The Eternal, History and Reform Judaism

In OneDaringJew: A Bography I described different kinds of writing. Some kinds are scholarly books and articles, journalistic writing, non-fiction writing such as history, travel, art, cooking, and then there’s imaginative writing such as novels, poetry and plays. Imaginative literature is called “fiction” – fiction not in the sense that they don’t relate to reality. If a novel didn’t tie in with real feelings and experiences, no one would read them. I also referred to French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, who said that we tell stories because human lives need and merit to be told. Writing stories is one of the noblest employments of the mind and soul. Most good stories aim at knowledge and wisdom. This aim is most evident in life stories – biographies. Yet, unless the main end of biography is wisdom and knowledge, it is no more than any kind of study: “a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).
Biography, by definition, should narrate a true story. Unfortunately, we often reserve our sins for our fiction, if we ever get to be published). Consider the Bible, which is so central to both Jews (Tanakh – Older Testament) and Christians (Older and Newer Testaments). Where there’s a testament, there must of necessity also be the death of the testator (Hebrews 9:16); in the case of the biblical narrative, the death is recorded as an historical not a mythical event. There is a Jewish movement that values the stories of the Jewish Bible, but not as biographical accounts, but as precious myths.

Myth” has two different meanings: the first, a fabrication, the second, a story that conveys a system of values and meanings, where the events themselves have no historical reality. Here is an example of each:

Myth as a fabrication – Here is a remark made by a colleague at the University of Fort Hare, South Africa, (where I taught for a dozen years), a Xhosa speaking South African. His views are shared by many other black South Africans. My colleague stated that “conceptual differences between cultures such as Western science versus African culture is a myth.” (See my “African spaces in culture.)”

Myth as a system of values and meanings: “The contrast between Western and Azande culture is that the latter is unfamiliar with the theoretical approach to problem solving and rather represents a residue of the mythical thought pattern with its entwinement of knowledge and action” (Italics added).

What do Jews think of the stories in the Hebrew Bible? There are roughly six Jewish movements: Ultra-orthodox, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and two other groups (which can’t be called “movements” unless in the sense of moving far away from traditional Judaism), which comprise the bulk of Jews, namely,  agnostics and atheists.

  • all “ultra-orthodox” (that is, ortho-orthodox) believe, like all  “Reformed Christians” (who follow the tradition of the Reformation), in divine inspiration, that is, the scripture is breathed out by God (a better term would be divine “expiration).
  • Not all “Orthodox” Jews believe in the divine inspiration of the scriptures.
  • Conservative Jews consist of a wide coalition with differing views on how the scriptures were revealed. In contrast to the absolute Ultra-orthodox view and the view of most Orthodox, conservatives do not believe that the words of scripture themselves are breathed out by God. Thus the Conservative Jew would judge as unwarranted the extreme care that the Torah scribes took over each letter of the Torah when copying from one scroll to another. Conservatives believe in the “Documentary hypothesis” of scripture, which is a misnomer, because, those who believe in this “hypothesis” believe that it is absolutely true. After reading “Documentary Hypothesis: And the Composition of the Pentateuch” by Umberto Cassuto – which I mentioned in a previous post – I agree with a reviewer of Cassuto that the Documentary hypothesis is a “convoluted and tangled mess.”
  • Reform Jews

I’d like to focus on Reform Judaism. It  originated during the French revolution, and was strongly influenced by the “Enlightenment”(which I described in an earlier post), which was a secular explosion of “free” thought that clipped the wings of the Roman Catholic Church. I can see Voltaire, with a new spring in his step exclaiming in unbridled delight: “Get me out of this garden, there’s work to do.”

In Voltaire’s novel “Candide”, the main characters experience all the main horrors of the last few centuries of European history. Here are the last few lines (My translation):

“Neither need you tell me,” said Candide, “that we must take care of our garden.”

“You are right,” said Pangloss; “for when man was put into the garden of Eden, it was in order to cultivate it; and this proves that man was not born to be idle.”

“Work then without kicking against the pricks,” said Martin; “it’s the only way to make life endurable.”

Voltaire wrote Candide when the Church lost its power and he, therefore, had the freedom to do so. But I imagine that when France became free, equal, and fraternal (hmmm), Voltaire wasted no time breaking the hedge down in his confined garden.

Reform Judaism in Europe jettisoned much of Orthodox Judaism such as the Shulkhan Arukh (Hebrew: שולחן ערוך‎, literally: “Set Table”). The Shulkhan Arukh was compiled in the 16th century and is the most authoritative manual of Jewish law (halakha) since the Mishneh Torah and the the Talmud. Torah laws.1 Also, many of these European Reform Jews believed the Torah was an invention concocted in the desert sand. Many Jews became so enlightened, they threw off Judaism altogether and assimilated into European culture and ceased to be Jewish; for example Karl Marx and Felix Mendelssohn, the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn. See my posts “When is an ex-Jew not a Jew…” and “Enlightenment”.

Before the holocaust, Reform Judaism was anti-zionist, but since then, it has, in general, become pro the State of Israel. Here is Reform Judaism in its own nutshell; I have selected excerpts from what Reform Judaism says about itself and provide a comment after each excerpt. The full text can be found here.

  • The faith and values which drive the journey provide a compelling vision of where we want to get to and offer such direction and signposting as we can make out.Comment: the faith and values of the Tanakh compel Jews to take the direction that it commands, which invariably is at odds with “where we want to get to.” It’s not difficult to “make out” the sign posting. The issue is does the Reform Jew want to follow the sign posting of the Tanakh? The Tanakh says – ad nauseam (for those who hate being told what to believe and do – that the majority of the children of Israel hate being confronted by the Holy one if Israel: Get the “Holy One of Israel” out of my face.
  • When the Jewish people emerged from the ghettos of Europe, some were – or became – so frightened of what they found that they have rebuilt the ghetto ‘walls’.

Comment: They crawled back to the Torah and now they’re hedged in. It’s too marvellous:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.

You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hedge me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:1-6).

Voltaire, in search of enlightenment, breaks down the hedge. In contrast, the enlightenment from God is God’s hedge against desolation.

I continue with excerpts from the Reform Judaism site:

  • Some recognise the new reality but are determined not to be changed by it. Reform Jews don’t underestimate the challenge of modernity but can also see that it offers new ways of understanding and thinking which help us grow and add to the meaning and purpose of the journey.

Comment: Those who creep back behind their hedges reject the “new reality” and are not up to “new ways” of thinking that add meaning and purpose to the journey. Often these “new” ways are nuded ways, empty paths leading back down into the pit of self-image and self-pity. If the new paths are not rooted in the old paths, they bring death – the death of meaning itself:

Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein” (Jeremiah 6:16).”

  • Reform Judaism is living Judaism. It is a religious philosophy rooted in nearly four millennia of Jewish tradition, whilst actively engaged with modern life and thought.

Comment: Philosophy is man made. Many Jews think the Tanakh is also man made. That, they think is the modern way to go.

  • This means both an uncompromising assertion of eternal truths and values and an open, positive attitude to new insights and changing circumstances. It is a living, evolving faith that Jews of today and tomorrow can live by.

One of the founders of the Wissenschaft des Judenthums (Science of Judaism) movement of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Abraham Geiger (1810-1874), argued that practices in Jewish history continued to change. He suggested that these changes not only made it easier to live as a Jew but these changes were also faithful to the spirit of Judaism. He advocated that unless Judaism continued to change, it would not appeal to the majority of Jews. Orthodox Jews consider Geiger to be a heretic of heretics. But what I would like to focus on is not whether Jewish practices should stay as they always were – the 613 mizvot (laws), for example – or whether they should evolve, but on the “eternal truths and values” mentioned above as one of the principles of Reform Judaism. Though practices may change – which, I believe is necessary, as a believer in the New Covenant inaugurated by Christ – the eternal truths must remain and thus cannot evolve to fit new insights and changing circumstances. One of these eternal truths is that the God of the Tanakh is the creator of things visible and invisible, and saviour – the only saviour, from sin. The fabric of the Tanakh (and the Newer testament) consists of the woof of sin and salvation drawn through the warp of history. Much of the Bible (Older and Newer Testament) is about sin and the historicity of that sin. The attention to historical detail in the Bible is astounding. One doesn’t need historical criticism to establish that. No one who makes things up has much of an historical sense; it is that very historical sense that proves that the Bible is not just “folklore” (Mordecai Kaplan, who I will say more about in the next post)and “a fine story” (Charlton Heston, my favourite actor – not as Moses, but as Ben Hur, based on a novel, which I have watched more than a dozen times).

The Tanakh provides a way out of sin – salvation. The term “salvation” appears more than a hundred times in the Tanakh. And who is it that saves? Man? Saving himself? Absolutely not. He (and she) can do nothing to save himself. This is not only a Calvinist idea, but also the theme of prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah. 34 No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, `Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” A power or a force – transcendent or not – does not talk, and if it did “talk” to us, it wouldn’t talk so Person to person (Jeremiah 31:34).

Two of the reasons why the prophets were rejected by their people was that they couldn’t deal with the incessant hammering of God’s judgement in their fat ears. Even more galling was the declaration that unless God removed their stony hearts and replaced it with a heart of flesh, they were doomed. “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; “I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19 ); I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart” (Jeremiah 24:7). God – speaking through the prophets is saying that you can’t be good unless God makes you good. This comes out clearly in Paul’s letter to the Romans 2:4: “Do you despise the riches of his goodness and forbearance and long-suffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” It is the goodness of God, not the goodness of man, that brings repentance. That is why, as Arthur Cunstance suggests, “we are to be patient with those who seem unable or unwilling to understand. They are only acting according to their nature as we too acted according to ours until the Lord intervened.”

The Jew won’t accept that. He’s not alone; there’s a vast cloud of Christian witnesses who occupy the same nebula,where “I” remove the stony heart – with God’s help (“grace”) and gradually replace it with a heart of flesh by my good works. The following verses seem to be saying just that: “… you reward everyone according to his conduct and as his deeds deserve” (Jeremiah 32:17b) and “I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve” (Jeremiah 17:9).

Yes, God does reward us for our deeds, but this reward is not salvation, which is of the Lord, and not a smidgeon of man. All attempts to save yourself – in the biblical sense – is the product of a rotten core (heart); all our works are like “menstrual rags” (Isaiah 64).

5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
you were angry.
How then can we be saved?

6 All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like menstrual rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.

7 No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and made us waste away because of our sins.

8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.

9 Do not be angry beyond measure, O LORD;
do not remember our sins forever.
Oh, look upon us, we pray,
for we are all your people.

10 Your sacred cities have become a desert;
even Zion is a desert, Jerusalem a desolation.

11 Our holy and glorious temple, where our fathers praised you,
has been burned with fire,
and all that we treasured lies in ruins.

12 After all this, O LORD, will you hold yourself back?
Will you keep silent and punish us beyond measure?

How does a sinner get God to reveal His hidden face; how do we get from verse 7 to verse 8?

Ezekiel explains that we cannot get God do anything, for He does what He wills, and when He wills. You may say that is not fair. But God doesn’t owe us anything, most of all salvation. That is something the natural man cannot stomach. Jeremiah took the scroll and ate it:“Your words were found and I ate them. And Your words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart (Jeremiah 15:16). What does the natural man do? He tears out the pages and throws it in the fire like King Jehoiakim:

The king sent Jehudi to get the scroll, and Jehudi brought it from the room of Elishama the secretary and read it to the king and all the officials standing beside him. It was the ninth month and the king was sitting in the winter apartment, with a fire burning in the firepot in front of him. Whenever Jehudi had read three or four columns of the scroll, the king cut them off with a scribe’s knife and threw them into the firepot, until the entire scroll was burned in the fire. The king and all his attendants who heard all these words showed no fear, nor did they tear their clothes. Even though Elnathan, Delaiah and Gemariah urged the king not to burn the scroll, he would not listen to them. Instead, the king commanded Jerahmeel, a son of the king, Seraiah son of Azriel and Shelemiah son of Abdeel to arrest Baruch the scribe and Jeremiah the prophet. But the LORD had hidden them” (Jeremiah 36: 21-26).

The Bible not only has a sense of history but also, and primarily, sense of the eternal. But both these senses are lost to the natural man. The human story has no meaning unless it bows the knee to the eternal story recorded in the Torah and the Prophets. Recall the Reform Judaism excerpt above: “Reform Judaism is living Judaism. It is a religious philosophy rooted in nearly four millennia of Jewish tradition, whilst actively engaged with modern life and thought.”

Umberto Cassuto cautions:

The matter may not be so simple for the thinker who seeks to base his faith on a philosphical foundation: but the Torah is not a philosophical treatise, its sole purpose being to speak to the heart of man and implant faith therein” (Umberto Cassuto, Lecture 5). It is the God of the Torah who inmplants that faith; but first he has to remove the heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh.

What does the Orthodox Jew think of the Reform Jew? Let one Orthodox Jew, Mordechai Housman, speak for himself:

“Essentially, they believe that you get to decide what to believe. The Torah, they claim, is man-made entirely, and has been continually changed and adapted, despite all evidence to the contrary. Furthermore, despite the fact that the Torah and history show that Judaism has never tolerated dissenters to the Torah’s opinion, they have the chutzpah (gall) to claim that Judaism has always been pluralistic, that the Torah supposedly has never demanded “uniformity of belief or practice.” This, of course, is obviously baloney. Take one cursory look at almost any chapter of the entire Tanach (Jewish Bible), and you’ll find recriminations against people who have even slightly deviated from the Torah’s teachings, even if they adhered to everything else.”

In the next post, I talk about another Mordecai, who inhabits a different (Jewish?) planet to Mordecai Housman – Mordecai Kaplan.

1 One may ask, “why “table”? Since the destruction of the temple, the table has become the symbol for the altar. The family gathers around the table and shares food and one another. In early Christianity, before they built churches – rows of seats – everyone facing the front, all ears and no mouth – the table was also a central focus of worship, where the Lord’s supper was held, which comprised a full meal and lots of sharing (of food, of one another, and most of all, of worship of God).

Reform: Essentially, they believe that you get to decide what to believe. The Torah, they claim, is man-made entirely, and has been continually changed and adapted, despite all evidence to the contrary. Furthermore, despite the fact that the Torah and history show that Judaism has never tolerated dissenters to the Torah’s opinion, they have the chutzpah (gall) to claim that Judaism has always been pluralistic, that the Torah supposedly has never demanded “uniformity of belief or practice.” This, of course, is obviously baloney. Take one cursory look at almost any chapter of the entire Tanach (Jewish Bible), and you’ll find recriminations against people who have even slightly deviated from the Torah’s teachings, even if they adhered to everything else.

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