. The guy’s got a point.

Here comes one now:
“Rabbi, what was the Rebbe’s response to modernity?”

For at least two hundred years, Jews scrambled to find a response to modernity.

Today, there’s no longer much scrambling. Movements have stopped moving, firmly entrenched. But there was a time when Jewish creative genius generated a cacophony of responses to modernity: Reform, Orthodoxy, Zionism, Religious Zionism, Conservative, Ultra-Orthodoxy, Reconstructionism, Modern Orthodoxy, Renewal and more. Each movement had leaders who spent their years zealously articulating and re-articulating their particular response to the progressive, liberal, enlightened, modern world that came rushing down upon us, particularly after France beheaded its kings and smokestacks started belching into the sky.

Now, in Brooklyn sat a Jewish leader who built up a powerhouse movement that has transformed the face of Jewry worldwide. What was his response to modernity?

Gotcha. Neat little box. But it doesn’t work. What doesn’t work? The box: “Response.”

Again, as I mentioned in my other blog posts on this subject, I’m not trying to “prove” that religion is right and atheism is wrong or even to say that one group possesses an inherently greater moral response to life than the other (although from my point of view, religion should have the greater moral response).

I want to show that the issue can be as simple as how much or how little of themselves people choose to invest in their particular belief systems and and also demonstrate that these matters are far more complex than what we think of as mere “right and wrong.”

Rabbi Hartman’s position might be considered the more progressive of the two based on the quote I used to open this “extra meditation.” Rabbi Freeman represents the more conservative view. He suggests that historically, Judaism has responded to modernity by generating multiple variations of Judaism to adapt to the demands of progressiveness, but currently seems to be digging its heels in, so to speak, as representative of the Orthodox. But as we see from continuing to review Rabbi Freeman’s commentary, even this isn’t as two-dimensional as it appears.

Rabbi Freeman uses the dilemma of Children of Israel trapped between an advancing and vengeful Egyptian army and the uncrossable barrier of the Reed Sea (Exodus 14) as a metaphor for the struggle of Judaism to respond to liberal modernity.

The Children of Israel are stuck at the Sea of Reeds. The Egyptian army is closing in fast. The Jews divide into four parties—four opposing responses to one situation, perfectly summarizing the orthodox responses of the modern era: The Just-Go-Back-to-Egypt response, the I’d-Rather-Drown-Myself response, the Get-Up-And-Fight response and the Get-Down-And-Pray response.

Response Today
Self-Drowning Immerse in a ghetto of Torah, and pretend the world does not exist.
Back to Egypt Give up on the world, on the future, or on trying to change anything. Just do what you have to do because G‑d says so.
Fighting Prove that we are right and they are wrong.
Praying Rely on G‑d to bring Moshiach real soon.

G‑d’s response? You’re all wrong.

“Why are you crying out to me?” G‑d demands of Moses. “Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them to keep going forward!”

No response. No reaction. Proaction. Take charge. You have a purpose, you’re going somewhere. Keep going.

According to Rabbi Freeman, the response of Israel to the demands of progressionism is to progress. Of course, this doesn’t mean abandoning the covenant of Sinai and blending into the general cultural herd, which for a Jew would basically mean assimilation, but it doesn’t mean hiding or freezing in place, either. If the world moves, move with it, but don’t forget to take who you are with you and particularly, don’t forget to take God.

But the world of faith is always vulnerable, not just to tragedy and evil, but to how those elements of life are interpreted, and on some occasions, used against religious people by not only the atheists who blame all the world’s woes on religion (as if humanity weren’t capable of doing harm without a religious belief system to depend upon), but on our own doubts when “bad things happen to good people,” or when God is otherwise incomprehensible.

Rabbi Hartman continues on this point:

From the anthropological perspective on the problem of evil, therefore, the prime concern is not so much to defend the notions of divine justice and power. It is rather, as in other personal relationships, to determine what measure of continuity, stability, and predictability can enable the relationship with God to survive all shocks. It is to identify the cluster of beliefs that supports a person’s will to persist in the face of tragedy and suffering. If the world I live in requires that I become overly vigilant because of the threat of danger striking at any moment, then how can I sustain commitment to a way fo life predicated on God’s covenantal love and justice?

How do we respond to events that can call into question our whole identity as God’s relational partners?

An atheist can dismiss such questions by dismissing God. The presence of tragedy, suffering, and evil can be accepted as conditions of a natural world filled with imperfect human beings. It can also be a world that, while imperfect, is struggling to develop toward a higher moral and ethical reality as indeed, progressivism strongly believes. Human beings then, establish and revise the foundations of our own morality, sometimes radically, as time advances and the concepts of rightness, mercy, and justice continue to evolve in societal consciousness.

But what about the covenantal Jew? How does he resolve or at least address this problem? We’ll pursue the answer to that and other questions in Part 2.

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