Friday, May 21, 2010

What Beliefs Are Jewish Beliefs?

Certainly some beliefs are Jewish beliefs; only it is difficult to say which ones. If the question is whether a belief is an Orthodox Jewish belief, the question can be easier to settle; but not always.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs (1920–2006)

Shilton HaSechel posted a comment on my previous entry, “Three Kinds of Religious Beliefs,” which has given me occasion to rethink some of what I wrote and to add a few further thoughts. Shilton writes:
After all the denial of Mosaic authorship although dear to many actually is not necessary to Judaism.
I concede the point. I probably ought to have specified “Orthodox Judaism” at certain points in my article, though even then I am not sure if that would have been an adequate qualification, as there may be a diversity of views on the pertinent points even among Orthodox rabbis, let alone Orthodox Jews (not a term capable of sharp definition) in general.

While I continue to hold that there is such a thing as “Jewish beliefs,” or beliefs characteristic of Judaism, it is no easy matter to say what those beliefs are and in exactly what sense they are “Jewish” or “characteristic of Judaism,” without making arbitrary or parochial assumptions. So, for instance, the belief that the Torah was given litteratim to Moses at Mount Sinai is certainly a Jewish belief in some sense: it is propounded in the Talmud; it has been maintained by rabbis for hundreds of years; it is still maintained by (most? many? some?) Orthodox rabbis. But, also obviously, that belief is not held by all, or even by most, Jews, and probably not even by most rabbis.

Continuing with Shilton’s comment:
Even Orthodox Judaism could do away with belief in Biblical history and still continue functioning pretty much the same. All you really need to believe is someway somehow God inspired/directed the holy writings of Judaism so therefore these writing are then themselves holy and contain God’s message.
In theory, perhaps; in practice, I very much doubt it. The “could” that Shilton suggests here is presumably what Rabbi Louis Jacobs assumed when he first published We Have Reason to Believe: Some Aspects of Jewish Theology Examined in the Light of Modern Thought in 1957. In that bracing book, he argued that imputing divine origins to the written and oral Torah is entirely compatible with a scientifically informed understanding of the historical process by which the pertinent texts were formed. And he did this without any fudging of the science à la J. H. Hertz.

The Orthodox establishment of Great Britain had quite different ideas, as Jacobs learned to his discomfiture a few years later when his promised appointment to the principality of Jews’ College (the London Orthodox rabbinical seminary) was thwarted by the intervention of the Chief Rabbi of the UK, Israel Brodie; and again a few years after that, when Brodie vetoed the appointment of Jacobs to a pulpit position at the New West End Synagogue of London. The vindictiveness of the Orthodox establishment toward Jacobs only worsened after he left the Orthodox rabbinate to found the Masorti movement, the British equivalent of Conservative Judaism in the US. In 1995, the present Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, published an article in the Jewish Tribune accusing Jacobs of “intellectual thievery” and, according to an article by Matt Plen, “alleging that Masorti’s claim to represent authentic Judaism was a subterfuge aimed at the destruction of the tradition.” In 2003, Jacobs was denied an aliyah at his granddaughter’s wedding because, as Rabbi Sacks and the head of the London Beth Din, Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, wrote together in a publication, “had Jacobs uttered the words ‘Our God [. . .] who gave us the Torah of truth [. . .]’, he would have made a false statement” (source).

Of course, one could argue that this disgraceful history says more about the parochial rigidity (not to say meanness, mulishness, and sheer stupidity) of the British Orthodox establishment than it says about Orthodox Judaism per se. But when certain positions are maintained by such a prominent Orthodox authority, it is difficult to regard them as deviant or unrepresentative.

Finally, to answer Shilton’s closing question:
Are there any other natural beliefs you have in mind besides Mosaic authorship?
Well, pretty much all of the history in the Bible. I have been reading The Bible Unearthed (bibliographical information in note 2 of my previous entry), and I am continually impressed, first, by how much knowledge has been accumulated by scholars concerning the actual history of the ancient Near East, and second, how little truth it leaves in the accounts of events in the Bible. As Finkelstein and Silberman say at some point, even the histories of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, which have a far closer relation to historical fact than anything in the Pentateuch, simply are not attempts at history as we understand it, but exercises in ideology in historical form.

Of course, those parts of the Bible have a less intimate relation to Jewish religious practice than have the contents of the Pentateuch. But they do support the important theme of how the Israelites earn divine retribution by repeatedly straying from the worship of the one true God. That is, they attribute the misfortunes of the Israelites to their collective failure to keep their part of their covenant with God. Finkelstein and Silberman’s findings show that even where the “natural” part of this history is concerned—the mere recounting of events, regardless of the theological interpretation that is put upon them—the Bible is untruthful.

Previous entry: Three Kinds of Religious Beliefs

Next entry: Martin Gardner, 1920–2010


  1. Even if all of Biblical history is false this is really no obstacle because like I said before all that matters is the belief that the texts have some "Godliness" in them.

    (I'm no Biblical scholar but Finkelstein is pretty much one of the biggest minimalists in Biblical archaeology. I am not sure if his views accurately reflect the entire field. But I may be wrong.)

  2. "One of the biggest minimalists": that sounds like an oxymoron! But I take your point. Certainly I ought not to accept the view of the first work on the subject that I happen to have read without acquainting myself with competing arguments.

    I intend to take up the question of godliness or divine inspiration in another entry at some point.

  3. anticipating what you're going to say about a Louis Jacob style "inspiration":

    It basically espouses a concept that is not well defined enough to refute or even discuss

  4. Hmpf! I console myself with the thought that those who haven't read my postings as attentively as you have done will NOT be able to predict what I am going to say beforehand!

  5. to balance finkelstein, try reading K. Kitchen "on the reliability of the OT". he represents the other end of the spectrum.

  6. yeah but K Kitchen is a christian no? probably has a lot of bias on the other hand finkelstein is a secular israeli also with an agenda.

    Why can't there be some impartiality in this world!

  7. KK is definitely a biased christian, but his book is worth a read because he doesn't (IMO) dismiss "evidence" as quickly and readily as finkelstein. and he seems "honest" in that by and large he doesn't fabricate "evidence" to support his contentions.