Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

A New Philosophy of Judaism for the Modern Age

Dan Cohn-Sherbok
Fall 1995

The Enlightenment brought about major changes in Jewish  
life. No longer were Jews insulated from non-Jewish currents of culture and  
thought, and this transformation of Jewish existence led many Jews to seek a  
modernization of Jewish worship. The earliest reformers engaged in liturgical  
revision, but quickly the spirit of reform spread to other areas of Jewish life;  
eventually modernists convened a succession of rabbinical conferences in order  
to formulate a common policy. Such a radical approach to the Jewish tradition  
provoked a hostile response from a number of leading Orthodox scholars, a reaction  
which led to the establishment of the neo-Orthodox movement. Simultaneously  
the Hasidic movement, grounded in kabbalah, similarly sought to revitalize Jewish  
life. The founder of this new development, the Baal Shem Tov, attracted a wide  
circle of followers and eventually, under the influence of his successor Dov  
Baer, Hasidism spread throughout Eastern Europe. Like Reform Judaism, this departure  
from tradition engendered considerable hostility on the part of rabbinic authorities,  
yet in time it became a major defender of the traditional Jewish way of life  
in the face of increasing secularism.

The modern period has also witnessed the creation of  
other non-orthodox sub-groups. In the middle of the 19th century Zecharias Franckel  
pursued a less radical interpretation of the tradition than that advanced by  
Reform Judaism: this new development, subsequently known as Conservative Judaism,  
took root in the United States under the influence of Solomon Schechter. Today  
Conservative Judaism ranks as one of the major Jewish movements on the American  
scene. As an off-shoot of Conservative Judaism, Reconstructionism was established  
in this century by the Jewish thinker Mordecai Kaplan. Adopting a non-supernatural  
understanding of Jewish civilization, it too gained a strong foothold on the  
American continent. In the 1960s another non-supernatural form of Judaism was  
advanced by Rabbi Sherwin Wine: Humanistic Judaism, like Reconstructionism,  
has rejected Jewish theism in favour of a Humanistic approach to the Jewish  
past. For Wine and his followers, Judaism must be divested of its supernatural  
elements if it is to function as a vibrant force in contemporary society. What  
is important, Humanists argue, is the Humanistic value system implicitly within  
the Jewish heritage. In addition to these religious movements, Zionism as an  
ideology has also generated wide-spread acceptance among all sections of Jewry.  
Initially Zionists believed that all Jews should reside in the Holy Land. However  
today there is a general recognition that Israel greatly benefits from the presence  
of Jews in the diaspora.



Ideologies Suffer Defects  

All these ideologies suffer from various defects, and  
it is therefore difficult to see how any form of modern Judaism could serve  
as a basis for Jewish life in the 21st century. Due to its unwillingness to  
acknowledge the findings of biblical scholarship, Orthodox Judaism promotes  
an anachronistic understanding of the origins and nature of Scripture; further,  
it is unable to provide a coherent account of divine providential care in the  
face of the overwhelming tragedies of the current era. In addition, by uncritically  
accepting the traditional doctrine of Torah Misinai, Orthodoxy has failed  
to recognize the evolutionary character of the Jewish legal system.

Like Orthodox Judaism, Hasidism has also adopted an unenlightened  
approach to scientific discovery — instead it champions an archaic conception  
of cosmology based on kabbalistic lore as well as an unsupported conception  
of the composition of the Bible. Moreover, its endorsement of the role of the  
zaddik as an intermediary between human beings and God is an antiquated  
survival of the authoritarian Jewish past, totally unsuited to the modern world.  

Turning to the varied branches of non-Orthodox Judaism,  
Reform Judaism is untenable as a religious system due to its lack of internal  
consistency. Not only are Reform Jews divided over the fundamental principles  
for Jewish heritage, there is no common agreement as to the central features  
of a Reform Jewish life-style despite Reform’s proclamations of common  
policy. Instead, Reform Judaism embodies a wide variety of followers who differ  
dramatically over the interpretation of the faith.

Conservative Judaism also lacks a coherent religious  
framework for modern Jewish living: within the movement there are divergent  
groups espousing radically different philosophies of Judaism. The major weakness  
of Conservatism is its internal disharmony over the fundamental features of  
the faith. Although Conservative Jews seek to preserve traditional Judaism,  
there is no consensus over which features of the Jewish heritage should be preserved.  
Indeed the inability of the movement to produce agreed statements of policy  
(like the Platforms issued by the Reform movement) illustrates Conservative  
Judaism’s chaotic character.



Numerous Difficulties  

As far as the non-supernatural interpretations of Judaism  
are concerned, Reconstructionist Judaism is beset by numerous difficulties.  
The advocacy of loyalty to Judaism on the one hand and the endorsement of secular  
values on the other is internally inconsistent: a Jewish lifestyle and secular  
values are incompatible, regardless of Kaplan’s assurances. Another serious  
defect relates to Kaplan’s view of the supernatural. Jewish observance  
is traditionally grounded in an acceptance of divine revelation, yet it is precisely  
this theological foundation that Reconstructionism rejects. But what sense can  
be made of the notion of Jewish civilization if it is not based on God’s  
will? Humanistic Judaism’s naturalistic interpretation of Jewish life is  
similarly inadequate. Jewish Humanists seek to preserve the Humanistic features  
of Judaism while abandoning theism, however without such a basis it is difficult  
to see how such a conception of Judaism would be able to sustain the Jewish  
people. Further, Humanistic Judaism’s endorsement of human potential is  
at odds with the horrific events of this century which have eclipsed the optimistic  
assumptions of the post-Enlightenment age. Zionism — as a non-religious  
option for modern Jewry — also fails to provide an ideological basis for  
Jewish living in the next century. The creation of the state of Israel has not  
eliminated the problem of anti-Semitism nor has it provided a guarantee for  
Jewish survival.



No Solid Foundation  

Thus, none of these options appears to provide a solid  
foundation for Jewish existence in the future. Arguably what is required, therefore,  
is a new philosophy of Judaism which acknowledges the plurality of approaches  
to the Jewish heritage which currently exist within the Jewish world. All the  
modern branches of Judaism espouse different conceptions of the tradition. Yet  
the adherents of each movement are at liberty to decide for themselves which  
beliefs and practices are personally relevant. Despite the pronouncements of  
leaders of each sub-group, all Jews in fact select those features of the tradition  
which they find meaningful — this is true for Orthodox Jews as much as  
for members of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and humanistic congregations.  

In past centuries such freedom was not allowed; instead  
the Jewish establishment was able to coerce members of the community to conform  
to its dictates. But today this is no longer the case; rather there is a conscious  
recognition that Jews are free to make up their own minds. Coercion in the community  
has virtually disappeared except in the narrow sphere of personal status where  
the different movements are empowered to enforce various standards. Hence, the  
hallmark of the modern age is the guarantee of personal autonomy. This is the  
basic underpinning of Jewish life in Western democratic societies. Just as Jews  
are free to make personal choices about all aspects of their everyday existence  
— from place of residence to holiday travel — they are at liberty  
to decide for themselves how to conduct their religious lives.



Vibrant Philosophy  

A vibrant philosophy of Judaism for the 21st century  
must acknowledge the universality of this central feature of the modern world.  
A more open form of Judaism would seek to grant all Jews full religious independence.  
This new ideology would allow each member of the Jewish community an inalienable  
right to religious autonomy. In other words, the freedom of each person would  
end only where another person’s freedom begins. The central feature of  
this new concept of Judaism is therefore the principle of personal liberty;  
such a form of Judaism would grant all Jews the right to select those aspects  
of the tradition which they find religiously significant. Adherents of this  
interpretation of the faith would be encouraged to make up their own minds about  
both belief and practice. No one — no rabbi or rabbinical body — would  
be permitted to decide what observances are acceptable. In other words, a more  
open form of Judaism would foster the same conception of personal liberty which  
is essential to a democratic society. This vision of a truly liberal form of  
Judaism would thus be consonant with the realities of everyday Jewish life —  
in democratic societies Jews in fact do decide for themselves which feature  
of the Jewish tradition they wish to adopt or reject.



Supermarket Analogy  

This notion of Judaism as an amorphous religious system  
can perhaps best be illustrated by the analogy of the supermarket. If we imagine  
Jewish civilization as a vast emporium with articles from the past arranged  
in long aisles and individual Jews with shopping trolleys, a more open form  
of Judaism would encourage each person to select from the shelves those items  
he wishes to possess. Orthodox Jews would leave with overflowing trolleys; Conservative  
and Reconstructionist Jews would depart with less; Reform and Humanistic Jews  
with even fewer commodities; and non-affiliated Jews with hardly any.

This image of the supermarket emphasizes the non-judgmental  
character of this new ideology. Just as when shopping each person is able to  
make selections without the fear of coercion or criticism, so within this open  
model of Judaism individuals would be allowed to decide for themselves which  
features of the Jewish past they desire to incorporate into their own lives.  
Shoppers in such a Jewish marketplace would be free agents, charting their own  
personal path through the tradition.

Further, as in a supermarket where there is no critical  
assessment made by other shoppers or by the supermarket staff of the choices  
made, so within such a conception of Judaism censorious evaluations of the decisions  
of others would have no place. As a remedy for the bitter divisions that beset  
the Jewish community, this new approach to the Jewish heritage offers the hope  
of unity beyond diversity for the 21st Century. •

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.