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God, Torah and Israel in
Modern Jewish Thought
Introduction to Judaism: Lecture 8
February 4, 2008
1. Rabbinic Judaism im agined a complex relationship between the Oral Torah (Mishnah, Talm ud,
Midrash) and Written Torah (TaNaCh) in which one could not be understoo d without the other.
Describe the rabbinic understanding of this relationship. Be sure to explain how the rabbis of the oral
tradition connected themselves to the bibli cal account o f revelation at Mount Sinai, whil e at the same
tim e reinterpreting, and even rejecting, aspects of scripture. Provide examples from the halakhic and
aggadic sources we have read.
2. Conceptions of God in the Jewish tradition have undergone continuous theological reinterpretation from
the Bibli cal to the Modern Period. At the same time, many of these interpretations have shared certain
basic assumptions about the nature of GodΥs relationship to the Jewish people and the world outli ned in
the Bible. Compare and contrast the theologies introduced in three of the periods we have studied
(Bibli cal, Rabbinic, Hell enistic, Kabali stic, or Modern). Make sure to include specifi c textual examples
from the reading to ill ustrate your conclusions. For beli evers in any of these theological systems, what
would some of the strengths and weaknesses be of each understanding of God?
Goals for Today
1. Identify the central modern modes of
thought that influenced Judaism’s premodern symbolic vocabulary
2. Understand the various ideological/religious
responses to modernity
3. Discuss the implications of the range of
Jewish expressions that exist in the modern
Student Question
• “I am having a hard time understanding
how the oral Torah got to be an
authoritative text…How does one come
to see the oral Torah as credible when
the interpretative techniques that it
employs are seemingly abstract and
The Structure of
Judaism’s Basic
Symbolic Vocabulary
and Religion
• Secular and anti-religious
• Reason in opposition to Revelation
• Universal not particular truth
What are the Challenges to
Judaism’s Narrative?
• Don’t write--Think!
Modes of Thought Influencing
• Autonomous Reason
– “Think for Yourself!”
• Scientific Naturalism
– “Prove it to me!”
• Historicism
– “What really happened?”
• Nationalism
– “Where is your primary allegiance?”
Are They Different From PreModern Challenges?
Moses Maimonides
Abraham Geiger
(b. 1810)
Ideological ResponsesOverview
• Secularist/Political Responses
– Zionism
– Bundism
• Modernist Responses
– Reform
– Orthodox
– Positive-Historical/Conservative
• Traditionalist Response
Response 1: Secularist
• God-Tool for exploitation
• Torah-National Culture, History
– No Halakhah, Mitzvot (commandment)
• Israel-Persecuted People ready for
• Messiah-Revolutionary Fervor
Zionism: Jewish
• Revolutionary Social change through
• Join Jewish workers with non-Jewish
Response 2: Modernist
Reconcile Judaism and Enlightenment
Universal over Particular
Ethical over Legal
Non-Political Response
Four main denominations…
Reform Movement
• Begins in Europe moves to U.S.
• God-Ideal of ethical consciousness (p. 94)
• Torah-Revelation of Reason
– Historical husk vs. moral core
• Israel-The Mission Theory
• Mitzvah-Ethical Commandments
• Messiah-Universal Integration (p.100)
Orthodox Movement
Created in Response to Reform
Creator God
Torah-“Discrete Words and Letters”
Mitzvot are binding-Ethical Meaning
Messiah-Redemption in Land and Loyal
Positive-Historical Movement
• Called Conservative in the U.S.
• Accept Halakhah/Mizvot and historical
• Torah-Evolution of man’s relationship
with the divine
• Mitzvot and change
• Originates as a left branch of
Conservative Judaism in 1968
• God-Process that Makes for Salvation
• Torah-Jewish Folkways
• Israel-Civilization, not Religion
Response 3:
• Central and Eastern European
• Similar to Orthodox (Mitzvah, Halakhah)
• Reject modern political, social, philosophical
• Premodern Messiah (p.101)
• Present as authentic tradition
• Are they?
“…May your mind not turn to evil and never
engage in corruptible partnership with those
fond of innovations, who, as a penalty for our
many sins, have strayed from the Almighty
and His law…Be warned not to change your
Jewish names, speech, and clothing--God
forbid…Never say: ‘Times have
changed!’…The order of prayer and
synagogue shall remain forever as it has
been up to now, and no one may presume to
change anything of its structure.”
--Rabbi Moses Sofer, 1762-1839
Discussion Questions
• How would Modernists and
Traditionalists Read Rabbi Akiva Story?
• What are the strengths and limitations
of each response?
• What core symbols (if any) connect
various expressions of modern