Theorizing Judaism

I’ve made some veiled references to “Theorizing Judaism.” I’ve recently completed Dr. Martin Risebrodt’s class, Theorizing Religion. Unlike typical survey classes, Dr. Riesebrodt used this class as feedback for his currently unpublished book on religion. Dr. Riesebrodt would present his ideas and one class a week would be a discussion. After he presented the main points of his thesis, the students presented examples from specific religions which may or may not have supported his thesis. In addition, we were to submit two written essays discussing the merits and flaws of his thesis. The following post will explain his thesis, and my applications of the thesis to Judaism.


Skeptical readers might already be asking how “religion” can ever be defined, considering how many religions have existed over human history. What does Shinto have in common with Islam? Buddhism with Judaism? To complicate the question, what does 18th century Hinduism have in common with contemporary Voodoo practices and Ancient Canaanite?
Even categorizing what groups will be included and excluded from the discussion proves difficult. Defining a group as a religion legitimizes that group’s practices, while others are relegated to “cults” or “primitives.” DMR addresses the value of the term “religion” in his introductory essay, “‘Religion’: Just Another Modern Western Construction?” (PDF).
As difficult as it is to define “religion” it is equally difficult to define Judaism, since “Judaism” has changed over the course of its history. Biblical Judaism is not the same as Rabbinic, medieval, or modern. Even were we to isolate one time period, we would find several Judaism existing in various parts of the world.
How one defines Judaism will also be dependent on their own upbringing and biases. Scholars might be biased towards their personal areas of study or perhaps with the Jews which they have met. If the scholars are themselves Jewish, their definitions will also be conditioned to a particular source, or away from others. Their scholarship may simply be a justification of personal dogma. Perhaps Dr. Riesebrodt’s thesis will be useful for defining or clarifying what is “Judaism.”1
Instead of classifying what is a “religion,” Dr. Riesebrodt defines “religious acts.” Unlike theology, religious acts are empirical. We can observe religious acts, and compare similar acts from different cultures. Furthermore, Dr. Riesebrodt is not concerned with labeling a secular group a religion or a religion secular. Scientology may or may not be a religion, but as a group, they may perform religious acts. Observing practices minimizes theological biases; the loaded terms “cult” and “religion” are not relevant for the discussion.
Defining religious practices has an advantage over defining religious theology in that it includes more of the population. A religion’s theology is normally defined by the elite of the religion. The masses, the majority of the religion, may or may not even believe in what the elite write down as dogma. So it would be possible that our definition of a religion would in fact exclude the majority of the practitioners. When discussing the sociology of religion, we cannot simply look at the elite. Rather, we have to look at the entire community and how they interact with each other. While we cannot know what people are thinking at any given moment, we are able to observe their actions.
The first part of Dr. Riesebrodt’s thesis is redefining the unit of analysis. Instead of defining a particular group as “religious” he instead identifies “religious practices” which may be performed by any culture whether or not people consider themselves to be a part of a “religion.”
As a social group, practioners of Judaism have identified themselves primarily through practices rather than beliefs. Menachem Kellner proposes that the social definition of a Jew had never been solely about beliefs.2 Rather, the member of a Jewish society demonstrated his place in society, as insider or outsider, though action or a combination of action and speech. The Rabbis in the Talmud never even codified dogma or obligations of belief. This was more of a medieval phenomenon. While the Talmud defines apikores (heretic) by his actions – either by embarrassing a sage, or a embarrassing a colleague a sage’s presence.(B. San 99a-b) The colloquial usage of the term, understood to mean “heretic,” was in fact coined by Maimonides.3
Additionally, the term kofer b’ikar, denier of the essential, is only defined in conjunction with forbidden actions such as cursing in God’s name (B. San 45b), gossiping (B. Arakhin 15b), loaning with interest (Y. BM 5:8 10d), or sinning in general (T. Sh’vuot 3:5). Merely contemplating idolatry is not comparable to the act itself.(B. Qid 39b) Even Elisha Ben Avuyah, the infamous rabbinic apostate, sinned not with thought, but through action.4
In response to Kellner,5 David Berger argues that although it is not systematic, the Talmud does in fact legislate beliefs. Referring to M. Sanhedrin 10:1, “all Jews have a portion in the world to come except those who say resurrection is not from the Torah, or those who say the Torah is not from heaven…”6 Also, if a heretic writes a Torah scroll, not only is this scroll unusable, but it must be burnt as a sign of idolatry.7 Berger himself does not define what a Jew must believe, but he assumes the Maimonidean principles are normative since it is what most Jews have been conditioned to accept.
The social differences between Kellner and Berger would be best demonstrated in an case where Jews would generally keep Jewish law, but would accept controversial religious doctrines. The Lubavitch Hassidim provide such an example. Before the death of R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the chief rabbi of Lubavitch, the Lubavitch Hassidim progressively developed into a messianic movement and believed that R. Schneerson would be the final redeemer of the Jewish people.8 When R. Shneerson died on June 12th 1994, this messianic movement was understandably shaken. Since their Messiah did not complete his task of redeeming the Jews during his lifetime, many Lubavticher Hassidim began to espouse a “second coming” of the Rebbe to complete his mission.9
Berger, a medieval historian specializing in Jewish-Christian relations, was the most vocal and vehement in his criticisms of Lubavitch for incorporating an idea which had been the antithesis of Jewish though since the middle ages. Exasperated with the lack of condemnation from the Orthodox community, Berger wrote The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference detailing the theological sins of the Lubavitch Hassidim and his attempts to combat them.
Ironically, in his brief description of the original Hassidic movement, Berger writes that the opposition against the Hassidim “waned in the face of new social and religious realities”10 At its inception, Hassidut deviated from the existing Jewish practice not only by embracing a modified form of mysticism. They deviated from then-normative Jewish practices by altering some rituals and adding new ones to the extent that they now have their own codification of laws.
Berger was not offended by the practices of Lubavitch since they were, in his mind, still in the rubric of Orthodox Judaism. But despite their progressive theology, Berger finds himself a lone voice since the larger Jewish community has refused to excommunicate Lubavitch. Although there are pragmatic reasons why Lubavitch would not be excommunicated, many Jews may still accept them as legitimate Jews because of their perceived adherence to Jewish law. In contrast, the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements whose liberal interpretations of the law alter the fundamental practices, are generally rejected by orthodox Jews.
Regardless of the Jewish legal arguments against Lubavitch, their inclusion in the Jewish community is the result of their maintaining similar religious acts. Even the discursive acts of claiming the messiah will be resurrected are not enough. Rather, socially, it is the actions of observance which define the Jewish community.11
Although Dr. Riesebrodt avoids defining “religion,” he must define what makes a practice “religious.” For Dr. Riesebrodt, a religious act presupposes that there is some supernatural powers who control elements of human life and environment which escape human control. Human actors can gain access to these powers through culturally defined and socially regulated means.
All religious practices contain the meaning to prevent existing or future catastrophic events or to cope with them when they occur. The crisis are those derived from lack of control of nature, human body, and social relations. Floods, droughts, earthquakes, and social conflict and death are all beyond human control – or at least the control of the individual. Consequently, these phenomena are attributed to a supernatural power. Religious practices serve to intervene with this power (or powers) to manage an existing crisis or to prevent a crisis from occurring.
We cannot be certain that the practitioners actually perform religious acts with this intention. For Dr. Riesebrodt, the practitioner does not need to keep in mind crisis management during the act. Rather, the institution which required the act defines the act in terms of crisis management.
When we apply this criteria to Judaism, we find the liberal denominations would have no religious practices at all. According to the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist12 movements, the rituals function as a community maintainer not as an means of crisis intervention. They may espouse some belief in God, but there is no clear explanation as to how one’s actions interact with God.
Consider this passage from Robert Gordis’ Conservative Judaism:

    We naturally picture the operation of divine sanctions in a manner different from that in which our ancestors pictured it, because our conception of God has grown. Yet for us, too, the violation of the Sabbath leads to tragic consequences. The failure to observe the Sabbath brings its penalties in the impoverishment of the spirit, the denudation of Jewish values and alienation from the Jewish community, literally?”that soul is cut off from its kinsmen.”

This “impoverishment of the spirit” has little to do with impending crisis in this world or an afterlife. Rather it reflects the personal crisis of being removed from his society.
Reform Judaism has repeatedly redefined itself through several different platforms: The Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, The Columbus Platform of 1937, a new centenary perspective in 1976, The Miami Platform in 1997, and most recently a second Pittsburgh platform in 1999.
Judaism as a way of life requires in addition to its moral and spiritual demands, the preservation of the Sabbath, festivals and Holy Days, the retention and development of such customs, symbols and ceremonies as possess [sic] inspirational value, the cultivation of distinctive forms of religious art and music and the use of Hebrew, together with the vernacular, in our worship and instruction.[emphasis added]
This is not a matter of crisis intervention or crisis prevention with God, but it is personal individual fulfillment. Thus, for some the rituals might suffice as crisis prevention, but not for others. It should be noted that these discursive acts might be seen as a response to crisis, but the crisis is a one of societal maintenance. In a commentary to the most resent platform, the Rabbis explain, “each of the previous formulations of Reform principles was occasioned by a perceived crisis in American Judaism?” Would this be considered a legitimate crisis? The institution faltering is a crisis for the institution, but they are not appealing to a higher power. Rather, they are addressing their constituency.
Reform Judaism has repeatedly redefined itself through several different platforms: The Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, The Columbus Platform of 1937, a new centenary perspective in 1976, The Miami Platform of 1997, and most recently a second Pittsburgh Platform in 1999.
According to the Columbus Platform:

    Judaism as a way of life requires in addition to its moral and spiritual demands, the preservation of the Sabbath, festivals and Holy Days, the retention and development of such customs, symbols and ceremonies as possess [sic] inspirational value, the cultivation of distinctive forms of religious art and music and the use of Hebrew, together with the vernacular, in our worship and instruction.[emphasis added]

This is not a matter of crisis intervention or crisis prevention with God, but it is personal individual fulfillment. Thus, for some the rituals might suffice as crisis prevention, but not for others. It should be noted that these discursive acts might be seen as a response to crisis, but the crisis is a one of societal maintenance. In a commentary to the most recent platform, the Rabbis explain, “each of the previous formulations of Reform principles was occasioned by a perceived crisis in American Judaism…” Would this be considered a legitimate crisis? The institution faltering is a crisis for the institution. Furthermore, they are not appealing to a higher power. Rather, they are addressing their constituency.
Conservative Judaism allows individuals the freedom to believe what they may. A problem with the institutionalization of the rituals is that the institutionalization is still formed and later redefined by the elite. Gordis’ comments may or may not be relevant in today’s Conservative movement. A valid question would be who has the right to define the institutionalization of the religion. The Rabbinical Assembly sets policy for the Conservative movement, and the CCAR defines the Reform movement. With their decisions, they can make the same rituals religious or secular according to Dr. Riesebrodt’s thesis – regardless of what the practitioners themselves believe. Commandments are prescripted in the Torah as such, but they are subsequently redefined by later bodies of Jews. What is the source of the institutionalization?
Just as there will be defensiveness about what is or is not a religion, the practitioners of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Judaism will still view their practices as religious. Furthermore, researchers will find certain rituals maintained by these movements are indistinguishable from those of Orthodox Jews. .
As mentioned earlier, Jewish scholars will often be influenced by their personal religious beliefs. Kellner admits his bias is to create a more inclusive dialogue in Judaism between the movements.13 Berger, the medieval scholar is sensitive to his own definitions of “Judaism” and the Jewish-Christian debates in particular.
Socially, this example would validate Dr. Riesebrodt’s typology of examining religious acts as a social phenomenon. A good test case would be to examine where other groups diverged sufficiently that they became completely new entities as opposed to sub-groups and if it has happened that this was only because of beliefs and not because of a change in practice. However, Dr. Riesebrodt’s definition of “religious acts” may not be sufficient to account for the numerous Judaisms.

1. Obviously the rules and ramifications for defining “Judaism” are different than defining “religion.” Since the question is fundamentally different, we should not expect theories to be interchangeable. This is why I suggest that the definition may or may not be “useful.”
2. Menachem Kellner Must a Jew Believe Anything (London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1999).
3. Laws of Repentance 3:8. Although Maimonides does not prohibit thought, but the declaration of certain heretical concepts. The discursive speech act is prohibited, not the harboring of ideas.
4. See B. Haggigah 15b where Elisha’s daughter tells R. Yehuda, “remember his Torah, not his actions.”
5. Tradition 33:4 p. 81-89.
6. Although this Mishna refers to speech, not to thought alone.
7. B. Sanhedrin 63b. Again, one cannot know if someone is truly a heretic until he declares his thought through either a physical or speech act.
8. R. Schneerson himself never claimed to be the messiah, but some of his followers found messianic implications in some of his later speeches. After R. Schneerson suffered a stroke, the messianic element increased their efforts and rhetoric while R. Schneerson was unable to react.
9. See William Shaffir’s articles “Interpreting Adversity: Dynamics of Commitment in a Messianic Redemption Campaign” The Journal of Jewish Sociology 36:1 p. 43-53 and “When Prophecy is not Validated: Explaining the Unexpected in a Messianic Campaign” The Journal of Jewish Sociology 37:2 p. 119-136.
10. David Berger The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2001) p. 5.
11. Also see Lawrence Schiffman’s Who Was a Jew?.
12. See Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization, Exploring Judaism, and my post Rapture and Reconstructionism
13. Kellner, 1-5. He also notices a “crisis” within Judaism, but again, it is more of a cultural crisis than a supernatural one. Furthermore, it should be noted that Kellner’s thesis contradicts his own agenda. In trying to create an inclusive Judaism he claims that historically Judaism was never solely about theology, but about theology and practice. However, when examining the liberal denominations of Judaism, one finds deviations from both theology and practice. Therefore according to Kellner, Orthodox Judaism ought to reject the liberal denominations.

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