“V’CHOL N’TIVOTECHA SHALOM”
“ALL ITS PATHS ARE PEACE”
Early Shabbat Study and Discussion on
Ways of Being (and Doing) Jewish
Liberal Judaism (1984) and Renewing the Covenant (1991)1
Introduction: our story to this point.
We previously considered Orthodox Judaism, through the lens of Rabbi
Joseph Soloveitchik’s classic volume, Halakhic Man. Soloveitchik
described a division between what he termed “cognitive man” and
“religious man”. Cognitive man, says Soloveitchik, seeks to
understand the world. The religious man argues that there are
aspects of the world we cannot understand.
Halakhic man bridges the gap, Soloveitchik argues. Halakhah is
the template according to which he lives his life. Halakhic man
relies on Halakhah to help bring the divine, hidden aspects of the
world down to a concrete level. Taken as a whole, Soloveitchik’s
argument throughout Halakhic Man constitutes a passionate explanation
for a way of life that may to an outsider appear rigid and arbitrary.
Borowitz’s prose is clear and precise, and does not argue as abstractly
or with as much technical language as is found in Soloveitchik.
It therefore requires less introductory explanation. Generally,
Borowitz addresses key issues of Jewish life and thought through the
perspective that might be employed by an engaged modern Jew. The
term “engaged” is key. While Borowitz does not feel “commanded”
to follow Halakhah, he argues for (and is expressly writing for) a
caring core of Jews who are committed to living Jewishly and to
wrestling with the issues of what that means in the modern era.
Borowitz explores four main themes (and we will follow his pattern):
what does it mean to be Jewish?; how do we understand God?; how has our
understanding of Jewish law evolved?; and what are our ethical and
ritual obligations as Jews?
I. The Jewish People
1. What Sort of Group are the Jews?
Borowitz begins his examination of the question of “who are the Jews”
by describing familiar patterns.
In the largest cities the overwhelming majority of Jews remain
unaffiliated. Those who do associate with a religious institution
rarely do so for spiritual reasons. They speak instead of their
children’s needs for Jewish identification or their sense of community
In almost every individual country, we develop intimate, barely
describable yet effective expressions and signals of our
Jewishness. We have our special ways of eating, of drinking, of
handling class status; we have familiar jokes, patterns of gossip, and
reference signals that…enable us to detect in an unfamiliar crowed who
else is a “member of the tribe”…
Almost none of what I have described is normally considered part of a
religion yet it comprises much of the reality of American Jewish lives.
(LJ, pages 19-20).
Borowitz goes on to provide a historical summary of how Jews have
thought of themselves. In earlier times, there was a sense of
Borowitz quotes the characterization provided by the first century
historian Josephus (who betrayed Judea to the Romans, but was
nevertheless a sober historian).
Other lawgivers gave “instructions in words” or stressed “exercises in
practice…Our legislator [Moses] very carefully joined these two methods
of instruction together…Beginning with the earliest infancy and the
partaking of food, he left nothing, not even of the smallest
consequence, to be done at the pleasure and caprice of the persons
themselves, but made fixed laws and rules. He did not suffer the
pretext of ignorance to be valid…but ordained that people should stop
their activities and assemble together to hear the Law and be perfectly
instructed in it…every week…And it is this very thing that
principally creates such wonderful oneness of mind among
us. Because we have one and the same religious belief and have no
difference from one another in our way of living and our manners, we
have the most excellent agreement in our human character.”
(LJ p. 23)
Borowitz describes how, through medieval times
Jews were as good as a state within the regular state.
(LJ p. 25)
The turning point came with the Enlightenment. A major
consequence of the Enlightenment was that the state began to be defined
in secular and national, rather than religious terms.
With the inception of the politics of modernity, religion and
nationality were sundered from one another, making it far more
difficult to adequately describe the Jews as a group.
(LJ p. 26).
Borowitz describes how the concept of race arose in the early 20th
century and how some Jews sought to define themselves in those
terms. The Nazi Germany abuse of this mode of thought – together
with scientific research - has led to general abandonment of this means
of attempting to identify Jews.
The birth of Zionism and Israel raises the question as to the extent to
which being Jewish can be defined in purely national and secular
terms. He quotes Herzl:
“I consider the Jewish question [anti-Semitism] neither a social nor a
religious one, though it occasionally takes these and other
forms. It is a national question.”
(LJ p. 30).
Borowitz is not comfortable with the notion of the Jewish people as
being – as a result of Zionism – essentially secular and
non-religious. He argues:
I would argue that the notion of Jewish nationalism is the mirror-image
error of asserting that the Jews are a religious group.
(LJ p. 32)
Borowitz explains the differing perspectives of what it means to be
Jewish by describing the different viewpoints taken in Israel and parts
of the Diaspora, notably America:
In western Europe and America, the Jews overwhelmingly spoke of
themselves as a religion, thus losing much of the national side of
historic Judaism. In Eastern Europe, most Zionists rejected the
religious definition. They proclaimed the Jews to be a nation
like all other secular nations, thus denying the centrality of God and
Torah in Jewish existence over the millennia…
Most Israelis still think and talk in terms of the secularism of
classic Zionist theory – to the consternation of the American Jews who
take the religious interpretation of Jewish life for granted.
(LJ p. 32).
Borowitz goes on to explain that the 20th century sociology term
“ethnic group” is useful. To introduce the religious element,
Borowitz coins the term: “religio-ethnic group.” (LJ p. 37).
2. How did Judaism Begin?
Borowitz continues with an examination of both the “traditional” and
“modern” accounts of early Jewish history. He reviews the
issue of the extent to which the historical material in the Bible is
reliable. He notes the major external evidence: archaeological
findings and documents from other sources. As Borowitz puts it
We do not know much and are unlikely to learn more.
(LJ p. 40).
Next, Borowitz examines a corollary issue: the development of
monotheism among the Jews. One issue is whether the monotheistic
belief evolved and gradually took root, or was a result of sudden
inspiration. Borowitz makes the point that monotheism is
exclusively a development among the Hebrew tribes, not among their
The spiritual history of ancient humanity knows nothing like the God of
the Hebrew Bible. Only the Hebrews arrived at a fully
(LJ p. 45)
The question of what “really” happened regarding the creation of
monotheism is, Borowitz says, cast in humanistic terms. That is,
the underlying assumption is that we can only address what people
did. Borowitz argues that the accounts of the development of
monotheism contained in the Hebrew Bible are convincing because they
appear to accurately portray human nature:
These accounts of the Hebrews’ backsliding are so human – which is to
say that we recognize ourselves in them – that we can hardly doubt
them. They describe the way we would expect people to behave when
challenged by a radical doctrine.
(LJ p. 47).
Borowitz goes on to describe perspectives on the development of Jewish
monotheism that are not exclusively humanistic – that is, the view that
God and people can “communicate” (in some non-Orthodox fashion, to
(LJ p. 47).
Of particular note is the view of Heschel that posing the question as
we do says more about us than about God. As Borowitz explains
[Heschel] held that critical modern conceptions of what transpired in
the biblical period say more about our modern self-assertion and denial
of God than they do about what “really” happened.
(LJ p. 48).
3. Are the Jews Chosen?
Borowitz confronts directly the “paradox” of the idea of the Jews as
the chosen people as being already present in the Hebrew Bible.
This distinction between the Jews and other peoples creates a
paradoxical biblical view of humankind. The biblical writers
earnestly believe in the essential equality of all human beings before
God…The authors of the Bible also assert that God separated one group
from among all other groups of humans and brought them into a unique
relationship with God.
(LJ p. 52).
Borowitz explains that, until modern times, Jews did not have much
difficulty regarding themselves as different. In their manner of
worship and daily lives, Jews were demonstrably different from their
neighbors. Borowitz also notes that the concept of a “chosen
people” has lived parallel to a long history of Jewish persecution,
leading to the familiar quip – why didn’t You choose someone else? (LJ
But modernity undermines the assumptions about the distinctiveness of
any one group of people. The idea of a God who selects a
particular group clashes with our scientific and rational understanding:
…the notion of God choosing seems irredeemably prescientific…We see
events occurring largely in terms of natural patterns rather than as
the result of unpredictable divine incursions…[T]hat God, at one point
in history, selected the Jews from among all the nations can hardly
find a place in our modern world view.
(LJ pages 59-60).
In addition, the notion of a chosen people clashes with our
understanding of the commonality of humanity.
The doctrine [of a chosen people] also troubles us because our
intellectuality demands universalism…We know increasingly, as no
generation of earlier times, that humankind is truly one.
(LJ p. 60).
Borowitz then surveys the ways Jewish thinkers have attempted to
grapple with the concept of a chosen people. He notes that
Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement (whom we
will examine in more depth at a future date), says simply that the
doctrine must be eliminated.
[Kaplan] insists that this Jewish tenet defies reinterpretation and
must be abandoned. Its views of God and of humanity are equally
(LJ p. 61).
Borowitz notes that one reinterpretation of the idea of a chosen people
disclaims any superiority on the part of Jews, but at the same time
acknowledges the unique contributions that Jews have made as a
people. These thinkers argue that all groups demonstrate some
distinctive way of living which is their
unique contribution to the development of humankind. One might
then argue that the Jews have shown a special gift for ethical religion
but this would not be extended as a claim for Jewish superiority…We can
give up chosenness and the invidiousness implicit in it without denying
the special contribution our people has made to history.
(LJ p. 62).
Borowitz goes on to examine the views of Baeck, Buber, and
Heschel. He notes that Baeck argues that the idea of ethical
monotheism is historically deeply identified particularly with the
Jewish people. Buber, from his view of relationship as being at
the core of religion, argues that only the Jews chose as a people to
establish a reciprocal relation with God, and staked its entire
being and purpose on that relationship.
He concludes the discussion of the chosen people by examining Heschel’s
view, which is at once traditional and modern. Heschel’s
traditionalist sensibility, Borowitz says, leads Heschel to contend that
[w]hen we regain a radical wonder before the grandeur of the God who
made everything possible – including our questions about particularity
– then we can accept the Torah’s incontrovertible historic declaration:
God’s revelation came fully to the people of Israel and to no other.
(LJ, p. 67).
At the same time, Borowitz continues, Heschel was enough of a modernist
and universalist to not leave the matter at that point. Heschel
argued, and lived his life, according to the principle that
[t]he Covenant mandated a concern for all humanity and that, wherever
human values were seriously at stake, Jewish interests were necessarily
(LJ p. 67).
Elsewhere, Borowitz argues that there is really no basis on which to
ground the idea of chosenness:
Since sociologists created and elaborated the notion of “culture,” folk
psychology and the idea of peoples having specific ethnic talents have
become intellectually unsupportable. Moreover, the more open-mindedly
one studies the history of Jewish culture, the less one can argue that
it evidences a gift for high culture and a distinctive ethics.
(RC p. 208).
4. What Do We Expect in the Messianic Age?
Borowitz discusses the origins and history of the concept of Messianism
in Jewish thought. He explains that it was unique in the ancient
world. He also underscores that it has become clouded by the
inevitable comparison with Christian doctrine. Borowitz leaves
one with the sense that the notion of a Messianic era, or end time, is
speculative and not particularly well thought out in the Jewish
tradition. As Borowitz explains
[t]raditional Judaism may properly be called a this-worldly religion…it
bids its adherents devote their lives to the spiritual challenges of
everyday existence rather than concentrate on what is likely to happen
to us in the world-to-come.
(LJ p. 75).
In modern times, Borowitz explains, liberal Jews have redefined
Messianism. It is defined in terms of what humans can
accomplish. In particular, democracy would give people the power
to strive toward these goals.
Instead of God sending an ideal king, they foresaw, all humankind
working together and by social reconstruction [would produce] a
(LJ p. 82).
Borowitz also explains his view that secular Jews have turned to
Marxism and/or to Zionism as, in effect, substitutes for a traditional
Somewhat surprisingly, Borowitz takes a slightly traditional view of
Messianism. This is an outgrowth of an understandable pessimism:
For Jews, after the Holocaust, to base their faith in our ultimate
destiny on the innate goodness of humanity seems ludicrous…
…For myself, I do not see how the liberal notion of a Messianic Age can
be freed from its corollary faith in the perfectibility of humankind by
human effort…I do not have such trust in us alone…
…Being more modest in our self-estimate today, I think we are ready to
acknowledge our need for God’s help in finally redeeming this sinful
world. Accepting God as a true partner does not require us to
surrender the sense of healthy self-reliance we identify with personal
maturity. Rather, an able but not omnipotent humankind, acting as
co-creator with God of the ideal society, reflects the classic Covenant
relationship between God and the people of Israel.
(LJ pages 85-86).
5. What Does the State of Israel Mean to Jews?
Borowitz begins by describing the obstacles faced by the early Zionists
and young State of Israel. As he notes:
For these Jews, largely survivors and refugees, it was an utterly
heroic undertaking – one they carried through successfully.
(LJ p. 91).
As Borowitz notes, the version of the Jewish people as embodied by
Israelis are entirely new:
No such Jews have existed for centuries, perhaps, ever. At their
best, they have a natural organic Jewishness unknown to Diaspora Jews.
(LJ p. 93).
Borowitz observes that
[m]ost impressively, despite a hard-bitten realism, they remain
idealists…The only heroics I want to call to your attention of the
average, overburdened, hard-working, troubled Israeli one meets when
one visits one’s relatives in the State of Israel or has a chance
conversation with someone there…What they have done, what they yet hope
to do despite all they have experienced and realistically fear, is
inspiring. I am
convinced that is why American Jews returning from their visits to the
State of Israel feel so proud and invigorated as Jews.
(LJ p. 94).
However, Borowitz next turns his attention to the areas of disconnect
between Israelis and Diaspora (chiefly American) Jews. He
comments on these sources of disagreement in the context of language,
culture, and politics.
As Borowitz acknowledges, American Jews largely refuse to learn
Hebrew. He notes, with a hint of sarcasm:
Were Americans less determinedly monolingual, a pervasive Hebraism
might soon characterize us – but, despite our love of the State of
Israel, little progress has been made in this regard.
(LJ p. 96).
Arising from this disconnect, American Jews find it difficult to relate
culturally to Israelis. American Jews look to Israel for
reinforcement of traditional motifs of Judaism. However, Israeli
authors, sure of their Jewishness, pay little direct attention
(LJ p. 97).
Borowitz cites as instances the novels of Amos Oz or the poetry of
Yehuda Amichai. It is similar with other writers. The
slowing down of life on Shabbat, the pervasiveness of the military, the
lingering shadow of the Holocaust, are so much a part of the fabric of
Israeli life as to form the background, rather than the focus, of much
of Israeli culture. As Borowitz indicates, for Israelis
Jewishness is more nationalistic; for American Jews, it is more
“religio-cultural” (LJ p. 98).
Borowitz indicates that politics form a particular source of occasional
strain between liberal Jews and Israelis. Note that Borowitz was
writing in 1984, and the problem has if anything become more
exacerbated subsequently. Borowitz contends that liberal Jews
find themselves in what he characterizes as a dilemma:
In my opinion, most liberal Jews want to maintain something of both
positions. They believe that Jews ought not to live by the
relatively cynical, a-moral standards of much of contemporary
civilization. Yet they know that political reality will
occasionally require Israeli governments to subordinate high human
standards to the proper demands of power. And they are
particularly concerned not to do anything which might hurt the State of
(LJ p. 101)2
6. Why Do Jews Have to Be Different?
In this chapter, Borowitz outlines the history of the Jewish choice to
be different, and the anti-Semitism that has accompanied that choice
through the centuries. Borowitz points out that the will to
worship one God drove the Jewish people’s sense of separateness.
Once again, the modern era brought a tidal change, and goes to the core
of American Jewish identity:
The overwhelming majority of Jews have not wanted to give up being
Jewish though they were desperately eager to be at home in Western
civilization…To this day, what constitutes the proper blend of
modernity and Jewishness, of social integration and separation, remains
the major problem of Jewish life…
…The first great response to the Emancipation was the liberalization of
Jewish religious life by Reform Jews and, in due course, by
Conservative and modern Orthodox Jews.
(LJ p. 115).
Borowitz particularly describes the approach taken by the Reform Jewish
movement to remake Judaism as a religion alongside other religions, but
effectively within the fold of the modern state and society. Borowitz
goes on to consider the factors which cause, or ought to
cause, some hesitation by Jews in fully assimilating. To give up our
separate Jewish existence in the hope of creating a
model of the new, undifferentiated humanity is too suicidal to be
called a worthy ideal.
(LJ p. 117).
Another argument is simply that the rest of the world will not allow
Jews to avoid the label of being Jewish. The Jew remains one of the
great scapegoats of Western
civilization. Third World politicians, whose countries have never
had a substantial Jewish population, regularly defame Zionism and the
State of Israel and, thereby, the Jewish people. The behavior of
the members of the United Nations has exploded whatever delusions we
once had about a parliament of nations finally bringing rationality
into international politics.
(LJ p. 117).
But Borowitz suggests that at least some liberal Jews are coming around
to the idea that they do not “believe nothing”. For such new
searchers, the Jewish distinctiveness of the Jewish people ultimately
derives from its continuing response to God, as difficult as that is to
acknowledge or talk about.
(LJ p. 118).
Borowitz concludes with a discussion of how intermarriage is deeply
affecting the notions of particularism versus universalism. He
concludes that, despite almost two centuries of experience, we have
consensus as to where exactly the balance between integration and
separatism should be set or just what forms it should most
(LJ p. 120).
7. Who is a Good Jew?
Borowitz attempts to answer this question. In so doing, he
understands that he has only the authority to persuade. Also,
Borowitz confronts directly the challenge of minimalism:
Many people want to know what constitutes a good Jew so that they can
find out how little they need to do and still maintain community
respectability…We are willing to fit a reasonable amount of Jewish
obligation into our already overscheduled lives.
(LJ p. 126).
It becomes clear, and Borowitz will make this explicit at the end of
the book, that Borowitz is struggling to find some standards that will
set forth a sense of seriousness of purpose in being Jewish, without
the imposition of the rigors of Halakhah.
Borowitz notes favorably that:
[m]ost modern Jews want to continue our tradition’s ancient emphasis on
action. We may not be as certain as previous generations were about the
details of proper Jewish living but we know that we shall judge the
good Jew more by practice than by thinking, feelings, or mental states.
(LJ p. 128).
However, Borowitz begins with an assertion that he realizes will be
problematic for many liberal Jews:
My first assertion is probably the most controversial one I shall make:
I consider nothing more fundamental to being a good Jews than belief in
(LJ p. 129).
The important qualifier is what we mean by “God”, and Borowitz reserves
that discussion for later in the volume.
Borowitz also emphasizes strongly – as do most Jews – the “ethics” of
Of all such duties, none has a higher place than that of being ethical.
(LJ p. 134).
Borowitz also argues for the importance of adopting the sense of rhythm
of life lived as Jews. He points particularly to “daily prayer,
study, and religious observance”. (LJ p. 134).
All these events have more than purely personal significance.
They have a communal dimension…Jewish duty largely centers on
participating in a rich Jewish family life. A good Jew
participates in the synagogue for there the community regularly renews
the Covenant through liturgy, deepens it in study, and refreshes it by
association. That institution, in turn, leads Jews on to serve
the Jewish community locally, nationally, and worldwide – and through
it, all humankind.
(LJ p. 135).
Borowitz also states that support for the State of Israel is a key
duty, whether the individual Jew lives in Israel or in the
Diaspora. He points to aliyah as being highly worthy, though not
in any way implying that Jewish life elsewhere is in any sense less
A good Jew will not despair…Our instinctive response to the Holocaust
was to take life and renew it…That, despite everything, the Jewish
people lives proclaims a uniquely positive message about the continuing
capabilities of people, the remaining possibilities of history, and the
enduring reality of God.
(LJ p. 136).
Questions for Discussion:
1. What themes of Borowitz resonate with us? Which do we find
2. How do we define “who are the Jews”? Is the definition
religious? cultural? national? racial? ethnic?something else?
3. Borowitz puts his chapter headings generally in the forms of
questions. What are our answers to some of these questions?
How do our answers compare with Borowitz’s?
4. Are Conservative (large “C”) Jews liberal (small “l”, and with
relatively minimal emphasis on the political dimension of the word)
Jews? To what extent do the categories overlap, and how do they
5. What are some features of Jewish life that Borowitz says were
radically altered by the Emancipation (also known as Enlightenment or
6. Why do we choose to identify as Conservative Jews?
II. The God We Affirm
1. How Can We Talk About God?
In the second part of Liberal Judaism, Borowitz focuses on how the
Reform movement addresses theological questions.
Borowitz begins with a discussion of the difficulty of communicating
anything about God. He does so with an initial survey of how
people create and use symbols. He talks about non-linguistic
symbols (ex. a flag or a trophy) and about how language is a system of
symbols. Borowitz further explains:
There is a social and historical dimension to symbols. They will
not work for you unless you are part of the group that shares them…We
begin to feel at home in a new culture not just when we can use its
language but when we can begin to respond emotionally to its symbol
(LJ p. 141).
Borowitz applies the explanation about symbols to theology by saying
that “God-Talk is necessarily symbolic” (LJ p. 142).
Our language about God is highly symbolic. That is, we take our
words for everyday things and press them into service as symbols, using
them to point beyond themselves to that ineffable reality, God.
(LJ p. 143).
Borowitz illustrates his point about symbolism by discussing at length
the significance of referring to God as a “Rock”. He notes some
of the Biblical uses of this term. As Borowitz notes, use of the
term “rock” on a literal level seems ridiculous. He continues by
noting the paradox of such usage in Judaism:
It makes no sense that a religion that often calls God a “rock”
adamantly refuses to use a stone object to stand for God.
(LJ p. 144).
Of course, as Borowitz explains, we use the term “rock” symbolically,
and that use of the term conveys a multiplicity of meanings relating to
our sense of God’s strength and endurance.
Borowitz discusses the difficulties Jews have had, and continue to
have, with the danger of literal interpretations about God’s hand, arm,
etc. He reminds us that Maimonides expressed great concern about
the tendency to anthropomorphize God (this concern is voiced in the
Yigdal hymn). Such terminology is particularly troubling in
a scientific era, Borowitz says. Further, the traditional use of
the masculine form clashes with present day norms about men and women.
2. How Do We Know God is Real?
Borowitz frames the problem thus:
Belief in God seems to be no problem to some people. They simply
know God exists and nothing, not even tragedy, shakes their
faith. Leo Baeck seemed to be such a person. Though this
great Jewish thinker was in a concentration camp during the Holocaust,
he came through the experience with his belief unchanged.
Most of us are not like that. We would like to believe in God and
sometimes we think we do, only soon to find ourselves questioning what
a few moments before seemed relatively certain. At such times
particularly, we wish we had reasons we could point to for our belief.
(LJ p. 153).
Borowitz acknowledges that the expression of doubt goes back to the
Bible. He points to the opening verse of Psalm 10 as an example:
“Why do you stand far off, O Lord,
And hide Yourself when we need You?”
(LJ p. 154).
Borowitz provides historical context for how the problem of knowing God
has been addressed in Jewish history. He explains that in the
Bible, there are three main arguments (1) the grandeur of creation (2)
the redemption from Egypt (3) the personal encounter of a particular
Medieval Jewish thought, led by Maimonides, followed the then prevalent
pattern of attempting to deduce the existence of God through
logic. As Borowitz notes, citing Descartes, these explanations
ultimately failed before the modern tendency to eliminate assumptions.
Today, says Borowitz, we moderns are as skilled at disbelief as the
medievals were at
(LJ p. 160).
Borowitz goes on to discuss the approaches of five major modern Jewish
thinkers on the topic of how we can know God, or know anything about
God. He discusses in turn Hermann Cohen and ethical monotheism;
Mordecai Kaplan and naturalism (hopefully, we will look more closely at
Kaplan later this spring); Leo Baeck’s reliance on religious sentiment;
Martin Buber and the God of dialogue or encounter; and Abraham Joshua
Heschel, who tried to turn the question on its head and question
whether human experience can be at all useful in “explaining” God.
Borowitz then explains that the classic liberal Jewish position has
been one of agnosticism. In particular, says Borowitz, the
question receded from importance:
More important, coming to a decision about God did not seem necessary
for we had other means of knowing our responsibilities. Our
ethics and politics were commanded by our faith in the goodness of
human nature and the obvious necessity of liberal social attitudes…We
could afford to be agnostics then for the general culture gave us our
values and our people’s needs mandated our Jewish responsibilities…In
the meantime, we suspended decision and went on with our lives.
(LJ p. 170).
However, Borowitz continues, we can no longer be so sanguine about
human nature or about the general culture. One senses the anguish
in his comments at this point:
We cannot depend on the secular culture to inculcate the values we know
to be basic to worthy human existence. We once took it for
granted that every intelligent person would have a clear and compelling
ethic…Once we thought that people did not need to believe anything
special to be committed to a proper set of human values. Now we
are confronted with people who, believing nothing, feel free to try
anything. The humanistic, secular faith of the past generation
has failed the test of history.
(LJ p. 171).
Borowitz argues that our awareness of the emptiness and moral failure
of modern society gives us a sense that we are compelled to respond and
improve the world. He will continue by arguing that the sense of
being compelled is what he refers to as God. He further argues
that a small but growing number of liberal Jews find themselves
attracted by this view:
We no longer live in a time when it makes no difference what you
believe…For all our doubts and questions, for all our tolerance and
openness, we know that not every form of human conduct is equally
worthwhile. Should our civilization be entering a period of fall
and decline, we know we must still live by ideal standards of
conduct. For we now recognize that personal existence gains its
worth and dignity from a relationship with the God who “calls”
humankind to transform history.
(LJ p. 172).
3. What is God Like?
Borowitz follows the format of the previous chapter, tracing the
history of how Jewish thought has approached this question.
Borowitz grounds his discussion in the well known observation that
Jewish existence is about actions more than belief or
speculation. He traces the roots of this emphasis to the Hebrew
Bible, and the Hebrew language itself:
In the main [the Bible] tells us about people, how they lived, or how
they should have lived…There is very little…which is abstract and
speculative…Our prophets are quite reticent when it comes to seeing
what God is truly like.
The nature of Hebrew language seems itself to make such disclosures
unlikely…The language is built around verbs, and its nouns commonly
derive from verb roots. Hebrew seems impoverished when it comes
to abstract terms like “being” or “process” or “infinite,” – terms that
we moderns like to use when trying to describe God.
(LJ pages 177-178).
Borowitz then traces the discussion of the nature of God through
medieval and into modern times. He summarizes the arguments of
the rationalists (Cohen, Kaplan) and the non-rationalists (Baeck,
Borowitz reiterates the point made in the previous chapter, that our
“post-modern” (my term) disillusioned view of the world has brought
some formerly happily agnostic Jews into a search for some kind of
spirituality. As Borowitz expresses it:
We may reject dogmatism but we will not say there are no limits to what
people should do…We may not believe much, but we do not believe nothing.
(LJ p. 188).
Again Borowitz argues that our intuition that we must (note the
imperative form) nihilism and amorality, hints at the existence of God:
With the social sources of our commitment to humane values collapsing,
our persisting dedication to them must have a basis which is more than
human. For all that we have closed ourselves off to such
knowledge, we now dimly perceive that we are responding to something in
the universe greater than us or our society.
I see no compelling reason not to call this cosmic, commanding
(LJ pages 188-189).
4. Why Is There Evil?
The problem of evil has been the conundrum of theology since before
Job. As Borowitz notes, the Book of Job confronts this problem
directly. And in our time, as Borowitz and others note, we must
confront the Holocaust, the most dramatic rebuke of both man and God
that has ever been witnessed. Borowitz reviews some of these
arguments. He focuses particularly on the unhappy but, one
supposes, inevitable argument popularized by Harold Kushner, that God
is not omnipotent.
I believe this theory is the only intellectually satisfying answer
which has been given to the Holocaust.
(LJ p. 203).
However, despite the appeal of consistency of this view, Borowitz finds
For all my appreciation of its intellectual sophistication and Jewish
roots, I do not finally find the doctrine of a limited God
acceptable. I keep wondering who is in control of the evils of
which God does not have power.
(LJ p. 204).
Further, Borowitz argues, it is difficult to profess allegiance to a
God of less than absolute power:
I also question whether a limited, so to speak, a weak God is worthy of
worship and daily trust.
(LJ p. 204).
Borowitz explains that, paradoxically, the response of many
liberal Jews to the Holocaust was to question whether their agnosticism
was misplaced. As in the previous chapter, Borowitz argues that
this questioning, and concurrent increase in at least exploring the
possibility of belief in God, arose from the loss of faith in humankind.
What has died for us is not the God of Jewish tradition. We
hadn’t believed in that God for some time. Rather we have lost
faith in our old real “God,” humankind. The Holocaust and the
subsequent social traumas we now associate with our disillusionment
smashed our idol.
(LJ p. 205).
Again reiterating a point emphasized in the prior chapter, Borowitz
explains that liberal Jews are recognizing that they don’t – quite –
accept all of the logical manifestations of a godless cosmos:
Then shall we say that the Holocaust…demonstrates that there is no
meaning to the universe?...Such theorizing “explains” the Holocaust but
does so with a horrifying consequence. It says that, in a neutral
universe, one has as much right to be a Nazi as to be a Jew! That
goes too far in disbelief for many of us. We may believe little,
but we believe more than that the world is empty of values.
(LJ p. 205).
At this point, Borowitz does not really attempt to resolve the
paradox. Rather, he points to survivors of tragedy, from Job to
the survivors of the Holocaust, and their ability to maintain their
faith. We owe these saints the benefit of such belief as we can muster.
(LJ p. 207).
5. Is There Life After Death?
In this chapter, which I am not going to attempt to review in depth,
Borowitz again begins by announcing the central problem. He
then examines the history of Jewish thought on the topic. As
On no other topic, I would guess, has naturalism, thinking about
religion in terms of science, enjoyed a greater success. For some
time now most Jews seem to me to have effectively given up belief in
life-after-death. At the least, they have been more determinedly
skeptical on this belief than any other.
(LJ p. 219).
Borowitz acknowledges he can’t make any other scientific case.
Still, he feels there is merit in maintaining the belief in some sort
of continuation. He further contends that this belief makes him
more likely to pursue an active ethical life, rather than lead to
complacent resignation and awaiting what is to come. He concludes
the chapter with a recitation of the final verse of Adon Olam.
6. Why Do Religions Differ?
Borowitz acknowledges the inconsistent view of traditional Judaism on
the subject. Consider the prayer Aleinu. In three brief
paragraphs it elides from a strong statement of the particular status
of Jews and Judaism to a powerful and hopeful prophecy of a unitary
Borowitz then discusses key arguments in support of unified religion
and diversity. This is a highly theoretical discussion, but worth
examining briefly. In support of unity, Borowitz observes:
Jews recognize two compelling arguments for the coming of one
religion…[first,] with only one God in the universe, there should
ideally be only one religion…
The other argument stems from our bitter experience with religious
Here Borowitz briefly addresses persecution of Jews in the name of
religion, and the history of religious wars in general.
In support of diversity, Borowitz references five arguments.
First, it is impractical. Given human differences, it simply
cannot be accomplished. Second, for liberal Jews particularly,
unity would likely necessarily imply subjecting oneself to unwelcome
strictures imposed from the outside. Third, to the extent that we
equate religious unity with the messianic era, there is the danger of
the false messiah. The case of Shabbetai Zevi in the 1600’s
dramatically illustrates this danger. More affirmatively,
diversity in religion, as elsewhere in life, has inherent value.
On the one hand, we appreciate and connect with our own ethnic
traditions. On the other, we also appreciate learning about,
seeing, and participating in, the traditions of others. At this
point, Borowitz briefly discusses how Jews deal with Christmas.
Finally, religions really do have fundamentally different views on some
key elements of life.
On this last issue, Borowitz makes a particular effort to examine the
argument outside the confines of his bias and tradition. As he
I am, of course, not a disinterested party in such a discussion…
(LJ p. 234).
Borowitz resolves this conflict of interest by examining, as an
outsider, comparative view of religions other than Judaism. He
notes, for example, that Islam is fatalistic, making all the will of
Allah. Hinduism, on the other hand, views all of life as
essentially an illusion from which we ultimately want to escape.
In particular, the distinct views about the meaning of suffering
separate Christianity and Buddhism. In Christianity, suffering
offers adherents an opportunity to imitate Jesus. Buddhism,
conversely, views suffering as stemming from the fact that we desire
things. The Buddha’s path was to find a way to avoid desiring
anything, and thus to escape from suffering. Borowitz notes the
inherent contradiction of these views:
Either one accepts suffering as the fulfillment of one’s love of God,
or one devotes oneself to gaining a philosophy of life which will
enable one to never suffer.
(LJ p. 236).
After his discussion of other religions, Borowitz ventures a brief
discussion of where Judaism fits in.
Perhaps now I may be permitted a few words about Judaism’s unique way
of understanding and relating to ultimate reality. Unlike the
Asian faiths, Jewish belief is centered on a God who is concerned about
people and their everyday conduct. Its daughter faiths,
Christianity and Islam, share this distinctive ethical
monotheism. Yet Judaism is more monotheistic than Christianity
and more activist than either of its offspring, since it emphasizes
serving God through many specific acts.
That is about as much as can usefully be said here. Beyond
that…[there are] a number of views of what constitutes the uniqueness
of our religion.
(LJ pages 236-237).
Borowitz argues that the plea for universalism coming from some liberal
Jews is essentially posing the question of whether we still need to be
The assimilatory intent buried in this proposal emerges from the plan
suggested for its implementation. This almost always assumes that
the Jews will give up their practices for those of other groups.
Oddly enough we take it for granted that distinctive Jewish observances
are unworthy of adoption by the rest of humanity, e.g., a universal Yom
(LJ p. 231).
Here Borowitz includes a humorous vignette which illustrates where the
particular and universal somehow touch. See pages 231-232.
Borowitz concludes the section by paraphrasing Hillel:
If we are not for ourselves, or if we are only for ourselves, we are
(LJ p. 238).
Questions for Discussion
1. How would we compare the liberal Jewish view of God with a more
traditional view? What is our understanding?
2. Borowitz repeats the argument that liberal Jews
have gone through a period in which they, in effect, substituted the
innate good will of humans for God, and that they have been
subsequently disillusioned. Do we see evidence of this
transition? Have we experienced it ourselves?
3. Borowitz also makes the claim for liberal Jews
that “we do not believe much, but we do not believe nothing.”
What is the least that Jews need to believe? Is even that morsel
of belief rational? Does it need to be rational?
4. What feelings does Borowitz’s vignette about the
Long Island Bar Mitzvah evoke?
III. The Bible and Tradition
1. Did God Give the Bible?
Borowitz begins this section by starkly setting forth the competing
A different understanding of Torah, rather than of God or the people of
Israel, critically divides liberal from traditional Jews. The
authors of the Bible…say God gave the Torah to the Jews; liberal Jews
take such statements symbolically…Traditional Judaism claimed God’s
authority stood behind the words of [the Torah and] all the rest of the
Bible, and of the Oral Torah, the rabbinic law, which was presumably
also revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
(LJ p. 241)
Borowitz notes briefly the particular challenge presented by laws which
appear arbitrary (abstaining from pork, not wearing mixed fibers,
etc.). Traditionally, the rabbis simply resorted to the
dictum: “because God said so.” In medieval times, Jewish thinkers
who appreciated rationalism, particularly Maimonides, attempted to find
reasons, but even he said ultimately:
“It is right that a man study the laws of the holy Torah and seek to
understand their full meaning to the extent that he is able.
Nevertheless, a law for which he finds no reason or sees no cause
should not be trivial in his eyes…” (Mishneh Torah Hil. Meilah 8:8).
(LJ p. 244).
In the nineteenth century, Borowitz tells us, the German Orthodox
scholar Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch updated this argument. His
that only one who accepts the authority of the commandments may validly
inquire into their reasons…[if a person has already] rejected the law’s
commanding quality one claims that because there is no rational reason
for Jewish practice [and therefore] one has become nonobservant…Hirsch
approves of only one motive for asking for a rationale for the laws: to
understand God’s will better.
(LJ p. 244).
Liberal Judaism challenged the traditional view of the authority of the
Torah on two grounds:
They had a deep intuition, first, that innovations prohibited by their
rabbis were necessary for Judaism to remain meaningful. And they
found, second, what seemed to them a better way of thinking about the
Bible than that of the Jewish tradition.
(LJ p. 244-245).
Borowitz explains that the period extending from the late 18th to mid
19th century seemed to place Jews in a position of either accepting
modernity or remaining within the fold of traditional Judaism. He
describes a great thinker of the late 18th century, Moses Mendelssohn,
who attempted to bridge this gap.
Judaism, Mendelssohn argued, had always encouraged an impartial search
for truth. Modernity could enter Judaism through its openness to
Though ideas and cultural forms might change in Judaism, he opined, its
laws could not…Its practices were ordinances of God imposed upon the
Jews by God’s unprecedented revelation at Sinai…In our terminology,
Mendelssohn was liberal in his philosophy except for his theory of
revelation; yet he was Orthodox in his practice.
(LJ p. 247-248).3
Mendelssohn’s approach was not satisfactory for many Jews. His
approval of scientific inquiry, except in the matter of the revelation
at Sinai, proved problematic:
If the modern intellect could satisfactorily deal with all other
questions, why could it not also help us understand the central claim
…They were seeking an integrated view of their humanity and their
(LJ p. 248).
This approach was particularly apparent in the development of
non-traditional views of the Bible. As Borowitz notes, an early
(one might say too early) adherent of this approach was Baruch Spinoza.
Borowitz reviews several of the problems the modernists found with the
Biblical text. One was the presence of internal
contradictions. For example, what is one to make of the presence
of two creation stories? (the rabbis had, and we retain on a symbolic
level at least, explanations for this contradiction); the words of the
Ten Commandments vary in their two recitations (again, there are
However, [m]ore troubling to the moderns…were some of its descriptions
God. It is unethical of God to harden pharaoh’s heart…The
elaboration…that God will punish the second, third, and fourth
generations of those people who reject God [shows]…vindictiveness…God
is depicted as having a blazing anger, one which can barely be
restrained by Moses’ intense pleas…These notions…seriously compromise
God’s right to be worshiped and contradict all the rest the Bible
(LJ p. 250).
Archaeological discoveries also challenged traditional interpretations,
Borowitz notes. He cites, for example, the presence of parallel
flood myths in various Near Eastern cultures.
Borowitz briefly outlines the development of the Documentary Hypothesis
– the view that the Torah is a compilation of basically four
works. He notes that while the Documentary Hypothesis itself has
undergone significant criticism
…contemporary Bible students have found no theory which better
integrates all the data; they still rely upon it but with considerable
(LJ p. 253).
Borowitz concludes by bringing us back to the key point of the
If the basic documents of the Jewish faith are essentially human, then
so is the authority behind Jewish law.
(LJ p. 254).
2. How Does God Speak to People?
In the Hebrew Bible, God is depicted as speaking in a variety of
ways. Borowitz examines some of these:
-Direct encounter, as with the giving of the Ten Commandments:
…The setting was awesome, “Mt. Sinai was all in smoke for Adonai had
come down upon it in fire…” (Exod. 19:18-19).
-Through a prophetic vision:
Jeremiah sees a boiling pot and “the word of Adonai comes to him with a
message of judgment for the people.
-Through intermediaries who might be angels:
…as was the case with Abraham’s three visitors. (Gen. 18:2 and
(LJ pages 258-259).
By the time of Maimonides, even though the idea of scientific inquiry
had not taken root, people did understand cause and effect, and that
what was being attributed to God was outside the realm of normal
Though he did not give a rational explanation for everything,
Maimonides made revelation plausible for his generation’s
questioners. “God speaks” now meant to them a human mind which
had reached the stage of being fully influenced by God’s activating
(LJ p. 262).
Borowitz then turns to a discussion of how moderns understand “God
…liberal Jewish thinkers have roughly followed Maimonides’s
strategy. They have converted “God speaks” into a version of
(LJ p. 262).
Borowitz considers the approach of four modern liberal Jewish thinkers,
whom we have met before: Hermann Cohen, Leo Baeck, Mordecai Kaplan, and
Martin Buber. He also discusses Heschel, whom he categorizes in
this context as not liberal.
Hermann Cohen – ethical rationalism:
For Cohen, using reason is humanity’s greatest talent; using it
properly enables us to gain an integrated concept of the three distinct
realms which comprise mature rationality-science, ethics, and
esthetics. The basis of such a world view is the integrating idea
which people traditionally called God. Thus, for Cohen, true
rational philosophy is the same as true religion, a unity he called
religion of reason.
Obviously, a God who is understood as an idea, cannot “speak”.
For Cohen, revelation is a term describing the human mind functioning
at its best…
…Cohen becomes quite passionate about the connection between God and
ethics…a critical sign of one’s rationality was one’s responsiveness to
…As long as liberal Jews had great confidence in the power of human
rationality, Cohen’s theory of revelation was highly influential…
(LJ pages 264-265).
Leo Baeck – the intuition of religious feelings:
For Baeck, revelation derives from our awe at being alive and
empowered, as well as from our reason…
…In Judaism, the subjective aspect of faith must be a full partner to
ethical rationality, lest we create a sterile, moralistic sort of
(LJ pages 266-267).
Mordecai Kaplan – revelation as collective wisdom:
Kaplan’s thought derives from American naturalism which seeks to
understand people in terms of their interaction with the world…
…revelation is the process by which people discover the highest truth
about themselves and their world, a largely but not entirely rational
matter. Since almost all of us receive our stock of ideas-even
our rebellious ones!-from our society, one’s people, rather than one’s
self, is revelation’s most reliable source and repository…This makes
Kaplan a liberal Jew, for as the Jewish collectivity changes its mind,
so ought modern Jewish law.
(LJ pages 267-268).
Martin Buber-individual relation with God:
To understand what revelation might mean to us today, Buber utilizes
the experience of friendship or love…When you are very close to
someone, that person has a powerful effect on your life. You care
what they think, want to do what they desire, are fearful of their
judgment…Perhaps they specifically spoke to you about these matters,
but they need not have. Merely by intimacy you and they will have
a mutual sense of command and responsibility. Indeed, it often
happens that they will feel their relationship with you damaged if they
must say what deeply concerns them. If you truly cared, you
should have known…
…The basic Jewish commandment is not to love our minds, our
consciousness, or our higher self, but God. Not everyone is
capable of a great passion for God, but all of us can grow into
friendly intimacy. Our moments of closeness with God are the
basis of our religious life…God does not speak words to us, but knowing
that God is present with us engenders our knowledge of what we must do
to stay close to God.
(LJ pages 268-269).
Abraham Joshua Heschel – prophets and the God of pathos:
As compared with the above thinkers, Heschel, says Borowitz, occupies a
more traditional view. Heschel does not so much try to explain
how we can understand God when we can’t hear God, as to suggest that we
are not listening carefully enough.
Heschels’ theory is typically modern in seeking to explain God’s
revelation in terms of personal experience. For Heschel, modern
science has robbed us of our instinctive surprise at the wonder that we
or anything exists. If we can shed our secular programming, all
of us can have a direct, personal appreciation of the incomparable
grandeur of the God who created and sustains all being.
The prophets differed from us only in the unusually profound way they
had this experience…
…Heschel’s prophet does not literally hear words addressed to
him. He does not have to. He is so intimate with God’s
“desires” that he can accurately verbalize them…
…Heschel emphasizes that prophets do not invent or create anything they
say…their words accurately represent what they felt God undergoing…
…The prophets continually speak of God in highly emotional terms.
We should learn from this, says Heschel, that the God of Israel is a
God of pathos, that is, feeling. And he mounts an intense polemic
against the notion that God would be more God-like if God felt nothing
at all…Instead of apologizing for the prophets by calling their
highly-charged language poetic or exaggerated, we should recognize that
they are reliably transmitting God’s response to our sinfulness and
obduracy…He argues that God’s wrath is always controlled by God’s moral
(LJ pages 263-264).
Borowitz explains that Heschel’s thought on revelation has not fully
resonated with liberal Jewish thinkers.
In human beings, anger denotes an emotional state in which we throw off
our usual restraints…To liberals, this understanding of God projects
the prophets’ distress better than God’s reality…
(LJ p. 264).
3. How True is the Bible?
Borowitz discusses the problem of how to reconcile the Bible with what
we as moderns understand. He discusses the contradictions
inherent in the account of creation. He also discusses historical
inconsistencies, for example, the narrative of the Book of
Esther. He also discusses the miracles, including those we read
from Shemot (Exodus).
Borowitz explains that liberal Jewish thought rejects the notion that
God (however defined) handed over a text. Rather, the Bible is
the result of the hands of humans, with all flaws possibly attendant
thereto. However, Borowitz observes, there is still a basis on
which the Bible can remain sacred in Jewish tradition:
First, we believe the Bible is a work of incomparable religious
genius. Second, we value it as the founding religio-ethnic saga
of our people. On both counts, Jews will have a lasting intimate
involvement with Hebrew Scriptures.
(LJ p. 280).
The essence of Borowitz’s argument, and, he posits, that of Liberal
Judaism, is that the Hebrew Bible is the brilliant and enduring work of
inspired humans. It deserves respect as such, and has stood the
test of time. He concludes:
Whatever means we utilize in perceiving the Bible’s truth for us and
our people, one conclusion strongly impresses itself on liberal
Jews. If these are “only” words of people, how astonishing it is
that they so often radically transcend their time and place! What
a depth if sensitivity and a breadth of compassion again and again
infuses these ancient Hebrews! Reading their writings thousands
of years later in a thoroughly transformed world, we, the best educated
generation the world has ever known, are instructed and exalted by them.
(LJ p. 283).
4. Why Are the Prophets Especially Important in Liberal Judaism?
Borowitz argues that the Prophets hold an especially important place
for Liberal Judaism. He reminds us that this is not reflective of
traditional Judaism, where the Torah of course holds primacy of place.
First, Borowitz explains, the Prophets emphasize ethics. He
quotes from Isaiah Chapter 5, for example:
“Woe to those who call evil “good” and good “evil”…
“Who, for a consideration, vindicate the wicked
And wrest the right of the righteous from him.”
Such passages gave ancient Judaism immediacy in the modern world…Living
by such behests, one would not only be a good Jew but the sort of
citizen everyone would respect.
(LJ pages 287-288).
Liberal Jews also respond to the courage of the Prophets in standing up
to authority. He quotes from Chapter 7 of Micah:
“Listen to this, you rulers of the House of Jacob,
You chiefs of the House of Israel,
Who abhor justice
and pervert all equity…
Assuredly, because of you
Zion shall be plowed as a field
And Jerusalem become ruins.”
Jews attaining citizenship in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
found such attacks particularly pertinent to leaders who condoned evil
or promoted it…With the words of the prophets ringing in their ears,
[Jews] could feel they were helping their countries live up to their
highest ideals while they were following the most valuable part of
their religion. It was an ideal fusion of modernity and Judaism.
(LJ pages 290-291).
Liberal Jews also respond, says Borowitz, to the expression of
individuality in the Prophets. Borowitz briefly recounts Isaiah’s
ease in moving among royalty, Jeremiah’s role as a social gadfly, and
Ezekiel’s as a purveyor of seemingly mad visions.
Borowitz’s brief sketch of Jonah is especially touching. After
summarizing the story, Borowitz remarks:
Jonah’s petulance makes me laugh at myself for all those times I am
concerned with self-justification rather than God’s purpose. And
I should like to think that something like this, rather than “the great
fish”, has made him precious to other liberal Jews as well.
(LJ p. 294).
Returning to the theme of ethics, Borowitz notes that a strong element
of the appeal of the prophets is their often expressed valuing of
ethics over ritual. He cites the familiar passages from Chapter
58 of Second Isaiah:
“Is this the fast I desire,
a day for men to afflict their bodies?...
No, this is the fast I desire:
To loose the fetters of wickedness…
to share your bread with the hungry…”
(LJ p. 299).
5. How Has Change Come Into Judaism?
Now Borowitz begins to grapple with the problem of Judaism’s
evolution. He first addresses the Rabbinic period and then the
centuries of essentially traditional practice in which the
interpretations of the Rabbis were decisive. It is only with the
coming of the emancipation in the late 18th and early 19th century that
the chain is severed.
A digest version of Borowitz’s description follows:
The rabbis, not the Bible or the sectarians, fixed the fundamental
beliefs and practices of Judaism and, equally important, the system for
adapting them to changed historical circumstances…
…First, the rabbis created a method of studying and amplifying their
traditions which continues down to the present day. Second, a
body of literature came into being which, without formal promulgation,
became classic for all Jews. Third, a system of individual
authority became accepted, which, though informal, effectively guided
…This system treats the past with great reverence…
…[However] innovation comes from the practice of encouraging and
remembering different opinions. The early controversies between
the Schools of Shammai and Hillel are among the most famous divergent
interpretations of Judaism, but the method of clarifying by dialectical
argument continues down to the present day…
…[The Talmud] practically luxuriates in divergent opinion and its text
wanders freely from a given topic to whatever tangent seems momentarily
of interest…One may well say that nothing human is alien to it…
…A final layer of definitive literature eventually arose, the codes…
…[Finally] rabbis have broad personal authority over the community that
elected them…[t]hey have…made their influence felt by the…responsum,
the formal answer to a question put to an authority…
…Utter democracy and informality characterizes the realm of the
(LJ pages 301-311).