Jewish Theology in Our Time

Welcome to the post-chosen world

By Simon Rocker, October 14, 2010

Edited by Rabbi Elliot J Cosgrove
Jewish Lights, $24.99

We are told so often that Jewish practice is more important than belief that it is possible to think that belief really is not that important at all. Yet belief is the blood that flows through the veins of Judaism; it might not be visible but Judaism would wither without it.

When scientific claims that God does not exist make the front pages of The Times, this collection of essays looking at questions of faith could hardly be more timely. How do we conceive of a Deity in the age of the genome and the Hadron Collider when the images of the God in liturgy and sacred literature can seem disturbingly obsolete?

Like everything produced by the admirable Jewish Lights, this new volume is aimed at the wider Jewish public rather than an academic readership. Most of the contributions come from the non-Orthodox side, although the editor Rabbi Dr Elliot Cosgrove - a young American disciple of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs - remarks on his disappointment that too few Orthodox thinkers took up his invitation to write.

While some pieces focus on our own understanding of God, others examine attitudes to Torah and halachah. What is striking is a prevalent use of kabbalistic and mystical ideas to fashion a credible notion of God - as in "God as the breath of Life", by Elliot Fishbane, assistant professor of Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary (for me, the outstanding contribution in the book).

Also notable is a new engagement with ritual and halachah among Progressive rabbis. What rationale do Progressive Jews have for doing mitzvahs, if they do not believe they are literally commanded? Rabbi Michael Marmur usefully suggests the biblical idea of neder, a vow by which a person makes a voluntary, but binding, commitment.

While the approach varies among the authors, Rabbi Cosgrove spots a common, underlying worldview. The classical idea of Jews as a chosen people is "dead," he argues: "It appears to be an a priori assumption of these thinkers that Judaism is but, one of many, equally valid, options".

Last updated: 9:50am, October 19 2010